In the Suburbs: Remaining hopeful in the new normal

On March 22, my last full day at the Fairfield University Bookstore and the last time I would have contact with my colleagues during this pandemic nightmare that has gripped the world and could kill as many as 240,000 Americans — April 1 update — I glanced around the bookstore and wondered whether this was the true beginning of Armageddon. There was an uncomfortable silence about everything and the trickle of customers who came and went, trying to grab a last jigsaw puzzle or multiple copies of current New York Times bestsellers or piles of activity books for their children, offered us barely a wave or a head bow. Social distancing was in full force.

Even my daughter and two grandsons, who came to the bookstore at my suggestion for a last experience in their favorite place before returning to indefinite isolation, kept to their 6-foot distances and gave me an affectionate fist bump goodbye. This deadly virus had robbed us of any warmth and affection — those familiar hugs our daughter Stacey and from my older grandson Lucas and that chance to hold our other beloved miracle Caleb, soon to be 8 months old. As they walked out the door to the parking lot, I wondered when we would see them again.

Before I ended my last shift, I walked out the front door briefly and looked up and down a nearly deserted Post Road, wondering when the ban on non-essential businesses might be lifted, remembering barely a month before when traffic and the familiar sound of fire engines provided me with a feeling of contentment and “home” every day or evening when I worked my shifts. The scene reminded me of some ghost town — devoid of animation and people.

Then I left the store for my mandated, indefinite furlough, wondering what might be coming next for the town and the merchants whose businesses depended on social interaction, not social distancing.

Now, barely 10 days later, like thousands in the Fairfield area and millions worldwide, we have made adjustments in our daily lifestyles that in many ways go back to the early years of our marriage, when I was a struggling teacher and my wife was a medical technician. We had a third floor walkup in Chicago, a combined salary of $10,000 and one child, but we had each other and hopes for more. There was no pandemic to rule our lives, but we liked being home together.

So as we sheltered in place, just being together and slowing everything down from our idiotic pace — my wife’s busy social work practice at home, my four jobs — teaching, bookstore associate, tutor for exchange students and writer — a feeling of calm settled in and we began to be hopeful again.

Since I knew that similar things must be happening with other Fairfield friends and colleagues, I decided to ask friends to share how this pandemic has impacted their lives.

My friend LiNa, for example, who is the Chinese coordinator for the exchange students I tutor at Fairfield Prep, knew more about the Corona Virus than any of us, because her parents live in China. “When I first heard about Coronavirus in China around December of last year, I thought it was just the ordinary flu, not a new pandemic. But before the Chinese New Year, the Chinese government suddenly ordered the entire city of Wuhan to be closed. Before long, all cities in China were under martial law,” she said.

“And I worried about my parents in China, especially when I heard that they needed to get a pass every time they wanted to get out of the house. They had to take their temperature to get back in. For 40 days, they were isolated at home. This virus is waging a war on us without gunpowder.”

My close Fairfield friend Millicent, who has led a long and productive life into her mid-90s, said, “Well here I am isolated but depending on my MAC and my cat to keep me occupied. Then last week, a neighbor around the corner on Blueberry Lane, sent a message to all neighbors that he was available, so I walked over to thank him for his thoughtfulness. He sat on his stoop and we chatted while I sat a distance on my Rollator which supports me so I can walk. What a special person he is with his young family and a new daughter of 3 weeks.

“And I am so happy now that I included my front porch when I designed my home on Old Farm. It allows me to observe MY PERSONAL WORLD during this tough time.”

My overall bookstore boss, Jim Fitzpatrick, a senior executive at Fairfield University, told me, “As a 50-year resident of this wonderful town, isolated by the threat of this pandemic, I miss working daily on the beautiful 200-acre campus called Fairfield University and seeing energetic students whose lives are so full of hope. I miss walking with my wife Phyllis to the Yacht Club and being amazed by God’s creation of Long Island Sound!

