Grad Student Housing + Pandemic Lifestyle

There have been a lot of low-flying airplanes overhead around here in grad student housing which is really not at all unusual. Living in San Diego is pretty sci-fi, especially in this “neighborhood,” adjacent as we are to the hospital and various very tall buildings in suburban labyrinths with reflective fly-eye glass. But I’ve been interpreting every military plane or every ambulance siren I hear in relation to the virus. There are all of the usual emergencies from beforehand, and while the virus doesn’t change everything it does change the way I see what used to seem ordinary, which now seems remarkable in its continuity. Or the ways that it’s the same, but different. The HDH maintenance carts still rip through the maze-sidewalks, but now the workers wear masks. A man in scrubs biking towards the hospital at 6:30am. A flank of morning power-walkers peppily propelling themselves forward, squeezing other pedestrians to the sidelines, dangerously close to them. Chatting with the cashier at the grocery store, her face hidden behind a mask which slipped down her nose. The person bagging said she almost took the class I’m TA’ing for. “I would’ve been your TA!” I said. We drove back home in Ethan’s van, with the grocery bags sliding around in the back. There was the usual assortment of wrappers at the passenger-side footwell. Stroopwaffles and Honey-Stingers, mostly. And last night a child played pretend with their mother at the edge of the brand-new student housing complex, the one being repurposed to house students sick with COVID-19. “How much strawberry ice cream?” Pantomiming work at an ice cream parlor, hovering hands in the shape of invisible creams.

Ethan has been baking cakes: lightening cake, apple cake, lemon cake. He eats all the cake and the cake make him fart. He farts while we walk across the rainbow bridge and through Mesa Nueva, where electric signs display strangely buoyant PSA’s: “Difficult Journeys Lead to Beautiful Destinations” or hipster clip art about sneezing into your sleeve. There is caution tape stretched around gathering places, like around the ping-pong table and the playgrounds. But people still gather around picnic tables, or cluster in the grass. One evening there were people working out at the very edge of the caution tape stretched around the Mesa Nueva gym: a couple, doing core exercises where they held each others’ feet on that 2-foot perimeter. It seemed comical. On the walks things seem mostly normal. Yesterday when we walked across the rainbow bridge Ethan and I joked about ways he could continue working for REI, but remotely, taking customer service calls from his bedroom with his very fancy microphones, or posting promotional videos about REI products to YouTube. He has to attend a 1pm conference call today to find out the future of his employment there, after a month of receiving emergency pay. He expects to learn he’s being officially furloughed.

The economy is ridiculous though. It’s ridiculous all the things people do for money. It’s not exactly that the economy seems fragile per se to me, but that it is misguided. Real-life emergencies turn its misguidedness into its own emergency. So maybe that means the economy is fragile? Two winters ago, before I found out that I’d gotten into grad school, I got laid off from my job and spent a few weeks furiously applying to jobs and then trying to do everything else less furiously. I felt like a freight train I was reigning in, not because of unemployment per se but because of being constantly restless in general. But there was nothing I could do to make things go faster. The collapse of structure in my daily life tightened the pre-existing tautness but instead of heeding it I rented videos from Rainy Day records and watched them while I sewed a pastel button-up shirt in my tiny white apartment that looked over downtown Olympia. I wanted life to feel pastel. I watched the Tanya Harding movie and the documentary about Hedy Lamarr. So I know my own version of the panic feeling about not being able to make money, how it skews everything you see and collapses one’s patience for the efforts you can or should undertake to improve your situation. It’s hard when the only thing you can do is wait. But I do not know that feeling when so many other people are experiencing it too, so I imagine the impatience is exponential. Or maybe there is a comfort in the togetherness?

Last night I listened to the George Saunders interview with Cheryl Strayed, the one that’s making the rounds. I found it comforting and felt there was truth in this idea that we don’t even really know what this whole thing is yet, and we probably won’t know til later. How trying it is (especially on writers) to cede to that not-knowingness. There are the unknowns of what is happening in places I don’t have any access to: how bad is it inside of prisons, inside of hospitals, or to be homeless right now? What is that experience like? And then even to understand those places which I’m continuing to inhabit, though they are cinched by a partial tourniquet. What the loss of blood flow shows. That’s what people are saying, Rebecca Solnit too, about how crises are opportunities for seeing what’s already been happening. What Eirik was talking about in the Crisis Times about the molecular structure of the corona, the microscope, the eclipse: things that only become visible under specific circumstances. And I think it will take a long time to absorb and understand that, and there will be a question about how—even without understanding it all—something might change, or we might hold ourselves open to its possibility even under the duress of urgency.