Stories of 2020: five lives caught in a year of upheaval and pain

And then Chadwick Boseman died. On a Friday night, a way-too-young Hollywood star who had inspired fans around the world suddenly was gone without warning. After everything else, it was just too much for many. “I HATE 2020” began trending on Twitter. Not for the first time and probably not for the last.

>>Peter Baker, John Branch, John Eligon, Reid J Epstein, Dan Levin and Marc SteinThe New York Times
Published : 31 August 2020, 04:18 AM
Updated : 31 August 2020, 04:24 AM

It has been a year of tragedy, of catastrophe, of upheaval, a year that has inflicted one blow after another, a year that has filled the morgues, emptied the schools, shuttered the workplaces, swelled the unemployment lines and polarised the electorate. It is a year in which one Black American after another fell victim to the police and one city after another erupted in flames.

If the worst pandemic in a century and the worst economic collapse in nearly a century and the worst social unrest in a half-century were not enough, nature threw in a few more challenges in recent days in the form of rampaging wildfires out west and a ferocious hurricane down south. At times, it has felt biblical, as if a torrent of plagues had been unleashed all at once. At least the locusts, for the moment, have not migrated here from East Africa.

But while 2020 feels cursed, it is still only two-thirds over. What could the next four months bring before the calendar turns? If nothing else, a bitter, angry, ugly, divisive presidential campaign followed by an Election Day that may not end on Election Day. It could stretch for days, weeks or even months without an undisputed outcome. So on top of another 1918 and another 1929 and another 1968, try adding another 2000, another Florida recount, but this time with, both candidates agree, nothing less than American democracy on the line.

As the fall contest gets underway after the nominating conventions, the national mood is sour. Only 13% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States, the lowest such rating in nine years and one of the lowest since Gallup began asking the question in 1979.

Here are the stories of five Americans struggling with the challenges of the day: a firefighter who once lost his own home to flames, a young immigrant who lost his parents to the coronavirus, a sports star closing down games to protest racial injustice, a political activist navigating a campaign of divisions, a neighbour trying to make sense of the latest senseless police shooting.

The California Firefighter: ‘I’m Just Tired’

Dmitri Menzel has been fighting one of California’s biggest fires for most of two weeks. He is a strike-team leader, overseeing five engines from five jurisdictions, patrolling the volatile edges of the Hennessey fire in 24-hour shifts — 24 on, 24 off.

Menzel and his crew spent the early days battling flames in unforgiving canyons, thick with drought-dried underbrush, saving more houses than they lost, wondering how much more could be done if only they had more resources — more firefighters, more air power, more bulldozers.

The past couple of shifts have been spent snuffing out hot spots and helping homeowners who have returned to find their worlds nothing but a blanket of ashes. Menzel, 51 and a married father of three, knows the feeling. He lost his home in 2017 to the Tubbs fire that roared through Santa Rosa.

“When you say, ‘I’ve lost my house, too,’ you instantly have a connection,” Menzel said. “I hope there’s some relief. They see I’m still here, I’m still working. This isn’t the end. You can get through this.”

He offers advice for sifting through the ashes. Use fine-gauge chicken wire stapled to two-by-fours. Mentally try to recreate the floor plan. Think about where you left things, where things were in relation to other things. Fire does not rearrange a home, not like a tornado or a hurricane.

Still, he and his wife, Becky, never found the wedding ring that was on the bathroom counter upstairs. Menzel wonders: Did the second floor collapse a certain way, so it did not fall straight down to the ground? They looked everywhere. The ring is probably buried under the new house now.

The latest rash of Northern California fires, hundreds of them, started mostly with a freakish lightning storm without rain two weeks ago. Almost all were in extremely remote places. Most burned themselves out. Some raged in impenetrable canyons and merged with others until much of the Bay Area was ringed by fire.

