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A Pandemic Mystery – This Strange Black Car, in the Neighbourhood

Ottawa, May 2020
Ottawa, May 2020 (sorry, Mark doesn’t have a black Hot Wheels car)

A black car has been circling the neighbourhood for almost a month now.

It’s such an average, unremarkable model—no vanity plate, bumper stickers or team flags—that I can’t even describe it. I have zero interest in cars and it probably wouldn’t have caught my eyes if it wasn’t for the retirement residence.

The two L-shaped low-rise buildings standing in the middle of the neighbourhood offer senior citizens functional apartments with all the expected modern amenities, on-site healthcare services and zero snow removal responsibilities. In Canada, it’s common enough for older folks to downsize and join a 70+ community for peace of mind, fast access to medical care and social opportunities. I’m sure it’s not an easy decision to make but it’s a safer option for plenty.

Well, until the pandemic, anyway. Regardless of terminology, “senior suites,” “retirement community” or “care homes” have been making headlines lately as many COVID-19 deaths stem from outbreaks in this type of facility.

Early April, I heard unusual traffic activity in the middle of the night. At first it was the noise of a heavy truck, then I saw the flashing lights of several emergency vehicles.

The retirement place was listed in the City of Ottawa outbreak status report the next day.

I kept a distracted eye on the two towers in the days following the outbreak, probably subconsciously because my papi was in hospital losing the battle against COVID-19. Were residents in quarantine on site or were the buildings empty? I tried to remember the layout—I’m familiar with it, this is usually where we vote—and I looked for signs of life.

And this is how the black car caught my eye. A few nights in a row, I saw it slowing down right after the stop sign, parallel park next to the curb and idle there for a while.

Maybe the driver is picking up a spouse working shifts at the retirement place, I thought.

But no one ever got in the black car.

And come to think of it, the car was close to the retirement place, but also strategically parked at the entrance of both parks—the large main one with a soccer field, duck pond, splash pad and playground equipment and a smaller one with a playground set for toddlers and a couple of swings.


For a day or two, I wondered if it could be a food delivery driver working this route and just parking for a minute to check the address because the neighbourhood is a maze. There was an interesting delivery surge about three weeks into the lockdown. Based on what I’ve seen, week one was “let’s try to cook the panic-buy essentials,” then week two was admitting failure and Googling whether food delivery is safe during the pandemic.

But no one ever gets out of the car. It just slows down, parallel parks in weird spots and then drives off.

That left me with one last explanation—an unmarked police car.

I mentioned it to my mom, who started laughing.

Mamie has been claiming some car parked downstairs is a police car for a couple of weeks,” my mom explained. “I thought she was crazy. And now that I’ve been paying attention, I think she’s right. And I noticed two police cars in front of my building as well. One of them hasn’t been moved in weeks, the other one is circling the neighbourhood.”

“Tinted windows?”

“Yes! Extra antennas, stuff mounted on the windshield…?”

“That, and they just feel like… police cars.”

I’m not the only one who noticed the black car. The other day, I bumped into the mother of one of Mark’s friends. We started chatting and sure enough, the car drove past us. “Should we run and go hide in the park to escape the police?” she joked.

I’m not sure what the unmarked car is watching out for. Certainly not weed smoking—it’s legal in Canada and the cannabis industry is doing okay with delivery and curbside pickup. Hell, translated my fair share of “this is what the Government of Canada recommends when it comes to cannabis” messaging.

I don’t think the police should be that concerned about crime here. This is a quiet residential neighbourhood and houses aren’t left empty—no one has fled the city (yet), you can tell by the number of cars parked in the driveway.

I think the police car is making sure everybody complies with social distancing measures.

It just feels… weird.

Weird because we’re being watched like animals in a zoo.

There’s nothing crazy going on in the neighbourhood that could warrant police surveillance—no house party (most of us don’t have backyards large enough to entertain anyway), no major gatherings, rules seem to be more or less observed depending on your definition of “two metres.”

You may think I’m overreacting. “It’s just a goddamn police car, you shouldn’t be uncomfortable if you’re not doing anything illegal!”

Sure, but I’d also like to point out that just a few months ago, we would have laughed if told that meeting people, gathering in groups of four or five, sitting on the grass in a public park or even stepping out of the house could be illegal. That freedom of movement would be indefinitely on pause.

I understand the point of physical distancing but the “new normal” scares me a bit more every day.

There may be a new normal taking shape for valid public health reasons. Let’s sure make sure it doesn’t include “police state” in the fine print and that freedom and rights aren’t getting killed by COVID-19.

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