New Zealand writer Anna Rankin thinks her way through the craziness and desperation of lockdowned Los Angeles, in the first of a two-part essay.
It occurs to me this evening as I sit in the heat of my Los Angeles apartment beside a window, which faces the almond-pale stucco of the adjacent building partially obscured by curled wrought iron grating, that one of the final conversations I had at work was a foreshadowing of the pandemic.
My two interlocutors had been out of jail for a year after serving life sentences. They’d both served time—reduced to 30 or was it 25?— as cold-blooded murderers and now worked as therapists in prison in a burgeoning self-initiated enterprise. They’d grown up with the ingrained sense that their lives did not matter, and this was confirmed by the fact that for most of their lives they had been reduced to a number not a name; and they lived still precarious lives. In our conversation, they described the limits of political agency, of what is possible in the world, and the urgent need for a radical break.
None of us could have conceived what devastation awaited in close approach that warm spring evening; the mass death, so mammoth it seems innumerable, the amorphous fear and dread that quickened in pace like storm clouds, the protracted time indoors turning the screw on our minds, the inaccessible tests, protective gear, and healthcare, the disembowelment of the economy, the austerity and labyrinthine bureaucracy making it near-impossible for the masses – let alone the undocumented within that mass – to access federal aid and stimulus checks, the evisceration of industries overnight, the structural inequalities and incentives benefiting the few, the puncturing of our collective false consciousness where we might believe we are exceptional and immune from suffering, the evident corruption in the human heart when it comes to the depravities some will go to hoard resources. The break we discussed did not include these things; the break at that time mostly orbited around the Bernie campaign and the flickering sense that change was on the horizon and it was possible. This break now seems naïve, a lost tune inside one sustained thudding note.
Several nights earlier there had been another duo nursing beers over a few hours at the counter. The two men also talked about the moral architecture governing our time which is to say the men— a Rabbi and a university professor—expressed disbelief to one another in low voices that I, a restaurant hostess, had read Buber, Benjamin, and Weil, a point I make not for posterity but relevant in the interests of advancing the always relevant but notably prescient discourse wherein service and other essential workers are, in fact, functionary as the lowly-paid lubricant of society but also learned and well-read and generally have multiple jobs and degrees and, to the surprise of some, enjoy this kind of work for the simple fact it takes one away from books and the screen and the suffocating noise of one’s brain, as well, of course, for the simple matter of money, of the fact we are enlarged by associating with those from different milieu, of a certain sociality such a job can yield and the extraneous time afforded with which to fill with other occupations or family and things of that nature.
Then the virus encompassed only a fraction of the conversation across the bar of the restaurant on Broadway where I had worked as a hostess. For a week or so prior to the shuttering of the city the dark star of the virus occupied our minds. The fear was discernible and it silenced us. It felt as though the forward movement of life was slowly drawing back into a cul-de-sac. Our hands raw from over-washing, we deliberated whether to buy masks and wear gloves. The virus seemed suspended. No one had secure knowledge of how it spread nor who was more susceptible, nor whether it remained as trace particles in the air or carried on the breeze. And nor did we foresee this as a catastrophic tripwire event that would violently alter all structures on which we depend.
In those final weeks I witnessed overt racism, covert suspicion and outright hostility. People began to regard one another as agents of disease. The exchange of money as an organising principle to the mechanisations of the city was replaced by the exchange of advice and rumor, of symptoms and speculation, of what would become of the homeless and the other less-fortunate inhabitants of the city. Mistrust seeds in such a time when a people have become atomised due to the afflictions of degradation and the alienation, cultural decadence and economic devastation of neoliberalism that has further entrenched already existing institutional inequalities. By the time the city-wide shut down ordinance was issued many had already selected their preferential narratives and systems of belief, and this was only galvanised by a President who shirked responsibility, concealed fact and planted fear and falsities into the public sphere amid a mounting death toll.
In one of my final interactions at work a man shrunk back as I outstretched my hand to reach for his credit card. He threw it at me and screamed to stay back, even though I was behind the bar and he was not. Another man that evening, upon discovering his preferred restaurant several doors down had made the wise call to close, and had furthermore been informed that the state of California was expected to issue a decree that night issuing all establishments close for an indeterminate time, responded to this with loud huffing and yelling into the void. Well! Is that gonna be martial law? he bellowed, a ridiculous and befuddled cowboy inviting a gun-draw, looking around red-faced and expectant. Honestly? At that moment I did not know whether this was a good question.
