The violence happened elsewhere. Forces of nature and laws of physics had converged to fling the one-ton gray Lexus so hard against a tree or a pole that the car was pinched from the passenger side with the ease of origami paper. I came across the wreckage on Wednesday evening, the first full week of the coronavirus quarantine. It was jarring to see this mangled vehicle sitting abandoned, out of context, in the deserted parking lot of Foster Avenue beach. No glass littered the concrete.
The roof of the car was gone, sawed off. The hood was mostly ripped up off the engine, its remnants crinkled up on the passenger side. The driver’s-side wheel was mostly off its axle. Both doors on the driver’s side were ajar; the others were smashed into the interior by the impact. The trunk was still mostly closed; nothing was visible inside through the cracks. The interior of the ES 300 was high-end black leather—in remarkably good shape despite the fact that this car, as I later learned, was a 1995. A purple McDonald’s sauce packet was nestled in the back of the driver’s seat. The airbags hung drably from the steering wheel and what remained of the passenger door. There was no blood. Was it possible that someone survived this accident? Was it even an accident? Why was this car sitting in this parking lot?
Something felt off. Like suddenly one of the curtains that hangs on the side of the stage to hide the actors preparing to enter and the tables with props and the ropes and ladders and exposed brick walls from the audience’s view had fallen. It felt like the proverbial glitch in the matrix not only to see the car but to be able to approach so closely, examine every angle, even touch it. A couple of beat cops were parked in a cruiser nearby, filling out reports. They said they didn’t know anything about the car.
When the state functions in a normal way, we’re not supposed to see such things. Systems and protocols are in place to make sure that when a car accident happens its signs are cleared quickly and efficiently, so that traffic and life can continue to flow uninterrupted. We may see a broken tree, a smashed guardrail, a collapsed light pole, but those are only footprints of the violence. We’re used to rubbernecking at wrecked cars as we drive, but they’re typically protected from close view by yellow tape, by a bustle of first responders and their vehicles, by the flow of our own journeys. As the rhythms of our lives and of the state are disrupted by a pandemic, was the wrecked Lexus a sign of the authorities’ inability to continue putting on their regular show? Or had I wandered backstage inadvertently to see what I would frequently see if only I took walks every afternoon of my life?
Plenty of people in Chicago already know what it’s like to receive a second-rate performance in a rickety theater from their government. There are neighborhoods where not only wrecked cars but human bodies are left lying in the streets for far too many hours. Maybe now every part of town will get a taste of what it might be like when the state has other priorities than making us feel comfortable. When crises happen the garbage might not get picked up, the mail might never arrive, the car wreck might not be cleared. Might the coronavirus give all Americans a chance to experience how people live in much of the rest of the world?
I found a record of the accident on the city’s traffic crash data portal. It occurred at 12:24 AM on March 18. The driver was alone. The wreckage was towed to the Foster Beach parking lot by the Department of Streets and Sanitation. I called the Chicago Police Department, whose media affairs staff is still required to come to the office, and gave the plate number to a friendly public information officer. She told me that the driver, a man, was inside the car when a patrol officer came across the scene of the crash on the 5200 block of Lake Shore Drive. The officer called EMS and spoke to a witness, who told him that the Lexus “passed them at a high rate of speed while traveling south. Vehicle ran off the road, rolled multiple times, and struck a tree before coming to a rest.” When the fire department arrived, they cut the driver out of the car and transported him to Illinois Masonic Medical Center. The driver was conscious and told the officer that he was involved in an accident. CPD couldn’t share the driver’s name. I called the hospital to see if they’d tell me if he made it out alive. They wouldn’t, since I didn’t have a name. Then I called the Cook County Medical Examiner, where the spokeswoman was relieved to field a question that had nothing to do with COVID-19. They had no records of deaths stemming from incidents on Lake Shore Drive since the 18th. The guy must have made it.
Still, I wondered about the car. Why did I see it there, some 18 hours after the crash? I called Streets and San, where an operator said, “No one is here to talk to you guys,” then hung up. I eventually reached spokeswoman Cristina Villarreal by e-mail and phone. Turns out normal city protocol is that, postaccident, a vehicle will be left in a public spot like the beach parking lot for five days. If the owner doesn’t pick it up in that time, the city stickers the car with a seven-day notice, and if the car still isn’t picked up, Streets and San then tows it to a city lot. “That’s in normal times,” she clarified. Since Mayor Lori Lightfoot suspended all towing last week, the car would just stay where I saw it. If it was gone, the owner must have had it towed. Unless of course there are still scavenger towers out there, collecting abandoned cars for scrap or to attempt to shake down insurance companies.
