When The Distance Between Us Grows Too Far

E.B. White said urban dwellers need space from others, but this is not what he meant. 


There is an old pica ruler in my newspaper office I found when I started working here in 2018. I have no need to measure type these days, but I could not bring myself to part with it. It measures exactly 18 inches in length. 

Coincidentally, that is also the precise distance that E.B. White famously said provides New Yorkers  “both the connection and separation” they need to inhabit a city where people are many, and space is tight.  

He was referring to New York, in his “Here is New York” essay, of course, but no matter what city we share with hundreds of thousands of others, the space we keep between each other is changing in these pandemic times. 

And even though it is less populated than New York, in crowded San Francisco, on most days before “social distancing” entered our lexicon, having a whole 18 inches of space would be luxuriant. Try as we might to put our bags and backpacks down while riding public transit, accidentally brushing against each other is commonplace at our rush hour commute to the city. Downtown crosswalks possess enough human mass to halt the most impatient of Uber drivers who dare try to defy the walk light. And, it is hard not to be pushed into a sidewalk detour by oblivious tech bros strutting four astride, just as they likely do on weekends when they take their titanium two-wheelers to the roads. 

Until now. 

These days, you could toss a bowling ball down the sidewalks without hitting a single lanyard-wearing visitor or flip-flop clad tourist. BART train cars are nearly empty on any given morning, San Francisco public schools are shuttered, and the ever popular ‘Hamilton” at the Orpheum decided that the show will not go on, even before Mayor London Breed announced a shelter-in-place for the city on Monday. Those of us still going to work on most days are advised to keep at least six feet between ourselves and fellow humans.

There is plenty of room to stretch out. No one is invading our physical, or even auditory space. The obsessively repetitive drum beat that echoes through downtown on any given day is quiet, and the Friday afternoon rinse and repeat speaker blasting “Black Magic Woman” on Market Street is silent. There is no busker on the sidewalk drawing in the tourists, and their money, with his maddeningly seductive game of find-the-ball-under-the-cup.   

Indeed, SF Weekly’s original plan for this  week was to write about baseball: Giants bobbleheads, garlic fries, fans coping with cheating scandals. It seems almost quaint now as America’s great pastime experiences a delay of games. Nearly every event you can think of has been put on hold, and our favorite cafes have closed or turned to takeout only. Even libraries, those public vestiges of freedom for all, have shuttered.

Yes, E.B. White’s 18-inch standard is obsolete in these dystopian times. The widening, widening  gap between us bestows much more loneliness than White said that foot and a half does for New Yorkers in more normal times. Facetime and virtual meetups are no replacement for experiencing the annoyances and occasional unpredictable joys that sneak into the daily grind of being in the city. 

I look forward to that day when we again hear the crack of the bat on a blue sky afternoon in the stadium by the bay, when we can go online to score a cheap partial view ticket to hear Hamilton’s Aaron Burr belt out “Wait for It” once more, and yes, I will be happy to hear that ear shattering drum, and complain about those awkward Silicon Valley migrants who just can never get the city’s rhythm quite right. Because yes, I miss them all. 

Deborah Petersen

Editor in Chief, San Francisco Media Co.

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