Quarantine Diaries Day 239: I Hope You’re Not Lonely

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.

Quarantine Diaries Day 240: Refresh

Well the year that was last week is over and done. Where were you when the interminable, uncomfortably close race was called? I was on the couch with my family watching TV. We never watch TV on weekend mornings because my daughter’s childhood couldn’t be more different from my own, except when there’s an early football game or, as happened last week, we find ourselves hooked on watching ballots trickle in from Allegheny County and Maricopa, which, it so happens, is where I grew up. For four nights I stayed up late knowing the results weren’t likely to come in but waiting just the same. I wasn’t prepared for the sun to be shining when I got the news. I wasn’t prepared to be sitting next to my daughter. I wasn’t prepared to have nothing to do but react. Pennsylvania went blue on the map we’d been staring at with horror, disbelief, skepticism, and stupid, impossible hope all week and CNN called the race for Biden. My husband pulled out his phone to make a video and caught my face crumpling when Wolf Blitzer declared Harris the first woman and the first woman of color elected to the office of Vice President. I wasn’t prepared for how much that would mean to me. I couldn’t even touch the possibility with my mind after what happened to Clinton in 2016 and, to a far lesser extent but painful nonetheless, to Warren in the primaries. I don’t know everything women can do, but I know exactly what we can’t do in America in 2020. My husband sent the video to my family on the Marco Polo app. Only my sister responded, eyes and mouth wide with happy screams. We’d been texting all week, morning to night and riding out the anxiety together, sisters in arms on the same side, willing Arizona to flip and then watching it happen, was the second best thing to happen all week, maybe all year.

I was still laughing and crying and cheering when I heard a buzzing rumble, long and low and slow. I thought my phone was going off but it was the neighbors blowing some type of horn. We threw our windows open, too, and cued up Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen–all the victory songs the Trump campaign tried and failed to co-opt. We heard voices–a few neighbors had spilled out into front yards–and I ran out to join them in pajamas and sneakers and a mask. One neighbor explained the horn–a Shofar, or ram’s horn, blasted in ancient and modern Jewish religious rituals, and, in this case, to signal victory and celebration–before heading back inside to call his parents. Another neighbor laughed bitterly and said she wouldn’t be calling hers; her mom loves Trump, and I think her in-laws do, too. She laughed but I know this fact causes pain. I wondered where my parents were, in senses both literal and less so. I’d called my dad on Wednesday but he didn’t call back. I’d called my mom on Friday but it had been tense. She won’t share her political views, which means I never know where I stand. My parents don’t want to take sides. I get it. They have five kids who all vote differently. But not knowing means I’ll never know if they care or even understand how much this means to their daughters or how much it means for their granddaughters. I am close with my brothers but haven’t heard from any of them in a few weeks. It’s normal not to talk to my family on weekends but their silence on Saturday was strange on a day when people were dancing in the streets.

Still needing to be outside, I took my daughter on a hike in the afternoon. We sat on a log in the woods and sang The Star-Spangled Banner, start to finish. We belted it, really, bold and unembarrassed. Nobody walked by, but we wouldn’t have minded if they did; my daughter and I both enjoy an audience. The leaves were mostly gone from the trees so we could see everything coming up the trail, ahead and behind. The woods were filled with golden light and the sun dropped into the side of the sky early because it’s been a long year and the party’s starting late. When we got back into the car, I didn’t want to go back home. I wanted to drive downtown. I wanted to go into the bars so I could pour out of them. I wanted to be with people, popping bottles and hopping around and never sitting down. The streets were open but everything else was closed and it was just me and the seven-year-old, so we went back home. I fell asleep on the couch, a week of late nights and four years of watching my back, watching over my people, waiting for the other foot to drop catching up at last. I woke up to dinner on the table. My husband cracked the Martinelli’s. All three of us made toasts and clinked. We raised our glasses to what we’ve been through, personally and as a nation. We raised nodded our heads to how much we still have to do. We drank to starting this next leg of the race newly inspired and refreshed.

We let our daughter stay up past bedtime to watch Harris and Biden deliver victory speeches. She was giddy from the bubbles and good feeling and couldn’t stop bouncing on the couch and babbling over the TV. She practically bubbled over herself when the Biden and Harris families walked into the stage and started in with the hugging. I watched my daughter watch these families watching the fireworks exploding in the sky, all of us with shiny eyes.

