“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Los Angeles” by Christina Simon

cement house
The Cement House, Rebecca Pyle

I know from a lifetime here that Los Angeles is a standoffish city. If I tried to strike up a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line to grab coffee, it would almost always be met with a stare, followed by a cold half-smile. Or nothing at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed this city’s etiquette.

corona sam

Walking my pit bull taught me about social distancing long before I knew what the coronavirus was. People would see me walking our dog toward them and quickly cross the street. Others would scream and run. A few might timidly try to walk past us. Piper is the third pit bull our family has rescued, so I know how strangers react to a black woman walking a pit bull in a nice neighborhood. These days, people are passing us saying “Cute dog!” or “What a beautiful dog.” This rarely happened since we got her nearly a year ago. Now they are noticing my adorable black-and-white one-year-old puppy-ish dog with her bright pink collar and leash.

Since March 19, when the governor mandated social distancing, there’s a new friendliness around town, I’ve had to learn new rules for social interaction now that everyone is chatting with each other.

Families started going for long, leisurely walks, seeking fresh air and an escape from indoors. I see parents walking at a brisk pace, their teenage kids lagging behind, heads down, focused on their phones. Little kids whiz past their parents on bikes and scooters. Los Angeles has never been a pedestrian-friendly city, except for destinations like Venice Beach, where tourists and locals crowd together, although that is now forbidden.

Before the pandemic, Angelenos drove everywhere, even to a workout class a few blocks from our houses. We spent more time looking for parking than it would take to walk to our favorite local restaurant. Even though the weather is a nearly perfect 78 degrees year-round, nobody walked. Orthodox Jews don’t drive on Saturday, so if you were driving in Hancock Park or near La Brea Avenue, you’d see them walking, often in groups or pairs, men in black, women in long sleeves and skirts, walking separately, usually accompanied by their children. When they walk, they talk too, gesturing animatedly. It’s always been an unusual sight because they’re walking and talking. Now, they are sharing the sidewalks with other pedestrians, skateboards, bikes, scooters and anyone else seeking a reprieve from home confinement.

One after the other, since the “Shelter In Place” order, strangers say “hello” as they walk past me. A neighbor who I barely know texted to ask if we needed anything from the grocery store. “Yes, I need paper towels,” I texted back, with a smile-crying emoji to show I was half-joking since paper towels are in short supply. An hour later a pack with two rolls of paper towels was dropped at our front door.

In the grocery store, I wear latex gloves. I push my cart at record speed, grabbing bread and other items as quickly as possible. Out of habit, I don’t speak to anyone and try to stay out of their way. I keep my purse on my shoulder, never leaving it in the cart. I’m following the rules of the pre-pandemic Los Angeles.

“Excuse me, I just need to grab that milk,” said a woman in a blue face mask at the store a few days ago. I realized she was talking to me. I turned and said, “No problem.” “At least they have dairy products,” said the same voice behind me. I quickly pushed my cart out of the way, an ingrained habit from pre-coronavirus days. Not moving my cart would typically bring a loud sigh and an irritated “EXCUSE ME” from the person who wanted to take up the space I inhabited. It might also have caused my cart to get bumped out of the way.  Instead, the woman with big brown eyes continued, “Take your time, it’s not like I have anyplace I need to go.” I smiled at her, mumbling something about doing housework later. It will take time for me to get used to the sound of a stranger’s voice talking to me with warmth and humor from behind a mask.

In the long checkout line, I hesitated out of habit before I asked the woman behind me, “How are you?” That simple question broke the barrier between us and we talked like old friends, each of us sharing how worried we were for our families, healthcare workers and those who have lost jobs. We each knew someone who has survived the virus. We talked about how it seems like a million years ago since we last got together with friends or flew on a plane. Neither of us acknowledged that by standing in line buying food, we were risking our lives. We were grateful to be there, able to buy food.

The impact of a short, pleasant exchange with another person is immediate. It can last all day, that fragmentary moment of connectedness.

When the pandemic is over, the city will return to its aloof culture. The droves of pedestrians on city sidewalks will get back in their cars, speeding down freeways, with someplace to go, or stuck in gridlock, middle fingers thrust out of the windows during abrupt lane changes.

I can’t decide if I like the friendlier Los Angeles.

Before the pandemic hit, it could be lonely going about my daily routine without talking to anyone as I grocery shopped, waited to pick up my son, or sat in a restaurant eating lunch and writing. I find myself looking forward to the horn-honking city where people pass each other and don’t speak, where standing in line to get coffee means everyone looks at their phone or straight ahead and where I often feel alone surrounded by people. Because that will mean the coronavirus is gone.

–April 3, 2020


acm.christina simon

Christina Simon is the senior nonfiction editor and the “Letter to L.A.” editor for Angels Flight Literary West, an online literary publication, and curator of author salons at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Her essays have been featured in Salon, The Offing, Columbia Journal (winner, Black History Month Contest for Nonfiction), PANK Magazine’s Heath and Healing Folio, Angels Flight Literary West, The Broken City, Proximity’s blog, True, Entropy and Barren Magazine. Christina received her BA from UC Berkeley and her MA from UCLA. She is a volunteer with 826LA where she helps kids write their college essays. Christina lives with her husband, two teenagers and their rescue pit bull.

Rebecca Pyle in black, ornate scarf

Rebecca Pyle, named for Daphne du Maurier’s and Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Rebecca, is both a writer and an artist with work in The Chattahoochee Review, Muse/A Journal, JuxtaProse, The Menteur, Cobalt Review, Belle Ombre, LIT, Belletrist, and The Penn Review. Rebecca has lived the past decade or two in Utah, not terribly far from the cloud-draped Great Salt Lake and its many small islands continually hosting migrating birds.