Site Overlay

The Collected Virus: Weeks 1-10

On March 5, a person who works at the Ralph’s grocery store up the street was on lunch break, and told the person behind the quick-sushi counter that a third person had come into the store last night and bought nineteen cases of water: “Not nineteen bottles. Nineteen cases. It’s like she was preparing for the apocalypse.” The person behind the quick-sushi counter laughed. When the first person left to return to work at Ralph’s, the person behind the quick-sushi counter turned to a fourth person, who also happened to work there at the quick-sushi counter. This fourth person was informed that all of this is nothing: “The regular flu is much, much worse,” their co-worker said. On the following day, there were three people wearing face masks inside Home Depot as they shopped for household repair or maintenance items. The phone rang at the returns desk. The person working at the Home Depot returns desk answered the phone, and after speaking with a second person on the other end of the line, whose voice could not be heard, the person working at the returns desk turned to a co-worker and laughed, and said, “Mark and I have a bet going. Every time someone calls about masks, he owes me a dollar.” And then the two Home Depot workers laughed together. A day after that, the weather outside was gorgeous; a glorious California morning. One day later, at the local hardware store, which has excellent prices on large 64-fluid-ounce jugs of Hummingbird Ready-to-Use Nectar, not to mention excellent customer service, a demure sign in the checkout line informed shoppers that “all N95 respirator face-mask purchases are non-refundable.” The next day, which was March 9, you could walk into a Starbucks and see that they had prepared and mounted very professional-looking signs informing people who liked to reuse their environmentally-friendly reusable Starbucks cups that they would no longer be able to reuse those cups at Starbucks. A day later, there seemed to be fewer people on campus than one would normally expect to see, or at least it felt that way; but upon encountering an acquaintance there, my hand instantly darted out to shake their hand, and it was only after my hand had finished shaking this other person’s hand that the recent advice given to the public about not shaking people’s hands popped back into my head. Neither of us commented on the lapse, but suddenly the mistake seemed palpable. By that Wednesday, March 11, it was announced that our campus would be closing. Leaving class, I caught a glimpse of a tall young person dressed all in black: black boots, black pants, black shirt, black jacket, black bandana, and a black mask across the bottom half of their face. It was unclear to me where they were heading, but they were walking in a very slow and deliberate way, in no hurry at all.

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.

