an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
What are you seeing, thinking, feeling during this time of quarantine? To understand how we are muddling through an unprecedented moment in our city’s history, I sought out short bits of writing that could form a collective sketch of Austin during the pandemic. Below you will find some incredible writing from all sorts of people: some dark musings; some hopeful visions; some comical takes. They’re like dispatches from a surreal battlefield—people cooped up, waiting, goofing off, scared out of their minds, lonely, going broke, thwarted, cautiously optimistic, and a thousand other feelings that are bubbling up in neighborhoods under the violet crown.
Why here? With a focus on how things are changing, transforming, and dying in the fastest growing city in the US, The End of Austin is a pretty good place to wrestle with the pandemic blues. Since 2013 we’ve published more than 90 articles that have garnered almost 250,000 page views from Bhutan to Finland. For funding reasons (I used to have an editorial collective of UT American Studies students but am now a one man band) we have been mostly quiet for the last two years, but the covid crisis provided a spark to get us into gear again. Two weeks ago, while struggling to assemble a long-overdue issue, I saw an opportunity to use this space for conversation and commiseration about living through a tense moment in a city known for being laid-back, funky, and upbeat. The weather may be perfect, but people are suffering, some more than others, and parts of civic life seem unrecognizable. Rather than working out at the gym or gathering for drinks and music, we spend our days largely inside, shut off from other people, often with a painful new awareness of our body’s fragility. Often excluded from our city’s cult of exuberant youth, older Austinites are now at the center of our thoughts, along with the immunocompromised and the uninsured. If we are lucky enough to still have jobs and houses, we work and wait at home, watching too much news and reaching out to old friends online. Meanwhile the streets are quieter than ever. Restaurants, bars, and clubs are silent, the music has stopped, and the traffic has been cut in half. Friends tell me that the air feels cleaner, though I haven’t noticed. I have noticed how grateful people are for small interactions: self-isolation means that the dog walk becomes an important opportunity to smile at strangers, even from beneath a mask, and to check on neighbors from a good six feet away. Six feet away or six feet under—that should be the motto of these anxious weeks in sunbelt semi-quarantine.
No one knows what the city will feel like after the pandemic, and no one can say how long it will take for life to feel normal again. And not everyone wants to return to the old status quo. With the pandemic highlighting the grim disparities around us, some Austinites are hoping that something better will emerge after our months inside. Whatever it is, I suspect the city will feel different, maybe in ways that our writers have captured below. Their small impressions of life during pandemic might even help you process your own Austin story, one that was never supposed to include an ominous word like “quarantine,” or a numbing focus on the news coverage about an invisible contagion. Yet here we are, wondering if this is the End of Austin as we have known it, wondering how to stay healthy and sane, wondering how to keep ourselves afloat without the usual money coming in, and perhaps wondering what kind of good could come out of something so bleak.
This week I took some comfort from an interview with the novelist Anne Tyler, who was asked if she had difficulty being optimistic right now as the country recedes into ill-health in more ways than one. “Not up close, if you know what I mean,” she said. “Up close you’ll always see things to be optimistic about.” I agree. So let’s look closely at the city from some creative angles that come from artists, photographers, retailers, retirees, stylists, students, professors, engineers, and others; let’s keep sharing our impressions and experiences with one another; let’s offer commentary and feedback to these terrific writers; and most importantly, let’s all stay safe, healthy, connected, hopeful, and weird. There is solidarity in solitude and even in suffering, if we know how to reach for it.
— Randy Lewis, Editor, EndofAustin.com
I haven’t been able to write a poem, make a collage, or make music since I went into isolation. I’ve felt a little frustrated and sad, because those creative acts are part of my daily routine, and some of my friends are making great things right now. Why can’t I keep up? Today it occurred to me that I have actually been very creative over the last three weeks, just not in the ways that I’m used to. Figuring out how to purchase food safely, having intimate talks with friends and family, reading and researching the pandemic, cleaning in a new way, learning how to open a letter safely, and other aspects of everyday life, now require a lot of creative thinking. Just wanted to put that realization out there for anyone else who may be wondering why they don’t feel motivated to make art right now. Chances are your creative mind might already be working overtime.
— Kyle Schlesinger
I am a stylist and a box office manager.
March 6th: SXSW was cancelled. Wow.
March 19th: Many downtown businesses spend the day boarding up windows and preparing for a pandemic. The salon shut down shortly after.
With all of this time to reflect and access…I feel the magnitude of it all.
Austin has resilience; as seen in the immediate adaption to this worldwide whirlwind with thought and creativity.
In the music, the arts, the food and the culture that we have all become accustomed to (only enriched by gathering)… there is silence. I seat myself in the emptiness and close my eyes. I am enjoying home. Cooking, gardening, cleaning, organizing, hanging out with Scott, and my dog.
I feel the wind and the rain, and all of my surroundings more than ever! The rhythm has changed. I am glad I haven’t run out of garlic or sage.
I hear the birds, day and night.
We have new ideas…and a new sense of normalcy. We are our own entertainment!
We have gotten more done in the last three weeks than we have gotten done in the last 15 years. I have been blessed with time and with my amazing husband, who just happens to be a great remodeling partner!
Working on our square, while in this bubble. Together.
We are lucky.
My heart aches for the forgotten, the lonely, the depressed, the anxious, the lost, and the people wearing gel nails. I hope everybody is doing ok. I have always tried my best to stay positive.
My hope is for all of us to emerge from this haze and shine.
I hope we can all become more empathetic, kind, considerate, appreciative, courageous, and truthful. The rest of (Austin) 2020 and the future of mankind remains unwritten. May we always keep life in mind as we think about death.
— Shannon Lavine
I’m sheltering-in-place, not taking many photos, only the occasional nodding glance. During the last nine years, I shot more than 100K pictures in Austin, but even before the virus arrived walking around the city had risks. Last spring, as I passed a homeless man downtown heading in the opposite direction, he pushed me to the sidewalk; I thought he was going to punch me in the face, so I felt lucky only to be shoved. Now it’s dangerous just breathing the air. Lurking about are fear and unimaginable suffering; and yet, I still feel lucky—for now.
Holding space. That phrase has new meaning for me these days. Walking alongside others, at an appropriate distance, as we share this journey. I wonder how we can hold on to our collective spaces—classrooms, parks, so many other gathering spaces that we must temporarily abandon. I’m more aware of the value of these places, and their vulnerability. I’m aware of how these spaces have shaped me, and I’m afraid of the loss. I wonder how our collective spaces will be transformed when we return, and how I can re-imagine myself on the other side.
— Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman
I used to spend long mornings writing short stories in a coffee shop a few blocks from my house. There was this one old man who came in every few days with a book and a brass and green glass banker’s lamp, cord and all, which he’d plug in and read by. If I saw him, I’d think: today’s a good day.
I didn’t realize how much I would miss strangers. I’m still connected to plenty of people, but they’re all familiar to me; COVID-19 has effectively made my entire world one of private connections. The disease has robbed us of the quiet electricity of sitting in a space with other individuals whose minds and lives you do not know. A small loss in the grand scheme, but a loss nonetheless.
I see strangers during my weekly grocery run, and though there are small gestures of humanity, everyone is harried and nervous. We’re not sharing the same space so much as trying to get through it at the same time.
I am self-isolating not far from that coffee shop, in one of the forty or so nearly identical stucco duplexes that make up their own mini-neighborhood in Cherrywood. These houses are painted in dozens of colors, no two alike—navy blue with a canary yellow door, white with teal window sashes, smoky gray with mild lemon accents. Before COVID-19, I would idly watch my neighbors walk past my house—the couple with their stumpy dog, the young woman singing along at full volume to whatever is playing in her headphones. These days, I see new people, who have been drawn to our curious little street for some new, socially-distanced thing to do. They walk six or so feet apart, drink to-go coffees and stare at the bright homes of other people. I wash the dishes and I look into their passing faces and think, You don’t know how good it is to see an unfamiliar face.
A Brief Reflection on Working Again… I’m really curious about how quick we’ve turned this pandemic into an opportunity. Once the reality kind of sat in that things were changing, significantly and for a while, I thought, “Hey, it’s not too bad. It really frees up my time to write, practice, and chat with online friends” etc. Others have thought similar things, and I wonder if any of us have really “capitalized on this opportunity” the way we made it out in our heads. The more I do not, the more I realize this illusory opportunity I had forged in my mind was just that: an illusion. I’m curious why I was so quick to conceptualize these changes as something so optimistic. I guess it worked as a kind of transitionary mindset as I adjusted to the new world. This optimism may have, as an effect, functioned as a kind of mental terraforming, a necessary step forward into the unknown future. Knowing many, many others have done the same comforts me, and I hope to see optimism— more broadly applied—to reemerge as we eventually do, back into the world we’ve all left for a while.
The usual sounds from the park behind our house, and the elevated highway beyond that, is almost non-existent, and I am selfishly grateful. The weather is glorious, and we have thrown the windows and doors wide. Birdsong fills the skies, more audible without the noise
I am one of the lucky ones….newly retired and in good health, no living elderly parents to worry about or attend to, no children at home to teach or distract. There are so many who bear that burden, and my heart aches for them. It is a grinding kind of worry, and feels so unfair.
People are dying, and no one knows when that will stop; I follow the news, watching incomprehensible numbers translate to refrigerated semis filling parking lots. The world of convenience and distraction is dying in ways that will only be understood when leaving our home is safe again.
I am so grateful to have this luxury of time. A born optimist, I join with multitudes that now focus on imagining a world that condemns greed, and celebrates the individual, nourishes the Earth and taking care of each other.
If I can, if *we* can, imagine it….then it’s possible.
— Jane Clarke
I watch the daily street parade from my window as I Zoom during the pandemic: adult walkers in stretchy athleisure wear; parents on bikes; young children wearing bubble-gum-bright helmets riding tiny bikes with glittery streamers; people walking dogs of all sizes—tiny, scrappy, blocky, sluggish, high-stepping, and plumed. But at night, my neighborhood streets are deserted. The sky is black and the stars burn bright. The constant traffic hum on Burnet Road and Mopac has disappeared—except for the occasional revving of a lone motorcycle out for a high-speed joyride. Businesses are shuttered. The lights are off. My partner and I walk our dogs and we hear a world that we might otherwise miss. On March 15, we were jolted by an eerie shriek from above that sounded like a burst of electrical static. As birders, we immediately knew that a Barn Owl was calling, a whispery scream that would normally be muffled by traffic and the clatter of libations and live music on Burnet Road in pre-pandemic times. At twilight on Friday, April 10, I was walking up the street with one of my dogs, per usual. In the quiet, I could hear Carolina Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Black-crested Titmice scolding furiously in a tall Cedar Elm. I stopped to investigate. I panned the tree with my binoculars, my foot tamped firmly on my dog’s leash. The birds flitted frantically. I kept looking. And suddenly I discovered the source of the agitation: a Short-eared Owl perched near the top and staring directly down at me with huge bright gold eyes encircled with black feathers, whose short “ears” are tiny feathery horn tufts. I called my partner who came right over with camera in hand. This owl is a rarity in Austin—normally an open prairie resident of the Great Plains and Upper Midwest who decided to roost in my dark still neighborhood during the pandemic.
— Janet Davis
Austin’s vaunted “weirdness” is the stuff of headlines and bumper stickers, but what has always been the weirdest about Austin to me is the odd collage that makes up the city’s political culture. Austin is a famed “blue” spot in a “red” state, considered a progressive haven in a city dominated by right-wing policymakers (many of them gerrymandered into power – Texas, on average, is less right-wing than our elected officials would have you believe). We had one of the earlier shelter-in-place orders in the state, a fact that is somehow a political statement in the midst of a pandemic that hardly asks who you voted for before it takes your life.
Still, progressivism in Austin has largely been entwined with a chummy relationship with the market. Whole Foods was born here, and those who thought the company’s recent acquisition by Amazon was a strange move missed the libertarian underpinnings and supply chain savvy characteristic of the company since its founding. Austin’s weirdness, it seems, has long intersected with a sense of entrepreneurialism, an optimism that art or activism need not conflict with a cash register. This is not universally true – witness Austin’s robust anti-gentrification movement, for instance – but when I think of that slippery thing called urban character, I think of market liberalism, entrepreneurship, creativity, and oddness as the city’s strange bedfellows.
On the one hand, this crisis has been surreal to me because we are, literally, all in this together. Any one of us could get sick and be part of the fifth of people who fall dangerously ill. Any of us could be carriers, right now, and not know. We all have had our work disrupted, our families, our mental health. No one has been untouched, no matter how privileged you are. As Justin Timberlake bemoans, he’s even having to do all his own childcare, 24/7!
