Who You Insult When You Call This a ‘Wasted’ Year

Many Americans have long had limited opportunities for recreation. Think of them before you complain.

Illustration: Derek Abella

Hi, it’s me, your Connecticut friend who loves the foliage, hates the ticks, is from Brooklyn but from from Ecuador. I live in a predominantly upper-middle-class white neighborhood in New Haven, a transitory town with a rotating door of Yale graduate students. Because of Yale’s Covid-19 rules regarding campus living this year, there are some undergraduates podding together in houses in the neighborhood, so when I leave my attic apartment to walk my dog, it’s very, very Yale.

I’ve been living in New Haven some 10 years, and I’m still struck, as a city kid, by how green it is. How many trees. For the past 10 months, and especially recently, I am now struck by the number of undergrads and graduate students who are not masked. And when I escape them, find refuge in my home, and look on social, I can’t escape seeing able-bodied American citizens talk about how 2020 was a “wasted” year of life or planning the first thing they’ll do when they’re vaccinated, which tends to involve vacations and parties.

A life. What makes up a life. Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent, was very clear that when your life is at risk and mainstream society considers your death a vulgarity, little things make up life, intimate moments make up a life. I saw Rent in New York when I was around 14, and it made sense to me, because I too had a secret, I too was treated like an animal, and I too felt like I was on borrowed time. At the time, I was undocumented.

My parents have spent 30 years in this country doing very little other than going to work, coming home, showering, and falling asleep in front of the television or with a Bible in their hands. Is that 30 years lost in their lives? How many of their years have they spent alive according to a calculation that measures life by metrics that center capitalism and experiences we feel we are owed? Have undocumented immigrants or people who live paycheck to paycheck ever lived? If the type of Americans who could comfortably work from home during this pandemic without worrying about food or evictions and could afford therapy and medications consider us not-alive, then it makes sense that images of us trying to seek pleasure in our lives, like buying steak with EBT cards or owning iPhones, would make them angry. We still seek joy. We still seek aesthetic pleasure. And it makes white Americans mad.

So I look at all this unmasking and public complaining while our most vulnerable populations are dying in historic numbers, and to say it fills me with murderous rage would be inexact writing, because even though I am angry, I’m not the one risking killing a stranger by choosing to have my nose pierced at the mall by someone earning minimum wage in the middle of a pandemic. I’m not the one going to a Caribbean island where cases are low and people of color in the tourism industry have no choice but to be around me.

People of privilege: You can get tested whenever you want. Can the low-wage employees you rely on get tested whenever they want? Do they have private insurance? Will you cover their care, and will you provide for their family if they die? Can you inhabit the bodies of the dead and reincarnate into them so their family does not experience trauma at the expense of your suntan? If you cannot answer in the affirmative to these questions, you have no business going to another country.

I know some of you, and I see that you’re not quite worried so much as you’re… annoyed.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a pervasive bitterness that this had happened to us, the country that brought you Rambo and Stephen Miller. So they blamed China, they blamed our Asian neighbors, they committed violence against our Asian neighbors because this happens to those countries, but if this is going to happen to America, blood would be shed. The blood of Others. And as the pandemic rolled out and it became apparent that the greatest deaths, the most undignified deaths, would be for the elderly, for the sick, for the Black, Indigenous, and Latinx, the immigrants, then Americans as a whole became outraged they would have to sacrifice their — and here the word “privileges” became “liberties” — for us. For us.

So many people decided to not sacrifice their “liberties” at all. They continued to throw house parties and hotel parties, go on vacation, eat at restaurants, go to a fucking Chainsmokers concert, because if the possibility of death was floated, the ghosts they saw while the bodies were still warm, not even on ventilators, were people who were sickly, fat, Black, Brown, and we lived to serve them anyway. So “essential workers” were called “heroes” when in fact they were people who were paid shit to risk their lives for us and keep the economy afloat while Elon Musk got high, collected Grimes’ eccentricities, and made billions.