The following day (March 19), breaking quarantine and not happy about it, we finally made some progress in the quest to find toilet paper for my father-in-law. They have none, so we buy a bunch of napkins. The soundtrack in the store is Huey Lewis and the News’ “If This is It,” and then Debbie Gibson: “noooooo, only in my dreams, as real as it may see-eee-eem, it was only in my dreams….” There is no garlic, no water, no eggs. “Maaaaybe Friday,” the worker says, with respect to the eggs. As the carts approach the checkout lines, another worker plucks excess items from people’s carts: “Only one per customer,” the worker says, taking away one of our bags of napkins. “Only one per customer.” The PIN pad at the checkout line displays a new message: “Would you like to donate to help Feed Families during this Crisis?” Reassuring emails have been sent by Southern California Edison, Howard’s Appliances, Media Temple web hosting service, SimpliSafe, Ulta, Sephora, Home Depot, Lowe’s, the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts, CalSTRS, a local yoga studio, Cox Communications, Farmers Insurance, Big O Tires, Marriott Hotels, Bellagio Las Vegas, several employers, and Universal Orlando Resort, which is 3000 miles away, and a place neither of us has ever visited. One day after that, the number of recorded deaths in the United States is now 170, the number of cases is 12,000; no, make that 13000. A message has had to be sent out to notify all of the staff in our Writing Center that they have been laid off, and all of our tutors. A new habit of mine is to start going through a mental inventory of everyone I know and try to imagine which ones might end up dead before all this is done. I try to imagine what would happen to my wife if I die from this thing, then try to stop imagining it. Just a day later, the governor announces a statewide lockdown. It’s the first day of spring. 200 people in the United States alone have died. The skin around and between the knuckles on both hands is cracking and bleeding from all the extra dishwashing, and from all of the extra hand-washing. Out on the street two landscapers were speaking to each other in Spanish, a white guy pulled up nearby in a van. A sudden pang of nostalgia for the terrible year 2019 washes over me. Went for a walk: a cool wind, everything is green; a riot of birds. A neighbor responds to my question to him about how he is doing with all of this, and he tells me from a comfortable distance about their many struggles: the loss of his catering and entertainment/party business, which had just gotten started before all of this; and his father falling and splitting his skull open, sliding into dementia, as my father-in-law has, and of his father’s sixty days spent in a coma before being transferred to a nursing home, just before all of this. Pubs no longer being allowable, I FaceTimed with E– instead, never knowing where to set the phone, from what distance or what angle to speak to someone else in this fashion, a mode of communication unfamiliar to me. This was the first day where it was momentarily unclear to me which day of the week it was, just only one week into isolation. My wife says that large bank withdrawals have been increasing. The next day was, I believe, March 22. Three common yellowthroats flew briefly around in the yard, sporting and playing. There is a sudden familiar stabbing pain in my chest. Did not see or hear another human being all day other than my wife, and not counting the frenzied people on TV or in my timeline on my phone. There is a commercial on the TV from the CDC; never seen one of those before. Maybe the events of these past two days happened in the opposite order, come to think of it. That same day, or more likely the day after that, we go to see her father, to deliver him his napkins and cigarettes and to refrain from hugging him or breathing on him somehow. The 405 is dead, hardly any traffic at all. We discuss what each of us would do if the other died. When it’s my turn, she doesn’t like my answer. The number of strangers and acquaintances one typically sees in any given day in the city is already rapidly dwindling. Trying to see dad and sister from across the room, or from the front door, trying not to touch any loved ones, trying to maintain a suitable distance, standing at opposite sides of the room from each other, anxious to leave before we infect them. Her father doesn’t know what decade it is anymore. “They just gave us a month’s leave!” he says about the longshoreman job he retired from thirty years ago, cackling with glee at this blessed gift of freedom from work. On the dead freeway the overpass signs tell us to STAY SAFE FROM COVID-19 WASH YOUR HANDS. The skater kids in Ramones shirts are out of school, they’ve set up a makeshift mini-pipe and slide rail in the nearby street. “I’ve gotta play Fortnite!” one of them shouts in a doleful lament. “It’s my birthday, I gotta play Fortnite!” There are 300 dead in this country, a hundred more than yesterday. We’re home and cloistered by 10:00am. It’s the first day it ever felt like we were clearly hiding from something; it is out there somewhere and we are trying to hide from it. Just a day later, or maybe it was that same day, there are now over 400 US deaths being reported, and many thousands more everywhere else. Like the garage door before it, the WiFi network at home isn’t working. Trying to get all classes online. Out the front window, over the course of the long day one would have seen only a single FedEx truck go by. No loved one has lost their job yet, no loved one has lost their home yet, no loved one has caught the virus yet, and no loved one has died as of today, March 23. It’s been cold. The thermostat and heater stopped working. The electricians come by to look at it. One lives with his 75-year-old grandpa: “I don’t think it’s that big a deal,” he says, after we don’t shake hands. “Things are already good in South Korea. I think things will get better here pretty soon.” The other electrician says that they just got done installing a bidet for a guy; he is telling this story and shaking his head, and I refrain from asking why an electrician would install a bidet rather than a plumber, but there is no reason to add to the public displays of my profound ignorance. They want $140 to replace an old outlet, but still the heater doesn’t work, maybe it’s an FAU problem for an HVAC guy to fix, I look up what “FAU” means, the first electrician coughs loudly, but only once. The garage door and the WiFi network and now the heater and/or the thermostat haven’t been working. 500 deaths so far in the United States. My wife shows me the “Safe Passage” letter the bank has issued her; these are the papers she must show to any authority who may pull her over and ask her who she is and what she’s doing outside. For quite some time it was unclear to me if today was the 23rd or the 24th. There are no more people to hover around, to associate with, to eavesdrop on, to talk to and meet and get to know, to ignore from a close distance. There are so many commercials on TV. In the Cosentyx ad people are hugging; in the Trulicity ad the dad buys the girl her first car, dad and the girl hug each other, as my wife and her dementia-addled father were not able to; the dad in the Trulicity commercial shakes hands with the man who is employed as a car salesman; the Cancer Treatment Center of America commercial shows a spacious, well-appointed, high-tech medical care facility, people are huddled together through therapy sessions, and the person employed as a doctor is holding the patient’s hands to comfort and reassure the patient that they are receiving the best care possible in the greatest nation on earth; Alfa Romeo, maker of luxury cars, is having what it calls a “Spring Acceleration Event”; the people cast as friends in the Made-In cookware ad are clinking wine glasses at a celebratory dinner party; HomeLight is showing me how to get the most money for the sale of my home; the Nicorette lozenge commercial is set inside a packed airplane, no empty seats, people squished together in a tiny metal tube; the third designer drug commercial is for Skyrizi (risankizumab-rzaa), and they’re having a dinner party and a barbecue with all of their friends and hanging out at the beach and leaping joyfully off a pier together and I spot a plane in the sky; in the ad for the film 1917, the soldiers are huddled together in trenches; in the fourth designer drug commercial, there are students in school, there are people at work, a mom and her kids roam the commodity-packed aisles in a fully stocked grocery while the mother thinks about the benefits of Botox; in the Amazon commercial a woman is jammed in on a crowded bus and making her online purchases from Amazon on her phone and it brings a smile to her face, everyone buying things on Amazon is buying things and smiling. My concerned and frightened students might be emailing me questions about what happens next, but like the garage door, the spotty WiFi, and the broken heater, the Canvas learning platform we’re all expected to use isn’t working either. It’s March 24, a day later. 600 US dead. There is a rapidly rising sense online that things are about to get very grim all over, this is the prevailing mood online. There is almost no one outside, almost no human sounds. A striped slug on the morning-wet asphalt. My students have questions and concerns but Canvas still isn’t working. There are still zero people I know who have it so far; zero family; zero in this house. But California is woefully behind on testing, so every number is meaningless. My ears and head suddenly got hot late night and I was trying to calm myself. It seems likely that there are many reasons someone’s ears and head might get hot, and not just one reason. It is important to remember such things. Just a day later, or that same day, there are over 800 people in this country alone who’ve died from the virus. In a different local grocery store still searching for a few essentials, I get into the wrong line, I don’t know where or how to queue here, I hand over my reusable bag but I’m wrong about that too. “You bag it yourself now,” the cashier wearing gloves says. Hardly anyone in the store. Eight people in masks, the most I’ve seen so far. There is red tape on the floor in six-foot intervals to show people where to stand. It’s the first time I’ve ever been scared or nervous to be out to buy butter or fruit. The workers are cleaning constantly, the butcher and the baker are both shut down and emptied out. In my one brief trip outdoors, there are more cops out than ever before. The foot traffic and car traffic is very light, but the stores still barely have half of what most of us need. No groups, no open businesses. The sushi place I went to twenty days ago is closed; the pub that my friend and I went to last week is closed. Starbucks and the local coffee shop and nearly every other business is closed. A day no longer feels like a day. As of today, which according to my notes is Wednesday, March 25, 2020, there are friends of friends who are getting it, and sometimes now even dying from it. But none of my friends and loved ones have it yet, none of the people closest to us; not my elderly father-in-law or any of the kids or any of us; we don’t yet have it. Those numbers are still at zero, but this feels like the last week that such statements will be true. The refrigerator trucks being used as makeshift morgues are starting to roll up to the hospital in our old neighbor in Queens, and the U.S. death toll passed 1000, just before we went to bed.

