When it Drops
A week before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, I was in Taos, staying at my favorite hotel, busy planning a summer of camps for the children, a trip to Italy, and a yoga retreat in the Catskills. Living, in other words, within the well appointed walls of progressive values, bohemian taste, and my own rather peculiar version of bipolar illness.
Late last year I read a moving, exhaustively researched piece of photojournalism in the New York Times about the growing shantytowns in Oakland, California. The vivid description and photographs of those living there, suffering and sick from almost endless causes, the total absence of hygiene, the lack of medical care and basic safety, both haunted and terrified me. The article appeared to me as an unanswerable distillation of the world’s rapidly multiplying disasters: mass inequality, hegemonic nationalism, and a mutilated, unpredictable climate. When I took the time to step out of my protected and lovely little world – a world contained enough I still did not understand how Donald Trump was President three years in – it was this tripartite of worries that most occupied me, and seemed to mark a shift away from the security with which I had been raised, and still took for granted.
Sometimes I wondered if I should have had children.
More and more often I wondered if I, too, might be homeless. A middle aged woman with imperfect health, a rather mountainous mind of unscalable cliffs and depthless valleys, three children and not much money. Yes, I realized. I’m not special. It could happen to me too.
And then the worry would fade, a peak of creativity or joy or sex would appear around the bend, and back I went, into my little room of everyday, priviledged concerns. Less than a month after reading that article, this country slowly woke up to the fact that China was experiencing some sort of rapidly moving illness. It was very far away, and like many U.S. citizens I tend to mistrust information from China. It is underreported. Over reported. Whatever the story, the issue, I’m aware that there is a filtering process the Chinese government lays over the lives of its citizens, like a camera with many complicated lenses.
It came so suddently, didn’t it?
You were at work at the beginning of March. Yes, it was the beginning of March, unless you live in California, and then it was two weeks prior. Regardless. Work, home, gym, children, no children, school, dating, fucking, not-fucking, groceries, bills, writing, TV, Twitter, arguments, love: it all flatlined in an instant.
Stop-time. Toddlers held suspended above playgrounds bow-tied in yellow tape that looks like a murder investigation. Dementia ridden women, vaguely aware of a daily visitor, begin each day alone. End it the same way. Babysitting grandparents put the lie to countless “I’ll see you tomorrow my Love” to preschoolers with no sense of time. Cars stay in driveways. Planes fly empty or not at all. Traffic becomes a pointless changing of timed lights, green for no one, red for… one? Two?
The city seems to dim, and forgotten stars dance indifferentlly in the night sky.
You were at work. Or, forgive the grammar, at life. Whatever that means to you, to us, to your community and your heart. And then, life stopped. Not in that glorious still point sort of stopping most of the vaguely mystical or romantic dream of, but in a stunning, endlessly repeating car accident that infuses the marrow with memory and changes the structure of dreams.
Did you see the brilliant tweet? There are so many now: people are creative and incredibly sad, needing the illusion that the buried wires connect, connect, connect… The tweet said: “If you had told me in 2016 that the economy would be shit and the world would be ending in 2020 I would have been surprised NOT AT ALL.”
A madman is at the helm. Of this story, only Homer might approve. But who now has the time for the metaphoric, the grandiose? The stop-time brings the mind to heel as well: lethargy courts fatigue, and the madman’s words become mere fodder for an exhausted, beaten humor. No one will fight or dance or march in these streets.
In a matter of hours, the true extent of this country’s sickness and inequality was revealed. It has taken a sociopath and an illness that brought the world to its knees to do it, but here we are. I am at home. You are at home, with the office set up in a closet. We are the lucky ones. Protected and pale and soft, craving a concert in the park.
Tentatively, I go to an abandoned grocery store. It is fully staffed with friendly people, some of whom are older, some hugely overweight, which I know puts them at higher risk for illness. At one point I take a huge cart overflowing with treats and produce and fresh breads, impulsively plucked toys for my 6 year old, toward the automated check line. A lovely, too thin young woman flags me over, her mask on tight.
“Come to my station,” she said, as if relieved to have the company.
“I want you to stay safe,” I said, “so maybe it’s better if I use the auto?”
“I’m here to help you.” As she said these words, slightly muffled behind her handmade mask, I had to look away in shame. Tears came to my eyes. She was no more than twenty three. She had to be there. I chose to be.
Yesterday my daughter said to me about some forgettable object over which I was pining:
“Mama. You don’t need that. You want that.”
And so it is with our lives now:
How I want to go out. How I want to be less depressed. I want to travel and work and see friends.
And then the great, usually unseen engine of our society responds:
“What you want… is what we must do, day upon day, hour upon hour.”
Yesterday I saw a video.
The video is of a large, white man, his stomach leering over a too-optimistic belt.
The large white man is rolling something dark and small on the ground, as if he were a baker working over some toughened dough.
The dough however is a child. A thin, black child with wonderfully wild hair and the frail body of a human half his age, which the gleeful newsman announces as 14.
The large white man is a police officer. He has, compared to the child, the physique of a retired wrestler burnt out on steroids.
His strength, the strength in his closed-fist hands, his body bent at the waist as he rolls, twists, punches the child, is the strength of a stupid rage.
This is not strength, of course.
But the child’s small, still hardening bones can not know this.
I did not watch the entire video. I saw the violation, I saw the trajectory:
the child’s life is a shooting star, visible to all of us for an instant no more. I do not need to watch the pornography of the white man’s rage, the extinguished innocence of the wild-haired boy.
This is what I thought:
“Oh. This cop didn’t care about ‘social distancing.’ Apparently we are returning to normal now.”
A virus. A fist.
A fucked up pharmaceutical laundry list.
You, too, will drop.
And that’s all, for now, I’ve got.