The Sidewalk Dance Doesn’t Have to Be So Depressing
Nothing bonds people together like shared awkwardness
A few weeks into Toronto’s coronavirus quarantine, while standing on my ground-level patio, I spotted — about five floors up and one building over — a man leaning over the railing of his own balcony. I held my gaze on him a little longer than I might have had I not just spent 14 days mostly sequestered in my apartment with precious little human contact. I held it long enough that he caught me staring, a scenario that in any other world, during pre-Covid-19 times, would have led me to immediately turn away and will myself into invisibility. But instead, I waved. And he waved back.
On March 20, the World Health Organization began using the phrase “physical distancing” in place of “social distancing” to impart the idea — through a slight but significant adjustment in language — that maintaining contact with one another, in the nonphysical sense, is of incredible importance right now. Unfortunately, it’s often the first idea that sticks, and “social distancing” now feels baked into the mainstream lexicon. When we look back at the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, I expect that “social distancing” will be the phrase that comes to mind.
The public dance of sorts required to do this is… well, it’s wrenching. I’ve spent a decade and a half living in a major metropolis where so much as making eye contact with a stranger is tantamount to a verbal threat, so you’d think I’d be used to it. And yet, on one of my few walks around the block since my self-isolation began, I was — despite being constantly reminded to steer clear of my fellow humans — unsettled by how it actually felt to move to opposite sides of the sidewalk whenever someone walked by. It seemed inhumane, despite being, right now, literally the most humane way to treat one another. After all, one doesn’t typically enact care, trust, respect, or solidarity through physical avoidance. But that’s very much the case now.
The counterintuitiveness of this demands a bit of a cognitive leap, especially as we are all currently starved of in-person social contact, if not literal physical contact. But it isn’t impossible. Think of it, maybe, as a practice of benign flirtation: an exchange of slightly too-long eye contact, a cheeky well…