I am not inclined to put Harris or Biden on a pedestal. They were imperfect candidates who disappointed me before they ran and whose administration will surely disappointment me going forward. We the people will need to hold them accountable. In the meantime, I am heaving with relief. I rest easier knowing there is no doubt that the President and Vice President Elect are decent people who love this country and care about the welfare of families other than their own. I trust that they understand the seriousness of the task that lies before them. I believe that they will restore honor to the offices from which they serve. I am confident that they will work on behalf of the people they serve. I pray that the next four years will be better than the last for every single one of my fellow Americans, but especially for the ones who have suffered the most.

The night before the election my daughter had a hard time going to bed. “What happens if Trump wins?” she worried. “Oh girlie,” I reassured her, as she climbed into my lap. “We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ll keep taking care of each other and working to make the world a safer, more loving place.” Since then, I wondered if I was wrong to let her in on so much of what’s happening in the world. Maybe I should have done more to shield her from the damage the Trump administration inflicted on so many, and the danger he still poses. Maybe I should have taken a page from my mom’s book and shielded her from the bias of my own beliefs.

Celebrating together this weekend, I tasted the first fruits of raising my child to be politically engaged. I try to teach her respect for her uncles and grandparents that vote differently than we do, mostly because I want her to know that I won’t love her any less if she grows up to believe differently than me. She will never wonder where I stand or where she stands with me. Today, I got another hint that we’re headed in a good direction. My daughter came downstairs and asked me if she could read a page from the book she’s writing for her non-fiction unit at school. It’s called “The 2020 Election!” and the first chapter starts like this: “2020 has been a crazy year. And I’m not making that up.” She dedicated her book to “all the people in the United States.”

Quarantine Diary Day 199: Dial It Up

The summer after high school I lived at home with my parents in Phoenix counting down the days until the dorms opened up and I could move down to Tucson for college. I was like a prisoner scratching days into the wall. That was a bad summer. I had no boyfriend and no romantic prospects, I had two friends and I was pretty sure they liked each other better than me, my parents were mad at me all the time or maybe I was mad at them, I was broke as a joke, and the state took away my driver’s license after I racked up my third speeding ticket before turning eighteen. I also had this terrible job. It was a job I could mention in passing without it sounding terrible. I worked at a photography studio, a fixture of the community that shot family portraits and engagement photos and senior pics. I was an artsy kid, always aiming my point and shoot at the clouds and chain link fences and art deco buildings downtown, so the job sounded pretty good, except that I never went near a camera, print, or prop. I never even saw the clients. I was a telemarketer.

The boss was an older lady who wore quite a lot of jewelry and shimmery, silky tops. If she wasn’t glamorous, she was at least reaching for it. If she wasn’t the owner, she ran the place within the inch of its life, and she kept a stable of girls in the back room wearing headsets and working the phones to get people on the books for a free sitting for an 8×10.

Does it sound like we were offering free 8×10 portraits? Yeah, that’s what the customers thought, too. There were no free portraits. We were offering a free sitting, i.e., we were waiving the $50 fee the studio usually charged just to walk in the door.

We had a few different lists–customers who had come in before and residential lists that the boss had recently invested in with the hope of reaching new customers. The warm contacts were not warm. Most of them remembered that for years and years, the studio had offered free 8×10 portraits to first time customers. Most of them had taken advantage of that deal to score a new family photo or picture of the new baby and not been back since. People loved that deal, but too many people didn’t buy anything on top of the free 8×10 and the studio was losing money, which is the reason it had to go and also the reason that the portrait studio had a telemarketing arm.

The boss had updated the scripts to be technically accurate but not explicitly clear. On the phone, I always tried to emphasize that I was inviting people to come in for a free sitting not a free photo. The offer was not enticing. Most people didn’t realize there was a sitting fee in the first place. The people who picked up on the distinction right away were pissed and disinclined to schedule an appointment. The people who didn’t catch on until the end of the call, after they had gone to the trouble of finding time on their calendars to book and I reiterated that we couldn’t wait to see them for their free sitting, were even more pissed and inclined to cancel or not show up. There were also people who sounded so excited about the appointment that I was pretty sure they had misunderstood. I felt bad about those people, but I couldn’t explain to them what they had done, warn them what was coming. It wasn’t in the script. Were they pissed when their pictures were printed and they got the bill with no free 8×10? I had no way of knowing–that was weeks down the line and the photographers handled their invoicing–but I could guess, and those were the customers that made me feel the worst.

