On the spring equinox, our next-door neighbors offered me and my spouse Josh one of their raised beds to plant our first garden. Two days later, New Jersey’s Covid-19 shelter-in-place order went into effect. It wasn’t until May 17 that we finally began planting, joining the trend known as pandemic gardening. We weighed whether to plant seeds or sprouts. Sprouts offered assurance, having already made it aboveground, and I needed that after toxic aerosols had been ravaging the region for the past two months. I might have also needed the miracle of watching seeds germinate, but I couldn’t bear the disappointment if they did not. I wouldn’t blame the seeds. I didn’t know how to bloom under these conditions either.
It took us two weeks to muster the wherewithal to leave our rented, first floor apartment in Montclair and visit the nursery. Entering public space bred anxiety, even if the public was only four employees and three customers. The vibrant hues of life reflected back a resilience I wasn’t sure I had. I wanted to ask a gardener for tips, but the staff hustled, permanently behind on the day’s tasks. Plus, I was ready to leave before we arrived. Everything felt contaminated. Pickings were slim. It rained. We left with some carrots, onions, and peppers—enough to fill only a quarter of the 5’ x 9’ raised bed.
To prepare the soil, we first harvested lamb’s quarters, which the wind had scattered in early spring. We gathered the perky sprouts for salad, leaving a portion to continue growing since we had nothing to plant in its place. I felt around in the dirt, not for some eco-panacea, but for the reaches of my body. We cleared and tilled the rest of the bed, added compost from our neighbor’s bin, and planted the three vegetables in different spots. It felt like a silly little garden, but even the haphazard breeze carries the seeds of chance.
We started taking night walks that week, too. Evening became my preferred hour of emergence. Residential streets cast in blue- and orange-toned artificial light seemed sleepy and vacant. The duotone effect transmogrified the familiar, and dusk seemed more like a beginning. Hours became relative to a rhythm different from the 9-to-5. I likened it to how, on some days, the moon appears on the horizon at dawn and, on others, graces the sky only in the daylight.
At sunset on May 21st, Josh and I ventured down the block toward downtown, where art installations went up in vacant storefronts on Bloomfield Avenue as part of Fresh Air Montclair. I wondered if I needed to see exhibited art yet, mired as we still were under the stay-at-home order, or if it would feel contrived. We walked to one of the first displays, “Seeds to the Future,” at Pure Energy Hair Studio. As we strolled, we talked about how the town’s storefronts have been vacant long before the pandemic. Three years ago when we moved here, rent hikes threatened the town more than any virus, and for many tenants, this threat persists. Last year, 73 See Gallery, who curated the “Seeds” installation, became homeless after the landlord’s eviction without explanation. Now curator and owner Mary Z. Scotti guides the community in reimagining vacancy.
Scotti’s installation idea began as a fundraiser for Northeast Earth Coalition. She collaborated with Pure Energy Hair Studio, located in a brick building on the corner of Bloomfield and North Fullerton Avenues. Nonessential businesses like hair salons remained closed, with the inside close quarters too high a risk for passing along viral contamination. Hair and skin care products lined store shelves along the corner’s floor-to-ceiling windows. We walked toward the three southern-most windows, where various works on paper by three artists hung, one artist per window, as the sunset casted a peach tint across the avenue. The sidewalk’s blue United States Postal Service mailbox divided the beauty products from the artwork.
Suspended in the northernmost window were Yvette Lucas’s mandala print of moths and leaves, two scarves printed with steamed leaves, and a monoprint of a knotted, twisting old tree. Chlorophyll-based dyes brought to mind the photosynthetic conversion of energy. I thought of language as the conversion of experience. Natural dyes take time to release; words, too. Sentences would form in time, fashioned from my relation to this place, contorting like Lucas’s aging tree. In the middle window, Monika Smerdal’s Garden of Wings (2020) comprised scores of cherry red, lime, and robin’s egg blue origami butterflies hanging on strings—as if flying—to memorialize those lost to Covid-19. I didn’t expect the tug of their wings on my chest. I exhaled in lament, for the first time feeling grief shared.
