‘We were shut out from the outside world.’

Blake, 22 | Baton Rouge, LA

We sat with Blake in the backyard of his single story brick home. It had rained the night before and we wiped down the white wrought iron chairs where we sat. It was early in the morning but the Louisiana sun rose as we spoke. "Y’all are from Maryland right? It's kind of like here — it gets hot in the summer.” Blake is polite and serious and is finishing his final semester at LSU. He speaks with a Southern drawl.

“You know when you're little and everyone's like, ‘I want to be a truck driver,’ ‘I want to be an astronaut.’ Mine was ‘I want to be a pilot’ and it just stuck. It just never went away. So that's where I'm at. I want something that's gonna fill a purpose.”


You're outside, you're taking 50 or 60 pound bags, and you're holding them out in front of you. It's really hot, really humid, so you just start sweating. Your shoulders can't handle it and they have everybody lined up. One person messes up and they say go run and touch that. You run and touch it. You come back. You're running. Now you're dripping in sweat and it's all collecting. Usually it just falls off your face onto the floor, but now there's nowhere for it to fall so it collects in your mask. You sweat so much and breathe in; it’s like you’re being waterboarded by your own sweat. And now you're trying to figure out how to breathe as well as listen to all the commands. It’s just an absolute disaster.

The sergeants were on us, like a hawk’s eye just fucking watching about COVID rules. Like you would go to adjust your mask to breathe and they're like, “Quit touching your fucking mask.” It was quick. Because of Covid, there were 30 people rather than 60 per squad, so it was one sergeant to 30 versus one to 60. And they’d switch off — whenever one couldn’t scream anymore, he’d run into the office and the next one would come out. It was just a constant cycle of them. Anything you do, they're screaming.

After an hour or two, you're required to go to the bathroom. With eight urinals and eight toilets for 60 people it’s like a can of sardines. And because of COVID, one group has to go in and separate and then the next group has to go in and separate. So it's a lot of waiting and then a lot of instructors screaming at people to not get close to each other and to move faster, pee faster. Like how am I going to pee faster?

I went to college for one semester at LSU and had too much fun. I didn't fail but I was headed down that route. No school work getting done, just blacking out drinking — I was like, this is going nowhere fast, so I went to a Marine Corps recruiter. I talked to him one day and on that same day my mom called me and was like, have you ever thought about enlisting in the military? And I hadn’t told her, so I was like, it's probably meant to be.

OCS (Officer Candidate School) tried their best to keep us safe. When we got there, we quarantined for two weeks in a room and then they kept us separated pretty much the whole time. Usually, whenever you're standing in formation you're right up on somebody. Your knees are touching the backs of somebody else's; Your nose is at the back of their head. You're hot, sweaty, smelly. Everybody's crammed. So a lot of the chaos is that you're right on somebody and they're making you move really fast. There’s no time to even breathe. But now with covid and with six feet between people, you wait, the next person goes, you wait — you're running in place and it takes away a lot of the stress.

We did have one guy get sick. He ran a 101 fever and everyone was freaking out. He turned really red and had this rash all over his body. They quarantined him and tested him for COVID like 12 times. They gave three people trash bags and were like, “Throw all his stuff in here. I don't care what it is, anything that he touched, throw it in here.” They gave 10 or 12 people Lysol cans and we just started spraying. It was like a Lysol bomb. There was so much of it we had to leave the room. It was frightening because his last name started with a C and mine starts with a D, so he was like, three people down from me. I was like, oh shit. If this is real, I'm definitely close enough to get something.

Blake holds up his Marine Corps training certificates. 

We were completely shut out from the outside world, so we had no idea what was going on. A lot of the talk was like, maybe it’ll be over when we get back, maybe the world will be normal. That was our saving grace getting us through, like, the world's gonna be good when we get out. We'll get home, get to go to the bars with all of our friends, do whatever we used to do. Like, this will kind of just be a blank spot in our memory. Then, probably four weeks in, we were training with our combat instructor and someone asked, “what's the outside world like right now?” And he said, “it's only gotten worse. Everything is shut down, there's thousands of people dying every day.” And we're like, shit.

When I came home, my boss at Apple told me I was going to be working from home again. I was like, sorry, I can't do that. Working for Apple from home was the most detrimental thing for my mental health that I'd ever been through. Everybody is stressed out about COVID, and now their phone’s not working or now their computer’s not working or their iPad or their watch, whatever it may be, so they take it out on you when you're living through the same exact thing trying to help them. And you tell them, you're gonna have to wait seven to ten days to get your phone repaired. “I can't wait that long,” they say. Sometimes I just wanted to be like, what else are you doing? You're not going anywhere.

I started taking calls in March and they just kept piling up. There weren't enough employees working from home, so it was call after call after call. The timer would tick down eight seconds and then you‘d get another call. Some days it would be like 20 calls. I remember one day I think I took eight calls, but each one was an hour long or more. Your mental health was just drained after every day. There was no differentiation from the start of one week into the next, they blurred.

I remember talking to this woman in New York who couldn’t change her Apple ID password. I asked if she had access to a computer, and she said she didn’t, so I asked if there was a neighbor nearby that she could ask. She was like, “You must be crazy thinking I can just go knock on someone’s door. I don't know my damn neighbors! It's the middle of a pandemic and you're asking me to go to my neighbor’s!” I was like, whoa, whoa, I didn't know it was that big of a deal.

In Louisiana I know all my neighbors, I know everybody on this street. Just the cultural differences were wild. This lady was pissed. It escalated into her saying, “I'm in New York City in the height of a pandemic and you don’t understand!” At the time, Louisiana had the highest deaths per capita. And I was like, “I get it. I promise you, I get it. We have just as many people dying, with one-third the population, people are dying here left and right.” She did not understand that I was going through the same thing she was.

The New York lady‘s call almost ended in a screaming match between the two of us. It brought me to a point where I thought, I can either continue to be miserable or I can find a way to make this a good experience. In the military, if you yell at somebody, you know, “toughen up,” they’re gonna do it. But for Apple, you have to find a stern but compassionate way to resolve a conflict. I was like, if I just kill these people with kindness, if I hear them be happy, it might make my day a little better. And as I got better at that, it did.

I just started asking them, “How are you doing? How's your family? How are y'all handling this?” Even though we didn’t know each other, we're in different parts of the country, I started trying to make some kind of personal connection. They were like, “Wow, I didn't know an Apple employee would just ask me how my family is doing and make sure we're okay.” Or if they'd have some random question, like I started talking with one lady in Canada about hurricanes. She was like, “yeah, I've never been through a hurricane,” so I told her what it’s like to live through one, and she was super excited to hear about it.

So just little things here and there is what made it a lot better. I started lighting a candle, opening the window, getting some sunlight. Candles — candles were the saving grace. A nice homey smell made me feel better. I've got two of them right now, cinnamon vanilla. One of them is almost empty, and I’ve got the next one on deck. When I'm stuck in my room all day, I'll light it up and just let the smell… the smell is really relaxing.


Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Interview Date: April 19, 2021