Kevin Coval went to buy eggs at Tia Nam, a small Vietnamese grocery in Uptown. An old woman asked if he could help her reach three bags of rice noodles on a high shelf. As he did, he realized this was the closest he had been to another human being in days. He didn’t look at the store clerk in quite the same way, either.
“I’ve been struck by those folks,” said the Chicago poet. “A month ago, they didn’t consider themselves to be first responders. Now, they’re risking their lives to get us fed. That’s pretty remarkable. I’ve always known working people to have a rigor and integrity. Now, we see them in ways we wouldn’t have conceived a month ago.”
Chicagoans are keeping their distance, interacting in new ways while seeing each other in a different light. As the city and the region struggle to face a virus that doesn’t recognize distinctions of class or race or religion, longstanding problems come into stark relief even as people reach across old boundaries to help one another, and tantalizing possibilities suggest themselves.
This all comes during a season sacred to three major religions, with Passover having begun Wednesday night, followed by Good Friday and Easter Sunday and Ramadan less than two weeks away.
“We’re doing all this in these days of the Easter season, what we call the Easter Passover,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich, spiritual leader of Chicago’s Catholics. “What people are learning in this time is how connected we are. This moment is really forcing all of us to realize we are connected. We’re connected by this virus. Social distancing is telling us how related we are to one another. We have a drive to want to be connected to other people. We don’t want to live isolated lives. We are nourished by that.”
The cardinal was referring to spiritual nourishment, but there is plenty of the other kind, too. Shuttered restaurants are donating food to pantries and to hospitals to feed besieged doctors and nurses working 12-hour shifts. Police officers, often the targets of criticism, find themselves embraced — from a safe distance, of course.
“Chicago has really stepped up, literally,” said Anthony Guglielmi, spokesman for the Chicago Police Department. “Every single police district, all 22 of them, have gotten community support. Pizzas for police officers working the overnight shift. In the 16th district, people themselves struggling for survival brought in sanitary wipes. It’s just heartwarming to see how Chicago steps up and supports their city.”
“People are really showing a lot of gratitude toward us,” Officer Michelle Tanahill said. “We can’t go sit in a restaurant, so we have a lot of communities donating food. We’re really grateful for that, thankful for all the communities and businesses helping first responders.”
She said one of the biggest ways the public can help the police is by following directives about staying at home and social distancing.
“Most of them are listening to the rules and staying home,” Tanahill said. “They’re pretty cooperative, and it’s much needed.”
The Chicago Fire Department has designated four ambulances exclusively to ferry COVID-19 patients to hospitals. Given the danger of that assignment — in a confined space, hour after hour treating patients coughing the potentially deadly virus, the fire department asked for volunteer paramedics to staff the vehicles.
“We had a lot of people stand up,” fire spokesman Larry Langford said. “It’s working very well.”
Like many of us, the fire department is finding itself adopting new roles. It has always taken patients to the hospital. Now, it’s also doing something it never had done: taking people away from the hospital to special shelters, some set up in hotels, for those infected who don’t need critical care. The fire department has eight vans handling that duty.
“Everyone’s ramping up to deal with this as best we can,” Langford said.
Fire officials have been moved by how the public is helping them.
“We’re always looking for more equipment, always looking for N95s,” Langford said. “In these times, they’re in short supply. We’re always looking for donations. We found a lot of nail salons, construction companies, auto painting shops.”
The Ford Motor Company sent face shields to the department. Koval Distillery in Ravenswood has sent hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer. A medical equipment company sent cases of gloves.
“We’re getting a lot of help,” said Langford, noting that the fire department, in turn, is prepared to give equipment to hospitals if the need arises. “We’re ready to turn our stuff over to medical facilities if it comes to that. It’s all a chain, and we’re part of it.”
For every big change, there are a thousand small, personal ones.
“People who were standoffish are now coming up,” said Alvin Carter, an Evanston resident who has driven a school bus for 29 years. “I see togetherness the past two months. Ever since this thing came around, we come together.”
People are friendlier?
“Very, very, very, very, very, very,” said Carter, who was born in Jamaica. “They are a lot better, people who I have to deal with. I have to deal with the public. It wasn’t like this until two months ago.”
The sense of rising to the occasion is found in social service organizations. Shelters have had a particularly difficult time maintaining social distancing, and some scrambled to find larger spaces. La Casa Norte in Humboldt Park moved its emergency youth shelter for the city into the McCormick YMCA.
