“I’ve got some bad news and I’ve got some good news. Nothing lasts forever.” ~ Kate McGahan, author.
The “where were you when” conversations.
You know the ones. Somebody asks, “So where were you when…? The when is always one those consequential events, usually an unpleasant one. Life’s moments that leave stains that won’t wash out.
For my dad’s generation it was, “Where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor?”
Where were you when JFK was assassinated? In Mrs. Campbell’s 4th grade class. The school closed and sent the kids home to parents trying to make some sense of it.
Where were you when the Challenger exploded? At work. I cried.
Where were you when the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake hit? At the local supermarket near the liquor aisle. I’ve never heard so much exploding glass in my life. On my way out the door grabbing a woman who was losing her shit, in tears, frozen; pulling her out by the arm.
For me, the most recent where were you question is, “Where were you when you realized the coronavirus would challenge everything you knew to be true?”
Caffe Sport almost exactly one year ago.
I’ve mentioned that lunchtime more than a few times during the past year and with good reason. It was my “where were you when” moment; another stain.
Caffe Sport is a small restaurant on Green Street, half a block off Columbus, the main drag through San Francisco’s Little Italy. At Caffe Sport it’s garlicky Southern Italian cuisine in abondanza (abundance).
It’s booth seating on heavy wooden bench style seats in front of thick, solid wood tables inlaid with tile. When the tableside conversation gets stale you can kill the time waiting for your meal by gazing at the abondanza of Sicialian kitsch on the walls and ceiling; paintings, sculptures, lamps, tiles, framed maps, and an oversized model of a fishing boat. It’s a limitless collection of junk and stuff and things; almost as if a single square inch of unadorned wall is an affront.
It’s been almost a year to the day since Cora and I had that lunch. We went with the full knowledge that things would change, and change drastically. We’d no idea what the changes would be or how long they would last. As it turned out we really had no idea. We went out to have our “last supper.”
In Italy, mealtime, every meal, is a celebration, a glorification of life, love, family and friendship. I know this for fact, having sat at many an Italian table during visits to the land of my mother’s birth.
On that day, at that lunch, there was no celebration. It was a concession to an unknown; an ironic comprehension of being on the cusp of something we couldn’t really comprehend.
The dining room was almost empty, the atmosphere quiet and somber. Not even Dean Martin crooning about the moon hitting “your eye like a big pizza pie,” or the unmistakable Italian aroma of simmering tomatoes, heavy with garlic, could lighten the burden of knowing that things were about to change drastically.
As we drove out of The City, then President Trump announced the formation of a Coronavirus Task Force with then Vice President Mike Pence at the helm. After a preamble of self promotion, Trump turned the presentation over to Pence who commenced with one of his signature sycophantic homilies about his boss. Realizing that this was not going to be a Franklin Roosevelt, “nothing to fear but fear itself” moment I turned off the radio in disgust.
When we arrived home I posted on Facebook, “This afternoon the sitting Vice President performed verbal fellatio on the sitting President.”
Just two days prior to our Caffe Sport lunch, the City of San Francisco announced a ban on gatherings of crowds of more than 1000 people. Following that announcement, the Golden State Warriors announced that home games would be played in an empty arena. Hours later the National Basketball Association put a 30 day halt to the season.
Two days after our Caffe Sport “last supper,” California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a lockdown on people 65 and older. I remember my two word response to the news, “Oh, bullshit!”
It wasn’t so much the idea of a lockdown that bothered me but the selective nature of the lockdown. It represented my first realization that I was now thrown in with the lot of the older, the less vibrant, the ones considered vulnerable; that group that I’d never imagined that I’d be lumped in with.
Four days later my injured pride was soothed by Newsom’s announcement of a general lockdown.
We were all in this together I thought. That turned out to be a gross misjudgment of human nature.
By that time the absurdities were already in full flower.
Remember silly season?
We were embarking on, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, the “silly season.”
A year ago this month, the dreadful 1979 hit song My Sharona was parodied into My Corona. In retrospect and given lives lost, the song would’ve been in bad taste by April.
The bottom fell out of Corona Beer sales, not because it’s bad beer, which it is, but because, you know, coronavirus – Corona.
While Corona Beer sales were tanking, sales of Tito’s Vodka soared. It wasn’t because people were getting looped over COVID anxiety but because hand sanitizer had become as difficult to come by as a winning Powerball ticket. People were using booze to make sanitizer.
In response, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that vodka doesn’t contain enough alcohol to kill the virus. No sanitizing? No problem. I imagine people figured out some use for all their excess vodka; like maybe getting looped over the anxiety of not being able to get hold of sanitizer – or toilet paper.
In response to the CDC response, Tito’s announced that it would produce its own CDC approved hand sanitizer containing 80% alcohol. Bottles of Tito’s Hand Sanitizer carry the warning For Hands Only – DO NOT DRINK.
This would turn out to be an ironic precursor to a stern warning months later put out by Clorox, “Bleach and other disinfectants are not suitable for consumption or injection under any circumstances. People should always read the label for proper usage instructions.”
The bleach maker’s advisory was made necessary after the sitting President of the United States hinted that mainlining bleach might mitigate the virus. The resulting responses, parodies, cartoons and memes were hilarious.
The fact that the hilarity was birthed by the ravings of the President of the United States was sad and tragic.
It was hoarding and hunting season. Like a hunter, I’d get up before dawn in order to get to the store early in search of elusive game; toilet paper, milk, pasta, flour, sugar, eggs and meat of any variety.
