I drove 2,300 miles to get home. I saw how uncertain the future is for black Americans.
Over 7 days between Phoenix and New York, I met people—athletes, business owners, politicians—living lives increasingly disrupted by the pandemic.
“Smooth road, clear day, but why am I the only one travelin' this way? How strange the road to love should be so easy. Can there be a detour ahead?” — Billie Holiday, "Detour Ahead"
I was lucky.
Just as the nation began to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, I was able to find shelter in a car and some solace on the open roads.
A series of obligations that began March 11 required me to travel from New York to Kansas City, Missouri, then on to Phoenix.
Faced with the risk of flying back to New York, I decided to make the cross-country drive home. I felt better off on the road. (Here's how the virus spreads on a plane.)
This was at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when we were acting like the overwhelming favorite in a boxing match, not taking the underdog seriously.
Then the virus began connecting, landing painful body blows, then knocking us down.
Then it began killing us.
With each new day, restrictions intensified. We were ordered to shelter in place, then keep our distance socially. Sports stopped. A multibillion-dollar industry we had thought indispensable was turned off like the flick of a switch.
But for seven days, my car became a movable quarantine on a trip that stretched over 2,300 miles and through nine states. As games were canceled and the nation was held hostage, the highways became an ally.
The road has always been my easy chair. The highways I’ve traveled, ringed with natural and built wonders, are humbling reminders of humanity’s limitations and its potential. Driving would also provide an opportunity to see firsthand how my fellow human beings were reacting to a rapidly spreading virus nationwide.
I was especially interested to learn how African American businesses were dealing with a virus that was unleashing hell, especially in poor communities. This was never intended as a scientific all-encompassing survey. As I traveled from state to state, the idea was to gather snapshots of African American communities through the eyes of people who have lived in those communities for decades. (The numbers are in: coronavirus is disproportionately killing African Americans.)
There was a professional football player in Arizona, an entrepreneur and pioneering politician in New Mexico, a biochemistry professor and his career politician wife in Oklahoma, a high school basketball star and minister in Pennsylvania.
What they had in common was an age-old preoccupation for most black Americans: survival.
Taking precaution in the age of the coronavirus, I decided to communicate by Zoom, or over the phone.
This turned out to be prudent. On April 23, Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, announced that he had tested positive for coronavirus and was under quarantine. At the time of publication, Waller said he was showing no ill effects.
Phoenix, March 18
News of the day: All 50 states have now reported coronavirus cases, as deaths due to the virus continued to escalate in Washington state, the first hot zone in the U.S.
Professional athletes are often thought to be immune from real-life maladies. As the coronavirus has shown, no one is exempt.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Brett Hundley had just traveled from New Zealand to South Korea and was on his way to Bali when pandemic responses got serious. Hundley returned to Phoenix rather than risk being stranded.
“When I got back to Arizona, I had nothing in my house, so I had to go to the grocery store," Hundley said. "I went at 6 in the morning, and there was a line about a mile down the street just to get in.”
“I just stopped at GameStop yesterday. You have to go to the store and they’ll give it to you out the door, rather than going in. Now, they don’t even allow that."
I suggested to Hundley that when sports and football do come back, it likely will be without in-stadium spectators.
“It would be really awkward to run out there—it would probably feel like a practice. I don’t think many players would like that. Football’s football at the end of the day, so we would do it. But it’s different playing with fans.”
From Phoenix, I drove to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. I’m not sure when we will see filled stadiums again.
I left Tempe on U.S. Route 60 West through the breathtaking desert up to the mountains, and eventually to Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, which straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 22
News of the day: Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said postponing the 2020 Summer Olympics was a possibility, as the Canadian Olympic Committee said it would not send athletes to the Games in Tokyo. (This isn't the first global crisis to disrupt the Olympic Games.)
Sheryl Williams Stapleton is the majority floor leader of the New Mexico House of Representatives. First elected in 1994, Stapleton was the first African American woman in the New Mexico legislature.
Many of her constituents with businesses are confused and terrified, and not at all comforted by the recently passed stimulus bill. Their fears echo anxieties across the nation as record numbers of businesses close and record numbers of people file for unemployment.
“Right now individuals are listening to the news that say, ‘Yes, you can get a stimulus package and you can get stimulus funds.' But a lot of people in my community are saying, 'How do I go about getting it? How am I qualified?'
"Small businesses are screaming, calling me and saying they call the Small Business Association and they can't get through.
“The state is saying, ‘We have this small-business loan, but it has to go through the bank.' And many of the big banks are saying, 'No, we're not participating.' It's scary.
"What do I tell my constituents out there? What do I tell my small-business owners?”
The crisis accentuates the division between those who have access to resources and those who do not. It shows with crystal clarity that so many small black businesses have no safety nets.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions for people who don't know how to go and locate the information. There's a lot of people in neighborhoods that are low-income, that don't have internet.”
