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Life in the pandemic in-between: Do we leap toward total freedom or tiptoe cautiously?


I’ve got one dose in the arm, one foot out the door. I feel like I’m living in the in-between.

Am I halfway to leaping back into pre-pandemic Los Angeles? Does that city still exist? Will I see you in it?

That’s what I wanted to get a sense of this week as I cautiously ventured out for a recalibrating ramble.

I wanted to ask people outside my bubble how they envision our future. I wanted to find out where they place themselves on the spectrum from total shut-in to total freedom.


Erin Bienenfeld plays with her 2-year-old daughter Eleanor Barnes on Wednesday in Griffith Park.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In Griffith Park, on the leafy, shaded trails of Fern Dell, I watched Eleanor Barnes, who is 2, make her mother, Erin Bienenfeld, run. “I’ll be right back,” Ellie called out without a backward glance, as she boldly zigzagged and hopped her way into the unknown.

For half her life now, Ellie’s North Hollywood backyard has constituted most of her outdoor world. She tuned out the other children careening along the trails’ twists and turns.

She has yet to have play dates. Until recently, it didn’t feel safe to throw her into the playground mix.

Now, Bienenfeld said, she’s noticed that the children she encounters in public “don’t fold easily into each other.”

I wondered, Will it be the same for the rest of us? How creaky and stiff are our social skills?

Bienenfeld, 42, a voice-over actor, was lucky to be able to narrate audiobooks from home during the pandemic. Her husband, Orion Barnes, who teaches stage combat at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, was laid off but then started teaching online from their garage, with two cameras and a dummy.

She and Barnes are fully vaccinated. “It kind of feels like the sun coming out after the rain,” she told me.

“I think the new normal to us looks like normal, but with gratitude.”

I left the park with photographer Al Seib, and we headed to Grand Central Market downtown but stopped first to take in a block-long line for vaccinations at the Million Dollar Theater next door.

Steven White, 28, in the line with his dog, Doja, said he was so ready to once more work side by side with his colleagues at Southern California Edison that he’d overcome his initial vaccine hesitancy. But he also was thankful for what he’d gained in a year mostly spent solo.

 Steven White, 28, with his dog "Doja."

Steven White, 28, with his dog, Doja, waits in line for a COVID-19 vaccination Wednesday in downtown Los Angeles.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve definitely learned a lot of good habits from being cooped up — about getting my life organized, maximizing my time, filling up my time so that I wasn’t bored,” White said. Doja benefited from longer walks. White worked out more. He took up running. He trained to try his hand whenever amateur Muay Thai competition resumes.

‘I think the new normal to us looks like normal, but with gratitude.’

Erin Bienenfeld

“I feel like it kind of grew us up a little bit,” White said of the pandemic.

He was using the past tense, but the pandemic seemed very much present when I stepped inside the cavernous expanse of Grand Central Market. At high noon, it took my eyes a minute to adjust to how unpeopled the market was, by pre-pandemic standards. I counted just seven people in line at the ever-popular Eggslut. Quite a few stalls had no customers at all.

Los Angeles City workers Harold Arrivillaga, 41, left, and Jason Wong, 38.

Los Angeles City workers Harold Arrivillaga, 41, left, and Jason Wong, 38, eat lunch Wednesday at Grand Central Market.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

At a table near the Broadway entrance, two fully vaccinated city employees, Harold Arrivillaga and Jason Wong, ate pizza. Wong said he was afraid that those unwilling to get shots would hamper a fast full recovery.

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He described working at City Hall throughout the pandemic, trying to ensure that when he came home — “straight into the shower, clothes right into the laundry” — his wife and son remained safe.

Half a dozen people in his department died of the virus, he said. “One day you’re saying, ‘He’s so healthy’; the next we’re chipping in for funeral costs.”

Wong spent last New Year’s Eve alone in quarantine after a co-worker tested positive.

