Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: A Lonely Road

Keeping wanderlust alive in a time of pandemic
FORGOTTEN RELICS: Detritus spotted in the alley between Keyes and Humboldt streets in San Jose. Photo by Gary Singh

Solitary walks along empty sidewalks and back alleys in the age of COVID-19 are turning into psychological experiments. Even with stay-home orders in effect, persons and/or their cohabitants are still allowed to go out for walks, jogs, or exercise as long as a distance of six feet from others is maintained.

Yet it has become a strange experience. As soon as one sees another person approaching, a game emerges to see who crosses the street first or alters direction. What's a natural born explorer supposed to do?

Since San Joseans are essentially discouraged to travel out of town in the near future, I knew it was time to intensify even more my years-long practice of exploring the ignored innards of San Jo. But this time I didn't feel quite right about it. Thanks to COVID-19, so many people are suffering, especially folks in the service industries, plus artists, musicians and other "non-essential businesses," all of whom are losing most of their income. At the same time, panic-ridden jerks are verbally abusing grocery store employees and angry racist jackasses are insulting every Chinese person they encounter. Would I ignore and trivialize the whole mess by writing another exploratory back-alley romp through the underbelly? Should such wacko stuff be part of an "essential business?"

No matter what unfolds, I always believe humor helps us get through situations like this. Comic relief is necessary. But I still felt a little weird about regaling you all with another urban blight junkie voyage while all these other disasters are only getting worse. I honestly didn't know what to think.

So just as I was scrambling to contemplate a more Zen way of handling the situation, legendary travel writer and friend Don George wrote a piece that taught me how to do just that. George recently published a poignant and reflective piece called "Wanderlust in the Time of Coronavirus," in which he contemplated our now forced sedentary state of being: "The coronavirus outbreak has effectively stopped me—and all my fellow believers in the Church of Wanderlust—from practicing our religion. In 10 short weeks, humanity has stumbled into uncharted territory," he wrote. How do we keep our wanderlust alive, he pondered. For George, the answer was to make his wanderlust more Zen and appreciate the everyday things he's usually too busy to notice—the artifacts around his house, the flowers in his yard, etc. "I'm approaching home as if it were a new and exhilarating place and feeling some of the same wonder-frisson that I normally feel only on the road," he wrote.

The story uplifted me. Sure, maybe I already shared that perspective, but I was beginning to doubt myself in these trying times.

George posted a link to the story on Thursday of last week, March 19. By sheer coincidence, over the course of the next 48 hours, George appeared in my Facebook list of "on this day" memories not once but four times, relating to various events that linked us together. (I attended his talks here in 2017 and 2018, for example.)

Since the muses of synchronicity have driven many of these columns over the years, they allowed me to overcome my self-doubt and explore my home turf with a degree of humor. This didn't mean I was ignoring the current horror disrupting everyone's lives. I could still show support for the heroic frontline healthcare workers risking their lives to fight this disease. Or the grocery store clerks, delivery drivers and domestic workers taking similar risks just to stay afloat. We're all in this together. Nothing is permanent.

So even while investigating a nearby alley littered with empty motor oil containers, crushed Modelo cans, mud puddles, bent rusty chain-link fencing, old kitchen garbage and an upturned couch, I could appreciate life's interconnectedness. In that same alley I encountered an old discarded baby walker that someone had run over and smashed into the mud several days if not weeks earlier. But this did not depress me. Right next to it, I saw a puddle, shaped like a heart and reflecting a piece of blue sky above—signaling the presence of hope. We will get through this. We shall overcome!