On our second weekend in Roanoke, in the middle of March when the nation closed, we took a drive to Rocky Mount, Virginia. There wasn’t much else to do when we weren’t working at the condo. I had a long list of sightseeing ideas so we set out to see what we could see during a quarantine in the days of a pandemic.
One of the first things that caught my eye was a boarded up building and a What’s Next sign? with the answer to the question blacked out.
I wanted the picture. Rich didn’t want to turn around and said we would get it on the way back.
Our destination was Rocky Mount where more than a dozen motorcyclists were gathered around picnic tables at the farmers’ market which was not taking place because the world had shut down. We parked around the corner from them just as they revved up and paraded through town. After they left the only person we saw was the man who owned the hardware store. He stood in the front door and waved to us from across the street. We were keeping our social distance.
Rocky Mount is the home of the Harvester Performance Center, a music venue I had never heard of but from the photos on the building we could see Willy Nelson, Kenny G, & many others have played here. Except for the local hardware store all the businesses in town were closed.
Speakers were attached to the lampposts and music filled the streets of the one block downtown. It was strange and eerie, like a science fiction movie where all the people had vanished but left the music on.
I had made note of a landmark so when we were driving home we’d know when to slow down and turn left to get a photo of the What’s Next? sign. As we got closer we saw red and blue lights flashing up ahead. Fire trucks and police cars were on both sides of the road. The cops were directing traffic while the firemen hosed down a brush fire that had gone out of control.
“What about the photo you said we’d stop for?” I asked.
“Next time,” Rich said.
The sign would haunt me for most of the time we were in Roanoke. I wanted the picture but each time we took another road trip we headed along a different route.
On another day we drove to the Booker T. Washington National Monument where the Visitor Center was closed but the walking trails were open.
In Booker T. Washington’s book Up From Slavery he describes the moment at the end of the Civil War when a stranger came to the plantation and read the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. This was the moment she had been praying for.”
Washington also wrote about his birth and nine years living as an enslaved person on the Burroughs plantation, a tobacco farm on the land we were walking.
“I was born in a typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square. In this cabin I lived with my mother and a brother and sister till after the Civil War, when we were all declared free. Of my ancestry, I know almost nothing….the cabin was not only our living-place, but was used as the kitchen for the plantation. My mother was the plantation cook. The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter…there was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor.” He described never sleeping in a bed but just on “a bundle of rags.”
Determined to get an education after the war Dr. Booker T. Washington would go on to become a noted educator, orator, author, advisor to U.S. presidents, and a guiding force behind Tuskegee University, an all Black college in Alabama.
“No race or people ever got upon its feet without severe and constant struggle, often in the face of the greatest discouragement.” ~ Booker T. Washington
There were other day trips traveled along different roads but the What’s Next? sign continued to haunt me. What did I think it meant? Did it have to do with the strange and frightening days we lived in? Would life be forever different? Will there be a new normal?
On our days off we drove around new terrain. I took pictures of my latest passion, the plethora of soft drink advertisements on brick buildings in Roanoke.
What’s next? We got word that a friend was in the hospital with coronavirus. He was the first case in Manchester, NH where he spent two months on a ventilator, much of it in an induced coma. He is home now, using a walker and getting physical therapy.
What’s next? The economy was tanking. Unemployment rising. The stock market crashes and surges.
The stock market is not one of our concerns. Our 401k was decimated over the years of lay-offs, Cobra payments, self-employed health insurance, college tuition, the recession. When Trump was elected I moved the little money we had left in our 401k into a mutual fund. It earns pennies in interest but it doesn’t rise and fall. We don’t give a shit about the stock market. As Paul Krugman of the New York Times says, the stock market is not the economy.
We were grateful Rich was working but What Next? Would there be work when we got home? When is our $1200 stimulus money coming? At least I qualified for unemployment and the bonus $600. Will this be like the recession when people cut back on spending money on home improvements and Rich was out of work?
We put my unemployment checks in our savings account for What’s Next.
The last week we were in Roanoke Rich hired a crew of Chinese floor guys. They arrived early and immediately started hammering and sawing. It was loud and chaotic in the condo. Rich suggested I go for a drive. I knew immediately where I would go.
I drove right by it the first time, made a U-turn further down the road, and drove back a mile then pulled into the empty parking lot to get the photo of the question without an answer that had been haunting me for almost three months now.
I still had time to kill. The floor guys would be working all day. I decided to explore the town of Boone’s Mill, known as the wettest town in Virginia. As opposed to the driest town, meaning there are distilleries and breweries here. Or were here at one time. I only saw one brewery on the main highway and it was closed due to coronavirus.
So this is Boone’s Mill? There has to be more. I headed down the other fork in the road and ended up at an empty old mill on a dead end. I drove up a hill and passed ranch houses with open fields but after awhile I turned around and headed back to the highway. Leaving Boone’s Mill I took the picture of the Trump 2020 signs and the confederate flag from a gas station across the street. I wasn’t pulling into that parking lot or browsing in that store. Let’s just say I don’t like taking left turns against on-coming traffic on my right.
Three weeks later I am home in Vermont. I spent this past weekend glued to the TV, watching America implode. It’s been a long time coming. I always knew it would happen. My Dad was a history teacher. History teaches us there are cycles of good times and prosperity, then comes complacency and greed, the haves and the have nots, followed by bad times with unrest and anger. Mankind has a short memory which is why history repeats, over and over again. In 2004, when the George W. Bush and the Republicans used the dog whistles Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater taught them I warned people things would get worse. You can’t treat human beings this way.
It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. ~ Frederick Douglas
Sixteen years later we find ourselves asking What’s Next? The youth of our nation are out on the streets fighting the good fight. The fight for social justice. They are demanding we keep the promise of the Declaration of Independence. The promise that we are all created equal. Yes, sometimes it does take a revolution. That’s how this nation began. But once again, despite progress over the centuries, we forgot the promise we didn’t keep. And the stain of slavery that we never fully dealt with.
Booker T. Washington believed once he was freed he could go when and where we pleased. What he didn’t imagine was that way off in the future, in 2020, if he stepped out for a jog, or returned home from working in a hospital on the front lines of a pandemic, or took a walk in a neighborhood where his Dad lived, to buy skittles and an Arizona ice tea he could be shot to death for being Black.
Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up. ~ James Baldwin
From Booker T. Washington to James Baldwin. From Trayvon Martin whom I wrote about seven long years ago to George Floyd, I hope there comes a time when America finally gets this right.
But What’s Next? you’re asking. Was this it? The protests on the streets of America? The worst president in history who is stoking the fires of violence and making things worse? Is that what was next?
I don’t have an answer for you. Summer is almost here. It was a dry winter with lower than average snow in places like Montana. Fire season is here. Hurricane season too. The president has gutted the EPA. Medical experts believe there will be a surge in coronavirus cases in the fall and throughout the winter flu season. Trump has removed us from the World Health Organization.
We have a serious election coming up on November third. We still have the time between now and then to live with a president who is unfit for the job but couldn’t be impeached and is now leading the nation in its night of anguish. On one of those nights he hid in a bunker in the White House with no words to console us. There are countless problems our children will have to deal with. The next generation will have to clean up the mess we have left them.
I alone have no answers to the question What’s Next? It takes a nation to fix a crisis this large. Maybe that’s why whoever put the question on the sad, empty, dilapidated building crossed out the answer. He or she left it to each and everyone of us to get it right.