Matt DeBlass shares what life has looked like since the social distance measures went into place in Madison and Wisconsin. Matt describes what the Emerson East neighborhood looks and feels like right now, what life with roommates is like during a pandemic, and what being a musician is like at the moment.
Narrator Name: Matt DeBlass
Interviewer Name: Danny Atwater
Date of interview:4/21/2020
[00:00:00] - Start of interview
[00:00:57] - What have the last few weeks looked like for you
[00:02:39] - What does the city look like right now
[00:04:26] - Roommates’ work
[00:05:42] - Bartending - when bar might reopen
[00:06:15] - Library projects
[00:08:01] - Being a musician during Safer at Home
[00:09:04] - What type of music/Church services
[00:11:39] - How have things been going for family and friends
[00:13:33] - What sorts of things worry you right now
[00:16:29] - Good things that you see happening right now
[00:18:11] - Wrapping up/Thank you
[Start of recording]
Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater and I am a library assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project Stories From a Distance series. Today's date is Tuesday, April 21, 2020, and this interview is being conducted via the video conferencing software Zoom. So let's begin. Tell us your first and last name and describe your connection to Madison.
Matt DeBlass: I'm Matt DeBlass. I've lived in Madison for about five years now. Moved here from New Jersey in 2014, 2015 or so. Beginning of 2015. And I currently work as a page at Hawthorne Library as well as a church musician at First Baptist Church in Madison and local working musician around town and part-time bartender at Bos Meadery, too, because we all wear a lot of hats these days. Or did, until recently. (laughs)
Interviewer: So, Matt, what have the last few weeks looked like for you?
Matt DeBlass: They've been a little strange. A lot of time at home, obviously, because that's how it was for everybody. Obviously, the bartending job has kind of stopped. The library has us working. As a page, I'm only a part-timer, so, doing a lot of distance learning and a lot of writing and video conferencing, so there's a lot. And I kind of have been, finally, after, like almost, about a month, come into a kind of routine where I get up, I get dressed, because the whole, like, get out of your pajamas into your workday sweatpants (laughs) is very important. Then I, you know, get on the computer, do some work. Big part of my routine lately has been a daily jog. I used to be, like, kind of a casual jogger, like two, three times a week. Now it's turned into every day. That's my get-out-of-the-house time, but also after sitting in front of the computer for hours really helps me kind of recenter. And there's probably a little bit of subconscious anxiety about health-related stuff, too, where it's like, I'm going to stay as healthy as possible right now! Because, yeah, it's that kind of time. So, that, and I've also started—I live with three other people. I'm in a house with some housemates. We kind of have, we stay out of each other's way during the daytime. Then at dinnertime we eat together and watch TV and have like our little social time, which is really kind of a good balance. You know, it’s kind of tricky to manage living together with people, not being totally underfoot all the time, but also, you know, I genuinely like the people I live with, which is helpful. So we've been getting into a pretty good routine for that, too. So it's kind of, work in the day time, take a little afternoon break, and then have our family time in the evening.
Interviewer: You mentioned work and I do want to get into what that looks like a little bit more. But I'm curious. You mentioned jogging. When you are out and about, what does the city look like right now? What does your neighborhood look like; what's going on out there?
Matt DeBlass: So I live in the Emerson East neighborhood, which is near Emerson Elementary School, about a block away from East High School, and it is—East Washington is still fairly busy. The side streets are pretty quiet mostly right now. There are a lot of dog walkers. I swear, everybody on the east side of Madison has bought a dog just so they can get out and walk them. (laughs) That may or may not be true. That's probably not true but it feels that way. It's like, I don't remember seeing so many people walking their dogs all the time. So there's dog walkers and joggers. I go up to—there's a park not too far away. I'll go up there. Usually though, one or two people at a time, and we're all pretty good about giving each other space. There's definitely kind of—some runs are kind of like a PacMan thing where I'll see somebody coming so I'll change direction and this block and that block or, you know, one of us will go out in the street. But it's been, it's been much quieter. Also, living near an elementary school, it's usually very noisy at this time of year, there’s usually morning and afternoon pickups and stuff, and that's been dead silent, which is a little bit strange. So it has been much quieter, but the East Washington corridor is still pretty active and busy, so that hasn't changed too much. There's lots of little—also really nice little signs on some of the doors and some of the kids have put, like, little encouraging messages in chalk on the sidewalks. There's a great—somebody did a—just a sheet of cardboard sign on their lawn. It just said that, "This is hard and you can do it," which is a great bit of encouragement. So, the neighborhood's been pretty friendly and supportive of each other from arm’s length or several arm’s lengths away, so that's been pretty cool.
