How a cross-country drive revealed uncertainty for black Americans during COVID-19

From Arizona to New York, the coronavirus pandemic impacts all aspects of life

“Smooth road, clear day, but why am I the only one travelin’ this way? How strange the road to love should be so easy. Can there be a detour ahead?”

— Billie Holiday, “Detour Ahead”

I was lucky.

Just as the nation began to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, with citizens asked — then ordered — to stay at home, I was able to find shelter in a car and some solace on the open roads.

A series of obligations that began March 11 required me to travel from New York to Kansas City, Missouri, then on to Phoenix.

Faced with the risk of flying back to New York, I decided to make the cross-country drive home. I felt better off on the road.

This was at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when we were acting like the overwhelming favorite in a boxing match, not taking the underdog seriously.

Then the virus began connecting, landing painful body blows, then knocking us down.

Then it began killing us.

With each new day, restrictions intensified. We were ordered to shelter in place, then keep our distance socially. Sports stopped. A multibillion-dollar industry we had thought indispensable was turned off like the flick of a switch.

Just like that. Darkness.

But for seven days, my car became a movable quarantine on a trip that stretched over 2,300 miles and through nine states. As games were canceled and the nation was held hostage, the highways became an ally.

The road has always been my easy chair. The highways I’ve traveled, ringed with natural and built wonders, are humbling reminders of humanity’s limitations and its potential. Whether it was across Cuba or coast to cape in South Africa, the sights, sounds and scenery sounds of the road have always been, for me, their own reassuring meditation.

In the time of COVID-19, the road also became a sanctuary with satellite radio as my connection to the real world. News reports reminded me that for all the peace and beauty on the road, I was still heading east, straight into the maelstrom.

This was my sixth cross-country trip. The first five were leisurely indulgences. This one was born out of a compulsion to drive in order to try and beat a lethal pandemic that had turned all forms of travel into a game of roulette. Travel by air and risk infection in the petri dishes of diseases called airport terminals and aircraft cabins. Travel by car and risk contaminated gas pumps, restricted rest stops and hotels with significantly reduced and overworked housekeeping staffs.

As one who never needs much of a push to drive, I decided that hitting the road was my best option. Driving would also provide an opportunity to see firsthand how my fellow human beings were reacting to a rapidly spreading virus nationwide.

While the virus supposedly knew neither race nor class, the disease is disproportionately affecting low-income communities. So, I was especially interested to learn how African American businesses were dealing with a virus that was unleashing hell, especially in poor communities.

Along the way, I interviewed African Americans, some suggested by friends, some from my own Rolodex.

This was never intended as a scientific all-encompassing survey. As I traveled from state to state, the idea was to gather snapshots of African American communities through the eyes of people who have lived in those communities for decades.

There was a professional football player in Arizona, an entrepreneur and pioneering politician in New Mexico, a biochemistry professor and his career politician wife in Oklahoma, a high school basketball star and minister in Pennsylvania.

What they had in common was an age-old preoccupation for most black Americans: survival.

Taking precaution in the age of the coronavirus, I decided to forgo face-to-face interviews and communicate by Zoom, or over the phone.

This turned out to be a prudent decision. On April 23, Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and was under quarantine. At the time of publication, Waller said he was showing no ill effects of the virus.

Phoenix, March 18

News of the day: All 50 states have now reported coronavirus cases, according to CNN, as deaths due to the virus continued to escalate in Washington state, the first hot zone in the U.S. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reported the state’s first death from COVID-19.

Professional athletes are often thought to be immune from real-life maladies, largely because sports is our escape from real life. As the coronavirus has shown, no one is exempt.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Brett Hundley drops back to pass during an NFL preseason game against the Oakland Raiders on Aug. 15, 2019, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Kevin French/Icon Sportswire

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Brett Hundley attended Chandler High School in Chandler, Arizona. He was a three-year starter at UCLA. Drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 2015 in the fifth round, he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks and signed last season by the Cardinals.

He had just traveled from New Zealand to South Korea and was on his way to Bali when pandemic responses got serious. Hundley canceled the Bali trip and returned to Phoenix rather than risk being stranded. The Cardinals made Hundley available via Zoom.

“When I got back to Arizona, I had nothing in my house, so I had to go to the grocery store,” Hundley said. “I went at 6 in the morning, and there was a line about a mile down the street just to get in.”

Hundley also quickly discovered that the pandemic was a great equalizer that did not mind inconveniencing a celebrity.

