Life, Interrupted

Testimonials from six months of pandemic lockdown

Six months ago, on March 19, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the shuttering of all nonessential businesses as the coronavirus coursed through the commonwealth. To mark the first half year of the pandemic, we talked to six people to hear their stories of lives, interrupted:

• A jazz singer who was about to begin her annual European tour and now gives drive-in shows at a North Philadelphia church.

• A sports-media grad from Huntingdon Valley who took a radio announcing job in Tomahawk, Wis., population 3,160, then watched local games end.

• A bartender at the Met who lived for the rush of serving 4,000 concertgoers and now is learning to like the outdoors.

• A high school senior and dancer whose summer invitation from the San Francisco Ballet was canceled, so he turned his Melrose Park living room into a recital space.

• An entrepreneur who opened his first hot dog franchise at Subaru Park in Chester on March 7 — only to see the soccer season shut down the next day.

• A CEO planning to retire from the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging when the pandemic disrupted everything.

Denise King

Jazz singer from West Philadelphia
MONICA HERNDON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

I was looking forward to going back to Europe. I had lived in Paris for about 10 years. It was kind of my base. My life before was travel. Hanging out with shamans in Siberia. In Tunisia, I was intoxicated by the jasmine flowers. In Morocco, eating the couscous and tagine, going to the spice markets. Seeing all these talismans and different natural-healing potions and amulets. In Israel, I was swimming in the Dead Sea. And now, I’m tearing up.

My plan was actually, on March 29, to fly to Paris, rent a B&B, stay a few weeks. And I was going to go to Marbella in Spain and stay with a good sister-friend. Then I was going to find my own apartment, in either Malaga or Torremolinos. I discovered that I needed to be in a place near the sea.

On Sunday, March 15, [at Booker’s] the music was great, everybody was upbeat, but there was nobody there. People were beginning to talk about the coronavirus because it was already hitting Italy hard. I told the guys: “I don’t think this is going to go beyond today. Let’s enjoy ourselves, let’s eat, drink.” The whole energy of that last day stays in my heart. All of us collectively knew it could go at any moment.

ASTRID RODRIGUES AND MONICA HERNDON

Sure enough, the very next day, the manager called me and said, “Denise, they’re shutting us down." I said, “Oh, my God.”

All the promoters and musicians I work with in Europe started emailing and calling to say: “Our tour in Siberia is canceled. Our tour in Russia is canceled. Our tour in the south of France is canceled. …” I felt like a kite in a windstorm.

My career, my life as I knew it, was over in the course of three or four days.

There were many nights I sat on my couch and stared at the wall, wondering, scrambling to apply for grants. But after the grants, now what? What am I going to do?

Toward the end of April, my mom got COVID. She is 93 and was in a nursing home.

But she recovered and we were elated, until about a couple of weeks ago. They found a mass on her stomach. It’s a terminal illness. After a stay in the hospital, where she was allowed to have two visitors a day, she was discharged back to the nursing home, where she can’t have any visitors. Now, we’re planning to move her to my youngest brother’s house in Delaware. We will all join him and help take care of her. She turns 94 in October.

Typically, when I’m going through crises or situations, I put all my feelings, the anger, the pain, into music. But with this situation, there were no musical outlets for me or the musical collective. We all had to figure out how we were going to deal with it.

Then, Erykah Badu did a livestream concert for a dollar. It was amazing. I stayed up all night.

I might have done one livestream in April, and it did better than I imagined. We had 130,000 views. Which to me was — what?!

I had talked to a number of my musician friends. Some of them were talking suicide. I said: “No, no, no, you can’t do that. It’s going to get better.”

Imagine, everything you studied for, you prayed for, everything you worked for in your life, is gone.

We can’t just sit around and hope that things will change. What we’re experiencing, the livestream concerts, the social-distance concerts, that’s the new new. That’s how it’s going to be until God only knows when.

— as told to Valerie Russ

Dan Black, 23

Sports announcer from Huntingdon Valley
TIM GRUBER

I graduated from Indiana University last spring with a degree in sports media. I did everything there. I worked for the radio station, had a sports show. I broadcast games for the Big 10 Network’s Student U for four years.