The next day was Thursday, March 26. There were 1001 reported dead from it in the United States. Unemployment claims hit 3.28 million. Now it was 1060 dead. An hour later it was 1090. Spent a few minutes online and then I looked up at the TV and the number is ticking up, a pace heretofore unknown. Approaching 500,000 cases worldwide. At exactly 11:03am the death toll was 1103. There are not enough tests, ICU beds, ventilators, hospitals, masks, googles, hazmat suits, or morgue spaces. By lunchtime we’ve passed the number of reported cases in Italy and China. We are number one. Went nowhere and talked to no one. No conversations to hear, nothing anywhere to see. The next day, before waking, I dreamed of my senile father-in-law. He is standing up at the kitchen table, angry: “Will somebody explain this to me?” Then he collapses, smacking his head on the table before falling to the floor. In the dream the virus has killed him. The war in Korea didn’t kill him and the death of his son didn’t kill him; the death of his wife didn’t kill him and the death of another son didn’t kill him, but this got him, according to the dream. Woke up with a start from this dream at 4am, ready to face this new Monday, then realized it was Sunday. A moment later I realized it was neither Monday nor Sunday, but was actually Saturday. More than half a million reported cases worldwide. Over 1200 US dead, they say. Still no one to talk to or hear, only heads and voices on screen. Ate a sandwich and caught up on the feed. 1300 dead. A few hours later there were 1600 dead. Realized at some point that it was actually Friday. One day after that, I dreamt of fire engines circling in great caravans. The companies have been busy; there is suddenly a flurry of post-COVID ads on TV: Jeep, Ram, AT&T, Hyundai, Kia, Chevy, DoorDash. Most of them are selling new vehicles, and want us to know that they feel our pain. In the afternoon I find out that my father has multiple sclerosis. My wife is still working at the bank, as she has to, being, as they say, “essential.” She’s tired, not feeling well, dealing with rude customers all day long. She is occasionally coughing. Our main water shut-off valve is being excavated for repair. We go to see her Alzheimer’s-afflicted father again. There is extensive roadwork being done everywhere. 1700 US dead. We decide to support our local Mexican food place for lunch (takeout only). 1900 dead, then, quickly, 2000; twice as many as just two days ago. We go for a walk, there is no one out on the streets, no one walking or biking or driving. Some kids have drawn chalk pictures and advice in a range of pastels on the driveway and sidewalk: TAKE THEIR ADVICE OR PAY THE PRICE, it reads. The kids have drawn masks and syringes and a person coughing into his elbow; they have drawn a beautiful rainbow in chalk, but the children who drew it are nowhere to be seen. Next to a portable basketball hoop the next street over a different kid has chalked: QUARANTINE POINTS Day One 114 Day Two 169. Just a day later, 2200 people in this country have died from it, mostly in hospitals, mostly alone. We spontaneously leap into hours and hours of rigorous housecleaning. You can hear jackhammering outside but there is no one in sight. No faces, no voices other than our own. My mother’s friend G– has just died from the virus. There are discarded blue and purple rubber gloves all over the ground in a nearby grocery store’s parking lot; and there are now 2400 dead. On Monday, butterflies were migrating. You could see them frolic in fresher air than either of us is used to, although it doesn’t seem like there are very many of them. A teen at the grocery store is wearing gloves but clapping effusively for no clear reason, smashing his hands together with an enormous clap. 3000 have died in this country so far, six hundred more than yesterday. An employee at the Queens branch of my wife’s company has died from it. Many family members of friends or friends of friends are already catching it and dying from it. Three more helicopters than usual were seen or heard, their objective indeterminate. The next day is the last day of March. 3700 have died in this country so far, seven hundred more than yesterday. I go for a long solitary walk, the only activity outside the house I take part in other than fearful trips to the grocery store as needed. There is another low helicopter in the vicinity, its purpose unclear. A frenzy of small lizards scoot across the pavement and scurry through the undergrowth. For just a moment you can just begin to feel the heat that precedes the arrival of summer. An older person on a bicycle on the opposite side of the street hails me. “You’ve really got your social distancing down pat!” he shouts. We give each other the thumbs-up, and then he rides away. Outside of my home, this is the only sentence I hear another human being utter the entire day. On Wednesday, April 1, I return to the routines I’ve developed now that I spend most days alone, not seeing anyone other than my wife before and after she ventures out into the wild for another day to contribute her essential services to the economy. Hygiene; work; cleaning; cooking and prepping; reading and scrolling and watching. There are many more dead people today than there were last week, many more than there were just yesterday. I no longer speak to anyone in person. Rarely is there any living person close enough to where I’m sitting for me to hear exactly what they’re saying before the voiceless silence takes over again.