Interviewer: Your roommates. Do they have jobs that they're able to work from home? Do any of them have to head out to work and are you concerned about any potential risk of infection with them coming back?
Matt DeBlass: When this all started one of my housemates was working at the Co-op as a grocery clerk, but she left that job just because it was getting—it just wasn't a very comfortable situation. So right now, none of us have to leave home for work. My other—the housemates who own the house have a guitar repair business, actually. They do—they have their workshop in the back and they’ve kind of worked out no contact pickup and drop-off times for people. It's kind of, it's kind of a backyard business, so it's not a very—it's not really booming anyway. It's more, we all do little freelance things that way, so. They're still working, they own the house. We do some gardening and stuff, too, but right now—and I think my one housemate just found a job helping out with somebody else's garden plot doing some weeding. So she's found a no-human-contact job to do. So right now—in the beginning it was a little bit, we weren't kind of sure, I was kind of nervous with having someone coming and going into, you know, working in a grocery store, but now, we're all pretty safe at home most of the time.
Interviewer: Let's talk about some of your jobs. You mentioned being a bartender and how that's pretty much dried up right now.
Matt DeBlass: Yeah.
Interviewer: Is there any thought of when re-opening might occur or just following the government orders right now?
Matt DeBlass: Just following guidelines. The Bos—I worked at Bos Meadery down on East Wash and the owner Colleen is being very careful and would rather make sure all her staff and patrons are safe than push the issue. So right now it's just waiting to see what happens.
Interviewer: And for your library job, what sorts of projects are you working on?
Matt DeBlass: Right now there's been a ton of online training, a lot of—which has been super helpful. A lot of it's dealing with all the classes that we never had time to do while we were all working. And a lot of, you know, social justice, social issues dealing with—that librarians deal with interacting with the public, interacting with homeless and mental health issues and stuff like that. It's been really good. Also, some training on, like, managing your own stress and not freaking out, which has been cool. I've kind of done a few projects with a little bit of language translation. We had a Spanish language guidebook for libraries. I did one for French because we do get some people from French-speaking Africa and the Carribean, so I dusted off my high school French and did that. And I've been kind of trying to do compilations of useful sites for free books and stuff. And doing some blogging and writing, just because—just to take a break from the more passive soaking in, soaking in loads and loads of information and watching so many webinars, (laughs) which—they're all fantastic, but after you do two or three in one day, your eyes are just falling out of your head. So, so there's been a lot of—they've given us a lot of leeway. Our supervisors have been, kind of, very generous, like, "Anything you can do that's kind of useful, run it by us and we'll okay it," so that's—which is kind of great that they trust us so much to do that, and you know it encourages me to try to find things that at least have some utility to them as well, which is, it's kind of great working in an environment like that, really appreciated it. I am kind of looking forward to when we can get back to, you know, back to the books and to the people and everything else, but when everything's ready.
Interviewer: Perhaps, most interesting might be your job as a musician. And so I'm curious to hear what it's like to be a musician during these Safer at Home times.
Matt DeBlass: It's very strange and confusing. (laughs) Pretty much all of my live performances that have been booked for the next few months were all cancelled, including some wedding gigs which are a substantial income for me. It's not, you know, it's not my full-time job but it's a really—it really helps a lot with—as a part-time job. All of my live performances have been cancelled, my wedding gigs have been postponed until—if we know at all until the end of summer. So that's kind of a little scary financially? On the other hand, you know there's kind of this, I don't want to be irresponsible and encourage large groups of people to get together just to hear me. (Laughs) Totally not worth it. (Laughs)
Interviewer: To clarify, what type of musician are you? Is there a specific genre? Instrument?
