The hitchhiker

On my way home, I saw a middle-aged man miss the bus. I saw him chasing after the bus, swearing when it left the aisle. It was one of those country roads where missing the bus actually means a long delay.

I grew up in a small village. Believe me, I've got experience with missing the damn bus. Missing the bus meant missing an entire double period at school if you missed the wrong one. For my husband, missing the bus meant walking home from a nearby village in snow or summer heat, as there wasn't another one until the next day.

Instinctively, I pulled over. It wasn't until he was sitting in my passenger seat that I remembered that we are in the middle of a pandemic. After a momentary pang of guilt and regret, I listened to him apologize for his bad German, then continue to tell me his story. He came here from Iran for a roof over his head and a more stable income. He had worked as a mechanic (I'm not sure what kind) in his father's business for more than twenty years, but when he came here, this experience counted for nothing and he has to work entry-level jobs. I dropped him off where he needed to go and went home.

The encounter didn't leave my thoughts. It sent me down a rabbit hole of thinking about the little-discussed side effects of the pandemic. If I hadn't forgotten about the pandemic for a moment, I would not have let the man in. I would not have heard his story. He would not have been able to show up to work on time.

There are many side effects to this pandemic that people talk about way too little from the environmental impact to children growing up without social contact and all the volunteer work that is not being done at the moment.

When we moved here, I tried to find a volunteer position in the environmental sector and didn't even get a response. Volunteering to save the ocean, the forest, nature in general, isn't considered "essential" and is paused a the moment. In many places, those active students badgering us about donating for this or that are nowhere to be found.

Everyone talked about the clear water of the Venice canals (which by the way is dirty from kicked-up bottom silt and not actually due to pollution, but that's another topic), but rarely anyone talks about the single-use plastic going up due to people buying more packaged foods, single-use masks, single-use gloves, disinfectant wipes etc. No one talks about environmental laws getting reversed. No one talks about the fact that people just care even less about the environment right now than they already due because there is a bigger crisis. I believe the pandemic is PART of climate change. Without climate change and human impact, there would likely not even be a pandemic. We did this to ourselves and we don't even understand what is happening. This is about so much more than a virus.

But it goes deeper than that. People don't pause to help each other anymore. Even if you are the kind of person to take a hitchhiker, you think twice during these times before you let someone into your car. We hesitate to pick up the dropped scarf of the elderly woman at the store, because it means physical contact.

I am all for physical distancing and the necessary lockdowns. I am all for being careful and slowing the spread of this pandemic. I am all for kicking this virus in its stupid behind.

But do we need to distance ourselves socially? Isn't enough that physical touch is rare to come by these days? Do we have to stop caring, too?

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.