A Diary of August 11, 2020 — The Day Campus Reopened

I thought I would be okay today. I’m not.

I just watched my husband pull away from the curb to drive in to work for the first time since the shutdown in April. His name is Chris. He works IT for the library of Villanova University. We begged for permission from the powers that be for him to sit and work from his car in the parking garage to wait for support requests, instead of sitting at his desk, sharing air with the others they required to come in. They acquiesced, and we thanked them like they were doing us the world’s kindest favor. We shed literal tears of gratitude for his direct supervisor, who was kind and understanding, so limited in what he could say or do as the unenviable bridge between the workers on the ground and the administration who make decisions about their lives from their remote board rooms.

His plan is to crouch in his sweltering car with his laptop balanced on his knees. He’s got a map all drawn out of the electric vehicle charging spots on campus, and a heavy duty extension cord to keep his work electronics running. He’s going to try to play chicken with his car battery all day, leaving it off as long as he can stand the temperatures. It’s occurring to me as I type this that I’ll have to call him and remind him not to idle the engine for any length of time in an unventilated spot, or he could give himself carbon monoxide poisoning. God, please help me. Help me make this make sense.

I snapped that picture from bed while I was scrolling my phone when he came in to kiss me goodbye this morning. It was once a familiar routine made unfamiliar by time and the strange collection of things he’s holding. I was struck by the scene, his arms full and his sweet little smile on his face. It seemed funny when I took it, like he was riding into the apocalypse. I haven’t been able to stop staring at the photo since he left. It no longer seems funny. It’s put an ache in my chest that I can’t identify, and I’m writing this now in an attempt to name it. It occurred to me — how will future generations make sense of this picture and what it means? I’m writing it down to try to find the answers.

I sent my husband in to work today during a pandemic, like millions of others have done or will do this week, like millions more have done all spring without ever getting the remote work period that he got. Don’t think we don’t know how lucky he is. Don’t think he deserves worse because of it. He didn’t deserve worse. Everyone else deserved better.

He’s armed with a lap desk, a seat that goes back a few inches, and an extension cord. Enough water to stay hydrated but not enough to have to use the bathroom. The orange bottle he’s holding is from a Target order — we’ve been ordering groceries in, and he always adds the biggest, most expensive drink he can find to the order and leaves a note for the delivery drivers to swap it out for whatever they’d like for themselves, as part of their tip and his special thank you for going to the store so we don’t have to. He found that caramel Starbucks monstrosity this week, and when the last driver missed his note and left it in the bags for him, he had to drink the whole thing himself. He’s been reusing it as a water bottle all week because it makes him laugh.

He’s wearing a hat to cover his quarantine hair that I haven’t gotten around to trimming for him. He’s got the leather laptop bag that I bought him as a graduation gift when he completed Villanova’s work study program eight years ago, before they hired him to work full time. I made sure to wash the mask around his neck for him yesterday. It’s his favorite for long-term wear, the grey one he made himself by learning to use my sewing machine.

I snapped this while he was learning to work the foot pedal

I keep finding myself intensely searching the look on his face in the photo. I know his expressions by heart. He’s smiling with just a little bit of irony, he knows how silly this all is. He also knows that making me laugh before he leaves is the best way to make sure I have a good day, running my business from home in the quiet, empty house. I’m staring at his eyes in the photo on my phone, trying to see if the smile reaches them. Is there anxiety hidden there? Is he putting on a brave face for me, knowing how hard I fought to keep him home? Knowing that an irrational part of me feels like I failed him, able to win him only this absurd compromise? Am I making this harder on him by not being braver myself?

Chris in 2011, about to walk into his graduate student interview at Villanova

The feelings of selfishness and cowardice are always there, threatening us both, tempting us towards recklessness out of a misplaced sense of solidarity with the people who got an even shittier deal. I had to reassure him over and over while we fought the administration together for his right to stay home. He felt like it was somehow unfair of him to ask to work remotely, when other staffers don’t have the options that his tech job allows him. He felt like he was abandoning them. (I found out later that he was TOLD that he was abandoning them.) I reminded him again and again that we weren’t just fighting for him, we were fighting for the safety of the whole library, and the whole University. And we were. We still are.

I took days away from my business to author and edit a massive, anonymous open letter to administration, condemning the reopening. (Concerned parties can sign it anonymously via that link.) It won’t be anonymous now. I spent more days calling, calling, calling, marshaling advice and support. Taking the temperature of his coworkers’ attitudes, making mental lists of who disagreed with the decision to reopen, who didn’t like it but was afraid to speak out, who could be relied on to stay discrete or be brave if the need came. I spent hours trying to form mental org charts to map the Byzantine layers of politics, power, and chains of command in just the library alone. Anything that could help us find allies as we fought the reopening. There are livelihoods and careers on the line, we’ve had to be so careful. Writing this now is a risk.