My parents were essential workers. My uncle was an essential worker. Nearly everyone in my Latinx community is an essential worker, as well as my kids’ friends’ parents. They are Black. You may say I’m paranoid and that individual white Americans were not actively trying to kill us. Then get your boys. I have walked my dog, masked, enough times in my lily-white neighborhood and had people my age, who I know are liberal, who I know have probably seen my book in these fucking top-10 end-of-year lists, but who scan me and think “Mexican,” walk so close to me, so intentionally, and brush past me so brusquely that they end up pushing me aside and almost knock me over. It hasn’t happened just once. I have had this happen during summer, when I am wearing a flimsy dress so you can see my brown skin, my black hair, and my voluptuous mestizaje, every inch of me desirable, especially to those who want me gone.

New Haven is a college town. I’ve been in the photosynthetic bosom of the Ivy League since I was 18 years old. I did my undergrad at Harvard and am still involved in my PhD program at Yale. My brother is at a CUNY school, and I am close to teenagers who are in various city schools and community colleges. I also dip my toes into the social media world of kids in prestigious four-year high schools and colleges, and I’ve seen the high drama in elite spaces. They are losing a year of their lives — I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about life. That life is defined as in-person seminars, extracurriculars, parties, free food for graduate students during workshops and conferences, the ability to fully absorb the entire outfit your TA is wearing so you can later post a snide comment about their clothing.

It’s time for these people to realize that some kids have been taking online classes forever. Older students and single moms have been thriving on this medium, the professors who teach them (all untenured) have incredible pedagogical skills, and kids have been going to community classes where there are no campuses or even a common space, and they have built community. The fact that your year didn’t look like the college brochure you were promised doesn’t mean you can take it out on the least powerful people in your orbit, on adjuncts, or socially awkward classmates, or on people who are hanging by a thread emotionally on social media and whose moms may have taken night classes and it took her years and you’re making them feel like shit. You may be smart and talented, but I have taken a roller coaster through a lot of gilded palaces, baby, and I can tell you that it was me, but it just as easily might not have been me. It’s all fucking Russian roulette, and if you don’t realize that you need to be humble about what you consider crumbs and others consider a godly blessing, you need to get off social media. I understand some of these complaints are posturing for actual difficulty with mental health, and I urge Americans to be honest about their struggles, because we are all struggling with mental health right now, and we all need more than anyone or anything is able to give us, but suggesting that what we need are entitlements just hurts more people and does not build solidarity.

If you have lost someone to Covid-19 or live in fear that you will, you can feel however you want. But I know some of you, and I see some of you, and I see you taking risks. And I see that you’re not quite worried so much as you’re…annoyed. If you’re working from home, at your comfortable salary, shopping for better and better loungewear, and mourning certain engagements with capitalism and recreation, not for the human connection that keeps us all from killing ourselves, but for the ego boost that a 100-person birthday party gives you, you might want to begin considering yourself a bad person.

“We can’t see people’s faces anymore.” If I read another saccharine essay about not being able to see people smile, sweet Jesus. You know how many of us—Black, Brown, queer people, disabled people—are not even looked in the eye by our colleagues when we are talking? How many people crossed the street when they saw us pre-pandemic?

Those of us who have been pushed to the margins of society and treated like we are contagious have lived iterations of this life. Those of us with chronic illness, mental illness, an undocumented status, fear of the police or ICE — our life has looked like this for a long time. We have knowledge, wisdom, and resources to spread for anybody burdened by feelings of guilt, loneliness, emptiness, survivor’s guilt, anxiety, fear, agoraphobia, PTSD, and contagion OCD. If you are struggling with these things, we are here for you. If you want to complain about not waiting till you get the vaccine so you can go to Miami, without giving a thought to the fact that you might be on the upper end of the distribution schedule for the vaccine? Girl.

Karla lives in New Haven with her partner and dog. She is the author of “The Undocumented Americans.” Pronouns: she/her.

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