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I Broke My Pandemic Quarantine At The Kentucky Derby

Spectators begin to disperse following the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 01, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Sam Mallon/Getty Images)
Spectators begin to disperse following the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 01, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Sam Mallon/Getty Images)

It was just a sidewalk. But after more than a year of cocooned isolation, it might as well have been the DMZ. Opening the car door, my foot came to rest on the curb. All I needed to do was cross over, back to my old life, before COVID-19 changed everything.

Our Uber driver had dutifully dropped us at Logan Airport’s Terminal B, under the colorful signage of Southwest Airlines. Pre-pandemic, this would have been a moment of joy and excitement. I love airports. I love scanning the monitors, searching for my flight. I love treating myself to a copy of the New York Times and a chocolate bar as I make my way to the gate. The airport is a liminal and magical space for me, where the whole world is just a boarding pass away.

The author and Hot Rod Charlie, the horse that took her to Churchill Downs. (Courtesy)
The author and Hot Rod Charlie, the horse that took her to Churchill Downs. (Courtesy)

When the pandemic began last year, I was about to start a new job. I was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles the morning of March 10, 2020, but news of the virus made me uneasy and so I canceled my flight. The very next day, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Fifteen months later, I still fret over air ventilation, the possibility of sitting beside a non-compliant passenger, and a new-found hesitancy to use the plane’s restroom. But I was back — just a few feet away from the terminal doors.

My scheduled destination this time? The Kentucky Derby.

I had been hired to write an article about a horse named Hot Rod Charlie, this year’s Cinderella story, co-owned by five 2015 graduates of Brown University. I’m not a sports writer. I had never even been to a horse race before, much less covered one. But a friend, a former writer with USA Today, had turned me on to the story. He felt like it would make a good feature and urged me try to sell the story to local media outlets. His confidence in me, combined with the chance to experience the hallowed oval of Churchill Downs, was too seductive to resist. This chrysalis was about to take flight.

The day of the Derby I made my way from the hotel to a collection of yellow school buses hired to transport the masses to the antebellum fairgrounds of Churchill Downs. I skirted the growing crowd. My head spun round and round, as if on a swivel, looking for pockets of open space. I wasn’t afraid — isolation had become my modus operandi. After months of social distancing, my tendency to avoid other people felt hardwired.

After the buses dropped us off, my first stop was the infield, the spectator section with a reputation for unruly behavior. Think “Gladiator” meets “Animal House.” Blanketed with 20-somethings in Vineyard Vines ties and hemlines well above the knee, this was party central. Liquor flowed freely as the hive buzzed back and forth between the wager windows and the alcohol stands.

A women wears a hat and a horse racing face mask before the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
A women wears a hat and a horse racing face mask before the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The clubhouse and grandstands were my next stop. Churchill Downs is a magnificent southern lady and I wanted to be swept up by her beauty and grandeur. But truthfully, I remained skittish. The landscape of pastels and seersucker did little to hide the fact that the majority of attendees seemed unconcerned with the pandemic. In the stands, onlookers sat cheek to jowl. The line to place bets stood 20 deep. The only masks I saw hung lazily from people’s necks.

Disoriented by the sensory overload, I felt like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, opening my eyes to a technicolor landscape post tornado.

By Derby Day, it had been 416 days since the World Health Organization alerted the world of COVID-19. During that time, I lived in a parallel universe, nibbling at the edges of communities to which I belonged, but never crossing over. And yet, I was strangely content. The isolation, onerous for so many, had brought me peace. Like a flower that blooms in the desert, I discovered hidden reserves in the parched earth that surrounded me. Free from the rigors of my regular life, I had finally exhaled.

In the end, it was Hot Rod Charlie who provided me this same relief.

As the pack of thoroughbreds made their way down the backstretch, he inched his way forward. Coming around the final corner it was a sprint to the finish. With the crowd on its feet, the lead horses thundered by, Hot Rod among them. Caught up in the fervor, I too hollered and jumped and pumped my arms in the air. And just for a moment, I forgot about everything else. Even the pandemic.

In retrospect, I’m not sure I could have imagined a better way to reenter the world. The Derby forced me to rip my COVID Band-Aid off with one quick yank. Sure, a bit of skin came off with it. But given my level of reluctance, I needed to be thrown into the deep end of the pool. Just as all of us developed a way to live apart, each of us needs to find our way to come back together.

Leaving the cocoon is still a tricky business. My advice? Place your bet and hope for the best.

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Related:

Anne Gardner Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Anne Gardner is an Episcopal minister and currently leads the chaplaincy program at Harvard-Westlake, a private high school in Los Angeles.

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