Some took it seriously and their panic was impressed as a relief upon their faces, others rolled their eyes and called it fake news, downing beer after beer and laughing like fools. For several weeks we’d heard of case numbers increasing but the message propagated seemed to suggest that it was up to the individual to decide how serious this might be; a cruelly libertarian ethic of care. There were those who could not afford not to care and those who moved through space and time with the self-assured arrogance afforded to those immune to suffering. No masks, no clue. The myth had not yet been punctured by fact.
The highest numbers of Covid-19 first appeared in the wealthier suburbs of Beverly Hills and Brentwood, attributable to the likelihood of air-travel spread among the more mobile inhabitants of the city. Consequently, this group had access to testing and treatment; therefore their numbers were transparent, and it would soon spread. LA was and is not, as yet, as catastrophic as New York, determinable in part to the fact that life here is more atomised—most people drive, there is the sense that one class eschews public transport and interactions, and resides within a sealed existence. The patterns and movement of the virus has to be considered alongside the metrics of those who use public transport, and who can’t afford to adhere to social distancing at work.
My last evening taking orders was mid March, an eerie and silent Sunday where we counted the meagre takings and knew the lights would be set to dim for an unforeseeable period of time. We’d been vigilant, following the news for updates as the patrons observably decreased. We felt the approach of unease, a coldly atmospheric gauze settling over the city, a trepidation which turned to outright fear.
I enjoyed that part-time job. I like service, and as a writer I like talking. It didn’t drain me, no, I am buoyed by the presence of strangers and the conversant decency required in ensuring their ease and happiness. There’s an intimacy that interaction with the public engenders and there’s the sense that curiosity is rewarded in a city like Los Angeles. Here, I have several jobs, some high, some low, and each offers me a through-line to chart the city. Hostessing at the restaurant, due to its specific locale in a seedy part of town, exposes the fissures between my various lives and the social circles I toggle. In his Hollywood Elegies, a brief verse that describes ruinous desire and alienation in the city, the German exile Bertolt Brecht writes that the city is named for the angels / and its angels are easy to find. And it is true, you do meet angels on every corner. If we want to talk about the divine, I remain convinced that strangers hold the key to our salvation.
For over two months I’ve been in a somewhat self-imposed lockdown. I apply a qualifier because there has not been clear, stringent guidance in California, in the manner that there has been in other cities around the world. The indirect “Safer at Home” policy translates as a rather euphemistic maxim and has, accordingly, yielded confusion. At the time of writing, Los Angeles county has surpassed 43,000 confirmed cases and over 2000 deaths, and the rate is increasing. In a county of over 10 million people, now less than half of these residents have jobs. LA County officials have recommended the stay-at-home order be extended until August. This news comes at a time of debate over how long the county’s moratorium on evictions should remain in place, given many have not been able to pay rent. The specious offering of a $1200 cheque to tide one over for an unspecified time is absurd—and that’s if you can even get through on the phone lines— friends are still waiting, six weeks later.
Within Los Angeles alone, the restaurant industry employs as much as 40 percent of undocumented workers. California is a state where the cases and deaths are more numerous than researchers expected, the numbers and knock-on effects too staggering to comprehend. Some 20.5 million jobs were lost in April, and these losses have disproportionately affected African-American and Latino workers. This figure doesn’t account for undocumented workers, and these workers, excluded from the federal relief program, are subject to major risk from ICE if seeking medical attention.
Since the effective closure of the city, time has felt to be a bland, formless continuum punctured by daily horrors read online that thus remain abstract until I step outside of my apartment and there, on the pavement, is the moral affront of groups of homeless people baking like fossils under blazing sun, their makeshift setups and encampments a permanent fixture on a residential street. Scattered among the tents affixed with stray items and draped tarpaulins and suitcases and shredded office chairs lies fabric masks, strewn over the ground. The item once so precious and sought now so ubiquitous as to be carelessly tossed aside after one use by passers-by.
Listless and unmoored, for the two weeks of March that followed I sequestered myself indoors. I had tried to purchase a mask and hand sanitiser but these were already scarce. Instead, a friend named David, who would come to be my quarantine partner, gave me a makeshift fabric bandanna with two holes poked in it through which to breathe that he’d used as a teen to graffiti the city he’d grown up in, scrounging around at night.
