[Editor’s note: this is the first in a planned series about everyday New Yorkers whose heroic work during the lockdown helped sustain live music, the arts and communities at a time when no one knew if or when we would ever return to normal. Yolanda (not her real name) is a violinist who found an unexpected new career during those dark months…and became a neighborhood institution while every attempt was being made to atomize and destroy it. Some of her personal details have been changed to protect her identity; otherwise, these are Yolanda’s own words]
“My family came to America from Venezuela when I was eleven. I had been studying violin as part of El Sistema, the national music academy. I was very fortunate. My father worked in the oil business and my mother taught piano. We lived in a good neighborhood in Caracas with a big house and a car. He got a job in New York and all of us eventually became US citizens.
When I first came to America I was shocked by how differently music is taught here. In Venezuela students were expected to take it seriously, and the teaching is at a very high level. Here, I discovered that I had much better skills than most Americans my age. I found myself playing with people who were much older, in college, or adults. My first professional job as a musician was in a mariachi band when I was thirteen. The accordionist was even younger, he was twelve!
Because I was disappointed at the level of teaching here, I did not make music the main focus of my education. My degree is in English Literature. However, until last year, I was able to support myself from teaching and playing music. I play in many different situations, at weddings, and quinces, and restaurants. I have played flamenco, and tango, and European gypsy music, but my first love is classical. I am not technically a virtuoso so in a string quartet I usually play second violin since some composers write extremely challenging parts for first violin.
When the lockdown happened last year, I lost all of my students and all of my gigs. Because I live in one of the outer boroughs, I had to travel to my students. And none of these people wanted to be exposed to someone who was riding the subway at the time, they all thought they’d catch corona from me. I was reminded of how much discrimination there is in this society, as a woman from South America teaching a bunch of rich American kids. None of them were riding the subway, but all of the employees at the pizza places and supermarkets where they were shopping had to ride it every day, and theoretically risked their lives. It was very hypocritical.
I was inspired to open an illegal bar by my friend Yesenia [not her real name], who lives in the building where New York Music Daily is located. Yesenia was working as a bartender at a Puerto Rican restaurant, and when the restaurants were all closed, she lost her income. So she decided to open her apartment as a bar so she could pay the rent. One of the guys in the building plays mariachi music, and they were talking about having a band there one night, and that is how we were introduced and I saw how successful her new career was becoming.
This was in May of last year. I had paid rent for April but I didn’t know how I was going to be able to pay for May. I called the landlord and explained my situation, everybody at the time was expecting that New York was going to be open by June. I asked if I could pay half the rent for May, and he was very understanding and said yes. As I remember, by the time it was June, it was clear that the lockdown wasn’t going to end soon and I had to find some way to come up with the rent plus the money that I owed.
So I decided to open my own bar. I was afraid to use social media so I just used my own social circle, and that grew rapidly. Yesenia has cheap rent so she was able to pay the bills from just having her bar open on Friday nights. I started with Friday nights but realized that wasn’t going to be enough. So I started doing Friday and Saturday and then I opened on Thursday also.
Was I worried about the snitch patrol? No. I am friends with my neighbors, they all got to know me when they heard me practicing during the day. When the lockdown first happened, I would stand at my window and play all kinds of things – mariachi, Bach, Vivaldi, anything I could think of – that could make people happy. So when they found out what I was doing they understood. I let them come and drink for free, which I probably shouldn’t have done because I’m sure I lost money from that.
Was I worried about the cops? No. I live in a poor neighborhood and the cops only hang out at certain places, by the subway mostly. I also learned that the police union refused to enforce the lockdown. There was a horrible racial incident on the Lower East Side in April, as I remember, and after that the cops refused to harass people for not social distancing, or wearing masks. It wasn’t the cops that shut down that Staten Island bar, or the social club in Queens that got all the publicity. It was the State Liquor Authority.
Was I worried about corona? No. By June we had seen all the studies. CNN and the tv never reported any of this, clearly because so much of their advertising money comes from big pharmaceutical companies. But it was clear from all the science that most people had natural immunity to corona, and that it was going to disappear soon anyway. A disease that can only infect one person out of six can’t survive very long before there is no one left to infect, and New York was the first place in America where there was any kind of outbreak. I’ve never seen so many healthy people as I did last year. I never once saw a sick person at my bar.
I closed my bar a couple of weeks ago. It was extremely hard work, and I was going to turn into an antisocial person if I kept it open. Many times I asked my boyfriend to come by and help because he’s a teacher and he was out of work at the time, and he could stop some of the crazier guys from asking me out and bothering me that way. I am much more cynical about men now than I was before the lockdown. They get drunk and do the stupidest things.
My clothes started to stink like smoke. My boyfriend and I had to paint the apartment to get rid of the smell. I worked longer hours than I ever did teaching or playing: running to the liquor store and the bodega for beer, carrying big boxes up the stairs, and cleaning up afterward. That was the hardest part. For months I would open at four and close officially at nine since the subway was shut down at night. But a group of customers were Uber drivers and they liked to stay late, and I didn’t want to close because I would lose money. Cleaning up a big beer mess on the floor, and then the worse mess in the bathroom at four in the morning after you’ve been standing for twelve hours, is exhausting.
In running an illegal bar for a year, I made more money than I have ever made in my life from playing music. With what I have earned, I have been able to buy a van so that I can play concerts outside of New York without having to rely on others for transportation. I was able to pay off my student loans and help my brothers financially.
Am I a lockdown profiteer? I disagree with that. I am a musician. My music career suffered very much. People think that I was just lying around doing nothing. The truth is that I was trying to get all the sleep I could get because I wasn’t getting any sleep on the weekend. If the lockdown hadn’t happened, there is no way I ever would have been involved in the bar business and I have even less desire now to do that again, now that I have seen for myself how it works.
Do I feel like I helped people out during the lockdown? I guess. I gave people a community, a place where they could hang out, when the bars were closed. I think that’s important. I learned that a bartender’s job is 90% being a therapist and 10% making drinks, so maybe I helped somebody that way. I think the most important thing I did was to prove to people that there was nothing to be afraid of. I’m from South America so I know a dictatorship when I see one. Corona was just an excuse for a very few, very rich people to try to take control of the world. We all know that now. If there was anything that I did last year that I feel strongly about, it was not letting fear take control of my life, and influencing others to do the same.
I am looking forward to returning to playing music. I would like to form my own string quartet to play works by South American composers. There are so many great ones and they are mostly unknown here, and because I have the van now, we can tour. I would also like to move to Manhattan. It’s so much easier to get around from there.”