We were increasingly existentially isolated in those days of the pandemic, as the anxieties ramped up around a virus crossing borders came to offer evidence of a health care infrastructure unable to defend us or to be extended across the nation. There was long the danger of turning inward, to protect oneself, but also a shock at the unaccustomed sense of the evanescence of life, that made us turn to Defoe, Manzoni, or Camus for bearings on a topography of death rates that we were not accustomed to process in any way. While I was less able to concentrate to narratives, I preferred to immerse myself in short stories, interruptions of the problems of processing rising tallies. And if one pandemic drive was a compulsion to follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination rates, to try to make order of world whose disorder seems more prominent than ever, I took breaks in small fiction, while going on walks, without any destination, to seek some bearings on the situation.
Perhaps walking led me to seek a perspective in an imagined sort of convalescence–a respite from the oppressive data visualizations that were hardly a means to come to terms with the collective obituaries framed in the foreign or unfamiliar concept of cumulative deaths. And as I returned to the somewhat random dates on the sidewalk outside my house, from the “1911” that arrested my eye–before the Spanish Flu pandemic!–to the stamps of 1930, 1936 that pavers left nearby. If I started to think of myself as a flâneur of the pandemic, as if finding and collecting the names of pavers might constitute an alternate necrology of the neighborhood, emerging onto the street a form of dealing with death, as the numbers of estimated deaths rose regularly–even if they were all undercounts–walking became a form of tallying, as each encounter with the name of a paver, akin to an imagined meeting, as if gathering information for an imagined report about the neighborhood itself; my income low, and indeed dubious, there seemed to be some ready temporary comfort in the small enchantments of the sidewalk to balanced with the global tragedy.
I found inappropriate comfort in a “boring passion for minutia” by displacing attention. Sophie Atkinson described how the pandemic helped her appreciate Robert Walser’s The Walk–and his attachment to walking without destinations–fitting for her extended walks in lockdown London–in search of an unexpected suddenly “significant phenomena, valuable to see and to feel,” by which “the lore of the country and the lore of nature are revealed,” as Walser had it in searching for terms to discuss the comfort of his walks, observing and studying “every smallest thing,” in an effacing self-surrender to attend to local details, as distancing one’s current complaints–less with an eye to one’s destination. For turning to the local detail as a site of something like transcendence became a way of distancing a global disaster, or holding it at bay–and a profession of tracking a local topography of mortality as well. If Walser’s walking led to the melancholic realization that “I was a poor prisoner between heaven and earth, and that all men were miserably imprisoned in this way,” after his flights of fancy, the dates and names on the ground provided some sort of grounding that I needed to process mortality rates and the shifting maps of infection rates.
For all the rapid creation of charts of mortality rates that were painstaking crafted by epidemiologists and journalists in line charts that projected different possible counts, our expectations for certain data were frustrated as if looking into the abyss of mortality: the very fact that only a bit more than half of global deaths are registered–six in ten, the ballpark figure of the World Health Organization tells us, if 98% in Europe and 91% in America; the death toll of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan is guesstimated to be up to ten times as great as the reported 4,848 in the capital of the Hubei province, or as much as half a million, if reported global deaths pushed beyond four point two million, dizzying numbers if incomplete.
The complexity of crafting a simple line graph of confirmed deaths and those due to complications of COVID-19 had us contemplating line graphs as specters of human mortality, whose complicated crafting don’t conceal so much as reveal the limits of certainty, and made me search not for global but grounds for transcendence underfoot. And in the days of social distancing, on walks that seemed perhaps aimless, but tried to find a sense of balance before the rising curves, following traces of the past set in the pavement seemed a sort of escape from the rising numbers, if not a destination. Daily walking was a rediscovery, as the trips from the house where I lived became less important for their points of arrival, pressing against the boundaries of the present condition, less in flight from something, than a type of convalescence from watching disparate rates of mortality and hospitalization rise, as my attention attended to something else.
If figures of infections, hospitalization, and mortality death haunted the air, solitary walking became a response to a restlessness–in the morning or late afternoon–and I was readily accepting the sense of the walks as haunted, or with added melancholy, in ways that seemed states of distraction and something of a befriending of loneliness, if not what past as sociability. Walking, Robert Walser put it, not with peacefulness but in a way of seeking out being arrested by coming across the individual name, and the odd specificity of the date at which the pavement was lain, smoothed and left to set. Walter Benjamin felt that the walks the author devotedly took must be understood as with a spirit of discovery as a form of convalescence, “newly sensitized to the outside world,” there was perhaps a search for collective convalescence in the undue attentiveness birdsong, flowers, pavers’ names, as if struggling to emerge from a dominant melancholia.
