At the very beginning of April, Steve Swanson drove from his home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, to his office in Chicago. He told himself it was just a one-time thing, a visit necessitated by his need to collect files not accessible by computer.
But it was more than that. It was a fix.
Within two weeks, he was going to his office regularly, three or four times a week.
Swanson, 53, is a lawyer. But his profession is irrelevant to this story. Our professions are often irrelevant in explaining why — despite everything we may have believed until mid-March, when many of our emotional associations with the office turned from time-to-make-the-doughnuts irritations to sepia-toned good-old-days nostalgia — some of us long to return to our physical places of work.
Swanson is single and moved a few years ago from Chicago back to the suburb where he was raised. He now lives two blocks away from his parents and close to many friends from high school and college.
But in March he saw no one, including his parents, whom he worried about infecting. It was just him and Marty, a 17-year-old cat. “It really started to feel like the walls were closing in,” Swanson said.
Swanson is a guy who shows up. If you are his good friend, which you likely are if you attended high school, college or law school with him, he will show up for your birthday. For your kid’s graduation party. For the guys’ weekend at the lake house.
He drives to see his niece and nephew in Kentucky several times a year (he likes to go to the horse races in October and April). He’s a man of rituals. As a young lawyer, he was employed by the United States Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., and he went to work as usual on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001.
But there he was amid the quarantine: home, alone, bored. “Something needed to change,” he said.
As a lawyer, Swanson had the essential worker status conferred upon those in the legal industry in March by the governor of Illinois. So he wasn’t violating any rules by going in. At the same time, he realized from the get-go that it was hardly “essential” for him to be there, especially since he still is taking meetings over Zoom and attending court hearings by computer.
But going to the office was his self-care. “What I found was there is a certain comfort in the routine of going into the office,” he said. “The routine of it made me feel like the pandemic wasn’t controlling me.”
Different cities and towns around the country have experienced their own versions and durations of the shutdown, and plenty of Americans have trickled back into their workplaces. The Chicago Loop, the business district where Swanson works, is still relatively quiet.
And yet on any given day, Swanson can be found seated (mask at the ready, hands recently washed, anti-bacterial sanitizer in pocket) at his paper-strewn desk in his office on the 15th floor of the Marquette Building, a landmark structure that rises 16 stories high.
“Steve is a supersocial guy who actually needs office interaction,” said Brad Schulman, one of his colleagues, who has followed the path trod by his law partner and is now coming in most days as well. “He was alone up in the suburbs. And so the office became his getaway.”
It wouldn’t be quite precise to say that Swanson loves being in the office. Under normal circumstances, those not defined by a contagious virus that has no vaccine, he might have said that days at his desk are more mundane than those spent in court or traveling to depositions.
But that sort of thing is not available to him right now, and currently even the commute itself brings interactions. Like with the guy at the gas station where he stops in the morning to buy coffee. Or the security guards in the lobby of the building. “One day, the security said I was the only person in the building. I was glad to see the lockdown was working,” he said. “That made me feel like, ‘OK, we’re making some progress.’”
Then Swanson got in the elevator.
His parents have worried but not terribly, knowing that their son wears a mask and washes his hands a lot. “I was comforted by the fact that he was driving” rather than taking the commuter train, said his mother, Grace Swanson, 79.
Grace Swanson, unable to host her son during the winter and spring for their regular Sunday night dinners, would drive a pot roast over to his house and leave it on the porch. But once the weather warmed and the curve in Illinois began to flatten, he started to visit his parents again.
At home, he spends time on a favorite domestic hobby, the tending of his lawn, where he has cultivated a wild array of native plants including milkweed, which monarch butterflies seek out to lay their eggs. This is another ritual, one that provides butterflies a place to do their business.
“In June, one laid eggs all over my butterfly weed. Probably had a dozen get to full size, and then one day,” he said, “they all disappeared.”
He was on his own again. Well, he and Marty were. The next day, Swanson headed to work.