Campus has sprung back to life over the past couple weeks. Dollies shuttle moving boxes and sundry household goods between U-Hauls and lobby elevators. Last weekend, a newly arrived couple saw me laden with groceries and offered to badge me into my building. The crinkle of polite, masked smiles from new neighbors reminded me that a new year has taken root, that time does pass, even as the pandemic dissolves everything into undifferentiated days, weeks and months.
As it happened, I was the one to do the favor: They fumbled their freshly-printed ID cards, whereas mine has a familiar imprint in my wallet and accessing it, even without a free hand, has become an unconscious routine. So too has donning a mask after pocketing my phone, keys and wallet on my way out, reaching for the hand-sanitizer on my way back in. These habits have become the contours of daily life.
Over the summer, I made a habit of taking evening walks through Escondido Village. They were a way to unplug from a computer screen, clear my mind. Sometimes, though, these constitutionals were like a trip through the rough draft of a Bob Dylan song. One night, a woman spontaneously broke out into song and dance — her hands cupping her headphones, voice echoing off the buildings, feet kicking, hips shaking. The following night, I came across a solemn martial artist swinging a giant sword in the middle of a basketball court, the blade glinting in the street light, each maneuver punctuated by a purposeful yell and thrust. On the third night, a man in flip flops sprinted by me, breath hissing like a hydraulic press, each arm curling a half-gallon of whole milk.
I did not want to stare at any of them for too long, my incredulity feeling more intrusive with each passing moment. It was as if the isolation of “social distancing” caused all this bizarre individuality to seep into liminal public spaces. I felt obliged to leave them some measure of open-air privacy.
In daylight, a different kind of absurdity played itself out at the picnic tables outside my apartment. The grounds staff wrapped the benches and tables in caution tape, staking out the area with a sign forbidding group activities per some county ordinance. After a few days, picnickers surreptitiously pushed aside the tape and the signs fell over. The grounds staff scrupulously re-taped the benches and hammered the signs deeper into the ground.
The picnickers prevailed when someone took a toppled sign and propped it up by the trash can. This at least made the sign a little more assertive than it had been lying in the grass, and the grounds staff left it there until one of them could return with a hammer and properly re-stake the sign. But the trash collectors hauled it away, and the tape lost its authority without the accompanying legalese. The sign has since been replaced, but the picnickers’ victory has been decisive, complete with the return of Thursday happy hours and weekend get-togethers.
Still, the general bonhomie of the area has been lessened by the mask mandate, as was evident by a recent happy hour where ten friends crowded around a five-foot table to share a few beers, each having to unmask and re-mask between sips. This seemed a violation of social distancing protocol, but the way in which those friends were so fastidious with their masks — doffing them to drink and quickly donning them to chat — assured me they were breaking the rules responsibly. We follow some social distancing rules only insofar as we can rationalize ignoring others.
Stanford has adopted a similar attitude toward public health guidance: Although common sense would suggest new arrivals quarantine themselves until testing negative, the University decided to move in new graduate students before their test results come back. To make this as safe as possible, roommates were instructed to wear masks inside, stagger the use of their shared kitchens, wash their hands and avoid having “close contact” with each other. In the email detailing this plan, the University explained, “we cannot make our campus community completely safe from the virus; however, together, we can make it safer.”
Stanford’s main effort to contain coronavirus this year centers around enforcing the “Campus Compact.” The controversial “Compact” owes its origin to a squad of vice provosts who tasked a “COVID Policy Group” with the development of social distancing rules tailored for life on campus. For the enforcement of those rules, the policy group created a novel disciplinary panel, which, in turn, necessitated the creation of an appeals process lest the panel make hay with its broad powers. I suppose this blanket of bureaucracy is meant to comfort the community by assuring us that the risk of infection is being responsibly mitigated. Of course, taking a calculated risk is responsible so long as one never asks whether the risk is necessary in the first place.
Not all have stayed for this Kafkaesque drama. My old neighbors decided to weather the pandemic elsewhere, and from them I accumulated some flower pots, soil and what was once a vibrant bougainvillea. The plants enliven my patio, which, complete with a rocking chair and reading table, has become my quarantine hang-out. For about a month the bougainvillea bloomed and climbed along my patio railing. I cared for it as instructed, but as time wore on, it shed its pink petals and the vines turned from green to brown. I tried watering it more, and then less, until finally I saw it for what it was: a petrified ruin with stiff, brittle branches and a few desiccated petals clinging on tenuously.
Beside the dead bougainvillea, I have morning glory vines that spill over the railing and begonias that have fanned out beyond the edges of their pots. As these plants have grown, I’ve been surprised at how some vines and shoots grow faster than others, how some leaves stay brilliantly green while others yellow, die, and fall away. I wonder if minute differences in sun, water and soil lead to these varied fates or if it’s all chance. As of late, the morning glory tendrils have wrapped themselves around the remains of the bougainvillea. One afternoon over coffee, I contemplated this handshake agreement between the living and the dead, and I thought that maybe untangling the knotted meaning of those vines might yield answers to life’s most important questions.
But at that moment when revelation seemed forthcoming, when some profundity was about to unravel itself before me, I jolted up and spilled my coffee as I heard something crash through the trees and thump on the ground. I leaned over the railing to investigate but quickly had to duck for cover as a second volley rained down from an upper floor of the midrise. A large sweet potato caromed off a tree trunk, sending a pair of chattering squirrels diving for safety, before coming to rest in the ivy moat circling the building. After a still moment, life resumed: The squirrels took up their usual palavering while the potato sank forgotten into the ivy.
I’ve returned to marking time in my rocking chair — the new year finds me out on the patio, studying those inscrutable vines, waiting for whatever might fall out of the sky next.
Contact Colin O’Brien at cjobrien ‘at’ stanford.edu.