I gathered names on the ground as if points of orientation, finding stamps and strikes of pavers whose names were set in the pavement with century ago an alternate register of mortality. The dizzying sense of temporal distance offered a perspective a century ago–before the 1918 pandemic of the Spanish Flu arrived in California, were somehow a distance on our own sense of modernity and the disarming unpreparedness for the pandemic, which I read as if I were uncovering an often unread archive paved beneath my feet in the micro-geography of my neighborhood, in images with only retrospective senses of clarity, as we tried to come to terms with the historic nature of the pandemic’s spread. Strikes left by early pavers–“Burnham-1908;” “F. Stolte-1930;” “P. Barelle-1938;” “J. Anderson 1936”–of names and dates presented as epigraphic evidence beneath my feet akin to levels of time, v snapshots of a stratigraphy of the Berkeley-Oakland neighborhood I lived, “Burnham” resonantly echoing that of a contemporary urban planner, as I gathered evidence about the area I wandered, as if it were a profession.
For if earlier years of the possible pandemics that almost spread globally had been numerous–the near-misses of the fear of H1N1 expanding globally in 2009, of MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2016–the coronavirus spread in ways we had only seen since the avian-born Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19, and was far harder to map, track, or conceptualize over space, as visualizing the virus became a cottage industry and a collective rush to create the best visualizations possible. As I tried to retreat from the spread of infections and hospitalization, and indeed the growing uncertainty of both tallies, the dates beneath by feet on the pavements along the Oakland-Berkeley border provided a form of retreat, pavement punctuated by dates that seemed–1909; 1923; 1938; 1930–to mark a sense of the anonymous architects of this urban border. With less of a sense of transport and reverie than Walser, if with a similar dedication to what he called, only partly facetiously, his berüf–“without walking, I would be dead, and my profession would be destroyed”–the sense of opening oneself to “thinking, pondering, drilling, digging, speculating, investigating, researching, and walking” gained a sense of investigating the quite deep history of breaks in neighborhoods in the micro-geography that I started to examine as etched in concrete. Whoever “walks only half-attentive, with only half his spirit . . . is worth nothing,” Walser said of the dedication he assumed, while walking, attentive to houses, advertisements, social transactions, as if to refamiliarize himself with the world as a therapy–to “take fresh bearings,” with a degree of industry, as a “Field Marshall, surveying all circumstances, and drawing all contingencies and reverses into that net of his,” in a calculus of metropolitan space, if with far fewer social transactions–but in fact mostly to “maintain contact with the living world,” lest we be shut at home, before the virtual remove of Zoom.
The paving of the street that defined the edge of the exclusive Oakland neighborhood formerly a farm until 1905–set aside for an upscale residential community–had been paved by the local quarry in 1912. The date gave me new bearings on the present, that gained a spiritual side, as well as a form of taking bearings: Walser found a microcosm of the world and lovely homes, “walking and contemplating nature,” richer than what Walter Benjamin cast as f”botanizing the pavement,” albeit a lovely phrase–for me, the collection of older marks on the pavement began as a curiosity, but turned to navigating historical levels inscribed in a surface as lines of exclusion and inclusion that the earliest dated pavers’ strikes bore witness, and made up for the few numbers of people on the street, in what seemed among the earlier surviving sidewalks that were paved in the this neighborhood.
The paving of this Oakland-Berkeley area was The border was increasingly legible in the local maps of mortality and COVID-19 infections. Putting into relief my sense of the fuzzy border of gentrification, one could not be struck by the discrepancy of increased infections-as, later, increased vaccination rates–between Berkeley and Oakland. The barrier seem, in my own neighborhood, loosely defined, but defined different expectations and experiences of the virus, poorly understood if only read by that odious term, concealing so much, of “comorbidities.” As we discussed how much the novel coronavirus was indeed a sort of rupture, or how significant COVID-19 was both epidemiologically and, at a deeper level, historically–wondering if the possible narrative of an endpoint of escalating infections would be a return to “normal,” or if “normal” really made sense as a place to return–the architecture of this local municipal border seemed to make sense as something I sought. to decipher in what might be called, perhaps uncharitably, an episode of pandemic flânerie, or a search for a space for reflection and a hope for distance that city walking might offer to cope.
