I was scanning headlines and lead paragraphs today and I came across this sentence: Social distancing is the norm.
Is it the norm? Does it feel normal to you? It doesn’t to me. The streets still look weird, unnatural, empty, practically car-less, unpeopled…clean. I’m used to filthy streets, dusty, and spotted with oil, cracked, and spitted, settling gracelessly into old age, as the wind blows wrappers, newspapers, bus passes, plastic straws, and shopping bags through their lanes, avenues, and courts. And, the drivers… They aren’t bloodthirsty, exactly, but they have clearly not been taught the value of human life in driving school. Getting near certain curbs is a foolhardy proposition.
No. Empty streets are still not the norm. Empty sidewlaks aren’t, either.
No one is as kind-of-friendly as I am. I say hello to almost everyone, in an effort to be polite, or nice, nodding, half-smiling, and almost-waving my way from my apartment to the pharmacy or bus stop. Now, it is rare that I see anyone. And, I can still say that, with only three days until the beginning of our slow reopening. It is rare that anyone gets near enough to me for me to say “What’s up?” to them. Now, it’s just miles and miles of unpopulated sidewalks, untrampled parks, and unlittered parking lots. And like I said in an earlier post , I kind of like that.
Sometimes, when I walk, I go through the park next to the city’s trendiest, upper-class shopping district. I stay in the park, walking at a moderate pace until I see some suspicious or dangerous-looking criminal type or a group of innocent-looking teens, then I head across the street, to the shopping center proper, within easy distance of a open or roving outdoor security guard. There was no one out there the last time I went. They were all inside, waiting for Death to return to its usual methods. It’s a pleasant, novel sensation, having a park to myself, but it’s not the norm.
I live in a neighborhood that is not quite low crime. Once every other month or so, I hear the occasional round of gunfire, a sound that I mistook for firecrackers for years. It always takes me a moment to register what I’m really hearing and another moment to be shocked anew that I live in an area where people actually shoot each other. I have lived in this area for over twenty years. I should be used to it. But, gun violence, gun deaths, shootings, shooters, that is all something I heard about on the news or reading a newspaper. Not something that happens outside my apartment building and sounds like it’s happening outside my window.
Where was I? Yes. Social distancing. What was I saying?
Yes. Well, yes, this low crime rate is great, wonderful, but it’s not the new norm and everyone knows that. COVID-19 has not worked a permanent change in human nature, or in the nature of criminals. Enjoy your home-invasion-free nights as long as they last; “they” will be back at your doors once the shut down is lifted and they know you’ve tested negative.
What am I trying to say?
The empty streets, sidewalks, closed restaurants, stores, and schools, the well-manicured ghost town that is the university where I work have had a greater effect on me than self-isolation, than coming home and closing my door and staying away from the world for a week at a time. Living alone is my norm.
Citywide shutdown conditions represent a pivotal change for me, a tectonic shift in my way of life that has had a clear almost physical, psychological effect on me. It is the first time that I have had to entertain realistic (not fictional) thoughts about the end of the world, what it means, what I would do about it, how I would survive it. It’s the first time I have really had to wonder if what i’m feeling, the not painful, not yet unpleasant rustling in my stomach, is not stress, but fear.
Maybe it’s the empty streets, the silence, which I welcomed and still do for the most part. Or maybe it’s the absence of life, no matter how disruptive or potentially dangerous. I have never been lonely before, evn though I have lived alone for decades, now. There were always people just outside my door, just in the hall, just in the apartment under me, next to me, just on the sidewalk on the streets outside my window, crossing the street, running for the bus, sitting at the bus stop, rolling by in a motorized wheelchair, walking home with two visibly heavy bags of groceries, parking their cars, arguing in the parking lot, screaming at their kids, laughing, talking, dancing, sitting on their porches watching the day or evening pass. I wasn’t lonely. I lived alone. And, I was glad of it and grateful for it.
But, there was always a world to need a break from, people I was blessed not to have to share a house with, cars to dodge, possible violent encounters to avoid. Noise, drama, crowds, unrest. You know…people. I don’t want to be an introvert on an otherwise empty ball of dust hurtling through the universe.
I have been asked, at least once, when I was a child, after I claimed I hated everyone, “What if everyone was gone? What if you woke up one day and everybody in the world was gone, all the streets were empty, all the businesses, stores, schools, everything, and everyone was gone? You wouldn’t like that so much, would you? Do you really think you would like that?”
What if the answer is “yes”? Or “kind of”?
I am not the only person who is going to miss this, who wants to keep a part, a piece of this. Am I? The peace? The quiet? The space? The uncrowdedness? The casualness? The lack of rush and hurry? The near absence of social tension? The drop in the crime rate? The odd, very real sensation that, yes, this is how I would like it to be, at least in part?
I am not the only person who wants to live someplace that feels like this, or more like this, the rest of their life.