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Living through COVID-19: A trio of profiles – Part II

by Jerome Wright —

This is the second installment of The New Tri-State Defender’s ongoing account of three Memphians coping with the coronavirus amid government-directed efforts to slow the virus’ spread.

Margaret Cowan was guiding a nonprofit, William Gandy Jr. worked as a barber and James Cowan operated two businesses before COVID-19. Then came the “stay-at-home” mandates. Businesses closed, resulting in thousands of layoffs and furloughs. Others reduced services to options such as drive-thru and delivery only.

Here’s the weekly update on how each of the three spotlighted by the TSD was coping. 


Margaret Cowan and “her moms”

Margaret Cowan and some of the single moms she is working with gathered on the Frayser-Raleigh Senior Center parking lot on April 4th. Lorian Anderson (foreground), a friend of Cowan’s joined the outing. (Courtesy photo)

As the “founding keeper” of the I Am My Sister’s Keeper nonprofit, Margaret Cowan works with 20 of “her moms,” building a “village” where they support each other in a collective quest to improve financial situations for themselves and their children.

Her work involves a lot of contact with the women and frequent interaction between all of them. Last week, she said safer-at-home mandates curtailed that interaction. Yet, they still found a way to interact while practicing social distancing.

“On Wednesday (April 1) we had a Zoom (conference) call and decided we would hold Zoom meetings every Thursday.

“We had a good time and you could tell there was so much joy …” to connect with one another.

Last Saturday (April 4), Cowan said, the group met in the parking lot of the Frayser-Raleigh Senior Center, where they sat in their cars and chatted among themselves — social distancing, of course.

“It was fun. They want to do that every week, too.”

Cowan also shared some good news.

The laid off hotel manager she told The New Tri-State Defender about last week has been approved for unemployment benefits.

And, her organization received $1,000 from the Community Foundation, which will be used to help “her moms,” including the other recently laid off hotel employee Cowan mentioned last week.

Beyond these happenings, Cowan and one of the organization’s board members are working to complete a strategic plan, with three key goals — buying homes that “her moms” can live in until they can buy their own, garnering more corporate sponsors and improving the organization’s portfolio, which she hopes will improve their chances of attracting the sponsorships.


William Gandy Jr. — “readjust to reality”

Adjusting to a new reality, William Gandy Jr., an experienced barber and musician, is trying to write more music since barbershops and other non-essential businesses have been ordered closed through April 21. (Courtesy photo)

William Gandy Jr. is one of six barbers who found themselves without their hair grooming jobs when a Whitehaven shop closed because of safer-at-home orders.

An accomplished singer and musician, Gandy routinely would be out and about performing his music, attending events and other things when not trimming hair.

He has had to “readjust to the reality” of being off and safer-at-home orders. He is trying to finish a book he has been working on over the past five years. He also is writing more music.

“I’ve had to cut back a lot, but I’m healthier. I’ve actually lost weight. I finally had a chance to use my juice machine more.”

He’s also been in contact with his fellow barbers, who asked him to contact the shop’s owner to see when the owner thinks they will be back to work. The owner told him that will happen whenever the “safer at home” mandates are lifted.

As expected, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland on Monday extended the city’s mandate, which now stretches through April 21. Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease expert, who is advising city officials on the virus pandemic, later said it isn’t clear when Memphis might lift the mandate.

And while some of Gandy’s customers still are trying to get him to do some “underground” barbering, he said he has consistently refused.


James Cook: barely holding on

James Cook

The flow of passenger traffic through Memphis International Airport has been so greatly reduced by the response to he global pandemic that James Cook was running options for staying in business there when the talked with the TSD last week.

Cook, is proprietor and partner with KC Eatery, licensed to operate Runway 901 Bar & Grill and Lenny’s Grill and Subs at the airport. He’s operated businesses at the airport for 10-plus years.

Last week, the told the TSD that with airport traffic reduced to a trickle he had to close Runway 901. He had been able to keep Lenny’s open with a reduced staff, primarily because of business from airport employees.

On Monday, the Lenny’s staff was down to two employees, including himself. Wednesday, he said, it was just him.

He had to cut operating hours from 5 a.m.-6:30 p.m. to 5 a.m.-noon. Six Lenny’s employees were let go.

He explained that, from his vantage point, about 200 passengers a day are coming through the terminal and that the airport had adjusted its staff scheduling to reflect the loss of traffic.

“These people (laid off Lenny’s employees) were supposed to hold things down. Now, I’m the manager, the cook, the cashier and HR (human resources).”

Still, he was able to maintain a sense of humor. Asked Monday why, with only one employee, he had to be HR director, he laughed and said, “I’m priding myself on getting to work on time.”

On Friday (April 10), he told The New Tri-State Defender he had closed the shop indefinitely “based on numbers projected to be even lower as more airport employees aren’t being scheduled.”

Memphis Airport Director Scott Brockman told media outlets last week that customer traffic is down between 95 percent to 97 percent.

That pretty much mirrors what is happening at airports nationally.

(Jerome Wright is deputy editor for The New Tri-State Defender.)

First installment: Maneuvering through the perils of COVID-19

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