Menzel, a deputy chief for the Novato Fire Department, was dispatched to lead a strike team at what is called the LNU Lightning Complex. By Friday, fires there had burned roughly 370,000 acres, or nearly 600 square miles. The first shift lasted 48 hours. Menzel’s crew of 20 played hopscotch with fires burning through homes around Lake Berryessa. They would try to hold a line, watch the fire blow past and reset their ambitions.

“Mentally, I’m tired,” Menzel said. “The last two or three years, it’s affected me personally, emotionally. I’m just tired.”

The Coronavirus Orphan: ‘I’ve Got to Be Strong’

There are mornings when, in the haze between slumber and wakefulness, Nashwan Ismael reaches for his phone so he can tell his mother about a bad dream. Then he remembers: Both his parents are dead, victims of the coronavirus that has left the 20-year-old with adult burdens he is completely unprepared to shoulder.

With no income or close relatives near the Detroit suburb where he lives, Ismael has struggled to pay bills, find a job and care for his younger sisters, even as the three orphans mourn the loss of their parents — Christian refugees from Iraq who built them a new life in America that now lies in ruins.

“I’ve got to be strong for my sisters; that’s all that matters now,” Ismael said, sitting in his father’s car outside the family’s home so his siblings could not overhear him admit how scared and lonely he felt. “I don’t have somebody to be strong for me,” he said, struggling to hold back tears.

Like so many Americans, Ismael had no idea that 2020 would be marred by unspeakable tragedy. He and his family fled Baghdad in 2012, eventually settling in Sterling Heights, Michigan, where his father got a job at an auto parts plant and his mother became a homemaker. Safely removed from the trauma of war, they prospered, and within a few years were able to put a down payment on a house.

In March, Ismael’s parents presented him with a gift, a new red Chevrolet Camaro. A few days later, as coronavirus cases in Michigan were mounting, his father developed a fever and a cough, then tested positive for the virus. Soon his mother began having shortness of breath. Both parents were hospitalised on March 22 and intubated not long afterward. Ismael’s mother, Nada Naisan, died on April 21, followed less than three weeks later by his father, Nameer Ayram, who succumbed to complications from the virus on May 11.

In the months since their parents’ deaths, the Ismael children have been forced to grow up faster than they ever imagined. Ismael and his sister, Nadeen, 18, are working with lawyers to obtain guardianship of their 13-year-old sister and transfer ownership of the house. Ismael wanted to become a pilot. Now he just wants to find a decent job as he figures out how to pay for car insurance, his sisters’ schooling and their parents’ mortgage.

“Sometimes I get mad at them for leaving me in this situation,” he said.

If anything, he said, he blames China for its role as the source of the virus that killed his parents. But Ismael never paid much attention to politics, and between his grief and the newfound pressures of being an orphan, he has given little thought to the events dominating the news. “I’m just trying to take care of my sisters,” he said.

The Grieving Neighbour: ‘That Could Have Been My Son’

The phone call woke Amber Rodgers up from a nap, but it quickly got her attention.

“What’s going on on 28th?” a voice asked.

That would be 28th Avenue, the typically quiet residential community in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Rodgers’ grandmother has lived for more than 4 1/2 decades, where she herself used to live and where she still spends a lot of time.

Rodgers, 30, quickly got on Facebook and found a graphic livestream of a man getting shot in the back by a police officer. She looked closely. She noticed the car, then the braids, and then it hit her.

“Oh, my God, that’s Jacob,” she recalled thinking.

It was Jacob Blake, one of many neighbours she chatted with regularly. Someone she knew to be a family man. She almost dropped her phone looking at the clip. “It was sad,” she said. “I was mad, angry.”

Rodgers had long watched with horror as case after case of police violence against Black people stirred the nation. Now it was close to home. Too close.

She paced the house and panicked. As a Black woman, she worried for herself, her three children and her boyfriend, who is also Black. Now she saw unrest brewing in the town where she has spent her entire life.

Rodgers went to her grandmother’s house that night, after protesters had moved on from the neighbourhood, and she sat on the side porch of the single-story, tan brick home, diagonally across from where Blake was shot.