So maybe no curtain had fallen. Maybe everything had proceeded as normal after the driver of the Lexus flipped his car off the road. Still, less than a week into a pandemic-spurred lockdown, one wonders what the state will and won’t be able to do for us as more people need emergency care, lose their minds over social isolation or watching loved ones die, drink and drive out of boredom or desperation. It seems naive to expect all the curtains to stay put around the stage.
A few days later I walked back to the spot where the mangled car had been resting. It was gone. All that remained of the disturbance were a few patches of turf imprinted by tire treads and a rainbow rivulet of oil and chemicals flowing endlessly toward somewhere lower.
I almost, but don’t quite, miss the Bucket Boys. I am a reluctant resident of downtown, and almost overnight, all of the things I gripe most about living here are gone: the ricocheting bang-clickety-bang-bang of the buckets, the amplifier of the singer my partner and I call “Sam Smith guy,” the beep-beep-beep of heavy construction equipment, the chatty din of crowds of tourists. Every retail business within blocks is closed, nearly every office tower is empty, and State Street, that Great Street, is eerily quiet. It should be peaceful, but it feels like the beginning of a horror movie. I hate horror movies. And not just because the Black lady always dies first.
In Coronavirus: The Movie scene two, our heroine wakes up to a city rendered invisible by fog. This morning from my high-rise perch, the fog was all I could see. No buildings in front of me, no street below, nothing but gray mist that felt strangely sinister, like the whole city was being slowly suffocated. I hate this movie, but I can’t change the channel.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago and in the south suburbs, and I intentionally claim them both, largely so I don’t have to backtrack when I’m asked, “What high school did you go to?” I can reply “Homewood-Flossmoor” without feeling like a poser. I have distinct memories of loving downtown when I was a kid. On nights when my mom worked late at Wabash and Monroe and my dad drove to pick her up, I always volunteered to ride with him so I could gaze up at the sky-high buildings in awe. Downtown Chicago will always be beautiful to me. But without its people, it’s become the most staid wing of a museum—sterile, silent, and flat. My Chicago, your Chicago, isn’t a museum. It’s a party. A never-ending block party full of friends, relatives, tourists, that guy who brought cheap beer but is making himself fancy-ass cocktails with other people’s liquor, your uncle who’s barbecuing even though it’s 30 degrees outside, your girl who arrived already a little bit tipsy, proclaiming “Comin’ in hot!”
In Coronavirus: The Movie, someone has called the po-po on this block party and sent everyone packing. You ain’t gotta go home, but you gotta get the hell outta here. No, scratch that, just go home. And stay there.
I often railed against you, downtown, but I’ll never take your vibrancy for granted ever again. When all of this is over, I may even start tipping the Bucket Boys.
I can’t help but think of that Sondheim line, “Everything’s different, nothing’s changed.” When I go for long walks in the evening, I see people carrying groceries and walking their dogs the way they always have—the neighborhood feels completely undisturbed. But then there are the headlines that tumble around in my head like pennies in a dryer as I walk: “First Coronavirus Death Reported, Governor Announces”; “Markets Plunge as Global Recession Appears Almost Inevitable.”
I moved to Chicago in September to hunt for jobs while finishing my last college classes. Among my friends, mostly recent college graduates, the lines drawn by this situation are particularly clear. For those who have jobs in industries not impacted by the virus, who can work from home, the biggest complaints are stir-craziness and concerns for family members; for those in the service industry or with gigs related to live performance, hard-won jobs have evaporated overnight, leaving finances severely strained.
If there’s any silver lining in this crisis, for me, it’s that the complete uncertainty of anything beyond the present moment has allowed me to focus more on being creative in my approach to designing this paper. I’ve found myself sketching out ideas in my notebook at night, when it’s too late to go out walking and I’ve already rewatched my fill of Breaking Bad. Being in quarantine has crystallized how lucky I am, not only to have a job with security and paid sick leave—the things that every person could and should have in a just society—but also to get to do something I enjoy and find meaning in.
We’ve been told to refrain from a lot of normal activities in an attempt to stem the rise of COVID-19 infections, and yet the guidelines are slippery enough that I cannot figure out how to go about moving into a new apartment next month. I haven’t moved since 2013, when I stumbled upon a cozy two-bedroom Logan Square apartment that’s long felt like my secret world. I’ve got friends who live in the building and on adjacent streets, and it’s close to the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares but far enough away that I feel comfortably secluded. As much as I love exploring Chicago and visiting other neighborhoods—and love that the Reader encourages me to get to know this city better—I have definitely spent several days in a row barely venturing outside of a three-mile area around my home. Even when I go on routine runs for exercise, I can comfortably circle a nearby park for a breezy five-kilometer outing.