The next day was April 2. There are now over 1,000,000 reported global cases of it. At least 5800 people in the United States are dead from it. I stay home all day and buy books from shuttered independent bookstores, and check in with many friends and loved ones. My cousin tells us that she’s been ill and self-quarantine from her family for twelve days and just got tested. They say she won’t have the results for 5-15 days. We are hiding and waiting. The following day I started making a garden. We’re cutting up shirts and learning how to sew face masks. The day after that there are 7000 dead in the United States. Two Ospreys fly overhead. There are no sewing machines at JOANN. We make a necessary trip to Target for supplies. The store is mostly empty, but for the first time I’m in full-on panic as people drift through each other’s exhalations. Every minute here is agony. We are seeing many more homemade masks, since there haven’t been any masks to buy in any store for over a month. There is no toilet paper, no Tylenol. I feel like this is the day I’m going to catch it; I can’t escape it. My wife is sewing masks all night for her staff, since the employer hasn’t supplied them with any. The next day marks a month since I first heard the people joking about water-hoarding and hysteria at the sushi place. We have our maks on and can barely catch our breath. Half the people around are wearing masks or bandanas. People suddenly seem cautious. We wait in a socially distanced line outside the fabric store in hopes of getting a sewing machine so that we can make masks for ourselves and others. A person in the line says: “Every week they tell us, ‘The next two weeks are critical.’” “Thank you for calling JOANN we’re open until three today,” the person working at the store says in one breath to the person on the phone, She will say this forty more times. The fabric store worker tells another caller that the calicos and the novelty prints are becoming really popular for everyone making masks right now. Most people in line never get into the store. My wife coughs three times, by my count; I cough once. We are still learning how to make masks for ourselves, loved ones, and my students. Almost 10,000 US dead today. Gas is down to $2.69 a gallon. The next day (April 6) I sneezed twice. Ambulance sirens could be heard. Go to try to buy a thermometer for the third time but the drugstore is still out of them. Smoke starts pouring out of the car. The radiator is cracked. The parts delivery worker at the auto shop is asked how things are going. “Brutal,” he says. “Brutal.” They made $170 yesterday; they would usually clear $5000 to $7000. Of their twenty-five employees, they are already down to two. He finds out I’m a teacher: “You all should get an award. An award!” The mechanic drives me home in torrential rain. Spent half an hour trying to sweep rising pools of water away from the back door; the rain will not stop. The prime minister of the United Kingdom is in intensive care with it. There is a tiny break in the rain. I go for a walk. The sidewalks are crawling with snails. By the next day, the number of people I know who know people with it or who are already dead from it is growing. Either they know many more people than I do or we have somehow been spared the worst, or at least have been spared the worst this week. But we’ve made it one more week without a loved one of our own contracting it or dying of it. This is the first miserable measure of everything now. John Prine loses his battle with it, and he dies. I hear Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces” again, but this time it’s on a Facebook virus-support commercial, playing on TV over scenes of incredible loss, suffering, sorrow, and strength. At the bank, they finally give my wife a handful of masks for all the essential workers, but at this stage she has already spent many hours making masks by hand for all of them. My head hurts. Her head hurts. When I rub her head it feels warmer than it should. After the broken heater and the broken water main valve, this new radiator will cost us another $900. By Wednesday, April 8, my cousin’s virus test results comes back negative. We are out of milk and eggs and almost out of bread but I don’t dare go to the store; I don’t go anywhere. The rain has finally let up. Every day the president is doing what this president always does on TV: telling lies. I’ll be taking homemade masks to students in a few days, if we can get these others sewed correctly first. I risk a walk; the air outside is cool, crisp, and clean.