“When I left on my travels, it wasn’t nearly close to anything like this … having to wait in line for stores to get in because of social distancing. … I just stopped at GameStop yesterday. You have to go to the store and they’ll give it to you out the door, rather than going into the stores. Now, they don’t even allow that.”

As a quarterback, Hundley is used to having teammates over for bonding sessions. That too is no longer is an option.

“With everything going on, it sort of creates a weird dynamic; you’re not seeing anybody. It’s hard to say, ’Hey, you guys want to come over to the house? Let’s have a barbecue.’ Everybody’s at home doing their own thing around their families.”

I suggested to Hundley that when sports and football do come back, it likely will be without spectators. Fans watching on television, yes. In-stadium spectators, no.

“It would be really awkward to run out there — it would probably feel like a practice. I love playing with fans; I’m not sure if I would like that, necessarily. I don’t think many players would like that. Football’s football at the end of the day, so we would do it. But it’s different playing with fans.”

But for Hundley, the devastation caused by the virus has dwarfed the importance of football.

“Football is a huge thing to so many people — sports is.

“But there’s bigger things, that take priority in conversations right now.”

From Phoenix, I drove to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. College football fans will also likely suffer from the coronavirus. I’m not sure when we will see filled stadiums again.

I left Tempe on U.S. Route 60 West through the breathtaking desert up to the mountains, and eventually to Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, which straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 22

News of the day: For the first time, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said postponing the 2020 Summer Olympics was a possibility, just as the Canadian Olympic Committee said it would not send athletes to the Games in Tokyo.

New Mexico state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton.

Sheryl Williams Stapleton is a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives. She is also the majority floor leader in the House. First elected to office in 1994, Stapleton was the first African American woman elected to the New Mexico legislature.

Right now, many of her constituents with businesses are confused and terrified, and not at all comforted by the recently passed stimulus bill. Their fears echo anxieties across the nation as record numbers of businesses close and record numbers of people file for unemployment.

“Right now individuals are listening to the news reports that say, ‘Yes, you can get a stimulus package and you can get stimulus funds.’ But a lot of people in my community are saying, ‘How do I go about getting it? How am I qualified? What are the determinants to show that I would be able to get some of that money?’

“Small businesses are screaming, calling me as the majority leader of the House and saying they call the Small Business Association and they can’t get through.

“The state is saying, ‘We have this small-business loan, but it has to go through the bank.’ And many of the big banks are saying, ‘No, we’re not participating.’ It’s scary.

“What do I tell my constituents out there? What do I tell my small-business owners?”

The crisis accentuates the division between those who have access to resources and those who do not. It shows with crystal clarity that so many small black businesses have no safety nets.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions for the people who don’t know how to go and locate the information. There’s a lot of people in neighborhoods that are low-income, that don’t have internet.”

Stapleton has faced numerous crises in 26 years, but nothing like this.

“We have had many crises in terms of education cuts and things like that. This one has just touched to the core of poor people, people who cannot afford anything. The low-income people and their children. The children are out of school. It affects more of the people who speak a different language and not English in terms of being able to provide services for them.”

As people become desperate, a free-for-all mentality sets in.

“That’s happening in grocery stores, people grabbing for meat. It’s fear. And so unless that fear is calmed by assurance by people of authority, you have a problem. Two weeks ago, a week ago, I watched people scramble for toilet paper, scramble for water, scramble for food.”

I asked the House leader what she thought the country will look like after the coronavirus subsides.

“Things are going to change. The way people think, the way people act, this is going to change. This morning I went to church and they said, ‘OK, you pay your dues, you give your dues through PayPal. And we’re going to stream the service from now on until this is over.’ I mean, come on. People will get comfortable and they’ll say, ‘Oh, we don’t have to leave our house to go to church. We can just do streamlining and give our money online.’ Things are changing, whether it’s for the good or the bad.”

I asked Stapleton how she planned to allay the fears of her constituents.

“For those who know Christ, they know that they can have faith and things will get better and the Bible said to love one another. Those who do not have Christ, then they need to depend on the resources they know are available to them through the state government. That’s all I can say.”

Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 23

News of the day: Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee issues an order that requires residents to stay at home for the next two weeks.

Josef Powdrell checks on the selection in the smoker at Mr. Powdrell’s Barbeque in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal

Josef Powdrell is CEO of Mr. Powdrell’s Barbeque House, which has been serving barbecue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, since 1962. Powdrell’s parents, Pete and Catherine, settled in Albuquerque in 1958. Two years later, they opened a takeout barbecue restaurant that evolved into Mr. Powdrell’s Barbeque House.