My day-to-day hasn’t been disrupted much by the virus. I’ve long been accustomed to working from home, and too frequently have to rely on conducting interviews by phone to keep up with fast-moving deadlines. I’ve recently had so much trouble keeping up with my workflow that I’d been spending nights when I’d hoped to see shows sitting in front of my computer transcribing interviews. In this regard, social distancing feels like an extension of an intense period of work I thought I’d just managed to shake off. I miss spending time with my friends and going out to see musicians whose songs have carried me through long, uncertain days, but it’s heartwarming to witness the various communities I participate in find ways to mitigate our economic and social pains. If only our federal government could be as empathetic.
In the middle of all this, I’m having a difficult time putting my arms around the thought of uprooting my habitat and moving to a new apartment. I’m excited by what lies ahead. A bigger apartment in a two-flat occupied by the landlords, a genuinely considerate couple who’ve done a lot to make me and my girlfriend feel cared for and welcomed. I’m not excited about the prospect of moving. Part of the reason I’ve lived in the same apartment for so long is I thoroughly dislike the prospect of transferring my life from one place to another; I spent nearly seven years trying to put all my records and archives in their right place, all to box it up and figure it out in a new place. And that’s not factoring in the extensive cleaning regimen we’ve all undertaken after every trip outdoors, or how the “shelter in place” order may affect my ability to load a friend’s car with boxes of books and records to bring them to my new home.
The concept of moving on its own spikes my anxiety levels, but doing so in the middle of a pandemic feels so unreal I don’t know how to react. It doesn’t quite feel like it’s happening to me, though I realize that will change the more I box my books and LPs up in the dwindling number of containers we have at our disposal. Work increasingly feels like a welcome distraction. Except transcribing; that’s still a drag.
On the second Thursday of self-isolation, I used bleach to get red wine off my white living room wall. It was strange for many reasons, one of them being that the wine in question had been drunk on Tuesday. I’d spent the next day in my room, working and watching and living from bed, ignoring the rest of the world (my living room included). This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve self-isolated before. Almost exactly five years ago last week, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and spent the next six months in chemotherapy and mostly in bed, working from home (because I could never not work), swiping on Tinder with no expectations, watching every season of Law & Order: SVU, and physically interacting with no one. Back then I felt like I was missing out on the entire world happening around me.
I felt miserable; my 24-year-old body was literally failing me. My friends were out partying without me and, more important, creating without me. I was too exhausted to go to shows, to make art, to dance, to walk to the kitchen to make myself a cocktail, let alone drink it. My friends were wonderful, and they checked up on me, but they had their own lives to live, other walkers of the world to interact with. When the isolation hit this time, I had a moment of PTSD: a trigger went off that made me think it would be that way again, that I would be left in the dust. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’ve talked to more friends. Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to see them perform their jokes and music and art more than ever before. I’ve kept in touch with my parents. I put on a full face of makeup and a skirt with pockets just for me. I cooked a meal. If you know me well, you realize that this is a huge accomplishment. This isolation is much different than before. And even though it seems scary and hopeless at times, at least I can have a glass of red wine whenever I want.
I remember not having a good time. Something happened that turned my mood sour, and I abruptly decided that it was time to leave the party. Before I walked out the door, I saw my friends playing beer pong, holding cups, and sitting on couches socializing. I glanced around the room and my gaze landed on my best friend Lee. He was laughing. I felt bad not saying bye to him, but screw it, I thought, I would see him soon anyways. We had just made plans to go out next weekend. That was the last time I would see him alive. A few days later I learned that Lee was in the hospital. He had an anoxic brain injury and was on life support. I was asked if I wanted to say goodbye before they pulled the plug.
As the coronavirus has rapidly spread in the United States, the number of those infected is rising, and so will the death rates. I can’t help but wonder how many people will unknowingly have a moment like I did. A last moment with someone they really loved who might unexpectedly be the next victim of COVID-19.
Right now many of us are scared. We FaceTime our friends, we answer all of our mothers’ calls. We have decided a mass quarantine was the best decision for the general safety of the public. Social distancing, a phrase that many didn’t know, is now on repeat. We are alone at home with our partners, parents, and roommates, or maybe riding it out solo in a studio apartment. As we hunker down, I can’t help but think of the most heart-wrenching lesson of my life and wonder how many people around the world will be learning it soon. I hope that after the coronavirus has passed, we as a society are humbled enough to realize how easily life can change. That every time we say “See you later” we in fact see them later, and that every goodbye is said meaningfully, almost as if we were to never see them again.
