It’s 2021, and we’re still deep in the pandemic. Since my last post, two people in my extended circle of love have died of Covid. Two of my closest sister-friends are currently ill. One of them has been hospitalized. Twice. Things are definitely not back to normal.
And yet, several obligations that require me to travel outside of my neighborhood have resumed.
So, I’m back on the bus.
In many ways, my return to Metro feels like coming home. Last Tuesday, I found myself on a 4 Smooth Jazz was driving. He was healthy and laid back as ever, and I have never been happier to see him. I happened to be riding to the end of the line, so I stopped for a (masked) conversation on my way off the bus. He shared updates about DDC* life (driving during Covid, that is) and then blessed me with suckers and chocolate to share with my crew. It was like old times. Better, even.
Riding my regular routes again, checking OneBusAway to see what’s coming, having (distanced) chats with strangers at stops, tapping my ORCA card on the reader, hustling across the street holding hands with one of my kids—all of that feels really good, like I’ve regained some of what I’ve spent almost a full year missing.
But so much of what was beautiful about riding the bus is still missing. My pandemic rides feel, well … stressful. I no longer relax into my seat and stare out the window or sink into a book. Instead, I eye the other passengers warily, watching for mask and distance violations.
There are no more spontaneous conversations with fellow riders. No bus-wide discussions. No seat-sharing with acquaintances I run into on my rides. These days, I perch on the edge of my seat, alone and on alert, until I arrive at my stop.
But despite the enforced separation, I am feeling more solidarity than ever with my fellow riders.
There’s been a lot of discussion about all the trips that have disappeared since March of 2020. But thousands of daily trips never went away. Covid has laid bare what people who depend on transit have been saying: “Rush hour” isn’t the beginning and end of a transit system. The trips that continued, uninterrupted, throughout the pandemic—daycare drop-offs and grocery runs and laundromat visits and medical appointments—are. These trips, and the people who take them, should be at the center of our transit planning.
A transit system designed around the needs of essential workers, poor people, disabled people, immigrants, youth, and the elderly is frequent, all-day, affordable, accessible, and reliable. In other words, it is a transit system that works for everyone.
Let’s make sure this critical lesson lasts beyond our return to “normal.”
What I will remember about this year, in addition to the obvious:
Over the past several years, as my climate anxiety has increased, I have become more and more interested in plant life. One of the ways this has manifested has been in an increasing obsession with house plants.
I have channeled much of my pandemic grief and helplessness into nurturing struggling and/or discarded plants, including this sweet baby, which I found next to a “free” sign on someone’s porch. (Note that photos are, per usual, Carla quality.)
We also attempted (and mostly failed at) growing food. I ambitiously bought packets of seeds (basil, parsley, tomatoes, carrots) in March, thinking the project would be a good learning experience for the kids and a good way for us to stay connected and grounded during a time defined by screens.
The experiment started well; at least, the seeds germinated as expected.
Unfortunately, very few of the plants made it past the start stage. After many months of tending (during which only a few plants survived long enough to be moved outside), we harvested a handful of parsley, enough basil to make one batch of pesto, and zero tomatoes. The carrots, which we attempted to germinate outside later in the spring, never sprouted at all.
Our pandemic experiment was not the first time we failed at growing food. In past years, we’ve planted collards, lettuce, broccoli, and pumpkins. We cared for all of them according to the experts’ instructions, without success.
After this latest debacle, I decided that growing food was not my/our “thing” and vowed to limit family farming adventures to harvesting the apples from our tree. But then last month, when we soaked some dried black beans a bit (OK, a lot) longer than necessary, several of the beans sprouted. What could I do but put the sprouts in some dirt?
As I type, I have bean plants growing on my bedroom windowsill. One has an actual bean pod. So maybe, just maybe. We shall see.
Since 2018, the kids and I have served as “forest stewards” at our neighborhood park. The title is impressive, but the job is pretty basic: We manage a small planted area of young trees and native plants. This year, we (OK, I) spent most of our work hours removing invasive blackberries.