The one food item that was available in abundance was chicken wings; they were dirt cheap. The cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament (aka March Madness) due to COVID caused a glut of chicken wings, the key ingredient in the classic sports watch party snack – Buffalo Wings. With no tournament, there were no watch parties and with no watch parties there was no need for wings.
Isopropyl alcohol for making sanitizer was among the prized treasures. My daughter found some on Amazon but it was only available in case lots of six. We still have five large bottles of alcohol.
As health departments mandated revised building capacities lines formed outside of supermarkets, outside of Target and outside of Home Depot.
People learned of the existence of a heretofore mostly unknown company named Zoom.
My family celebrated Easter with the extended family via a heretofore mostly unknown company named Zoom.
Just like camping in the house.
At the start we viewed lockdown as a new lark. A novelty with all sorts of perks:
Family bonding over games and jigsaw puzzles.
No commuting to work.
Clear unencumbered freeways. I had this notion of driving to Tony’s Pizza in The City and picking up a pizza that would still be warm when I got home.
Lots of free stuff; Master Class was allowing freebies on some of their courses.
Opportunities for learning and self-improvement (I took five MOOC courses).
A time of happy dogs and pissed off cats.
And why not look at it as a novelty? It would all go away soon we thought, hoped, wished; back to life as it should be. We allowed ourselves to be misled. Like soldiers who, in war after war, are fed the promise, “We’ll all be home by Christmas,” we were led to believe that it would be over by Easter, and then by Memorial Day, and then, and then, and then…
For some time now I’ve kept a spreadsheet that tracks our expenses. It was originally to verify that Social Security would cover our regular expenses. Now I do it…well…I don’t know why I do it beyond force of habit.
I recently went back to look at the pre-COVID versus the COVID spreadsheets. Our changing expenses tell the tale of our changing lives.
In January of 2020 we spent $250 dollars on dining out and about $150 dollars on entertainment (okay, I admit it, we’re dull). Between March 13th and the end of July our entire dining out and entertainment budget was $0 dollars. In July it had blossomed to $40 dollars. I’d taken a trip to Chinatown to buy some duck and barbecue pork.
Gasoline went from $220 dollars in February to an average of $75 dollars per month.
Meanwhile our DIY expenses soared after lockdown. What we learn here is that pre-COVID I was lazy and during COVID I got bored.
With lockdown, my daughter began working from home (she still is), the grandchildren were doing remote learning (they still are) and Cora and I were doing more, let’s call it “stuff,” on our computers. Add to that three cell phones, and someone was always getting kicked off the network.
Like almost everything else in life we threw money at the problem and upgraded our internet package.
Science, medicine and ideology
“The ocean, the atmosphere, outer space, belong not to one nation or one ideology, but to all mankind, and as science carries out its tasks in the years ahead, it must enlist all its own disciplines, all nations prepared for the scientific quest, and all men capable of sympathizing with the scientific impulse.” ~ President John F. Kennedy
I’d grown up during a time when science was king, when researchers were lauded.
That took a noticeable change in 2020. Because scientific reality didn’t square with economic health and political aspirations, science and medicine became political and ideological footballs and researchers and health care professionals the enemy.
Science and medicine were denied, maligned and politicized like I’d never seen or heard before in my over six decades on this planet. It was like a reentry into the Dark Ages. An unbelievable spectacle, really.
I’m not a doctor but…
Everyone had a theory about the virus. I recall one dinnertime conversation in which we talked about the bad colds we’d suffered in December or January, theorizing that maybe what we really had was a mild case of the coronavirus. We speculated that we were on our way to herd immunity.
A month prior we wouldn’t have known the term herd immunity from the term herd of bison. Suddenly we were all amateur epidemiologists who really didn’t know shit. Unfortunately some of those who didn’t know shit would take to making YouTube videos to influence people who knew less than not knowing shit.
By late summer most of us knew that natural herd immunity was a flight of fancy, except that is for Trump’s new guru, Scott Atlas, a radiologist who’d veered far out of his lane into epidemiology and onto Fox, where they loved him. Atlas wore out his White House welcome by late autumn and was shown the door.
And still there are YouTube amateurs who don’t know shit, influencing people who no less than not knowing shit.
During the ordinary pre-pandemic days Cora would attend church religiously (which I suppose is the best and most accepted way to attend church). Today she returned to the church for the first time in over a year, but only to pick up a copy of the church bulletin.
Our stories, alike and unalike.
Each and every one of us has a COVID chronicle to reflect on. The frazzled, exhausted ICU nurse, appreciated by most and maligned by the ignorant; the teacher trying to figure out online instruction; the frustrated student trying to figure out online learning; the person living alone who was over it with lockdown a month in; the Asian family being shouldered with some false, racist responsibility for inventing and spreading the virus; the out of work bartender; the restaurant owner struggling to save a business; the nail artist working out of her garage in order to make ends meet; those doing their best to follow guidance and those who don’t give a damn.
Our own dinnertime conversations are taking an optimistic turn. We’re talking about the grandchildren getting back to school. Who’d have thought that we’d be long past the point where children longed to be back at school?
While we aren’t ready to return to the gym or to indoor dining or go see a movie we are starting to see those things, those things we took for granted, as being almost within our grasp again.
“Only now do we value every breath that escapes our lips. Perhaps now we will learn to be grateful.” ~ Saim .A. Cheeda