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The Virus: Week Two

(Continued from The Virus: Week One)

On March 12, a customer at Starbucks said to the Starbucks worker: “This is starting to give me nightmares!” And then the worker looked back toward the customer and said, loudly, “AAAAH ha-ha ha ha!” On campus, the president of the college planned to hold a conference to talk about what was happening, but then it was said that the usual in-person conference was probably not the best idea, given the nature of things, so the president of the college Zoomed instead, and encouraged everyone to log in and take part; and in the Zoom you could hear all 92 viewers on the audio as the president tried to talk to everyone about the crisis. The president’s face would not display, but everyone could hear the comments being made by their colleagues in their scattered offices as plans were described. On the drive home, I saw that yellow and white negative pressure tents were suddenly visible at the farthest end of the Kaiser hospital parking lot adjacent to the freeway, bright half-cylinders far from every building. Having never seen one before, I had to look them up online to learn what they were called; but it was already clear from the moment I saw them what they were for.

The next day, the garage door wouldn’t close, so several garage-repair people stopped by. Both of them extended their hands, as people do, and for the first time in my life I had to refuse. But I also felt compelled to invent a story about someone in the family being sick, so that the refusal to shake hands was being done for the garage repairers’ sakes and not mine–a complete lie (so far). They laugh and take it in stride; they tell me about viral videos of brawls over toilet paper; they say they’re worried about people coming back from China; the first garage repair person tells me the story of their Samoan friend who said that if things get really bad, “We can just dig a hole”; but before the garage repair person could explain what exactly the hole would be for, they got distracted, and I never found out about the hole, although several ideas occurred to me. A few hours later I went to the bank because I needed to close an account because the balance was too low to waive the fees. After working for thirty years, scrimping and saving, we were finally able to buy our first home a few months ago, and so the money has been very tight already, and what little we’ve had has gone into a long list of much-needed house repairs. There is a huge bottle of 70% isopropyl alcohol on the banker’s desk, enough to disinfect a stadium; and suddenly, as if something huge has silently shifted in an instant, there is an unspoken understanding between the two of us as we approach each other that we will not shake hands at the beginning of conducting business or at the end of it, even though I have shaken hands with people in suits and offices for decades, and the traditions and habits are clearly defined, always unspoken but understood. The banker tells me that customers have been calling (but not coming into the branch) worried about the collapsing stock market. The banker wonders what will happen with everyone’s kids being sent home from school, now that the schools are starting to close. The person at the adjacent desk launches an explosive sneeze across their entire desk and keyboard, and a cleaning person walking around with a spray bottle and wipes who does not appear to be a bank employee is going around behind the teller line and methodically cleaning every surface, and then this cleaning person comes up and cleans the sneezer’s desk and mouse and keyboard, swiftly and efficiently, and then moves on to other surfaces. This is the first day that I ever hear a person shout across the room at someone, as a farewell, “Stay healthy!” At the coffee shop, which is filled with people enjoying themselves, sipping drinks or reading or chatting in huddled groups, someone on a laptop at the nearby table is also on the phone. It is 12:27 pm and this person staring at their laptop says to a second person on the phone, “It’s been almost half an hour and Trump still hasn’t come out and I’m just–” and leaves the sentence unfinished, a look of serious worry drawn across their forehead. Five minutes later they are still waiting by their screen anxiously, and then they sneeze forcefully, three times in a row; and another person seated in a nearby chair swivels abruptly and shoots them a judgmental look. It’s 12:36 and the laptop/phone person is talking into the phone once more: “The National Guard is calling you? The National Guard is calling you? Wait, I’m watching Trump talking about the coronavirus right now….” They are looking at the screen of their computer, phone jammed against shoulder and ear, the call still active, but neither the person holding the phone nor the person on the other line, wherever they are, is speaking. This worried person is staring at the front of the laptop but from this angle I can only see the back of their turquoise-sleeved MacBook. I cannot see or hear what they are seeing or hearing, because I am on the other side and because I have brought a book instead; and eventually this increasingly worried person steps away from the laptop and takes the phone and walks abruptly outside. It’s been raining all day and they say it’s supposed to rain all week and I am finishing Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson and unexpectedly find myself on the verge of tears, but then I realize how stupid and silly it is to be on the verge of tears because of something happening inside a mere book, what with everything else going on. A young person chatting with the workers there bids them farewell as this young person rushes out the door: “Peace, guys. Stay safe!” Then a worker says to someone else, “Somebody coughed on my shoulder in church and I nearly had a panic attack.” The forehead of the laptop/phone person is covered in deep worry lines; they have a broad sweeping face with far-set eyes, and they remind me of a painting I once saw, but I cannot remember its name, or even who painted it. It was a painting of a mythological woman with a heavy heart. Another worker is chatting and laughing: “I don’t go to the gym, I don’t go out, I’ve been preparing for this for ten years.” Everyone laughs. The workers talk to three young Mormon missionaries in suits; the missionaries buy lattes and the worker bids them adieu: “Have a good day, guys! Try not to spread the coronavirus!” Everyone laughs. “We’ll try not to ha ha…” one of them says by way of farewell. Another person coming in out of the rain in a hooded jacket walks up to the front door and almost opens it, and then, looking at the handle, cautiously pulls down their jacket’s sleeve and uses their jacket-covered palm to gently open the door. You can hear her tell the others in the shop that she’s a realtor. The workers ask if the market is up or down because of the virus, and she says she’s been busy all morning showing a house to many people traipsing in and out: “Not even for sale, a rental!” Then the realtor talks about the problem of whether or not to shake hands with people anymore, and of how easy it is to forget. Another one of the chatty workers tells the realtor, “On eBay a bottle of hand sanitizer is going for a hundred and twenty bucks! Highway robbery…” I am supposed to meet my friend E– soon. E– calls to inform me, in the interest of full disclosure, that his wife’s sister was running a high fever and aches but the doctor wouldn’t give her the test for the virus; and now his wife has a sore throat, so should we meet as planned or not? We spend ten minutes deliberating. We go to a local pub and it’s pretty busy during happy hour, many people out enjoying themselves, eating and drinking and talking in close quarters. E– has to leave early because there is an urgent text from home; there are groceries he needs to get, and the local stores are starting to run out. Just before we leave the pub, a triumphant person who appears to be the owner of the establishment walks proudly through the front door, holding a twelve-pack of toilet paper on his shoulder the way one might carry the carcass of a deer that one has brought down after a long day’s hunting. When everyone sees him with his prize, a collective cheer erupts in the pub. An hour later, E– texts me some pictures of the local grocery store. Almost all of the shelves are empty.

