A look at one actor’s pandemic journey
When my cat died the first week of March, I thought to myself: “There’s no way this year could get any worse.”
I had just started rehearsing a play in Palm Springs, had another play in NY right after, standup comedy and corporate gigs booked through the summer and a few trips to Europe. All of this supplied my housing as
I’ve been living on the road for 2 years, gig to gig, trip to trip.
Then, the pandemic shut it all down.
Within days I was jobless, career-less, homeless and creative outlet-less.
I love a good road trip. I’d never driven LA to NY. I had the time. And I was wildly curious how America looked when it was completely shut down. I had heard news reports and seen anecdotal video footage, but what did it feel like? Once again, I had the time.
The plan: Start in LA (at my storage facility) and make a loop around the US visiting as many usually bustling American metropolises that I could, take video and photos to capture this curious moment in time, and do it all before they started arresting people for being out and closing state borders (all media hype, as it turns out).
I supposed it would be a creative endeavor. It would be an experience, and I love a good experience. I would be able to see some friends (which dwindled in number as I had “stay with us” invites rescinded as the virus escalated). Heck, in mid-March, this was only a 2-to-4-week shutdown.
I set out on a last-minute, poorly planned, semi-goal-oriented trip. I ended up taking a journey.
In a nutshell:
Los Angeles – America may seriously be a ghost town. Shuttered windows, no pedestrians, gated Pier, lots of security, very little locals or tourists.
Las Vegas – To drive down the Strip with no traffic, very little neon, no revelers and almost completely dark because there were no guests in the hotel rooms lighting up the silhouettes was startling.
Santa Fe – Normally bustling with Native American craftspeople and Southwestern charm. Just wind and dead leaves and police tape.
Dallas/Fort Worth – Even the locals weren’t out…in Texas! First noticed restaurants pivoting to curbside sales (if you haven’t tried curbside fondue paired with a cabernet, you haven’t lived).
New Orleans – Felt like a funeral. I literally drove down Bourbon Street. There was nobody. It looked like abandoned buildings with locked doors and windows. And they’ve been through bad before!
Savannah – Emptiness leant the draping Spanish mosh and old-style architecture an extra level of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” creepy. Did get to enjoy cross-the-street neighbors having a from-their-porch Irish music showdown.
Nashville – The lights were on and there was honky-tonk music blasting from the outdoor speakers, but there was no one there to enjoy it. Took a bonus tour through the recent tornado damage of East Nashville. When you’re going to indulge in catastrophe, you go all in.
Washington, DC – The great dichotomy. The Mall was completely devoid of anybody, which made for wonderful long shots of sturdy white buildings and lush lawns. Contrasted nicely with the pack of cars in front of the White House at ground zero of the Covid response. Quiet outside. Certainly not inside.
Philadelphia – Business as usual. At least it felt that way: Traffic, people, attitude.
New York – The City That Never Sleeps was…sleeping. Empty. Shocking. However, I won’t lie: It was thrilling to gun my car through the city with no traffic. I looped around Manhattan in 30 minutes! RE: Silver Lining.
Boston – It was rainy and gloomy and empty and seemed appropriate for the time.
Cleveland – Had to stop in Cleveland because a) It was on the way and b) The sign outside the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame says “Long Live Rock.” Which…. Maybe, maybe not?
Chicago – Trump International Hotel overlooks the closed RiverWalk, the empty Loop shopping district and the usually boisterous bar and restaurant scene in downtown Chicago.
Minneapolis – Came for the Mall of America and it’s vast empty parking lot, stayed to observe how consumerism had literally and symbolically been shut down.
Seattle – A beautiful Spring day offset with a spooky emptiness and sadness of closed local boutiques. The first city I noticed making art out of hastily-applied plywood barriers. Classic lemonade out of lemons, and a great walking art tour to boot.
Portland – Only city on this list I hadn’t been before. I definitely want to go back when it’s, y’know, open.
San Francisco – A few things shocked me here: The amount of people in Golden Gate Park out and not wearing masks, the emptiness and stillness of Fisherman’s Wharf and one of the most moving signs I saw set up by Louis Vuitton barricading their Union Square store.
That’s it. 18 major cities, 3 1/2 weeks, over 8700 miles. That was the trip, sorry, journey. I say that because it started out as just “something to do.” No real goals to meet, no end game. I just had the time. However,
looking back, I did start out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but when I watch my last video I was road-weary, affected, melancholy, still processing.
I sent my photos to a few travel websites. This was a moment in time and I was pleased with the amateur photographic results of my journey. I thought it was worth sharing. They didn’t. Which was fine. Just as I didn’t really set out with a goal, I didn’t take my pictures for anything else but to capture the experience. Anything else was icing.
A month ago, I got a good help of icing.
The Smithsonian Institute reached out and showed interest in collecting and archiving my photographs. As they slowly reopen they want to do a display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in DC of 2020 and include my photographs. They also want to archive my story as a live event performer being shut down during the pandemic, and how it affected my life and how I pivoted.
As of today, the paperwork is done.
I started the pandemic losing all of my theatre, standup comedy and live event work. 9 months later I’m a Smithsonian photographer.
Just so you know: 2020 is definitely weird all over, but not all of it’s negative.
If this year has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. We don’t control the future. We have no idea of the outcome. That’s OK, we’re artists. We don’t work in absolutes, we work in ethereals, intangibles, ideas and ideals. I’ve always loved Buddhist philosophy and the idea of “living in the moment.” I’ve tried to live like that for years. Finally, this year, this godforsaken, unmistakably generally terrible year, has made me appreciate the moments more than anything, and to make the most of them. This project started out as a time-occupying goof and it’s turned into one of my proudest (and most random) achievements.
That’s what I realized I relish the most: Setting a goal but enjoying the long, strange trip to get there. Sometimes you achieve your goal, sometimes you don’t, many times the goal changes along the way. Let it. A pot of gold would be great, sure, but if you keep your eye on that, you’ll miss the spectrum of colors following that rainbow to get there.
(For more detailed photos and descriptions, feel free to visit my photo dump at https://www.joelbryant.net/blog/empty-america-photo-dump and individual city write-ups and pictures at https://www.joelbryant.net/blog)