The Silence of 2020 Will Haunt Me

It is the sound of silence that will always haunt me when I think about 2020.

empty dc 2020
The year was notable for the sound and fury coming from all corners of life. Whether it was the loud lies coming from our racist president, the ridiculous “protests” against masks, the toxicity of social media, the never-ending election, or the constant bickering on cable news.

But like most sound and fury, it ultimately signified nothing.

That’s why the sound of silence that took over Washington, D.C. is the sound I’ll never forget from this year.

It began in mid-March when businesses closed, office workers like me retreated to home offices, and we embarked on our new abnormal lives. In those days, I really only left my apartment for two reasons – to go to the grocery store and take my dog for a walk. And while I love walking my dog, those eerie walks have lingered.

Taking my dog for a work in the afternoon – especially on a nice day – was usually accompanied by a lot of noise. Cars driving by and honking. People sitting eating and drinking at restaurants. Groups walking together. Runners, bikers, you name it, the streets would be alive on a sunny day.

Instead, the streets were empty. You may take the silence for granted if you live outside of a city, like my parents in eastern Connecticut. But in Washington, D.C.? The silence was worrisome.

As the months progressed, the silence remained because we all wore masks. Even as more people went outside, they were largely silent as they went about their days. For people running errands, or getting exercise, it was usually done in solitude and done quietly.

I noticed the difference in the grocery store too. We all walked up and down the aisles in silence. What was there to say?

I am lucky enough to be within walking distance of my office and though I haven’t been there regularly since March, I have gone a handful of times for various reasons.

The walk from my apartment to my office after COVID hit can only be described as eerily quiet and overwhelmingly depressing. No buses. No hot dog vendors. No tourists. Just vast stretches of open sidewalks.

The area around my office in downtown D.C. on K Street – an area almost completely void of residential buildings – had become a ghost town. The restaurants, delis, bars, and coffee shops were shuttered. The two hotels by our office, once bustling with taxis and school groups, sat largely deserted. Those few walks to work became infinitely depressing.

Where did all the people go?

The office building itself was also a ghost town. None of the other tenants have returned since we all left in March. In my multiple trips back in the past nine months, I have seen maybe one or two other people who weren’t security guards. The elevators, the hallways, and the stairwells – all quiet and lonesome.

The silence piled up through the year, making it harder and harder to believe that life will ever return to anything even resembling what we used to remember.

As I prepared to write this essay, I became depressed. How do you write about nothing? How do you convey the feeling of hopelessness that has lived with us all year without becoming overwhelmed?

It was then I realized the worst part of the silence – the lack of laughter.

Who was laughing this year? Why would someone even be laughing? When I think back to summer and autumns past, it struck me that my memories of large groups of people involved them laughing. There were having good times – that’s why they were at brunch, that’s why they went to a Caps game, that’s why they were celebrating a birthday. 

In 2020, we didn’t do any of that. Even the day that Joe Biden was declared the next President – the only happy day in D.C. since March – the celebration was more of a needed release than a party.

For years and decades to come, people will be asked what they remember about the year of COVID that was 2020. When I explain it to my kids and my grandkids, I will start with the silence. The uncomfortable, unsettling silence.

What do I want to hear on the streets in 2021? Anything. 

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