On a hot day in mid-May at around 6:00 pm, I glimpsed a man down the street. He was standing still, facing me. After a bit, he turned his back and began walking away. Then, abruptly, he spun around and marched directly toward me, stopping about eight feet away.
He wore a mask, so it was hard to tell, but I didn’t think I’d ever seen him before. He looked to be in his fifties, with a burly build.
“Hi!” I said.
“Hello, my name is Santiago,” he said in Spanish-accented English. He leaned against the wooden post alongside the sidewalk.
“My name is Sue.”
He exuded energy, even though I couldn’t see his expression. His sturdy arms moved around as he spoke.
“I’m protecting myself a lot. I’m keeping myself very safe. I stayed indoors from March 10 until May 13.”
I thought I’d misunderstood. “Wait…Did you say March 10? You were indoors for two months?”
I felt panic rise in me at just the thought of it.
“Because you were sick? Did you have the virus?”
“No, I wasn’t sick. I wanted to be safe. Well, I went outside twice, so I could start my car in the driveway so the battery wouldn’t die.”
I remember feeling terribly confined after one week of staying home, and I wasn’t even staying indoors. Sometimes, I’d sit in the front yard for a while, and would walk for an hour and a half each day. On Sunday of that first week, sadness overwhelmed me, and I put the dog in the car with me and headed to a different local neighborhood. I wept quietly as I drove. The dog and I walked around the unfamiliar streets, and I came home from my outing in a better mood. That was me after one week.
This guy had voluntarily placed himself in quarantine for two months? He’d only freed himself a few days earlier, and didn’t seem traumatized at all. I was instantly fascinated, and wanted to know more.
“Do you live with other people?”
“No, I live by myself. See that little white house? That’s my brother’s house. I live behind it, in the garage.”
The garage? For two months?
“What did you do? Did you watch a lot of TV?” I felt anxious even imagining the small dark space.
By now, I’d noticed his eyes crinkling at the edges, so I could tell when he was smiling. Not only did Santiago not seem traumatized, he seemed positively jovial, smiling frequently and leaning toward me, engaged. And he’d only released himself from his self-imposed isolation a week prior.
“I have a 70-inch TV in the garage. I never usually watch TV because I don’t really like it, but I watched it a lot for two months. I found a show with lots of…. How do you say? ‘Episodes’? Yeah, I watched about a hundred episodes of this show, kind of like a telenovela. I watched it for hours and hours. There was one night I didn’t want to stop! I watched TV from 10:00 at night until 9:30 the next morning! I couldn’t stop!” His eyes glinted above the papery mask, and I suddenly wished I could see his full smile.
Santiago settled down onto the wooden post at the edge of the yard, and our conversation flowed. He told me that he’d come from Jalisco, Mexico, when he was seventeen, and had never gone to school here to learn English. His English was outstanding, and when I complimented him, he shook his head in protest.
“I wanted to go to a school, but I went one time, and I didn’t know nothing. It was too hard. So I just learned by working. It’s not so good, but I understand, and the people, they understand me.”
I learned that he married, and had papers allowing him legal residence. After many years of very hard work, he and his wife had accumulated much: a five-bedroom house with four bathrooms, and another house that they rented out. They had one child, a daughter, and his voice became even more animated when he talked about her.
Eventually, his marriage dissolved. Between the legal fees, alimony, and child support, Santiago ended up losing both homes, and his truck. But as he spoke, the corners of his eyes still creased in a smile.
“It’s okay. It’s all for my daughter, so it’s all okay. I love her so much. I would do anything for her. I get to see her whenever I want. I have a place to live, and things are good.”
And this sunshiny man who lived in a garage continued. He has a girlfriend now, a woman who lives fifty miles away, and his gestures were punctuation when he talked about her.
“We never argue. We NEVER argue about anything. We fit together, and we are so happy. I feel very lucky. Things always change in life, and it’s okay.”
I found myself fighting back tears. Would I even be able to recognize this man if I saw him again without his mask? I tried to lock the image of him into my memory – his energy, his solid build, the sight of him marching across the street directly toward me, his willingness to initiate a conversation with a stranger.
After thirty or forty minutes, we said our good-byes, and as he headed back down the street, I thought about contrasts. He used to own much, and now lived in a garage. As the Bay Area settled into the early days of social isolation, I lived in my large house and struggled to push away depression, while Santiago lived in a garage and laughed through his all-night TV binge.
He had no bitterness for what he had lost. He lit up when he talked about all that he still had.
I’m glad that he came out of the garage long enough for me to meet him.