The next day was April 9. Dozens of people with umbrellas are standing socially distanced in the pouring rain, lined up outside the fabric store hours before it opens. Every single person is wearing a mask. We are trying to buy fabric and sewing machines to sew our own masks. Most people wait for hours and don’t get in. By the following day it is being reported that the virus is now the leading cause of death in the United States, overtaking cancer and heart disease. We start just leaving our homemade masks hanging off one ear when we get home or into the car. Sometimes we wear them on our wrists like tiny purses. For the first time in my life I attempt to shave my head, with mixed results. Just a day after that, I feel hot. Maybe it’s a fever. Two guys who you can just tell are old friends are in a nearby parking lot. They park their cars facing each other and have coffee mugs filled with home-brewed coffee and they are in the nearly empty parking lot standing by their respective cars, chatting at a distance. The sign at Albertson’s where a month ago the woman was being mocked for buying lots of water now tells you that you must be wearing a mask to enter. Inside, workers in turquoise CLEANING CREW t-shirts are constantly cleaning. The aisles in the store now only allow one-way traffic. There is professional signage all over the floor. People no longer pass each other in the aisles; we wait while a person deliberates, chooses their loaf of bread, and then moves on, and only then do we push our own carts forward. I find myself judging whether a given person’s mask appears to be well-secured or poorly secured. People are judged for how closely they walk by you. There are over 500,000 reported cases in this country. A day later, we donated to four different food banks in the Bronx, Queens, and California. That night I had a dream; in the dream, cops were forcibly separating students on campus, and the students had nowhere else to go. The next morning I started to cry again, just a little, as I watched the doctors and nurses on television holding the hands of the dying. I returned to campus for the first time in a month and handed out homemade masks to my students. There is still no flour to be found in many stores, but the bread aisles are overflowing with bread. The next day my friend E– comes over. He does not come into the house but walks around to the back and sets down chairs sufficiently separated from each other. This is the first time I have seen a friend in person in more than a month. We spend a good part of the day enjoying the weather, talking about books and work, and drinking Kirin. That night I dreamt that one of our friends caught the virus. The next day my wife gets a message from her sister in Queens. She’s caught the virus.