The next day, the handrails that show people where to stand in line at the coffee shop have been removed. Apparently the right word for these things is “stanchions.” They are all gone. It’s Saturday morning and the grocery store a few miles away is absolutely packed; the shelves are being emptied as quickly as they’re stocked. Someone in line mentions that someone else recently spent an hour and a half in line at the store. There is still a kind of nervous laughter that accompanies this kind of story, a general mood, lots of head-shaking and chuckles about how different things suddenly seem. I’m working on figuring out how to move discussions about Moby-Dick and common grammatical errors and a full class load online while my wife needs to go visit her father and her sister an hour away. They have not stocked up on anything, and it is being said that even visiting people of their age is very risky right now, but when it’s you loved ones, avoiding them seems worse somehow. They go to store after store, all around town, from Torrance to Carson, but can’t they find any toilet paper anywhere. A second garage repair person stops by because I’m hoping he’ll cost less than the person yesterday. A day after that awkward moment, there is now suddenly no hand shaking, it’s now and unspoken agreement at start and finish. Instead, there is no gesture of greeting between us, and this garage repair person instead offers a double thumbs-up as they depart; it was just yesterday that it felt awkward, and suddenly it seems as though some kind of phantom telegram has gone out to everyone, somehow. We have all been on our phones all the time and glued to everything online and watching a lot of TV. How odd and distressing it already is watching reruns of Downton Abbey or a commercial for potato chips or life insurance and seeing people shake hands, pass objects to each other unthinkingly, embrace each other as though they are loved ones. I notice that this is the first day where the elevation of my anxiety was palpable, like a drop of water in a bucket that is already nearly full.

Just a day later, there’s a line of people outside of Target at 7:30 am. This is my first visit to a Target before it opens for business. We are there to try to find toilet paper for my father-in-law and my sister-in-law, who have almost none. “We have no toilet paper,” the Target worker says, shouting it across the parking lot so that everyone in line can hear. “We have no toilet paper. No water.” This is repeated over and over, as more people join the line. We drive past several churches. There is an enormous sign on the lawn in front of one of the churches: “Praying for our community to stay safe and healthy. All church gatherings are postponed through March.” The sign has been professionally created and mounted; care and effort and expense have been put into it. A few miles away the sign blocking the parking lot to a second church encourages people to “worship with us online.” At Bath and Body Works, they have no hand sanitizer. “We don’t even have hand sanitizer holders,” the worker there says. A snail in the yard has spent the day munching on foliage and sunning itself. Stuck at home, I watched the snail spend all day moving in one aimless direction or another. Without even realizing it, my new habit of signing off on emails to worried students and others is to tell them: Stay home, stay safe, stay healthy. 

