Amber C. Walker describes her experience starting a new job and moving from New York City to Washington, D.C. at the beginning of the stay-at-home mandate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This story was recorded for the Madison podcast Inside Stories. Listen to the full episode and subscribe to the podcast here: https://inside-stories.simplecast.com/episodes/inside-stories-covid-19-5
Narrator Name: Amber Walker
Date of interview: 5/4/2020
I had a dream last night about my friend T. We were in an Uber on our way to our first period class at my high school. Which was strange since I’m from Chicago and we’re in her hometown of Washington, D.C., and we were very much our adult selves. Our driver was nice enough, but he had no idea where he was going, and I was in full-fledged panic mode about being late, again, to my math class. T, however, was unfazed. Who cares about math class when God gave you the voice of one of his angels?
Since the day she was born, T has been a singer. And everything she’s done in her thirty years on this planet has been in service to her gift and passion. I envy people like T, who know what they are meant to do, and do it. I, on the other hand, just emptied another closet; packing its contents into two suitcases, three boxes, and a duffel bag. I’m moving, again. My fifth city in nine years, Washington, D.C.
I arrived here in March and another friend, G, was gracious enough to put me up in her guest room of the home she just bought, while I figure out what’s next. I finished grad school in New York City in December, and found a job in D.C. When I moved to Harlem two years ago I thought that would be home for a while. At the time, I put my stake in journalism, and was excited to complete my master’s degree in New York: the media capital of the world. I thought the move would bring with it all the opportunity an enterprising young journalist would need to fully commit to their work. And it did: I was nominated for a regional Emmy award, I completed an internship with an international publication I’d admired for many years, and even had a job offer in hand that would have allowed me to stay in New York: a journalist’s dream. But the sense of doubt that is all too familiar to me started to creep in. Is journalism what I’m meant to do? Is New York the place for me? What if I got it wrong, again? Just like I did with teaching, and nonprofit work, and IT consulting in Miami, and Chicago, and Madison.
I think my fearlessness and ability to excel at what I do is both a gift and a curse. It’s allowed me to explore my interests, make friends who live all over the world, and find work that challenges and excites me. At least for a while. The downside is, after all the time, energy, and effort it takes to follow the twinge of interest, pivot my career, uproot my life, and start all over again in a new place, a few months later I find myself in bed again with the constant travel companion: doubt. Questioning if I made the right decision, and scrambling to journal, meditate, read up on, and interview folks about work. Hoping to find something I can eventually say is my passion, my gift, and my voice for the world.
This time, however, I don’t have the usual distractions I get when I relocate to a new place. There are no coffee dates, no networking happy hours, no sightseeing. We are all buttoned up, settled in, and hunkered down for the foreseeable future.
I got to D.C. two weeks before the stay at home mandate started across the country. Although it was scary, being in one of the pandemic’s hotspots, I was grateful that I got out of New York when I did, and was able to stay healthy during my time there.
The conversation about COVID-19 shifted overnight. On Wednesday, March 11, I was sitting at a bar, catching up with old friends over drinks, and asking about advice on which dress to wear to the Emmys. By Friday that bar was closed. The Emmys were cancelled. And I was praising the Lord that I got to spend lockdown with G, who had a stockpile of toilet paper at her house. A few weeks later, on April third, I had a video conference with some of my classmates back in New York. Out of the sixteen folks on the call, a quarter of them either had the virus, were recovering from it, or serving as a caregiver for a loved one who was sick. The eight or so of us who were not native New Yorkers had fled the city, and the rest were still there, trying their best to keep well. This new reality made everything even more complicated. My attention shifted from getting used to my new job to figuring out how to do it remotely and, on top of everything, I still needed to find permanent housing.
My initial plan was to stay with G for a while, check out some places in person, and sign the lease when I found a place that was the perfect blend of price, location, and perks. But, as more rental units banned in person visits, my search transitioned to a barrage of virtual tours and endless email chains with landlords. As the lockdown continued, I saw the exorbitant rental prices in D.C. start to plummet, and the housing stock balloon with furnished, short term, former AirBNB landlords, who were doing what they could to cover the losses.
When I arrived I romanticized about planting roots in D.C. But my bedmate, doubt, is once again nestling in next to me. The digital content industry already was in free-fall before this started. And, as the desire for news and information increased in the wake of the pandemic, the industry’s biggest source of income, ad revenue, is dropping sharply. I’m also the newest hire and well aware of the old adage: last one in, first one out. I’ve never rented a place sight unseen, but now I’m a couple hours away from handing over thousands of dollars to complete strangers I found on the internet, while praying that my new company is able to sustain itself during this growing recession. Fingers crossed that the keys this couple gives me opens up an apartment door that has more than just a Pier 1 couch, and a memory foam mattress that feels like sleeping on a cloud, on the other side of it. I signed a six month lease. Hopefully that’s enough time to figure it out.