It's interesting to drive along El Camino Real these days, say a stretch from Menlo Park to Sunnyvale. You'll probably notice that traffic has picked up somewhat from those really quiet early days at the start of the pandemic. You'll see a few pedestrians, some masked and others "bare" faced, walking along the sidewalk. You may observe a few trees, with the last of their beautiful red leaves just barely hanging on, as we head deeper into the winter months.
Your drive may be interrupted by those annoying construction trucks, causing lane closures and occasional bottlenecks, as they deliver their next round of concrete to another building site.
But what you may miss is this very odd incongruity: many large apartment, office and retail spaces in various stages of construction being built right next to shuttered businesses and emptying strip malls. On many blocks of this drive, one notices all sorts of stores, services and restaurants, now closed. Some are waiting for the go-ahead to reopen after months and months of little or no business. Others that somehow managed to stay open just couldn't hang on for even one more month.
There are multiple signs advertising space available, for rent or lease along this route. You may even see these empty stores with the names removed, as you try to remember what was that business in that particular space.
So while city councils all up and down the Peninsula contemplate severe housing shortages in the decades ahead, we are also witnessing probably the largest exodus from the Bay Area in many years. I'm not suggesting we won't need this housing eventually. I am merely pointing out the stark contrasts of today, as we find ourselves living during these very strange and difficult times.
So, as you continue your drive along El Camino, do you ever wonder what will become of these people who have lost their small business, or are just trying to stay afloat month to month, and the workers they employ? The restaurant that's been there for several generations but that now can't hang on anymore. The boutique owner, who finally has to let all of her staff go, as she can't keep paying them from her ever-dwindling reserves.
And what happens to those former workers in that store, when their unemployment insurance runs out, if they could even get it in the first place given the dismal performance of the EDD? Maybe they have to drop out of college, if that retail or restaurant income was helping to keep them in school. For some, sadly, it may mean packing up and returning to Mom and Dad's home in Kansas or Wisconsin or wherever.
For other workers, it might even mean sleeping in their cars during these cold nights, and then lining up at a food bank the next day. To add tragedy to their devastating financial losses, some of these people may have lost a loved one to the pandemic. COVID-19 cares not a whit about who we are, but we do know it especially loves the more vulnerable among us: those who still have work, but in jobs requiring a great deal of human interaction, and those who live in crowded housing situations. Unfortunately, we are still many months away from all of us getting protection with that life-saving vaccine.
But what, you might ask, can I do, as you look left and right at these sad and shuttered businesses?
"I donate money when I can to many worthwhile causes," you rationalize.
We do know Americans are a generous people, and it is true that so many do continue to try to help alleviate the awful suffering of others.
But maybe there's more each of us with the capability can do. In fact some of us might even find our financial reserves are in better shape than they were a year ago!
Gone for now are the trips to Europe and Asia, the expensive dinners out with friends, the concert tickets, the trips to see family in other parts of the country. What if we took some of that saved money, along with the government stimulus check many of us could see soon, and donate it to worthwhile causes designed to help with rent, utilities and food relief?
Everyone who is in a position to give undoubtedly has a favorite charity or two. What if those of us with these extra resources made a concerted effort to give to those organizations that can make a difference in the lives of our neighbors who are so desperately in need?
There are many nonprofits in our area doing truly excellent work in helping with relief. If you would like a suggestion, you might try going to umbrella organizations like the United Way (at uwba.org/covid19fund) that have a special COVID-19 relief fund.
While our journey today took us along El Camino, that thoroughfare does not have the monopoly on suffering by any means. In every town, the scene we see along this main road is repeated on small side streets, in downtown areas and in our own neighborhoods. With our collective will, coupled with the great deal of wealth that is found in this Peninsula region, there is no reason those of us with the resources can't help alleviate the tremendous toll this pandemic has inflicted on so many.
Yvonne Boxerman and her family have lived in Palo Alto for many years. She is retired from a career in HR and has recently had a collection of short stories published. She can be reached at [email protected].