by Barrie Jean Borich, editor of Slag Glass City
Some people still leave their apartments. Sometimes we still see them when we look out the window, though not nearly as many as we used to see. The public spaces of the city are not so public anymore.
I live on a typically busy city street, equidistant from Lake Shore Drive, the quasi-freeway that runs along the Chicago Lakefront and the L tracks. I can still see the train out my windows to the west, pulling up to the elevated station platform, one of the last wooden platforms in the city and scheduled to be torn down and replaced soon. Is it my imagination that now, empty of passengers, the long steel train cars sway into the station stop? And what of all the plans for new tracks, elevators, all the shiny amenities in the city planning drawings displayed just a few months back at the meeting in the auditorium of our neighborhood’s limestone Catholic church? It’s gonna be brutal, the alderman said then, but he was referring to the years of coming construction work. Nobody expected the brutality of absence.
Construction schedules upended. Conferences canceled. Research trips scrapped. Forget about that show in New York. Guess at whether schools will reopen in September. Who knows when my Mom, alone in a Florida beach city, will be able to finish her cataracts surgery. My brothers and I don’t even know when we’ll be able to leave our cities to visit her again. The first thing we’ve learned living in these pandemic times is that expectations are the first stage of heartbreak, planning is as ethereal as theory, and schedules are fantasy fiction. As for the cars spilling off Lake Shore Drive, we still see them, but now only one-or-two at a time, even during rush hour.
One of the reasons my spouse Linnea and I bought this apartment in a cut-up historic building was the view from the east side windows, a turret space, the orangery it’s called in the original building floor plans. In pre-pandemic times, these big windows looked out on pedestrians with-or-without dogs, runners, bicycles, motorcycles, and the usually endless river of cars. We were lonely in our previous apartment, in a neighborhood with high rents and small spaces where hardly anybody stayed. We moved to this corner of condos and co-ops three years ago, to invite more people into our lives, daily, committed neighborhood people, the nodding encounters—not intimate, but constant—that come of urban long-time-resident density.
Those daily people are the same people I have come to fear. Contained in the high-rise apartments, the work-at-homers sometimes still come out, and when they do, some of them wear masks, sometimes even the high-end kind that only the nurses and doctors are supposed to possess. I wonder where they got them. Do dealers sell personal protective equipment, now that marijuana is legal in Illinois? I used to spend so much time considering which boots were good for running to the train, which dresses could best withstand the updrafts from the lake. Now I wonder at the sudden breadth of my face mask collection, the pretty ones from the designer who makes my friend’s dresses, the too-thin ones from the motorcyclist bandana store, the too-small ones that took three weeks to arrive from Etsy, the shiny ones from the neighborhood cleaners —my current favorite— all of them better or worse than the others for different reasons, none of them what I ever imagined myself wearing when dressed for the city.
Now I wear a mask when I walk my two standard poodles—one medium-sized, one extra-large, the three of us together wide enough to fill a sidewalk. We are learning to walk along edges, single file. My instinct when I pass people—every block or so, the relative busyness depending on the time of day—is to look down, avoid eye contact. This might be because the mask so often fogs my eyeglasses, but more likely I can’t bear our muted faces, impossible as it has become to know who is or is not smiling. On good days I imagine I am wearing a fabulous hoop skirt with a six-foot span that my neighbors can’t encroach. On bad days I wish for a sign that says Six Feet Please, or Stay Away. Most days I just try to keep my distance when I see someone coming toward me, the poodles and me stepping over stones and mud to the thin line of pavement between the grassy strip and the curb. Now and then I play chicken with approaching people who signal they have no intention of stepping aside, but it’s usually still me who veers off first. Mostly I am conflict-avoidant. Mostly I am alarmed at how instinctual it feels to so brutally pull away.
Usually urban crowds are socially close but impersonal. All of us who live in crowded cities have learned to muffle ourselves within protective bubbles. Even when we do jostle against one another, in a crosswalk or on a train, we manage to retain our sense of wholeness, believe ourselves unviolated. But now every encounter feels like a trespass, even though we can’t see if the virus is, or is not, spreading between us, even when all that’s been broached is the recommended six feet. Come within three feet and I feel like you’ve shoved me. Come at me running, unmasked and sweaty, especially from behind, and I feel like you’re picking my pocket. The virus is invisible, so who’s to say where the line is between paranoia and self-protection.
Do we feel bombarded because the bubble has vanished or is it just that our bubbles are so large now we can’t see where we begin and end?
I am worried about the city, the shuttered shops and restaurants, the missed paychecks and benefit phone line busy signals, the aimless bands of bored teenagers who aren’t supposed to be outside and the stress-worn nurses and grocery store clerks who have to be out to get to work, the crowded group home courtyards and coughing panhandlers, the solo riders on the socially separated bus seats, the eyes that meet and turn away, the invisible contagion and the mounting inner and outer desperations. Are you OK? Am I OK? What can’t we get to? How do we move without the urban corpuscular to help carry us through? What do we need from each other that can’t span social distance? How long can we live without touching one another? Will we lose the ability to want each other? What city can survive without its daily ballet?
I am also worried about myself—less my immune system than my psyche. Social distance in the city means that now, as much as I miss all the people, my gut twists whenever anyone comes within a couple of feet. I fear I will now always be a socially unwelcoming person. I fear I have always been this person, only now acting on my latent misanthropy, all the previously conquered anxieties back now, hardening to leather.
I fear we are all these people now, a species apart, brittle and uniformly reticent. How will we ever push back into the trains, cross streets shoulder-to-shoulder, brush knees in the seats of the outdoor auditoriums, squeeze into restaurant waiting spaces, wait in line outside of a downtown theater, line-up along the curb to watch a parade? Can we forgive each other for this brutal abandonment? Can we love each other through the mess as the city lurches back to life? For now, I feel myself contracting even before I go out the front door, even as I flash back to twelve weeks ago, shoulder-to-shoulder on the L train seats, unafraid of my fellow travelers, loving my seat in the moving machine, elbowing the person next to me as I reach into my dress pocket for my phone, never meeting eyes, none of us speaking, all of us touching and jostling as the train pulls north, what together-alone in the city used to mean.
Barrie Jean Borich is an associate professor in the DePaul Department of English and MFA/MA in Writing and Publishing Program, as well as the editor of Slag Glass City.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 6 · May 2020
Header image by Raed Mansour