Isolation Drills: Ryan Williams (York Street Hustle, Ridiculous Fantastic)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Williams: Boy.

A few days ago, I remarked that we were, at the time, 22 minutes away from September. I was asked about writing this in June, and at that time I remember welcoming the opportunity to write something. I thought it would be easy to do back then, both because it’s something I’ve been doing in many ways for most of my life, and because doing so would be a welcome distraction from what felt like chaos.

But every time I tried to write, it would get dark. It would get personal—way more personal than I anticipated or intended. I looked often at the writings of the other musicians who have participated in this project, and I struggled to imagine how in the world I could finish this with an optimistic eye toward the future the way some of them have. Way back then, that’s what I wanted to do. It’s certainly something I’m capable of, even in the face of a lot of terrible things.

I remember February.

I kind of ​remember February.

The York Street Hustle released an EP called Cruelty, the title track being a song of mine. We released the EP on the day of our Valentine’s show at 118 North in Wayne, Pa., which was a sold-out event. We didn’t know it would be our last show of 2020. We were slated to perform at WHYY in March, and we’d booked a few summer public gigs at the likes of Boot & Saddle as well as some private events. The moment—that show, the release—should have been a highlight, but it was a blur for me, really. There were some things in the lead-up to that evening that had taken me down a few notches, and I had just come back from a much-needed vacation in Joshua Tree that seemed to end before I was ready to return. And I had taken that trip with an awareness that there was a coronavirus that had been discovered overseas. It was impossible to not be conscious of this even then, as I had to travel through two international airports. There was a nagging about that in the lead-up to my trip.

And even ​on​ the trip, there was an undercurrent of feeling that, somehow, the tide was about to turn. I didn’t know how, or what was going to happen, but I knew something would come. I thought it was just a personal feeling. And it would be several months before I stumbled upon the memory of even that in the fog of everything that’s come.

In early March, the band was on Slack discussing our rehearsals for the upcoming gig. There were shows to see, friends to see, open mics to attend, bars to saddle up to. But now the talk was loud and clear. Things were, slowly, starting to be canceled, but once that started, it became an avalanche. Our gig was gone. Our initial thought about how to conduct our next rehearsal fizzled into a bleak realization that it wouldn’t even be safe to do that. I had a ticket to see Lauryn Hill that I was hanging all my hopes on before long—if I have to lose everything else—only for that to inevitably get shut down. Months later, in July, we all joined a Zoom meeting and weighed the pros and cons of our only remaining public gig (which would’ve been in a county in Pennsylvania that had a very low number of cases) before ultimately deciding to pull out of it and declare a wrap for 2020.

I have a day job that is essential, and involves me traveling to multiple locations open to the public in a single day, spread across the tri-state area. My co-workers and I had to take the guidelines about masks and gloves and sanitizer very seriously in the face of a public that wouldn’t catch up to us for weeks; a public I didn’t want to be in the midst of. I had been depressed when I got back from California; the newness and uncertainty of the pandemic insured it wouldn’t let up.

My grandmother passed away at the beginning of April, she being one of countless residents in a nursing home that was ravaged by COVID, and the nursing home gave my family the run-around for weeks before admitting the truth hours before she died. A month later, there was a small viewing and burial that several of her children couldn’t attend. (The director of the funeral home that handled the services would go on to be taken by COVID as well.)

George Floyd. A video I didn’t want to watch began to autoplay one day, and I found myself unable to look away. Eight minutes and 46 seconds of a horrible murder played out in front of me, and in front of a nation, a world. The unrest became palpable as the world began to revolt, for what felt like the first time, against this latest in a series of injustices against people of color that have gone either ignored or unjustly handled. It felt different. There were more non-POC who were outraged and activated. I saw my white friends taking their white friends, family and associates to task for not doing the work to understand what was happening.