Digging up blackberries is tough work. And, though I love nature in theory, I’m not really much of an “outdoor” person. I’m cold natured and comfort seeking and a bit on the skittish side. But the hours I’ve spent on this strenuous, sometimes painful job have been some of the most satisfying I’ve spent since the pandemic started. Each time I do it, I become so focused, I lose track of time, rescuing tree after tree from the choking vines, until it’s too dark to see. I leave feeling tired and proud of my efforts. And even a little bit hopeful.
For me, the most beautiful thing about 2020 has been watching people take care of each other. From Seattle Community Kitchen serving free chef-cooked meals, to Covid-19 Mutual Aid delivering groceries and hygiene products across the region, to the Seattle Transit Riders Union creating a solidarity fund to buy propane and other necessities for unhoused neighbors, to Bike Works and 350 Seattle organizing a bike drive for emergency transportation support, folks stepped up and stood in the gap for each other.
2020 pushed us toward the future many have been working to build for a long time: a future of, peer-to-peer support, without roles like “giver” or “receiver.” A future where we recognize that our destinies are intertwined, and we finally, finally start acting like it.
Mrs. Wyatt’s loved ones planned a “drive-by” parade. Folks drove past her home at an appointed time, playing music and waving signs from their cars. Our crew walked up, of course, which meant we had the honor of being Mrs. Wyatt’s birthday elves. We transported gifts and cards from her well wishers’ car windows to a box just inside her front gate.
We celebrated Chicklet with a few of her closest buddies in our front yard. We set up a projector and screen in the late afternoon, just as it was starting to get dark. Then, we lit lots of candles; passed out blankets, handwarmers, and hot cider; and watched an outdoor movie.
For my other two beloveds, we gathered outside and shared stories (and, on SC’s big day, Seahawk-themed doughnuts).
Nothing was as we would have wished, but we did what we could. Because if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s to give folks their flowers—and “Happy 100th birthday” cards—now.
The badasses of the WNBA
One thing I don’t write about much here is my lifelong obsession with basketball. So for those who didn’t know: Basketball is my sport, the WNBA is my league, and the Seattle Storm is my team. (Yes, I spent 30+ years as a Sonics fan. And yes, I’m still bitter.)
I appreciate the WNBA players so much—their leadership, their integrity, their sports(wo)manship. This year in particular, the players showed leadership in the fight for racial justice, putting forth a social justice agenda and insisting that the league adopt it.
Watching the games in the “Wubble” kept me sane this summer. And watching the Storm play team ball all the way to a fourth championship was my idea of basketball nirvana.
Much respect and gratitude to these women of talent, principle, perseverance, and integrity. They held me up (and down) when it felt like everything was falling apart. Their courage and strength became my courage and strength, and helped me rise to the many challenges this year presented.
I don’t have any illusions that the hardships we’ve experienced in 2020 will vanish when the calendar changes to a new year. But I do have hope that we, the people, will continue to unify around the things that matter: care for each other and our shared home. Let’s make 2021 a year of transformation.
P.S. – Here’s a list of the books I read in 2020. It was tough to find time (and often tough to concentrate), but I’m grateful for the ways these authors shifted my understanding, enhanced my knowledge, inspired my action, or just plain entertained me.
One thing I’ve heard repeated a lot this year is that Covid has clarified what is important. This doesn’t resonate much with me, in part because I have never really struggled with perspective—certainly not since watching my mother die prematurely from a prolonged and horrific disease—and also because I haven’t reached the same conclusion as most of the people saying it. For many, Covid has reinforced the importance of family and other close relationships. For me, it has reinforced the importance of random encounters with semi-strangers.
I’ve ridden the bus four times since March 12. This is, of course, an indication of my privilege. Every member of my household is working or schooling remotely. We bike for groceries (a practice we started three years ago, when Red Apple closed). With work, school, and food covered, we don’t have any essential trips. So, out of respect for bus drivers and other essential workers who must ride, and out of respect for load limits, we’ve been staying off the bus. Truth be told, except for daily walks around the neighborhood (and occasional work at the park where we volunteer), we spend most of our time inside.
I’m profoundly lonely, but not for the reasons you might think.
