I’ve never experienced anything quite like 2020.
Looking back, it feels like a decade’s worth of stories were compressed into a single year.
The big story, of course, was the pandemic.
Starting in mid-March, it dominated the news like few other stories, while also impacting and influencing everything that was to come.
You can’t discuss the year’s other big events – which include the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression and a presidential election – without also talking about COVID-19.
Or, as I’ve come to think of it, the story that takes up almost all the oxygen in the room.
The pandemic gave me a renewed sense of purpose in 2020, and I wrote about it often, with a particular focus on helping people understand both the danger posed by COVID-19, and ways to mitigate risk.
But other stories still found time to breathe.
I was surprised to discover, as I looked through The Daily Gazette archives, that some of my favorite columns had very little to do with COVID. Instead, they focused on local people. Sometimes they were sad, or bittersweet, but their stories moved me, and it was a privilege to write them.
Here are five favorite columns from the past year.
In September, I stopped by the COCOA House, an after-school program in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood and learned that the small community library being installed in the front yard paid tribute to a boy killed in a car accident earlier that summer.
That boy, 11-year-old Elon Carter, would have been a seventh grader at Oneida Middle School this year. He loved to read, and was by all accounts a great kid, fun and energetic. His death was a tragedy, but perhaps a deeper look at his life can inspire us to take better care of our youth.
Until May, Schenectady was home to one of the last video stores in the U.S., Crazy Nick’s Video on Broadway.
But after a bout with COVID, 84-year-old Paul Neubauer decided it was time to close the shop he had owned since 1995, marking the end of an era. Most people now rely on streaming services to get their cinematic fix, but Neubauer had a loyal and appreciative customer base.
“Sometimes people would come in just to talk to me,” he told me. “I learned to have compassion for the people who came in. … Maybe they had problems. I’m a good listener.”
There’s a lot of wisdom in Neubauer’s remarks, and perhaps some lessons for the rest of us.
Being a calm, steady presence is a virtue, and I’ll miss driving past Crazy Nick’s and knowing that an old-fashioned video store is still out there, enriching the lives of those who wander in, whether it be in search of a movie, or a sympathetic ear.
Over the years, I occasionally heard from life-long Schenectady resident Jessie Malecki.
Outspoken, passionate and an advocate for both her neighborhood and the city she called home, Malecki spent her entire life in the same house on North Street, where she had a view of the Mohawk River.
When she died in October, it took me by surprise, even though she was 96: to some extent, Malecki seemed like the sort of person who would be around forever, speaking up on the issues of the day and calling things like she saw them. Her hope, as expressed in her obituary, was for “people to pay attention to events globally and locally, stay aware and vote.”
Malecki embodied a form of civic engagement that is all too rare.
As we turn the page on 2020 and look ahead to a new year, it’s worth remembering her final wish, and doing whatever we can to fulfill it.
Street Soldiers is a grassroots, all-volunteer program that provides foot, clothing and other essentials to low-income and homeless people, no questions asked.
For the past two years, the group has been giving away supplies every Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of Schenectady’s Zion Lutheran Church, but I visited the program for the first time in October.
It was eye-opening – a sobering window into the city’s need and poverty. But it also served as a powerful example of ordinary people coming together to help others. I’ve written a lot about local poverty and various efforts to assist those in need, but the selflessness and dedication of the Street Soldiers volunteers will stick with me.
One of the biggest stories of the pandemic has been the withdrawal of the school system as a source of full-day, in-person education. While some families have opted for remote schooling, many had no choice in the matter: In Schenectady, grades 7-12 have been fully remote since March.
Fortunately, a number of local organizations are committed to providing safe, nurturing places for the city’s teens to learn, play and be with their peers, and their efforts are nothing short of heroic.
In October, I spent some time observing a pilot program at Proctors run by community leader Damonni Farley.
There, a small group of teenage boys did homework, participated in socially-distanced activities and games and ate pizza. In any other year, all pretty normal stuff. But in 2020, it represented a rare opportunity for Schenectady teenagers to learn and socialize together.
Going forward, I hope we see more efforts to give children and teens the enrichment they’ve been missing out on due to COVID-19. The teens I spoke with know they’re losing out on key experiences: “I was just wasting my time,” one teen told me, when I asked how he spent his time after school shut down last spring. “I couldn’t go anywhere.”
It’s been an interesting year, but my hope for 2021 is that it’s a little less interesting.
Though whatever happens, rest assured – there will always be stories to share.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.