The next day was Thursday, April 16. Her sister’s entire body aches and she is extremely tired, but no other symptoms yet. The blower motor in the HVAC system needed to be replaced. Fixing it would cost $700. The day after that we go for an early evening constitutional. The streets have been empty for weeks but on this gentle Friday evening there are several gatherings of friends in driveways. Everyone is spread out in chairs, talking quietly and happily. On the following day it’s time to go take care of my father-in-law again. They need food up there, and he keeps wandering off because he still think it’s 1983 outside. At the grocery store, several of us wait near the eggs and butter, trying not to get too close to the worker restocking the shelves. An old man and his wife are wearing masks and waiting to buy butter. From behind his mask he says to the worker, “Did you see what they did to Land O’ Lakes? They took her off the package! I thought she was cute.” The worker agrees. The old man’s wife waits quietly a few feet away. When we get back up to the house our niece and nephew are there, removing some remaining items of theirs. “You know China created it in a lab, right? You know that?” I tell him that I do not know that, because it isn’t true, and then I tell him the truth and he weighs both options in his mind. His wife corrects him: “No, I told you, someone from Harvard went over there and released it! Or it was an escaped lab bat. The Chinese brought the Harvard guy over and it escaped, or they released it.” 3AM Magazine publishes my essay, “Four Types of Fear.” There is a masked man on the street corner selling homemade masks. The next day I tried not to think about it. I tried to work and clean and read and walk and not think about it. Just a day later, the price of oil hits $0 a barrel, and then goes even lower. I tried to work or read or relax or spend time with people; for the second day in a row I tried not to think about it. The next morning I woke up at 1:15am, then again at 2:40am, and then again at 3:30am. From 3:30 in the morning until 4:40 in the morning I stayed awake until finally falling to sleep for two hours. On Wednesday, which was the 22nd day of April, I felt weak and sore and loopy from lack of sleep the past several nights. It was hard to focus on work. I kept typing the wrong words when writing my responses to my students. It’s been a week since my wife’s sister caught it, and so far it hasn’t gotten much better, but (the only thing that matters anymore) it also hasn’t yet gotten worse. The numbers of infected or dead keep climbing; but as of today, Wednesday, nobody we love has died. No parent or sibling or child or friend dear to us has died in the past seven weeks.

