Blue Notes, May 2020
Updated: Mar 2
Follow the Rules
A few weeks ago, my friend Andrew invited me to play Go with him in the park. I hadn’t seen him since his visit to New York for a job interview in the fall, so as soon as San Francisco approved “fresh air walks,” we made a plan to meet.
I clip my keychain hand sanitizer to my belt loop, grab my keys, and head out the door. When we meet on the street outside his house, I notice that the cardboard box in Andrew’s hands isn’t Go after all. A couple approaches us and we split up, flanking their sides like hydrophobic molecules in the dish soap I can only assume his mother, too, insisted they stock up on. We don’t speak to them, but their glance issues a warning. We all understand the rules. I can’t help but feel like we are on a strange playdate, supervised by no one but observed by everyone.
Something about the park feels off—maybe it’s the awkward gaps between clusters of people, or perhaps it’s the prolonged eye contact with passersby—but not off enough to truly disturb us. It’s busy, unusual for a Thursday afternoon. A main street that cuts across the greenery is scattered with runners in face masks and bikers covering their mouths with bandanas. We do our best to keep our distance, but the thin sidewalk strains to accommodate our efforts.
We arrive at a picnic table in the back corner of a quiet meadow, adjacent to a set of public bathrooms. Andrew explains that his Go set was stuck in the mail and instead takes out a stack of cardboard squares. Each is a small plot of land, dotted with roads and farmland and medieval forts. As we chat about his post-graduate life and Tame Impala’s turn for the worse, a two-dimensional Carcassonne grows on the table.
Illustration by Brooke McCormick
A Parks and Rec truck pulls up to the bathrooms, beeping. For a moment, I’m afraid that we’re violating a rule, thinking about how I will hide the board game when the ranger questions us, what I will tell the ranger, what it means to breach a health code to play a board game. A woman with a mop steps out of the car. She looks at us but doesn’t say anything before stepping inside.
Andrew crushes me. We split up, and I walk back toward my house, past grass with blankets of daisies, a grove of redwoods, more masks and gloves. It is one of those indecisive days in San Francisco. The sun that had sunk behind a blanket of fog is beginning to emerge again, but the sky, still grey, more closely matches the breezy air. I put in my earbuds and shuffle my “Upbeat kinda old” playlist.
I used to walk through the park and fixate on the lengths to which the city had gone to manufacture nature. The paved sidewalks, the man-made lake covered in just enough algae to obscure the pipes beneath, the subtle hum of cars on the boulevard cutting the park in half. It was imitative, no doubt, but refreshing: the rolling meadows and dirt paths, the blue jays building nests, unaware and irreverent. I find a new serenity here now, not in the cliché end-of-the-story way, but an appreciation for the front.
Andrew texts me that the Go set has arrived. By the time I get to his house the next day, the drizzle has turned torrential. I yell up the stairs that maybe we should call it a day. We rain-check, and I head home. No go.
On the Quad
As we begin to walk, boots (his) and Filas (mine) puncturing the skin of the mid-April snow, my dad and I are quiet. This isn’t unusual. We are both introspective; sometimes, when I ask where he is, my mom jokes, “Hiding in his cave.”
What’s unusual is that the world around us is quiet, too. We think of small towns as sleepy places, but I think they’re the loudest, or at least more replete with sounds I actually listen to. In the city, we know that the wailing ambulances, the ruffling of pigeon feathers, and the rattling of the subway don’t belong to us. In Brunswick, Maine, all the noises belong to me. I know the voices on the street and the schedule of the church bells. Each morning, I wake to the same slide whistle bird call outside my window.
We cross the street and enter Bowdoin’s campus. My dog’s leash jingles, piercing the quiet. Theodore Roosevelt Rudalevige, a grizzled but energetic black mutt, is our excuse and motivation to go outside daily. Left to my own devices, I would stay inside being moody and reading equally moody twentieth-century poets, and left to his, my dad would crawl back into his cave to grade papers or something. (I don’t go in there often because the portrait of FDR freaks me out.)
We’re halfway across the quad now, passing the building that doubles as an arctic museum and my dad’s first office. If you hadn’t gathered from the dog’s name and the portrait, he teaches U.S. government. His job, plus the fact that we live a quarter of a mile from the heart of Bowdoin, means he knows the campus as well as anybody.“It’s strange to see the quad as a ghost town in the middle of the day,” he says. “Normally, you would see students running back and forth to class and colleagues five minutes later than they should be.” I tell him he sounds like a bitter old man, to which he replies that he’s one of the late ones; “That’s why I see them.”
Surprisingly, Bowdoin isn’t so empty today. Twice, we stop to chat with people my dad knows (from six feet apart, of course), and both times the human interaction lessens the chill in the air. One of his colleagues notices my Columbia sweatshirt and gives me a sympathetic look. I take this as an unspoken allusion to the pain of the city, and I think about what my Lit Hum professor said in Zoom class the other day: He went for a walk around Columbia and didn’t meet a single soul. How can this frost-torn, small-town campus bear more footsteps than its metropolitan counterpart?
