Around week three of California’s shelter-in-place order, pigeons and pigeon poop arrived in our backyard. We live in a quiet neighborhood in East Oakland, about four miles as the pigeon flies from downtown. The pigeons were refugees from downtown, because, as I saw later that day driving down Broadway, aside from a few groups of homeless folks, nobody’s there. So nobody’s feeding the pigeons. So they’ve gone looking for someone who will.
Two weeks later, our neighbors, who have a newborn baby, announced they are moving out. Both laid off — retail and hair stylist. Can’t afford rent. Moving in with Mom a couple towns down highway 580.
Then there’s my Brooklyn freelancer friend who was traveling in New Mexico when Corona hit. He’s been in Tucson, Arizona in an Airbnb. He Facetimes me once a week from an eclectic locatio: “Check it out. The Boneyard, man. Largest collection of decommissioned military aircraft in the country. Awesome.” He’s not going back to Brooklyn anytime soon. He texted me this week to say he’s headed towards a socially-distanced walk date in the desert with a woman self-exiling from Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn.
They are all Covid-refugees, moving at a time of stasis. There was the initial freeze, when it seemed we were all hunkering down for a month or two. Now everyone is looking to secure a long-term situation for the next year or two.
The disconnect between hospitals and a health care system under siege in New York and sunny days in the backyard with our four year old is strange. I texted a friend who works as an orderly at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, asking him how he was holding up. He texted back quickly and to the point, “Everything nasty out here.” It reminds me of life during war with an all volunteer military: a small percentage of the population is under incredible stress and threat. For a lot of others, the stress is more existential, financial and looming in the future. (And for the first few weeks, beer o’clock was happening earlier and more often. There’s stats on that.)
I had come off a stressful and grinding 6 week run of performances in New York, so at first the chance to be ordered to stay-at-home and do nothing was ideal. Yes I can play strikeouts with my four year old son in the driveway every morning. Yes I can do character parodies of covidiots on Instagram. And yes I have many weekends off for the first time in almost a year and a half, as all theaters are closed.
And now the question is: what is the next year or two going to look like? Not just in the next three months, but in the next several years? As a performing artist, I wonder when are people going to feel safe enough to go sit in dark rooms real close to each other and laugh? Will everyone be suppressing laughs? Or laughing into masks? Will the holy grail of laughter, the spit-take, now be considered a deadly weapon?
And that moment of pseudo-unity everyone felt at the beginning is slipping away. The we’re all in this together moment, born out of the reality of a virus that knows no borders, class or racial barriers. But then the stats came out that, in fact, African-Americans are dying at much higher rates. And the reality that those with less means are more exposed. Privilege manifests itself in quarantine quality.
And then the tussle over how we should be spending our time during shelter-in-place. Leave aside the protesters in state capitols and Trump’s idiotic “Liberate Michigan! Liberate Minnesota!” tweets. I don’t live on the internet, but apparently there’s a tussle over what is appropriate shelter-at-home behavior. Some people are planting gardens and it’s great. Others that we should be in mourning. Others that being productive is what white supremacy teaches us and we should be creating systems of support. Can’t we just be productive and support each other? Isn’t planting a garden doing both? How is it that we are so divided we can’t just support whatever way we are trying to shelter in place as long as it’s safe?
I go to the local grocery store once a week. Last week I saw an old friend, hadn’t seen her in five years. We had an air hug across the intersection of the vegetable aisle and the dairy fridge. “I’m smiling under this mask!” I said, as we learn what it is to emotionally connect when masked, leave alone without contact.
I return from the store and announce this week’s victories while unloading a trunk full of food. “There was flour! And buttermilk!” Strange items are now constantly scarce: Turkey cold cuts, cous-cous, frozen pizzas. It’s like we are propelled by the march of nostalgic television programming back to 1990s dietary habits.
And what a time for nostalgia. Between the Bulls docuseries “The Last Dance” and the Beastie Boys documentary, it’s a flood of mid-90s content. I can feel a collective lean-in from my generation (especially dudes) tip-toeing up to middle-age, now at home, diving into cozy waves of nostalgic content. I’ve been watching World Series videos from my childhood (late ‘80s-early ’90s) on YouTube while working out. It’s great. Giving those moments and characters a socio-political context I only instinctively grasped back then, aside from the coastal liberal eye-roll at the Braves tomahawk chop. Winston, my four year old, now asks: “Dada, why are they doing that?” Me: “Uh, because that was a thing they thought was fun then. It’s kinda weird though huh?” The slo-mo montage at the end of these videos over an uber-sappy song calculated to tap into the most emotionally barricaded Suburban Midwestern Sports Dad. Contrast that with the Hip-Hop and taut-strings soundtrack of the Bulls docuseries overseen by 43 year old director Jason Herir, and one can mark the aesthetic generational divide.
I haven’t been watching many television shows. Even as I fiddle and rewrite my own TV pilot, I realize it’s films I love. The engrossing and transporting creation of a mood, a world that can slowly grow over two hours without having to worry about luring you in to watch the next episode every thirty minutes. I’ve been digging deep into novels, Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School currently blowing my mind. We’ve been planting gardens and creating different spots in the backyard to have afternoon tea and tea snacks, a ritual Winston is sure we do not miss.
Ultimately this time is a chance or an invocation or a commandment to look inward. To be alone. To embrace the solitude that strengthens our shared humanity. To rediscover what we really like. Who we really want to be going forward. Sure social media continues apace, but the disruption of daily life, the being away from the fray of one’s peers makes one turn inward. As Gareth, an always highly-isolated goat rancher on the Arizona border, told me: “People have been used to going out every night and being entertained. Now they have to entertain themselves.” Though I fear what this may portend for my future, as I making my living entertaining people, I agree with him. The global inward-turning will have some positive impacts. I’m thinking it will spur audiences to dive in more deeply once they return. Here’s hoping you are all enjoying the time diving deep into yourselves until then.