When I was six, I went to Florida with my mom. Destination: her parents’ Delray Beach Condo. The whole trip was a series of firsts.
First airplane flight. I remember the novelty of waiving goodbye from our seats to my father and two brothers in the window of the airport in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The carrier was TWA. I remember they served us a meal, steak and vegetables, on a plate next to linen and silverware. We dressed up, because that’s what you did in 1966 when you flew.
It was an Easter trip. I remember because the bunny brought me a basket full of candies. I’m sure that wasn’t a first, but it was astonishing to me that the bunny knew where I was that Easter and managed a delivery all the way down in Florida, so far from our usual delivery address in North Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
First swim in the ocean. I was terrified. There were tiny little hermit crabs in the water, and a vast unknown expanse of water. I think I spent most of the day on the shore, playing in the sand, in subsequent days working my way gradually into the surf. I got past my initial fears, but remember distinctly the disconcerting “nibble” I felt as the hermit crabs scampered over my tiny toes.
So many unknowns. So many “risks”. I didn’t want to go home at the end of the vacation.
Eleven weeks into our pandemic sequestration, we’ve become tentative about dipping our toes into the surf. I realize the hermit crab/coronavirus comparison doesn’t hold up. As the unfinished work of the spring beckons to be completed, all of us experiencing natural concerns about returning; I’m not alone in experiencing complicated feelings. Having spent the past eleven weeks keeping away from everyone and everything, I’ve gained a perhaps false sense of control and mastery over my domain, my home office, the schedule of my day, my work flow. For as disruptive as the move of office to home was initially, the freedom of sloughing off 45 minutes of commute was liberating in the same way it was 12 years ago when I moved from the San Fernando Valley to downtown LA and regained two hours of my life each work day. Frankly, I’ve loved being able to take a nap at the close of the work day if I want to.
Every day as the numbers of COVID-19 deaths rises, my level of fear and personal calculation of risk assessment has increased, even as we’ve embarked on the painstaking and meticulous planning for our ultimate return to work and community. I’m aware of my colleagues’ similar calculi about returning to work. They, too, no doubt tremble at losing control over who they are with, because the consequences of exposure can be deadly. If we were living somewhere else, we might feel differently about the situation because of what we’d be hearing from our municipal leaders and our neighbors. But we live in Los Angeles, where our governor, mayors and counties are planning the safe return to “normalcy” (whatever that will be). Los Angeles’ most recent announcements of pool re-openings, restaurants and hair salons being allowed to reopen makes clear and imminent the return to our physical workplaces. Some of us were back at work last Thursday. More of us will return on Monday. People are beginning to express their anxieties and questioning about the health and safety practices themselves. It’s completely natural to feel unsettled about taking these steps to resume contact with the outside world.
Did we know two months ago that we would feel this way about returning to the workplace? I sure didn’t. I viewed that day with fervent anticipation, not tinged with worry. And now it’s here. In the very early unclear days our fears were unmoored and free floating. We’re now equipped with research as to how to return safely to work. We’ve each read umpteen plans for the safe return to the workplace. All the entertainment unions have carefully crafted drafts of nearly finalized plans. My university and others have incorporated CDC recommendations into signage and protocols, involving the necessary PPE and physical distancing protocols. I trust that the protocols we have put into place can mitigate the risks. As individuals we will make decisions about whether that risk is lessened enough for us to return to work.
And yet, the viral pandemic isn’t the only factor in our society’s safety. That much has been clear this week, as cities all over the country have erupted in protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. And I wish I could say this was a first, but clearly it wasn’t.
Yesterday, in the early evening, I put on my mask and my walking shoes at about 7:00PM and headed out into the evening. The elevator I was in stopped at a lower floor and three young black men got on with me, none wearing masks. Maternally, I said, “Where are your masks?” (To me it was maternal, to them, it was probably just rude.) One of them quickly put on his Joker-themed mask, while the other two sheepishly pulled their t-shirts up over their noses.
“We’re going to feed the meter.”
This complete non-sequitur caused me to look quizzically at them. As the door opened on the ground floor, they politely gestured for me to go first, and I called over my shoulder to them, “Stay safe” as I went to check my mailbox.
As I stepped out of my building, I felt the gathering unrest. Of late, there are only about 20 people in sight when I emerge from my apartment. Tonight, the street was full of people, all walking purposefully toward Staples Center. Up Flower St., I could see dozens of police cars, lights ablaze, stopping southbound traffic on Flower at 8th St. I continued west on 9th to Figueroa, where a steady stream of people got out of their parked cars and began walking quickly south. By the time I reached Olympic, I witnessed truckload after truckload of police in riot gear pulling past Figueroa staging in front of the car wash. The noise was now all sirens and everyone around me had their cameras up, filming. I patted my empty pockets, having left my camera charging at home. Maybe 25% of the people around me wore masks and I wondered whether I wanted to be outside at all. Three masked young women ran out into the stopped traffic rushed up to a police SUV, each giving the one finger salute to the occupants inside. There was an air of the opposite of giddy abandon – rage-filled abandon. I suddenly felt ill-equipped to continue my walk and scurried home.
All night long, the night air rankled with choppers circling the downtown skyscrapers, first in my neighborhood, then further north. Phalanxes of police SUVs with sirens blaring poured down 9th Street, then turned north on Hope. I turned on the news to watch the coverage of the angry confrontations of police and protesters happening all over DTLA. I worried not just about the fate of those young people being arrested for protesting, but for all the people in the disparate packs of protesters downtown. Would their naked outrage protect their naked faces from the corona virus? I suspect not. I worried about the three young men from the elevator, and my ridiculous warning to “be safe” in a society that is fundamentally so unsafe for them. Having been through the ongoing exercise of developing safety protocols against the virus, I asked myself:
What safety protocols are being developed against the rampant virus of racism in this country that is also so deadly?
Would that it was as “easy” as providing PPE and hand washing and social distancing protocols. Alas, it is far more complicated than that as the young people in this article from The Cut so passionately conveyed.
There are idiots and scofflaws in every arena of life – those who disdain or just ignore the science of the COVID-19 as the attendees at the Memorial Day pool party in the Ozarks did. There are good cops and bad cops as well. Unfortunately the bad cops put so many lives at risk, both by bad policing and the dangerous and risky aftermath of bad policing which we are witnessing now. I’m at a loss in both instances. I have no jurisdiction over idiocy or the malice of unbridled racism in this country. I can stay informed and go to the polls and vote whenever I get the chance.
And so I retreat to that small very privileged area that I can control. My memories of youthful abandon and trust. Back on the warm sand of my youthful innocence, I watch as my younger self runs giddily into the surf and back up the sand to my own mother’s embrace. I can’t be as reassuring to everyone as she was then, saying “it’s safe, dear.” Because for so many, it isn’t.