Every hour I didn’t spend on organizing and writing, I tried to pour into my own business. As a self-employed marketing copywriter, I can’t be fired myself, and if he faced retaliation for my words then I would need to bulk up my book of business to absorb the entirety of our household finances. I planned contingencies, following up old leads and rekindling old contacts to find him freelance web development gigs if we were to find out that he were fired, or that they would try to force him back to campus full time. Over my Dead. Goddamn. Body.

Celebrating our 4th wedding anniversary in July with our first ice cream cones of the year

I’d let myself fall apart from sheer exhaustion before I let them take him back. That’s how I felt. That’s how high these stakes feel. Would I send him back? My best friend? My soul mate? The only person in this rotten world who makes me feel like the best version of myself, who makes me laugh until I can’t breathe, who always remembers to compost his egg shells and coffee grounds for me?

Or would I ask him to leave? Would I ask him to quit the only adult job he’s ever known? Villanova is where he completed his grad studies by working in the library, where he found a group of coworkers that he loved. They found him so valuable to the team that they created the position he still holds, so that he wouldn’t have to leave when he graduated. We formed friendships, and before the shutdown we used to visit one another’s houses for movies and dinners and game nights. While we were still dating, I waited tables down the street at Minella’s diner. I’d serve up pancakes and chicken strips all night to Villanova students on their study breaks , and drive over to the library covered in butter with my apron still stuffed with the night’s tips to pick him up. We caught mass at St. Thomas every Sunday night. I decided to become a Catholic like him while on a Villanova student-led Crossroads prayer retreat. I completed RCIA in St. Rita’s hall, and was confirmed in St. Thomas. We were married in their chapel. I started my copy writing business on the Falvey library computers, answering emails for blogging gigs while sipping Holy Grounds coffees.

St . Thomas Chapel, July 23 2016

Imagine how it feels to me, years later, to feel like I’m writing for my husband’s life. Some part of me felt like his health and safety depended on the persuasiveness of my letters and the power of the networking and negotiating skills I’ve learned. Imagine what it felt like after studying the art of content strategy for a decade, to pore over the reopening materials that my increasingly anxious husband started bringing home last month, and to realize that we were up against a coordinated PR campaign that was hell bent on putting him back at his desk.

While Villanova leadership were still theoretically debating the merits of returning to a full in-person semester, they released a “pros and cons” list of factors they were weighing, and accepting faculty and staff comments. His coworker shared a screenshot to me in one of our non-trackable group chats, highlighted for emphasis.

I’m not sure what part of that insult of a document is jumping out to you first, but for me it was how the form of the text itself was communicating important things that weren’t being said out loud.

As I read, it became painfully clear — this was not written by someone who had no agenda in mind. It did not even read like a list of factors that was compiled before a decision was made. It was meant to justify one. The first bullet point in favor of reopening was a full paragraph long. It invoked the mission of the school, and the welfare of their students. Not one of the cons got that treatment. The case for remote instruction managed only to limply reference “some risk to the health of our community”. Some risk. In a community of seven thousand undergraduate students, four thousand graduate students, and thousands more daily staff to support them all. People from all over the county and country, all coming to live and work together, then driving back home.

“Some risk to the health of our community” would be a sentiment appropriate for a debate on whether to permit designated smoking areas on campus. It is not appropriate for a discussion about the spread of a highly contagious aerosolized virus that kills. In that context, “some health risks” is a sadistic euphemism.

Reading those words is when it occurred to me what the stakes were. We weren’t fighting anything so banal as an uninformed administration who were bored with quarantine and blind to the realities experienced by the workers they govern. We were fighting a deliberate attempt to make reopening sound safer than it really is. Whether motivated by naked, unfeeling pragmatism or dangerously wishful thinking, I have no way of knowing. But this paper proved that they knew what the risks were, they acknowledged them, and they were opening anyway. Then tried to hide it under ten point font and misleading language. I got scared. Then I got mad.

Our actual conversation, recreated with a template for clarity and simplicity’s sake (and to edit out three or four more of my obscenities that were somehow even more graphic than what’s displayed here.)

The editor in me was desperate to do a Find + Replace word search in every one of those pages upon pages of documents, to replace every instance of “health risks” with “potential deaths”. To root out the “severe disruptions” and identify them as “moderate inconveniences”. Rereading this conversation now, I see the message I wrote next: “I’ll let them foreclose on this fucking house before I let them try to force him back into an unsafe work environment.”

My childhood home was foreclosed on when I was seventeen, in 2006. We had a week to pack what we could carry and find a new place to live as a family of eight. That move and the years of transience and instability that followed it is one of the defining traumas of my life. I clawed my way out of my home state in 2012 and drove to Villanova, Pennsylvania, to build a new life with my best friend who had just become my boyfriend, and would later become my husband. Villanova was my home when my own hometown no longer protected or supported me. Four years after starting my business in 2014, we put a down payment on a house in nearby Boothwyn with the money I had earned and saved.

