A Life Worth Dying For

by B.A. Van Sise

Photojournalist B.A. Van Sise takes a road trip through the American South as states begin to defiantly reopen after months of lockdown.

On a rural stretch of southern Virginia’s Jefferson Davis Highway, hemmed on both sides by high, leafy elms, the road’s two shadowed, thin lanes are backed up for half a mile in both directions. Cars, pickup trucks, even a semi have crawled to a stop — some, you can tell, against their will — because of a mundane little miracle: there is a turtle in the road.

The back roads of America are punctuated — robustly so — with the corpses of former creatures dashed into infinite silence against the steel hood or rolling rubber of passing motorists: smashed deer, flat dogs, possums cut in two, the occasional rubbery armadillo on its back, four legs pointed skyward like a cartoon.

This turtle, however, is just fine, but scared out of his mind, frozen at the center of the road. He is unaware of history; he does not know what Virginia is, who Jefferson Davis was, why those truckers are there, or how he’s going to get out of any of this alive. To be fair, that could be said of most living things in America these days.

Natural instincts are not the same as wisdom.

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown - gun sale sign

Two guys in plaid shirts and trucker hats stand around trying to assess the situation, deciding what to do with the delicate reptile dazed and aimless in the middle of their road. He’s a six inch snapping turtle, his shell a tartan of forest green and sandy yellow; he is menacing only to the tiniest of squirming, flitting things, harmless and unharmed but doomed without outside intervention. Finally, one guy sneaks warily behind the turtle — an animal, of course, known for its speed and lightning fast reflexes — grabs and carries him off into the chigger-rich grass ten feet away. The turtle, finding gusto he surely never thought possible, darts into the woods, probably trying to find some other turtle, any other turtle, to whom he can tell his story, which will all be lies: he’ll forget, of course, to mention how he got there. He’ll forget, of course, to mention how he froze, scared and angry, not knowing what to do. He’ll forget to mention all the people who stopped and tried to help him.

Like everyone else in the American South during this pandemic, instead, he’ll surely tell everyone he can about how he bounded into the road, bravely, making his way against all the dangers — unstoppable, and ready to live a life worth dying for.

At the beginning of May, I received a small grant to make a photo essay about life in the South as it endures and emerges from the coronavirus quarantines and lockdowns; to call the fund small is perhaps an overstatement. In the week after receiving it, I began to laughingly call it the Pocket Change Grant, and wondered in stage voice if the bank could deposit a check not drawn in dollars and cents, but in atoms. I told the foundation I intended to use the money to set out and photograph the part of America that had decided, once again, to secede from the union: this time not for slavery, but plain bravado. The project would take, I figured, no less than a month, but the money would make it largely through the end of the week. Perhaps I, too, was seceding for that same reason.

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown - diner scene

I live in New York City, a small, plague-infested island off the coast of America. My hometown was, when I departed, consciously and almost ostentatiously locked down: a place where one could slalom down empty avenues, cross the length of Manhattan in fifteen minutes, park anywhere, up to and including on the mayor’s head, without fear of penalty. 

The South, meanwhile, was famously opening up, as many southern governors had opted to lift lockdowns early, citing lower infection statistics in their more rural quarters. They hoped, by lifting the restrictions, that they might quickly and effectively exhume their states from the graveyard of American commerce. Sure, some might die, but more, still, might live in the way the nation demands: working, spending, paying taxes. Old Dixie, a land that has for so long embraced her ghosts, is always willing to welcome just a few more.

We now know that this didn’t work; new cases are skyrocketing in all the states reopened by fiat. The law has long arms, but disease has far longer.

Reopening is an easy product to sell. The coin of the realm in America is, in fact, coin; always has been, always will be. Society tramps forward, incessantly, in a nation that gives no harbor to our gossamer fears; the “Reopen” rallies that dotted state capitols gave it a voice, and a name: the desire to get back to work, to get back to normal, whatever the cost. All across the South, millions waited, and waited, and waited still, hoping for unemployment checks that hadn’t and might not ever arrive. Gas stations and convenience stores were the only businesses open as one infection case after another trickled in, and every once in a while maybe a fishing supply store trying to sell live bait to dead people.

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown - drive-in movie theatre

Empty rolling back roads and blue highways were littered with flyblown motels letting all and sundry know that they’ve got a room, should you want one. There is no no vacancy in quarantined America. 

In November of 1833, the Earth, while doing its normal planetary business, rolled into the Tempel-Tuttle comet. The comet meant nothing by it, nor did the planet, but still they collided. It happens. Over the course of nine hours, more than 240,000 meteors came down as shooting stars, burning brilliant through the night sky over North America.