David, born and raised in LA, the son of Mexican immigrants, remembers the riots of 92 following the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD. Caught in the crossfire one night as a six-year-old living in South Central with his mother and sister, he still bears a scar from a window shattering in his face.
In a recent New Yorker interview, author and activist Mike Davis, who penned two canonical works central to the literature of Los Angeles, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, discussed his new book Set the Night on Fire: L.A in the Sixties (published by Verso). The socioeconomic conditions that engendered the riots are still with us, he says in the article. The Rodney King beating and police detonated it, but the riots came in the midst of a recession, and revealed a city in which hundreds of thousands of people were living day by day, with no reserves. When they lost their jobs, people became desperate. If this depression continues, this enlarges the number of people living in dangerous and precarious circumstances. There is no reason we couldn’t see another uprising or similar event. You just ask yourself, how are people going to live a month without a paycheck?
The global pandemic has disclosed in no immoderate terms that a simmering class war is metastasising, and we can no longer defend a system that is for the few and not the many. A system of pure ideology, untethered from the reality of many of our lives, ideology itself a material force that governs how we live. The pandemic is yet another expression and manifestation of late capitalism and the attendant neoliberal policies that have made this, and many other cities around the world, increasingly uninhabitable, a situation antithetical to the very ethos of cities and their locus as expressions of democracy and sites of gathering and potential. We have seen the falsities engendered by the world we made punctured by the virus and its ancillary chaotic symptoms.
I send David a link to a news update for the district and he expresses disgust at the neglect that has allowed this to happen to his people, and how it’s just another link in the chain of not only disenfranchisement, but death through willful and sustained unconcern. Why are white people so crooked and hateful? he asks. He tells me this moment has been his defining political awakening.
For those first two weeks I stayed in bed, watching The Sopranos, the ten-hour holocaust epic Shoah, and Chantal Akerman’s films shot within small apartments like mine, films which gesture at the social life of waiting. Akerman’s 1977 docu-film News from Home was shot in an old New York, just before the first financial reforms of the era swept through the city and rendered it unrecognisable. These lost futures ceded to Trump’s real estate ascent in the 80s, whose demented news conferences and rotating cast I watch, absorbed by the spectacle, but which afterward leave me feeling as though I’ve been slimed and I need to take a shower.
There are the unforgettable images that will remain with us as damning artefacts of our time. The homeless in Las Vegas sleeping like stiffened corpses in a giant parking lot between lines of paint, the dead bodies piled in parked trucks, the scale too vast and unconscionable to apprehend in a nation of such wealth. Daily, hourly, news that is so appalling it’s impossible to compute: frontline workers dying, deaths in prison and nursing homes, political corruption and partisanship, the flagrant disregard for basic democratic measures, for truth. I sit at the table scrolling Twitter for updates, trying to focus on writing work but feeling overwhelmed by a dizzying sense of finitude. Dread is, after all, corrosive and defeating and eventually risks indifference. It has no presence, cannot galvanise one in the way that rage might.
There are gradations of isolation and for some life had been hijacked in ways that others had not. Friends and I checked in on one another. Feeling useless and idle we exchanged messages about what to do and the kinds of support we could offer one another, our varying experiences of the same event clashing in a kind of Rashomon effect, mirroring the balkanisation of facts permeating the moment. An ex-boyfriend in New York tells me he has Covid-19 but no healthcare. He communicates with an online nurse who basically told him to stay put unless his breathing cuts off. A Ukrainian émigré, he wrote: long lines at the store, empty shelves and small clandestine social gatherings at people’s apartments. Never thought I’d get to relive my childhood! History throws a wrench in its own perpetuity and there was the sense that life as we’d known it could be razed in a moment. It’s strange that for the first time in my life I have no idea what will happen. How strange time is! Most of our lives we spend submitting to it, without even being overly conscious of it until an unforeseeable break arrives.
