Xavier John Richardson
A sound like thunder, only constant, it doesn't rumble, it gets louder, louder, shakes the sky. I see them, their vapor trails white ribbons, a formation of the Navy’s Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds streaking across the wide blue yonder in honor of first responders and essential workers. I'm neither and the only one on my block outside to see them. There's no way they see me. Saw me. They're gone just as quick as they came.
I’m on my way to a Shake Shack. One point nine-three miles. That’s the distance to the Shake Shack downtown, about a block off Rittenhouse Square. I know the distance precisely because 1.93 is what appeared on my phone a few minutes ago when I downloaded the Shake Shack app.
That sky comes down bright off parked cars and warm all the way down to the sidewalk, rain swept clean and long dry now. Sparrows sing, squirrels chase one other up and down telephone wires, through sycamore trees, across porches up and down the block. Tulips are in bloom, some violets, daffodils, Calla lilies too.
There’s just enough of a breeze to justify a light jacket over a t-shirt. The kind of jacket that back in my school days, in Carneys Point, NJ, I would have tried to leave the house without it, only to be called back to make sure I had put it on and zipped it up too. Then, as soon as rounded the hedge at the top of the block I would shed the jacket like it was chasing me, wrap the sleeves around my waist and tie them to hold it flapping against behind me. Does anybody do that anymore? Not in this city I haven’t noticed it.
One foot in front of the other. But first, in with the earbuds. A part of me feels like it’s cheating myself to shut out the sparrows. ‘Was a time I walked through the woods, back home, imitating the whistles in the trees, like Rue in The Hunger Games. Like Rue I believed the birds and I carried on a tune, but not really, until I saw grainy YouTube footage of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, a trumpeter and a sax man trading notes, swinging a band.
From this corner of Walnut it’s a straight hike, half an hour, and halfway through a personal playlist through earbuds, through my phone, on to 20th Street with Millie Gibson Break It, Prince Pink Cashmere, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince Brand New Funk, Loose Ends The Real Chuckeeboo, The Whispers All the Way, Dexter Gordon Until the Real Thing Comes Along … I cross left at a bakery I’ve never seen without fancy pastries in huge windows and lined up under a long glass counter. Darkness in the bakery. No pastries. A sign: CLOSED UNTIL FARTHER NOTICE. The shop next to the bakery sells watercolors of postcard moments, Rocky rising up the Art Museum steps, the LOVE sculpture, the fountain in Logan Square, things only a tourist would treasure. That window’s dark too. As is the pizza parlor next door. The pet shop and everything on the other side of the street. Across a little alleyway, and there’s Shake Shack. The tables that are outside, even through winter storms, nowhere to be found.
I passed few people on my way down here, maybe a half dozen on the UPenn campus, a couple crossing the Schuylkill, then another, a few people spread out between here and there. There aren’t many drivers either, mostly delivery men high up in the seats of their vehicles, baby blue surgical masks or homemade face coverings, almost up to the eyes. A lot of us on foot wear them too. We look prepped and headed for surgery, or banditry, a black quiet before a different kind of storm that always appears to rise out of nowhere, but the signs were there all along.
This is the first warm day after a windy, rainy several days. Normally I would have passed so many people I wouldn’t have paid attention to them. But that was yesterday. Today stopped being like yesterday and yesterday and all the yesterdays and nobody knows what tomorrow will be like, except most agree, today will never be like yesterday again. A virus has forced us into these masks and a physical six-foot separation from one another that ironically is eroding our ten-foot pole mentality from one another, in a city of 1.5 million of us normally elbow-to-elbow and avoiding eye contact.
I downloaded an app for Shake Shack because only select restaurants are open, but only if you order online for pickup or delivery. The Apple store is closed. The Verizon store and AT&T are open with security guards out front like bouncers at the entrance to a nightclub. About ten people outside of the former, a little less than that that in front of the later, wait in line to get inside a few at a time. Staples is open too. Department and fashion stores have bars over the doors. Wide-eyed mannequins in display windows seem to taunt the passerby with their maskless smiles.
Staples is my first stop. An extra monitor will make it a lot easier on me, shifting from app to app, working from home. I’m not the first with this idea. Staples is sold out of all but the deluxe, gamer size, curved monitors. Another thing the virus has done is forced office workers into teleworkers. What can be teleworked in Philadelphia can be teleworked overseas. I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking that, not to mention the rent, the utilities and the taxes a company can save by making workers responsible for their own workspace.
All but a few governors, for political reasons that give politics a bad name, have their constituents sheltering in place. I first came across ‘sheltering in place’ in an instructional video on how to survive a mass shooter. We have a walkthrough metal detector and a package x-ray conveyer belt at what was my physical workplace. Shoes, keys, coins, belts and things that make visitors go ‘beep’ must be removed before they can sign-in to the building.