On the other hand, this crisis, like all crises, is being borne so very unequally. “Essential” employees literally risk their lives not only to offer medical care but also to staff grocery store cash registers or deliver tacos. Some of us have been furloughed, suddenly, without pay. Those of us with children, or elderly parents, or other people in need of our care have absolutely no help, and no break. Those hurt worst are people of color, the poor and the working class, the people our society deems expendable.
Nationwide, we have a choice: do we take from this crisis the lessons of collectivity, or do we double down on the unequal cost of crisis that our society produces? In Austin, this choice feels even more vital. How can market liberalism, eccentricity, and justice coexist in this new world? What other urban character must we forge to survive this?
— Alex Beasley
Some Notes from Novosibirsk, Russia
My favorite memories of early-march, 2020: I was beginning to observe some form of proto-pandemic self-care: neurotic and inconsistent wiping off of things. Too-frequent scrubbing of hands. Alarming awareness of face touching followed by subsequent ticks and itchiness. Nervous glances at the few masked people I saw walking around, followed by a bubbling thought that those wearing masks are all asiatic-looking and probably wearing them at least in part to avoid being hassled by the racists. This is followed by excessive smiling, weird eye contact, and other embarrassing attempts at making strangers know I’m on their side.
At the exit to the grocery store: Furtive dobbing of alcohol gel on my hands, I imagine Non-Observant men laughing at me with derision: “Not only a foreigner, but an Observant Pandemicist!”
At home every night: Development of a new and moderately obsessive trans-national media research project whose only output is a crushing sense of anxious anticipation.
My happiest moment in mid-March, 2020. Might have been when I was locked off the Facebook under suspicion of being a Russian bot. Suddenly cut off from social media, rather than seeking a workaround, I enjoyed the banishment. Like so many aristocrats before me – sent off to exile in Siberia, only to discover a challenging but ultimately wonderful place. I felt superior to my old self. After a few days the exile was rescinded and I was welcomed back into the velvet folds of the digital collective. Indulging in quiet smiles at animal antics and self-righteous outrage at American politics, my time in exile was crafted into a pleasing anecdote that received twelve ‘likes’ and a comment from an aunt who worried every day that Putin would have me imprisoned.
My most notable experience of late-March, 2020: I was recalled from Akademgorodok to Austin, a month-and-a-half early by the Tower. Arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport and disembarking, we passengers are faced with a smallish optical device on a tripod bearing a sign declaring that due to COVID-19 it was measuring for heat signatures of guilty vectors. It looked like an old handy cam video camera from the 80s… I paused to see if it was even plugged in but was urged forward by a guard who only half-heartedly seemed to be playing her part in a third-rate security theater company.
My most favorite word of early April, 2020: Quaranteam.
My favorite headline of April, 2020: “Norwegian balloon-popping artist falls onto sculpture made of 100 knives.”
My favorite headline of April, 1920: “Good taste has a slump; Decline, Probably Temporary . . .”
of image flab in overdrive
like a flip book that stops on a sticking point for no reason but sticky fingers
it’s frontier days but it’s just getting toilet paper, though gun-buying noted
in here, things shape up like figurines
a domestic underground twinning up with prepper practices but not the canning
house projects bloom
out there, there’s waving, checking in, people are starting to run,
talk is directed at block happy hours on lawn chairs in the street
young people not social distancing at the hike and bike trail or the liquor store
vaguely familiar faces introduce themselves
you live in the sky blue house with the garden, she came for rehab, there were broken bones….
At first there’s dog shit everywhere like people don’t know how to walk
or they’re used to doggie daycare
then the shits are tire-flattened and drying
but a lawn-cutter complains on Next Door that she found three plump ones in her yard
Relationship infrastructures harden up and then take a breather
the stress of one thing after another is gone
I dream again of houses I forgot I had and again it’s a labor of mining someone else’s detritus
80s pastel sheets I hate
a gross half bottle of shampoo I can’t un-see.
I’m walking the puppy in the predawn rain, under the tree canopy, her ears twitching
the trip to the grocery store was off
The aisles too tight, every step tripping
Two homeless men yelling comments, emboldened, like the remains of things in a free fall.
I had a dream about getting back with her (that bitch)
She was giving big men in their twenties pale boiled hotdogs that had split open
A servant on a ladder was dropping cats into a massive high tank in the dining room
The cats grinning like they were in love with their underwater bodies gliding fast through the fish
For me there would be tacos but I would have to go get them in the dark somewhere in the northeast corner of town.
She’s a butch lady of the household, and she’s sat me down with mannered talk and a glass of sweet white wine.
I end up somewhere else and dinner is already on when I remember the tacos.
I could say I got a flat tire, I picked up a nail, sorry.
I read about the woman whose husband is sick. She’s sleeping on the floor in the hallway outside their bedroom and she’s the only one who can touch the ibuprofen bottle
It’s supposed to be Tylenol, I put that on my mental list.
I have to go to Walgreens to get copies of Ronn’s son’s obituary in the Sunday Austin American Statesman. The clerk invents a long story that I’m buying an extra paper for my neighbor
His voice is loud and confident, he has a big responsibility
I’m a hero he’s shining on but I don’t have the energy to make him stop or help him out so it comes out hollow
Next time I go the Walgreens is creepy. The clerk tells me to use a Q-tip to input my rewards phone number because “they” complained that everyone was touching it.
The clerk has to tell me to put the discarded Q-tip in the open plastic bag right there.
I look at the hundreds of them in there.
— Katie Stewart
For quite some time now, I have followed an Instagram account called “Abandon”. As an admirer of photography, I scroll through, languidly searching for an image I can identify with. How did these places come to be what they are today? Scorched, stripped, bulldozed. Absent spaces that mystify the scrutinizing observer. I imagine myself in the space. I often feel something unexpected. There is fortuitous beauty in photo after photo. A padlocked theme park, an uninhabited and neglected mansion, a charred and dismantled aircraft. All unlikely sources of pulchritude.
And here I sit, grappling, like most of you, with the situation that I am not accustomed to. I contemplate as I do when I look at those unique photos what beauty I can see. People are dying, under the most horrific circumstances. They too will leave behind empty spaces. Can we not make a pact, with ourselves and one another to care a little deeper and to focus on what’s good, not just on what is shiny and new but on the delicate nature and imperfections of our planet and people? We will find our way back, not only here in Austin, a generally prosperous and thriving city but also globally as we shift our mindset to the new normal. We will be patient and kind. We will listen to one another attentively, and we will make time for our families, dear friends, and beloved pets. Excuses will be much harder to come by. It will no longer be quite so hard to find the beauty that was not so obvious before.
