Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Oakland, California; Spring 2020: Chalking It Up
When COVID-19 hit Oakland, California, the first thing to go was toilet paper. Videos of shoppers fighting over the last rolls went viral. By the time I got to the store, nothing was left but napkins.
On my first pandemic grocery store visit, I walked around an entire block just to get in line to enter. 6 feet markers were spray-painted onto the pavement to assist shoppers in social distancing. For two hours, dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of impatient strangers stood in line, shifting back and forth and trying not to step in the accumulating gum on the sidewalk. We stooped over our phones. Headphones in. Shuffling up 6 feet at a time.
Once we entered the store, it was a silent war. Over our masks, we glared at one another and speed-walked our shopping carts to the hand sanitizer aisle. The floor had grey streaks from people dragging their carts in the race to canned goods. Anyone comparing products in an aisle was impeding someone exiting the store as fast as possible. And then, in the unusually long check-out line, I realized the store was absolutely silent. No whining children, no negotiating couples, no friends planning parties. Because everyone in the store came alone.
Returning home, I washed the groceries. Supposedly it doesn’t do much for sanitation, but it goes a long way for sanity and the illusion of control. Then back to my “9-5”. I had stomached my shame and moved back to my parents’ house in Oakland to continue searching for a job. My “9-5” was scrolling through online postings. I covered my whiteboard with dreams and brainstorms. I would have my own apartment with a garden in the back. Somewhere pretty, not cemented over and gentrified like Oakland. On weekends, I’d paddle nearby rivers. Mornings would begin with a run through a beautiful network of trails. My partner would come with me to weekly environmental justice activism meetings. Our community would know they had to actively participate in making change, and would mobilize. These jobs would be far away, in places with natural spaces and communities that cared.
Then there were the bad days. I would get a disheartening call from a friend, or slip up and go on Facebook. One friend just rented a house with her partner. Another friend just became a model. Someone else got published. How were they already so successful even though we are the same age? On those days, I counted the rejections I’d received. I reread the emails from organizations that had asked me to interview, only to shut down or cancel their job opening. I deleted all notifications saying there would be a delay because my application was one of thousands. There was no time for rest – I was competing with thousands! On those days, I had to justify my breaks with productivity. I’d head to the grocery store or pull out a recipe book. Let my hands feel good at something while my mind was despairing.
At the grocery store, the toilet paper is back on the shelves. A paper sign informs shoppers the store is enforcing a limit on how many rolls one person can buy. Everyone wants to be prepared for the apocalypse, but now we’re forced to let our neighbors survive too.
At home, I ask my sisters, finishing their university classes online, to help me wash the groceries. We argue over whether someone is legitimately too busy to help, before all pitching in. Then I check my email and fabricate the times I am “available” for an interview. Actually, I am all too eager to move my 10:00 breakfast or afternoon bike ride to any time of any day to start making progress. What does progress even mean in a time like this?
I daydream images of myself meditating, decide to sign up for some online classes, and somehow end up drowning in the most recent news updates and Coronavirus counts. I imagine being propped up on a hospital bed and breathing through a tube while sitting with the question everyone has when they are sick: am I going to be ok?
My siblings complain about their professors. I complain about how there are no jobs in my field. But this feels futile when I think about friends and family dying. I pick at my split ends and worry. Realizing I’m not getting anything done, I end my day at 4:00 on a bike ride.
I just start pedalling. Clunking over Oakland speed bumps and potholes, I tear up behind my sunglasses and mask. My breath feels heavy with thoughts of death and mortality, but my neighborhood forces me to keep looking around – if only to avoid hitting the dozens of other bikers who need the same escape I do.
A door slams and a neighbor shuffles onto the porch balancing gardening tools. Across the street, another neighbor is already on his knees in the dirt, humming. A camp chair sits on a porch awaiting social distance cocktail hours with friends. A block’s worth of kids are squatting in their front yards, fingers and knees covered in chalk. Up the street, a cardboard fort sits on a front lawn. Someone has a pool table in their driveway with rules about neighborhood quiet hours. Many houses have teddy bears tucked into street-facing windows.
Even with the pandemic’s horror, my neighbourhood is kid-friendly, urban, not unhappy. My friends and I trade photos of our thriving sprouts and joke about dreams we once had about our lives after college. In the void created by the pandemic, I can hear the world and the movements around me much more clearly.
And then the world explodes again. George Floyd is murdered. Minneapolis is on fire. Streets all over the United States are filled with chanting protestors. My neighborhood responds, and I am caught up in another enormous societal upheaval.
News reports tell of four Black people found hanging from trees. When it’s phrased that way, it sounds far too peaceful. Like a swing swaying in the breeze. It doesn’t consider the struggle leading up to that point. I can only imagine if it were me being pinned down and subdued by others’ brute strength. My own fear stifling my ability to scream; unable to draw upon my own strength because my body already knows and is quaking out of my control. That moment when I feel someone else overpower me, and I realize I’m going to die. My human life. Not a swing.
I start recognizing neighbors at Black Lives Matter protests. The antithesis of silent grocery shoppers pitted against one another. My voice unites with strangers’ as we chant and dance down familiar Oakland streets. We are thousands of diverse individuals marching to the same heartbeat. Even as we go back to isolated homes, we read and view the same things. We cry privately, but together. In front of the Oakland police department, several protesters kneel to chalk words of love for Black lives onto the pavement.
I see these messages affirming Black lives written on handmade signs taped to my neighbors’ front doors and rear windshields, painted in the windows of local shops. Black Lives Matter. Stay Safe. Defund the Police. Kindness is Everything. White Silence is Violence. We are All in this Together. When I climb on my bike, my tires roll over faded chalk-art and the meticulous labor of writing out the names of Black lives lost to police brutality. As I grapple with the weight of this time, I read in the chalked streets of Oakland that this struggle is shared.
Samara Rosen recently graduated from Hampshire College with a degree in the Human Dimensions of River Conservation and a craving for activism. Her recent research explores relationships with rivers and the motivation behind river rebels and change-makers. These days, you can find her exploring public lands, learning about the intersection of social movements and chalking up some Oakland sidewalks.