I miss our magical downtown stores in full operation … That includes places like Fairfield University’s bookstore where I can always be surprised by a book I didn’t know had been written; Colony Pizza and Luigi’s spaghetti & meat sauce with a glass of Montepulciano!; the smell of Shearwater coffee in person; the wonderful workers at Stop & Shop who always make me feel special on Saturday mornings!

“I want to get back to my grandson’s activities in town like Little League games on a Saturday morning and Friday night high school plays with student thespians’ performances that rival Broadway! Finally, I miss our three magnificent town libraries and hope they will reopen soon.”

My friend and writer’s group colleague, Teri, who is an expert in women’s philosophy and an author of several philosophy books shared, “Since I am more often than not writing on a book or a chapter or a review at home, my actual routine has not changed as much as for other people, still, I feel in the middle of a huge change, the biggest has to do with time, we don't have the usual knowns — mainly we don't know when quarantine will end. The next biggest change is a different kind of caring about others — we're in this together. I get more calls from family checking in to see how I am faring, I call friends to see if they are coping all right, we make sure we keep our distance for the benefit of others.

“We say hi to more strangers when we are out walking, we worry about people who are in domestic abuse situations and about people who are lonely, and who may not have enough food. Of course this experience is new and strange, especially what is not easy about it is the lack of freedom — running out to shop, to grab a bite someone else cooked!, or getting together with friends for a coffee! This pandemic requires a lot from all of us — patience, a good attitude, gratitude for sacrifices being made by others like medical caregivers.

“Lastly, we are required to quell the frustration of having no real leadership in this to lead with honesty and the ability to unite and to make the best of material and human resources! Instead we have an incompetent person who lies and makes things worse! I forgot to mention in the freedom part — not free to go to Zumba class nor orchestra rehearsals — so I'm afraid I will get rusty and fat!”

My friend and writers group colleague Ardeth lives close to Fairfield Beach in a warm, special house I’ve described before, and I definitely wouldn’t mind spending an indefinite period of isolation there. She offered, “Being an old time homebody, I have had no real problem self-isolating, and in fact I've enjoyed rediscovering fun activities. Yesterday I baked some scones in the morning while listening to an old Patsy Cline tape, then finished ironing old dance recital costumes from the attic that I had hand washed.

“I'm going to drop them off for my granddaughter for dress up, while her parents try to work from home. She will be three on April 6 and the weather forecast is for a sunny day that will reach 60 degrees, which is great since we will celebrate outdoors, maintaining a safe distance, while holding a cupcake. I loved crafting a birthday card for her as well as finding used gifts in the attic and just enough wrapping paper. I even dragged out my old guitar which I bought used over 50 years ago. I'm working on remembering the chords and playing a few basic folk songs.

“Talking to friends and family on the phone, waving to neighbors walking by as I prune my hydrangea trees, cleaning up the flower beds, are all things I am grateful for.”

Jimmy, my trainer from the Edge in Stratford and now a Fairfield resident with his girlfriend Carly, told me, “Things have sure been different over the past few weeks. Going out to eat on weekends has come to a screeching halt. We try to support local restaurants as best we can with take-out food once or twice a week.

“Being out of work for this long has also been tough. I normally work 7 days a week and usually long hours. I haven’t had more than a week off from any work since I was maybe 14. But I’ve been doing some online training to keep my mind sharp and I go on bike rides around town on nice days but the town has an eerie feeling when I’m out and about.

“One of the toughest things for Carly and me is really not being able to see family. We usually have a big Sunday family dinner every week, so giving those up has been difficult and has upset our routine. But we’re together and that’s what it’s all about.

What I learned from these good friends and from isolation activities, like finally organizing our sewing room after two years, clearing out old clothes from our master bedroom walk-in closet and learning to share special face time with our daughters and grandchildren, is that we have so much to be thankful and hopeful for despite this pandemic nightmare.

And we can’t wait to have that one-on-one contact with close friends and colleagues; being back in school with our students and sharing those special hugs with all those we love. This self-isolation and 6 feet of separation can’t end soon enough.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears on Friday. He can be reached at