See the USA On COVID-19: Moving Cross Country During the Pandemic
El Paso to San Antonio
When we reached El Paso, the cold bitter wind I felt all the way from Yuma still blew across the desert. On the way, the lone star illuminated on the hill reminded me of the holidays. I was so tired that the city’s colored lights over the highway disoriented me: were they holiday lights? Was I going the wrong way?
“This is where UTEP is,” I thought. Here I was, finally at the site of the school I’d watched in so many bowl games — and judging by the signs, near the actual bowl itself.
The next morning walking with Gambit (our Jack Russell Terrier), we spotted a lone, strong mackerel tabby. This tough Texas tomcat looked hard at us, eventually deciding we weren’t a threat, then ambled on his morning route between two freeway hotels.
Although we were standing next to the interstate, the loudest noise was the wind, not cars or trucks.
There were cars and trucks on the road, but not many.
As we left, we realized there was a drive-through Starbucks right around the corner from us. We got into the line-up, but another car snaked through. I let a car with a gentleman with a Western shirt and older lady get in front of me. The line went as fast as possible, and the young lady who delivered my order refused my money.
“The gentleman in front of you paid for yours,” she said. I tried to give her money anyway, but she refused.
“We all have to help each other out,” she said.
As I drove away with Gambit looking at me, eagerly sniffing at my egg bites (yes, I purchase sous vide egg bites, it’s only of the only fast food things I can eat), I felt tears stinging the corners of my eyes.
Ordinary people are amazing, I thought. The man’s car wasn’t new, and he and the lady didn’t look rich at all.
I took a picture of the hotel across from the tomcat’s domain: it looked like a lone, forlorn castle gate. But it was just a nearly-empty roadside hotel.
We had another day-long drive ahead, 550 miles from El Paso to San Antonio.
On the way, Bruce found a different place to stay. Instead of by the roadside, he thought, why not stay in the downtown area? Both of us had always wanted to visit San Antonio. Its Riverwalk was so famous and pictures looked so beautiful. And who wouldn’t want to see the Alamo?
He picked out the Hotel Gibbs: right across from the Alamo. For the price of a roadside motel, he reserved the Executive Suite.
The hotel was so beautiful: a 1909 treasure right across the street from the Alamo. Although it was late, I couldn’t resist taking Gambit across the street. The Alamo was clearly lit: we could see it perfectly from our window.
So I walked across the deserted street to the Alamo. I saw a lone man sitting on one of the stone retaining walls. And not another living soul until I came to the front of the Alamo, guarded by two gentlemen in white hats and neat khaki uniforms — I later learned they were Texas State guards.
They were both friendly and glad to talk.
“How long has the Alamo been closed?” I asked.
“We’ve been closed about two weeks,” said the guard on the left.
“How long do you think it will stay closed?” I asked. “We heard on the radio that things might begin to open back up by the end of April.”
“June,” said the guard on the right.
“July,” said the other guard.
I asked them why they were guarding the Alamo (you could have easily walked right up to it — and it is not a large building, either). They said people would try to take parts of it as souvenirs, or scratch their names in the stone.
Nearby was a tall, imposing monument with all the heroes of that day. Everything was lit, everything was “as normal” except we were the only living souls around.
I asked if I could take their picture, and they agreed.
Gambit and I saw a lady with a bad little dog on the way back to Hotel Gibbs. We can’t control bad dogs; we can just keep away from them.
I woke early and was restless, so at 5:00 a.m. the next morning I decided to walk through downtown San Antonio to at least see the Riverwalk. What was it? What was it like?
I did see the Riverwalk, but we didn’t stay long. Nearly every entrance was blocked. Going down the one set of stairs that we did, it became obvious that now with COVID-19, going underneath the city wasn’t fun — it was dangerous.
All of downtown San Antonio was closed. Many of the shops had hand-written signs promising to see everyone real soon — or as soon as they could. Some of the shops were already up for lease; chain stores, boutiques, eateries.
It was dark and the only sound I heard were mockingbirds on Houston Street imitating jackhammers, sirens, and other construction equipment.
I passed a jewelry store with the wares securely stowed, and only mannequin busts in the window.
I wondered if they would have coronavirus jewelry once they reopened. If they reopened.
I saw several restless homeless men crossing from street to street. They were walking the way they do, because they had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.
Then I saw the lady sleeping in the doorway. “She’s probably younger than me,” I thought. What would bring her to this place I didn’t know. She was fast asleep. We passed quietly. Part of me felt badly for taking her picture. But her face couldn’t be seen. She couldn’t be shamed or identified.
Closed. Closed. All closed. No life except for the homeless and a lone, occasional car.
Haunting music drifted across Houston Street. It was coming from a lovely courtyard between two gorgeous high-end restaurants. I couldn’t believe the luxe interior of one of the restaurants, a high-end steakhouse and bar. It really was 20’s glamor, lit up as if about to open for the dinner service. But it was 5:15 a.m. and the restaurant was empty; a sign said they were closed indefinitely.
This is the song that was playing.
Not only was Billie Holliday crooning about her solitude, when I went to take a picture, I noticed a handprint on the window. Below it, another.
As if a homeless man had looked in, wishing he could eat dinner. Or perhaps just another cross-country refugee like me.
I walked quickly back toward the Alamo with Gambit; along the way we had our Riverwalk brief adventure before I realized it wasn’t smart to go down those stairs and stay with no one else but an 11-lb. dog.
Across from the Alamo were more homeless people, all asleep.
And we met Cap and Thor.
I had a long talk with the wonderful people working to keep Hotel Gibbs open for travelers in the pandemic. John put out the best breakfast he could within safety guidelines. They were wonderful people and it was a most beautiful and gracious hotel. As I told them, as I told the guards at the Alamo: I always wanted to visit San Antonio and the city was so beautiful, but also, so very sad — I was so sorry it had to be under these circumstances, and this way.
I learned from them that the homeless people were on the street because the local shelter had a case of COVID-19 and all the residents were released. With nowhere else to go, now they were roaming the empty, deserted streets of downtown San Antonio.
Everyone was worried. Everyone was concerned. Everyone was frustrated. Many were more than a little afraid. Many of the big hotels had already closed; Hotel Gibbs was trying to stay open, but might not be able to continue for very long. The staff described how awful it was to try to navigate Texas’ unemployment system. A new policy of giving people $600 a week would help in the short term, but in the long term, it would no longer support people to work in hotel or hospitality jobs that paid less than that.
I am not a Texas woman. I’m not even from the Southwest, really. I am a fifth-generation Californian. So I know what their ways are, but their ways are not my ways or my people’s ways.
At the same time, I do understand them and what I felt in San Antonio was a deep, bone-aching grief. I don’t know if this most beautiful city will be able to come back. Stores weren’t just temporarily closed — many of them were permanently gone and storefronts up for lease — and who will lease them? I felt the passage of what once was in those downtown streets. They call these old times “more gracious times,” but I think, they weren’t more gracious. They were just different.
Perhaps they were times where people took more time, with their music, their art, their buildings, their lives.
I passed a sign on the door of what had been a children’s museum: “WeWork is coming to San Antonio.” Work had begun in the interior, but it too, was at a halt, and I don’t think that was because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I thought as we left for Gulfport later that morning, “Is this pandemic our Alamo?”
Is it the last stand for all of us? To that — I have no answer. Not sure anybody does.