— Monti Sigg
I feel more disconnected from my city than I ever have before. Unlike many graduate students, Austin was my home long before I began at the University of Texas. I worked, played, and created a life in this hot, leafy little town masquerading as a big city. I visited every museum, tried every patio restaurant, laid in every park, swam in every pool. I’ve longed to leave and burst into tears at the idea of moving on, my frustration at its flaws always outweighed by the community it has provided for me. And while not a native Austinite (a distinction whose importance I acknowledge), I’ve felt at home in this city for many years, and often felt more connected to its sidewalks and to its people than the place where I was born.
But now I feel remote, isolated, like someone plucked my tiny one-bedroom apartment up and flung it into the sky. The places that introduced me to this beautiful city are closed, inaccessible. The museums with their inviting lobbies and friendly staffs: the Carver where I learned about Juneteenth and the first black families in Austin, the Laguna Gloria where I glimpsed the river for the first time and realized peacocks roam freely in this place, the Contemporary with its incredible rooftop view of downtown and its upcoming exhibition of local artist Deborah Roberts. The patios are shuttered, the pools locked down, and my people, all those friends who took me to the top of Mt. Bonnell and met me under the lights at Spider House, who sat with me behind John Yancey’s mosaic on east 11th and roamed with me through the halls of Texas history at the Bullock, they too are inaccessible. And while I know they are not, that we are lucky to live in a time where I actually have many means of accessing them, through text and facetime and phone calls and even Instagram, there’s something missing, something inherently Austin. This city and these people showed me how to live, celebrated my wins with me on the balcony of Central Market and commiserated my losses over pizza at Home Slice. I miss these moments, the physical presence of the people and the places I love so much. And as the sun grows stronger and we edge closer to Austin’s fabled summer season, the physical disconnection becomes more and more difficult.
I’m aware of how lucky I am. I know how privileged I am to miss eating with friends and visiting museums when others are missing paychecks and health insurance and their family members who have been claimed by the virus. Being a graduate student at this moment is a strange position, comfortably receiving our stipends while we do work we would have already conducted at home, (relatively) secure in the ability to continue our studies and continue being supported. I miss campus and the small interactions with colleagues and acquaintances, seeing students in person and chatting over the copy machine. But it’s my city that I miss the most, the packed bars and long lines and cool dark of the Alamo Drafthouse. Austin isn’t unique, of course, in being a place where people hang out outside and enjoy one another’s presence in the hot sun and eat tacos and drink their sparkling water. Many cities are missing the presence of their residents’ laughter and easy interactions. But for me personally, the Austin that I love feels out of reach, and every day it seems harder to stay inside and miss my tiny little world.
We’ll get it back, I know. As soon as the order is lifted, people will pour out of their homes and every restaurant in the entire city will be packed with all of us desperate to see those we love and eat food not prepared in our own kitchens. We’ll crowd the pools, hundreds of us absorbing sunlight and swimming in the freezing depths of Deep Eddy and Barton Springs. And I’ll return to the museums, the parks, the places that have made me the person I am, the Austinite I have become. We’ll make our way back to the Austin that we love, and maybe it will feel heightened, sweeter somehow. We’ll know what we missed, and we’ll cherish what we have. We’ll feel more connected to one another, our conversations deeper, our appreciation for tortillas more pronounced. There are people for whom the end of this order will be more profound, frontline workers who will finally feel safe, doctors and nurses who will be able to see their families after so much time apart. They are the ones we should think of at this time, to whom we should show all of our gratitude. But for the rest of us, who merely feel confined and disconnected and scared, the end will mean a return to the lives we have created for ourselves, perhaps with a new understanding of the beauty and love found in those tiny, easy moments in the sun.
Rarely do the streets and skies of Austin, Texas and New Delhi, India appear similar. On a typical day in New Delhi, a grey sheet of smoke veils hot sunlight from the crowded city streets. Recently, India forbid driving vehicles to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Eleven million cars off the road enhanced air quality to levels not seen in years. The sky, long obscured by toxic fumes, now paints a deep blue ceiling over the bustling, now quieter capital city.
In Austin, streets are also quieter, and air is slightly fresher. On a clear spring evening, I watch twilight radiate orange beams from Texas’ western hill country towards downtown streets and onto the surface of the Colorado River. Later, dusk sets and towering glass buildings reflect lavender and pink light. Tree canopies filter it into leafy neighborhoods. The sky, once filled with a deep blue, takes on hues of red, then orange, then purple. Texas journalist William Cowper Brann first described this sight as the “violet crown” in 1891, an atmospheric phenomenon of reddened sunlight backscattering across Austin at dusk and dawn. His inspiration for the term may have originated from ancient Greek poet Theognis, who wrote of the sky casting a violet crown over a mountain just outside of Athens. Air particulates and low humidity in Austin similar to the Grecian city form ideal conditions for a vivid dance of colors when the sun dips beneath or rises above the horizon.
When the engines of industry and innovation that reshape cities stall, natural beauty creeps back like kudzu onto dilapidated brick buildings. Weeds and small plants sprout from cracks in the smooth concrete pathways of Austin’s now-shuttered urban trails. With a different chemical makeup in the air, the violet crown might appear closer to how bygone poets and authors once viewed this visual spectacle. The natural world patiently reveals its endurance alongside roads and skyscrapers, vying for a more representative and healthy relationship between sprawling progress and natural splendor. On a neighborhood street in Austin, I watch a competition between a stiff sidewalk and a resilient weed rage, and rub some dirt near the roots.
— Paul Oshinski
How does one adjust to self-isolation and the existential threat of a pandemic? Apparently, if you’re like me, you retreat to the things that give you comfort. Without even realizing it, I’ve been working my way through various family recipes – muffins, cakes, soups, stews, and casseroles. Making Aunt Trudy’s Potatoes, “Grandma’s soup,” and so on. On Easter Sunday, everyone in my family cooked the same recipe as an act of togetherness. There was comfort in the cooking – and then in the eating, knowing the food connected us in the present through their general deliciousness and through our family’s unique history.
Since I can no longer work out with my regular crew in person, I’ve been attending “virtual classes” and then going for walks to get out of the house. I am certainly not unique in this course of action. Our dog, the noble King, has lost weight. He seems to be the only one who is truly happy about the “stay at home order.” (Our cat seems mildly annoyed by all the attention.) We have logged over 30 miles around our neighborhood in the past three weeks. Since he’s edging toward 13 (91 in dog years) we walk slowly.