I spent four to five months looking for a job. Couldn’t find anything. I looked literally in every single part of the country, from Alaska to Florida to northern California to Montana. Finally, this job at WWJQ [in Tomahawk, Wis.] popped up.

I knew I might not fit in right away, but I also knew I might not get another job offer for another month or two and I didn’t want to risk it. They said I’d have an on-air show during the day, a traditional FM DJ thing. And then in the winter I’d do play-by-play for the local high school.

I was going down to do the state wrestling tournament in Madison, late February. Once they started to cancel basketball and hockey tournaments, a couple of weeks later, I was like, “OK this may be a little different than I thought it was.”

Back home, my parents and my friends who had siblings in high school were really worried. Up here they were still planning on starting spring sports. But when April came, it was still snowing and things were getting worse with COVID, so I knew there was no possible way they could think about playing high school sports.

Now they’re still planning on playing football this fall, which would be nice. But I think they’ll get a week in and everything will hit the fan again.

I do my shift from 10 to 2. It’s playing music. We play a lot of older country. But we also have newer hits, some rock from the ’70s and ’80s. After the shift ends, I come back home. That’s pretty much it. Thank God the cellphone service is not too bad.

I’d never lived on my own before so that’s been a different experience. And I’ve certainly not lived anywhere like this, a town of 4,000 in the middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin. The one thing I’d say about this whole experience for me in terms of home life is I’m becoming a better cook. I’ve started to be able to master chicken parm a little bit. But I’ve tried on multiple occasions and failed making cheese curds. I can’t figure out for the life of me how they do it.

Even before COVID, I had a very limited social life. It’s put me in a terrible mental place — as it has for a lot of people. I keep thinking that I’ve got to get out of here. My boss had warned me, “There’s not a lot of young, single people around.” I said I’d figure it out.

I think the silver lining is it’s given me more than enough opportunities to really think about what I want from life.

I’ve applied for jobs, but the job market right now is what it is. I still am very much in a situation where I battle every day with myself. Do I want to call it quits on broadcasting? Or do I want to keep hoping that maybe when it’s all said and done things will get back to normal? I don’t know.

— as told to Frank Fitzpatrick

Kevin Doran, 35

Bartender from South Philadelphia
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

My job, as a bartender, is to make people have fun, no matter what. Just make them happy. And I don’t get to do that anymore. I think a lot of bartenders are going through that. These are social butterflies who have been forced back into their cocoons.

I was bartending at the Met, [the concert hall on North Broad Street]. There were always, like, 30 bartenders at least, working on a busy show. We would have a meeting, and then everyone goes to their bar, and then an hour later, the doors open, and 4,000 people come through the doors.

The camaraderie of the job was my favorite thing. Just going through a really big rush of people with other people who are capable of handling it with you.

Now, the camaraderie comes from the fact that we’re in this state of flux and we don’t know how long it’s going to last. Every once in a while, I check in with my coworkers and say: “How you been? You’re good? You’re trying not to lose your mind?” Talking about that and thinking about it is really difficult. It’s like a cloud over everything.

I remember in late February, the bosses, before the concerts, would just tell people every day, “Hey, this is going around, so if you’re sick, stay home, do not come in.”

I worked that Louis C.K. show on March 6, and the vibe in the building was so weird. Everyone was constantly washing their hands. No one was wearing masks at that time. No one really knew what was going on. They just knew this might be the last time we get to work in the building — for a couple of weeks.

After that show, my bosses asked me if I had applied for unemployment. I said, “No, not yet, I was thinking about it.” And they were like: “You should. We’re not going to have a show for a little bit, so you might as well start collecting now.”

It hadn’t even occurred to me I should do that.

By the end of March, I knew [the lockdown] was going to go through the beginning of June at least. I had no real end in sight for it. My mental ballpark was, like, six months.

My first instinct was that I felt like I was supposed to be looking for jobs. And then I realized, no one is going to be hiring. Because everything is shutting down.

