First Person | Spring 2021 Issue

Liftoff Interupted

Searching for meaning — and a job — in the year of the virus

By Audrey Prescott

WHEN THE FIRST SHUTDOWN was put into place last year, and the uncertainty and confusion that came with it set in, I found myself wondering when things would be “back to normal.” But as the months went by, it became clear that there is no return to normal, and that our normal is due for a change.

COVID-19 struck the United States as I was nearing the end of my college education, interrupting what plans I had for life after UCLA — not that those plans were ever fully formed. In all the hypotheticals I had run through, I could not have imagined the meltdown of the national economy at the moment I prepared to enter into it. My summer of online job searching yielded about as much as an unanswered email.

I found my job shortly after moving to a new neighborhood, when I walked into a bike shop with a hiring sign. With limited knowledge of bicycles and limited optimism, I applied. I was hired and immediately began learning on the job.

The cycling industry has been whipsawed by COVID-19. Demand skyrocketed — riding a bike is a good way to get exercise when gyms are closed — but production shut down entirely for months. The shop is regularly busy, under- staffed and understocked. Every day I tell customers that the bikes they’re looking for are delayed for months, much like everything else.

Despite the challenges of retail during a pandemic, I’m grateful to work in a social environment. I’ve bonded with my coworkers from behind a mask; while choosing what music plays in the store or goofing around during lulls on weekdays. Even when our capacity and inventory are limited, it feels good to be part of something that has a positive impact. There’s the satisfaction of teaching adults to ride, the joy of putting kids on their first bikes. There’s hope and frustration and happiness and longing — all of which seem to capture life in general.

Some of that has crept into politics, too. Living in the United States during this pandemic has exacerbated my anger and frustration with leadership. The way the crisis was handled, especially in its early stages, set us up for a year of unimaginable loss. Over the past year, we’ve experienced the consequences of government at its worst: the politicization of safety precautions and the pressure to open the economy, at the expense of public health; the failure to reckon with white supremacy and the way our institutions perpetuate it; the disdain for the working class exhibited by members of Congress who are worth millions debating and “means testing” how much relief the people whose taxes pay their salaries deserve.

When the results of the runoff election in Georgia came in, I was hopeful. But it’s been months, and the “day one” promises of $2,000 checks, closing of mi- grant detention camps and a $15 minimum wage aren’t anywhere in sight. It feels like a slap to all the organizers in Georgia and all over the country who fought against voter suppression, registered hundreds of thousands of people to vote and encouraged people to put their faith in elected officials.

Change is always slow, and progress is not linear. But I can’t help but feel that the people who promised to fight for us have laid down their weapons. I have to remind myself that cynicism doesn’t help anyone. There are people who work tirelessly to better the lives of others and simple things I can do as well. There has been positive change this year. I don’t have to let go of my anger to experience happiness.

I’ve started singing along to my music out loud when I’m walking to the shop. I’ve definitely gotten some looks, but I decided not to care. Now I can actually play the guitar I bought back in April. Not particularly well, but that was never really the point of it anyway. I used to be too scared to ride my bike on busy streets or to take my hands off the handlebars for even a second, and now I’ve ridden down Wilshire with both hands in the air. This is the year I learned about and began actively participating in mutual aid. A year where I became more engaged in issues I care about, by doing things like pledging to read more and joining a book subscription service through Haymarket Books. This year I started to both understand and imagine how different the world could be.

I feel lucky to have found so much joy and growth when it so often feels like the world around me is crumbling. I’m also aware of how lonely, sad and exhausted I feel sometimes, and yet I know that I do not experience those feelings alone. People find ways to connect with each other even when circumstances make it seem impossible. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that we are resilient to a fault and will always find a way to keep going. The vaccine is rolling out and someday soon we’ll be able to do normal things again, but I think this year will color the years to come. I hope we continue to learn.

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Audrey Prescott

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Campus Life and Beyond

Writer Audrey Prescott on the changes in student life