We circulated email chains with instructions of symptoms to monitor, of what to do if you felt unwell, for we’d all relinquished the hope of ever getting tested, let alone aid, should we fall ill. Friends moved in with their parents, lost their jobs, their apartments. Friends offer to gift each other their stimulus checks and tax returns, friends share information on rent strikes and workers rights. Is this what we might mean by communism? Or a change in a revolutionary consciousness? You cannot look only to the past to address the present. Friends grew up wealthy, well-educated and well-read and joined the Communist party here. Friends were the children of parents in Vietnam whose lives were destroyed by the regime and fled. These two found each other through a shared aesthetic sensibility—punk and zines and theory— but it is not so simple. We speak of revolution. We speak of a reconfiguration of consciousness, of arguments for morality, for an ethics, for a spiritual lens for which to enact socialism. We can argue, we posit ideas that may be ideologically risky but we do so for the elastic exuberance of debate and anyway, where else can we speak? Where else is it safe to be wrong, to be corrected? We speak of historical amnesia and the incoherence of immaterial currencies and disingenuous systemic deficiencies and the socioeconomic uncertainty this pandemic has cast light on, on a scale and veracity none of us could have imagined. Perhaps the danger isn’t being wrong, after all. It’s being right, because then you may have to do something about it.
My father told me as a young girl that the meat is on the streets and I took that as a declarative maxim, mooching around on corners: the social life of waiting. So, virtually or otherwise, we waited. Online we shared irony and droll and memes and videos and references more deranged than reality; absurdity begets itself and it seems that only maniacal, truly absurdist humour can articulate the tone of the moment and absolve some of the chaos by being still yet more chaotic. Still, reality cut through – some cloistered in another class they were ‘thriving’, while precarity workers were getting yelled at by those to whom they delivered food at the very risk to their own lives. The asymmetry of experience was telling. As for better tips? Forget it, not for these friends, at least. Why would you withhold what you have? I don’t know how that one lands for readers but it makes my heart feel like it’s fallen down a dark well.
What comes after capitalism? I ask my brother. A splintering, he replies. Into wonderful arrangements and terrible ones.
A friend named Jeremy who used to visit me at work now, in a Faustian pact, works as a delivery driver for a late-night deli downtown. He risks his life to uphold a feudal serfdom, and the wealthy who take the bags of food he delivers do not tip him. He tells me stories that further engender the fact that this is, as we know, a socioeconomic disease and workers like him are getting shafted. The danger of this paradigm shift—where those with the luxury to work from home have a completely different experience of the social order of things than those who do not—is that it sets a new precedent. It’s doubtful these new models won’t endure; they operate in favour of a ruling and an associated aspirational class which sees this socially corrosive shift as a means to stay home and use tech to navigate the world and precarity laborers to deliver goods. Stifled under a system designed by and in service of tech conglomerates who reduce material fact and necessities to statistical data, the economic repercussions have cut through variable sectors.
As a student, I worked as a home-care worker and quickly found that I couldn’t sustain conditions that were physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. Will people come out of this and willingly go back into servitude and exploitation? Yes, because they already have, and they will continue to, unless there’s a radical and sustained effort to refuse this as being at all normal or acceptable, to forge a unified will in service of social reorder.
David, too, has found his job radically altered. As a teaching aide to youths with disabilities at a low-income high school, he has no idea when classes will start back up. It might be August, it might be next year, but what he does know is that many of those youths don’t have access to the internet, to an internet connection, to a computer, to a room, to a house, to a safe place. Some of the students are homeless or live in cars. Many have their main meals at school. Many if not most have learning disabilities and compounded mental health issues. Replacing a traditional classroom setting with Zoom, or other modes of online education, is disastrous for these students and he thinks of them every day, wonders how they are surviving.
The Los Angeles Unified School District counts more than 19,000 students as being in a homeless situation, and 24,000 in a foster-home position. A survey of the school district found that half of the students lacked the technology and knowledge needed for online learning while schools are closed. Of the respondents, half lacked reliable internet access and a quarter don’t have the necessary devices for learning. Further, the majority of students are the children of essential workers or those workers who have lost their jobs.
