March. As the Coronavirus pandemic raged west from New York like a rabid homesteader, I continued my daily walks around the Silverlake reservoir path – sometimes to clear my head, sometimes to get my toddler to nap. When they closed the schools, my husband and I took the kids out in the rare L.A. rain to splash in the street puddles. The new “six feet apart” rule protected passersby from the effects of our kids’ thundering yellow galoshes.
April. While bodies on TV filled makeshift morgue trucks, signs went up around the reservoir path: “Wear a Mask” and “One Way.” If we all walked in the same direction, there would be less chance we’d contaminate each other with our breath. The majority of the joggers turned clockwise. Some would not. People raided their closets and tied bandannas over their faces until the path became a parade of Halloween bank robbers hellbent on exercise. My look was ‘festival pandemic,’ via a headband/scarf I found online- something meant to keep dust out of your lungs at Burning Man while you rolled in an EDM trance. I pulled its black, vaguely galactic pattern over my mouth and nose, the stars trapping my hot breath and steaming my sunglasses as I walked into the end of April. This is how I protect myself. This is how I protect others, I thought.
By May, our house was a powder keg of emotions. “Do not hit each other,” I explained to my 6 and 3-year-olds when their verbal frustrations devolved into brute reactions – a slap, a hair pull, a scream. “It hurts the other person’s body.” On TV a debate was escalating. Masks were necessary for public heath, some said. Masks are a violation of personal rights, said others. Choose empathy or freedom. A divided nation politicized what could have been a unifying public health crisis. At night someone started slashing up the One Way, Wear a Mask signs. By late morning someone else had taped them back up.
May came to a searing close with the murder of George Floyd. National protests filled streets and the reservoir fence cried out, “Black lives matter!” on homemade cardboard signs, often written in chunky, off-kilter children’s script.
Teams of citizens appeared with ripped-up sheets and wove the names of black people who were killed by the police into the reservoir’s chain link fence. The teams had so many names to weave they filled two miles of fence line with tragic effortlessness. We marched our white kids around those names with other neighborhood families of varying ethnicities and shouted for racial justice into our sweaty face masks. It was our first time in a crowd since school closed. What measure of our safety was it worth to take a stand and teach the kids their role in creating an equal society? I explained to the kids that a man was hurt by police. I explained that we need police, but they sometimes . . . “use their powers wrong . . . ?” I searched for kid-intelligible terms for racism, abuse of power, systemic inequality. From their bedtime stories, Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches lined up in my head. Those yellow dinosaur-birds with green emblems on their stomachs desperately trying to figure out who’s the best, the star-bellied or the bare-bellied creature? By the end of the story, no one remembers which they were or why one was better. They’re spent and confused, and the only winner is the tiny capitalist weirdo who leaves town with a pile of cash, after swindling the other characters with his Star On and Off machine.
In August, the names of the dead linger on the fence next to the Covid safety signs. Standing on the bridge, you gaze through torn sheets that read “Say Their Names.” Like grout in a mosaic, the letters frame pieces of the Silverlake vista: a swath of lake, a hillside house, a mountaintop. I push the stroller through the shadows of a broken alphabet, wheels passing over a backward A, a V, an S. Our face masks are wearing down in the washing machine, the elastic slackening around our ears, and we notice them on our faces a little less. Last month, the White House sent federal troops to crack down on protesters in Portland. Tonight, someone will tear down a Covid safety sign. In the morning someone else will patch it back up.