‘You See the Best of Us Now’ What we are learning about ourselves and each other during the pandemic
‘You See the Best of Us Now’ What we are learning about ourselves and each other during the pandemic
A staggering level of death. Multitudes out of work. The lives as we knew them so fully upended. But through the pandemic, many have found strength and taken comfort in family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, even strangers, including some for whom we have a new appreciation: grocery store clerks, truck drivers, warehouse workers. What follows are voices from across North America that speak to a renewed sense of belief in the values that run through all our communities: stories of perseverance in these dark times and, perhaps most important, a sense of hope, which is the one medicine we can always rely on.
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49, owner of LiLi the First boutique, Georgetown
I decided to close my store the first week of March. As much as I wanted to check in with customers — I call them my First ladies — they wanted to check in with me, sending me actual letters through the mail. I think that people have the time now just to sit and write letters. And I have the time to sit and write back. It’s like we’re going back in time. I’ve been walking for two hours a day. It’s a way for me to discover the city where I live. I never realized that we have so many dogs here! Now that I’m outside, I see there are a lot of dogs. Without the noise of the cars, I can actually hear the birds. And having a destination, having somewhere to go, makes me feel productive.
I am seeing a generosity that I never knew existed. At least twice a week I have been sending off gifts. One of my customers wanted to send her sister in Ohio a pair of earrings. When she got the package, she opened it over Zoom.
Yesterday, I shipped three gifts: a bracelet, a shirt and a pair of earrings, and an organic cotton T-shirt. I write the notes to include in the packages, like they do in a flower shop. It’s such a mood booster to be able to say, “Here, I’m thinking about you. I want you to wear something pretty while you’re locked inside.” I think that if I have a little sale like this every day — a pair of earrings, a scarf — I will make it. I will survive.
80, author, Toronto
I never anticipated living through anything exactly like this, but of course in the ’50s and early ’60s we thought we might get an atom bomb or two dropped on us. And Toronto was an epicenter of SARS, and I knew front-line doctors who were involved in it. SARS was scary, but luckily it was confined quickly. However, having been interested in plagues and pandemics for some time, I’ve been aware that some new microbe with a long incubation period to which we have no immunity could appear. And that’s what has happened. We’ll get through it. There will be an “other side.” But we won’t be back exactly to where we were before. There will be a lot of pieces to pick up, a lot of regrouping to be done. However, this crisis does cause people to reflect on how they’ve been doing things, how they’ve been living, and it’s already inspired much new thinking. The late cultural planner Barry Lord said that the transition to renewables is ushering in an age of stewardship. Geochemist Hope Jahren, in “The Story of More,” notes that we are burning through Earth’s resources at a ferocious rate — way beyond replacement. That will have to stop, one way or another. Maybe we should consider ways of giving ourselves a soft landing from planetary degradation, rather than a mass-death crash scene. We have to come up with alternatives to our dangerous ways, including the stresses we’ve been putting on habitat and wildlife that increase the chances of new pandemic viruses. And while we’re at it: Maybe next time we should be prepared. Having been warned, we could have been this time. But we weren’t.
For myself, I’m busier than ever, because everyone wants me to do things online. Today was two podcast things, and the tech worked. Tomorrow will be a resked of one that didn’t work earlier. But it can’t go on forever. There’s only so much time you can spend reflecting on how weird you look in the little window in the on-screen platform. There’s also the baking and the garden. Today I dug up some dandelions and ate them (cooked them first). I haven’t done that for a while. There are some good recipes online, but use only plants that haven’t flowered. As for being inspired to write yet another book: I’ll never tell. If I’d told my publishers about some of the books I’ve written while I was writing them, they’d have thought I’d lost a few bulbs out of my chandelier.
47, co-owner of Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center, Ypsilanti, Mich.