Yes, I miss my family and close friends. I haven’t held my youngest nibbling, who turned one last month, since she was barely out of the newborn phase. I haven’t spent time indoors with my siblings or dad since the first statewide stay-at-home order. I haven’t hugged or shared a meal with a girlfriend in even longer.
Despite all of this, I have managed to stay connected to my people. We Zoom. We talk on the phone. We meet for walks. We email, DM, IM. I send letters (and bus stickers!) to my nibblings. I text ridiculous memes to my brothers. I Marco Polo with my bestie. I communicate with nearby neighbors via group email and text. (My neighborhood even gathered for masked, distanced outdoor movie nights over the summer.)
So, while I certainly would prefer to be present with my beloveds in the ways I am used to, I am still very connected to everyone I was in a definable relationship with before the pandemic. (I am also deeply, deeply grateful that everyone in my immediate circle is still healthy.)
The people I am missing desperately are the people I never call. The people whose numbers (and sometimes, names) I don’t know, but who I am in relationship with nonetheless.
I miss the school crossing guards. The front desk folks at the library. The bus drivers. The bus regulars. (I saw Miss Ida walking down Yesler in September and almost cried with relief and joy.) The dance school receptionist. The Real Change vendor. The not-immediate neighbors I’m on waving/”How you doin’?” terms with.
These are people who bring texture and connection and beauty to my life. I have always valued these relationships, but I didn’t realize how much I relied on them until overnight, all of them were snatched away. I don’t know if these folks are OK. I have no way to check on them or offer support.
I am not a “people person.” I am a deep believer in community and a lover of humans, but I am also a shy, introverted homebody. Left to my own devices, I would live my entire life in my head. My daily travels—walking a kiddo to school, picking up a library hold, stopping for a paper and a quick chat, greeting (and then thanking) a bus driver, running into an acquaintance on a ride—are my way of connecting to my community. They help me remember I’m not alone.
So yes, I miss my loved ones, but I never really lost them. The network of humans that held me up pre-pandemic might never return.
This morning I looked at my “calendar” for June. (So much for the Storm season.) Pretty much the only thing on there that’s actually going to happen is the mammogram I scheduled back in February.
I schedule mammograms months in advance because the imaging center has limited appointments with same-day results. I watched my mom die of breast cancer in 2007, so, I have a teensy bit of anxiety about mammograms.
I’m also still recovering from that time a few years ago when a front desk person from the imaging place called two days after my mammogram—on a Friday—to schedule me for “additional images,” with no explanation about why those images were needed. I spent that entire weekend in hell.
The point is, in the midst of this complete upending of “normal” life, in the midst of this horror that is consuming all of our attention, people are still getting diagnosed with cancer—and experiencing other disasters unrelated to coronavirus.
My friend C is is middle school teacher. One of her students—a 7th grade girl—was reported missing over the weekend. One of my other close girlfriends is separating from her partner.
People are still experiencing abuse. People are still (actually, more than ever) losing their jobs. People are still dying in car crashes and of illnesses other than COVID-19.
But recitals, and weddings, and graduations, and birthday parties, and religious services—those are canceled. No bus adventures. No dance rehearsals. No visits to Husky Deli or Colman Pool. No Sunday dinners. No sleepovers. No formal dances or music shows. No girls’ nights. No potlucks with the neighbors.
All of the gatherings that help us celebrate our milestones and accomplishments and relationships and connections (in other words, LIFE) are canceled completely or “virtual.” It feels like we are suspended in time, like we are not really living.
But there’s absolutely no doubt that we’re really dying.
I met my friend Lawrence* because he lives in my
neighborhood, and I know—at least by sight—most people who live in my neighborhood.
Lawrence and I frequent the same bus stops and walk many of the same routes. After
crossing paths numerous times, we officially introduced ourselves. Eventually,
we became friends.
Lawrence has lived in Seattle for his entire life. Because he can no longer afford housing, he now lives in his van, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t running. The front windshield is smashed, and at least one of the tires is flat. Lawrence often needs money for propane, so he can keep warm at night. Like me, he suffers from a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome, which causes pain and numbness in the hands and feet during even mildly cold weather. He also has arthritis.
I worry about everyone in our city who is unhoused. I especially worry for those people whose faces and names I know, people I have formed bonds with. Every single night, I worry about Lawrence.
Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lawrence and I exchanged
numbers. I told him to call me in case of emergency, like if he was out of
propane, or just needed someone to help him problem-solve. About a week later (around
the same time our region was beginning to understand the seriousness of coronavirus),
I decided I could no longer live with the idea of him suffering on the floor of
his van night after night. I texted to ask if he’d like to spend a few days in
a hotel. He said yes.
I chose the Best Western Pioneer Square because I know
someone who has stayed there several times and liked it. It is a fairly short
bus ride from our neighborhood, is clean and comfortable, and includes a hearty
breakfast. I called to make a reservation, then took the 27 to the hotel to provide
my credit card and give them Lawrence’s information.
As I waited in line, the hotel staff were very busy, answering calls from people canceling reservations and helping guests check out early. It occurred to me that the fallout from this pandemic had created an opportunity for an emergent strategy of sorts. Hotels were losing business and would soon be empty. Unhoused people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. What if we, concerned citizens of Seattle (and every city), pooled our resources to rent newly cheap hotel rooms for our homeless neighbors?
When it was my turn to register, I attempted to provide the hotel with some information about Lawrence, who, not surprisingly, isn’t as clean or neatly dressed as someone with access to shelter. I struggled with whether I should say something; I didn’t want to violate his privacy. On the other hand, as a person of color, I know for sure that disparate treatment happens. Lawrence is both homeless and a person of color, so I wanted to make sure that he didn’t experience any hassles when he arrived to check in.
I said, “This room is for my neighbor. He’s fallen on some hard times and is living in his van, and I just want to ensure that he will be treated with dignity.”
The person who was helping me leaned forward and widened her eyes. “Are you saying that he’s HOMELESS?”
I said, yes, that’s what I was saying. She said that the hotel doesn’t “do” homeless.
I should have left immediately, but I felt pressed. I had already given Lawrence the hotel’s information, and it wasn’t always easy to reach him. I had to help another neighbor with childcare (back when we were still allowed to do that) in less than an hour.
So, I pushed back. I said the room was paid for, Lawrence
was a human being, and the hotel’s policy amounted to discrimination. She
doubled down on the discrimination and asked me to assure her that there wouldn’t
be any drug use.
Finally, after conferring with a coworker, she agreed to let
Lawrence stay. I reserved the room for three nights.
On the third night, I decided that I could probably swing at
least one more. Nighttime lows were still in the 30s, and I hated to imagine Lawrence
back in his van under those conditions. I called the hotel to extend. The
person who answered the phone cheerfully looked up my reservation. But as soon
as her computer retrieved it, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to
extend this reservation.”
I asked if I needed to come in and present my credit card again. She put me on hold. A moment later, a manager picked up. “We’re not going to extend this reservation,” he snapped. “If the guest can’t afford the room, then he shouldn’t be staying here.”
Lawrence is now back in his van. Everything is closed—libraries, community centers, coffee shops, every public space—so his van is the only place for him to be. I don’t see him very often these days, because I rarely leave my home. But sometimes, when I am out for fresh air, I see him walking to the store to buy water; he has no access to plumbing. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how likely it is that he’s able to wash his hands at all—let alone frequently.
Even though we had a bad experience with the Best Western Pioneer Square, I’m still convinced that the idea—to provide guests for empty hotels and safe housing for those in our community who are most vulnerable right now—is a good one. Certainly, there are independently owned hotels that are on the verge of closing completely that would welcome a steady source of income.
All of us are threatened by this virus, and all of us are suffering
from the havoc it has wreaked on our communities. Think about how you’re
feeling right now—how lonely, fearful, and uncertain. Imagine spending every
hour of every day uncomfortable, with no distractions, no people out on the
street to help you with a few dollars, feeling abandoned and desperate AND
scared of getting sick.
As we do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and financially afloat, we can’t forget our unhoused neighbors. We as a community need to offer them more than “socially distanced” mass shelters. One obvious, short-term solution is for the city to rent rooms in empty hotels (owned by compassionate, openminded people) so that everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, can stay safe—and as comfortable as possible—during this challenging time.
Can we find the will and focus to make this happen?