“When we went into business, we caught the social change of the ’60s to the ’70s. Our business expanded. We had about three or four stores running at the same time, and we were doing well,” Powdrell said. “The social thing keeps changing, so we keep adjusting. We know how to ride the horse now, so we’ve been able to stay on, but all the whole time we’ve been in business, we’ve had hard times with capital. The banks have not been real friendly to us here.”

For Powdrell, the coronavirus exacerbates the fragility of black businesses.

“We’re in trouble in New Mexico,” Powdrell added. “This thing that’s happening, by way of this virus — it’s going to be real tough on African American businesses if it lasts much more than five or six weeks, because we’re all operating damn near check to check.”

Like restaurants around the nation, Mr. Powdrell’s has been buoyed temporarily by takeout and delivery.

“I have strictly carryout because they’re saying carryout and drive-thru is legal. Saying that was probably one of the best things that we could hear.

“Right now I’m generating probably 60% of what I need to be generating. How long can I tread that water? According to the numbers in my mind, the numbers in my calculator, it’s going to be tough, really tough for us on the other side of six weeks.”

Powdrell employs 50 people between his two restaurants.

“Between the two stores, I had a $20,000 payroll yesterday. I’m really worried about the next one, which is two weeks from here, I’m worried about that. I’m trying to hold onto an investment that my folks made. We got land and a building. I’m trying not to lose it after 60 years of business. That’s what’s driving me.”

Oklahoma City, March 23

As I traveled from Albuquerque to Oklahoma City, I began to concentrate more on what I thought than what I saw. Much of what I thought was influenced by distressing news reports — and anecdotal accounts — of what was taking place in New York City, where the virus was taking lives with impunity. It was becoming clear that the virus was having a disproportionately devastating impact on the poor. Were the wealthy 1% feeling guilty? Were those African Americans of means feeling guilty as their less fortunate brothers and sisters were ravaged by the coronavirus?

Bernice (left) and Earl Mitchell (right).

Earl Mitchell Jr. is a retired professor of biochemistry at Oklahoma State University. He began his tenure at Oklahoma State in 1967 as a research associate in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology. Two years later, Mitchell, a New Orleans native and graduate of Xavier University, became the Oklahoma State’s first black professor, and he was the university’s first tenured African American faculty member.

Mitchell and his wife, Bernice, have been involved in local civil rights activism since arriving in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Well-respected civil rights activists, they have been the delegates to four Democratic national conventions.

How has the Stillwater community been affected by the coronavirus?

“It has really impacted the community,” Mitchell said. “Students are gone, so that’s a large part of the community. We have enough food, but some things are just running out and people are panicking a little bit. I just came from the store and there’s no sliced bread in any of the stores. We have three Walmarts in town, a lot of shopping stores, and there’s no bread on the shelves and no more toilet paper or hand sanitizers. I looked at the shelves where all the luncheon meats and all the fast-food stuff is off the shelves now.”

At age 70, Mitchell and his wife are members of a vulnerable population.

“We cannot get access to some of the health care that we need to have. My wife has rheumatoid arthritis and she’s supposed to get some physical therapy. None of the places are taking any new patients. The surgery clinic is closed down in town.”

Social distancing has disrupted Mitchell’s personal life.

“I used to have a group of retired guys who used to meet for breakfast at McDonald’s every morning,” Mitchell said. “We’d just come and have coffee and sit and talk, and that’s closed, so guys can’t even get out.

“Our church service was all live on Facebook. Matter of fact, it was so comfortable to be in church and sit in your pajamas.”

What will be the political fallout from the coronavirus and social distancing?

“I think what it’s going to do more than anything else is that it’s going to unite people. I also think it’s going to cause some problems. This will be a chance for many things to not happen. But I’m actually more optimistic, because I think there are people who really want to vote this time that didn’t vote the last time.”

Mitchell and his wife have worked closely with young people in Stillwater. They like what they have seen.

“These Generation Z and millennials are a little different. They are more tolerant of diversity. They seem to be more serious about where they want to go. They’re not knowledgeable about a lot of things because they don’t have experience, but their hearts are in the right place and they are highly committed. What I see happening with some of the younger people is that they are beginning to not be so gullible and not accepting anything that comes out. They’re not afraid to ask questions.”

I spent March 24 in St. Louis, and March 25 and 26 in Columbus, Ohio. As I had done in Oklahoma City, I began going to the local Whole Foods store in each city. In contrast to the reports I was getting from my friends in New York about empty shelves and limited supplies, these stores were well-stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables and choice cuts of poultry, meats and fish. There was no sense of panic, though for the first time since I left Phoenix, latex gloves and masks were being commonly worn. The virus and the message were spreading the news: This was no joke. By the time I reached Columbus, the headline of The Columbus Dispatch screamed: VIRUS SLAMS OHIO ECONOMY. For the first time in my journey, I became acutely concerned about the virus.

