Empty Building at Baltimore & Paca Streets

Picture of a four story beige brick building with boarded-up windows on the first floor against a bright blue sky.

The spring semester started this week, and for me, teaching started Tuesday. That means I’m back on my bike commute after six weeks of working from home. It is a huge relief. I love not having to commute into the office, but after a few weeks of that, I miss just being around people. I know many white collar folks who can work from home want to keep doing that, but I like being in person with people, especially with students. And I think there is real value in being together with students in the flesh to talk about ideas.

Sometimes that value is not the most important one, and it is better to do what we can virtually to protect ourselves and each other. UMBC has a vaccine and booster mandate, everyone has to wear a K95/KN95/KN94 mask at all times indoors, and we are all getting tested upon our return. I don’t know how to make in-person teaching and learning any safer right now, and I don’t know if it is safe enough, but I do know that no matter what my mind might say, my heart and my body are just glad to be back. And not everyone can be back for a variety of reasons, and there need to be allowances for that. Me? I was happy to put on all my layers and leave my house at 7:47am for the chilly bike commute down the hill to catch the shuttle bus to campus, and it’s complicated.

Whenever I’m away from this regular ride and return to it, the first thing I notice is how normal it feels. I’ve been doing this commute for years, and even if I can’t for awhile–COVID, cancer, whatever–it feels like home to return. I know exactly where to slow down and yell, where to ring my bell, where to get ready to bump-bump-bump, where the cop cars will be, what lights to catch if I want to catch them all, all of it. I know these 3.2 miles extremely well.

And then I notice what’s different. What I thought about on this particular day was this empty building at Baltimore and Paca, where I take my left to head up the hill toward home. There used to be a McDonald’s there, with a walk up window. I know a lot closed down when the city went into lockdown, but I’m still surprised this McDonald’s didn’t make it, nor did the Starbucks a street over. What kind of capitalist world are we living in that these two places can’t keep it going through the pandemic? The kind that lets these buildings stand and leak gas and wait for the development a few blocks north to reach them? I don’t know, but I’m suspicious. Now there’s a sign pointing the way to a place to get tested for COVID. I don’t think that sign or those tests are going anywhere for a long, long time.

And then I took my left, up the hill, dodge the cars switching places with the bikes at Mulberry, pedal, pedal, a right on Centre, across the tracks, down the hill, a quick stop at the gym, and then up and over to Fallsway, Guilford, up the hill, back home. I was so tired at the end of this day. Last semester was really hard. Students were struggling, attendance was way down, and it was challenging to stay motivated. But every first day of class is like the first day of the baseball season–everybody’s batting a thousand, and nobody’s behind on the reading. It felt so good to see students again, and as I went over syllabi in excruciating detail, I got pretty hyped up. I’m teaching a couple of really fun classes, and if they are game, we are going to have a great time. I hope.

I know it’s not politic to say I want to “go back to normal.” Normal was awful for so many people. I get that. And I just want to get back to the normal that was talking in person with smart people about smart ideas and doing interesting projects without our faces covered and without worrying who might be infecting whom. I miss that, and I can do this version again, too. It’s complicated.

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