I’m in Wayne County, one of these counties in Michigan that is hit real hard. I was doing curbside [delivery]. But when they said we needed to close March 24th, that Tuesday I shut down. When things was getting tight, I’ve seen a lot of other bookstores coming up with GoFundMe. I said, “Man, am I hurting myself and my business by not doing these things?” Because I used to give stuff to people, always give, give, give, give. And when people would give me stuff, I said, “Nah, I’m cool, I’m all right.”
One day, I remember a gentleman I looked up to, he told me, “You know how you give things to people, and you get a joy out of it? Well, when people try and give you something, you rob them of that same joy if you don’t receive it. When you turn down something, it’s not always doing them a favor. Sometimes you hurt them because you take away that blessing that you feel.” That made a lot of sense. And I always go back to that. Though honestly speaking, it’s still a little uncomfortable.
The community has stepped up. They supported me even before all this, and I always was amazed by that. It just shows you how much love that’s in the world. But you won’t experience that love until you put yourself in that circle of love. That’s kind of like how I look at society. That you have everybody pulling in all directions. But if you dig deep and just pull the layers back, you realize that we all in the same fight. And some of them are willing to fight for you and get on that front line. And that’s a beautiful thing.
29, rabbi at Hill Havurah, Washington
We had a Zoom community Seder on the second night of Passover. I was apprehensive [laughs] how it would go. In the past, obviously, it is in person, dinner is served, and we try to use a caterer. It gets really expensive, so it’s kind of exclusive in that sense — not everybody can afford to attend the community Seder, especially if you have a large family. And so, the Zoom Seder — I feel like we had the same number of people coming, but maybe not the same people.
It’s funny: Passover is meant to be this holiday about freedom and leaving Egypt in a hurry without the ability to even bake your bread and let it rise. That’s why we have matzoh. But then people make these huge elaborate feasts for Seder, have a million people over, make it really fancy, get out the nicest china. And I’ve heard some people say that they found this year more liberating than others because they let themselves sort of be in that place of not letting the bread rise, so to speak.
I think the distance of technology makes it easier in some ways to show people’s playful sides. I was just teaching a seventh-grade b’nai mitzvah class on Zoom — 12- and 13-year-olds — and they basically pranked me. They all made their background pictures of me teaching and changed their names to Hannah Spiro. Then got out of the view so it would look like there was a whole bunch of me teaching. I thought that was awesome. Then Yavneh, our congregation’s religious school, had a faculty meeting I was attending, and I was so, so tempted to do the same thing.
19, makes TikTok videos (@its_J_dog) of his grandmother Jenny Krupa, 88, Alberta, Canada (pictured)
“Baba can’t go to town or to bingo. She’s really into bingo. She misses grandchildren’s birthdays because she has bingo. I go to [my groundparents’] house multiple times a day because we just live 100 feet away from each other, and since I can’t do anything, I am trying to go there more than usual. We still shoot a TikTok video once a day. People post comments like, ‘Thank you so much for posting. You’re the highlight of my day.’”
33, DJ, Marietta, Ga.
Some people’s parents didn’t graduate, and they told themselves, “When I have kids, I will make sure my child does everything the right way.” So, not being able to see them walk across the stage or send them off to the prom on their first big night out on the town alone with a date is bad in my eyes. We came up with the idea to do a virtual prom so the parents get the opportunity to take pictures, get their kids dressed, take family pictures and give them some type of hope, show them that we still care. We’re gonna act like we’re really inside of a building. Dance with your mom, dance with your brothers and sisters, FaceTime your friends and see what they got on — just make the best out of it.
52, Major League Baseball umpire, secretary of Umps Care, Castle Rock, Colo.
