Dispatches from a Pandemic: the physicalities of remembering // history is a place

Content Notice: HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, mentions of drugs and alcohol

Another thing inspired by the current pandemic. One of my professors (a historian, naturally) is encouraging us all to write and record our feelings on this. As if I need encouragement!

Anyway, this one is in response to watching the documentary We Were Here and recognizing a lot of the locations mentioned in it. Two people can exist in the same place but in completely different worlds if they live at different times. This is about worlds of plague, worlds of health, worlds of turmoil, worlds of peace.

(And public transit. It’s also about public transit.)


walk these street, streets of
jubilance, terror, sadness,
jubilance, terror, sadness,
in that order.

fifty years and more preserved here:
the flower shop, the bakery, the streetcar,
the train station, the high school, the park,
I walk and I wake and I stumble and I sleep and
I dream.

dream of people dancing, kissing, embracing,
the intersection crowded with masses,
the F (Market/Castro 🡘 Market/Wharves) clanging its bell,
dream of elation,
dream of joy.

something sours,
the grapes to wine and the wine to vinegar,
I hear the voices echoing, all the stories I’ve
ever encountered, the books plucked from
the shelves, the documents entombed on
library shelves, the memories my mother conjures
up when I ask her about those days,
what were those days?

those days of panic and fear and then
those days where I walked
down this sunny street, dodging through
traffic as the fog that enveloped the coasts
parted here in the heart of the city.

memories, nightmares, dreams, wishes,
those sunny days of mine are gone,
a pallor lies over that intersection now,
the jazz band does not play,
the gossiping old men have fled,
the F is shuttered and Harvey Milk Plaza stands
devoid of people, still, cleansed from its constant smell of
piss and weed; nobody goes in or out because
the trains below do not run.

the hot stucco of the buildings,
the cool glass windowpanes,
the snapping flapping flags whipping back and forth,
the vibrancy, the chatter, the humanity!
a woman runs by with a babe in a stroller,
a man longboards down the street,
wide-eyed gawking teenagers maneuver through the crowd,
gathering in a gaggle in front of a headshop.

this place, this time, this grounded memory,
another time, I exited the L (Taraval 🡘 Embarcadero) at
Castro, took the elevator up to the street level and
ambled down Market to 18th and then
down 18th to the yarn shop, my
little corner of paradise by the park.

all the little physical things,
the feel of soft yarn under my fingers,
the beat of the drum of the street band,
the bright red of the Samy’s Camera logo on the tunnel ad,
the smell of old books here and there,
the taste, the taste of the street food I buy.

memory, I can reach out and touch,
but even though the landmarks stay, the people
ebb and flow, come and go, stay awhile, fade away,
die, some cradled by lovers,
some wasted wisps alone.

these threads, though it all,
(I hear the name Jay Levy in a documentary,
I meet a professor who worked in Levy’s lab)
tie me to a history I will never know.

I think, I consider, I write,
I dream of a world beyond this one,
a world where we have vaccines and cures for the virus,
a world where we no longer speak in present tense,
a world where we have a definitive end.

(smallpox reigned until 1977,
let’s have an end date like that.)

and yet I cannot move past the glowing fog of illness that
has once again settled over that neighborhood and I
think about how illness and death and trauma all produce
guilt, how there are many who survived one plague that struck
my beloved city by the sea only to die in
another one, think about how the public health officers were
quicker to action this time because this plague affected everyone.

this plague that snuffs out our celebrations and parades and civic gatherings but
will never take our pride
(will they cancel 4th of July, too, I wonder),
this plague that kills our elders and wounds our young,
this plague that makes me fear the very air.

better the devil you know that the one
you don’t but a devil all the same and
I shiver with a cold I never felt where
Castro crosses Market and turns into Divisadero,
waiting and hoping and praying I will
someday go back and feel that history
once again.