Seeing the stars rain down on them, everybody went out of their minds. In the American west, the Lakotas restarted their calendar, and the Cheyenne rushed to sign a bad peace treaty; the Mormon community, still fledgling, sat on a Missouri riverbank, sure that it signaled the imminent return of Jesus Christ, who they expected might turn up, ready to cart them off to Heaven the next morning. 

He did not.

This year, too, the sky is falling; Australia was consumed in wildfires, the buffoonish president of the United States was impeached, a plague swept across the planet, and racial tensions in America boiled over into protests and then, on a few occasions, into riots. Many of us are resetting our calendars. Many of us are making peace. Many of us are going to be terribly disappointed, come the dawn.

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown - porch scene

At a motel in locked-down Homestead, Florida, meanwhile, the constellations have lost their balance, but I’m just trying to check in. All campsites are closed, and many hotels refuse New Yorkers, even those with essential worker documents, like the one issued me by the federal government. I’m watching the window; I make one photograph a day on film, and only one, and it’s a stressful enterprise; at 7 p.m. the sun is threatening to set on me, and I’ve still not made today’s photograph.  The clerk, who is behind two layers of plastic sheeting with only a tiny hole cut out for a credit card reader, is fumbling with the computer as he tries to suss out how to enter my unusual surname. In front of me there is a pamphlet for a roadside zoo where I can visit alligators.

“Okay, got it,” he tells me in a handsome accent that sounds far more Mumbai than Everglades. “If you could please dip your credit card in the bucket of bleach, there, and then insert it.”  I pause to ask him again — the lobby, with air conditioning off, is swelteringly hot, and perhaps in my sweaty confusion I’ve misheard him.

He confirms it. “And then you can please sign this agreement form. You can pull one of the pens from the bleach bucket to the left.” I pull out a pen that’s absolutely soaked, but the ink in it is wasted. I scratch my name into the paper, like a caveman scraping his name into a damp stone wall, and watch the clerk pull my swipe-card out of a third bucket of bleach. I’m back and forth to the lobby four times before he manages to pull a key that can still work after sitting in a chemical swamp for hours.

The room, when I arrive, smells like my credit card, the pen, the key, and the empty pool next to the parking lot. 

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown

Outside the window is a giant billboard of the sort ubiquitous throughout the American South: a lawyer promising to get you big money for the exaggerated car accident you’ve surely recently been in. They’re everywhere, always with a picture of a slick lawyer holding a prop, or with a fancy nickname. This one has a great sobriquet: the Hammer. Have you been in an accident?, the ad asks. You better call the Hammer. In the photograph, he’s holding the biggest mallet you’ve ever seen. Thor would tremble.

Across from it is another, featuring a female attorney whose advertised prowess revolves around not large mythological weaponry but an odd sex appeal — a few more buttons open than one would expect in a courtroom, perhaps, and a glare that looks oddly, and clearly intentionally, both erogenous and intimidating, like when she’s not suing on behalf of her clients’ phony broken necks, she’s running an S&M parlor, where her main tool is a mop. Good for during, good for after.

Staring at the signs, I can’t help but wonder why in the heck everyone in the South is so eager to get back to work; if I lived here, as in my current bleach-stained existence I temporarily do, I would just spend my whole day driving backwards into people accidentally on purpose. I’d call The Hammer and, bada bing, bada boom, there’d be no need to worry about going back to my job at the alligator zoo.

Then I remember: it’s awful hard to get into malarkey fender-benders when there are no cars on the road to crash into you.

A wooden placard underneath it, for a small restaurant, advertises its main amenity the way shady guys in Amsterdam walk up to you letting you know they’ve got coke: you can dine indoors, it says in handwritten text. It’s the ultimate refound novelty in 2020s America, and oddly the ultimate taboo:  Psssst, it says. You can eat at our table. Like people.

South Carolina is the nation’s marquee reopening state; in the state’s charming western hub, Greenville, restaurants have opened fully, the streets are mobbed with the unmasked, fleeceable masses, and parks, malls, and swimming holes have opened everywhere. In small town cafés, locals, elbow to elbow and glad to be freed again, tuck in to over-sized breakfasts, slurping down coffee and conversation, huffing huge cinnamon rolls, glazed and amazed.