The cold contacts may have lived in the desert but they were like ice. The National Do Not Call list had been signed into law that spring, just two months before I started working at the studio, and registration for it opened up while I was on the job. Enforcement wouldn’t begin until October, but the people who knew about the law were not shy about screaming “Put me on your Do Not Call List!” into my ear. People who didn’t know about the law were not shy about yelling at me, either. Of course, most people didn’t answer or hung up the phone when they realized I was selling something. The few people who stayed on the line long enough to hear my pitch seemed to understand that there was no free picture but didn’t think much of the offer and even if they did, weren’t about to take time off work to come in for a family portrait in the middle of the summer.

That was the other thing. The people who did schedule always wanted to book a few weeks or even months out but we were trying to fill empty slots in the next two days. The whole thing was weird and we all knew it, the people on the phone and the girls in the back room.

The job was embarrassing and demoralizing and the teeniest bit sleazy and I’m not in contract with a single former coworker, and when I think about it I have nothing but warmth in my heart. In my memories, it’s always golden hour and the strip mall studio is glowing in the desert sun. The call lists and fresh and the appointment books are full. The boss is beatific and bestowing us with dollar store goodies for a job well done. The radio is on, alternating between country and r&b. The girls are taking a break from dialing or covering their mouthpieces while the phone rings and telling jokes. We are all busting up.

Those girls, and the boss too, did a lot for me. The girls treated me like part of the team even though I had nothing in common with the peppy former cheerleader or the farm girl from the rural northeastern part of the state or the older girl from downtown Mesa who lived with her grandparents and loved The Temptations or the ex-meth addict who paid her utilities one week and lived next to a guy who gave people tattoos on his porch. The girls made me laugh all day at a time when the rest of my life felt bleak. The girls taught me that the cheapest place to get lunch was the cafe at the Target across the street. The girls told me not to trust the guy I’d met on a dating site for Mormon singles who would end up selling me drugs and ripping me off. The girls helped me call the police when I thought I wasn’t sure if I’d been assaulted by a different guy. The boss let the police come to the studio, let me make the report in her private office. The girls covered for me when I wanted to sneak out for the day and interview for what I thought would be a better job and comforted me when I came crawling back a few hours later, having realized that the better job involved selling knives door-to-door and required an upfront investment of $400.

My job at the portrait studio suuuuuuucked but it was 100x better than calling voters in Texas on behalf of the Democratic party, which is what I did yesterday afternoon. The answering machines and hangups that made up the majority of my calls were a relief. Every interaction with a person on the other end of the phone was painful. There was the woman who got pissed when she heard the word “Democrat” and refused to give any indication who she was voting for except that it wasn’t Biden. There was the troll who said he wanted to talk and then kept me on the phone while he pretended to take a piss and sighed and groaned into the phone. There was the Biden voter who said he’d only vote if we took him off our list, NOW. There was the woman trying to do e-learning with her child and the man at work who asked me to call back after five and I said I would knowing I had no control over when the software would dial their numbers again. There was the military guy who wasn’t planning to vote because he couldn’t figure out how to get a mail in ballot and I couldn’t help him because the script didn’t allow it. There were the names I butchered and the languages I couldn’t speak and the calls I didn’t know how to code. Turning out the vote sounds like fun when it’s a rock concert. Turning out the vote sounds easy when it’s on Facebook. Turning out the vote sounds self-important when it’s pestering your family. When it involves talking to real voters you don’t know, turning out the vote turns into a job.

It didn’t matter how badly a day at the portrait studio went, at the end of every two weeks I took home a paycheck. I’m not sure if I did anything worthwhile yesterday except save the campaign from wasting a few seconds on hostile voters and reassigned numbers. I didn’t even come out of it with a good feeling.

I’m going to do it again today.

Do you want to know why?

It’s sure as hell not love of the Democratic party. I support Democratic policies, but I can’t say that the party as an institution has done more for more than the girls at the portrait studio did.

I’m supporting Dems because the other side put a man on the Supreme Court who did the same thing to Dr. Blasey Ford that I reported to the police in the back office of the portrait studio.

I’m supporting Dems because the other side wants to shut down planned parenthood, which is where I went that summer when I was afraid I had been exposed to HIV.

I’m supporting Biden because the other guy paid less in federal taxes in two years in which he was running for and serving as president of the United States of America than I did in two years of working minimum wage job.

Calling people at home is rude as hell but not as rude as Trump was during last night’s debate.

Calling people at home is embarrassing but not as embarrassing as having Trump at the helm of our country.

Calling people at home sucks for everybody involved but I’m going to do it anyway because, unlike our president, I actually give a shit about Americans and want us all to have good lives.

Calling people at home might not make a difference but I want to live in a world where at least I can try.

Voters might not want to hear from the Democratic Party but at least I’m not offering them a free sitting for a $50 8×10.