Letter from Austin, Texas

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Photo courtesy of Natalie Ray

As part of The Occidental’s COVID-19 coverage, we are running a series titled “Letters from” written by staff writers, editors and Occidental students. These letters aim to document the experience and insights of Occidental students as they adjust to new circumstances.

Every day is the same.

I wake up, probably late, with the Texas sun beaming straight into my eyes. Then I fumble for my phone and check the digital front page of the New York Times. As my fellow news addicts know, the reports change rapidly, but somehow they always read like sections of the same giant article. There’s the death tolls, the economic panic, the uneasy predictions, the inane Trump comments, the angry op-eds denouncing said comments — even the cloyingly positive blurbs on what kind of bread to bake when every grocery store around you has been out of flour for weeks. It’s like a merry-go-round of coronavirus hysteria, and none of us are allowed off the ride.

Eventually, I ooze out of bed and wander to the kitchen to make a nutritious brunch of instant coffee and fried potatoes. I’ve still got my nose in the New York Times: I feel a weird obligation — or maybe compulsion — to stay informed, like the world might crumble into oblivion if I don’t keep my eye on it. But the words have started to blur together lately, so I’ve gravitated toward photos and videos instead, still aching for brief glimpses of the tumultuous world outside my house. A photo essay of deserted tourist destinations worldwide hit particularly hard. Several of its images showed sights I’d seen in person while traveling Europe just last summer. Even more eerily familiar was the photo of Santa Monica, which was still vibrant and busy when I went seven weeks ago for spring break — I got to watch sh*t hit the fan there in real time before immediately heading back to Oxy and packing to return to Austin.

It hurt to see all those places so empty. For me, the warm Texas spring always brings both memories of past travels and an urge to go somewhere new. But this year, the broad, open skies, the bubblegum scent of mountain laurel on the breeze and the familiar refrain of the mourning dove are themselves at arm’s length; I only catch them in bits and pieces from my windows and balcony. When I think of thrilling travels to distant lands, I no longer picture the Mediterranean or the Alps — I picture a trip to the Supermercado Poco Loco down the street.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Ray

Scrolling through the photo essay was sweet as well as bitter, though. While I’d experienced Europe as a tourist and Santa Monica as something closer to a local, it didn’t actually seem to matter when I looked at those photos. Tourists and locals alike were being denied the pleasure of enjoying these beautiful places, and they nonetheless did their part to keep others around them safe.

Shortly after I saw the essay, my grandma — who has been processing her stress by spam-emailing coronavirus content to my entire family — sent me this video, and I straight-up cried. Seeing the familiar Austin streets and landmarks all deserted brought my grief even closer to home and made me proud of the sacrifice my city was making. It reassured me that I wasn’t overreacting. The overarching message felt right: we stayed home because we cared for each other.

But as plenty of commenters pointed out beneath the video, something didn’t quite add up. Except maybe in the middle of a rainstorm, which is when the filmmaker evidently went out to shoot, downtown Austin hasn’t been empty. I live near there, and I learned shortly after arriving home that attending BlueJeans meetings from my balcony isn’t an option: the roar of cars, trucks and motorcycles zooming by is still constant and deafening. Construction workers arrive each morning to repave driveways up and down my street. Despite the new spaced-out markers on the grocery store floor, I often have to squeeze past gaggles of other shoppers. On an especially nice day recently, I went for a drive past a nearby park and saw big groups of joggers, dog walkers, golfers and kids crowding the fields and sidewalks. Travis County, which has reported 1,464 cases of coronavirus as of April 28, will lift its stay-at-home orders within a week.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Ray

It’s true that we’re still taking painful steps toward safety. It’s true that I got chewed out by a CVS employee for forgetting to don my mask before walking in; that my brother’s local high school moved online like ours for the rest of his senior year; that Austinites, like everyone else in the world, are haunted by the twin fears of sickness and financial ruin. But I have trouble reconciling the melancholy emptiness in my grandma’s video with the bustling, sunny world I watch every afternoon from my window. As the whispers of the first few economic reopenings grow to a rumble and prejudice-driven protests shake citizens’ resolve to stay home, the ground beneath me feels even more unsteady. This crisis has eroded whatever trust in our current government I had left, and I don’t want to end my personal lockdown until I truly feel safe.

I don’t know when that will be, and I resent having to make the choice for myself. 

I end each day on my balcony, when the traffic has finally quieted and I’ve read all the news there is to read, and try to reconcile the evening’s peace with the chaos in my head. To be our age in this time and place, you have to learn to occupy two worlds at once. You stand with one foot on either side of a widening chasm: school and the past on one side, adulthood and the future on the other. You grieve for past adventures while you seek smaller joys: a sparrow perched on your windowsill, the evening sunlight illuminating a bowl of oranges on the kitchen table. You measure out fear, anger, patience and hope in equal doses. You accept that an image or a video clip, a glimpse of the outside world, can be a lie and a truth at once. We are all parts of a giant, writhing, contradictory, ever-growing story — and we contain multitudes.