The next day was April 23. An email was sent out to inform us that classes may very well remain online through at least Fall 2020, and that perhaps 25%, 50%, or 100% of part-time faculty could lose their jobs. For the third time in three days I keep thinking that it’s March, that April is almost here, and how it’s already hot outside, and the heat is already seeping inside as it does in the deathly months of summer. “This heat!” I think. In March! But then, for already the third time, I have to remind myself that March was when everything stopped. It’s not nearing the end of March; it is April, and has been all month; and April is already somehow nearly done. There is a sudden inexplicable shooting pain in my chest at 1:17pm, and a steady flood of anxiety for an hour or more, longer than I’ve endured in months. The next day they tell us that there are officially more than 50,000 dead in America. The one person we know with it seems to be recovering. A day after that, as we head to go see my father-in-law and visit him in his dementia, we spot a cop stalking the carefree drivers on the empty freeway. When we get there a pregnant pit-bull is on the loose; she is skulking around and sniffing the wind, and keeps looking this way and that, but she can’t figure out where she is, or where home is. We wait ten minutes for her to slink away before we risk getting out of the car. The next day I try not to think about it. The day after that, I stay busy enough to almost avoid thinking about it. By the following day they are telling us that there are now over one million confirmed cases of the virus in the United States.I know one person whose annual household income is $200,000; a $2400 stimulus check magically appeared in their bank account. I know dozens of people making much, much less than that, and most of them haven’t received a dime. The day after that was a Wednesday, April 29. We are not yet dead; we’re not yet sick; we’re not yet unemployed. The cash-strapped schools are offering “retirement incentives” to many employees. In a group email sent out to all of his esteemed colleagues and friends, our dean announces his retirement. He hadn’t planned to retire. He had worked here for 36 years.

On the first day of the ninth week, a sea of angry white men draped in flags and camouflage and AR-15 assault rifles mobbed the Michigan State House. The state police are protecting the governor. She is trying to keep even more of the people of her state from dying. The next day is May 1. Two of our friends have separated and are getting divorced. The daily drama of his obsessive-compulsive disorder now that both of them are stuck at home together all day is more than she can bear anymore, so he’s moved out and their marriage is over. Because I’ve gone almost nowhere for two months, I try to walk each day. I wonder if instead I should take up jogging. As I walk I realize that I only do the same six things every day anymore: I work; I walk; I write; I read; I clean; I cook. As I walk freely down mostly empty streets this mantra starts to run through my mind over and over again in time with my leisurely steps: “I work; I walk; I write; I read; I clean; I cook. I work; I walk; I write; I read; I clean; I cook. I work; I walk; I write; I read; I clean; I cook….” The only people out are all in cars driven by parents escorting their masked kids into the parking lot of Newhart Middle School, where teams of volunteers in masks applaud as each car drives up, stops at both of the tents stationed well away from each other, and then leaves. A person dressed in the school’s black panther mascot costume is clapping alongside the other volunteers in masks. “What are they doing?” I ask the elderly gentleman sitting in the chair at the front of the parking lot, directing traffic. “They’re picking up their graduation yard signs and we’re congratulating them as each car drives in,” he says with a shrug. “It’s the best we can do.” There are now more than 30,000,000 unemployed people in this country. A man on TV is dressed all in black and carrying a fake scythe. He’s the Grim Reaper, haunting the crowded Florida beaches, silently warning them of the death that awaits them if they don’t stay home. Just one day later, a different sea of angry white people in Illinois have draped themselves in flags again. One woman holds a sign intended for governor J.B. Pritzker, one of the nation’s two Jewish governors: ARBEIT MACHT FREI, JB, it says. Even the strange uneven shape of the letter “B” looks just like the one that they displayed over the gates at Auschwitz. The prisons and nursing homes and factory floors of this country, everywhere where humans are confined, pressed tightly on top of each other in unsafe conditions, caged, over-crowded and ignored, are all seeing an explosion in the number infected and the numbers of the dead. But still almost no one sees any of the dead; they die unfilmed and unrecorded, and usually alone. Their death simply adds to the ever-rising tally. As we go to see my father-in-law who still thinks it’s the 1970s, we spot two signs: the official highway information alert signs state ALL BEACHES CLOSED in bright orange. A mile down the road we see a handmade sign stuck into the wire mesh on the overpass: OPEN THE ECONOMY! The day after that I notice that the local sign-making shop has a sign outside offering 25% OFF ALL COVID-RELATED SIGNS. A day later it already feels like all the people out and about are already anxious for all of this to end. A laziness and lack of vigilance already seems to be taking root. Nine weeks in, there is still not a single roll of toilet paper, or a packet of disposable wipes, or a case of bottled water in either of the nearby stores. The next day was May 5. Eight US would-be mercenaries (either that or eight angry white men who styled themselves US mercenaries) have been captured in Venezuela, and the pictures and the footage are already online. Home alone, as my wife continues to risk her life going out to work each day, I attempt a second haircut. Soon thereafter I inadvertently found myself on my phone watching the video of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, which filled me with an all-too-familiar disgust and sorrow and rage; and then I thought again and again of Trayvon and Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, and again I saw in my mind’s eye the killing of Eric Garner, and again I saw in my mind’s eye the killing of Michael Brown, and then again I saw in my mind’s eye the group of white thugs beating DeAndre Harris in the parking garage in Charlottesville, and then everyone online was posting and reposting and reposting the footage of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, which in one sense everyone needs to see and in a different, wiser, weary sense, nobody ever needs to see. And what had he been doing just before they killed him? He was jogging. The day after that, I started to write about this ninth week of the virus, a week that started with armed white men threatening governors and ended with armed white men killing a man for jogging while black. Nine weeks in, it’s a common occurrence for me to forget which day of the week it is; but sometimes, nine weeks in, it’s also difficult to know what the thing I have taken to calling “the virus” really is, although it never seems to take a day off, and no other name for it seems to apply.