Matt DeBlass: Primarily folk music, acoustic folk. Main instrument these days is actually the harp back there, the Celtic harp, as well as a few other things, and sing, guitar and mandolin, as well, but you know I do the weddings and a lot of coffee shop gigs and corporate things on the harp, which are really fun. I have been doing the occasional livestreams and online performances for people. Definitely been kind of leaning into the more relaxed and laid back end of my repertoire. I do a lot of Irish music, pub songs and loud, rowdy stuff, but now it's like, I'm going to play some harp music because everybody maybe can use a little bit of, you know, a little more chilled-out stuff and I think, you know, maybe it helps. but it–(Laughs) I hope so.
And one of the other things I've been doing is I work for a church as a worship musician and we've been doing our–even before the Stay at Home order the church decided to cancel in-person services because there are a lot of older church-goers in the congregation and people with vulnerabilities. And, so, the first week we didn't really know what we were doing, but we've been doing Zoom meetings. And that's been an interesting, interesting way to play music because you know, you can't, you can't play a song and have everybody sing along. You just have to play and maybe they're singing along at home, or maybe they're just moving their lips with their mic muted, but—(laughs) It's also been kind of like trying to figure out the technical end of things. Zoom's not really great for music. It's really voice-oriented, so trying to get that to work, we've had to learn to fiddle with our computer settings and rig up external mics and do all these things to try to get the best audio quality we can to do that and then we have—there's me. There's actually three musicians and the music director has to switch between us and mute one and do that. So, it's been, it's been a very interesting way to do it. On the other hand it really seems like people are very glad to see each other on Sundays and there's really a—a really great sense of community and everybody's, you know, really just happy to be there, even stuck from home, and a lot of our older churchgoers have really taken to the technology of it, too. Everybody seems to have figured it out pretty well, so, you know, there's that, you worry about that barrier. It's like, it's almost kind of a stereotype that older residents aren't going to be able to figure out how to do stuff online, and it's been surprising how adept a lot of them are and how comfortable everybody seems to be kind of moving in this digital space as well as we can. It's strange times but I think, you know, in that end of things we're adapting pretty well.
Interviewer: How have things been going for family and friends?
Matt DeBlass: Most of my family's out east in New Jersey, including my daughter, who's a—she works in a food service place in a service station, so her job was deemed essential because it's where a lot of truckers come and stuff and supply lines and all that, so she's had to go to work and—she's okay, and she says people are mostly following all the social distancing rules and her company's giving them extra money and paid sick leave, just in case and all that and–but, you know, I worry. She's 19, she's healthy, she's fine; in her mind she's invincible as, you know, we all were at that point. I worry about her, though, but it's—you know, she feels like she's being useful and she's doing stuff and bringing home money for the family and all that. So they're taking care. My mom passed away a few years ago, so she's gone, but my dad had retired to the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania and kind of become this quasi-mountain man that he’d always wanted to be. So he's pretty well out of everything. You know, I think he goes to the grocery store every couple weeks, but he's really—he was already distancing, (laughs) and happily. So most of my family's in pretty good shape. My other brother—I have several brothers—the oldest of my younger brothers is working for the city of Paterson, New Jersey. He's a mechanic for their fleet, so he fixes fire engines and ambulances, so he's been really busy including having to sleep at work because they're just busy enough with the ambulances going in and out constantly that he's maintaining a lot. But he's got plenty of protective gear. He doesn't actually interact with people so much as the equipment. So, you know, it's—they're family and you worry about them, but everybody seems to be doing okay so far.
Interviewer: What sorts of things worry you right now?
Matt DeBlass: Well, there's the inevitable health worry. There's kind of that scariness. You know, it’s just like, oh jeez, this—having known a few people who've gone through the disease and having had a friend's father just died of it recently, it's been pretty close to home, and it's, like, not something I want to deal with.
