Sun in an Empty Zoom

A long time ago, in the slightly-after-the-Before-Time, I wrote a piece about how weird it was to drive around a spooky, abandoned Atlanta where everything was still there but you knew there was a catastrophe right under the surface. It was called “My City in Not-Ruins.” It felt like we had been attacked by the blitzkrieg but everything in London looked intact and more or less the same. It’s uncanny. We were in what, for most people who are not healthcare workers, a silent war. We know it’s out there somewhere, killing us, but there aren’t bombs or burning buildings.

I feel this way again now, even though in Georgia we’ve gone into the paradoxical mode of getting back to normal life but also having the pandemic at worse levels than it was back when we were stuck inside, knitting face masks, guzzling bleach, and watching Firefly. The city of Atlanta is back to life in some ways, but still running on low power mode. There are more people out and about than there should be, but it’s still less than what we would have thought of as the norm before. Offices are still closed. Storefronts are still boarded up because of the fear of protests during the Summer, which broke approximately one window, or just the lint roller of economic destruction.

Things are still creepy, empty or a quarter-full, forlorn. I’m looking at a row of houses in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood, a couple of big tasteful monstrosities that have been thrown up since the gentrification wave washed over the east side of the city since 2000. The trees are gaunt and stark against the falling light of 6pm in December.

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I think all the time about how in each house, each apartment there are unending novels of stories happening right behind the still and nondescript surface of brick or clapboard. This has been even more so the case since a lot of work and teaching and childcare has been parked at home since March 2020. What the historian Gordon Wood called “a world within themselves.” Every home has a world inside it that’s inscrutable to the person idly driving or walking by. It’s a vast latticework of stories.

Still, the world is quiet. The McMansions are enveloped in the blue dim shade of dusk. Everyone is at home waiting for the night to come and imagining what else history has to do with us, and how much and for how long.

The stories keep happening, even as we lose loved ones, jobs, life savings, sanity. Back in April I thought that this crisis would be terrible but also fleeting — it might teach us something about how weak the sinews of society are, how our social safety is barely existent, or just how vulnerable we all are to sickness and death. We might learn a little and move on.

But the virus had more to teach us. It hasn’t been finished with us, and my city is not not-in-ruins now. The scars of all of this are increasingly visible and not possible to sweep under a rug or behind a curtain. People have endured and supported each other in ways that go far beyond our frayed and pathetic official social safety net. The enduring crisis has shown both the strength of people and the failure of institutions made up of people.

I attended a church service the other day on Zoom. It was eerie and strange to see a pastor lead congregants through liturgy, hymns, a sermon about the angel Gabriel and Mary, and well wishes for the holidays, all in these Hollywood Squares little boxes. Congregants talked of hope and justice and the people they’d lost in their community. It was a painfully thin substitute for the real pleasures of being physically present with others, but it showed the remarkable determination of people to maintain and continue the structures we already had.

Just as in March or April, the world is still here. We don’t have to be desperate and hopeless because most of the resources necessary for life are still in our possession – the houses, the cars, the farms, the power grid. We haven’t become bereft as a whole, but our capitalist system wants to make beggars out of people surrounded by a bounty unprecedented in human history. For no apparent reason, except our own inertia and fear or suspicion toward each other.

What we have lost is people, which is the only resource that can’t be substituted for or replaced. We have lost them and all the vaccines and stock markets in the world can’t make up for it. But we still have a great wealth in the world we’ve created and embodied in those of us still living. What will it take for us to enjoy it?