4/19/20

BY Sophia Stewart | | Pandemic Diaries

The sun is setting, and I realize I haven’t eaten yet today. Since we first started sheltering-in-place five weeks ago, this kind of accidental fasting has become routine. Within moments I’m in my car, driving to the McDonalds on San Pablo. I’m waiting to make a left turn at a large intersection, yielding to a procession of oncoming cars. I peer through their windshields as they pass me: every driver is wearing a face mask and clutching their steering wheel with latex-gloved hands. 

When I arrive at the drive-thru, I place my order, a Big Mac meal with a Coke, and move ahead to the payment window. The cashier slides open the pane, and I see that there is a second plexiglass divider separating us, with a small, crudely cut rectangular opening for her to take my debit card. Then I move down to the second window, which also has a plexiglass divider, but its opening is a larger square, so that a paper bag and a drink can fit through it. The attendant greets me with a warm, comforting smile and asks me how I am. I tell him I’m okay — “And how are you doing?” He’s good, he says. He hands me my meal, and I thank him a bit too profusely, but I mean every word. As I make my way back home, I keep my window rolled down and drape my arm out the driver’s side until the cool air numbs my bare skin.

At home, I inhale the meal at my creaky, wooden kitchen table. I’ve been spending about 10 to 12 hours every day sitting at that table, doing work and attending virtual classes. My trips to the McDonald’s drive-thru break up these long periods of stasis, so I’ve been making them about twice a week. Oftentimes, my interactions with the drive-thru attendants are the only form of human contact I’ll have in a day.

This, of course, is not how I predicted I’d be spending the last few months of my senior year of college. My college career is effectively over, and it ended so abruptly and unceremoniously that I find myself grieving the time and experiences that I’ve lost. I’m still processing the details. In a matter of days, we were ripped from our classrooms and banished from our campus. Most of my friends left for home so quickly that I never had the chance to say goodbye. There will be no graduation, no closure, no formal end to this formative chapter of my life. And while my old collegiate life may have ended, there is no new professional life to take its place. My post-grad job prospects have altogether evaporated due to the pandemic, and I now find myself in an indefinite state of limbo. Once this is all over, there will be nothing for me to return to, nothing to resume.

Doing schoolwork has helped ground me, but I find the cloistered life is incompatible with my usual level of productivity. After the shelter-in-place order was issued, I realized that since high school, I’ve always studied outside of the house, at cafes and libraries. I recently found a website that recreates the ambient sounds of a cafe to listen to while you work. Last night, writing a paper from my couch, I listened to a track entitled “University Undertones,” which promised “the scholarly sounds of a campus cafe.” My chest ached as I thought about my favorite, now-shuttered campus coffee shop, which I’d frequented so regularly that the manager gave me a special sticker as a reward for my loyalty.

I hate to be maudlin, but I am paralyzed by worry. The cancellation of a major annual event may cost my father his salaried position. I’ve lost two of my three jobs. And it seems like there has never been a worse time to be looking for employment in the media sector, which I unfortunately am, as giants like Slate and Vox announce pay cuts and furloughs. Every single one of the dozens of editorial jobs and internships to which I’ve applied is now closed. My editor, Boris Dralyuk, assures me it will all be alright — “This is far from an ideal time for the media, but don’t despair,” he wrote to me in a characteristically supportive email, “we haven’t had an ideal time since the Gutenberg Boom of 1439 — and even then, the Black Death was afoot.” 

In the context of quarantine, I am privileged. My personal laptop makes remote learning easily accessible, my job is not so essential that I am forced to risk my health to do it, and my attention has not been split between work and other domestic responsibilities like childcare. My home is comfortable: next to my cozy bed, a large window overlooks a front-yard garden and lets in plentiful sunlight some 13 hours a day. And my support system is strong: every few days, my mother and I go for hour-long walks together over FaceTime, and I recently had a small Zoom-gathering with three of my closest friends for my 22nd birthday. 

But, despite my editor’s reassurances, I still can’t help but despair. The climbing death toll is heartbreaking. Some of our most important institutions — publications, museums, local businesses — may never recover. And with no end in sight for stay-at-home orders, I fear every plan I’ve ever made for the future is doomed. All I can do to cope is live firmly in the present moment, and accept the indefinite uncertainty that we’re all facing, together. Getting through this will require self-compassion — and in these times, one of the most compassionate things I’ve found I can do for myself is take that biweekly trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru, where human contact and a warm meal await me.

Sophia Stewart, ’20, Berkeley, CA