Seeing Ghosts

Surreal experiences are common right now.

Navigating new social expectations with other masked people in muted, wary exchanges ranks high among them. For me, seeing advertisements for “fashionable” face coverings is another. And let’s be honest, none of us ever thought being unable to purchase toilet paper would be an actual thing.

Parking lots are empty. Performances are called off. Travel is limited.

Our lives are constrained, on hold.

Normal has been cancelled.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we are amazed and disoriented as we strive to come to terms with different realities: our rosy recent past when ordinary things were ordinary, our grim present state of suspended animation, and our uncertain future – its fate waiting to be brokered by the choices we make today.

So many things are gone that we took for granted Before the COVID-19 Era. We mourn their absence.

Ghosts of our past selves fill the spaces we used to frequent. Residing in a parallel plane, these carefree shades are invisible to hurried observation, but they can be glimpsed if you pause and squint your eyes. Once you spot them, maskless and seated close together in a formerly busy restaurant, say, it then becomes simple enough to complete the scene by conjuring accompanying sounds – clinking plates and glasses, chattering voices, and punctuating bursts of laughter.

Those were happier times.

If those haunts are in your neighborhood, you pass them often. Their once prickly strangeness has been smoothed by repetition into a vague melancholy. After that, it’s easy to forget how odd it is that they’re closed.

However, if you encounter a venue you haven’t seen since BC19E, that drowsy sense of loss is shaken back to full wakefulness, and you mourn yet again.

On our travels over the past several months, Glenn and I have visited many places we’ve never been. That means their relative emptiness hasn’t truly hit home for us – at least not in any visceral way.

We can of course tell there are fewer people in a place than there would otherwise be, but that’s more an observation than an emotional response.

That all changed when we arrived at the southern California coast.

I have happy memories of these bustling places from BC19E. Today they are shuttered, emptied, and barred – hollow shells of their former selves.

Wrenched back to the surface by that contrast, my awareness reawakens to the staggering scale and tragedy of lost lives and livelihoods.

When that happens, the experience shifts from reminiscence to grief.

Santa Barbara was a regular stop for me when I was working (tough gig, I know). I came to love this small, fashionably quirky town on the coast. Its popular State Street district was known for its chichi restaurants and bougie boutiques. Sprinkled throughout were a few funky dreadlocked beach bums and colorful, memorable street dwellers – all regulars who had clearly rejected help and claimed their coveted spots as confidently as any shopkeeper. The unusual blend worked. All seemed welcomed and accepted.

When I returned a week ago, I was stunned to find a virtual ghost town.

Gaping stares from empty storefront windows and the eyes of forgotten panhandlers followed us as we walked the quiet street.

We could see that the restaurants, especially, had gone to great lengths and no small expense to adapt to a new outdoor model. Yet their efforts were rewarded by further restrictions from authorities when it was deemed that even dining outside was dangerous. Shiny new patios, heaters, tables, chairs, and other accommodations to that now-faded reality sit unused, shackled by chains that rattle and clang in the coastal breeze.

In all the times I was there BC19E, I never saw a vacant space. The lure of so many paying customers kept demand high for this choice retail location.

Now, evidence of failed ambitions are common here. Each “Available for Lease” sign reads like an obituary for the former proprietor’s dreams and livelihood.

In December, what might have been a happy, reminiscent stroll through San Diego’s Seaport Village with its twee shops and beautiful antique carousel was transformed to a somber cemetery visit, paying homage to old acquaintances passed and gone.

Desperate-sounding Christmas music streamed through the deserted marina-side walkways, echoing against dark windows and locked doors.

A resolute few shops and restaurants remained open. Flashes of hope would fade from the faces of dispirited salespeople if we continued past their door without stopping. Back to “work” they would go, filling their long, lonely days with idle tidying … and waiting.


Waiting for customers to return before the landlord is forced to write another business’ obituary.

Waiting for the end of this era of suspended animation.

Waiting to dispel these dismal spirits, to wake like Scrooge and learn our sparkling new beginning has finally begun.

Let us all hope that new day comes soon.

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