But also there's that—I don't know where things are going financially, socially. There's been definitely a lot of anxiety about paying the bills and stuff. I'm really lucky. I'm not particularly financially prosperous to begin with, but I've managed to have jobs that have kept me on, you know, with at least a partial income stream. I've got a living situation where my rent is cheap and basically while this is all going on I'm just paying utilities and groceries and not really having to worry about—I'm in a, you know, I'm not well-off but I'm in a much better position right now than a lot of people are. So I'm very, very grateful of that, but I don't know where it's going to go. I don't know what's going to happen in a couple months, whether, you know, the whole music career, such as it is, might be pretty much done for a while. I don't know. I don't know what it's going to be like. And that kind of uncertainty is really worrying. It's like, how bad is the economy going to get, how bad are things going to get for me? Is anyone I know going to get really sick? So there's a lot of that going on.
I'm, at the same time, very frustrated with some of the pushback on the closures that's been happening. There's a lot of, you know, "Reopen this and that," and I understand where the frustration and worry that comes from, but I feel like the—what they're pushing for will cause a lot more problems than it's going to solve. They're worried about paying the bills, but if there's—you know, if things get worse health-wise for a lot of the country and enough people are worried that's going to cause even bigger economic and social problems as well as just, like, all the deaths and misery of the whole thing. So that, and especially this week that's been very big in the news, so that's very frustrating. Frustrating's a nice way to put it, I guess. So there's a lot of–like, the news anxiety is definitely a thing and I've definitely had to kind of discipline myself about, like, turning off the phone and the computer at dinnertime and not going online and reading stuff before bed and just kind of maintain a little peace that way and find little things to do around the house. I started, you know, obviously I play music a lot and I've been doing, I started a Patreon thing where I can try to, you know, push myself to make more original music for people and get subscribers to that because I won't be playing live. I started drawing and doodling more, which is always, like, something that used to be a hobby years ago, but it's been kind of like my little daily meditation, a way to unplug and sit there with my sketchbook. Whatever I can do to kind of keep myself in balance. And of course the daily exercise and the daily jog, just to get out, get out of the house for a while.
Interviewer: What are some good things that you see happening right now?
Matt DeBlass: I think in a lot of communities people have, you know, like in a lot of disasters and bad situations people really start turning to their neighbors and communities, and even though there's that kind of physical distance, people—most people—seem to really get that sense of, hey, we're all in this together, you know. We're all working together for a common goal, to try to minimize damage, to try to work—so there's that sense of community in connection with other people, with strangers and just feeling like you're all on the same team. It's been pretty great. I would hope that all of this kind of makes us collectively take a look at kind of economic and healthcare systems and look at kind of the nonfunctional parts of it a little bit better, or could be done better, could be fixed up and taken care of more and make some changes. I know it takes—it might take even more than a global disaster to change some minds and (laughs) political leadership. But I think that a lot of people are just waking up a little bit to, like, hey, we've got to find better ways to handle this. And so maybe that will result in some better, better management of that.
Yeah, I don't know, I just—there is on the selfish end, there's a little bit of, like, I've been working a lot of customer service and people-facing jobs for a while, so having a little break has been kind of nice. I've been, I've been having more time to myself. And there's—when I can set aside all the anxiety and, like, oh yeah, I can sit back and read more, or I go for a run, I can sit on the porch when it's nice out and just chill out. I kind of had to be forced to by a government order, but I finally managed to chill out and relax a little bit, so—(laughs)
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we haven't brought up yet?
Matt DeBlass: I think we've covered pretty much what's going on. It's been, it's been strange times, but I've been very lucky to have community and work environment and, you know, stuff like that that's been pretty supportive. And, so, you know, I'm doing okay compared to a lot of people, and I think it's—it could've been worse on my end, so it's just a very strange time to be living through. And every now and then it's hard to wrap your head around what's going on.
Interviewer: Well, Matt, I want to thank you for your time today and thank you for sharing your story.
Matt DeBlass: Thank you, Danny, I'm, you know, I'm sure I'll see you soon. One way or the other. (laughs)
[End of recording]