Today is Sunday. On Friday, despite his urgings, I decided not to leave the house to go for a walk with my friend Jeb. Jenny had an attack of worry about my health and safety, and so did I actually, and also I found myself just plain tired. So I stayed home and tilled compost into the raised beds instead.
Somewhere in his writings, maybe in his novel My Other Life, Paul Theroux describes himself as being “in retreat from experience.” I get that. Theroux has made a career out of being a gregarious traveling writer, and early in my career I took him as a role model. To me the point has always been to stride forth into the world, show up in person, see things for myself, meet people where they’re at, and deploy my Midwestern nice-guy demeanor to elicit their stories. But it’s true that all that can be tiring work. And now, very ironically, I find a retreat from experience being enforced on me, whether I like it or not. And I don’t entirely dislike it. Yet on the other hand, come to think of it, this enforced retreat from experience is also, very much, itself an experience, albeit not one I would ever have wished on myself or anyone else.
I established myself as a working journalist first in Detroit in the early nineties, which is a whole nother story that I might tell sometime, and then in Southeast Asia and later Pakistan. I found that doing journalism in Asia required real physical and logistical stamina – just to get through Bangkok traffic for a sit-down appointment, for example; and then there was the time I crossed Jakarta in morning rush hour to interview Megawati Sukarnoputri, only to be kept waiting for a couple hours because she was delayed getting back from out of town (but I got the interview, and it was a good one). Feats of logistics were par for the course for an Asia hand, and I contrasted the macho that became an element of my vocational self-respect with the lazy hacks and editors who in my imagination – and very often in reality – sat behind desks in office buildings in DC and Toronto and London and dialed phones and called that journalism.
And now I find myself wondering how I will report this story. Part of the answer is that the world is coming home to me, so whatever I find myself living through, even cooped up in my little house with my wife and two cats, is a representative-enough slice of the global story. Another part is that, like everyone else, I’m being deluged from outside my own small world with reporting and op-eds and social media, thanks to the magic of the Internet. The overall effect is not unlike that of the ansible in the Hainish novels of Ursula Le Guin: the illusion that it’s possible to be anywhere and everywhere with no passage of time or damaging disruption of an individual personality. The global coronavirus story is swamping the local one, although what matters here is what’s happening here. But of course that’s true for anyone anywhere.
But it’s also true that I’m grateful for the hard work and dedication of many at the Guardian and the Seattle Times and the Washington Post – and elsewhere – who overall seem to be doing a fine job under extremely trying conditions. In any case, journalism can never be expected to be more than the proverbial first rough draft of history.
So today I find myself flipping back through my notebooks – plural, because I crossed from one notebook into the next in the middle of my bus ride with Eveline last Monday – to find bits and pieces of info, flotsam of a tsunami, to record here, for whatever that turns out to be worth and because if I don’t do it now, there’ll be no point later.
On March 12 – ten days ago – Jenny told me that the PCC upscale grocery store just off Aurora Avenue was closing its kitchen and deli temporarily because an employee had tested positive for the coronavirus. That PCC deli is where I bought the sandwich and snacks that we took to the Colin Hay concert on March 7. Also on March 12 we learned that the University of Washington hospital had banned visitors for its patients, and we both felt grateful that my own major surgery was last August and not now.
On March 13 I read that the recently renovated Space Needle was closing, and the Seattle Times published a fine article on the local impact of the Spanish flu of 1918. March 15 was the day we all heard the one about Trump trying to bully a German pharmaceutical company into selling him a coronavirus vaccine for the exclusive benefit of Americans; Biden and Sanders held a televised debate with social distancing but without an audience; and Louisiana and Georgia announced they were delaying their presidential primaries.