Stapleton has faced numerous crises in 26 years, but nothing like this.
“We have had many crises in terms of education cuts and things like that. This one has just touched to the core of poor people, people who cannot afford anything. It affects more of the people who speak a different language and not English in terms of being able to provide services for them.”
I asked Stapleton how she planned to allay the fears of her constituents.
“For those who know Christ, they know they can have faith and things will get better and the Bible said to love one another. Those who do not have Christ, then they need to depend on the resources they know are available to them through the state government. That's all I can say.”
Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 23
News of the day: Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee issues an order requiring residents to stay at home for the next two weeks.
Josef Powdrell is CEO of Mr. Powdrell’s Barbeque House, which has been serving barbecue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, since 1962. Two years after settling in Albuquerque in 1958, Powdrell’s parents, Pete and Catherine, opened a takeout barbecue restaurant that evolved into Mr. Powdrell's Barbeque House.
“When we went into business, we caught the social change of the '60s to the '70s. Our business expanded. We had about three or four stores running at the same time, and we were doing well," Powdrell said. "We know how to ride the horse now, but all the whole time we've been in business, we've had hard times with capital. The banks have not been real friendly to us here.”
For Powdrell, the coronavirus exacerbates the fragility of black businesses.
"We're in trouble in New Mexico," Powdrell added. "It's going to be real tough on African American businesses if it lasts much more than five or six weeks, because we're all operating damn near check to check."
Like restaurants around the nation, Mr. Powdrell’s has been buoyed temporarily by takeout and delivery.
“I have strictly carryout because they're saying carryout and drive-thru is legal. Saying that was probably one of the best things that we could hear.
“Right now I'm generating probably 60 percent of what I need. How long can I tread that water? According to the numbers, it's going to be tough, really tough for us on the other side of six weeks.”
Powdrell employs 50 people between his two restaurants. (Meet the frontline workers who want to help during the pandemic.)
"Between the two stores, I had a $20,000 payroll yesterday. I'm really worried about the next one, which is two weeks from here. I'm trying to hold onto an investment that my folks made. We got land and a building. I'm trying not to lose it after 60 years of business. That's what's driving me.”
Oklahoma City, March 23
As I traveled from Albuquerque to Oklahoma City, it was becoming clear that the virus was having a disproportionately devastating impact on the poor. Were the wealthy one percent feeling guilty? Were African Americans of means feeling guilty as their less fortunate brothers and sisters were ravaged by the coronavirus?
Earl Mitchell Jr. is a retired professor of biochemistry at Oklahoma State University. He began his tenure at Oklahoma State in 1967 as a research associate in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology. Two years later, Mitchell, a New Orleans native, became the Oklahoma State’s first black professor, and later the university’s first tenured African American faculty member.
Mitchell and his wife, Bernice, have been involved in local civil rights activism since arriving in Stillwater, Oklahoma. They have been the delegates to four Democratic national conventions.
How has the Stillwater community been affected by the coronavirus?
"Students are gone, so that's a large part of the community,” Mitchell said. “There's no sliced bread in any of the stores. We have three Walmarts, a lot of shopping stores, and there's no bread on the shelves and no more toilet paper or hand sanitizers."
At 70, Mitchell and his wife are members of a vulnerable population.
“We cannot get access to some of the health care that we need. My wife has rheumatoid arthritis and she's supposed to get physical therapy. None of the places are taking any new patients. The surgery clinic is closed down in town.”
What will be the political fallout from the coronavirus and social distancing?
“This will be a chance for many things to not happen. But I'm actually more optimistic, because I think there are people who really want to vote this time that didn't vote the last time.”
I spent March 24 in St. Louis, and March 25 and 26 in Columbus, Ohio. As I had done in Oklahoma City, I went to the Whole Foods in each city. For the first time since I left Phoenix, latex gloves and masks were being commonly worn. By the time I reached Columbus, the headline of The Columbus Dispatch screamed: “VIRUS SLAMS OHIO ECONOMY.” For the first time in my journey, I became acutely concerned about the virus.
By the time I reached Philadelphia, the East Coast was on total lockdown.
Philadelphia, March 26
News of the day: The U.S. has more coronavirus cases than any other country in the world, with at least 82,079 cases and 1,195 deaths.
Lynn Greer III is a senior at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, where he led the basketball team to the Catholic League city championship game. The season was canceled just as the state tournament got underway. He is being recruited by several NCAA Division I schools, but the recruiting process is on hold.
“I wouldn't say it affected my relationship with any scouts, but it's definitely difficult because they don't get to watch us play as much as they should," Greer said. "They'll probably have to look at old footage instead of seeing how we're playing at the moment.”
Were you looking forward to the recruiting process?
“Yeah, I definitely was because I was going to start taking my official visits. All schools that are recruiting me I take very seriously. Marquette, Florida, Gonzaga, Oregon, Notre Dame, a few others.”