S. Nicole Lane
My life before the Reader was like this, minus the constant handwashing, food hoarding (which I don’t condone!), lack of hugging, and increase in phone calls. Being a freelance journalist taught me how to get shit done from my couch. My biggest adjustment over the past year and a half has been commuting to an office and wearing jeans for eight hours. But now, as we hurtle into the second week of self-isolation, I have to admit that I’m drained. Working in media means being bombarded with the news of businesses shutting down, friends being laid off, art shows being canceled, and the health crisis escalating, which has now locked us into our shelters.
I’m anything but bored in isolation. I’m overworking myself, but hey, I’m a Virgo. It’s in the damn stars. I’m putting in overtime because, like when I freelanced, I’m not clocking out. The first few days, I went for several walks around McKinley Park (the New York Times says it’s fine). But now I’m a bit stifled by fear, paranoia, and stress. I stopped walking and started to hit my yoga mat. I’m trying to shake a five-day headache. And yesterday, after some panic, I stocked up on goulash and curry, remained hydrated, sanitized obsessively, and participated in sun salutations every few hours. That’s really all I can keep doing. I’m taking my social distancing seriously. I’m refraining from social gatherings and I’m learning how to live next to my partner.
Isolation has nursed my depression, cuddled up right next to it, for God’s sake, and demanded more attention. But isolation has also taught me that even while inside, Chicago is loud as hell. Local artists, musicians, yoga instructors, DJs, and small business owners are coming out for one another while staying in. From confined spaces, we connect through social media, Instagram Live, FaceTime, Zoom, and whatever the hell else to lean on one another. This is the time to really relish what Chicago is doing. I look out of my window and see no one, but I know that behind all those doors Chicago’s artists are mixing up something good.
Years ago, when I realized there wasn’t going to be enough time for everything, I pretty much gave up television. News, yes. Anything else, no. Never saw Sex and the City, or Mad Men, or Game of Thrones, let alone The Apprentice. I’m telling you this because of the many changes the pandemic has brought to my daily life—the insecurity, the isolation, the cooking—the biggest one so far is this: I can’t take my eyes off the jaw-dropping events unfolding on television. I am glued to it, day and night.
It could be worse, of course. The coronavirus, floating around in snot and sputum and looking like a cannonball from outer space—all evil wrinkly gray matter and crimson polyps—could land on me or someone I love. It could make us very sick. And then, without enough hospital beds and ventilators to go around, and no treatment for it anyway, it could kill us.
That’s the reality that has us holed up in our bunkers, keeping an anxious eye on the tube. I’ve watched Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot as they progressively put the city to sleep: restaurants and theaters shuttered; schools closed; crowds limited to 250, then 50, then ten; a plea to stay home, followed by a mandate to do so. On CNN and MSNBC, American doctors are pleading for face masks; folks running fevers say they can’t get tested; and convoys of trucks are carrying coffins to crematoriums in Italy. And on CNBC, where the increasingly desperate interventions of the Federal Reserve were described this morning as “whack-a-mole,” you can watch the financial markets react in real time to the latest news. Whooosh—the entire $11 trillion Trump bump, vanishing into the ether from which it came.
Trump’s press briefings, running to 90 painful minutes of self-congratulation, look like a misfiring satire with a now-familiar cast: the puffy orange pooh-bah; his bloodless zombie vice president; and (usually) the nation’s infectious disease guru, Dr. Anthony Fauci—a gravel-voiced dead ringer for Alfred E. Neuman and the only trustworthy person on the podium. What is Fauci thinking as he stands there—eyes down, arms crossed—while Trump pronounces himself a “wartime president,” rates himself a “ten,” and refuses to implement the Defense Production Act, allowing demand to drive up the price of the personal protection equipment vital to health-care workers on the front lines? On Sunday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said face masks that used to cost 85 cents each are now going for $7, and “we’re competing with other states, and, in some instances, other countries” to get them.
Someday the whole story of why we’re months behind on the coronavirus curve that Trump now wants to bend will come out. Meanwhile, history’s unfolding on television. It’s a train wreck, and I can’t stop watching.
My drive to work is not long, though not-so-cautious drivers tend to get expletives from me on occasion. As any Chicagoan can tell you, driving down Lake Shore is one of the most beautiful ways to experience Lake Michigan. Whether it’s frozen or roaring like the nation’s third ocean, the lake is enough to uplift the most terrible of moods. Yeah, it may not span to the other end of the earth, but it grounds me. Life obstacles are really real, but the world is much bigger than myself and my problems.
