It’s the Sunday after the election and I am walking downtown. I live in a small city next to a big city and downtown usually means in Chicago, but these days a trip to downtown Evanston is a big adventure. It may be ill-advised–cases have been climbing for weeks–but I need to get out of the house and see some some people. I plan to sit outside the coffee shop and futz around on my laptop, maybe do some writing or listen to a lecture for that poetry course I signed up for and then never accessed. I am more after the illusion of work than work itself, just like I am engaging in the illusion of being with people when actually being with people is off limits. The coffee shop is packed, or what passes for packed in a pandemic. The patrons waiting for their orders indoors are less like sardines in a tin than fish loose in a barrel and I wait for fifteen minutes for my Americano trying not to breathe. There are no tables left on the patio so I walk one street over to the community plaza where I know I will find a smattering of rickety metal tables spaced way more than six feet apart.
I turn the corner into the square and the sounds of a street singer strumming on a guitar carry me to a table between a pretty young couple with a baby on one side and a pretty young couple with a baby and a grandma on the other side. The troubadour is playing the chorus of “American Pie Part 2,” which would have been enough to pull me into a seat even if I didn’t have nowhere else to go. That’s the song, after all, played five days earlier when the election results were trickling in, seemingly in Trump’s favor. The red wave turned out to be an illusion, too, but I didn’t know that yet, and music was the only way I knew how to move through that night.
Oh and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
I played some other songs too. “White Man’s World” by Jason Isbell:
I’m a white man living in a white man’s world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be hers one day
But her mama knew better
“Society” by Eddie Vedder:
Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me
Today we have a verdict. God, today is such a good day. Seventy degrees, cotton ball clouds blowing across a brilliant blue sky. The promise of a new administration. A rational, national science-based COVID response. A generous refugee policy. No more babies in cages. Reinstitution of protections for transgender people in healthcare. I still cry behind my mask and sunglasses awhile. It’s been too long since I listened to live music, since I sat with strangers, since I existed in my city. I open my wallet looking for a one or a five to drop in the singer’s tip jar and zip it back up when I see I only have a $20. I zip it back open when I remember I found that $20 on the ground earlier in the week. It wasn’t mine to begin with. None of this was ever mine.
I haven’t been sitting long when a person without a mask slow-charges me, coming within a foot of my table. “Too close, sir!” I call out, too late to stop the panic from rising up but before before I see the silver earrings hanging from her lobes. No response, and she wobbles when she passes my table. I don’t even know if she saw me. I try to dredge up some anger but find I’ve been scraped clean. I don’t have anything left for anyone who’s worse off than me. Besides, it’s not like I need to be out here in public, trying to figure if there’s any benefit left to living in a city. There is, by the way. The live music is worth the risk, as is the privilege of being with dozens of people who don’t look at the world like I do.
The singer sets down his guitar and lays hands on the keyboard spread out in front of him. “Piano Man.” Of course. Somebody I can’t see lights a cigar. A young dad eats ice cream with his little son. A hipster couple goes off on their bikes. Three university students eat Chinese food. Is it racist to go out of my way to describe food and family makeup and ignore everybody’s race and ethnicity? The singer is Asian. The couple with the baby are white. The couple with the baby and the grandma are Middle Eastern. The dad and the little boy are white. The hipster couple is white. The students are Asian. I look around and found the man with the cigar across the street and confirm he is white. There are also in the plaza two girls, Asian, a young man, Asian, a couple, white and maybe Latinx, a young man, white. Earlier there was a Black man with a slouchy hat, listening intently to the music and writing in a notebook, like me. There are three Latinx girls. There is a Black family. A white lady with a bike helmet walks up to the singer. An older Black man with a cane walks by. The lady who came at me was white, old, and unwell. I’m white. Supposedly, there is COVID everywhere. I mean, there definitely is COVID everywhere, but it is windy out and people are moving in and out of my peripheral vision faster than I can write them down.
Last week I realized I won’t see my family for the rest of this year. When winter was still on the horizon, when cases were dropping, a quick trip at the end of the year seemed feasible. People went on vacations this summer, didn’t they? People saw their families for birthdays and backyard visits? I know they did because I saw the proof on Facebook. The mayor asked us to cancel Thanksgiving, but people are going home for that, too, aren’t they? I know they are because they told me. I know they exist but I don’t know anyone else who hasn’t seen their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews in as long as I have, their grandparents and cousins in as long as my daughter has. People keep telling me to just get on a plane and go already. Flying is reasonably safe. I could quarantine before and after and take a test before I go. I put the decision off until after the election. “If Arizona goes for Trump, I won’t want to be anywhere near the state,” I joked. Of course, Arizona went blue and and I cried when I realized I still couldn’t go home.
Another young couple walks by. The boy is Asian and the girl is white. The girl is holding a stuffed shark. All the couples I’ve seen today have been straight. Two teenage boys tear through the square on a skateboard and a BMX bike. A pair of scruffy white college students sit down with food. A group of Black men and women walk by with Target bags dangling from their wrists. A white lady holds a big toddler on her hip. I pull a sweater on against the breeze. It’s warmer than it should be, but the sun is setting already. The lady drops the toddler on top of a concrete block and lets him dance. He bounces extravagantly and clutches a yellow sucker in his hand. The mom grins and him and holds one arm out to stop him falling off. Of course I’m crying again. But why am I crying? The beautiful thing is happening right in front of me, right now, still. The beautiful thing is almost too much to bear.
The pianist starts banging out “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and now I’m tapping my feet like the toddler and bopping my head and grinning like the mom behind my mask. I’m thinking of the time my friend Caitlin crooned this song to a pretty waitress in the Ozarks on our long drive across the country to see our families out west. Is the lost year worth this moment in time?
Are 200,000+ American lives lost worth ousting Trump from the White House?
Are Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude in 2020 alone worth Kamala Harris as Vice President?
The questions are stunning because the answer is an obvious, resounding no.
If it was always going to play out like this, would I give up my part? Would I do any of it differently?
These are questions I can only answer by carrying on. I’m not fighting on the front lines, but I’m not sitting on the sidelines, either. I’m fucking in it, just like you.