THE PLAN TO HALT:
THE STUDENT DEBT DRAIN
A short summary of a recent article
WHERE: Harvard Extension School 2019
INSTRUCTOR: Marlon Kuzmick
WHAT: A short summary on a topical subject pulled from current news cycles.
THIS IS WHAT
WHERE: Harvard ES 2020
FIRST-PERSON JOURNALISM E136
INSTRUCTOR: Martha Nichols
WHAT: SNAPSHOT SHORT FEATURE
“Hi, Mrs. Harris. It’s OK. You can get in. Trixie is adorable.” She’s not. She smells like poop. Trixie that is. Living in a Chicago high-rise has turned me into a compulsive eye-roller—one who is somewhat reactive to the granularity of city life, but accepting that we are ill prepared for sand in the social lubricant. I fantasize about jumping off the roof just to scare my neighbors. I will pull faces as I plummet to the ground, thereby ensuring my noisy neighbors will be guilt-ridden and shamed into trauma counseling for years.
“Of course not. Can’t hear a thing—we often wonder if you’re even at home.” They are. And the sonic boom emanating from their subwoofer will eventually wake the 4,000 fallen Confederate buried at the site of today’s Lincoln Park, which is a block or three up the road.
“What? Could not even tell anyone was up there!” I could. They were having sex. The roof deck is right above our unit, and the yellow 70s frayed and rickety recliners squeak—a lot. There is also the unspoken but coercive pressure to find something to comment on that conveys a modicum of civility, yet conceals a bitter truth. “Sure! I want to hear all about Tawny and Amber’s struggle to find patterned lampshades in this old white-lampshade-world.” Never mind the white lampshade struggle, inequality is real y’all, but you’d never think so in this toney lake-adjacent habitat.
Born in South Africa, a country with eleven official languages, the planned pale enclaves of this American city take some getting used to. Having lived in mostly rural locations for most of my life, the adjustment to micro-negotiations in a quasi-community is a slog. I had to get used to the vagaries of instant cheer and hollow-sounding compliments. A citizen of the United States since 2019, it’s still hard to pull the plug on the county of my birth. While settling in is proving seductive, to feel truly at home is not something that can be approximated or rushed.
Chicago’s Near North, which includes Streeterville and the Gold Coast, is surprisingly non-diverse, and that’s not entirely coincidental. Extensively written about by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, since the 1930s Black homebuyers have been denied mortgages and consequently, the opportunity to buy property in certain areas. Some of the boldest American cities—Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit—developed along racial lines, in effect creating pockets of wealth and home-ownership, as well as areas of low credit-risk scores which were outlined in red—“redlined.” And to add insult, reverse redlining is also a thing occurring in nonwhite neighborhoods where services and goods are overpriced due to the relative absence of competition. All of which served to be amplified by the tough-to-digest hairballs 2020 has managed to throw up.
People tend to prickliness and as it is they need to be taken with a tranquilizer in regular life sans COVID-19. During times of heightened reality in our altered States, unbearable layers of paranoia dressed as concern surface intermittently. “How are you doing…with all this?” Emerging as the most asked question of the season, it takes on a pointed, bordering on invasive tone when sharing elevators with masked neighbors. “Do you think we should suggest the building be more…you know, closed off?”
“From what?” I’m mildly annoyed at the loadedness of the question and more than a little disappointed that I even fleetingly consider it. But that’s the molasses-like creep of privilege, glossy and accompanied by a concerned wringing of the hands—the defining gesture of pious concern.
“I wonder if anyone in the building has it? We have to do something…”
The only thing I’m doing is trying not to sneeze—is it the virus or just hayfever? Those with a particularly virulent strain of affluenza like to coalesce around concepts like “social distancing” and “lockdown” without much thought to those who can and cannot afford that luxury. Keeping others at a distance under the guise of disease, dread, or looming dystopia is a well-worn privileged approach—think Apartheid, or any separatist movement really—and it is especially suitable during pandemics. And nothing exemplifies the me-culture of our zeitgeist more than endless navel-gazing about “keeping ‘em out of our building” while refusing to wear a mask in grocery stores. That the feasibility of self-sequestration is, much like the affordance of space in general and existing solely on non-GMO organic food, a rarified thing since even in this neck of the woods, few can survive by not working. A March 2020 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that less than one in five Black workers is in a position to do so from home, and that figure drops to one in six for Hispanic workers. Data indicates that marginalized groups are testing positive and dying from complications at significantly higher rates, and ignoring social interaction guidelines puts them at elevated risk. Chicago’s WBEZ reported in April that “70 percent of Covid-19 deaths are Black,” and looking at the greater Cook County point doubt that “while Black residents make up only 23 percent of the population in the county, they account for 58 percent of the Covid-19 deaths.” All of which took on even greater poignancy in the aftermath of the execution of George Floyd.
“We need everyone to wear masks in the common areas of this building, and it goes without saying, when you are outside. It protects the most vulnerable among us.” The chaise longue midnight-squeaker looks concerned.
I suspect he means “old white” when he says “vulnerable”—it’s remarkable how often they mean the same thing. Take our street, for example. A significant number of our neighbors flout the city’s proximity guidelines, as they suffer selective amnesia caused by too much feel-good cycling and running endorphins. Or maybe we’re simply confused. In March 2020 Dr. Anthony Fauci, éminence grise of the current virus squad was quoted by the New York Daily News as extolling the virtues of running while elsewhere in the same article, Dr. Maira Khan of NYU Lagoon stated the same, but urged restraint—spitting for one, is a no-go. In April we got word “that runners and brisk walkers may create a wake of air behind them that could carry exhaled respiratory droplets for 15 feet or more, meaning that the droplets could reach people walking or jogging well behind them.” A mere month later, it was reported on CBS that “you would have to be in their airstream for 5+ minutes for a chance of infection.” Not that perplexing, really. We are, after all, figuring this thing out on-the-go. All the more reason to be a good neighbor then—a mensch—for the greater good.