These days, Lake Michigan has been absent from my life. Even before the governor’s stay-at-home order, I didn’t feel comfortable leaving the house, despite officials saying it was OK to get fresh air by going on a walk. Having to leave the house to submit my primary ballot and grab some food put me in a panic. As soon as I have to enter a public space, I sweat uncontrollably because I know I’m at risk. (I also know being hungry is not fun.)
Luckily for me, before the shutdown, I got a cat. I’ve said I’d get one for years. I’ve honestly been scared since my first cat, Butterscotch, ran away when I was in grammar school. But after cat-sitting and a free pet-adoption event at Chicago Animal Care and Control, I had an epiphany: Why not?
My furry friend is Juniper. She’s the feistiest feline I know. We play when she wants to play, which is typically at 6 AM. She will absolutely bite you if you try to touch her while she’s cleaning her coat. Doors mean nothing to her. A case of the zoomies is all she needs to burst into my room. Naps are life. One thing I did not expect was to be licked almost constantly. When I first met her, I fell in love because she purred and licked my hand after she smelled it. I didn’t realize I wasn’t special: it’s how she greets everyone and how she lets me know it’s time to relax.
Spending time with Juniper, playing with her, pleading for her to stop licking me, and cleaning out her litter are keeping me focused. I have a little being to take care of, and oddly enough she’s reminding me that the world is bigger than me. She’s reminding me that taking care of each other, in the ways we can, can be the healthiest practice of all at this time. (Minus social distancing. Please social distance.)
There was a bouncer in the toilet paper aisle at the drugstore by my house. She was a regular employee of the store, who I recognized from my twice-weekly trips there in “regular times.” But this weekend her managers seemed to have instructed her to stand nearby and block people from getting into the aisle while her coworker frantically tried to unload a case of paper goods. This stuck out as odd because at the time I was one of three customers shopping, but I kept a few feet of distance and asked her to throw me a four-pack of two-ply. She rolled her eyes and did so.
My dog is loving life in a lot of ways because I’m working from home, but he doesn’t understand that I can’t work from the couch where he can sit beside me and bury himself in blankets. I still go outside for dog-walking time, but it’s rare for me to see other walkers—this is a car-centric neighborhood, after all—but when I do, we wave and say hello as usual. A lot of my daily interactions haven’t really changed so far. “I’m going to the store, d’ya need anything?” is a pretty common phrase between me and my neighbors anyway, but I suppose it comes with a little bit more weight during a shelter-in-place order.
I thought that I was pretty good about keeping in touch with people, but it feels like I’ve heard from a ton of friends in the past few days: phone calls about the executive order, text threads with photos of our yards, a Google Hangout with my volunteer group, and a Zoom with my support group. It’s fun to see and hear people while they’re navigating technology, and catch them checking themselves out on the video feed. I find it comforting to think about people still worried about their hair or whether or not the angle of their laptop frames their face in the right way. In the face of pandemic, why not ask, “Do you think I should get bangs?”
I have called Chicago home for exactly 143 days.
The stars seemed to align to get me here too. In the span of a few weeks, I was reunited with my long-distance girlfriend, we both started steady salaried jobs, and we signed a lease on our first apartment. If you do the math, you’ll realize that 143 days ago was the beginning of Chicago winter—a dark and dreadful time about which I was intensely forewarned—but despite the cold, my first few months here could not have been better.
Thanks to the Reader, I was immediately plugged into some of the city’s finest food, communities, arts, and culture. Even better than free tickets to theater and VIP concert access, however, were the simple pleasures that Chicago allowed me to fall in love with: riding the train through downtown, cooking late dinners with my favorite person, discovering local hidden gems, the list goes on and on. Life felt too perfect to be real. Of course, complete happiness has a unique sort of fragility to it—like anything, at any moment, could shatter it all right before your eyes.
Still, I never would have guessed it would be a global pandemic that would do so.
Though I’m healthy and working from home with so many comforts, there’s a sort of spooky and indescribable way that things feel different. A lack of commute means that I get extra sleep, but it’s not always restful. I celebrated my girlfriend’s birthday by (guiltily) taking her to a nearly empty restaurant. A scary Twitter thread made us cry, for God’s sake. For every TV binge, every laugh, every familiar cup of coffee, there are a dozen reminders that the future is uncertain.
I can only hope that in the coming weeks and months, Chicago stays strong enough to outshine the darkness still on its way. There is such a wealth of talent and information here, and I’m lucky enough to be with the Reader, which feels very much like an epicenter of that. I want to maintain hope in everything, in Chicago and Chicagoans, in media and creativity. I just have to believe we’ll all come out stronger on the other side. One hundred and forty-three days in this city is certainly not enough. v