A Study of Willard Park

BY Jillian Magtoto | | Pandemic Diaries

The people who frequent Willard Park the least live right next door. My windows face the park so squarely that it enters my room like a painting. It’s only ten steps away, but it might as well be a poster of the Colosseum hanging on my wall. I visited Rome once, and the pictures do it justice. I’ll be satisfied if I never go again. 

I can only write about the park the way sketch artists imitate watercolor paintings with graphite pencils. Like them, I can only draw people as shades of grey. I cannot capture their bright auras that mix in conversations I’m not privy to. Instead, I map their shapes and movements on one sheet of paper, each scene superimposed on top of the last. Time is stacked into one long exposure. Maybe I’ve just grown used to flat bodies on screens.

But where are they today? The air is clear, the sun is shining, the clouds are high and inviting. The birds flit from tree to tree, singing their special song for after the rain. It is not like the park goers to waste a day of good weather. Why is today different?

In the pandemic, the sun is no longer a luxury, but rather a desperate escape. Sustained by sunshine’s unsteady supply, we withdraw in the lows of rain. So, they rode the high of sunny months and today, they suffer the crash.

I saw them savor every last second, spiking balls and smoking blunts with growing intention in the minutes and moments before the darkness and rain drove them indoors. The weather app said that today would be beautiful, allowing enough time for plans to be made. But the past wet weeks have shocked them sluggish. We are not like the small-brained birds who adapt so quickly, and forget so quickly. We’re creatures of habit and thus, creatures of trauma. We get so used to good fortune that any turn of events, any disappointment, reverberates in our bodies for days. 

I am not willing to be a big-brained creature of habit, so I unplug my computer at twenty percent to finish writing in the park. Rash and reckless, I know. To my surprise, I am almost giddy. I can’t lace my shoes fast enough. I take a bright blue beach hat that insults my black jacket and boots, but I think it will help me bleed into the rest of the colors as I step into the painting.

The painting reciprocates and bleeds back into me, the dampness of the grass darkening my jeans. It feels good to eavesdrop on two girls sitting nearby. They are talking about weirdly complex simple things, like how matching with a friend on Tinder can be a joke, but also hint at something more. A guy they know doesn’t believe in “depression.” When they leave, they make plans to get drinks and have a sleepover. One of them says she will leave her house in sweats so that her roommates won’t ask questions. I think it’s funny that they’re wearing masks, as if that will protect against their impending exposures. Why not just start their incubation periods now? 

 Behind me, the conversation sounds a bit different.

What’d you do, snort it?

Mhm.

What was it? Black Tar?

Mhm.

Aw, you better not do that stuff, man.

This exchange takes place on the park’s periphery, which expands to the sidewalk and into cars that have been parked for months, where the colors are less green and the trees block out the sun. 

In the painting, the people here are muddled transitions of color from green to brown to grey. But on paper, they leave the clearest impression. Long exposed to the days, nights, rains, and sun, their steady shapes bring them into focus. Their lines grow more defined over time, while the streaks of seasonal tourists fade into a smudge of grey.

I wonder how these striking people must see the park, as a painting or a sketch. I hope it is neither, and that they have a better view than mine—one without contrast between people.

Jillian Magtoto ’23, Berkeley, CA