By the time I reached Philadelphia, the East Coast was on total lockdown. But for all practical purposes and for better or worse, I was home.

Philadelphia, March 26

News of the day: The U.S. has more coronavirus cases than any other country in the world, with at least 82,079 cases of the virus and 1,195 deaths.

Lynn Greer III.

Lynn Greer III is a senior at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, where he led the basketball team to the Catholic League city championship game. The season was canceled just as the state tournament got underway. He is being recruited by several NCAA Division I schools. As it is for thousands of high school seniors, the recruiting process is on hold.

“I wouldn’t say it affected my relationship with any scouts or anything, but it’s definitely difficult because they don’t get to watch us play as much as they should be able to watch us play,” Greer said. “It’s going to be harder for them to evaluate us. They’ll probably have to look at old footage of us playing instead of seeing how we’re playing at the moment. So it’s definitely going to be difficult, but it is what it is.”

Were you looking forward to the recruiting process?

“Yeah, I definitely was looking forward to it this summer because I was going to start taking my official visits this summer and just all this happening is kind of in the way. I’m not down to any certain schools. All schools that are recruiting me I take very seriously. Schools like Marquette, Florida, Gonzaga, Oregon, Notre Dame, a few other schools.”

How have you been keeping in touch with college coaches?

“They keep in contact with me almost every day. They call me, just tell me how I would fit in at their school, and they tell me about their school and the academic aspects of it.”

“This definitely makes you appreciate the game way more just because you could see how fast it could be taken from you. It just makes me appreciate the game way more. Just sitting in the house. I love basketball, so having this experience is just making me go back on YouTube and watch older basketball players play and then see what they do with their game. It just makes me appreciate it way more.”

Are you keeping in touch with teammates?

“We have a group chat with my roommate and teammates and then I have a group chat with a couple guys that I played AAU against. That’s about it, though.”

Are there any players who needed to play through the summer to increase their chances of being offered a scholarship?

“That’s probably definitely nerve-racking for some people just because it could have been their summer, and there’s a lot of kids that go from not having a single offer to having 20 offers in one summer. So it’s definitely nerve-racking for some people. That’s sad. It just makes it 10 times harder for them.”

Greer’s father, Lynn Greer Jr., played for John Chaney at Temple University and is Temple’s second all-time leading scorer. He has been guiding his son’s recruiting process.

“It’s difficult because we have our daily training regimen, that we like to get in the gym and get shots up and things like that,” Greer Jr. said. “That’s been taken away from us with this coronavirus.

“What we used to know as normal is no longer available. At this point, it’s been all phone contact and texting me, them letting Lynn know that they’re interested in having him come on campus when that time comes.”

How nerve-racking has all of this been?

“I wouldn’t say nerve-racking, because eventually this will be over with,” Greer Jr. said. “So it’s just trying to navigate and use our time wisely.”

How has the lockdown impacted the family?

“It’s actually slowed us down a lot,” Greer Jr. said. “We work out a lot more. We now are eating. … You know, because everybody’s time is different. My wife works, I work. So my wife would cook and then we eat whenever we can. But now we’re sitting down having family dinners. We’re watching movies together. We are exercising together to make sure we’re not just sitting in the house getting fat. It’s more conversation now than it is when we’re hustling and bustling and everybody’s running around. We’re just getting back to the old family style. We appreciate what each one of us does in this household.”

Philadelphia, March 27

News of the day: Federal health officials greenlight the first point-of-care coronavirus test that can provide results in less than 15 minutes.

Rev. Alyn Waller.

Like pastors across the nation, Rev. Alyn Waller has had to make dramatic adjustments.

“Pastoring the church has taken on another dynamic,” Waller said. “We have radically changed what it is that we can and are doing, and that now means all of our worship experiences are totally online. We do keep the church open from 8 until 12 Monday through Thursday because we have a food pantry, and people can come and get food if they need it. We’re utilizing all types of social media to make sure that we keep modes of communication up with the church because there’s a lot of misinformation being peddled out there. And so my role is to provide as much normalcy as possible for the people of the church at this time.”

Has online giving increased giving, in general?

