Breathing a Little Easier

The date 4/20 took on an entirely new significance this year.

It’s funny how schedules work. 

I’d spent the past few months wondering when, if ever, I’d get vaccinated. I’m blessed to know a great many teachers, personal care workers, and other essential medical and dining professionals who have already gotten their jabs. I’ve seen all their photos of bandaged arms and vax cards and read all their stories of temporary soreness (or, in some cases, having to take a full day off to recover from the final dose).

But the most common detail of all their stories is how each of them says how they can now breathe. Getting vaxxed after more than a year of shutting in and social distancing is like having a weight lifted off your shoulders, they all told me.

That’s great, but when would it be my turn? I just turned 40, don’t have any disabilities, and don’t work in an essential industry. Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden said they want everyone vaxxed by the summer, but had yet to point me towards the lines in the Mission or Moscone.

So, imagine my surprise when, upon taking MyTurn’s suggestion to try for a slot at the ever-embattled City College of San Francisco, it only took two days of trying for me to find an open walk-up appointment. I booked it so quickly that my mind didn’t even register that April 20 is the date when I’d normally give my 7Pipe a good workout.

Lord knows I needed the distraction. When I’m not spending every waking hour finishing freelance writing projects, sending out my resume for full-time work, or just pinching every penny in the hopes of not moving away from the city that birthed me, I’m often worried that this slowly re-opening world is doing so without me. It’s been over a year since I’ve been out to a live show and nearly a year since I’ve been inside a bar or restaurant. The only bar I have visited in the past year is the now-closed Lucky 13 — during its brief mid-COVID re-opening (glad I bought a T-shirt when I was there) — and I just recently received a notice from SF Playhouse regarding their upcoming in-person show. It’s a solo show about racism starring the always-great Jomar Togatac, so it’s definitely something I’d love to put on my calendar.

And yes, I needed a break from all the coverage of George Floyd’s killer. I’d been actively avoiding coverage of the trial, but its headlines were at the top of every news site and paper I read. I avoided the trial for the same reason I avoid footage of Black people killed by police: I have a lifetime of experience telling me that is what happens all the time. I don’t need the trauma-porn of watching the footage over and over; that’s what a jury’s supposed to do.

So, imagine my further surprise when not only did the jury quickly come back with a verdict, not only was said verdict to be read the day of my vaccination appointment but that the reading kept moving closer and closer to 1 p.m. Pacific Standard Time — the very moment I had scheduled. I’m a professional writer, but if I’d come across that sort of plot contrivance, I’d have immediately rejected it.

Yet, there I was, clad in my bright-red Colin Kaepernick 49ers jersey — both as a political statement and, y’know, short sleeves — as I walked through the campus where I studied 20 years ago. (I hesitate to call it “my alma mater” since I never graduated.) I’m glad my hat has a chin-strap because the wind was crazy that day. Hell, I have to give the CDC folks credit for how well their plastic white tents were held down, given the blustery conditions.

Since I grew up in a much more responsible time, I got all my inoculations as a kid. But a fear of needles and a lack of adult health insurance put me off getting annual flu shots. I finally put that fear aside when I got my first one last year, mid-pandemic. I considered it a trial run for what I was about to do now in the large parking lot of CCSF.

As I was handed a surgical mask to wear over my cotton Taylor Jay mask (Black-owned and based in Oakland), I kept refreshing the news on my phone: “The prosecutors have arrived at the courtroom”; “the defendant has arrived”; “the jury is in place”; and so on. Just minutes before I went into the tent, I caught a glimpse of a headline about Ma’Khia Bryant but didn’t click on it. Hell, I couldn’t even pretend to be surprised at this point.

Like last year’s flu shot, I barely felt the needle of the vaccine (Moderna) even touch my arm. I took a selfie of the tiny bandage, got my CDC card, and, as advised, spent 15 minutes in a separate recovery tent to make sure I didn’t have any extreme reaction to the injection. With 15 minutes to kill, what else could I do but refresh the news sites? I’m really glad I gave up social media years ago because merely refreshing The Guardian’s live feed was mentally taxing enough; the last thing I’d want is for relatives and/or right-wing trolls to further toxify my information stream.

I thought about how the same CDC which just inoculated me against COVID had recently declared racism “a ‘serious’ public health threat.” I thought about how Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that the United State’s violent fetishization of guns — including those used by law enforcement — is also “a serious public health threat.” I thought about how 13-year-old Chicano Adam Toledo had his empty hands raised in full compliance with the cops who killed him, whilst the now-18-year-old white boy Kyle Rittenhouse is raking in huge donations from uniformed cops, Ricky Schroeder, and the MyPillow guy.

I thought about how unlikely it was for any of the serious charges to result in “guilty” verdicts in the whitewashed town of Minneapolis, and how I should just prepare myself for the day after 4/20 being the same as before: with me holding my breath every time a cop passes by.

When my 15 minutes were up, I got up and started walking towards BART. I’d already planned to go downtown to Patrick & Co. to buy a plastic lanyard for my new COVID card. As emotional as I was, I chose not to take part in any demonstrations. Besides, that sort of thing is frowned upon when you’re not a right-wing insurrectionist.

Not knowing what else to do during my walk, I refreshed the news: “Guilty” on the first count; refresh — “guilty” on the second count; refresh — “guilty” on the third and final count.

I’ll be damned, I thought.

It was like watching the slot machine sequence in a film: I, the audience member, don’t receive any of the riches, but I’m happy with the result.

I didn’t cheer. I didn’t jump. I didn’t pump my fist or do a little dance. No, behind my cotton and surgical masks, I just took a deep breath.

Felt good.

When I started writing this post last week, I intended to cover the steps that national and local arts organizations have made to make spaces physically and emotionally safer in the past year. It probably would have covered Scott Rudin’s fall from grace alongside a New York comptroller’s call for all theatre workers to be vaccinated. It would have mentioned new works by Black artists at the recently reopened SFMOMA, to accountability measures taken by local troupes Killing My Lobster and Crowded Fire.

But, as the old saying goes, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” I may still cover those topics in a future entry. For now, I can’t help but ponder how during the past 4/20s I’d be in Golden Gate Park coughing from all the smoke I inhaled, both mine and that of those around me. I think of how George Floyd, Eric Garner, and countless others spent their last breaths specifically crying out that they couldn’t breathe. I think of how I was almost late for my BART train to CCSF because I got off the bus after two people were breathing so hard with masks so loose they might as well have not worn them at all.

And yes, I’m thinking about the shows I’ll attend, the restaurants and bars I’ll visit, and the diverse group of friends I’ll meet up with a good month or so after my second dose. I’ll still be wearing a mask for most of those, but it’s a welcome relief that the odds are now in my favor in terms of public safety. It’s also a relief to know that cops around the world have been sent a clear signal that there are indeed consequences for their systemic abuses of power. We did it once, we can do it again.

I tell ya, it feels good to breathe easy.

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist, and arts critic.

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