Driving to Nowhere

Driving to Nowhere: Homeless During a Pandemic – Part 2

THE EXODUS: PART 2 – Our Goodbyes

The weeks and days before the move were hectic. While my son spent his last days completing his remaining coursework, I was busy packing our things, preparing for one of the biggest transitions I’d make in over a decade. There was so much to do that I scarcely had the time or energy to “feel” my transition.

During this time there were growing concerns over the coronavirus in China. In late February, I received a notification from my landlord to stock up on supplies—at minimum, a two-week supply of food, water, and emergency items. The owner and property manager didn’t wait for the California or Los Angeles governors to take action, but made a precautionary decision to protect the health and safety of tenants and employees before the first COVID-19 case in California. To this day, I can only thank her for her forethought and diligence in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of her tenants.

Two weeks later, the first case of COVID-19 appeared in Southern California prompting Governor Newsome to declare a statewide emergency. The statewide emergency was unsettling for everyone. So much so, everywhere I went there was an underlying fear and panic in people’s faces—as if confronted with a disease that would wipe out humanity. It felt strange, like stepping into an apocalyptic movie—the uncertain and doomed future, the perils of survival, the darkness that settles over the city where all life ceases to exist and our lives and futures left to chance or worse—a lottery to determine who will live and who will die. The unknown future lay ahead of us with the unknown, unknowns creating a shadow of fear, gloom and apprehension.

COVID-19 prompted panic buying two weeks before the stay-home order went into effect. It was as if everyone was in a hurry to get something and somewhere, but no one knew what or where that was. People waited in lines at grocery stores that stretched around the buildings and down city blocks. It was chaos everywhere I went—gas stations had lines of cars, the grocery stores and department stores were so busy that supplies were quickly disappearing off the shelves. The first to go were toilet paper and Kleenex, followed by hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, and then baby wipes and canned goods. Within a few days after the declaration of the statewide emergency, the grocery shelves were completely empty.

During my last visit with an army buddy of mine, we went on a quest through Ralphs, Home Depot, and Vons to see the aftermath of the panic buying frenzy. I could scarcely believe that stores without groceries and essential items were possible. As we wandered from one store to another, the stores were empty of people and supplies—not a single customer, loaf of bread or canned item to be found anywhere. It was like walking into a zombie movie, and I half expected a ghoulish, half-rotten corpse to fall from the ceiling and chase us down. The scenes were eerie, foreign, unsettling and terrifying all at the same time.

However, the early weeks of the pandemic had little impact on me. In fact, because of my preemptive emergency planning, we lacked very little and only went to the store for milk and ice after the declared emergency. My greatest concern wasn’t the virus or food shortages but our imminent move—with the pandemic fueling our urgency to leave Los Angeles quickly.

The days passed in a chaotic blur as boxes filled our apartment and items slowly disappeared from our cabinets and bedrooms. I was so busy packing that I had no time to mourn my inevitable losses. The few quiet moments before I fell asleep, I reflected on the life and people I would soon leave behind, but I scarcely felt a thing. My beloved friends, community and place of worship were my entire world—I couldn’t imagine my life without them; likewise, I couldn’t imagine staying in Los Angeles with the imminent homeless crisis we were now facing. My last few days were memorable—one last dinner and scotch with my second family, sushi and Saki with an old army buddy and goodbyes to my communities were bitter sweet. I remember the goodbye blessing from the Rabbi, the last congregational festival and my last-minute hugs and goodbyes to the relationships I developed over the years. These were bittersweet goodbyes—the goodbyes I try to avoid remembering, but when I do, they tug at my heartstrings and bring tears to my eyes.

My son submitted all his remaining course assignments and took his end-of-year exams on March 13th 2020—exactly one week before we scheduled to vacate our apartment. Unbeknownst to us, he fulfilled his high school graduation requirements the last day Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools were open that academic year. That Friday, the governor of California shuttered all schools for a minimum of three days beginning the following Monday. Like every other American, I expected this to blow over and believed things would get back to normal; although somewhere deep down I knew it wouldn’t, things would never be the same, and a new normal already was upon us.

