On March 27, 2020, in Hadley, Massachusetts, I was on a Google Hangout with my extended family back on Cape Cod, where many of them work as nurses, firefighters, EMTs, and teachers—occupations commonly characterized as “heroic” these days, and which represent a sizable portion of the available year-round jobs there. The updates stayed fairly lighthearted, and I was surprised at my cousins’ lack of concern at dealing directly with COVID patients, given the horror stories I’d heard of local nurses being ordered to reuse the same masks day in and day out.
We non-heroes gave our updates as well. I had been in the middle of rolling CBD hemp joints that I would probably neither sell nor smoke when my brother texted me to join the call, but when asked I just said I’d been reading a lot. Another cousin, a real estate agent, said she was still working; they weren’t allowed to do showings, but people were still buying houses. That stirred up a few comments, but the conversation moved on as I continued to reel from this concept.
When I was a child we sometimes used to drive around the beachside neighborhoods to view the barely-lived-in, opulent McMansions, mimicking our elders’ nonchalance by pointing to them and saying, “I’ll take that one… when I win lotto.” The implicit prayer that perhaps Providence would recognize that we, by merit of our parents’ teenage years spent sitting in parked cars in icy beach parking lots smoking weed because everywhere else was closed and our imminent inheritance of such rites, were the rightful owners of these houses, now seemed a parody acted by oblivious performers. The pandemic had made our ironic ritual into someone’s actual reality, the nonchalance that we parodied confirmed as truth. I emailed my cousin after the call for more real estate info, saying I was writing a piece about it, and her response arrived with a publicity-friendly reassurance that “buying property on Cape Cod is still a good investment as it will always remain a fantastic tourist destination and is a very desirable place to have a summer home/year round home.”
To live year round on the Cape is to perpetually taste the tension between the annoyance expressed through bumper stickers informing out-of-staters that “I’m not on your vacation,” and a resignation to our need for the tourists because they keep the economy afloat. Everyone’s income is tied, directly or indirectly, to the massive influx of visitors during the summer, when the population roughly triples. But the Cape only became a tourist destination around the 1950s. What did the locals do before rich outsiders decided to come here and change whatever they want?
Occasionally, one of the newcomers would take it too far, like Beverly Nelson, who wrote an op-ed in the local paper proclaiming that as a part-time resident, she didn’t think her taxes should have to go towards services like schools that she didn’t utilize. Allegedly, the backlash was so bad that locals wouldn’t serve her when they found out her name, and a luckless local Beverly Nelson, who had said no such heinous things, was denied service over it, too.
Clearly, there were lines that could be crossed. Not a single local resident had had anything good to say about Nelson. And as news of the pandemic spread, and reports came in from my parents about beaches packed with out of state plates and grocery stores emptied out by an early influx of visitors, and worry spread that the Cape’s single hospital wouldn’t be able to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases, I wondered if this might be another of those moments.
So I began to investigate; I thought those looking to escape zones of higher-density infection and those desperate to find renters in an uncertain market were likely to be found on Craigslist. The slightest crack in the veneer of cheery normalcy is glaring on corporate sites like Homeaway and Airbnb; when a $771-per-night beach rental appeared on Homeaway, advertised as one acre of “corona free space,” locals were enraged and the story made the local news.
What I found on Craigslist was not the bloody virtual battlefield of pandemic class war I’d expected, but something much more like the Cape I grew up knowing, loving, and finding myself frustrated with. Searches for “coronavirus” and “covid” turned up posts by agencies confirming what my cousin had already told me: no showings. Other posts insisted they were showing “in a corona responsible manner,” bringing me back to what seemed like ages ago, when the retail jobs I worked at were adopting incrementally stricter protective measures that still failed to grasp the gravity of the situation.
But the most tragically human, and tragically Cape Cod, were the posts aimed at easing the burdens of others. A post for a camper for rent ($500, no word on whether this is a one-time fee or recurring) explained, “doing this because of the coronavirus, there seems to be a need for separate and private place go ‘Quarantine’ …hope this helps,”—sandwiched between a caveat that it is old but in good shape, and another that “If you’re looking to fool me and steal the thing, I will read right through you!” Several others listed office spaces in an upper Cape town offering “discounts/free rent for healthcare workers or those affected by Covid-19,” though what a nurse would want with an office space is left to the imagination. Still others listed their houses as a place “perhaps for folks needing to stay away from their family during Covid-19,” but with stipulations like “$1,900/mo for one person.”
Days later, I remembered I’d originally dedicated the night of my virtual hangout with family to hosting a concert in my basement with two local bands and one on tour from Philly. When I first moved out to Western Massachusetts at 18, I felt like I had found a community I’d been looking for my whole life, one that celebrated youth, art, music, one with an active, engaged politics. But lately, I’ve grown more aware that the ease of living here means that people don’t have the same investment in the place itself. No one, by contrast, chooses lightly to live year-round on the Cape.
The pandemic makes people grip tighter onto the things we’d already feared—rightly or not—that we might be losing. Ordinary people call friends and families more now. The rich and powerful have secured trillions in bailouts in a top-down economy that’s been in ‘crisis’ for most of my life. The Democratic establishment put people in danger of contracting a deadly illness at the polls in order to avoid a progressive upset. I assumed that rich northeasterners would likewise tighten their stranglehold on the Cape’s playground economy, and wondered whether, this time, my friends and family would see the complete disregard for our lives in the summer folks’ visit this time.
But Cape Cod’s class war continues to come rolled up in a flaky crust and served on a wooden skewer with a cellophane crumple on top at an open house. My friends, family, and former neighbors are doing what they’ve always done: extending mutual aid as far as a political analysis that would never willingly put those two words together will take them.