by Carol Emmet –
Having lived in the heart of Winston-Salem for many years, I’ve been unnerved by the changes in downtown life since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The strangeness (and, increasingly, unease) comes, of course, from how starkly different life now is in this previously vibrant and hopping place: how gradually it came about and how it’s suddenly routine—and weird.
I think of life as B.T.C. (Before The Coronavirus) and A.T.C. (After The Coronavirus) and often wonder if “after” will ever again look remotely like “before.” This is a possibility we all must come to terms with. There is great sadness, too, every time I’m out and about, as if I’m already in mourning for The Life That Was. But I persist in trying to reestablish and maintain the connection even in this deserted world.
My dog Bingo and I walk every single day, for miles, roaming all around downtown and its environs: Old Salem on The Strollway with its wide sidewalk and flowering redbuds; the Innovation Quarter, not so long ago noisy with ongoing new construction and now silent; Fair Witness at the corner of Patterson and Fourth, one of the best bars and gathering places in town, its potted flowers still outside but its shutters drawn; Krankies, a place where a friend and I met every week for lunch. (“I’ll have the Cheesy Western, please, with a side of fries.”) Trade Street, shuttered and deserted; the West End and Grace Court Park, lush and quiet; the Long Branch Trail, meandering and uninhabited; around the perimeter of the WSSU campus.
When the stay-at-home order was still fairly new, we experienced days and evenings when Bingo and I were the only two living souls out and about, except for a (very occasional) car or two. It’s so quiet at night: with only the random ambulance or police siren and, once, the trauma/evac helicopter heading for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. (It had been so long since I’d heard the thwock-thwock-thwock of either the local weather helicopter or the medical evac one that at first I couldn’t even place what the noise was.)
On fair days, the sky and the air are amazingly crystalline as a result of the lack of airplanes and cars. The stars at night are in sharper relief. It feels like the sharpness of impending autumn, not the advent of spring.
Although I’m a self-employed copy editor by profession, accustomed to spending much of my time alone, I deeply miss not only the more frequent and extended social interactions with friends but also the brief ones with the people I used to see all the time, like the crew at the CVS, always up for a chat about anything and nothing. The encounters with out-of-towners looking for a good spot for lunch. Stopping in at Mast General Store, with Bingo all alert because he knows he’ll get a treat. Chatting with the folks at a/perture, our award-winning, one-of-a-kind, independent movie venue, where my custom was to see a movie (or two) every week. (Because “the only way to see a movie properly is in a hushed and darkened theater,” I might feel this loss more keenly than most.) Running into former work colleagues and having a howdy-do. Jumping aside to avoid the (hated) electronic scooters. Walking to dinner alone to meet friends and feeling that sharp anticipation of a wonderful meal and hours of camaraderie ahead while passing one bar and restaurant after another, people spilling out into the street, maybe a little too raucous sometimes, but joyful. Human. Cars and tricked-out motorcycles cruising Fourth Street. Now ghosts.
Now, as we walk past shuttered and silent businesses, there’s a confusing, visceral, odd sense of surrealism. How can this be my downtown? We hardly need to pay attention anymore to the little blinking crosswalk signs. We see no one. When we do see someone, will they return our smile or avoid eye contact? Even just those passing smiles and waves feel ineffably precious now. B.T.C., we took them for granted.
Every once in a while hope still pokes its head out amid all the official “CLOSED” notices posted on every downtown business. The guys from Joyner’s, occupying space that had previously housed a high-end women’s clothing shop, an art gallery, and a frame shop, told me that they were taking advantage of the free time they now have to get this place (a bar with a speakeasy theme) ready to open when we finally return to life A.T.C.