By March 15th we finished packing what remained of our apartment and on March 16th we picked up our moving truck as scheduled. On the coldest and rainiest day of the year, and amidst a statewide emergency, we loaded our truck. The torrential downpour couldn’t be more coincidental—perhaps the rain was both symbolic and foretelling—Symbolizing of my inner mournful state that I couldn’t otherwise express and foretelling the many tears I shed over the months that followed.

That day, the Governor of California ordered a stay-home-home-order and closed all non-essential businesses for a minimum of two weeks. The announcement came just as the movers finished loading my truck with the order going into effect at midnight. Although authorities strongly discouraged residents from traveling outside their communities, our truck was loaded and ready to go—it was now or never. I had a horrible gut feeling that our situation would go from bad to worse if we didn’t take the chance when we had it.

On March 16th, I took a little time to say goodbye to my best and dearest friends before loading my car onto the truck’s trailer. I said goodbye to a family I loved like close siblings. I said goodbye to my beloved sister, my best friend and my kindred spirit—a relationship built on “if we could be sisters, we would be sisters” and founded on the deepest sense of belonging, fondness and commonality than any friendship I’ve had in close to 30 years. I remember saying goodbye and crying with her in the kitchen. I held my sister in my arms and cried like I had never cried before. It was as if I would never see her again. And no one knew if we would see each other again. It felt like the end of the world was upon us, and no one knew who would survive. The world was rapidly changing, and the virus had diminished every aspect of normalcy, safety and security we had. I remember walking out of her house with a feeling I’d never step foot in her home again. I sat in my car and pushed back my tears. Just as I started my car I saw her standing in the rain, cloaked in a heavy jacket, sopping wet house slippers—sobbing uncontrollably while pleading for me not to go. My last memory of L.A. was a 70-year-old woman sobbing on the street on the coldest and rainiest day of the year. As I drove away, tears pouring down my face, I looked out the window to see her standing there, crying, like a lost little girl. Little does she know that her outwardly disheveled and mournful expression perfectly depicted my inner sorrow. I didn’t know this then, but she was the first of my many goodbyes. My goodbye to my dearest friend set the precedence for all relationships that followed, beautiful, temporary and ultimately ended with another goodbye. The aching loneliness I felt from my goodbye to her was merely a foreshadow of the endless lonely nights that followed.

My son and I were anxious; not just because we were embarking on a cross-country move in a small U-Haul truck with a car in tow, but every news outlet flooded news feeds with doomsday updates on the virus outbreak. We packed our last few items, threw away the last bit of trash, entered the moving truck, and started its engine. There was so much panic and anxiety going on indoors that I didn’t notice the abyss of silence that existed beyond my apartment complex’s gates. When we closed the door to our moving truck, a strange and unsettling anxiety and trepidation filled the truck’s cab. The world was changing quickly, and I was, as they say, on the last train out. I can’t explain what it was like to say goodbye to my friends, my community, and the little nuances of my relatively normal life. The sorrow that resulted from these goodbyes touched the deepest parts of my soul, and words cannot describe the lostness that accompanied our departure. It is a pain that I barely had time to feel since I left LA.

My son’s eyes met mine and for the first time we felt uneasy about our journey; although no one dared to express this aloud. For what seemed like an eternity, we looked at each other in search of comfort, assurance, and validation. It was as if we both wanted to know things would be okay while simultaneously hoping, wishing, praying that we would return one day. Our eyes filled with tears as we both remember our communities and our friends. In the blink of an eye – after the doors to our truck had locked—everything we knew disappeared.

Tears streamed down our cheeks as we thought about all that we were leaving behind. I pushed back my memories and my tears, made a long deep sigh and started the truck. We looked out the window one last time, said our goodbyes to our beloved home, and we drove away from the apartment complex driveway. We set out on our journey choosing to believe the worst was behind us. I believed a better and brighter future awaited us and our next destination would be better for us economically. I was sorely mistaken. These experiences were only the beginning of the many woes that followed.

