On a small garden and other small gestures in the time of Covid-19

I am living in a duplex in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. My immediate neighbors and I share a little garden patio that faces the sidewalk. Weeks before the pandemic hit Miami, before it occurred to any of us that we’d all be living in close quarters with roommates or partners or children, and with nowhere to go, the couple next door found patio furniture to sit on. They gathered terracotta pots from local garage sales. They planted herbs: dill, basil, mint, rosemary, parsley… all flourishing now. We even have our own twin plastic pink flamingos in the yard. 

In an attempt to escape the confines of my house now, I often (try to) work at a small table outside. I chat with neighbors through the chain-link fence as they pass by. They share news and jokes, local gossip. The feral cats lie together in the sun on the sidewalk and, I like to think, wonder at the quiet. Traffic in the city, notorious for gridlock, has diminished. We’re on a state-wide stay at home order as of a few days ago. A week ago, a 10pm curfew began across the city. I’ve been hunkered down for three weeks, all my classes and meetings now remote. But I’m free to sit with my partner, with whom I am vectoring, as long into the night as I like in our tiny, shared stretch of Miami. 

I miss the city as I knew it just a few weeks ago. I liked to go to Coconut Grove and write at Panther Coffee, and in the evenings at Taurus, one of the oldest continuously operating bars in Miami, where patrons and bartenders really do know each other’s names. (It’s the only place in the world, really, where everyone calls me ‘Professor’). 

I miss the beaches, taken from us by spring breakers whose youth made them feel invincible, I suppose, and who gathered en mass despite pleas from public health officials here and everywhere, until all those piles of warm sand, and even the salty Atlantic waters lapping at the shores, became forbidden territory. 

It’s a strange thing to grieve a city still, if more quietly, humming all around you. It’s strange to grieve the smallest of physical pleasures: the shaking of hands; the un-masked smile between strangers at a distance fewer than six feet; the touching of objects, absentmindedly, in grocery stores and shops. I miss picking up a volume in a bookstore or a library that had already been leafed through by others–who knows how many? I wish a yoga instructor could press on the base of my spine and correct my posture in a pose. I wish a colleague could greet me with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. I wish a student could come and slouch in an office chair, lament a grade or beg for more time, their ungloved fingers nervously tracing the edges of my desk. I’d like to sit in the presence of people whom I do not know, in a crowded cafe, and watch the world go by on something other than the screen of my lap top. I’d like to order a meal at a restaurant, with friends, and have it set, steaming, before us by bare hands. I’d like to share food across the same table, take bites of things from other people’s plates. 

May that city, that world, in some form, come back to us. Though I hope that when it does it will be a world better than the one we have been forced to leave behind, that vanished so quickly as the sickness spread. I hope that we will notice, and love, the hands that pass a dish, or count out change, or extend awaiting an offering. I hope that we will keep with us, all, the unthinkable volume of care and comfort we neglected to notice. I hope we will never forget that those many heroes of our current struggle were not made heroes by pestilence, but were heroes all along: cashiers, gas station attendants, delivery drivers, farm workers, nurses… That we will know when this is over that a handshake, indeed, any laying on of hands, is no small thing, but rather an essential performance of the wildly vast network of bonds between all of us delicate mortal creatures in our gardens, our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, our nations, our Earth.

But for now, I take great solace in the small space of the garden built by my dear neighbors. And in the walkers and joggers and their leashed dogs who pass. In the cats basking on warm concrete and licking their paws. I cook with the herbs that grow in what is now both outdoor workspace and tiny community. I ride my bike. I hope for better news, or no news at all. I wash my hands.