Everything and nothing was the same...This sentiment has been bubbling in my mind over the past couple of months. Does anybody else feel like they’re living in a parallel universe this year? 2020 is one for the books, for sure.
This sentiment popped in my head in late July when I was driving through Jacksonville, Florida to see my parents who live in nearby Atlantic Beach. By the time I moved there, living in a military family, I had lived in 5 other places. Jacksonville, Florida is the closet thing I have to a hometown. When people ask me “Where I’m from?” - I often pause, I could go on an on.
Anyway, in 1977, I moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Life was pretty good before that, but I had never really settled anywhere. Hence, I rarely saw change - the good or bad in where I lived. And granted, I was too young to probably notice it anyway. 1977 - the year that my pre-pubescent awkward 5th grade self moved from Okinawa to north Florida. My sister, Blue was just an infant and I remember crying daily for my best friend, Lisa that I had left behind. She had also moved, typical for a military brat like myself. We remained pen pals, but it was never the same.
At the time, Jacksonville had a population of approximately 500,000 people, but was the largest city (square footage wise) in the USA. Land was undeveloped, the mall was my favorite spot, and I was thrown into a new world of kids who had grown up together - cliques were already formed. I was no longer the fastest swimmer around (I hit my peak at 8) or the quirky hippy dressed girl. I was awkward, insecure, and muddling through it all.
As things progressed, I saw a bit of development - the sea salt infused melange of businesses that merged where the Atlantic Ocean began changed a bit. The ho-hum mall got a brand new wing, a pizza place with a big screen TV opened - so cool! New housing developments sprung up where semi tropical jungles used to thrive, there were constant talks about the development of a state of the art bridge, the hot young weatherman was the local celebrity. Mid 80’s now...Another fancy new mall sprung up, then closed just as quickly and converted itself to a local community college. There was progress, but I needed to get out. Spread my wings. So I did.
Fast forward to 2020 - I’m living in London, but have peeled away for the summer, a welcome escape from lockdown in the city. I drive into Jacksonville with my daughter after a couple of weeks quarantine in the mountains of North Carolina. The humid air feels like home. The Dames Point bridge that was in talks for years started construction when I went away to Florida State University. By the time I was finished, in 1989, it was done. The bridge still feels new to me. I get so excited when I see it. Progress, I like it!
Some things are the same - the signature iconic howl of the ape on WAPE, the “Big Ape” - it’s still popular now as it was when I was a kid, hoping to hear the latest top 40 hit. I hear some fresh songs, I save them to my Spotify playlist, aaah the irony. Then I dial it over to 104.5, formerly ROCK 105, the cool rock station that started when I was a young teen. The iconic emblem was the cartoon drawn rock with headphones on it, seen all over town on the bumper stickers of the cool kids. I miss that station. It’s now conservative talk radio, two guys are driveling on about something. I can’t deal. I feel nostalgic for car rides to school, listening to Van Halen - JUMP!
Memory lane appears as I drive - that’s the movie theater where I saw “Grease” many times over. Over there - that hipster cafe is the infamous spot that used to be a “Lil Champ”, the local convenience store chain...where my friend had a crazy fight with her then boyfriend. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I remember the moments, but the buildings seem to fade from memory as well. Often when I drive, I am disoriented, I don’t know where to turn.
I see an old phone booth, a relic from the past. I laugh as I’m not sure why it’s still there, maybe to remind me of the calls that we used to make to the operator to tell them that we had just been disconnected. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time, except that we saved 10 cents or maybe 25 cents and got to call home for free. I was a rebel teenager, I tell ya.
When I grew up, the lifeguards were the kings of the beach. They had flags that attached to their big lifeguard chairs and if something was happening, they would wave their flags, creating a domino effect. Each flag waved prompted the next lifeguard to wave their flags, notifying each other that something or somebody needed attention. These iconic red chairs symbolized that summer was on!
Things that I didn’t pay attention to before are now endearing - the hum of the cidadas, like sprinklers that never get shut off. The fluffy moss that clusters on telephone wires, dangling above the street. The daily downpours - the buildup of humidity and heat, and the sweet release of the rainstorm to take the unbearable edge off. Hunting for shark’s teeth ... I’m still not great at it.