The next day was May 7. I never go anywhere anymore except to see my father-in-law or grab groceries and supplies. Trump’s personal valet has tested positive for the virus that Trump has been trying to ignore all year. Outside of Target a teacher was talking to someone. They went back to their class after six weeks to collect all their students’ stuff now that school is ending. The administrative skeleton crew cloistered there gave them a bunch of masks and gloves. “What am I supposed to do with these now?” the teacher asked. I had just noticed that my hands had finally stopped cracking and bleeding this past week, and then a few hours later, a huge crack reappeared across my middle knuckle, and I started bleeding again. By the next day it was being reported that a second staffer in the White House has the virus. The unemployment rate has more than quadrupled in just two months. It is now the highest it has been since the Great Depression. I only know a handful of people still alive now that were also alive during the Great Depression. Work has begun in earnest on getting fully trained to teach online with the proper certification. I’ve been home for months, cooking every day, My waistline keeps expanding. By the following day, a majority of states in the country are already pushing to phased reopening, even as the numbers of cases and deaths continue to climb, and no one has a plan to do anything about it. On a nearby street there are several discarded masks on the ground. The first seedlings from our quarantine garden have started to appear, and given the ongoing shortages in stores, I am now at the able-to-tell-you-the-relative-merits-of-different-brands-of-toilet-paper phase of quarantine. There’s still no flour or garlic anywhere; you grab what you can. By May 10, my wife is still being sent to the front lines to deal with the public at work throughout the week; they continue to harangue the workers about procedures, wait times, and where the queues are placed. They demand their cut of the money from the government programs that have already run out of money. They throw insults and waste time and refuse to wear masks. The nicest customer of the day tells her that she loves the masks my wife has made for everyone there, and confesses that she has “mask envy.” The next day I try not to think about any of it and just do my work and stay home. I work; I walk; I write; I read; I clean; I cook. Just one day later, Dr. Fauci and others are testifying remotely before the Senate on the crisis, trying to convey the grim facts that await states that try to pretend like the worst is past, and try to open too soon, when there is still no overarching plan in place, when there is still no one steering the ship. At the same time, the Supreme Court began to hear arguments about Trump’s tax returns. My father-in-law is confusing bedrooms with bathrooms; he’s forgetting if you put things into trash cans or if you’re supposed to take things out of them. You can see what’s happening but you can’t do anything to keep it from happening. The next day I try to not to think about any of this. This is the end of ten weeks of thinking about the virus. I try not to think at all. I try to just do my work and stay home. One day soon ten weeks will seem like nothing. I try to imagine what ten months will look like, and who will still be here to endure it. It would be nice to not have to think about any of this anymore.

Twitter Facebook Tumblr

2 thoughts on “The Collected Virus: Weeks 1-10

Comments are closed.

Scroll Up