As a result, I’ve started noticing things I’ve must have missed on previous walks, drives, or bike rides. Or, maybe people have just gotten creative in their self-isolation: A planter box full of flowers and small plastic fairies, signs asking residents to “Howl at 8:00 pm” (a collective gesture, if ever there was one – a call to be part of a pack!), or general messages chalked onto the sidewalk thanking medical professionals or relating expressions of hope and courage. I’ve started to photograph them all, creating an archive of individual creative expression and community “outreach.”
April 1, 2020.
On it goes. I’m not writing enough, but then there aren’t major changes from day to day. I taught an “optional” grad class last week on zoom but still spent the days following that stressing about getting ready for my other class and also started sleeping badly, maybe because of the worry…. More walks with the family, especially with Lena and Edie, and in most ways I like having them around all days, though it’s harder to get work done. That and the news, and worrying about people, like my parents, and Don Pearlstein who just went into the hospital with pneumonia but just learned that actually it’s not Covid-19 [later I learned that it is]. Girls don’t start school til next week and I’ve wanted them to garden but really I think I should garden, and I should sew face masks (should I wear one?). I shift day to day on how compulsively I’m washing things—my hands I still wash pretty compulsively, but am I wiping down doorknobs often enough? Am I remembering to wash my hands after I touch plastic bags that food has been in?
The other day Edie and I were riding in the back seat as I was taking Lena on a driving lesson (we apparently need a new airbag in the front seat because of a recall, and can’t get the car in until April 8th, so I’ve been giving driving lessons from the back seat). Anyway, we drove all over town and when we drove past the shelter or food kitchen or whatever it is on 7th it was PACKED, more than ever, and there were people standing in the middle of the street and close to the car, and it was so sad to see these people suffering (and none of them social distancing, either because they don’t know, or can’t comprehend or are so destitute and desperate that getting this virus wouldn’t seem to make things any worse?) but after we drove by Edie said we probably should sanitize the car, and I felt somehow bad about agreeing this was a good idea and also that I asked Dan to do it because I had to get back for a zoom meeting…
— Julia Mickenberg
The generosity began with a day-old German Chocolate cake. Jason Burch, owner of The Flightpath Coffeehouse, posted on our neighborhood list-serve that he would hand-deliver free slices to the first 12 takers within a two-mile radius. Our joy was collective, as he made his rounds in his dingy cowboy hat, bringing sweetness to others even as he was having to shutter his popular cafe.
A few days later, he converted his coffee house into a pop-up bodega offering deeply discounted staples to the recently unemployed: 99 cents for a carton of eggs, a penny for a pint of flour, coffee, sugar or pinto beans. He even had toilet paper, hand sanitizer, gloves and masks when these items were nearly impossible to find in larger markets. Neighbors could subsidize these prices by buying the same items for a little over wholesale, so that a $1.75 carton of eggs fed more than just one’s immediate family.
When people tried to celebrate Jason’s generosity online, he deflected their attention onto the neighborhood children who had once raided his candy jar, playing the curmudgeon; that very afternoon he was delivering bundles of Tootsie Pops to their mailboxes.
What makes someone turn away from the self-centered dream we are all living, especially in the age of Covid-19, towards the needs of others? What Jason was doing at the Flightpath felt very different from the more typical response of many businesses that were moving to online ordering and delivery as a way to survive the crisis. Eventually, Jason followed suit, but when he did he posted that he and his handful of employees were scrambling to set up an online store so they could do deliveries, and that “in quintessential Flightpath fashion it will be the crappiest DIY online store you’ve ever seen. We think it’s hilarious.” Maybe generosity begins with humor and, as in the case of Jason, not taking one’s self too seriously. The lesson from North Hyde Park: ditch the fear, put on a cowboy hat, and let them eat cake.
March 13. Yesterday I cancelled my trip to Toronto to see my son Max and give a poetry reading. I’m so glad Max is in Canada where he can get tested and get good medical care if he needs it.
March 14. Max is back in Austin.
Yesterday the University of Toronto suspended classes. Then my 90-year-old mother-in-law, who lives with us, starting experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath. My wife drove out to the airport and waited in line for hours until she got tickets for Max and his cello, which needs its own seat. When he arrived at 1 am I thought, Thank god he got here in time to say goodbye to his grandmother.
By 6 am Nana’s pain was gone. Panic attack?
Every twelve hours a new world.
— Lisa L. Moore
Our home faces the trees. The tree-light, tinted by the early spring rains, sneaks through our windows. Beams of Austin parakeet green mix with the Resolute Blue walls we painted in the winter, and the cat, typically striped brown, is now olive. In that cloud where the light reflects off of mirrors back at itself, I forget there was a moment before this one. The haze is delicate, and I am tired.
The toy forest by the creek, hidden at the top of Hyde Park, is always there. It is strange, now, to think of the hours spent at work or school that stretched across months when I was not able to look at these trees. The balance between the things you’ve experienced and the things you grieve at having missed is at the forefront of many minds right now, and my own mind hasn’t escaped the unsettling. I wonder at the world we may be returning to, and whether this is a time for self-reflection or for grief.
I wonder. I weep. I try to reset.
When my thoughts refuse to be quiet, I remember one of my favorite passages by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who crafted each of her projects with a remarkable passion for love, life, and words. While reading her work, I can feel my downcast thoughts turn upward. In her second and final memoir, published just months before she died at the age of 51, Amy wrote these words: “If one is generously contracted 80 years, that amounts to 29,220 days on earth. Playing that out, how many more times then, really, do I get to look at a tree? 12,395? There has to be an exact number. Let’s just say it is 12,395. Absolutely that is a lot, but it is not infinite and anything less than infinite seems too measly a number and is not satisfactory.”
This fragment comes from “Midterm Essay”, a chapter where Amy describes her midlife crisis (which she playfully refers to as her “midlife cry-bliss”) as not being so much about growing older, but about how she “would like to keep on living, preferably perpetually.” Amy didn’t ask herself, “How many more times then do I get to see a tree?” — she said look at a tree. Amy took no emotion or moment for granted — when she writes look at a tree, I read take in the fullness of a tree existing before me.
Right now, each new day is harder than the one before. People are counting their days at home, counting the people who don’t get to come home, counting numbers that only seem to go up. I sit under our trees, and I look at them. I take in the fullness of them existing before me. They are here — they always have been. But I am here now, too. And I can’t help but ask myself questions about the things I still need to count.
