Someone You Know


ago
5 min
129
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3
Winner
Jury
JANUARY, 2020. 7234 miles from Chicago, China reports the first death from a novel coronavirus. There is no evidence it can spread among humans.
I'm commuting to school and two women on the train are talking about a coworker.
"She never stops talking."
"She's always going on about her gym."
"She's exactly like my son. The little guy laughs and giggles but deep down I know he's a bad person."
There's a brief silence. The car screeches and the fluorescent lights flicker as if the train itself is revolving against the comparison.
The general quality that defines the el is, in a word, shamelessness. People yell at robotic voices, drink, overshare. I try to respect this culture by not laughing at strangers, but I can't help myself. Most around me start laughing too.
"Wow, ok," is all the second woman can muster.

FEBRUARY. The US reports its first death. The W.H.O., in an attempt to avoid stigma, gives the disease a name with no place, person, or animal.
I'm reading an article about Wuhan and I notice the gaze of the man next to me.
"Are you worried?" he asks.
"I don't know," I say.
"Do they help?" He looks at a businessman in the corner wearing a mask.
The el's level of sanitation is comparable to a gas station bathroom, so a masked rider isn't abnormal, but it is a taboo– an insulting presumption that others are dirty. It makes people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable.
"They say they don't," I say. "Apparently the hospitals need them more."
I tell him about a podcast I heard from the New York Times. They said the shutdown of Wuhan during Chinese New Year was like shutting down Chicago at Christmastime, telling everyone they can't see their families or leave their homes.
"New York," he scoffs.
"I guess they're the experts on disease and garbage," I say.
"Trash city," a woman interjects.
Rallying forces tend to be negative: New York sucks, people with masks are morons, or the lady who hates her toddler is coming on a bit strong. And in this moment when we don't know what's coming, the el is united more than ever by dread.

MARCH. The CDC recommends against groups of 50, then 10. Every US public school is closed. Mortality is estimated to be around 2%. "You probably won't die," says a reporter, "but someone you know will."
My morning commute is reduced to an elevator ride between my apartment and "school" in a near-empty common area. The streets downtown clear, society goes virtual, and shared elevator rides become one of my only interpersonal exchanges that aren't mediated by a screen.
My building is large enough that most residents don't know each other, but small enough that we pretend we do. The golden rule of elevator conversation is that someone must mention the weather. I'll say something like, "Wow, it's nice out there." We'll talk about rain for a bit, and then deboard. These conversations always end with "Have a good one," a phrase so grossly ubiquitous that it means nothing.
Pleasantries are a loophole that give both parties confidence they've met, without actually having to know each other. I've talked to people on the train about pharmaceuticals, mothers-in-law, the nature of taxation, and whether we're in the Matrix. For reasons my friends don't understand, I told a man I met on the train I was gay before I told them. I've told my neighbor a million times whether it's hot or cold out, but all I know is his name and I can't even say I like the man. People show their true colors on the train; all people ever show on the elevator is their predictability.

APRIL. US Deaths surpass 50,000. The CDC recommends masks. The Pope gives Easter mass to an empty basilica.
My neighbor is dead from COVID. I didn't know him well. I once walked into his apartment by mistake at 3 AM when I had a concussion. I overheard a conversation where he joked about his wife swearing she heard their door open and close. I never told him she was right.
My family learns through an email about protocol. Now only three passengers are allowed on the elevator. No one talks about the death, and conversations persist, confined to the topics of clouds, rain, and the sun.

MAY. Anti-anxiety drugs have risen 34%. Alcohol sales spike. 4 in 10 people report being lonelier than ever. Deaths surpass 100,000.
I'm on the elevator going to "school." The doors open for the affable lady who works in the lobby.
"Do you believe in ghosts?" I ask.
"I don't think so," she says, "but I know spirits are real. Sometimes I'll be here and I feel like something's looking at me."
"Who?"
"Someone I don't know."
"What do they do?"
"Just watch."
"But don't you think they'd go see the people they know?"
"I'm sure they do, but they wanna see the world. So they gotta get to know me."
"Oh."
"You can't spend all your time with people you know."
The doors open. And without a word about the rain, she picks up a package from the ground and disappears into what seems like my own imagination.

JUNE. JULY. Unemployment has risen more in the last three months than in the Great Recession. 5.4 million Americans have lost health insurance.
Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt, but sometimes we're unable to sense a bad thing that's been inflicted gradually. We're great at fending off sudden storms, but we can't fight the ones that protrude slowly. And we're too quick to welcome a new present without recognizing its singularity.
I start DoorDashing and kill the time waiting at restaurants talking to the other carriers. While I've lost the atmosphere of the el, I find a close substitute in the Taco Bell Cantina across the street. Much like the poets in Paris, we gather around, waiting for orders, and muse about the important things in life-- Star Wars, cremation vs burial, the worst things we ever smelled. And we start talking about death, about fear.
Strangers show us our surroundings, but it only works if we're honest. If not, then our social fabric-- that interpersonal network of eight billion strangers, acquaintances, and friends that COVID uses to kill-- is as worthless as a conversation about snow.

AUGUST. Xenophobia ("fear of the stranger") spikes. In the United States, anti-Asian hate crimes rise 73%. One report attributes this to a loosening of "weak ties," people we don't know well but who contribute to empathy.
On an order I'm walking through a near-empty park when I notice a well-postured family of four across the street-- unreasonably blonde, dressed in pink and sunglasses.
"You from California?" I ask.
One of them responds but all I make out is "call 911." Then they walk away.
I cross the street and move closer. There's a portly man in a black T-shirt, he's on the ground and his body is contorted on a concrete staircase. Someone lifts him up, unconscious, and I dial my phone. The blondes are across the street opening lawn chairs near a woman with a mic and guitar. They are her only audience, I do think they're Californians, and I know I hate them.
The ambulance arrives. The sky is darkening, and the grass and the concrete and all the faces are lit with alternating glares of red and white emergency lights. I look around and realize that everyone is wearing a mask and it makes me uneasy. The singer looks out over the park and watches the paramedics cart the man into the ambulance. She raises her voice so it can be heard over the blaring sirens.
"It's a beautiful warm evening," she shouts.
And although no one can hear her, although no one believes her, she picks up her guitar and plays on.
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Vansh Malhotra · ago
Amazing work and well done:)