During the time the federal government surplus was coming on top of unemployment, that was the most stable my income has been for years. And it made things a lot easier for planning ahead. But since July, when they let it lapse without a follow-up, we have no idea if they’re going to pass something, or if they do, what it’ll cover.

In the beginning, I was quarantining, or just staying inside as much as I could. Monica, my wonderful girlfriend, is working from home, so basically the big challenge for us in the beginning was that I was still, without even really thinking about it, craving the social energy [from the bar]. I was kind of dumping all that onto Monica.

It was really hard for me to get used to doing stuff outside at first, but I went for a hike today. That was awesome. I got a bike this summer. Riding around, distant from other people, has been nice. Other than that, it’s kind of like, I am just being very patient.

I’ve been going to a lot of therapy. That’s been very helpful, and probably the main reason that I am holding it together. Because this would have been a personal disaster for me if I didn’t have the capability to cope with it right now.

— as told to Aubrey Whelan

James Griffen, 18

Ballet student from Melrose Park
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Every year in the ballet world, there’s audition season, which usually starts in late November and goes until February. This year, I went down to D.C. to audition for San Francisco at the Washington Ballet School. It was pretty much just a normal class with somebody watching you and taking notes. San Francisco got back to me a few weeks later. I had gotten in on a full-tuition scholarship.

The summer intensives are a pretty important part of your training life if you’re in ballet. They’re usually three to five weeks, sometimes more, of multiple classes every day with highly trained teachers who have been doing this for years and years. And you can travel the country — I’m not from San Francisco, but I would’ve been able to go there for a good four weeks.

Not doing this program sets you a little bit behind because it’s important to train as much as you can so you can keep on moving. I started ballet when I was 15, which is later than most people, so I’m already doing a good amount of catch-up.

When the pandemic first hit, it was pretty light at first. My school got closed down at the end of March. I was still hanging out with my friends and we were like, “Cool, spring break came early!” And then it wasn’t just spring break. Everything started to get shut down, all the sports. My last shows for my company here last [season] were shut down, which was a real shame for all of the seniors last year. When it came to the San Francisco Ballet, I kind of expected it to get canceled. And of course it was real sad, and I was disappointed, but there was just so much going on for everybody. Everything was getting canceled. Because I was still able to take classes online and outside on a stage here, I still got to dance, even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

There were a couple of dancers at the Pennsylvania Ballet who have been teaching at my school [Metropolitan Ballet Academy & Company in Jenkintown]. I took online classes with them every day at noon in my living room, for two or three months. I started out in my kitchen, actually, because we weren’t fully committed to transforming the whole house to a ballet studio yet, using a computer and holding on to the counter as a barre. As everything kept going on and getting worse, eventually I got a piece of flooring, taped it down in my living room, moved the whole carpet out of there. My dad built a barre for me that was actually a good height and stable. Now there’s a whole big mirror in there too.

For a good portion of the summer my school was able to have its own little summer intensive as well. We rented an outdoor stage a few blocks away from the school. We were able to have a few classes, not multiple ones a day, but I was still able to dance every day and learn from a bunch of different teachers. Now we just started up again this week — we’re doing some outdoor classes and some indoor classes, where the sizes are much smaller and everyone has to wear masks when we’re dancing inside.

Ballet really gave me something to do because I know a ton of people whose things got canceled and now they’re just sitting in their rooms for months. They can’t go out and see people and do things they love to do. Me having classes online and outside, it’s just made quarantine a bunch easier, really. I guess I’m just thankful for everything I still have, that I’m still able to do.

— as told to Bethany Ao

Aaron Anderson, 40

Hot dog entrepreneur from Philadelphia and NYC
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

We had a great opening day [at Chester’s Subaru Park] in March. People loved what we were doing. Of course we offer hot dogs. Chicago hot dogs, New York hot dogs, Miami, Detroit, Philadelphia, vegetarian, vegan. All those toppings you see. And we have wings. And carnival-inspired foods — fried Oreos, fried Twinkies.

We worked one game. And that’s when the season was canceled.

And I literally, I sat home for about two hours, thinking what am I going to do? What am I going to do? I had another grand opening scheduled for the Center City location. And I said, well, if they are shutting the country down, I’m not going to make any money. So what’s the point of opening up? I went around to all our people and asked, Who could come with us to Philadelphia?

TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

I hired 22 people for the stadium alone. The plan was, people would move up into the other [the Original Hot Dog Factory] stores as we opened later in the year — Center City, Aramingo Avenue, the Bourse, Brooklyn.

During the interviews they would explain how they were trying to get a second or a third job to support their family. That was the main motivation.

I said we need to open, we are going to open. How about if we just shift to focusing on delivery and marketing it as, “Hey, we’re still open, so we can deliver it to you.” The Center City location is right across from Family Court and we relied on the judges, the lawyers, just everybody being there.

A lot of foot traffic [around the] courthouse was shut down, so the business definitely did nowhere near what I expected.

The first month of opening up, we donated every day to the first responders. Then we went and donated to the Ronald McDonald House, where these kids weren’t able to come outside their rooms and eat. Then we donated to the Boys and Girls/ Club. And that’s what has kept us around and [made] people more familiar with the brand as well.

There’s pros and cons to everything. With COVID, for a restaurant owner, you’re not going to do what you typically can do because people are not traveling. People are nervous. Then with the employees, nobody’s really looking for a job, so that’s another con.

But what COVID has done for me has allowed me to take advantage. A lot of these restaurants couldn’t survive COVID and I’ve been able to take over restaurants where I didn’t have to do much work and the real estate was cheap. I’m finding these great deals where I can open three restaurants for the price of one. I’ve always kind of geared myself to just running toward adversity because through adversity is actually opportunity.

We are moving toward profitability. But I am not going to stop with what we have built. I am going to add a steakhouse — Steakhouse 1635 — at 1635 Market. Life is exciting.

— as told to Joseph N. DiStefano

Holly Lange, 68

Ex-CEO of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, from Andorra
MONICA HERNDON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

I loved to work. I loved my job. I decided a year ahead of time [to retire]. I thought it was time to relax. Everything was formally in place for the transition. And then in March we had the unfortunate virus pandemic. We had to make arrangements for the staff to work from home. We had to make sure that all the meals were still delivered. During my last two weeks of work, I was working from the PCA meal delivery site, and I was helping to pack meals and answer the phone and anything I could do to make sure the homebound people still got their meals. We had to close the senior centers. A lot of events were canceled.

They did a small party [for me] in March the day before the governor restricted travel. They were going to do another one in June that was canceled. I will be honest, I was disappointed, but I understood that that should not be the worst problem in life.

I did not have another job or a volunteer job to go to. I wanted to take a break, think about the rest of my life. I had planned to travel. That didn’t work out, but I will. My boyfriend and I planned to drive to Rhode Island and Maine. I had planned to go to the Jersey Shore on the weekends, which I can do. I planned to meet friends for lunch and maybe do some volunteer work. I had planned to go to a gym and get a trainer and get in shape. I planned to work on myself.

I have a 93-year-old uncle, and I try to visit him every couple of months. He lives in North Jersey and he lives in an assisted living and they were not allowed visitors. We talk on the phone. I think in a couple of weeks I will get to see him.

I think the hardest part is the lack of socialization, not going to meet friends and or having holidays with family. I feel bad for families with children, and the children can’t see their friends.

As adults, we know how to adjust. I think that it’s important to keep a positive attitude. I used to say that at work. If someone has a positive attitude, we can teach them everything else.

I recently started getting together with one or two friends. I’m talking to friends on the phone instead of being able to get together with them. One of my hobbies is cooking. I cook more. I’ve been reading more fiction. I do walks five days a week with some neighbor ladies who are also retired. Every day we all walk at a certain time. We walk two miles a day.

We’re happy to wake up and see the sunshine outside rather than isolate ourselves in our houses. It’s not much, but I think about other families and other people that have more difficult situations than I’ve had. I notice which trees are in good shape and which trees in the neighborhood are dying. I see people walking their dogs all day long. I have met more neighbors outside walking. I think I have more of a sense of community.

I have friends. I have family. It’s the way life is right now during the pandemic, and someday it will be over.

— as told to Stacey Burling