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Column: In the face of a COVID-19 onslaught, it’s time to get angry — but hopeful

Chaplain Kevin Deegan kneels beside Domingo Benitez in COVID unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.
Chaplain Kevin Deegan kneels to talk with Domingo Benitez in the COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center on Tuesday in Mission Hills.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

I struggled to open the door to my wife’s business the Monday after Thanksgiving , but the problem wasn’t the lock.

It was me.

I was angry.

And my rage was rising.

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She had to shut down her Santa Ana market for the busiest retail weekend of the year — Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Pozole Sunday — because of a COVID-19 scare.

It’s one thing to write about pandemic-triggered shutdowns and how they have wrecked small businesses and livelihoods.

It’s quite another to live the pain.

We shut down until everyone tested negative for the coronavirus because it was the right thing to do — but, man, did it hurt.

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So I was already annoyed as I fumbled with my keys. Then, a random guy passed by and asked if I needed help. He then must’ve seen the sign on my wife’s store that told people about our temporary closure, because he mumbled something to the effect that the latest restrictions Gov. Gavin Newsom had imposed on Southern California to try to flatten the coronavirus curve — again — were unfair.

I responded that we wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for “idiots” who refused to wear masks.

“You know,” he shot back, “masks don’t work.”

Not now, I thought. Not as my wife worried about how she would make up for all the lost sales. Not as I feared for our future.

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After a quick back-and-forth, my wife opened the door from the other side. And I walked in and didn’t look back.

Because we needed to open for the day, and spite and malice weren’t going to take out the trash or run the register while my wife whipped up breakfast quesadillas.

Despair wouldn’t prepare us for the day when the coronavirus is finally contained, and she could once again host people for company parties and wine-tasting classes. Anguish isn’t what’s needed when we could once again enjoy the simple pleasures of life — holding nephews and nieces, kissing the hands of grandparents, even just a maskless jaunt in a favorite store — that 2020 cruelly denied us for the last nine months.

It’s high time to be angry — but not without the requisite ingredient to making it constructive: hope.

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When I debuted this column back in September, I declared myself a Mexican Tom Joad, ready to be there wherever there’s a fight for our future.

Three months later, better days seem so far away as to be forever unattainable.

So much ugliness during my short stint. Sheriffs who imagine themselves heirs to the Minutemen by not enforcing coronavirus restrictions. Citizens alleging a fraudulent election. Probably another damned drought.

And the bad is just getting started.

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Southern California is going through a horrendous coronavirus spike crashing especially hard among people of color and the working class. Jobs keep disappearing while housing prices obscenely continue to rise. Mass evictions loom for renters.

We’re lonely and frightened and tired — and a lot of people are just giving up. Others are just quitting the state altogether, and have done so for a while.

The California dream that doomsayers for decades have said is endangered now seems like a perverse hallucination.

But I look forward to what’s ahead for us.

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Because I have a feeling I know what’s on the other side of our current nightmare.

When people ask me what’s the gist of my column, I say I try to capture who we were, are, and are becoming as Californians.

I maintain we can never move ahead unless we know where we came from. That approach has always kept me cleareyed about our history and present.

That’s why I know that California’s best of times weren’t at the beach with Gidget, or grooving at Coachella, or skiing the slopes of Mammoth.

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They happen during our worst of times.

That’s when fighters were forged in the depths of hatred and rancor and emerged ready to deliver a new California for themselves and the next generation.

This series of disasters we’ve lived through in 2020 has turned us all into warriors.

We’re all angry — and that can set us on a path onward or dangerously backward. There’s no use in being a berserker whose most potent weapon is spittle.

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So what are you going to do with your fury?

I think of the people I have profiled so far. A warehouse worker who used his spare time to promote small businesses in La Puente with no expectations of reward. Mexican families who survived the Juniper Hills fires of the fall. A widower in Joshua Tree whose wife couldn’t get the medical aid she needed because hospitals in Southern California were too overwhelmed by COVID-19 to accept her transfer.

Everyone I’ve profiled has tackled problems this year larger than mine, and has every right to stew in their sadness.

But they don’t.

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Hobbled or heartbroken, they trudge ahead and shared their stories with me so that they might inspire others to imagine another California.

A state where the inequities that we always accepted as part of our DNA will no longer be tolerated. Where the red staters in “Calabama” can feel kinship with the kids in Calexico.

Where hope reigns.

I’m no deluded Care Bear of wide-eyed optimism — far from it. I’m a cynic who feels the American tendency toward Ayn Rand-style selfishness has bloomed this century at the expense of collective sacrifice.

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But it’s those small acts of kindness and and selflessness that keep you on the righteous path.

To paraphrase that old slogan of the left: 2020 tried to bury us, but it didn’t know we were seeds.

Be angry, but hopeful.


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