How many more times do I get to look out these open windows and hear nothing but the wind swimming through the branches of our trees, grackle feathers shaking against each other, the light rain caressing the paved sidewalks? How many more nights will I roll over in our bed and press my soft cold arms against the hearth of his back, freckles and moles imprinting against my skin? And how many more days until the beautiful softness of these spring-green Austin mornings finally refuses such sad thoughts space to grow alongside these trees above me?
Like Amy said: “There has to be an exact number.” I just don’t get to know it.
—Mickey C. Lanning
“Show me your Tic Tonks”
“Rachel McAdams is Canada’s Miss Maplethorpe”
“Have you seen my bat-faced cuphea?”
“According to the Travis Audubon society, the Wagtail Pippit at Roy G. Guerro park was the ‘undeniable rare bird find of the year.’”
“Metaphors are a crutch for lazy minds.”
“I’ve always worked from home full time, now I feel like I have more company.”
“This afternoon weather is making me feel drunk.”
“Last night I had a dream about this hybrid cow. It had a cow nose and feet, but was beige and the size of a miniature Australia shepherd, but all beige.”
—Jessica Eley (quoted in quarantine, according to her partner Craig Campbell who jotted these down)
Some have lived in more Austins than me but, from the vantage of an expanse of one road, I can now claim at least three. The stretch of Guadalupe along UT has undergone multiple iterations since I was a student. As that area was and is a hub for my daily life, the perpetual changing storefronts along Guadalupe renders my Austins distinct. One difference about my now third Austin is that, when I run along Guad for my outdoor exercise allowance, I cannot tell which stores have closed because they failed and which can’t open up because of a lockdown.
The first two weeks of social distancing went by very quickly. My dissertation required extensive revisions; every day, I woke up, made breakfast (I recommend pimento cheese on a breakfast taco, by the way), wrote for a few hours, watched a movie while I ate lunch, wrote for a few more hours, watched another movie while I ate dinner (Hugo is Scorsese’s best movie, don’t @ me) and then wrote more until I went to bed at 2 or 3 AM.
I like my spots, my coffee shop, my movie theatre, my comic book store, sometimes down to the particular table, seat, or aisle; you get it. But while everyone else was struggling through the first two weeks of being at home and not talking to anyone else, the only spot I would have been visiting, pandemic or not, was my spot on the couch; I had too much to do.
In some ways, it was a kind of paradise; I like being alone. But I like being alone out in the world. So I’m a Moviegoer (I’ll go to a ballgame, too, or a concert, or a restaurant); I saw 154 movies in 2019, 88 of them at a theater, and most of those at Austin Film Society, where I often find myself two or three times a week. I can’t go there, now, or to the Alamo Drafthouse either, or probably to the Paramount this summer. At home, I have access to five streaming services; during my writing and since, I have filled my AFS void with these (28 of them, so far). If I could have, though, I would have filled it with movies in uniformly slim little DVD cases from Vulcan Video.
When I moved to Austin in 2013, I lived on West Avenue between 29th and 30th streets, north of west campus and west of north campus. Within two blocks there were two video rental places. Even back then, nearer to the birth of streaming, living on that block felt a little bit like living in the past; the Dream of Old Austin alive but on the fade out. Vulcan was the store I liked best, an ossuary of movies long past and mostly forgotten. It had its own peculiar organizational mode, sometimes by genre, sometimes by director, sometimes by country, sometimes by a mysterious combination of the three; once I figured out how to find what I wanted, I began to feel like Vulcan was my spot, especially if I was stressed out by a project or a deadline or just by being alive.
So I followed Vulcan when they first moved to North Loop, and then, after they closed the north store, down to Ben White Boulevard, South of the River. At one point I was coming in so often that the guy behind the computer gave me a “shortcode,” so I wouldn’t have to show my driver’s license every time I wanted to hang out with Wong Kar-Wai or Agnes Varda. Eventually I started going on Mondays, after yoga class downtown, and on Wednesdays, when you could get two movies for the price of one. But South of the River may as well be Tatooine when you live in Hyde Park, and as my dissertation panic grew over the last year and a half I started to go to drive down there less and less. After the store narrowly escaped closure almost a year ago, I promised myself that I would start going every week, that I would pay the late fees if I had to, but I was away most of the summer and then I spent most of the last year trying, and mostly failing, to write.
I figured that after I turned my dissertation in, I would go back. I would rent a John Carpenter new to me, or a Park Chan-Wook (like that one blissful Austin Christmas spent with the Vengeance trilogy all in a row). I might borrow a movie I love, like Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, or one that reminds me of the person I’m missing most, like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (after we walked out, the bartender asked how the movie was, and I said “it’s perfect,” and it is. But I wasn’t talking about the movie). I would go up to the counter and I would hand over a stack of eight or ten movies I had earned and I would tell them my shortcode (“Joshua”) and then I wouldn’t leave my apartment for three days and I would watch them all.
I finished my revision on March 28. A few days later, Vulcan announced they were closing forever. I’m lucky that I’m mourning places and events, and not people. But the pandemic has taken a lot from me, even so: when I defend, on April 17, I will not celebrate by getting drunk with my friends. When I turn 30, on April 22, I will not go to a movie, buy a new book, or celebrate by getting drunk with my friends. Somehow, losing my video store hurts worse.
The movies are still there, I know. I even know where to find most of them. Vulcan wasn’t really about the movies, though. It was about learning which ones I loved, and which I didn’t. It was about wrestling with an optical media format that sometimes made me switch to streaming anyway. It was about being with people who loved the things that I loved, even if I didn’t know them very well. It was about saturating the things that I like about my life and escaping the things that I don’t.
I’m moving to Philadelphia in July. Before I left, I was going to buy a Vulcan Video t-shirt, to carry a piece of my Austin with me. I’ll always have Varda’s Paris and Wong’s Hong Kong, of course. And Stillman’s New York too, and a hundred other places and times, and I’ll always have the little video store, the Dream of Old Austin, right down the street.
Maybe, when this is over, I’ll be a doctor. Maybe I’ll make my own t-shirt.
At Home with Hollywood Babylon
The worst thing about COVID-19 is not the catastrophe—it is the boredom. “Shelter in Place” lacks the drama and excitement of war and natural disaster. Modern life so often culls the elderly, the ill, and the poor…unseen. Now we read about it in the news. Mass unemployment manifests quietly as people wait at home for stimulus checks. No movies, no restaurants, no non-essential shopping. There is no escape from boredom. When I run out of the books and films I can access at home, there will be nothing left. Nothing new.