Her hours working at a nursing home have been cut back because of the pandemic, so she did not have to work the four days after the shooting. That left plenty of time to reflect and to watch livestreams of protests around town, and it has all been pretty overwhelming.

She has worried about Blake’s condition, about the destruction of her hometown, about being Black in America.

“That could have been my son; that could have been my cousins. We’re always right here,” Rodgers said, sitting in a lawn chair next to flowers outside her grandmother’s home.

The Political Activist: ‘It Shouldn’t Be That Way’

Navin Jarugumilli spent the week of the Republican National Convention just as he has other weeks this summer: in a procession of meetings with local candidates from the party mounting long-shot races in the most Democratic county in Wisconsin — a place where President Donald Trump won just 23% of the vote in 2016.

Twice a day, Jarugumilli meets in person with candidates for the Wisconsin state Assembly and state Senate. Wisconsin’s narrow statewide divide and status as one of the nation’s most important battleground states make it critical to win as many Republican votes as possible even in heavily Democratic areas like Madison, where Jarugumilli lives.

“We are in a sea of blue,” he said. “The fact of the matter is nobody red is going to identify themselves in Madison. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the reality.”

His evenings have been spent in virtual meetings with Wisconsin’s delegation to the convention, where he has heard optimistic takes on the election from the likes of Sen. Ron Johnson, former Rep. Sean P. Duffy and “a lady who gave a speech about automated milking.”

A self-described hypochondriac, Jarugumilli said that he is always masked but that only about a third of fellow party members he meets with cover their faces. “There are a lot of concerns about state-imposed mandates,” he said.

Jarugumilli said he had spent time over the past week visiting Madison’s State Street commercial strip, between the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin campus, where storefronts have been boarded up to protect them from protesters.

Despite polls showing the president trailing, Jarugumilli said he was “80% certain” that Trump would defeat former Vice President Joe Biden. “It’s very awkward watching Joe Biden,” he said. “I don’t know why the Democrats think otherwise. Right now, he can’t answer questions. He’s struggling to recall simple facts.”

And he is also counting on a reservoir of people who will not admit that they will support Trump.

“We know there are many Trump voters that will not identify themselves as such,” he said. “I know people who are liberal Democrats who are voting for Donald Trump. They’re looking at things like their age, their retirement. The biggest net worth of most Wisconsin public employees is in their retirement. A lot of them are thinking about that. They’ve seen the economy turn around before the pandemic and they have some degree of confidence in Trump.”

The NBA Player: ‘We’re Doing Something Good’

Michael Carter-Williams of the Orlando Magic does not normally have his phone nearby before an NBA game. It happened Wednesday only because a stubborn tendon strain in his left foot prevented him from playing a single minute of the Magic’s first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks.

So Carter-Williams was in the Magic locker room at the AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida, while most of his teammates were already warming up for Game 5 against the Bucks on the restricted access campus that players are not allowed to leave because of the coronavirus.

The Bucks, though, never took the floor for warmups, staying behind in their locker room. At 3:47 p.m., less than 15 minutes before the game’s scheduled start, Carter-Williams received a text message from Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“He told me that they were not going to go out and play — that they were going to take a stand for Jacob Blake,” Carter-Williams said.

Carter-Williams, who has been friends with Antetokounmpo since they were teammates on the Bucks, informed Steve Clifford, the Magic coach. Within minutes, Carter-Williams’ teammates were back in the locker room, trying to process a situation they never imagined. The Bucks had decided to stage a one-game protest to condemn the shooting of Blake in Kenosha, roughly 45 minutes south of Milwaukee.

Carter-Williams listened to Jeff Weltman, Orlando’s president of basketball operations, inform players that the Bucks, then leading the best-of-seven series by three games to one, were prepared to forfeit the game. Orlando’s players quickly shot that down, agreeing that they did not want to accept a playoff win that way.

“It was definitely weird, an experience we’ve never gone through before, but me personally, walking back to the bus, I was also really happy,” Carter-Williams said. “We’re doing something good. We’re going to be on the right side of history.”

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