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown - inflatable dolls

In Taylors, South Carolina, the Open Hearth ⁠— a shopping center restaurant that feels like a diner made out of mahogany — has reopened just a few days earlier. The owner, a woman with a caramel southern accent and an antebellum manner, has taken an odd but marketing-friendly tack to get customers back in: rather than cordoning off every other table, as most social distancing state guidelines suggest, she’s filled the booths with inflatable sex dolls purchased off the internet, which she’s dressed from the closet of the sort of southern lady her mother would surely have approved of. The place is packed every night as customers sit in a room full of inflatable but oddly ungenitaled people. She’s taken pains to make sure the dolls she purchased aren’t anatomically correct and purchased them at outrageous expense, surely a welcome relief to the struggling vagina-less blow up doll industry. None of the staff wear masks ⁠— I wouldn’t ask my customers to wear a mask, so we certainly won’t, she tells me⁠ — and she greets me with what has become the ultimate plague-time shibboleth of southern rebellion: a handshake.

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown

In a corner booth, Elaine Gosnell folds one napkin after another, and then bows her head, claps her hands together, and begins to pray, somewhat baroquely, for quite a while. When she finishes, I ask her name and what she does at the restaurant. “I’m a server,” she tells me, “and I’m also the oldest person here.”

Four weeks later, South Carolina now leads the nation in new infections.

A few hours north of the alligator farm, two women helm a booth on the side of the gulf coast, near the town of Homosassa Springs, selling the merchandise of a man who is himself much like an alligator: all mouth, no ears.

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown

Vanessa and Ashton are from Chicago and Rochester and bear the deep, forced tans earned by northern people who don’t bask in the sun so much as toil in it. They are carnival workers, the sort who tour from town to town separating pliant rubes from their cash, but traveling carnivals have been canceled for crisis. Seeing opportunity, and seizing it, they’ve pitched up their tented pop-up shop in a brownfield gas station with a small huddle of addicts clumped together in the leafier far corner. They sell Trump flags, Trump shirts, Trump shorts, Trump blankets, Trump bumper stickers, and Trump face masks to prevent against the coronavirus he frequently decries, in legerdemain, as an opposition hoax. One senses their line of work hasn’t changed much, and business is booming in an area whose most widely consumed products seem to be patriotism and methamphetamine. 

I ask to make some pictures of them — in candor, I’m impressed by their attenuated, but vibrant, capitalism — and they agree. We chat for a bit as I photograph them. It’s all very pleasant. After I make my way to my car, Vanessa rushes over, with great urgency, and I roll down my window. She asks me my name and, startled, I wordlessly show her my press ID. 

She stares at it a second and then extends, with tremendous purpose, her hand for me to shake, knowing that it’s a test that needs to be passed. After a pregnant pause, I grasp it and am suddenly thrown back to Mr. McGrath, in the 8th grade, giving us the important chat where we’re informed that every time we might intertwine our bodies with another’s, we’re intertwined with everyone they’ve known before, and all them that they’ve known before, in an infinite pyramid stretching back to the beginning of time. 

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown - empty restaurant

Ten minutes after she releases my grip with the satisfaction of having found a fellow traveler, I wash my hands in a gas station, staring at my covered face in a dirty mirror.

After a five-day, rambling journey from the Florida panhandle, I arrive in New Orleans, which has through all of this maintained its usual tone, though not its usual volume: scattered music still plays on the streets, though the tuba players wear face shields, and the tourists have no knack for crowding. Priests hold mass in church parking lots; voodoo priestesses perform rituals over Zoom; in the city’s true temples, jazz has gone silent, but bored bartenders man banks of cocktail extruders for absent customers, and the old famous food palaces are scurried over by waiters and waitresses kicked off the dole to check and bus the handful of tables allowed by the city to remain occupied. Drunken men play football in the empty streets, catching blind long bombs from unseen quarterbacks who’ve lobbed the pigskin over vacant trolleys making pointless journeys.

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown - deserted bar

It’s hard to wonder if the national wound will ever knit.

The afternoon of my arrival, the first protests break out, a palimpsest of the protests before them and the ones before those and those still before, all the same but somehow different. Time moves in only one direction, even in New Orleans, and a growing mass of people, half unmasked, waving signs, shouting mantras, sits astride and amid the traffic of the city’s well-spectered Tremé neighborhood.

The atmosphere is indescribable, warmly jovial and virulently angry —  dance party meets cookout meets prison revolt — and what starts as only a handful of people grows, over hours, into a pulsing heart with blood and heat. 

B.A. Van Sise photo taken on road trip during lockdown - Black Lives Matter

From every window of the adjoining houses, shadowed faces wait behind drawn curtains, barely visible, watching the crowd shout for justice, shout for peace. The crowd yells to passing motorists, who honk in agreeing defiance or scoot past fearfully, all unnoticing of the gallery of spectators perched above them, turtled for safety, stopped, worried, in the road. 

All photographs from The Infinite Present by B.A. Van Sise.

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