On the left hung “Privacy Series,” Kate Dodd’s eight envelope window collages on paper. Dodd creates negative space by cutting out the shapes of barbed wire, chain-link and white picket fences, ladders, brick walls, and stained glass. Affixing blue and black envelope concealment patterns and transparent address screens behind these symbols of demarcation, Dodd foregrounds the nuances of American isolation, from mass incarceration to rugged individualism. The concept of the individual subtracts itself from the whole, as an island that disregards the surrounding ocean and plate tectonics. The word “isolation” stems from island, as does “insulation:” the former connotes being without, the latter implies protection. Society’s assigned value determines who is persecuted and who is safeguarded.
As I looked through the windowpane, then the transparent plastic envelope screens, I thought of how the postal service is considered “essential,” yet packages contain Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for recipients that the mail carriers often lack to protect themselves. Deeming labor “essential” is democracy’s guise to permit exploitation. This is the illusion of liberty, a calligraphed ideal on the Constitution’s parchment that was never intended for all. Now American democracy will hinge on November’s mail-in ballots, which many have already deemed fraudulent so as to trump the popular vote. As I looked through two glasses darkly, I realized I did need art, but not as a prerequisite for something else, as cause and effect, where I experience art therefore I am. That night it was more of a coexistence, like the mugwort growing on the sidewalk that I rubbed on my mosquito bites to soothe the itching.
Harsh UV damage is a required risk for these almost-in-person exhibitions. The thick pane of glass safely separates artwork from viewer, but afternoons are brutal for the artwork in these northeast-facing windows. Still, I felt more like a participant this way, even more than I did while looking at in-person exhibitions before the pandemic. This work lives in relation to the town of Montclair, but differs from site specificity: art lives in this time where it can, not because of where it is. The artwork becomes analogous to the brick building inside which it hangs and the sidewalk along which people stumble across its presence, unlike a museum’s floor or gallery’s fire exit. The sky’s 8:15 PM peach tint signaled the end of the sweltering afternoon and I welcomed the coming darkness, an off-limits viewing hour in the previous era. These installations are for the ungodly hours, in ungodly times.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests began in Minneapolis on May 26th in response to officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, and by the first week of June, Bloomfield Avenue became a sight of protests, too. Daily demonstrations brought me to the sight of another installation at The Crescent Shops, a block from Pure Energy Hair Studio. As Montclarion documentary photographer and videographer Armando ‘Outthere’ Diaz captured the local uprisings, his works depicting the town’s two months of isolation hung in windows around the corner in “EGALLUTS: Quarantined.” Clerestory Fine Art showed the first iteration of “Everybody’s Got A Little Light Under The Sun (EGALLUTS)” in 2019, and with the pandemic, curator and owner Kathryn McGuire Waggener wanted to showcase Diaz’s work again. Unbeknownst to Scotti, Waggener planned this installation around the same time as “Seeds” to also raise funds for a nonprofit, Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates (SOFIA). Through the glass I saw my masked neighbors in quarantine: a woman packages restaurant take-out, two children play in their driveway, a woman dances near a playground, five liquor store employees stand behind their check-out counter, and members of the Forage-in-Place group—which Josh and I joined—sit on a lawn. In Diaz’s photographs I checked the community’s pulse, and my own, as I heard protestors chanting and honking down the block. I recognized many of these neighbors, though I hadn’t seen them in months.
As a woman walked past me, she commented on the photographs, and we struck up a conversation. We discussed the storefront vacancies, and how the Tenants Organization of Montclair mobilized in 2019 to help implement the rent control ordinance that passed back in April. She introduced herself as one of its founders, Toni Martin. Despite some landlords having increased rent by as much as thirty-five percent, the Montclair Property Owners Association is gathering signatures for a referendum in November to undo the ordinance. A rent freeze, affecting forty-four percent of Montclair’s renter-occupied housing stock, remained in place until the state of emergency is lifted. On the brink of a severe housing crisis, property owners cannot pay mortgages, and an estimated 40 million Americans are at risk of eviction.
