Fieldnotes from a Mass Vaccination Site

Image: KENS 5

They plopped the Alamodome down right smack between the highway and the train tracks, so every couple hours the soundscape shatters, the massive horn of a slow moving rail convoy blasting the air apart. I briefly lived in the neighborhood just south of here, on the access road of the highway, and I must have gotten used to the trains like they say you do, because I don’t remember ever losing sleep as they passed. 

It’s definitely annoying if you’re mid-conversation, but mostly we don’t small talk with the people rolling by inside their cars. Mostly it’s business. Asking for ID and checking their names off a list, or inspecting their paperwork to make sure every yellow highlighted section has been filled in. Most everyone is masked, but more than a few are unmasked, absentmindedly or perhaps defiantly in the wake of the governor’s repeal of the mask mandate. I’m double-masked and standing outside in wind as wild as Gulf Coast beaches, so I’m not too concerned about itbut if I could do it again I think I’d ask those unmasked to cover their faces before I checked them in.

We do have a few surprise exchanges:

Comforting a well-put-together, unmasked woman in a nice carI don’t know cars but it’s sleek and shiny, something European—who arrives in a panic, crying a little behind shaky hands as she sucks in air to calm herself. She’s late for her appointment; she mistakenly went first to the other stadium in town used for mass drive-thru testing. We murmur soothing words, but they glance off the forcefield created by the trance of her panic before the assembly line of cars crawls forward, carrying her on.

Orasking a man who expresses surprise at how orderly the process is what it was like a month ago, when he came for his own appointment. Today he’s driving a relative or friend, an older man in the passenger seat wearing a Kente cloth mask over his long grey beard. It seems orderly to me too, orderly from the top down but also autonomously self-organizing from the bottom up.

Here’s how the assembly line works, as gathered from the inside after some advance online wondering about what it would be like:

When no one responded to my inquiry, I responded to myself, a series of fieldnotes that no one liked or possibly even read. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to record something that struck me as anthropologically fascinating and historically significant. How often do you get to participate in a mass vaccination campaign? Apologies I can’t embed these as their original tweets, but here’s how it worked:
the way it's set up, you sign up for two six-hour shifts and then become eligible for a vaccine. i signed up for two morning shifts from 8:30-2:30pm.
when you get there, you put on a vest. there are different colors for different roles: green for team leaders (metro health staff). orange for city employees (they have to work 3 shifts before they become eligible for a shot, vs 2 for volunteers from the community). turquoise for medical volunteers. blue for community folks.
this latter group serves either as runners or translators. runners basically handle all the clerical work involved in moving cars through a big assembly line process, and translators translate, of course. 
when you arrive, you're placed in a team of about 10 that gets assigned to various points along the assembly line. yesterday my team was at the very start of the process, so after pairing up (5 groups of 2), our job was to approach the lines of cars as they entered the alamodome parkinglot and verify they had an appointment. basically checking name/ID against a list and moving them thru.
after about three hours they let us break for lunch which was nice. on return, we moved to another lot since traffic had slowed and basically continued to process incoming appointments all afternoon, tho this time by scanning QR codes with tablets.
there were four lanes of cars steadily coming in for appointments, two busy and two less busy. busy lanes were shaded and less busy in full sun which was probably the hardest part about it (i had a big floppy sun hat on tho which helped a lot).
busy lanes had a couple teams of three or four: one to scan foreheads with a digital thermometer, another to scan QR codes, a third with backup paper list in case people were missing their QR code, and a fourth to hand them paperwork to fill out.
on the second day, i was assigned to a team managing the very end of the assembly linegetting the filled-out paperwork back after people had gotten their shots. those collecting paperwork would give it to runners who would take it back to a tent where other volunteers disassembled and filed it, sanitized clipboards and pens so they could be reused, loaded up new clipboards with blank paperwork, and delivered them to the folks running check in.
halfway between check-in and check-out stations was a huge tent of eight drive-thru queues where people actually got the vaccine, sticking arms outside their car windows for fire department EMTs to jab. 
i think what struck me most was how well organized it was. at various jobs i've had to help plan enormous community events, including figuring out which and how many volunteer roles are needed and recruiting enough bodies for each role. and then managinng and directing all those bodies. it's tough af.
but, also, i was equally struck by the level of self-organization at work. the metro health team leaders told us at the beginning of each shift what we needed to do, but most of the work of figuring out how to coordinate things efficiently happened on the ground, spontaneously.
also struck by how much my body has craved the sort of incidental physical activity that accompanies working not-at-home, via screens. and how much i've missed talking to people i don't know, asking them questions.
i'm a huge introvert too so this was quite surprising to me, honestly. but the experience made me realize it's basically been a year since i've talked in person to strangers. a privilege in many ways, during a pandemic. but also a vital connection lost.
why write all this? i love writing field notes...and this felt like one of those experiences where the minutiae of lived experience intersects with the grandest sweep of the world historical in critical ways.
not sure if that's what raymond williams (marxist literary critic, early cultural studies person) meant by "structure of feeling." but feel like it was.

Then there’s the older woman with bleached blond hair and big clip on earrings, giddy as someone just freed from a cage, asking what I do that I’m able to volunteer during the day. I’m a freelance writer, I’ve learned to say. To other folks who ask I might say I’m self-employed. Both are kind of true. 

This woman takes it further, wanting to know what it is I write. 

“I’m a novelist?” I say with some hesitation. Am I? I guess I must be, since a novel’s what came out. “And I do some stuff that’s more…journalistic, I guess? Mostly about, uh…environmental stuff.” 

Is that what I do? I’m not a journalist, not really, not by training, but that’s the closest way I can think of to talk about this moment of transition, trying to launch a career as a creative writer and at the same time start up an online environmental justice news/theory publication. How to translate the weird inbetweenness of what I write and do, the reality that much of it is unpaid and thus not really employment, self- or otherwise, the reality that my primary occupation really, at least time-wise, is taking care of the kids, so that volunteering has required lining up six childcare shifts of two hours each, three on one day and three the other. Mama, I like can’t take it anymore, my older one texts me from home at the end of his shift on the second day, referring to babysitting the little one so that I can be here giving or taking or checking paperwork, so that I can become eligible to get the shot myself a little earlier. I don’t have any officially recognized conditions that would put me in the preexisting conditions group, but awhile back I started to feel kind of in my guts or bones that other conditions I do have would lead to bad outcomes if I were to get COVID. 

So here I am, standing double-masked in the Dome parking lot with the wind whipping the papers around on my clipboard like I’m at the beach, and here she is in the car. 

“Oh,” she says at my admission about what it is I do (sorta, maybe). She’s not quite sure what to say. But the cars ahead of her are starting to move up now, and the fire department EMT stationed with us to make sure people are medically cleared before leaving the site—as a bunch, I have to say, the firefighters are jovial and friendly and jokey, unlike the cops who seem uniformly either cranky or silent and scary, and I wonder whether police ever feel jealous of firefighters, resentful of their public image as fun sexy lifesavers instead of dour racist murderers—is waving her forward. 

She’s gotta say something, though, before she moves up. “Well,” she finally says before driving off, “Have fun!”