Here in Colorado, at 8 p.m., everybody opens their doors and windows or steps into their backyard, and kids and adults, they howl like wolves. That’s our recognizing all the health-care workers. It’s those little things. It’s the little food bank on the neighbor’s porch. You know, if you have something extra, drop it off. And if you need something, just take it. It’s little kids out there writing signs on health workers’ driveways in chalk. It’s people being charitable. More of the public involved in charity, I think, is going to be a positive byproduct of all this.
in her 40s, manager and singer for the W.H.A.T.?! Band, Washington
I’m an information-is-power kind of person. I watch Roland Martin, who has his own podcast news program, more than anyone. There are a lot of people of color affected by this virus, a disproportionate [number]. He has a lot of experts on his program that are African American epidemiologists, nurses, doctors, experts. I feel better when I’m informed. That’s my ironic happy place, just knowing what’s going on. It’s stressful, terrifying, horrifying and heartbreaking, but I just need to know.
Weeks before people were even talking about social distancing, when I was still performing, I was disinfecting my stage, my microphone, my bandmates’ microphones. They were looking at me like I was crazy. I did my own PSA video to the people in my network, mostly people of color, telling them to be careful. I said, this is going to hit us way harder, because of all of these underlying conditions [affecting people of color]. This was weeks before they discovered that African Americans are dying at higher rates.
I’m adamant about it. And I get on everybody’s nerves. [But] I’m using my voice now to really get the information out to my network to take this seriously and follow the guidelines. I know that I’ve made an impact.
71, historian and award-winning biographer, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.
My work has always been my preferred form of therapy and escape, and no less during this period. A shrink would probably speculate that I became a biographer in the first place so that I could disappear every day into other lives and other eras. I have tried to stick with my usual writing routine in the middle of the pandemic. I think it gives a veneer of normality to the situation and makes me feel in some small way that I can control a piece of my life. Luckily, the book that I am writing at the moment is on Mark Twain, so I am holed up in my apartment with arguably the most entertaining person in American history.
One side of me has secretly enjoyed this sudden standstill in activities. I think we have all been reminded of what is essential in life, which is our relationships with other people. When we come out of the other end of this, we are going to have a deeper bond with the people in our lives — of course, the people who have survived this. For many years I have been worried about the state of our democracy. But it’s very heartening to see so many people doing their civic duty and acting not only to protect themselves but to protect their fellow citizens, too. This has been a great demonstration of the power of mass democracy, and I hope it continues. One thing that has struck me very powerfully is the intergenerational harmony. I have been very touched by the generosity of younger friends, members of the millennial generation who have volunteered to shop for me, recognizing that I am at higher risk. One day, my doorbell rang. I went downstairs and nobody was there. But there were three enormous shopping bags bulging with food, household supplies and sanitary wipes brought by a younger friend. In my experience, the younger generation has been extraordinarily considerate of their elders.
Kaite Mediatore Stover
55, director of readers’ services for Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library
More people are reading, so that’s good news. And I definitely think that this will translate into more library lovers in the future. The people who loved us before will never waver, but it’s all the new folks we are reaching that is encouraging. They are doing what the library always wants patrons to do, learning how to use areas of the library they didn’t know existed: digital formats for books, streaming movies and documentaries, brushing up on language learning, dialing a dedicated phone line for a story time. And they can’t wait to share what they’ve learned with their family, friends and neighbors on social media! You know what boggles their minds the most? That it’s all free.
I just know there’s an author out there soaking up the news and taking furious notes for the next pandemic thriller novel which will kick-start the forthcoming trend in publishing: pan-fi. You heard it here first. The librarian conundrum will be where to shelve it. With fiction or science fiction?
33, firefighter, Arlington, Va.
“Sometimes we’re up five times in one night. Sometimes we might not get up at all. It’s so random and really unpredictable. It just depends on who calls 9-1-1. So I plan my days as much as I can, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. I think that’s why I’m able to cope with [covid-19] better. I just reset every day.”
49, truck driver for LTI Trucking Services, Biloxi, Miss.