By the next day, it’s been clear for some time that going out for any reason now is taking a risk and endangers yourself and others. But my father-in-law, who often thinks it’s still 1982 and that he still drives and still works down at the docks, needs supplies. Even so, this is the first day when it feels particularly wrong to be out, not just unsafe but wrong, to be out, but then you weigh everyone else against the needs of the few people you really know, the few people who most immediately matter to you in a direct rather than abstract philosophical sense. Yesterday’s Target line consisted of a dozen people; this morning, there are already more than fifty people waiting outside. One person behind me didn’t initially recognize his friend in line because she was wearing a blue surgical mask that covered most of her face. They exchange stories about toilet paper and teens eating all of their stockpiled groceries. They are patient storytellers, narrating the story about the son who eats three sandwiches, stories of the lines at Costco. stories about stocking up, the kids now being at home instead of school, stories about elderly parents who haven’t supplied because they don’t know or don’t believe. The Target worker organizing the line gives instructions to people about purchase limits, efficiency, which items are already stacked up front, things no one there has ever had to listen to before. The people are happy and attentive and impressed and understanding, the overall mood is one of calmness and even bemusement at conditions most of us have ever had to face before. Someone tells a joke about having coffee but no creamer. Someone else compares all of this to Black Friday, when people line up for holiday deals on high-end electronics. Another person is laughing as they tell the story about how they’ve been having a dry cough lately, and their main worry was that others will think he’s infected. Inside you can have one water, one packet of paper towels or toilet paper, one pack of baby wipes. “You guys are brave,” one customer says to a target worker. She laughs: “We have no choice.” At the bank I run into my friend A– and we do the first elbow-bump I’ve ever done in my life. When I ask him how they’re doing, especially with their newborn child, the quickest flicker of something flits across his eyes, and then he composes himself and says everything is good, everything is fine. At the local Starbucks you can see now that the chairs are all stacked and put away and there signs out saying that it’s grab-and-go only, no more sitting down, as we all did just a day or two ago. Every place that people ordinarily go–the store, the bank, the coffee shop–is quickly getting emptied of merchandise, or actively sanitized, or closed for normal operations. A hummingbird is flitting around outside the local Taco Bell; my friend T– calls me for an interview about a piece he’s writing and we talk for 45 minutes, half of it about all of this, whatever this is. At Home Depot, where I’m still trying to find toilet paper for my father-in-law and finding it less and less possible, the older workers are telling their younger co-workers that they are being sent home for two weeks. A person behind me whispers: “Sorry, I don’t wanna get in your personal space,” and apologetically points toward an item near me. I move away; this person grabs the tool and steps back and then bows humbly to me, hands folded as if in prayer. Unable to find toilet paper anywhere, I risk going to get what might be my last haircut and get the news from my barber about all the ways this is already making life so hard for her and her family. All the local libraries and recreation centers have just closed. I sneeze twice today. I see a kid on his bike at noon on a Monday. 

By the next day, I am making eggs for us for breakfast. Eggs have been getting harder to find. It is gorgeous outside, one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever seen: after the long rains, the sky is a brilliant blue with patchy scattered clouds of white with grey undersides. There are birds and bugs everywhere and everything is suddenly blooming. The sun is bright but still there is a cool crispness in the air, the last remnants of winter struggling to hold on. I needed caffeine but decided against going outside. I wanted lunch but I decided to eat at home. I wanted to go to the store and needed to go to the post office but I went nowhere. V– tells me about the cops and ambulances at Costco five days ago, where the lines were insane, they were out of so many things, and people were trying to steal the things they needed. C– invites me to take part in a Zoom happy hour, where friends from New York and Scotland and elsewhere can see each other online and commiserate. I venture out one more time on the hunt for my father-in-law’s toilet paper, coffee, and cigarettes. There is a huge swarm of bees outside the bank and the Starbucks, both of which are mostly empty. The parking lot by my local library is usually packed, but today there are hardly any cars. The store doesn’t have any of these things, and they also have no enchilada sauce, and no eggs. I sneeze only once (probably just allergies) but make a mental note to monitor the situation. A rabbit ran through the yard. The number of US deaths has now reached 100. There was a beautiful bird with a shiny blue head and torso and a red-orange chest, shiny and brilliant, swooping down to catch a bug. He missed it on the wing, leapt at it again. The Imperial College report comes out and everyone is reading it and trying to think about what might be coming next. The bank where my wife works announces that it is reducing its operating hours.

By the next day, Wednesday, March 18, there is a growing sense out there that this thing could last a year or more. I am starting to read online that people I know online have a cousin who’s contracted the virus, or a spouse, or a co-worker. I don’t know anyone personally who has it, or at least I don’t know anyone who’s been tested for it, since there is still almost no one being tested. A person walks by and I hear them say about flowers, “I need some brightness in my house.” The bank that was only reducing its hours slightly is closing some branches one day later. It is now clear that the campus will not be returning to in-person classes, something that was not clear seven days ago. Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces” comes on the radio and for the second time this week, I almost start crying. My friend E– is about to FaceTime with me because it’s not safe to go to pubs anymore, and maybe not even to each other’s house, but then he calls to tell me that his mother has suddenly been taken ill, and he is rushing her to the hospital. When he gets there, they won’t let him go inside with her. His mother has to go in alone.

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