Those who know people who got sick or died tend to take safety measures seriously, Wong said. But there always will be many who don’t.

“I hope the community-based approach to life — that it’s not just me, it’s everybody else, too — I hope that prolongs a little bit,” said Arrivillaga.

Sergio Apodaca, 42, works as a security guard for a film crew.

Sergio Apodaca, 42, works as a security guard for a film crew shooting in downtown Los Angeles.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

On the way back to the car, Seib and I met Sergio Apodaca guarding a parking lot full of movie trailers for a shoot at our old L.A. Times headquarters, across from City Hall. A movie was being shot downtown. That offered a nice bit of hope to counterbalance the grimness of the many permanently shuttered storefronts nearby.

But when I asked Apodaca if he could see himself going to a movie in a theater anytime soon, he said through his Kobe Bryant face mask, “Maybe next year.”

We weren’t expecting at our next stop, the Exposition Park Rose Garden, to find ourselves in a crowd. We just thought we’d find good people to talk to, feeling relatively safe among others outside.

But when we pulled into the lot for the garden and surrounding museums, most parking places were taken. Museums had reopened. Masked families stood in line to get into the California Science Center.

 Lorraine Bubar, right, and husband Ron.

Lorraine Bubar, right, and her husband, Ron, visit Exposition Park on Lorraine’s 69th birthday.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

We ran into Lorraine Bubar, who had just visited the California African American Museum with her husband.

The pandemic canceled their travel plans, Bubar said — she’d planned to run in the 2020 London and Berlin marathons. Still, they’d made it through, and now, on her 69th birthday, vaccinated, they had gone out to enjoy art for the first time in a year. That night, they were going to reenter the world a little more, eating outdoors at a restaurant. My hope for the future blossomed just hearing her tell it.

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So did my joy in being back out in the world, when our path to the rose garden took us past an office building with a colonnade, where three women were roller skating.

 Natalie Steiner, Kaitlin Holeman and Ruby Palma, right to left.

Natalie Steiner, right, with Ruby Palma and Kaitlin Holeman, skates in Exposition Park.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Skating, Natalie Steiner, 28, told me, made a big comeback in the pandemic, with people searching for good shutdown pastimes. She’d found out about it on Instagram, and somehow it clicked for her, even though she’d never before been outdoorsy or athletic.

She was laid off from her job at a hotel restaurant, but she’d made skating friends — which kept the blues at bay. She had driven up from Mission Viejo, where she lives with her mother, in pursuit of the smooth surface outside the California Science Center, “like butter under your wheels.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m grateful for the pandemic in any way, shape or form, but I’m so happy that I found skating,” Steiner, who has yet to be vaccinated, told me as she twirled. It looked so light and breezy, it took me a while to pull my eyes away.

Nurse Valerie Udeozor with her sons Glory, 14, and Sunny, 12.

Nurse Valerie Udeozor and her sons Sunny, 12, and Glory, 14, visit Exposition Park on Wednesday.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Just up ahead, the rose garden was closed — but Valerie Udeozor, 49, sat across from it eating lunch at a picnic table with her sons Sunny, 12, and Glory, 14, who were on spring break from online school. They’d just been to the science center’s Lego exhibit. They told me about the ups and downs of the year they’d spent in their View Park home.

Glory took to online learning. Sunny missed his friends too much. Their living room got chaotic. Valerie, who teaches nursing at Pasadena City College, sometimes was online teaching while her husband, an attorney, was online in court and the boys were in classes, all within hearing distance of one another.

Valerie saw a lot of heartbreak in person, she told me, on the days she took students to a downtown hospital full of COVID-19 patients.

But now case numbers have plummeted. Vaccinated, Valerie recently started hugging her 88-year-old mother again.

“Somehow we dodged all the bullets, and we survived, right?” she said.

I hope so. I’m so hungry for more human contact. I keep thinking about the end of my visit to Fern Dell, when Ellie took my big hand in her small one and started tugging me forward.

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