I know we’re all winging this as we go, but there was no protocol on how to protect drivers. We didn’t have the PPE equipment. We didn’t have masks. I had subscribers — I’m known as Ms. DivaTrucker on YouTube; I have like 32,000 subscribers — they’ve been sending me masks. [Laughs.] Oh, my God, I got all kinds of masks. So, I’ve been just giving them out to the drivers on the highway because a lot of them don’t have it. Then they’re closing down the restaurants. We can’t get anything to eat. We depend on these fast-food restaurants, you know? I’m in with Real Women in Trucking, [a nonprofit trade group founded by Desiree Wood]. I said, “Look at what they’re doing to the rest area.” They closed the whole PA turnpike down and boarded up all the parking spots. They didn’t put porta-potties outside. So I took pictures of that. Desiree just tweeted her little heart out. And about a week later, they took the barriers out. Getting those rest areas open, that was the community that did that, you know? We’re having the community stand behind us. Before, as a truck driver, we were just this big huge object in the middle of the road stopping people. Now, you got people coming to the rest areas giving us sandwiches and little snacks, telling us, “Thank you.” It’s a new appreciation. I mean, even the police. It feels really good.
58, neurologist, Greensboro, N.C.
My work volume has slowed. We’re basically on telemedicine. Lots of video and telephone appointments. At the same time, there is this palpable level of stress. I’m on call once a week for emergencies. A woman recently came into the ER with a subdural hemorrhage. We rushed her to surgery. She’d had a cough [and] no fever in the ER, but playing it safe I asked everyone in the OR to assume she was covid-19 positive. She was on her way to dying. We had to put a breathing tube in. The level of stress in managing these patients is really high. You don’t have time to think things through. The trouble is you just don’t know what you’re up against. We tested her after her surgery while she was recovering. It came back positive. By my calculation, this patient had come in contact with 30 health-care workers as we saved her life.
[At home,] I am using the time to rewrite a book that is going to come out in the spring. Before all this, my younger sister had leukemia and died. A year later her husband had a ruptured aneurysm and died. She left two kids. The experience opened my eyes. I interviewed physicians and patients about how they have managed their grief. Physicians tend to put up a wall against grief and tend not to open up emotionally. That has a lasting negative impact on them.
What’s fascinating to me is this pandemic has connected us in ways that have been surprising. Before, there was a power differential between physician and patient. It has leveled the playing field; the doctor could easily be the patient. [Physicians] are going [to work] feeling very vulnerable, and we have to connect and work together.
49, stand-up comedian, Los Angeles
Mentally, my brain is like, “Hey, you should sit down and write something!” And I’m like, “Yeah!” And then I realize that I have never actually written anything on a computer in my life. I started doing stand-up in 1989, and I used to write it down on paper. So I am going to have to go back to paper, because I don’t know how to sit in front of my computer and type up my act. I feel like as an Indian person, I am a letdown.
A friend of mine did 14 years in solitary confinement. He said the key is not to think about the things you cannot do. Focus on the things you can do. I have my turntables, so I play some music every day, and I look forward to the grocery market trip. I find joy in changing the batteries. And I get to spend a lot of really good quality time with my two kids.
I live in a very affluent gated community with a lot of celebrities and wealthy people. At the end of the day, none of that matters. Howie Mandel is my next-door neighbor, and he sent over some masks that a friend of his made. Then another neighbor dropped off a bottle of scotch. And another neighbor dropped off a cupcake for my son’s birthday. If I am driving through the community and I see someone I know, I’ll ask them, “Hey, I am going to the supermarket. Do you need anything?”
43, director of the Bureau of Cleaning and Collection, New York City Department of Sanitation
We have had to do a lot of things to meet the needs of 8.6 million New Yorkers, so we’ve augmented shifts and we’ve had to change how we look at our daily tasks to take into consideration all of the challenges in the local landscape. The staff here, the men and women on the job, really inspire me daily, just watching them meet those challenges head-on. New York City has been impacted by some pretty major crises before. We’ve had 9/11, historic blizzards, Superstorm Sandy and other hurricanes, and now covid-19. I wish it didn’t take a crisis, but you see the best of us now in these times.
Eric S. Higgins
55, sheriff of Pulaski County, Ark.