The idea that this period was one where we might catch up on some reading felt like an affront. The online takes about staying home to bake and tend to one’s garden along with curated pictures of an idyllic scene felt like an affront. I write this not with fraudulent and myopic sanctimony nor with the spirit to wedge a divide between myself and those I critique—we are, after all, each complicit in this phenomenon—but every time the inclination to share something potentially tone-deaf arose within myself as surely it does us all, we are communicative creatures, I felt obliged to consider those workers I know who are not afforded such luxuries and were they, it seemed doubtful they would make such elaborately flagrant displays. In such a time I am sure we have all conducted ourselves in ways that has us surprised, or disappointed. I know this to be personally true, and the lesson holds that we should remain watchful and vigilant in examining our nature and guard against our lowest impulses. We cannot know how we will act in crisis, or anytime, really. We should take care to carefully address and correct ourselves and those around us in good faith. In an exchange with my brother he remarks with vital insight that we have a strong instinct, especially in times of scarcity real or perceived, to want to climb the ladder, yet it seems like true life is found at the bottom where we really don’t want to go. There is, he writes, a measure of acknowledging you are always going to have blind spots so having people around to trust that you aren’t just a tourist in their world means they can point out where you are being ridiculous.
After two weeks indoors a lack of groceries occasioned the need to leave the house so one afternoon I walked the four or so blocks down East César Chávez Avenue in the historic working-class immigrant neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where I live, to the store. I found it stripped bare. The same at a larger store. David later drove me to a store on his side of town. We drove west across the bridge toward downtown, crossing the trickling East LA river, weaving through the city to West Adams where Trader Joes, too, was practically empty. A security guard in fatigues stood armed, guarding bottles of water. Stoic-faced shoppers swept through the store, grabbing whatever was left, it didn’t matter what. Nobody spoke. The desperation trailed in the air. Apathetic when faced with such a dismal scene I purchased an oversized bag of corn chips, some oranges and other junk I can’t recall. Something about consuming more in the face of such extremity made me sick, and I would rather go without.
That same day I went to check in on an old man who owns a dollar store on César Chávez. We had befriended one another the first day that I moved to this neighbourhood, back in February. As I now write and remember this day, I recall the unfamiliar sensation of air on my body after so long indoors. The weight felt like warm ironed silk against my skin. Occasionally, one finds oneself quite suddenly seized by the fact that here one is standing in the middle of what, despite the built landscape, remains a vast and arid desert.
The elderly gent is a Jewish-Iranian émigré, and I know this only because the day I first visited his store I wore my gold Star of David necklace, tucked under a white blouse. Spotting it, he relayed in limited English and Farsi that he was Jewish, and had years ago attended the Breed Street Shul, a glorious and imposing landmark built in 1923 on my street, which has since fallen into disrepair. Henceforth, inside the gaps of language, we would try to tell the other about our lives. I visited him on Friday afternoons, where he would shove Ferrero Rocher chocolates into my hands and wave his hand away as I tried to pay. Naturally concerned for him given his age and exposure to the public, hoping his store would be closed I went to check and found, to my dismay, his doors open.
There at the counter, in a usually subdued store, were lines of people, arms and shopping carts stuffed with toilet paper and cleaning supplies. I tried not to adjudicate the woman ahead of me stuffing multiple packs of sanitiser, paper towels and toilet paper into bags. I told myself she may have many children, or perhaps she’s dropping them to other families. When I approached the counter, our communication which had been so reliant on physical touch and emoting through facial expression was rendered useless when covered by a mask. We tried to express and what I saw in his eyes was distress. I realised how much we relied upon our entire faces to communicate, to lip read, to watch the lines in our faces suggest types of feeling. The limits to language acutely felt, I scrawled a message in what was likely incomprehensible Farsi and English with my phone number and a note to relay that should he need anything please call. He shrugged, I shrugged, and from the lines in his mask I could make out a rueful laugh.
I find myself missing the aimlessness of shopping; I even find myself missing going to the grocery store, a task I endure rather than anticipate. A day can orbit around the small pleasures derived from browsing, from fossicking around bookstores, the exchanges with store clerks, the ways in which these habits of mind structure one’s day, particularly for the lonely and the elderly. What is lacking at this time is the texture of a day. Without surplus income nor the stores themselves what will become of these social rituals? I felt a jolt of sadness reading about the decline of large department stores, such baroque beacons of musty glamour and bespoke thrill. Aside from one’s ideological position of so-called ethical consumption, such institutions in my mind harken back to scenes wandering through these behemoth old dames, sites of fantasy, with my grandmother, casting our eyes over make-up compacts and furs, and spritzing each other with Chanel.
Part two of Anna Rankin’s essay is published tomorrow.