“Everyone noticed there was going to be a greater need, with the schools closed, for young people to have a safe space to be in,” said Jessica Rodriguez, director of development for La Casa Norte. “The YMCA is letting us use the space. The Salvation Army is providing meals. The Department of Children and Family Service coordinates. It was smooth and very quick.”
With demand at its Fresh Market food pantry doubling over two weeks, La Casa Norte had “a small shortage” of volunteers.
“We told people: As long as you’re well and able, you can come out,” Rodriguez said. “We try to be protective and careful. So many people stepping up to really help.”
One of them is Jill Carroll, a flight attendant who lives in East Humboldt Park.
“There’s more need now than there’s every been,” Carroll said. “It’s amazing how many families you can feed in a short amount of time just by doing this. Everyone realizes there’s a huge need, and it’s only going to get worse before this is over.”
As usual with volunteering, the giver, in turn, also gets something.
“I really haven’t been out of the house much except to volunteer,” Carroll said. “Unless I do this, I’m basically quarantined.”
Many Chicagoans have been laid off or have lost their job. But that hasn’t kept some from helping others.
Jenn Desjardins is a Logan Square dog walker who saw her thriving business shrivel as customers started working from home and canceling vacations.
“I’m very thankful,” Desjardins said. “I have two cats. I have lots of friends who live by themselves. They don’t have a lot of money saved up. I’m reaching out to them, making sure they’re OK.”
She said some of her customers have continued to pay her or sent her gift cards to help tide her over.
Restaurants across Chicago are shuttered, and their owners, after absorbing the shock, frequently have been taking steps to see to their employees and to the communities around them.
“Everybody has had their breakdown,” said Renee Labrana, owner of the R Public House on West Jarvis Avenue, returning from bringing a load of box lunches to Weiss Hospital, splitting the cost with a regular customer. “Mine will come once we’re done with all this. You just want to do something that’s cathartic right now.”
Like sharing your determination with others.
“There is this feeling,” Labrana said. “There is this camaraderie. This sense of calmness. Every single person is in this situation — I have friends with huge restaurants downtown; they’re having the same issues I’m having, dealing with same issues I’m dealing with.”
With entertainment venues shut down, Chicagoans are finding creative ways to gather and celebrate, like having socially distanced happy hours in the street and mass sing-a-longs from apartment balconies.
“There is a resiliency of the human spirit,” said Cardinal Cupich. “To dig deep into the resources we have when we’re challenged. We see that in the creativity of people, the way they find connections through songs between buildings, in social media, in prayer.”
Last weekend, the Illinois Institute of Technology held a 60-hour “Stay-at-Home Dance Party” on its radio station, WIIT, with hour one consisting of records spun by Illinois Tech President Alan W. Cramb. His first song was “Strange Days” by the Doors.
“The Illinois Tech community — students, faculty, staff, alumni and our neighbors here in Bronzeville — has a chance to lift one another up,” Cramb said. “As a metallurgist, I can’t help but think of tempered steel that is made stronger by fire. When this is all over, we will be stronger. And we will have learned important lessons about the importance of duty, kindness and community.”
Chicagoans might be in this together, but that does not mean we are all lifting the same burden.
“You see the disparity of the city in the kids we work with, kids in every ZIP code,” said Coval, who’s the artistic director of Young Chicago Authors. “Some kids are up in their second homes. Some kids, their task is keeping the house together and also caring for their parents.”
Whatever their circumstances, he said, they meet in a common place.
“All of them are also connected via social media,” he said. “In some ways, they are still gathering and being very social. Gen Z have figured out ways to be very social via democratized tech. I think they feel hopeful. They are used to the world being [bad] from an environmental level. I don’t know that this is a big surprise for them.”
But even younger people are chafing at life lived exclusively online.
“I’m definitely feeling withdrawal, anxious to get back out in society, in actual person-to-person, not through a screen,” said CaSera Heining, 24, known professionally as DJ Ca$h Era. “Something about watching people dance and move compared to playing music in a room where I’m the only person there.”
She said she now hosts online dance parties and gets feedback electronically: praise, messages and requests.
“I play everything,” she said.
She said a DJ turned Cardi B’s rant about the coronavirus into a song.
“A lot of people like that,” she said.
Music is a distraction from a reality which, no matter how boldly or collectively faced, can still be grim. The shocking death toll among African Americans in Chicago — 72% of all COVID-19 deaths in Chicago, though blacks are only about a third of the population — reflects longstanding gaps in health care, employment, housing, transportation, all now magnified by the coronavirus crisis.