The world outside our apartment complex was eerily quiet. As we drove through the city streets, we noticed the dark and ominous calm that engulfed Los Angeles. A city with millions of people was noiseless and empty. Los Angeles’ typical hustle and bustle and unending traffic vanished without a trace. Beautiful houses that were once brightly lit with blinds and windows open were now closed and dark, giving the homes a decrepit and ghostly appearance. Not a single person walked about, and no child played in their yards, no animal in their yard. There were no skateboarders, no pedestrians, no joggers, no cyclists anywhere to be found. As we drove on, we noticed that even the parks were empty of people and animals. Even the squirrels hid themselves away. The city streets were empty of people and vehicles. Likewise, every gas station and parking lot was empty of people. It was like the end of the world and we were the only two people alive.

Despite the sadness, this was the fastest drive out of Los Angeles ever. We were in a 14-foot U-Haul truck with a car and trailer in tow, with drive speed between 50 and 55 miles per hour and were out of LA county in under 30 minutes. Likewise, it was the saddest, loneliest, and gloomiest 30 minutes of my adult life. I was leaving behind everything and everyone I knew, unsure if I would ever see any of the people and places I loved again. We drove on with no certainty the place we would end up would be any better than what we left behind. We were driving into the unknown, which felt more akin to driving to nowhere. The empty highways, desolate city streets, and seemingly endless desert that stretched before us perfectly illustrated our hopelessly grim and empty future.

The drive out of Los Angeles was eerily ominous, quiet, isolating and lonely. This eerie and somber feeling remained with us our entire 2-days’ journey. Eerie ghost towns strewn across the vastness of our horizon. The dark and ominous silence and emptiness engulfed every city for 1400 miles. I’d driven across the country at least a hundred times, but for the first time, the world became strange, unfriendly, hostile, and cold. When we crossed over the California / Nevada border just as Governor Newsom’s out of state travel ban went into effect, I knew it would be a long time before I ever set foot in California again—if ever. The fear and panic I felt while crossing is hard to put into words; however, better illustrated by crossing an imaginary bridge that crumbled behind us, leaving an impassable chasm between us from our once beautiful lives. As we traveled, the same eerie quietness nipped at our heels urging us to keep driving. Everywhere I went, ATMs didn’t work, pay-at-the-pump gas stations were closed and surrounding states followed California’s lead. For 1,400 miles there was almost no traffic and very few people, no open hotels or rest stops, no fast-food places to eat, and closed gas stations everywhere.

The once friendly wild frontier became dangerous and filled with enemies. People were acting strange everywhere. When we’d stop to power nap for a few minutes, there were people who stalked our vehicles, looking in windows, checking doors while looking for items to steal. These instances occurred often which forced me to keep driving. These events were more unsettling for me than deployment. Deployment meant destination, certainty, purpose, future, and the unknowns had knowns attached to them. I knew who my enemies were, and I was trained and prepared to combat the enemy in groups. The drive out of Los Angeles meant there were unknowns that were still unknown. This was the first time I was alone and the sole protector of another human being without the fortification of a Forward Operating Base (FOB) or company of my comrades. I had no real end destination, no idea where I would sleep one day to the next, no idea when I would eat if I would eat, or if the relationships I had were permanent or there would be another tragic goodbye waiting for me just around the bend, there was no real certainty, purpose for our journey (other than escaping homelessness) and my enemies were individuals that looked and dressed like I did. I drove 30 hours non-stop before I made it to my first destination in the Pacific Northwest.

Honestly, if we hadn’t gone to the school in late January to have him to graduate early, or the truck had not rented in February, or my son waited 1 more day to turn in his last assignments, or we didn’t pick up our truck 1 hour before all non-essential businesses closed, we would have never left LA and my son would have been sleeping under a bridge with the tens of thousands of others negatively affected by the Pandemic.

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