Commentary: Social distancing: If you're not uncomfortable right now, you're not doing it right

Commentary: Social distancing: If you're not uncomfortable right now, you're not doing it right

  • Updated

We're in this together. (Just don't stand so close.)

We're unified in our goal. (But look, 6 feet away, OK?)

If you haven't been outside lately, let me paint a picture: People are outside but not many people are outside, and wherever people are going right now - to grocery stores, jogging trails, gas stations - an elaborate dance is happening, a social distancing pas de deux, being learned on the fly, more awkward than a junior high slow dance to "Stairway to Heaven." I make light of this because it's unnerving and it's sad, and because I don't know how else to address such a profound change in no less than the way we are regarding one other, at least today, with much of the country closed for community.

Just this morning:

A man in a car was in front of me at a red light, he got out of that car and walked around to the trunk, hunted for something, forced me to sit through another cycle of traffic lights, took his sweet time, then pulled out what resembled an Apple cord, waved thanks for my assumed patience, climbed into his car and, despite a new red light, drove through.

I arrived in a mostly empty parking garage, and as I walked to the elevators, a cleaning person looked up and jumped back, startled by the sight of another person. He said nothing, I said nothing and we continued on, as if one of us were a deer that suddenly appeared.

Outside, while walking toward an office building, a woman wearing headphones, coming from the other direction, stepped further away from me the closer I approached, and I did the same, two magnet poles, pushing each other towards the edges of the sidewalk.

Step outside, you'll see: Our rules of engagement are fracturing.

The social contract is breaking, and yet, at the moment, surprise: For once, those breaks are well-intentioned. It's the ironic dance sweeping the land, the one that forces us to acknowledge and appreciate each another, even as it pushes us physically apart.

One step up, two steps back.

I drove into a Jiffy Lube and noticed employees scattered across the garage, talking and laughing as if the oil changing pit were a camp fire. I was asked if I wanted to stay in my car. Since I didn't, someone held open my door and asked if I wanted to stand inside the waiting room or outside. I waited in the waiting room, and the assistant manager stood on the other side of the waiting room and, yep, he said, weird times. Just yesterday he had a customer who got angry. Guy stepped toward the manager, the manager stepped back, so the man threw up his hands in offense, he's not sick, he doesn't have a virus, he's fine, but huh, OK, know what, the hell with you, he's taking his business elsewhere.

The assistant manager told me this and shrugged.

Out on the Lakefront Trail jogging path, Nia Ellis of Chicago was running when she saw, ahead, three women, each about 6 feet apart, speed-walking, side by side, spread across the path. She ran up behind and said: "Please move to the side."

Soon after another set of joggers passed, in a tight row, staggered about 6 feet apart, moving almost comically, in perfectly timed tandem, like an ambassadorial motorcade.

Down on the beach, waves were so rough and tall that a pair of surfers bounded across the sand and, unwilling to bump fists, bumped the ends of surf boards, then raced in. (Indeed, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Thursday that the city's Lakefront Trail is closed.)

A couple from Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, Karen and Jim Elliott, wandered through the bird sanctuary nearby. "I noticed, at the grocery store," Karen said, "I'm now stepping aside to let people pass."

That just sounds like manners, I said.

Yeah, she said, maybe when this is over we'll be doing it more often.

Keeping our distance - much as we say we hate everyone and people are stupid and we just want to move to an island where someone owns a turn signal - does not come easily.

Self-centered as we are, being immersed in our own company remains still an evolving art. Social distancing is not intended to be natural or easy, and in practice it can look ugly. I saw a woman, wearing an R2-D2 bike helmet and sanitary mask, riding her bike on the sidewalk, waving at a woman pushing a stroller to get out of the way. I saw a homeless man approach a car at a red light, which then steered abruptly into another lane to avoid him. We're being loudly reminded of how we normally think nothing of brushing through a crowd or squeezing into bus seats.

You can walk or jog into the remnants from a cough or exhale, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. You can contract the virus from public surfaces. You can contract it from a grocery cart. You probably don't know who touched that takeout container. Also, it's not a bad idea to take your shoes off when you get home.

My point is, the 6-feet rule is not always observed. Traffic on the Lakefront Trail looked average the day after Illinois was locked down. But looking closer, I see joggers who jog around others. I see so many single people that when I see two or three together I wonder how they could be related. I hope they're related. (Another tidy rule to follow: Avoid interactions with anyone who doesn't live with you right now.)

So I get nosey. Passing a park with a large white wall for handball, I noticed six guys playing without gloves. I asked: They're not worried? One of the men said they're all family, they live together, but "we skip past anyone else."

They stood a good 7 feet from me.

One of the reasons those images of kids still heading to spring break pissed off so many people was because the kids looked so unaware of others. They were not being awkward like the rest of us and muddling through. They were not the construction workers I spotted on the expressway eating lunch far apart, like guys who need an extra seat between them at a movie. They were not the Whole Foods employee I saw who, when asked a question by a customer, threw her arms up in a reflexive, self-defensive X, like Wonder Woman (then laughed and apologized). They were not tapping sneakers instead of shaking hands. They were living, unburdened. Meanwhile at a Target on Chicago's North Side, there are floor markers at the checkout that separate anyone in line by 6 feet.

Which is how, when we leave home, we live now.

Outside the restaurant Vincent, on its beloved $10 burger night, a small crowd waited for takeout, so artfully spaced on the sidewalk that my first thought was, oh, like "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte," the masterpiece, with park goers standing mostly apart. Seurat's painting is hanging now in the Art Institute of Chicago, inside a gallery totally devoid of tourists. Which is another irony: Chicago, today, is so empty, you can move quickly, if you could move freely. A week ago, the Chicago Loop Alliance noted a 63% drop in foot traffic after limits were put on the size of public gatherings; the group says that, normally, a 10-block stretch of State Street attracts nearly 100 million people a year. The other day, after all public gatherings were banned, I stood at State and Randolph and, at 1 p.m., for two minutes, I counted everyone I saw: a man walking a dog, a woman walking a dog, a couple, a jogger, a woman with a backpack, an elderly woman. A dog with no owner.

I saw seven people and one stray.

The days move slowly.

I saw a woman on a Michigan Avenue completely empty of traffic, waiting for the signal to walk. There's nowhere to go and nobody to see, so we're left only with routines and each other. I saw a guy outside an auto repair waiting for anyone, Purell-ing his hands. I watched a man in a laundromat roll his eyes and sigh loudly when the only other customer in the place, an older woman, decided to settle down next to him.

If you're not uncomfortable right now, you're not doing it right. Unnatural as social distancing has been, and will be, the awkwardness means we're coming together, apart.



Christopher Borrelli is a features reporter/columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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