On June 6, the BLM Crack the Blue Wall March rallied at the Montclair Police Department (MPD) on the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Valley Road. Temporary plywood mounts with cameras attached hung out of the station’s third-floor windows as extra surveillance. This march joined 550 others nationwide that day in what’s reportedly the largest movement in U.S. history. It was my first time since March in a crowd. By wearing masks, we aimed to keep aerosols private in public solidarity for Black life.
As we paraded south to Crane Park, we passed a row of six more Fresh Air Montclair installations. Clerestory and 73 See Gallery teamed up with Montclair Center Business Improvement District (BID) as a town-wide initiative, expanding to a dozen installations with more in the works. The displays extended to the building’s exterior, visible from the avenue: manic cardboard monsters sneered through cracked windows; ghoulish faces haunted an entire storefront; dried grasses extended out of the glass display adorning the front door of what was once Quiznos; dancing flower murals and conjuring talking sticks embellished what was once The Office Bar & Grill. Situated in the middle of the row of shops, the By Veronica Photography Studio is the only surviving tenant on this stretch, other than the MPD. As “DEFUND THE POLICE” chants echoed, I thought of the need to reallocate the MPD’s $16 million budget, over seventeen percent of the town’s budget, to supplement affordable housing opportunities.
Throughout June, I ruminated on the notion of contaminants in light of the Fresh Air Montclair “presenters”: BDP Holdings LLC and The Bravitas Group, both real estate firms. I read about BDP Holdings LLC canceling rent through June, and how the town’s Whole Foods provides “additional support” for Fresh Air Montclair while Jeff Bezos made (is still making) a killing off of the pandemic. Everything felt contaminated. But the zeitgeist impulse to categorize something as either toxic or empowering offered no insight. Binaries still proved opaque. I wondered about the cost of implementing ideas, the shapes they take, where they take root.
This brought me back to the garden, which we finished planting after the solstice. We filled the bed with tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, long hots, arugula, and yellow string beans. My excitement was brief. For days at time I stayed inside. I didn’t think about the garden. Josh watered it. The vegetables grew. Then the resident raccoons and squirrels kept eating all the vegetable leaves and almost-ripe yields. The creatures wiped out the string beans almost in entirety. We only harvested a single yellow pod, which we offered to the ancestors for help. It was a silly little garden after all. I wrote that sentence and nothing changed. I could not plant myself in the soil to keep watch at every moment, and I cannot tend to it in this essay. So what if those rascals enjoy its bounty? The word became flesh to be eaten by something.
I gleaned my first lesson in gardening: the labor is always shared. Even when I’m not at work in the garden, something is, not least the earthworms as they aerate the soil. By digging in the dirt, I encounter the sky in its midst. Air has a body, too, and it breathes life into taproots. Three months of my contamination-as-evil haze began to evaporate in the sweltering July sun. I began to imagine fall vegetables in place of the devoured string beans, this time planting from seed.
The following Fresh Air Montclair installations are currently on view in Montclair, New Jersey: “Seeds for the Future” by Kate Dodd, Yvette Lucas, and Monika Smerdal; “EGALLUTS: Quarantined” by Armando ‘Outthere’ Diaz; “Talkin Sticks” by Oliver Lake; “Urban Illuminations” by Dan Fenelon; “Studio Nectar” by Amy Gofton; “Under Pressure” by Charlie Spademan; “Monsters Delight & Such” by HiCoup; and “It’s Over.2020” by Steve Kelly. For locations, upcoming installations, and more information visit Fresh Air Montclair.
Lune Ames is a storyteller raised in Indiana now based in New Jersey and New York City.