My Seattle Covid Walks: The Aloneness of Aurora Avenue
When I try to distill my Covid Walks through the the streets of Seattle during March and April into a single word, variations of a theme come up.
Solitude. Isolation. Alienation. Loneliness. Emptiness. Desolation. Aloneness.
Aloneness is the word that seems to work best. It has within it fragments of the others. Aloneness best captures what I saw and what I experienced during those weeks of the city's shut-down
About My Seattle Covid Walks: During Washington State's Stay at Home orders between March and May, I took regular walks through the city to capture what life on the streets was like. This is the first part of my Covid Walk along Aurora Avenue North, from North 130th to North 175th, on April 1, 2020.
Aurora Avenue -- Seattle's destination for used tires, weed, bad-credit car financing, stereo installations, Korean BBQ, sex, storage, palm readings, and nightly, weekly, and monthly motel rooms -- was one of the thoroughfares I regularly explored during the city's Covid shut-down.
On April 1, I parked my truck in the Fred Meyer parking lot at North 175th and began my walk south. I'd eventually end it 45 blocks later, at North 130th.
Anyone defying the stay at home orders on that day, like me, was walking alone. North-bound or south-bound, we were all going solo.
I felt a certain absurdity to this game I was playing -- capturing people walking the streets alone. But during those weeks of shut-down, I felt compelled to play it. I wanted to experience and document that moment.
I'd never experienced such aloneness in my life as I did on the streets of Seattle during my Covid walkabouts.
On Aurora the morning of April 1 -- a Wednesday -- the street was largely deserted with most businesses closed. The four lanes of Aurora at this time would normally have been bumper to bumper with commuters heading into the city. Starbucks, McDonald's, Jack in the Box -- a few chains were serving drive-up customers. But on limited, uncertain hours. Finding food was a challenge. Finding a bathroom was an impossibility.
Tobacco Lane, at Aurora and 167th, was open. There are tobacco and vape shops galore along Aurora. Tobacco Lane was the only one that I passed that was open.
In its parking lot were people. As in plural people. It was a half block from a popular methadone clinic. Skyler and Kumar, taking a break from treatment to snag some cigarettes and Cokes from Tobacco Lane, took a look at my camera and approached me. They advised me to come to the clinic at 6AM the next morning. The clinic doors open at 7, but since treatment is on a first-come, first-serve basis, the queue starts to form an hour earlier.
"No six-feet of separation at six," one of them tells me. My notes don't say which one is Skyler and which one is Kumar. "They keep you separated once you are inside the clinic, but to get into the treatment, everyone's in your face."
"What's the sense in even trying?" the other says.
When I met Skyler and Kumar, I had just set up one of my nephews for a chemical dependency test at the very clinic they were talking about. The clinician diagnosed him with a "moderately severe" case of meth addiction. The diagnosis was based on an interview. With my nephew. "How often do you smoke meth?" Questions along those lines. I thought at least a blood test would have been involved. How accurate a diagnosis is possible based on self-reporting by a meth addict? Skyler and Kumar share their treatment stories until it was time to return to the clinic.
Masks were not yet a thing on April 1. Most people in the streets were still face-naked. We were still largely in the dark about Covid. It had only been a few weeks since our state's trajectory of cases was recognized as a crisis. The state's shut-down was severe, there were very few of us out in the streets. We all moved alone. Except for Skyler and Kumar.
My Aurora Covid walks always started north, close to where I live, and ended south. I usually planned a 30-40 block stretch, a distance I could cover in about three hours. Tobacco Lane, at 167th and Aurora, was near the start of my walk that day.
When I eventually reached 130th, I stood on a pedestrian overpass that spanned Aurora and I played candid camera, secretly capturing passersby crossing on the crosswalk below me.
On 130th and Aurora, the end-point of my walk, I jumped on a northbound E-Line bus to return to my truck. This was my first commute since the shutdown was initiated in mid-March. There were no social distancing signs inside the bus. The windows were all wide open. Every row of seats was taken by a passenger. The only sign in the bus signaling anything out of the ordinary was taped to a strip of yellow caution tape blocking passenger access to the driver, warning passengers to stay clear of the driver.
It may have been early in the pandemic, but this woman knew what was up. While only a few passengers were wearing masks, she was taking up both seats, wrapped in multiple layers, hair to toes, triple layers covering her face, a thick sheepskin-like hoodie for her head, a thick comforter for a shawl, an insulated duck-hunting vest keeping her toasty.
During any non-pandemic time period, she'd probably come off as some sort of crazy. But looking back, she now stands out as the smart one. The one person on the bus who's not going to get infected by no body no way no how.