Back in May there were sandwich boards around town soliciting pictures for a photography exhibit about the initial months of the pandemic. Being the sensitive and artistic soul that I know myself to be, I thought “I’ve got just the picture!” and scrolled back through my camera roll to the grey early days of our now-perpetual state. Back when people were still leaving their mail untouched for a day, when we’d only just begun to mentally size up the airflow in every new interior space upon entering. The days before fear gave way to sadness, and we weren’t yet numb to the multi-faceted tragedy of what we’re still watching unfold.
My submission didn’t make it in. It probably got edged out by a photo of a cat watching Tiger King or something. No problem, I’ve got this blog I can put it on instead. Basically what you’re looking at here is a picture I took one day while out with my wife on one of those walks we all have to take now so we don’t go crazy. The Mass Pike runs through the area and I’d been fixated on how the ever-present crush of Boston traffic had dwindled to nothing seemingly overnight. I can see part of the pike out of the corner of my eye from my desk at home so I’d been tracking it unintentionally as society went into lockdown.
This was two weeks into isolation for us. On the 12th as cancellations and scary news alerts were steadily pinging away, I took a day off work to rush down to RI to stock my mother with groceries and convince her to stay put for a while. I never returned to the office—we went remote the next day. A couple days later my wife’s did too. I was proud of how a patchwork of local authorities and employers here had taken these extreme steps to help slow or prevent the elderly and vulnerable from dying—a shared decision made by ordinary people in the almost total absence of national leadership.
When we came up on this highway bridge it really was shocking to see the highway this deserted. But I knew that that doesn’t necessarily come across in a still image, so I had to try to take a few and make them a bit arty while still showing the maximum possible extent of the road without cars on it. I liked this one the best, but it’s funny that I thought I could make a photo featuring the weird grocery store perched over the pike “arty.”
The contest required a description under 100 words, thus quashing my desire to write an extended reverie on the idea that under normal circumstances, at the time and date I took this, the Red Sox would have been playing their opening game. The road would have been filled with cars holding people listening to it on their radios. How poetic!
Here’s what I wrote instead:
I live close enough to the pike to hear it whooshing through a quiet night. It crowds with crawling cars twice a day and only ever subsides to a steady thrum.
As ordinary life shut down for many of us, and my world shrank to the blocks around my apartment, I couldn’t help but gawk at the abrupt lack of traffic; an eerie absence that substantiated the magnitude of the crisis. Yet, far from being ominous, the quiet road was evidence of our enormous collective effort to save each other’s lives.
I took this picture on a Thursday evening in late March, at what would have been the height of rush hour.