The interlinked questions Michelle Fishburne asked her interviewees, as she traveled around the continental U.S. in her RV during 2020 and early 2021, were “What was your 2020 supposed to be like?” and “What did it end up being like, through to the present?”
For Fishburne, like for countless others across the U.S., there was a huge difference between the answers to those two questions. She is the creator of the Who We Are Now website where you can find her interviews and photo portraits. Fishburne will be talking about her experiences in a webinar titled Who we are now: Stories of American lives during the pandemic, on April 15 at 4 p.m., sponsored by the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute.
How it all began
“On January 1, 2020, I had a fabulous job as a national director of public relations and partnerships for a national foundation and nonprofit,” Fishburne said. “But then with the COVID spring, I got laid off, because of all of the events I was planning. So I found myself [...] with no job at the beginning of April of 2020. I thought, well, that's not going to be a problem.”
But after sending out 86 customized cover letters by the middle of July 2020, she didn’t have a job and she didn’t have one on the horizon. The lease on her post-divorce house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was up on July, 31, and her youngest daughter was off to college. As of August 1, she had no job, no house, and no kid.
“Because I was having such a hard time finding a job, it didn't make any sense for me to rent a place because I didn't even know where I would rent something,” she said. “I thought, well, I've got this 2006 motorhome. I had homeschooled my kids in 2006 — I spent 10 months road schooling my kids in national parks all over America. I thought well I'll just move into the motorhome.”
But there remained the larger question about what to do with herself.
“I thought, well, I am intensely curious about how everybody is doing out there,” she said. “Why don't I just get in the motorhome and start driving around and interview people about how they're doing? So that's how it started, from an intense curiosity about how everybody was doing.”
Fishburne was inspired in her quest by the book Humans of New York, a book of photographic portraits and interviews collected by Brian Stanton in New York City. She thought that she might collect interviews and photographs — individual stories — on a countrywide scale.
“Part of me also wanted to know if the country I grew up in was still there and, if it wasn't, how it had changed,” she said, well aware that she was not the first to set off on such a voyage of discovery. American author John Steinbeck had set out on a similar journey in 1960 with the same questions on his mind.
“He wrote a book called Travels with Charley about his trek across America and back during a politically charged time,” Fishburne said. “So I think he and I both set out with the same hesitancy, of not knowing what we would find.”
And 2020, like 1960, was a politically charged year.
“If one were to base what our country is like based on the news we get, whether it's through cable TV or online news or social media, our country looks pretty fractured and frayed and angry, and maybe even mean,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant that Fishburne was not able to mingle with people in bars as Steinbeck had. Despite such challenges, she set out from Chapel Hill, NC for points west in early September 2020. But it took her a while to get up to speed as far as securing interviews with people.
“I have to say the first several states I went through were really kind of a bust,” she said. “It wasn't until I got out to the very small town of Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, where I started meeting people who were connectors, people who said, ‘Oh, well you need to meet so and so and so and so.’”
Navigating through Pine Bluffs she used a tool unavailable to John Steinbeck: social media. “I would use Facebook,” she said. “I put in ‘Pine Bluffs’ and they had a kite festival.”
Fishburne had never participated in a kite festival before, but she knew she would find people to talk to there.
“I used Facebook to find stories, she said. “I was going from Gainesville, Florida up to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I was looking at small towns along the way and I saw this town Valdosta [Georgia]. I don't know anything about Valdosta. But I put it into Facebook and it came up with an article about a woman who sewed a huge mask for a statue in front of Valdosta State University Library. So I got in touch with the university. And they said, ‘Sure, come on up. You can interview her.’ And I also at the same time, through Facebook, found out that a young man named Caleb Dixon has started a mobile ax throwing company during the pandemic. So I reached out to Caleb. And he said, sure come on up, I'll give you an interview.”
Drawing on her career in public relations, Fishburne was able to successfully put her skills to the test in an entrepreneurial way. So too for a number of business owners who were forced to adjust during the pandemic. Their stories reflected hers in some respects.
“I would say 90% of the business owners I've interviewed have found an additional way during the pandemic to provide the service or product to their customers that they never would have figured out, but for the pandemic,” she said. “For example, Patrice Perrone in Ocala, Florida. He has a French restaurant. People loved his wine pairing dinner. And he thought, well, how the heck am I gonna do that? But there were people who were clamoring for it ...”
In addition to providing food at curbside, Perrone was also able to Zoom in a chef from Paris, and a winery from California. (She interviewed roughly 25% through Zoom, 75% in-person.)
“He never would have thought to do that but for the pandemic, but his customers loved it and he is going to continue it even when things return to normal,” she said.
She also interviewed people who were down on their luck including a homeless man named Crypto in Echo Park, Los Angeles, where a homeless encampment is located. While Crypto had a laptop and a cell phone — and was working on apps — he was having a hard time.
“The biggest issue with the pandemics in his mind for him personally, was the closure of the public libraries because he relied on them to read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and to recharge his laptop, and cell phones. When the public library closed, that made it extremely difficult for him to read behind the paywall content, and to charge his devices,” she said.
Challenges along the way
When you’re traveling thousands of miles in an RV, you’re bound to break down at some point. While driving through the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, Fishburne had a front tire blowout. Fortunately, because she was captivated by the sunset, she had slowed down to 40 miles per hour. “It was perfect because I was going slowly. I was in the right-hand lane. And so I just pulled over.”
Fishburne has taken four separate trips starting out and ending up in Chapel Hill, SC. She has been as far west as San Diego, CA, as far north as Lawrenceville, NJ, and as far south as Sarasota, FL. Her USA Oral Histories tour has lasted from Sept. 12 - March 31.
At the end of March, she was able to take a much-needed rest, visiting her daughter at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and visiting her parents who also live in Florida.
She will also be conducting an inventory of all of her interview material, in order to create a book. “I’m working with a university press,” she said.
“My goal is to create a mosaic of the American experience during the pandemic,” she said. “In order to have that mosaic, there's certain holes that I still have in my stories. For example, I want to interview somebody who was on a cruise ship right before lockdown. That's one of the examples, I still have targeted interviews that I want to do.”
The tone of many of the interviews that Fishburne made during her four separate loops through the U.S. surprised her.
“The spoiler alert is that when I left in September 2020 and headed out into the country, I expected to find that people were going to feel down on their luck,” she said. “I expected to find that people were going to be despondent and have a lot of despair. What I found, even with people who had every right to feel despair or despondent. I found the opposite. I found something … a word that we don't usually use anymore, which is pluck. And pluck means spirited and determined courage.”
She found courage even with those who had lost their loved ones and their businesses, and even with people fearful of their financial situations.
“I think because the whole world was going through a very difficult time, all of us together, it was somehow easier for all of us to just have spirited and determined courage,” she said.