This is my second year as sheriff of Pulaski County, and I am inspired by the personnel here. In law enforcement, no matter what happens — tornadoes, shooting incidents — the personnel is going to respond. But this is different. This is an unseen threat, and we’ve been coming together to address this issue, how we can best protect our community and protect the detainees. Our detention center is the largest county detention center in the state, and we’re at a level we haven’t seen since 2005, with 873 detainees. In spite of everything shutting down, we are really working well together. I think a lot of people would expect chaos and anarchy, but people for the most part are trying to follow the guidelines. I have learned that we will come together in a crisis.
41, journalist and criminal justice reform advocate, Henderson, Tex.
I was locked up from the time I was 15 to 25. And the last time was from about age 30 to 39. I’ve been out since December 2018. But the whole year I’ve been out, I’ve been on a GPS ankle monitor, which has included weekly visits with my parole officer. So I’d make a schedule — “Monday I’m going to work, and then Walmart, and then the bank” — and I couldn’t deviate from any of those locations, and they were all essential living needs. Pretty much what people are doing now. I finally just got off GPS monitoring this past month, and now I’m not allowed to go anywhere.
You have to really enjoy the small things. It means paying attention to the tiniest details of your life and really experiencing the joy of those so you can feel gratitude. And once you feel gratitude, it’s really hard to be miserable. It’s the gratitude for the small victories of the day that not only helped me get through prison but since I’ve been out. Small victories like getting up and being able to make my own cup of coffee, taking a shower in my own shower, being able to call my dad whenever I want to, even if I can’t go by his house. Those seem like really tiny things to people, but when you live so long without making choices for yourself, the fact that I’m able to decide to walk to the mailbox today, there’s a great freedom in that.
I have a few moments here and there where I’m a little frustrated. I’d already started making plans to travel and see friends out of state, and it’s not possible right now. But you have to learn to accept: This is what it is. If you stay in the place of “How can I change this?” when you can’t, you’re going to get frustrated and angry, and then the little things, you’re not grateful for. I may want more right now, but there is still so much freedom in this life.
54, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington
I go to the arts and try to learn something every day. I lead a museum, and we have 44,000 works of art. I don’t know how long I’d have to be at the museum to look at all of them. So I look something up every day [using] a slightly hidden, delightful feature on our website: You put in the date and you’ll see which artist shares your birthday. And I’ll just call up today. That’s an easy way for me to just dip into the collection and see who has a special birthday today, and who is a figure in American art. I scroll through, and I pick an artist or two that I’d like to get to know.
This is an exercise in slowing down, and it’s actually one that we want to have in museums, of slow looking. This slowing down is actually good for us. It’s good for our imprint on nature. It’s good for us savoring food and drink and a good laugh or a good book. Art requires you to slow down. I am hoping this is a new habit that we all have.
31, poet, Silver Spring, Md., on the poems he and his friends have been writing and sharing every morning
“There’s no expectation that any of these poems will become anything in the world, except these kinds of just small ideas or moments or nods to one another. Writing is part of us; it’s what’s built the community that connects us. Sharing those small pieces of writing, especially during this time, is a reminder of this community that we want to get back to.”
55, president of Ahaus Tool and Engineering, Richmond, Ind. (pictured far right)
The face shield [idea] came up from our local salesperson and a friend of his who works at the company that designed the product. They said, “Hey, we need some help.” We jumped on it, said sure. You know, we’re seeing a little slowdown in business, so this would be good work to help keep everybody busy. And so we got our team together and said, “Let’s figure out how to do this.” [The face shields are] going to people who are on the front lines, in close contact with a patient or suspected-case patient. People were just saying, “How can I help? How can I chip in?” It’s developed into two shifts pushing out 20,000 assemblies a day. We rotate [people] in and out so they don’t get too burned out on doing this same repetitive motion thousands of times a day. Everybody’s real upbeat, proud to be a part of the process. I’m proud of everybody working here because they stepped right in.