Next year will be the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and how alone we felt every time we saw a package or backpack, no matter how briefly unattended, in a public place. Last year was the one-hundredth anniversary of the Influenza that ended in 1919, Babe Ruth’s last year with the Red Sox, and the year after World War One ‘The War to End All Wars’ ended. There was also a pandemic in 1957, the year of Sputnik, and the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles, and again in 1968, the year Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and the Tigers saved the city of Detroit from a race war by winning a World Series.
In those days, the show must go on.
On March 11, of this year, after a basketball player tested positive for the virus, the NBA Commissioner declared that’s it, finish the games in progress, the NBA is done until farther notice. The NCAA cancelled March Madness. Baseball sent its players home from spring training. Schools are closed. In many states, Primary Election Voting has been postponed. Doctor and dentist offices are closed. Even hospitals turn people away.
It’s now April 28. I haven't gone out like this since about a week after the last NBA game, when my employer put a laptop in my hands and said your internet is my internet, and sent me home with new rules for my own home, just like millions like me, who aren’t considered essential enough to put others at risk of contamination from us via a daily commute. Not that we necessarily know who's carrying the virus, when they are contagious or even if surviving it gives you immunity from catching it again. There's not a test, not a cure, there may not be any symptoms. Many catch it, we don't even realize we have it before it’s gone. Others have to be put on a ventilator. In extreme cases we don't make it. Especially if we're age sixty or older, or have diabetes, heart or respiratory issues.
A lot of us whose jobs aren't laptop adoptable and we aren’t first responders or essential employees, like gun shop owners, liquor store clerks, pharmacies, and soon to be country club employees at golf courses, aren’t receiving a paycheck. Unemployment isn’t a guarantee. A large part of our economy is shutdown. We don’t know how much will recover or how long it will take. The virus isn’t saying. Nobody can speak for it, no matter how much they try. And when they do try, one day masks are useless, the next they’re mandatory. It's a pandemic. It's a hoax. Each state is on its own. The federal government should do something.
Food is an essential. Even fast food. That’s why Shake Shack is open. Others must feel the same way about guns and golf. Unless they plan on killing what they want to eat and grilling it on the back nine. Having entered into my newly installed app, my credit card information, pressed the picture of a Shack Burger, crinkle cut fries, and a strawberry shake, I go back up to 20th Street to see how this is going to work for me, knowing it wouldn’t without good credit or a cellphone.
Maybe it’s the way this mask is affecting my air, but what if the mark of the Biblical beast, 666, is an app, and in the future, instead of it being a luxury to carry a tracking device that can receive alerts from the government, it becomes a patriot responsibility? Nobody around. I peal my mask down and steal a few deep breaths, jump off that train of thought.
The seating area of Shake Shack is almost as dark as the stores with CLOSED signs in the windows. One door is open. It’s barricaded with what looks like a metal office desk. Only the person on the other side of it makes no demands like people do behind barricades in the movies, unless we count our names, which he asks for politely, so he can match them to white receipts stuck to the heavy brown bags that hold our orders.
He runs to the counter to pick up these old fashion, supermarket, style paper bags, bringing them back to the barricade, or when no one answers, stacking them on newly installed shelves to the left of him in front of what was the que for placing orders, or to the right of him in front of what was where diners waited to receive their orders.
His name tag reads: Hakeem. This is hot work. My mask is stuffy, out in the air, moving at my own pace. I can imagine how Hakeem is doing his job behind his mask. It’s not easy for us to understand one another. Twice I have to repeat my name without removing my mask, me on the street, Hakeem on the other side of that barricade, social distancing until that moment he hands out the bag out, I take it and go. I catch a glimpse beyond him into the restaurant at the workers behind the counter and cash registers abandoned.
There’s a lot that goes into preparing fast food. Too many people inside too close a space, shuffling around and excusing each other to get around one another, and at the same time barely enough hands to get the job done. Under normal circumstances the air isn’t the best. A mask has to tax the respiratory system. Did I mention, the virus likes the respiratory system?
A mask isn’t supposed to protect a person from getting the virus, it’s to protect the wearer from spreading it. I’m sure this is comforting to public service workers everywhere, with their limited or no access to healthcare, and dying from the virus in numbers extreme compared to the rest of us. When we salute Hakeem that only makes us feel better about calling on him to risk his life to serve us French fries.
Walking back to Walnut Street I feel the bottom of my bag. My fries will be a lot cooler, the milkshake warm before I get home. I may deserve that. We should feel no better about ourselves than Hakeem feels thanking us for our orders. We've all seen him after his shift, at the bus stop, waiting for the first of three buses it will take to get him home. He’s seen us see him and see him and see him, as if he isn’t there.
Xavier John Richardson: "I am a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellow. I have also won a Judith Stark Award for fiction. My writing appears in Apiary, Track//Four, Black Arts Quarterly, Philly Fiction, South Philly Fiction and For Women -A Tribute to Nina Simone, and is forthcoming in Harpur Palate."