I kick myself for writing about architecture and decadence, reading magic worlds through black and white images while trapped with my husband in our 600-ft apartment. I doubt William Randolph Hearst ever had to squash a cockroach with a shampoo bottle or try to find the owner of a pile of junk beneath the staircase with the odor of wet dog, now radiating into the apartment. I feel the absence of wealth acutely when I can no longer live vicariously through the fortune of others.
I dream of Old Hollywood decadence because I have never been there and I can’t go there so it will always be a dream. I read and reread Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, longing to see those all-night parties and sordid affairs. Everyone was fucking everyone else. Marlene Dietrich and Louise Brooks, I heard. I picture Charlie Chaplin’s house with child wife after child wife but not any furniture. I wish I was quarantined in Neutra mansion with a swimming pool, landscaped acreage and a home gym. I can scarcely imagine Beverly Hills a wilderness. In Mary Pickford’s day it was no blacks no Chinese no Jews.
I’m sick of people saying “we’re living in weird times.” “Stay Safe.” “Slow down.”
I lay around my one-bedroom apartment in vintage silks pretending I’m Myrna Loy. HEB was out of coffee so I’m sipping a diet coke for breakfast. My husband and I argue about who has to work from home in the bedroom today. A toddler is screaming downstairs and the man in the apartment next door is curling dumbbells on the porch and blasting Rage Against the Machine. Myrna Loy sits happily on the page, a cigarette holder between her hands. She has somehow managed to wake up with perfect fingerwaved curls. I was supposed to have gotten my haircut a week ago. I trimmed my own bangs with marginal success. No one will see you. Going to the grocery store is the highlight of my week, and I don’t even get dolled up for that anymore. I don’t want to clean lipstick off my face mask.
The Golden Age of Hollywood soldiered onward in the movies even as the world around it was thrust into economic collapse. Real-life actors may have been exiled from Babylon, but they were still living like royalty. Hollywood was one of America’s most Recession-proof industries. I feel ridiculous for how upset I am that the film industry is all but ended right now. There will be no silver screen escape from this. The only place I ever went in Austin was the movies. I haven’t been one for parties in years. I feel the genius of Gloria Swanson’s personal movie theater.
I’ve always hated apocalypse movies. I like madcap comedies and historical dramas costumed by Edith Head. Films Noir are my favorite. They don’t hide the dark of now. Everyone is false. Emotions are cheap. But it’s all artifice—you’re never too attached. It’s the perfect medium for the meetings of economic collapse and global warfare. But the world doesn’t end. It just goes on unsatisfyingly.
I wish I could dress like Lauren Bacall in those drapey menswear trousers. Every day I picture another dead movie star who I would rather be than myself right now. Seeing myself reflected in Zoom screens under fluorescent lights depresses me.
I cook all day from boredom but have no appetite half the time. I lose weight while looking as bad as ever, only now my clothes don’t fit. And I tell myself again that it doesn’t matter because no one will see me. Then I am filled with the shame of how much of my life is centered around being seen. You know all those Hollywood starlets were the visions they played, whether they lived that way or not. Theda Bara, the original Vamp, was a goody-two-shoes Jewish girl from Cincinnati. Without acting myself, I don’t feel like much at all.
A quarantine sale on psychedelic drugs with nowhere to go but neighborhood walks and the collected films of Kenneth Anger. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is inspired by Aleister Crowley and a “Dress as Your Madness”-themed party. But the daily madness I see has nothing to do with opera or orgies. It’s people wearing pajamas and flip flops in public, berating service staff for slow orders and food shortages. It is hoarding toilet paper and reading the news too often.
The Great Depression was balanced by Hollywood decadence, a romance of poverty, celebration of the past, or simply a look into the worlds unaffected by misfortune. My Man Godfrey ends in marriage and charity. It mocks the rich with the underlying message that anyone could become them despite the worst depths of misfortune. War solved abject poverty in Hollywood and beyond. The threat of fascism brings Casablanca, reinforcing the supremacy and morality of American freedom. I feel myself growing sick of the classics. Before the “Stay at Home” order, I spent every weekend with nearly-forgotten films in 35mm and French 75s at Austin Film Society.
Anger’s stories of cocaine and heroin, Fatty Arbuckle’s bottle party, feuds and affairs, massive wealth followed by massive loss—it is the distance that gives it magic. Austin’s festivals and tech new money are a far cry from Babylon.
No embellishment could give COVID-19 satisfying cinematic potential.
“We are living in strange times.” Is there a when you would rather be?
— Zoya Brumberg
From my fourth-floor window in West Campus, I see the construction of a new apartment complex. The workers wear bright yellow safety vests and white helmets. Sometimes larger construction vehicles are down there, too: backhoes and front loaders and, last week, a massive crane. The work is noisy and grating and makes it quite difficult to focus, but it’s also at least good. The workers are getting steady pay and I get to see something change every day.
When I look out of my widow and the lighting is right, like when it is night and the university tower looks like an orange Sauron with googly eyes, I see myself in the glass, hair a mess, shorter since I cut it out of impulse and boredom. For almost a month, I have not been able to escape my reflection—I catch glimpses on surfaces I have never noticed before: a shiny coffee mug, a candle jar, an empty vase. I have redeveloped an obsessive awareness of my face that I haven’t felt since high school, when I would wake up an hour early to put on makeup to cover the acne and also the striking resemblance everyone said I bore to my mother. Every glance in the mirror becomes an investigation into why exactly my face Looks Like That: Why is my acne returning? How do I already look so ragged at 22? What if my face were as narrow as it is in the back of this spoon? Who would I be if I didn’t have this face, these features? In a way, this all feels like high school: just waiting waiting waiting until I can get out. I am surrounded by so much of myself, so much of my things, my photos, my clothes and want nothing more than to drown it all out with something.
In this mandated isolation, it feels as though my walls are slanting inward on top of me and my windows have sealed themselves shut. Being physically alone in a time of such tumult and uncertainty is hard and trying to maintain relationships with friends I haven’t seen in years is hard—everything is very hard. It feels like I’m in one of those hurricane simulators in the mall. You pay a dollar and enter into the chamber and the machine blasts you with high winds—certainly a bit masochistic, considering that in my hometown mall, it was located right next to the storm shelter. Being told to stay at home for everything but essential errands is like that simulator; every time I go to the grocery store, or even out for a walk sometimes, the danger whips around me until I go home.
