Professor in History at University of California, Berkeley, and Fulbright Fellow at QUB, HAPP from January till June, 2020
Greetings from Berkeley to lovely Belfast,
Maruška [Svasek] encouraged me to write some reflections on lock-down and until a few hours ago, I thought I had nothing to write. Then came news of something that had never happened in our vicinity: a curfew! Protests have broken out all over the Bay Area in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and authorities here, fearing violence, want to clear the streets after sunset.If I was going to have a bike ride, it had to be before 8pm after which no one can be on the streets.
It’s a fabulous day, 60s (F) with sun, but also a very bizarre day, as most people one encounters wear masks. I should be used to it, but somehow, all those hidden faces still produce an uncanny feeling, as if we were part of a reality that until recently existed only in the minds of science fiction authors. People without faces actually qualifies as Sci-Fi kitsch.
I decided to bike from our outpost in the hills to downtown for the first time since return from Belfast on March 29. What would a city look like that was not just locked down but now converted by decree into a ghost town? The effect, again, is uncanny. Downtown streets resemble a Hollywood set with streetlights installed for effect but not to regulate actual traffic. So I did the un-Californian thing of crossing at red lights. Maybe officers will show up later to enforce the curfew, but no one seemed to mind. The shops of course are shuttered, but now some of them also sport the rough exterior design of cheap plywood. For example, Wells Fargo Bank and Starbucks. Our previous experience with plywood comes from newsreels of Floridians preparing for hurricanes.
I recalled words of a prophet, the taxi driver who took my daughter and me back from the airport on the evening of that March 29 return. He had been waiting all day for passengers, and had not been able to get out of line (of only 12 cars at San Francisco International Airport!) to get anything to eat (after we boarded he got off the freeway briefly to buy what you would call crisps).
Among other startling things, he told us that department stores in San Francisco had begun covering their windows with plywood, a sure sign of coming unrest.Why a pandemic would drive impoverished masses onto the streets was not clear. Yet two months later, the unemployment rate hovers over one quarter and last week we got a spark from a supposedly progressive Midwestern city igniting massive protest.
Then came the uncanniest event of all. As I continued uphill onto the mostly deserted Berkeley campus, I was drawn to the undergraduate library and its eye-catching display of that day’s news. Around the start of the millennium, a bright architect had the idea of placing massive cases featuring newspaper front pages in a row before the library entrance. Patrons could thus examine the headlines each day from the Washington Post, Guardian, Manila Times, Globe and Mail, Haaretz, or Irish Examiner.
My cell phone told me it was June 1, 2020, but the news was dated March 16, 2020. It was as though the university employees who dutifully put up the larger-than-life newspapers that morning had wanted to leave some last sign, a dying gasp of a world about to disappear. The headlines and front-page images evoked mystery-tinged hysteria: 8 million patients expected by NHS, socially-distanced faithful separated by yellow police tape at Manila cathedral, ominous hints that pubs were about to close across Ireland… Before biking over to those petrified news reports, I had just been thinking that the campus too resembled the set of a sci-fi world. Now, reality and fiction were indistinguishable.
As it happens, I remember March 16, 2020 very well. My daughter and I had a breakfast of pastries and coffee in still frigid Glasgow before boarding coach and ferry back to Belfast. As luck would have it, we encountered a young couple whom I had harassed on our trip out from Belfast for watching a grim detective show on their phone … without earbuds. Do we all have to listen to that? I had asked. Now I offered them a spare pair of earbuds and they declined with a smile: they had bought some during their stay. Then we got the ferry, good crowd, but still plenty of space up front to “witness” the crossing from gloom into gloom. No social distancing, lots of nice Heineken on draft.
After docking, I recall standing in the drizzle (when did it not drizzle during our stay?), waiting for the bus to Belfast Great Victoria Street station. From there, my daughter prevailed upon me to take a taxi (rather than do the short walk to Camden St.), and then we concluded the day at the lovely Italian restaurant on Botanic, already emptier than normal. I thought I would buy a nice lamp for our apartment the following day. Our stay in Belfast was scheduled to last into June. Yes, history was staring us in the face, but I at least was clueless that this chapter of our lives was suddenly about to close.