I take a bike ride with my mom and niece and relish in the beauty, I miss it. I take a walk in my parent’s neighborhood, and I sense that I know the street. I do - one of my friends from the swim team used to live in that house. It was new when she lived there, now it’s matured like the memories in my mind.
Back to London with Bonnie-Blue. We quarantine at home - sweet, sweet comfort before venturing back out. Then today - it’s the first day of school. Again... that strange feeling creeps in. It reminds me of going back to a place that I used to live, but this time instead of seeing the progress, I feel the disappointment, the sadness. I felt this was last summer when i visited Los Angeles. The city wasn’t handling their pervasive homeless issue and it was visibly worse. I had seen it shift and change when I had a business in Venice ten years ago - the push and pull between being empathetic towards the homeless, and the shifting tides of “Silicon Beach” that wasn’t having any of that. I felt hopeful when I left. One of my homeless friends who lived in a camper next to my boutique had been assigned permanent housing. But now - it was like the city had given up - tents appeared on sidewalks in front of empty storefronts where thriving businesses once were. I was afraid to walk down streets for fear of the filth. The city had turned it’s back, seemingly given up on the challenge of the homeless in my eyes. It was so sad. Again, I digress.
So - today. School dropoff - it felt familiar, but strange all at the same time. What once was normal felt weird. Six months after lockdown, we were trying it a new way. New protocols for COVID made that exciting day of a fresh new year seem strange. Different places to drop off our kids, a new time schedule, all to make things safer. The good news is that since we can’t go inside of the school gates, Layla Rose can walk with us to school. I reminded her tonight that she is winning in this COVID game, winning!
Overall, though, my brain was having a hard time taking it all in. Plexi glass barriers are prevalent everywhere, but these invisible see through shields are also everywhere, even if not physically present. The barriers of communication, the loss of body language, the drifting away of endearing conversations that get muddled with a mask. I love wearing my super dark shield sunglasses, but combined with a mask, I look like I’m going to rob a bank. So today, I throw on some lighter pink aviators, eye contact - something, anything in this COVID bubble of claustrophobia. I’m exhausted. I head onto the London Tube. It’s been 6 months, and I haven’t missed it. A train is delayed for some reason or another, and I’m waiting on the platform for a good 15 minutes. My mind starts to race, realizing I’m in an enclosed space with a virus. Most people are wearing masks, some aren’t. When did I become paranoid? The train finally arrives and I get on, reminding myself to start riding my bike again, I really, REALLLLLLY don’t like this. Here’s the thing - I used to love London. But it’s feels like a cloak of sadness has been drizzling on it, when will the joy reappear? And where else would I want to live?
On to the pool, my favorite place. Except the joy has been sucked out of my former favorite spot. Will it become that happy place again, please, oh please, I hope so. The small special things are gone - zip tied away, like the visible barricades of “keep out” tape that I saw scattered throughout my day. It’s clean and the staff is awesome, but those little touches are gone. No lounge chairs by the pool, there are fewer lanes. I get a kick board, but now I need to bring my own equipment (hello flippers and hand paddles) and forget about the spa - the max is now 6 people, and it was to capacity when I was ready to hop in. The moisturizer and cotton swabs have been locked away, with polite notices that they are on lockdown. First world problems here, I know. I miss the simple pleasures of swimming outside, a pool with a deep end, blue water.
So as the day progresses, I try a semblance of normalcy - the mall. A throwback to my teenage years, and that mall that I talked about that was renovated in the 80’s. It was my place, my excitement - shopping. Aaaah. I almost had that bit of joy back, discovering John Lewis in person - I’m actually excited to be replacing our worn out bed pillows. A sweet woman comes to help me, oooh, I love this. Then at TK Maxx, there’s another reminder of this weird place we’re in - an overhead announcement, a cheeky British accent requesting payment in a contactless form. Money is money, but they prefer not to touch it. I don’t blame them.
I reach for another squirt of hand sanitizer. Everything and nothing was the same.