“Let me answer a couple of ways. Our online giving has increased. Our overall giving is taking a hit. There are some people, older parishioners who don’t want to use the online giving mechanisms. So we are experiencing a hit. But I’m not concerned that this is forever, and I believe that we will catch up once we bounce back from this, and we’re having to be proper stewards with what does come in. And because we don’t have as many occupancy costs. We’re not in the building. While giving is going down, so is spending. So it’s going to be tight, it’s going to be tight for most churches, but I think that we will make it.”

Has your church been asked to play a role in fighting the impact of the virus?

“Interestingly enough, I have not been asked to do anything in my city. I’m actually surprised. I pastor the largest African American church in the city of Philadelphia and there’s not been one request officially made of me or of our church.”

What could you offer, if asked?

“Probably what I am doing. The numbers of children that have to be fed because they were in school programs and get their lunches from there. I think I would have probably asked someone like me to make my facility available so that drop-off and pickup of food would take place.

“I think I would ask someone like me, if they’re worried about space in hospitals and they’re worried about triage, I might ask for my facility to be a place that the sick can be brought, given the fact that they’re concerned about spacing and things of that nature. That’s just my assumption. And again, it’s all early. I guess things could get worse before they get better, and someone may call on us for that type of help.”

Is this a time for churches, black churches, to come together?

“I guess my question right now would be come together for what. What I mean by that is not that we should not have coordinated efforts, but it seems to me that in cases like this, what we need is every church to take care of its people and community because the issue is making sure that everybody has resources.”

What has been your message to your church community in terms of hope and faith?

“Interestingly enough, the 23rd Psalm says, ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.’

“That word ‘maketh’ has really become important. We’re in a forced time of lying down as a people. And I think it’s a wonderful time of reflection, of looking at what really matters, what really counts, what really is important. All of us have had to reassess, when we leave our house, why do we leave our house, and for what. And I think that is one of the purposes of this moment.”

How much strain does a crisis like this put on faith?

“Well, it’s stretching our faith, that’s for sure. But that’s how faith grows. It grows through being put in context that your present level of faith is not enough to handle, and your faith is then given the opportunity to grow. So I mean, these times are causing lots of people to have questions.”

For many African American communities, the hardships created by the coronavirus, sadly, are familiar.

“I’m trying to remind people to remember that there was a portion of our world, and even in the United States where people lived, like we all are having to live right now, even before the virus. There’ve been people living in communities where they are stuck at home. The stores in their community do not have what they need. The medical facilities are not adequate for them and they’re really locked out of mainstream America, and people live like this even right now without the virus. This is causing all of us to be sensitized to the plight of many in Third World countries and the plight of some poor in the United States.”

New York City, March 27

At 11 a.m., I taught my course via Zoom at Arizona State University, headed to the Philadelphia airport to switch out cars, then it was off to New York on the last leg of my journey.

At 8 p.m., I’m finally home. After thousands of miles on open roads and clear sailing, I had come to the trickiest part of the journey: how to return my car and avoid contact with huddled masses yearning to be free from sheltering.

First, I decided to stop home and unload the rental car.

Then it was down Palisades Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge: New York City, coronavirus and all, remains the world’s greatest city. Before returning the car, I wanted to take a peek.

I crossed the George Washington Bridge at sunset.

The Manhattan skyline to the south, imposing, impressive and intimidating, but betraying no signs of the plague that had turned New York into the epicenter of this terrible virus.

The relatively deserted streets of the city told a different story.

Up in Harlem, the streets, while emptier than usual, were crowded. There were people on the way to work. Some may have been grocery store clerks who ring up our purchases and restock shelves, bus and subway drivers, paramedics, police and firefighters, doctors, nurses and health care workers. Many New Yorkers had fled — and perhaps taken the coronavirus — to their second homes in the Hamptons and around the country.

The virus laid bare class distinctions. Haves and have-nots. If you were able to work while sheltered at home, you were a Have. Within that designation were layers upon layers of middle and the upper reaches of wealth.

New York was like a magnificent animal in the zoo — to be observed and admired at a safe distance. You went behind those bars at your peril.

It was time to return my car. At the return center, the attendant and I agreed that we wanted to avoid contact at all costs. I tossed him my keys, then walked a quarter-mile to the airport parking garage where my car had been sitting quarantined and isolated since March 10.

In 17 days, the pandemic had gone from a whisper to a scream.

The United States had passed Italy for the most deaths of any country. I think back on how naive we all were on March 11 as we braced for March Madness, anticipated the start of the NBA playoffs and planned for the opening of the Major League Baseball season.

Instead, we find ourselves under veritable house arrest.

But the basis of my hope is that the coronavirus, like my cross-country trip, will end, as all journeys do.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.