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When irrelevance comes to town

The drive took me into a world I hadn’t witnessed in almost a year and a half. I poked around the neighborhood, took a tour of downtown, and visited the scenes of memories I hadn’t thought about in years. The whole, wonder at a world in transformation pervaded my furiously working mind.

We, as Americans, experienced the pandemic as an interruption in our day-to-day lives. Millions lost their jobs. Many smart people suspended family visits, took to social distancing, and wore masks for every-day activities absolutely necessary to living—grocery shopping, buying gas, and going to work. It was a monumental year, precedented only by the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

A friend of mine just told me this morning that the pandemic created a hole in time, a void that will never be filled—a year lost never to be found again.

But I didn’t miss the year for the pandemic. I was lucky enough to have become an “essential worker” four months before the country shut down to stem the spread of the deadly disease. As a result, the last year and a half wasn’t lost to me due to corona but to a new course in my life. In December 2019, I started a new livelihood that demanded 65-70 hours a week. I did nothing but work, recover from the long, hard days, and sleep.

Then, three weeks ago, things changed again. After a year and a half of pure, thankless labor, I found myself working 40-hour weeks. I suddenly had two days off a week. Gone were the eight- and ten-day stretches between days off. I went from working until 6:30-8:00 p.m. to finding myself at home in my chair by 5 p.m. Sundays, which were for so long devoted to package delivery, were suddenly mine to do with as I pleased. One other day off during the week, rotating week to week, also offered free exercise of the mind.

Suddenly, I found time on my hands. I was delighted. Leading up to my recent job status change, I only thought of having two days off each week. I didn’t think about what I’d do when I had time, only that I needed and wanted to enjoy the benefits of five-day, 40-hour weeks. I dreamed for months of having time to think, read, and write.

Three weeks in, it’s been difficult to establish a routine. It will come. I have faith that when I settle into my new work schedule, I’ll find the energy and discipline to devote parts of my newfound time to important things, which also include folding the laundry and completing long-neglected mundane things around the house.

But before I tend to such tasks, I’m taking some time to reacquaint myself . . . with myself. Two Sundays ago, when I took that drive, I saw just how my neighborhood can change. Gentrification had not only firmly taken hold but firmly transmuted the fabric of what my corner of town. Where before I started my present job, I watched changes happen in increments. Down came houses and office buildings and up went luxury apartments and condominiums. But I had seen those things happen, day after day. Nothing was sudden and jarring. I witnessed processes that made me feel increasing irrelevant and powerless as they happened.

But a year and a half absent from the neighborhood produced a sense of entering a new world, one familiar but strangely different. Gone were houses that I’d watched age and deteriorate over the course of years. Up in their places were finished homes and landscaped lawns alien to the world I once knew. Downtown, buildings that had once been grand and busy centers of commerce and industry in former years and then deteriorated and forgotten, had changed into chic dwellings for well-off retirees and suburban newcomers looking for more urbane environments in which to live and work. More and more, those lower-class working people who had populated my neighborhood and downtown had absconded somewhere. Maybe some of them had sold their houses for exorbitant prices upper-middle classes are willing to pay for land in the city. Some of them, for sure, headed for cheaper environs in Kansas City, Kansas, and aging first-ring suburbs. Who knows where all the poor scatter to when the rich come to town?

The processes reminded me of Henry Brooks Adams, who, in The Education of Henry Adams, bemoaned the passing of genteel America. A man who once thought himself so important to the functioning of a world shifting due to the Second Industrial Revolution found himself sinking into irrelevance.

I’m no Henry Brooks Adams. For all the things I’ve done, I’ve not been advisor to presidents. No one in diplomatic circles ever consulted me on foreign policy decisions. My family is neither well-known nor wealthy and we have never wielded any kind of power except that over our daily misfortunes. None among us is a philosopher, intellectual, or tastemaker.

But the beauty of Adam’s story is its universality. As I drove, I realized that the world had pretty much gone about its business outside my gaze. Nothing I could do, or could have done, short of gaining a foothold in politics (I tried once) or an instant lottery win would have changed the course of events within elbow room of my own house.

And then, there were the memories. One, in specific, made me think about how this city has changed in my adulthood. My first home away from parents was a threadbare apartment at the corner of 43rd and Warwick. In some ways, Southmoreland was the neighborhood of my childhood. My grandparents Dobson lived at 4208 Locust, and I spent a great deal of time as a kid in that corner of the city. The neighborhood fell on hard times in the late-60s and early-70s. By the early-80s, when I moved into that apartment, the neighborhood was worn as fabric on the arm of an old chair, tattered at the corners and thin at its center. The apartments were dirty, dusty, unpainted and mere visions of their former selves.

They were, in fact, dumps.

Those apartments, the scene of many desperate attempts to become adult, have been renovated and are now well-appointed condos. I noticed that the bars on the window were the same as the ones I one knew. Those scratched and indented hardwood floors, I imagined, had been repolished and refurbished. The dependable architecture of the mid-teens (20th century) stood the test of time and had come back into fashion. The website states, “The Berkeley Condominiums building was originally built in 1914 and completely restored in 2006. The homes feature exposed brick, granite countertops, wood and ceramic tile floors and an abundance of lighting through large windows. The common area includes a patio with grill, game room and lounge. Each unit also has a private storage area in the basement.”

Common area? Granite countertops? Exposed brick?

I stopped a moment and parked the car in front of the condos and thought of the depredations committed there and the passing of time. Nowhere in Midtown is affordable to minimum-wage earners like I was in 1982, a lifetime ago. What had I learned in that time?

Like Henry Adams, I was educated in the classics at just the wrong time. My education would bring me few monetary rewards—even if the intellectual gains and enjoyment made it all worth the trouble. I was vaguely aware just how irrelevant I had become and, now, in front of the Berkley, the fact of my inconsequence hit me. No place would enjoy the fruits of the broad life experience my parents and teachers had once assured me would take me places in the economic sense.

Would I have done things different had I known at the time that history and English and writing would pay so poorly? It’s hard to say, but probably not. I smiled at the thought of a young, white, suburbanite looking out the window at a trivial old man.

And I drove home, having seen what I needed to see. Time is not on my side now. The end is nearing. The least I can do it accept that.

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