It brought up for me, as it has for every person of color, my own experiences with such injustice. I wrote some things about the many circumstances and repercussions of this injustice but quickly felt overwhelmed by the responses. Life began to feel like having 24 hours to navigate 100 tasks, including—somehow—sleeping and eating.

The highs were high. My friend Pat Finnerty asked me to sing on his rooftop in West Philly for a socially distanced mini-concert that was replicated weeks later on the rooftop of Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown. Both events were wonderful, but it was disheartening to see the lack of social distancing and mask-wearing at the latter event.

And yet, to be with people—any​ people—seeing familiar faces and hearing familiar voices. Seeing people I didn’t know, even—the magnitude of the deficit from the absence of social interactions was no greater felt than after a magic moment like that. Where for a few hours, it almost feels like everything is OK. It almost feels like the closest thing to “normal” one has felt in ages. I couldn’t blame anyone in their pursuit of it.

But then it’s over, and you remember that it isn’t OK. That it will be a while before you see those familiar faces together again. You remember when you randomly run into a friend at the supermarket 30 minutes before closing and don’t want the conversation to end, even though you have shopping to rush through. You remember when you can laugh and joke with your favorite people for a few hours on a Zoom meeting and forget you’re all in different rooms, only to log off and return to isolation. The curve that won’t stay flattened, the conspiracy theorists, the protests, the Trump administration and its downplaying and lies, the racists, the people who seem poised to choose inaction in November when this administration has played so much​ of a role in where we are at this time—and when the Supreme Court could be adversely affected for the rest of most of our lives. The friends struggling to make rent, secure unemployment payments and who wonder when or if they’ll have a job to go back to when this is over while the government bails out airlines and tries to “save” the stock market.

You crash. Hard. You wonder if the high is worth the low.

Oh, and, of course, all your shit. All your bags. All of the things have nothing at all to do with anything that’s been happening in 2020, and everything to do with you that’s come bubbling up like long-buried corpses into all your “free” time, replacing what you’d hoped to accomplish. Hard resets. Throwing everything that can protect you against the doors of yourself, even the things that aren’t so great for that. Shutting down. Trying not to shut down. Trying to be productive in the face of shutting down, even as you’re having the hardest time deciding how close or far away you can stand to have the goal posts.

It’s gotten easier, I’ll admit. There’s something to be said for sitting with yourself, laid bare in the midst of so much chaos. I’ve started writing some new music. York Street Hustle is working on a few quarantine videos that will hopefully come out in the next couple of months. I was able to get some recording done, and I intend to finish a solo record before the year is out. I feel good about these things. I can feel the clouds parting, finally. (Though I’m bracing for their return after having them so long.)

But I do miss people. I miss everyone.​ I miss my friends. I miss the background chatter while sitting in the corner of a bar with a notebook, writing. I miss that guy who gives the most insincere smile when he accidentally makes eye contact. I miss the rude, drunk couple at a concert that keeps edging further and further into my space. I miss dancing—and seeing people dancing from the stage. I miss the bartender that says, “I got this one,” out of the blue. I don’t think I realized how much I ​needed​ these little things.

I don’t know if I would have been able to say that—or even to know that—if these last six months had gone differently. Perhaps that’s kind of a dark thing to say, but this has been rough. And I know I’m not the only one for whom that’s been the case. There’s a lot of illusion in the public.

There’s a lot of smiling faces that talk about “these trying/unprecedented/uncertain times” as though these times are only trash for ​some​ of us, and that can make it look like—or feel like—you’re the only one who’s having a rough go of it.

I don’t think I can look wistfully at the horizon in hopes of better days without acknowledging the stress of these last few months, and how important it is to take care of your mental health at a time like this. I know somebody needs to hear that it isn’t just them, and that’s all I’m really trying to say, I think. Things will get better. But it would feel incorrect to say that without acknowledging that it has been hard to see that all of the time. But one day at a time, we’ll find ourselves light years away from all of this, in a place where we can take off our masks and laugh, and hug, and dance, and listen to music together again. I’m looking forward to that.