Carmen Yulín Cruz
57, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico
I wish I could tell you I was coping with this. I’m not. Most of the time, you put it aside so that you can continue to do what you have to do. But I find inspiration in the people. The doctor that is running the drive-through — her name is Dr. Isona. She is also the director of the pediatric emergency unit at the municipal hospital. She never has a harsh word for anyone. She’s always there when you need her as a doctor — and as a human. She took her children to her parents’ house and sees them only on the weekends so that she can put all of her effort into saving other people’s lives and does not put them at risk.
There are hundreds of people like that — some that we will never know. The person that picks up the letters. Or the strawberries in the fields in Oxnard, California. The person that drives it. The person that puts it in the supermarket so that we can buy it. Crises are the great equalizers. How the doctor and the worker that picks the food are equally valuable. And my hope is that, as a society, we learn that we have to have a more just and more equitable distribution of wealth. Because, when it comes to it, money will not save your life entirely. I said this after [Hurricane] Maria, and I can reinforce it now. For every life that we couldn’t save, we are called to honor that life. And the only way we honor that life is to continue fighting even when it seems like everything is lost. If we don’t, it would be a lack of respect to those that lost their lives.
43, pharmacist at Morgan Pharmacy, Georgetown
My daily activities at work are pretty much the same, but I now communicate with the customers over the phone more often. There hasn’t been a big difference this week from last; however, there is definitely a huge difference now from a month ago. We used to have many customers in and out and see each other face to face. They are not just customers to us. They are our friends and good neighbors, but we haven’t seen them for several weeks, and we really miss them a lot. Also, personally, I haven’t seen my family for about two months now, even though they live 20 minutes away from my place.
Many people come in looking for toilet paper, rubbing alcohol, masks, disposable gloves, thermometers, hand sanitizers and vitamin supplements. We know that there are shortages on those items right now, so we do our best to provide them. At first, many of our customers were worried and called asking if we would be open during this pandemic crisis. We told them that we would be here for them. I am so glad that my colleagues and I are all well so we can keep the promise. Our customers also call to ask how we are doing and thank us for keeping the pharmacy open. That’s the moment when we feel blessed.
28, nurse, Alexandria, La.
I work at Rapides Regional Medical Center in Alexandria, the second-biggest ER in the state. [My shift is] 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Everybody I work with is finding ways to make it better for themselves, and better for each other.
It’s rare that we get thanked for our jobs at all. Especially working on the night shift, it’s an inside joke that whenever a family sends food to the hospital, even if we save someone’s life, it always goes to the day shift. Nobody thinks about the people working at 2 in the morning. But now, there’s people who send food at 12 in the afternoon, and they send it again at 8 at night. People are really, actively thinking about us.
A lot of businesses or families will send us food, or call in and tell us that they’re praying for us. About two weeks ago, a radio station organized this: They had a bunch of families drive out to the helipad, stay in their cars, and played a song for us. Everyone rolled down the windows, turned up the radio, flashed their hazard lights and said a prayer for us.
44, National Park Service guide at Homestead National Monument of America, Beatrice, Neb.
I have been inspired to create content for the Park Service’s visual media and involve everyone at the park as much as I can. I reflect on perseverance as well. The homesteading era, which was from 1862 through 1986, was about perseverance on many levels. People made it through, and so will we.
I am learning new skills to be a more effective communicator. We’re very keyed in to making sure that all the media we are producing is accessible to everybody. I am so impressed by everyone’s ideas, proactiveness and most of all friendship. Oops, this is where I get emotional. I have daily contact with my co-workers, so it really makes social distancing a lot easier for me. Community is the backbone. If there is anything I have learned through the homesteading story, it is that having a supportive community can make all the difference in survival, whether it is mental or physical in nature. I am hopeful to once again welcome our community of travelers and knowledge seekers and folks who just happened to come through our door. I am waiting for them to come back.