Did it make sense to look retrospectively at the spread of the Spanish Flu, and to ask what sort of break in time it created by its spread? The maps offered a chilling reminder of the difficulty of stopping its spread to populated areas, across the nation, that was oddly comforting in the progression of pandemics over space if haunted by rising curves of mortality. And as we watched our own time-series graphs of the temporal progression of rates of death and mortality, questioning the undercounts, role of co-morbidities, and trying to peak under the hood of the data visualizations to grasp its spread, the dizzying global scale of infection rates, hospitalization rates, and mortality rates gave us all on the fly crash-courses in demography and epidemiology which we had to admit our grasp was pretty unclear. The learning curve was so daunting, if so basic, that it seemed for a historian more important to gain distance in the past, and preceding pandemics.
As we tried to map the progress of the coronavirus, its origins, and contraction in different rates, we turned with security to the clearest form of visualizing the pandemic, the time-tested time-series line graph, that basic tool of visualization most fit for something so daunting as mortality, which had been a basis for tallying the estimated total of the fifty million killed in the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic, a tally of mortality we would later approach. While the 1918-19 pandemic was a removed event, the curves of mortality on time-series graphs tracked a sense of the compression of deaths to a linearity of time; rates were tallied weekly of the avian-born pandemic in an eerily identical graphic space of data visualization, which was echoed in the similar kinship of tools adopted to contain its spread–masks, hand washing, quarantine–as tracking the progression of time across the old x-axis and the rates of hard to comprehend escalating deaths along the y-axis distanced them with a helpful sense of anonymity.
As much as we were braced by how the progress of the pandemic revealed vulnerabilities of public health systems, the pandemic had posed stress test of the global information network–both in charting and sharing information about infections and identification of the coronavirus genome, and in educating the public about its treatment, and locating access to accurate sources of information.
The difficult to process nature of arranging these humblest of graphs in terms of total cases of COVID-19–a basic tally, but one hard to say was accurate; new cases per day, a metric that seemed to suggest how much of a handle we had on the pandemic’s spread; confirmed cases per million; or the rates of infection in different nations, that oddly removed the spread of mortality as if we were viewing the challenge of combatting the virus as a spectator sport.
Due to the official public denial of its danger or threat in the United States, and in the proliferation of online newsletters, uneven public tracking of infection rates by the CDC, multiple sources of ostensibly authoritative advice from whether it was healthy to exercise outdoors given the dangers of droplet dispersal from others, needs for frequent hand washing or gel disinfectant, and dangers of pubic space grew. We moved through space differently, in the Bay Area, projecting to different degrees a cone of six feet distance, internalizing distance as a social good as we sought to remeasure our relation to a fractured social body.
And it was fit that in the time of social distancing, I started looking at the pavement in new ways, and scrutinized on morning walks the clues stamped in paving of the East Bay sidewalks that seemed to parallel the exponential growth of residential housing in the city, about a century ago–before the Spanish Flu arrived!–as a tangible heritage. If the spate of growth of Berkeley occurred after the great fire of the 1906 Earthquake, the contractors who let their names on the pavement near my house–“1930,” “1938,” “”1939,” “1912” in a staccato of strikes on sidewalks near my house–an illusory sense of stability set in the shifting landscape of mortality as if detected underfoot. I looked at these almost epitaphic registers often combining names and dates in a grim way, as if they measured a sense of individual presence in confrontation with the huge sway of time-series graphs–a micro-geography that kept making me wonder how much of a new or changing temporality the pandemic would create, and what sort of geography shaped the neighborhood I lived in which I was not so keenly aware.
The geography of social distancing during the pandemic cannot be fully rendered, so existential is the psychic effects of the curtailment of face-to-face contact. Even if we have used tracking of locations to determine the extent of travel that folks with cell phones and androids allow themselves, the effects of distancing were interior, as much as they can be mapped in graphs or state-by-state choropleths. The enforcement of public health decisions of distancing or masking were met by uncertainty. And as the pandemic assumed global form and contours, I bore down in new ways on the microgeography of my neighborhood, looking for meaning and scrutinizing social relations hoping for a hint of of redemption, on morning walks; as I tried to negotiate what seemed a threshold of a new temporality of space and disease, with few precedents, avoiding dystopic narratives, the need to confront isolation was balanced by a need to try to map what seemed a deep historical change.
As we sought out ways of measuring the effects and consequences that would play out of the pandemic’s spread, the local seemed the best way to preserve meaning, and to look for grounding, amidst newsletters promised to offer concision and trust in the sea of COVID-19 information, as COVID Tracking Project helped to fill the gap of accurate counts of infections, where the government had failed. And was we searched for on-the-ground accounts of living through the biggest public health crises of our new millennium, we looked for ways of existentially processing unprecedented levels of death for which we lacked mental tools to grasp.Continue reading