When the business was young and checks were slow, how many times did Chris ask me if he should be looking for higher paying jobs in his field somewhere else, to help support my dream of being a self-employed writer? How many times did I shut that conversation down? I probably told him a dozen times that I’d happily accept struggling with bills if it meant he could come home to me every day happy and fulfilled from the job he loves. He believed in Villanova, and in the mission of Falvey library, with a sincerity that is honestly precious. He still does. The open-source projects he supports and systems he built have helped improve access to services for libraries all over the world. He has the emails from Sweden to prove it. He’s helped support digitization efforts to bring cheap digital copies of overpriced textbooks to students in need. He was so proud of his employer last year — he added a rainbow banner to the library home page last year for Pride, and when an anonymous complaint came in, his department stood behind him. He worked long into the night this year during shutdown to animate little graduation caps flying around the Villanova home page — he wanted to do something special for the class of 2020. I could never regret the choice for him to stay at Villanova, no matter what his peers were earning. Today, we earn more than enough. Our bills are paid, our copays are met, and how many people can say that? I wasn’t often able to say it for the first 25 years of my life, and now I’m grateful for it every day I’m alive.

It’s 2pm. Chris just called me to let me know that he’s alright — he only had to leave his car once so far, to pick up his box of PPE from his desk that they are furnishing him with for the year. It came with a little bottle of hand sanitizer with the Villanova logo, isn’t that neat? He knows it’s going to piss me off when I see it tonight, he can’t wait to show me and watch me blow my lid. He wants me to know that he got my message about carbon monoxide poisoning, and when he started getting a weird dry mouth feeling around four hours in, he moved his car upstairs to a spot near the roof of the parking garage where he found some shade. He’s pretty sure it wasn’t carbon monoxide because the engine was off, but knew I would want him to move the car anyway. He’s pretty hot and sweaty without the AC on, but he wants me to know that he’s sipping his water from home carefully so he doesn’t get dehydrated. He reassures me that he’s only seen a few students so far, almost everyone masked, and all of his meetings for the day had been by Zoom call. His reception is much better on the roof. I tell him I love him and hang up before he can hear that I’m shaking with rage.

He texted me this photo to show me that two of the succulents I gave him for his desk survived, and he’s rescuing them and bringing them home.

My beautiful, brilliant, dorky husband has given so much of himself to that school. Imagine the depth of his heartbreak, his feelings of grief and betrayal, when he learned that upper management would not so much as inconvenience themselves to protect him. With their unimaginable resources, wealth, and autonomy, Villanova made him beg them to work from his car. If our tiny family is willing to accept a shutdown with a furlough, ready to sacrifice our home, our church, our stability, his job— why was Villanova not willing to sacrifice the revenue from one in-person semester? Not even to keep my sweet husband safe?

Villanova as an institution is 178 years old this year. They were in operation during the last pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918. I can’t understand how reopening could possibly be a question of survival for them, and if it is then they aren’t sharing that information this far down the totem pole. There’s been a wall of silence and bureaucratic distance between the administration and the staff on the ground, and no one seems to know anything beyond “it’s out of my hands, this is the decision that was handed down. ” In the deafening silence, we’re forced to make our own assumptions and draw our own conclusions. My personal conclusion, since no one has yet been able or willing to provide a better explanation, is that they reopened the school for in-person instruction because they prioritized livelihood over life. They chose to fight for the survival of the institution, and not the literal survival of the individuals who come to work on this campus. And they chose wrong.

It’s hard to overstate what this place means to me and to us. I know that choosing to remain closed might mean being forced to furlough or lay off workers to offset the lost revenue. I’m aware that in a tech support role for a non-essential service (and do not bullshit me, Villanova, in-person library service is NOT essential,) that Chris would be high on that list. Though I am fiercely proud of the business that my team and I have built, Chris is still the primary breadwinner, and the insurance that he carries allows me to do what I do to try to keep us growing.

I want everyone reading this to know that if Chris was fired for speaking out against the reopening, or furloughed during a remote semester, that we could lose our home — and that I accept that as a consequence. Please remember that I know exactly what it feels like to have strangers change the locks on your doors. I’m still willing to face that again, if it means I can help keep Chris and his coworkers safe. We deserve the safety of a remote semester, we deserve the stability of our paychecks, and I wish to God we could have both, but if we can’t, I choose life. I choose to struggle if I get to see him smiling, safe, every day.

