On May 14, 2020, I posted a Facebook status update about a full but strange day I’d had, during the height of San Francisco’s Shelter in Place during the Coronavirus pandemic. I had, in weeks previous, likened the experience of trying to get through any given day in quarantine, to the Trojan War, noting that over ten years, the beleaguered citizens of Troy had still lived their lives, probably having good days and bad days, even with the constant threat of invasion, death, and destruction surrounding them at all times. At some point, I started replying to the question, “How are you?” with, “Well, it’s been a good day in Troy.” The following captures, to the best of my ability, the strangeness of existence behind that exception.
I haven’t slept well, but get up early to hand bags of rice to people who need food. The math in my head works out to roughly 600 bags of rice, though I overhear the project manager say we could be serving over 1200 people that day. We’re initially handing out coffee too, but that runs out quickly and “When the coffee is gone, it’s gone, it’s gone!” one of the site directors shouts so everyone knows. I am cut at 11 since more volunteers have arrived and working conditions are getting too crowded to be socially distant, and I’m handed a sack of vegetables, a carton of eggs, and a gallon of orange juice. When I attempt to protest politely, the coordinator says, “We all need to eat. Just don’t waste it,” then is on to the next person. As I walk out of the gates, I am thanked in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
I walk up the hill, in the middle of the street, to give the people waiting in line, patiently, six feet apart, plenty of room. The line wraps around the corner and runs down the street for blocks, in front of my apartment, and so I have to slip between folks to get home. I wonder if any of them, seeing my bag, think, “That guy doesn’t need this program,” before remembering that these are my neighbors, as had been many of the volunteers. The woman I had been handing out rice with had mentioned she too lived a block away, and the young man translating Mandarin for people is someone I’d frequently seen at our local coffee shop. At my gate, I reach into my bag and hand the old woman sitting in front of it my share of rice because I’ve never gotten good at cooking it. She hands me a zucchini.
While taking a shower, it rains, heavily, on the city. When I come back out into my living room, they are shaking the water off of the admin tents set up in the alleyway behind my building. In my kitchen sink, the vegetables wait to be washed in warm water and a drop or two of hand soap, but I stand at the window, drinking a cup of overly milked up tea, and officially transforming into a character from a novel as I watch the admins for the food bank sign up people standing in a light drizzle, person after person. I love the smell of rain, and especially right now, with the air so much cleaner, but honestly the chatter outside of my window, most of it in languages I don’t speak, is just so comforting to listen in on, that I don’t do anything for the next hour, but stand there. When the line ends around one pm, and they finish packing up the tents, I watch them go the way one watches friends leave.
A few hours later, I give my first ESL lesson in over a decade to a woman with six children who I’m helping to improve her reading and writing skills. She tells me about her family, one person at a time, three sentences each, and I use each child to help her get used to the subtle differences in English conjugation that help us describe variation and the passage of time, and to broaden her vocabulary to include all the ways English signifies the differences between people. Her daughters have beautiful, romantic names, pulled from a variety of languages- Spanish, Gaelic, Greek- each of them one I associate with a story, or a place, or a member of a royal family. I suspect she and I are fairly close to the same age but she feels older to me because her levels of responsibility far exceed mine but the whimsicality of each child’s name makes me think she’s probably more like me than not. Her son’s name is a gorgeously obscure Biblical one and when she tells me I can’t help but ask, “What does it mean?” She smiles, sheepishly, and admits she doesn’t know.
“Comforted by God,” I say, having Googled it. “In Hebrew.” She looks sideways at me. “Jewish,” I clarify, and that connects.
“Comforted by God,” she repeats, then asks, “What is comfort?”
I find it hard to explain, and then reach behind me to grab Otto, the stuffed pangolin, off the couch, and cradle him to explain comfort, comforting, comforted.
We read an article together, about the 200 goats that ran around San Jose, but at the one hour mark we stop. She had originally wanted to do two hours a day, but I had suspected she’d find one hour of full emersion exhausting and we were both losing steam by the time the escaped goats had successfully been reclaimed. Plus, she’s got a sick daughter. “Three days in the hospital,” she tells me, “but she’s home now.” She laughs the laugh of a woman who doesn’t want me to worry, and we say goodbye, after she reminds me that she still needs to pay me. I am secretly grateful because I hate talking about money and especially if I’m not sure what I’m doing should be paid for but she insists on paying me, so I insist on minimum wage. Luckily, we both speak Venmo.
I make a quick trip to the bodega because all the things in my sack of food need something to go with them, so I buy tomatoes, feta, sausage, spinach, croissants, and… you know… beer. I debate splurging on a bottle of wine but I decide not to, as I have decided not to the entire quarantine so far. For some reason, sitting in my living room, drinking a six pack in one go while watching The Crown feels totally acceptable to me, as sitting on Zoom with my buddies drinking scotch or brandy or whiskey is somehow fine. The later makes me feel like a regular guy, the former makes me feel like a regular San Francisco. But wine, by myself, and I’m worried I’ll end up drunk on the Persian rug surrounded by books and empty glasses, like Pierre in War and Peace right before the French invade. Checking out, the Bodega Lady, who I think has slowly risen to the position of Queen in our neighborhood, grimaces. “These croissants are stale,” she says, and shouts for the Bodega Guy to bring her a fresh bag, chucking the old ones into a trash can full of bad food beside her. I linger at the door, where the cut flowers are displayed, dripping with rain still. It’s all tulips, which I tend to avoid because they die so quickly, but I almost get some anyway. Then I think, “nah, leave them here. More people will see them here.”
I get home in time to do a 5:30 Zoom interview with a guy looking to hire an ops person for a start up. One of the recruiters I’m working with to find my next career move sold me on his company, which is actually really cool, but the position, as he describes it to me, is not really something I’m excited about, focused on the parts of operations I’ve never been really into, and don’t have much experience in. He asks me what my favorite parts of my job are and I describe, point by point, a position that is not at all the one he’s hiring for. He looks exhausted. I bet I do too. We both have five o’clock shadows, and haircuts that could probably use a goat on the lam or two. I know I am supposed to tell him that I can do what he needs no sweat and I can do what he needs but I’ve got zero energy to hide the part where I’d be learning to make rice on his time and he doesn’t have a position right now for anyone but an enthusiastic rice maker. He’s smart and I’m smart and right now it’s annoying both of us that we both know we’re going to have to keep looking so we end the interview as kindly as we can. I call the recruiter to apologize. She apologizes to me.
“It’s my fault. You weren’t prepped enough. The position is too junior for you anyway, and I knew it wasn’t exactly your skill set, I just thought- it’s an opportunity, and a cool company…”
“Both true,” I interrupt. “And you’re awesome. You’re amazing. I probably need an attitude change. I mean, maybe the kind of stuff I’m good at, isn’t what people need right now-“
“No. No way. There is something great for you out there. It’s just going to take time,” and she sighs the sigh of a woman who doesn’t want me to worry, and, has also just finished another day in Troy.
We wish each other health and safety. I shut down my laptop for the day. I wander around the apartment, shutting all the open windows, because as the sun sets I find the progressively empty streets eerie and I don’t like to look at them, or hear them. Or not hear them. I turn on the fan in the bedroom, and the bed lamps. I turn on the lamp in the hallway. The living room. I go into the kitchen and consider baking cookies, but opt for a zucchini feta croissant sandwich, and open my first beer of the evening.