COVID Diary: Five Weeks

Five weeks ago was the day Chicago’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. I know this because it was also moving day for my husband and I and, thanks to this overlap, for me March 20th is the start of our new reality.

In the weeks beforehand I remember going to work and having many nervous chats with colleagues, baristas, my trainer. Some new virus in China in a city I never heard of and yet more populous than New York and Chicago combined. Something about bats and a woman who tricked airport officials to dine in Paris. A novel disease with no name. One that was now in Italy and then on the West Coast. We’d be safe, we’d be fine we all wanted to believe as bits of video dripped out of China, smuggled out like contraband, like that of a young woman speaking rapid Chinese while holding up a gravely ill elder with no one to help because of how packed the hallways were.

Meanwhile, my husband and I decluttered and staged our home, had photos taken and brochures printed, and with great anxiety had it listed on February 18th. Our lovely realtor was flummoxed by the market, so much pent up demand from the Holidays she was barely keeping up but grateful. We had several offers within 36 hours, unheard of, and then – a miracle: a cash offer but with a long list of demands including a sizable price cut. We grit our teeth and took it. We packed and cleaned and, as the numbers became more dire by the hour, I had my partner find a mover who could move us a full week earlier.

The week before the order was memorable also because of walking tours I had planned for 20-plus Dutch graduate students who come here each year as part of their Economic Geography studies.They choose whether to go to Stockholm, Hong Kong, or Chicago and for their capstone travel to that city and see it first-hand. Three years ago their professor found me online and it’s become something to really look forward to each early spring, with me chaperoning a gaggle of very tall, very smart young people across parts of Chicago many natives choose to avoid. Before, I’ve taken them to Uptown and urban planning agencies downtown. This year they had time for me to take them to Austin and Oak Park and Pullman – excursions best reviewed by the students for shining light on Chicago’s yawning inequality and shocking racism. We did our tours, but the teachers lamented that the Hong Kong group had no clue when their trip would be possible. The sole Chinese exchange student from Shanghai was worried about her family and, awkwardly, I tried to sell her on visiting our Chinatown. “It’s a century old! Built by working class immigrants!” I parroted like she cared. Leaving Pullman by Metra, despite warnings not to hug, I gave the two chaperones hearty hugs and wished them safe travels, anxious for them to go home before promised travel restrictions were put in place.

Next Monday, I went into work to get my computer and, upon seeing the once-bustling co-working space silent and empty felt my skin prickle, for the first time, with something new: fear.

That Friday was the move. Now this Friday will be five weeks, a span of time that is a gap like it’s been blacked-out by a sharpie. At its onset, many said to journal, which reminds me of how, in the 10th grade, my history teacher gave our class journals that he insisted we write in for two weeks after 9/11. This I did but did not take seriously and threw away as soon as it was graded. I could likely barely fill a page with these five weeks that have passed but now that there’s been some time to adjust, it’s like a fog has been lifted. Except now rather than paralyze, the ever-present fear is motivating.

So now we greet each day with new shocks and failures of the government to act. New upheavals of systems that before were allegedly set in stone. More discontent by the privileged at having to share the burden with the privilege-less. A woman who’d infect someone just to get her roots filled in. A man, without irony, calling the lockdown slavery. Protesters paid by billionaires or the miserly bigoted middle Americans who share our table at barbecues and holidays? Hard to discern anymore, they are the same.

In just December of 2019, when this bug was just a blip on anyone’s consciousness, I was in Taiwan, a trip memorable for the vibrancy and density of its urban areas and the kindness of its people. Four months and eons later, my husband says he promises we will again travel to Asia. And I want to believe, but who can say where any of us will be in even five weeks?