“Those numbers in Chicago point to really the way we’re not all facing the same thing,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a longtime Chicago resident now teaching African American studies at Princeton University. “Obviously, there’s a communal aspect to this virus everyone is vulnerable to. It’s highly contagious, cannot be contained, so, in that sense, we are all vulnerable.
“But one’s position in society determines the extent of your vulnerability. If you have the ability to truly socially isolate, to work from home, if your home is comfortable, if your home is not overcrowded, you have health insurance, that you have a computer, that you have television, you have internet. All those things will decide whether you are able to truly withstand the onslaught of this virus. We’re actually not experiencing this all in the same way. The virus will fall in the same kind of class and racial fault lines that shape much of American society.”
And yet. Even as the virus has brought these problems into focus — again — these are problems that everyone in Chicago has had a role in perpetuating and also could have a hand in addressing as we try to move through this difficult time in the history of our city and country.
“We periodically get these glimpses into the underbelly of U.S. society that become visible to everyone,” Taylor said, citing Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2008 financial crisis. “Now, this coronavirus situation shows this level of inequality and the completely broken nature of our domestic civil welfare infrastructure.”
People across a wide range of backgrounds see that.
“It’s very disturbing that this illness is weighing more heavily on people of color,” said Cardinal Cupich. “These statistics show the soft underbelly of our health care system. Health care is a right, not a commodity. It’s not just for the wealthy. When people don’t have good access to health care, we all suffer. Eventually, we all suffer as a community. My hope is it would spark a real debate of health care as a human right.”
For now, neither the need for long-term societal change nor the historical stumbling blocks put in front of people of color keep Chicagoans from facing the immediate crisis.
“Yes, it’s staggering. It’s been something we’ve been dealing with a while in the African American community.” said Kim Keller-Tyler, an Avondale resident who produces motivational Christian youth performances. “I’m not surprised. We are underserved. We are in need of and do not have the resources that are necessary in this emergency. That part does sober you, and you go, ‘OK, I really need to make sure I take care of myself.’ We still try to say, ‘OK, these are our odds, but how do we battle this and stay positive and still abide by all the guidelines?’ ”
Keller-Tyler has been braced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s forthright handling of these difficult circumstances.
“We do have a fighting chance with this mayor,” she said. “That’s empowering and exciting at the same time.
“It’s our normal: We keep fighting until we see some justice happening. We’ve come up against so many odds. As African Americans, we do rally together. It’s time for things to change. All that is happening. I see so many positive things. I see hope happening. It’s such an amazing unity that’s happening in the world. That keeps me positive. It’s not just an African American fight. We’re all battling now. We have to stay positive and stay strong and stay unified. We’ll overcome it. I’m positive of that.”
Most people I’ve spoken with see positive and negative aspects to this crisis.
“From a negative standpoint, people are just worried about the future,” said Chicago attorney Tinos Diamantatos, a partner in the law firm Morgan Lewis. “What does this mean to them and their family? What does it mean for the economy? How quickly will we bounce back?
“We’re such a strong country. We always bounce back. The question is: How long? There’s a river to cross. We’re uncertain how wide and how deep. We’ll get across. The question is: When? You can see it’s on everybody’s mind: People don’t know when this will end and what this will look like at the end of it.”
On the other hand.
“I’ve been impressed with how many people are reaching out: ‘Are you OK, is your family OK?’ ” Diamantatos said. “On a daily basis, the common denominator is people being genuinely concerned with one another, sharing stories and listening. The silver lining, when all this is over, people will really, really appreciate when allowed to have human interaction again, really cherish those face-to-face moments, their health and many blessings they take for granted.”
“This is going to be very hard work,” said Guglielmi. “We all know that it’s going to be really hard and tragic. One thing we keep reminding everybody is that we’re one day closer to the end of this. The only way we’re going to get there is if people take this social distancing seriously and stay at home.”
When Kevin Coval got home from the store with his eggs, he wrote a poem, “Ode to the Local Grocer.”
The poem begins “who knows if it’s a dream,” then grows fragrant with coconut milk and plantains, sweet and spicy peppers and busy with old men in masks sweeping store aisles and latex-gloved cashiers ringing up sales without flinching: “they are working/in a time of crisis and they are/also humans in need of relief./and the world is not over/the world is not over.”
It ends this way:
cumin and cinnamon;
star fruit and cabbage;
a new song with old
notes in a new world;
pallets and people
all together now.