Are there any players who needed to play through the summer to increase their chances of being offered a scholarship?
“There's a lot of kids that go from not having a single offer to having 20 offers in one summer. It just makes it 10 times harder for them.”
Greer’s father, Lynn Greer Jr., played for John Chaney at Temple University and is Temple's second all-time leading scorer. He has been guiding his son’s recruiting process.
“It’s difficult because we have our daily training regimen," Greer Jr. said. "That's been taken away from us.
“What we used to know as normal is no longer available. At this point, it's been all phone contact and texting, them letting Lynn know that they're interested in having him come on campus when that time comes.”
How has the lockdown impacted the family?
“It’s slowed us down a lot," Greer Jr. said. “We're sitting down having family dinners. We're watching movies together. We are exercising together. It's more conversation now than when everybody's running around. We're getting back to the old family style. We appreciate what each one of us does in this household.”
Philadelphia, March 27
News of the day: Federal health officials greenlight the first point-of-care coronavirus test that can provide results in less than 15 minutes.
Like pastors across the nation, Rev. Waller has had to make dramatic adjustments.
“Pastoring the church has taken on another dynamic," Waller said. "All of our worship experiences are online. We do keep the church open from 8 until 12 Monday through Thursday because we have a food pantry. We’re utilizing social media to keep communication up with the church because there's a lot of misinformation out there. My role is to provide as much normalcy as possible.”
Has online giving increased giving, in general?
“Our online giving has increased. Our overall giving is taking a hit. There are some older parishioners who don't want to use the online giving mechanisms. But I'm not concerned that this is forever, and I believe that we will catch up. It's going to be tight for most churches, but I think that we will make it.”
Has your church been asked to play a role in fighting the impact of the virus?
"Interestingly enough, I have not been asked to do anything. I'm actually surprised. I pastor the largest African American church in the city of Philadelphia and there's not been one request officially made of me or of our church.”
What could you offer, if asked?
“Probably what I am doing. The children that have to be fed because they were in school programs and get their lunches from there. I would have asked to make my facility available so that drop-off and pickup of food would take place.
“If they're worried about space in hospitals, I might ask for my facility to be a place that the sick can be brought. I guess things could get worse before they get better, and someone may call on us for that type of help.”
What has been your message to your church community?
“The 23rd Psalm says, 'He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.'
"That word 'maketh' has really become important. We're in a forced time of lying down as a people. It's a wonderful time of reflection, of looking at what really matters. All of us have had to reassess, and I think that is one of the purposes of this moment.”
How much strain does a crisis like this put on faith?
“Well, it's stretching our faith, that's for sure. But that's how faith grows. It grows through being put in context that your present level of faith is not enough to handle, and your faith is then given the opportunity to grow.”
For many African American communities, the hardships created by the coronavirus, sadly, are familiar.
“I'm trying to remind people that there was a portion of our world, and even in the United States, where people lived like we all are having to live right now, even before the virus. There've been people stuck at home. The stores in their community do not have what they need. The medical facilities are not adequate, and they're locked out of mainstream America. People live like this even without the virus.”
New York City, March 27
At 11 a.m., I taught my course via Zoom at Arizona State University, headed to the Philadelphia airport to switch out cars, then set off to New York.
At 8 p.m., I'm finally home. After thousands of miles on open roads, I had come to the trickiest part of the journey: how to return my car and avoid contact with huddled masses yearning to be free from sheltering.
First, I stopped home and unloaded the rental car.
Then it was down Palisades Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge: New York City, coronavirus and all, remains the world’s greatest city. I wanted to take a peek.
I crossed the George Washington Bridge at sunset.
The Manhattan skyline to the south, imposing, impressive and intimidating, but betraying no signs of this terrible virus.
Up in Harlem, the streets, while emptier than usual, were crowded. There were people on the way to work. Some may have been grocery store clerks, bus and subway drivers, paramedics, police and firefighters, doctors, nurses, and health care workers. Many New Yorkers had fled — and perhaps taken the coronavirus — to their second homes in the Hamptons and around the country.
The virus laid bare class distinctions. Haves and have-nots. If you were able to work while sheltered at home, you were a have. Within that designation were layers upon layers of middle and the upper reaches of wealth.
New York was like a magnificent animal in the zoo—to be observed and admired at a safe distance. You went behind those bars at your peril.
At the return center, the attendant and I agreed that we wanted to avoid contact at all costs. I tossed him my keys, then walked to the parking garage where my car had been sitting quarantined and isolated since March 10.
In 17 days, the pandemic had gone from a whisper to a scream. The United States had passed Italy for the most deaths of any country. I think back on how naive we were on March 11 as we braced for March Madness, anticipated the start of the NBA playoffs and planned for the opening of the Major League Baseball season.
Instead, we find ourselves under veritable house arrest.
But the basis of my hope is that the coronavirus, like my cross-country trip, will end, as all journeys do.