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Six Feet Apart

Portraits of Life at a Distance

I am a hugger and a hand shaker. In my family, and growing up at church, hugging was the way we said hello, congratulations, goodbye, and I’ve always liked the bond a handshake creates as the first step in the dance of getting to know someone new. Humans need touch. We function better and are healthier when we can touch or be touched by other living things. In the time of COVID-19, it’s something we’ve been lacking. 

In a March 2020 article for Time magazine, Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California talked about the many ways that losing the simple act of touch can affect people. “Big parts of our brains are devoted to making sense of touch and our skin has billions of cells that process information about it,” he says. “The right type of friendly touch—like hugging your partner or linking arms with a dear friend—calms your stress response down.”

It’s a fundamental way that we connect with each other and it has been shown to improve a person’s immune system and sleep cycle, and helps light up the part of the brain that controls empathy. 

Even though reopening has begun, restrictions are still lifting. We are slowly assimilating a new normal, one that is six feet apart, putting us farther away from our loved ones, coworkers, even strangers on the street. 

Over the summer, I took a couple of weeks to capture some images and brief stories from folks in our community. Did they wear masks? What has happened in their lives? Are they ready for everything to reopen in an attempt to recapture the way things were?

man smiles for camera

I rolled down my window and asked the gentleman if he had a moment.  He approached until we were about six feet apart and we spoke. He said, “I was supposed to get married on Friday but with all this going on it just wasn’t possible. It has been moved to October, not that I had any say in the matter, it is really her wedding. I have got about as much say in things around our house as our dog….and we do not even have one.” 

group of boys playing basketball six feet apart

A group of young men are playing ball. I approached and asked if I could interrupt their game long enough to grab a picture. A couple of them replied confidently yes, a couple of them looked around as though there was perhaps more to this than a simple picture and one young man took off chasing the basketball across the parking lot. When I finally got them together it was clear the young man was uncomfortable but didn’t want to be left out either. 

“Do we need to be six feet apart?” One of them asked. 

“Not unless that’s what you want,” I replied. 

They stood or squatted near each other but I couldn’t help but think about former days when they would have huddled together, arms on each other’s shoulders, simply hanging out. 

pizza delivery man

The pizza delivery driver was almost back to his car by the time I got the door open to retrieve dinner. No Contact Delivery. No contact, but I asked if he was willing to help me with a project; it would only take a moment. He hurried back and stood six feet apart from me as I took his picture. Three months ago, when a delivery took place the delivery driver would stand at the door, we would exchange pleasantries and greetings as I signed the bill and added the tip. Evidently, it’s not as important to get the bill signed as we thought and one more opportunity for human contact is fading. 

senior woman in her doorway

She has not left the house since the beginning of March. Her husband does all the errands and makes sure they have everything that they need. He does not wear a mask even though he is missing half a lung and is 80. 

“I have got to die someday,” he says. 

Today he fell and broke his hip. Who will go get the groceries now? Who will get him to and from the doctor? She does not drive. 

Grocery store employee holding a lobster

He came in on his day off to let me take his picture. When he approached me, he began to extend his hand and then pulled it back. He has only worked there two months but enjoys the work and the people he works with. “The hard part is there are customers who can’t hear very well or are actually deaf,” he says. “I really do not have a choice but to pull my mask down so they can see my mouth. It is harder to provide good service this way, but it is necessary. I am not sure we will be able to take these off before the end of the year. We just have to see what happens.”  

 They are busy, particularly with pick up orders. The customers used to fill the space beyond the counter waiting for service, watching the red numbers on the electronic display creep toward the number on the ticket they held. Now they process up to 80 pick up orders a day. The quantity of goods provided has not changed dramatically, just the manner of delivery. A common tale. 

Plano police officer at the door

The officer said she always carries gloves, but on occasion, she has to simply react to a situation and the mask isn’t something at the top of her priority list. It’s a struggle to adapt. 

“I try to be incredibly careful of the situations I find myself in and for my protection as well as theirs I want to be properly shielded. I hope this will ease up soon but not certain it will.  We need a vaccine.” This officer puts her life on the line every single day. Now she wears a mask, not for her protection, but for ours. 

two men stand on a bridge

Two men lean against the railing on the bridge over the pond at Haggard Park. They appeared a bit somber and the photographer in me was also drawn to one of the men who had a great beard. 

“I lost my job when all this went down and after sitting around the house for a while, I came to see my buddy. He works around here, and I just needed some good conversation with someone,” he tells me. 

“In a crowd I’d probably wear a mask but here in a park with just the two of us there’s no need,” his friend adds. There is something different about being in person with a good friend or loved one, particularly in a time of sadness or need. There is no doubt in my mind they exchanged a handshake, if not a hug when they departed each other’s company. 

health care worker in covid19 gear
All photography by David Downs

This healthcare worker serves patients who are homebound yet need intravenous medication and so she treats many at risk—extremely at-risk—people daily. She is one of those people you meet and know instantly they are a caregiver. It’s something in her eyes. 

“I’m Baptist so I am definitely a hugger!” she says with a smile behind the mask. I have known she was a hugger since we first met about 13 years ago doing endurance rides to raise money for cancer victims. 

“My clients become great friends and the idea that I could bring something into their house and cause them harm stresses me so much, but I still have to do my job. I wear complete gear … head to toe with masks, hoods, goggles, and gloves,” she says. “I am just not going to take a chance both for them and for me. My daughter … if she got sick, or if I got sick and she was left without me, I don’t know how I could live with myself.  I have no idea when this will end or when it might be safe but, until I’m sure, I’m going to be careful.” 

Originally published in the July/August issue of Local Profile