I’m grieving this. We dreamed of starting a family together, and we were so close. Buying this house last year was finally going to make that a reality for us, before the pandemic made it feel impossible again. There’s no way to know when we’ll feel safe enough. We dared to dream that some day, our children could even attend classes at Villanova with his staff tuition discount, and Chris and I would wear our faded Nova ball caps and hoodies to the graduation. I feel those dreams slipping away from us. But if I get to keep Chris happy and healthy and by my side, I’ll watch them go, and I’ll face a future that I haven’t yet had the space or the heart to imagine.

I just glimpsed Chris’s little mint green Ford Fiesta pull back onto our street. The cats are running to the windows like they used to — I don’t know how they remember that his return means it’s dinner time after all these months. I never did figure out how they know his car from our neighbors’. I’ve been writing and editing this piece all day, with only one or two breaks for my actual job. I feel guilty about that. I should have been working, not only for the clients and my subcontractors who rely on me (I dream of making them employees and buying them health insurance, some day.) But I need to work. This business could become our sole source of income soon. Hell, it could be as soon as I hit publish and his directors see what I wrote. I need to be ready for that.

I’m driven by the need to make us safe, to make us whole and keep us fed. There is nothing I would not do for him. I haven’t felt like this since I first drove myself to Pennsylvania, almost a decade ago now. My switch is stuck on survival mode. In the brief moments that it flips off, I crash and shut down. Can’t focus. Can’t write. Can’t find the will to keep trying, on the worst days. But I can’t afford bad days. I wasn’t born in a time or place that creates safety nets for people like me.

I’m more aware than you can imagine how privileged my life is now, and how tenuous that status really is and always will be. Compared to what I come from, compared to what others live with. The cognitive dissonance some days is dizzying. I’m the diner waitress who plays at being CEO during the day for an infant copywriting agency that I imagined into existence, who has very nearly achieved the take-home pay of an entry-level social media manager. I’m the capitalist who believes in tax-funded social programs with my whole heart, rubbing elbows with the city’s slickest entrepreneurs and trying to pretend I’m one of them. I live off of their marketing budgets, trying to climb to where they are and drag as many as I can up with me. I’ve been hammering away at these pieces of writing for weeks, I’ve composed thousands of words, begging Villanova administration to let my husband work from home, knowing full well that we are most likely going to be okay in the end no matter which way it goes. I haven’t had to go without food or medical care in a long time, I know the difference. But I can’t stop thinking about everyone who isn’t going to be fine.

The elderly and infirm family members of the students exposed on campus are not going to be fine. I can’t stop thinking about the folks whose job it’s going to be to bleach surfaces to redundancy, who are going to be required to perform hygiene theater for the benefit of appearances, breathing through paper masks feet away from unmasked students who spent lockdown flying back and forth to Miami. I can’t stop seeing the highlighted words in the pro and cons columns. Some health risks. Disruptions. Our mission. Unavoidable circumstances.

I can’t help but want to scream at the needlessness of it all. The injustices and the disparities, the places where money and privilege and health and risk and burden all intersect to create the absofuckinglutely batshit crazy-making scenario of my husband, sweating in his car in August, working from a laptop plugged into a sooty Tesla charging station through a crack in his window.

Someone, please, tell me why. Tell me what I could do to make him safe, and keep people from getting sick, and keep people from losing their homes, and tell me why I can’t help make any of those things happen, not even for myself and my family of two. Me and my sunshine, my whole world. Why weren’t we all allowed to make our husbands safe and keep our homes? Why were we asked to sacrifice this, for the sake of others who get to keep both? Why couldn’t we have found a solution that was more humane than this, more loving than this? Why couldn’t we still? If anyone could have done it, Villanova could have. So why haven’t they?

I’m playing My Shot from the Hamilton soundtrack, and I can see Chris from behind my laptop screen, dancing in the kitchen. He’s trying to make me laugh. He knows that when I hear Lin Manuel-Miranda sing “I wrote my way out”, that I feel it all the way to my soul.

He’s making dinner for us, waiting for me to be done writing. He hasn’t asked me what I’m working on yet, I’m not sure what I’ll answer because I’m not sure what this is. It probably needs another editing pass beyond the two I’ve already done but my eyes are starting to feel the strain of this screen. Many days, my back or my eyes dictate when my working day is over. I still haven’t logged on to my work email yet today at 7pm, but my assistant and my content manager have been holding down the fort and texting me with updates. Bless them. I’m going to buy them both health insurance AND dental benefits, some day. That’s why I can’t log off just yet.

He really does think its funny to watch me blow my lid

Chris tells me that the Villanova library is accepting submissions to tell your pandemic story. They plan to collect them and put them with the archive. I might send them this. This is my story, and Villanova helped write it. I wonder if they’ll keep it.

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Philly freelance blogger. Follow @nickyknacks for the personal stuff and www.nicolehallberg.com for my work stuff.

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Nicole Hallberg

Nicole Hallberg

Philly freelance blogger. Follow @nickyknacks for the personal stuff and www.nicolehallberg.com for my work stuff.

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