If all I feel is alone and stressed out by my own reflection, and I don’t have to contend with the constant threat of falling ill, how much does my own discomfort stack up against the discomfort of those bracing the threat of exposure? I don’t know for sure when this is going to end, but I do know that every day until this is over, I am tasked with becoming more acquainted with the many selves that I constantly encounter—whether to achieve a sort of acceptance or benign ignorance. Every morning, when the news rolls in with somehow worse stories each day, I look at my reflection in the empty vase on my dresser, in my phone screen, in the microwave door and I think: “What on earth are we going to do?”
— Libby Sears
“I’ll be ok,” Joe Wheeler calmly told me, “if you could just give me a hand.” Our conversation began when I encountered the small-ranch owner along Old Spicewood Springs Road, just as his 40-inch extension ladder had fallen. The problem was less the fallen ladder than that Wheeler remained where it once rested, holding onto the sky-high timber frame entrance for dear life. “It’d be nice if you could prop up the ladder against the post here,” he added as I frantically dropped my bike, ran across the road, and positioned the ladder against the treacherously leaning entrance frame. My offer to hold the ladder so that he could descend it was only partially accepted; after all, there was still work to do.
So, for another fifteen minutes or so, I held the ladder in place while Wheeler finished stringing holiday lights across top beam of his ranch’s entrance. This was not something that he typically did in the spring, but he knew, as did I, that in the coming days authorities in Austin were planning to announce a county-wide “shelter-in-place” order. The frightening coronavirus pandemic that first drew our attention to China and then Europe was beginning to be felt in Travis County and local officials took the lead in actively protecting citizens from its deadly effects. Protection included a public health term that is now commonplace: social distancing. We all were to learn that this meant limiting contact with people, working from home, and skipping social gatherings. He admitted it wasn’t much, but doing something small—like trying to bring colorful light to a small, empty road—was his way of offering hope to passersby. After our work was done, and I photographed some of his ranch’s bluebonnets, we instinctively reached out to shake hands. But, in a way that has become emblematic of the times, we stopped short, kept six feet between us, and simply waved goodbye.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve reflected on Joe Wheeler’s impulse to bring light to these dark times and why it has stuck with me. Like most everyone, I suppose, I feel a great sense of anxiety about the current threat we all face. Some of those worries are personal (for me, that includes concerns about my elderly father, students trying to finish up honors theses, one daughter trying to make decisions about college next year and the other’s work in childcare) while others are social-political-economic. My morning reading of the New York Times is a daily ritual of dread—what more bad news will come our way?—and one of stunned recognition of the pandemic’s toll on so many lives and in so many unfair ways. On a more mundane level, there’s the virtual nature of our world. Zoom meetings are fine and allow us to connect with students, work colleagues, and distant family members, but I crave the interactions that only being-in-place provide.
Like talking with a rancher along an empty road. Things like that happen, when you’re on a bike in a city, and they can seem magical. The practice of social distancing on such an immense scale has had a huge impact on pretty much everything you can think of—from a global economy in free fall to increasing rates of domestic violence—and most of it terrifically negative. But there are some silver linings. Social distancing has reduced pollution to such an extent in Nairobi, Kenya, that, for the first time for many residents can see the snowcapped peaks of Mount Kenya, some 85 miles away. Reduced air pollution is a phenomenon occurring worldwide; the only question is how long will it last.
Closer to home, the impact of social distancing on the roads of Austin is real and noticeable. According to data from TxDOT, Austin’s 49% decline in traffic over the past several weeks has been the sharpest of all urban areas in Texas. This dramatic reduction in traffic and new ways of interacting with urban space is compellingly captured in Jay Janner’s aerial photographs, which show surreal scenes like the Congress Avenue Bridge, in which pedestrians and cyclists far outnumber automobiles; or of people clustered in small groups of two or three, spread out evenly on the Great Lawn at Zilker Park.
As Allison Arieff has written, there is a magic of empty streets in American cities these days: people are reclaiming them and using them in novel and interesting ways. Streets might be empty of cars, but not of people. I’ve seen more folks walking in the city than ever before, making some urban pathways downright busy. Some cities, like Minneapolis, are even closing large portions of parkways to automobiles to make more room for pedestrians. “Urban planners have long argued that more streets should close to make more livable spaces,” Arieff notes, “but governments have always resisted, calling it impractical or impossible.” I wonder if this change is temporary or, in my more optimistic moments, possibly the beginning of something new.
As someone whose dislike of cars expanded from the political and theoretical to include the personal (an expansion marked when I was almost killed by a rogue automobile nine years ago), the magic of empty roads is one that I welcome. I feel much safer riding my bicycle these days, and I enjoy my conversations – kept at a safe, social distance – with people that I meet along the way. People, that is, like Joe Wheeler and good friends whom I encounter in the city, enjoying a stroll through their neighborhood.
— Steven Hoelscher
I don’t like people, really. It’s mostly masked by my sunny disposition, but underneath it, I am just a wannabe Daria. My favorite place in the world is my couch. I order my coffee for pickup so I can run in and out without stopping. I like to go to bookstores alone and to watch endless seasons of TV shows and pet my cats. I like to write letters. I go to concerts alone, skipping the opener, not speaking to anyone around me. I like my friends, I do, but they will tell you it is the rare event that I show up at a bar or a party or whatever. I’ve found myself considering bailing on zoom hangouts.
In some ways, quarantine is made for someone like me. Indoor activities! No bars! Time for my hobbies (there are many). I will continue to exercise and eat and learn and write inside my apartment. But I’ve realized my love of being alone, of being an “inside cat,” of naps and baths and my laptop is premised on the existence of an outside world, the existence of a beyond I prefer to stay away from. My target run today was overwhelming, but not in the usual ways: there was no over-stimulation from the bright lights, anger at the crowds, nor a desire to buy every floral print dress in the store. Instead, everyone was wearing a mask. The clothes section was virtually empty, part of it now devoted to order pickups. After all, we aren’t going anywhere. The displays in the technology section were silenced. There were no kids grabbing at legos and dolls. The Easter candy wasn’t picked through. The “summer” section, with its patio seating and baby pools, seemed to be mocking me from a time, a place, that would never exist. I bought some food, a new colander, and even combed through the office supply section, looking, I suppose, for a semblance of normalcy. It wasn’t there.
What becomes of the desire to stay inside, when there is no outside to escape? No people gathered at the bars and pizza places, no movies, no shows to recover from. Of course, I’m sheltering in place. But my sense of identity, of myself, of my life, has been constructed in deference to an imagined world outside of my apartment that has ceased to exist.