On a good day, nary a mask can be seen on our street. You’d be forgiven for thinking that blond hair and blue eyes guarantee a protection mechanism of sorts or represented some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. A stark stinging shock then, when I saw a South African news report illustrating how COVID-19’s casualties extended beyond ventilators. A part of a draconian lockdown schedule, the South African government “deployed 24,389 security forces, including the army and police, to enforce regulations prohibiting people from leaving their homes except for essential purposes.” Calvin Kevin Ilungu Inkongolo, an undocumented Congolese foreign national, made a living by walking dogs in Cape Town. Since any form of dog walking (or outdoor exercise) was forbidden during lockdown, Calvin was denied an income. Emaciated and desperate, he hanged himself from a fence, with a dog leash. But Calvin Kevin Ilungu Inkongolo was killed by the coronavirus—lest we forget.
* * * *
Back in Chicago, nothing makes already “alert” eyes wider than the words “looting” and “Gucci” in the same sentence, while dining out in the neighborhood’s “Viagra Triangle”—so named for the proliferation of patio-dining venues frequented by rich, randy predators and their adoring, obliging conquests. “I swear I see the same men twice on a Saturday. Once for brunch with the wife, and again for a late dinner with a different woman—or man. It is Chicago.” Alex knows. He’s an ex-neighbor and a manager at one of the famed Triangle hangouts. Good luck trying to break through the veneer of disengagement and self-protection in significant ways. But if COVID-19 had not done enough to put the kibosh on neighborhood shenanigans, the execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis changed the landscape in a physical sense with shops boarded up against looters and nightly curfews; and, more importantly, in a profoundly conscientious manner.
The Wieners Circle, a Chicago-style hotdog takeout in neighboring Lincoln Park with a devoted following, regularly delivers searing political insight on social and political asymmetries. Their brightly lit curbside sign comments on the deaths of Ahmaud Arberry and George Floyd, the courage of Colin Kaepernick, as well as the threat of police action against bird-watcher call-the-police-there’s-a-Black-man-around Christopher Cooper with the words:
I CANT BREATHE
I CANT JOG
I CANT KNEEL
I CANT WATCH BIRDS
The haiku of searing pathos, a truth-bomb extraordinaire, served as a jarring reminder in the otherwise terminally preppy neighborhood. It would have been vaguely farcical if it weren’t such a kick in the gut.
“What you doing? We’re at the protest—we are outside your building—join us!”
From my window, I could see the first few signs that all was not business-as-usual on Lake Shore Drive, and soon the few signs swelled into a happy horde. I joined some neighbors and soon got swept up in the crowd making its way down the Magnificent Mile. Graffiti was going up as far as we could see; several storefronts was already smashed, and looting had started at high-end stores. Next to me, an older gentleman couldn’t stop remarking that “all lives matter,” tragically unable to read the street and woefully inept at gauging the temperature. He was met with unmistakable WTF glares and sideways shade that screamed, “OK, Boomer.”
“White people discuss racism with a breeziness. It’s disorienting. It’s not how we have been dealing with it. It makes me a little bitter.” Vineet is a first-generation American, a doctor, and a neighbor, walking alongside us. He’s also an activist—he protested for four days. He reminded me that Chicago was home to Homan Square, a secretive police facility once used for detaining and interrogating thousands without legal advice, and no trail for loved ones to follow. Violence was synonymous with the Square according to Chicago police records, and at least two people are known to have died. Naturally, the secret venue did brisk work primarily with Black men and, infuriatingly, any documents that could shed light on detentions at Homan Square could not be found on the Chicago Police Department’s filing system—the men had effectively become Chicago’s disappeared.
We made our way across the Chicago River as the city’s bridges were all in the process of being raised as a measure to keep protesters in smaller groups on both sides of the river. Forced to walk the labyrinthine Lower Wacker Drive, made famous in The Dark Knight’s famous Batman-versus-Joker chase sequence, and up a narrow set of steps to the surface, we emerged to the sight of a city expressing outrage. This was what democracy looked like.
I took a moment to take it all in. Thousands of people surrounded me, wearing masks and carrying gallons of milk to wash out their eyes in case of a “non-chemical” pepper spray deployment at the hands of the increasingly stern-looking Chicago Police, guarding Trump’s much-maligned edifice to greed on the banks of the river. I was experiencing a “moment” for the second time in my life. I was there at the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa, proudly casting my vote for our first legitimate president. As a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, I was proudly caught in teargas during a protest over the assassination of Dr. David Webster, a prominent academic and anti-apartheid activist. But this felt bigger because the struggle to end Apartheid and other incarnations of institutionalized racism is far from over, while the sheer scope and reach of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests mark a broad and diverse expansion of the movement: “No justice. No peace.”
Somewhere, caught in the throng and facing the mayhem, I felt at home. Standing on the bridge, overlooking the city I had come to love, part of a ragtag bunch with handmade placards, we were united in the idea that we are more. These were my neighbors. And caught up in that moment on the Wabash Bridge—a farm boy from a dustbowl in Africa who didn’t wear shoes until he was six—I became American.