The Never-ending Morning
I used to savor the stillness of my early morning walks, the dewy freshness of the air almost replacing the need for a second cup of coffee. The empty sidewalks were a jungle gym for my thoughts about last night’s dreams and upcoming plans. I used to let the sometimes overwhelming thought of another day gradually steep through my body, setting slowly like grounds in a French press.
But now the quiet of the morning continues through the day. The stillness no longer disappears when the work and school days begin. The softness is no longer disturbed by the humming of lawnmowers and the beeping of obnoxious New Jersey drivers. The tireless scrutiny of my own thoughts is no longer replaced by the regular day’s blissful distractions.
Now, these walks can’t fully wake me up.
Two cups of coffee are no longer enough; I brew a third, a fourth, even on those days punctuated only by breaks between SNL reruns. Maybe I’m fatigued with my own ennui, or maybe the ritual of grinding beans and foaming my Trader Joe’s non-dairy oat beverage brings me an energizing sense of purpose akin to my pre-class runs to Peet’s.
These never-ending mornings also bring a childlike lust for adventure and an almost dizzying penchant for creativity I forgot I had. I wander outside and balance on the curb for the first time in years, my arms stretched out like an airplane as I picture myself flying toward my semester abroad, likely canceled. I sing carelessly as I walk down the street, swept away by an abandon typically induced by energetic crowds and cheap cocktails. I pretend that every house I pass is a different painting at the Met—the Dutch colonial down the street a Vermeer, the glistening stream that trickles through the yard some oil on canvas.
My walks used to be my alone time, my escape from the ceaseless cacophony of Tweets and Canvas notifications. Now I take them—claim them, even—to feel close to the world I once felt the need to escape from. I take them to pass the house with handcrafted posters plastered against the window, wishing well to healthcare workers and telling us to stay safe. I take them to stare at my neighbor’s unbelievably yellow daffodils. In quarantine, these are the things that bind.
Roaring Brooks and Audiobooks
I take a right. Another right at the corner, past a stream beyond a set of steel railings (a brook that never babbles—it slurs or it roars). Straight, until I hit a driveway that slopes off slightly to the right again. Between two yellow metal posts, down a bike path, up a slope that’s steeper than it looks. Through a gap between trees, over the gravel on a paved parking lot. (At firework time, lines of cars snake through for hours.) Another right along another paved bike path. In front of several soccer fields and a baseball diamond, there is an expanse of grass where I once launched a bottle rocket with the aid of traffic-cone colored rope and a bicycle pump. Follow the bike path around in a circle, past the arrows pointing backward, back to the parking lot, down the hill, back and back we go.
I ran this route today, in peculiarly angry and beautiful weather. Earlier, while I was inside, the sky had darkened abruptly, the book against my knees becoming instantly harder to read. The wind blew so violently I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing tree branches drum clumsily against the window or the more insistent slapping of rain. The wind forced me to plod up the hill rather than jog. The clouds were puffy and sprawling and painted peach in the evening light.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
While running, I listened to an audiobook. Running up the hill, during that first moment beyond the cover of buildings, a line played several times: “You are my homecoming.” There is a definite quality to this phrase. Against the story’s background of uncertainty, the words are sure of themselves.
Though there was no “you” on my run, no other person to act as an anchor, I felt a similar sense of homecoming, of grounding from the sun, the wind, my heart beating faster because that’s just what happens when you run.
I struggle with being present. I tend to imagine my way into a future that worries me. I overthink, especially when I have time on my hands. But sometimes I’m simply running along a path that I’ve run many times, listening to a story whose setting feels alive, whose characters stop time to stretch it. Sometimes there’s so much wind that I can’t think. Uncertainty feels like possibility, but the present feels infinitely, brilliantly solid, if blustery.
Our Landmarks and Mine
A couple weeks ago, on one of our routine walks, my mom and I decided to go to the National Mall, assuming that there would be no better time to see it empty and appreciate the quietness of a once-bustling city. But upon our arrival we found not an eerily empty tourist attraction, but a somewhat regular urban neighborhood, teeming with locals. Among the stone and marble, where there once roamed hordes of tourists on scooters equipped with selfie sticks, we saw dog-walkers, runners, and parents pushing strollers. How did these grounds, home to some of the country’s most iconic buildings, become not much more than a local park?
As we strolled along the reflecting pool toward the Lincoln Memorial, full cherry blossoms in my peripheral vision, what struck me was not the absence of the tourists, but how right this place felt without them.
For me, this has always been a local park, the monuments and memorials perennially familiar, dotting my memories of home. As we walked, I shared some with my mom: In elementary school, our school took us to the Natural History Museum every spring. We ate our lunches on the grass, the Capitol on our left and the Washington Monument on our right; every year our teachers would tell us not to feed our lunch to the pigeons, and every year someone would do it anyway. We celebrated teenage birthdays on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, sometimes sliding down the marble side-ramps. In the background of our prom photos, you can see the Washington Monument poking at the sky.
That countless masses crowd around and take their pictures in front of the sites of my personal memories has always been strange if typical. But in these pointedly untypical times, the Mall’s sudden transformation from tourist hotspot to local park sparked in me an unexpected joy. I’m reasonable enough to hope that one day tourism will return, but for now I’ll revel in having my formative landmarks to myself.