On the 18th I read that George R.R. Martin was reassuring his many fans that he’s fine and still hard at work finishing The Winds of Winter, and that the Mariners were closing their spring training complex in Arizona. I wrote in my notebook: “no sports to follow – was such a welcome distraction” and “A baseball season is a mosaic of thirty dovetailing 162-game narratives unfolding over six months.” Also on the 18th, Spain closed all its hotels and the U.S.-Canada border was closed to all non-essential traffic. Jenny told me that – of course – this meant no more ferries from Seattle to Canada, including the Victoria Clipper we took four years ago – time flies – to the lovely town of Victoria to celebrate my fiftieth birthday.
The Trader Joe’s in the University District was closed for cleaning after an employee tested positive, and staff tested positive at the Hearthstone retirement community on the east side of Green Lake, in our same ZIP code and very near the house where we rented for five years. Travelers worldwide were racing home ahead of impending travel restrictions. Bono released a song he had just written to celebrate the people of Italy, unavoidably reminding me of one of the best things Paul Theroux ever wrote, the lead sentence of a 2005 New York Times op-ed: “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.”
Also on the 18th – a lot seems to have happened on the 18th – I wrote: “Will the Democratic Convention take place in Milwaukee in July?” Jenny called to me from the bedroom (I was sitting on the couch in the living room): “Wow, all the gambling in Vegas has shut down! Even convenience store slot machines!” She also told me Arnold Schwarzenegger was planning to release a series of videos to help older people keep fit during self-isolation. And Dennis emailed me: “At this point I’m willing to, ugh, embrace even mortal enemies if they’ll sincerely work shoulder to shoulder with us to overcome this catastrophe.”
Jenny and I left the house that same day, the 18th, to run a couple of errands. She needed to stop at her cubicle on the 20th floor of the UW Tower in the U District to pick up a few books she’s going to need to teach her classes online this coming spring academic quarter. She also brought home the plants in her cubicle, and she texted a colleague to ask if she should bring home her plants too. (The colleague texted back words to the effect of “Yes please.”) Back in olden times – a few months ago – the UW higher-ups decreed that various employees, including Jenny’s category of English teachers, had to move their desks, in Jenny’s case after a decade of being settled on the 13th floor, right at the end of an exhausting fall quarter. She and I spent the evening of December 7 setting up her new cubicle on the 20th floor.
The next morning we flew to Kauai for a week’s vacation, then we returned and went through the motions of getting through the remainder of the holiday season. Then winter quarter started. Then word came down from the poobahs of “Continuum College” (the dorky moniker for the university extension entity Jenny works for) that Intensive English Programs, including Jenny’s job, would likely be eliminated at the end of the summer. We spent the second half of January and the first part of February starting to adjust to that. There were fraught meetings and email threads among Jenny’s colleagues. Then the coronavirus hit the Life Care Center in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, and soon all bets were off for all of us. To quote Tom Petty, everything changed, then changed again.
The other errand we did on the 18th of March was to the Washington State Employees Credit Union – conveniently next-door to the UW Tower – because Jenny needed to submit her signature for a checking account belonging to her union, on which she’s a signatory. Which was kind of pointless if her job is really going away, but it needed to be done. The grill was down at the WSECU branch, but a few staff were there. Jenny signed a piece of paper and gave it to a woman through the grill, while I sat on a bench in the lobby and chatted – at a safe distance – with the only other customer. He told me he was the owner of a Cuban restaurant called Mojito, on Lake City Way. He had owned the restaurant for twenty years, and now he was working hard to avoid laying off his staff. He told me two anecdotes that he found amazing: that he had seen six rolls of toilet paper for sale online for $100, and that he had been in a coffee shop that was offering hand sanitizer at twenty-five cents per squirt.
Coming into the tower Jenny and I passed two other pairs of people, and I overheard snatches of their conversation. A man told his companion: “Yeah, I was supposed to have a minor procedure, and they just – ” and he drew his finger across his throat. And a woman said to another woman: “My cousin has a real problem. She was gonna go to Disneyland.”
“I did my first online grocery shopping today,” my dad told me on the phone on the 19th. “And really,” he marveled, “all it took was a tip for the driver, I mean the shopper. She texted me with a couple questions, and within an hour she had it delivered, minus a few things that they were out of. So I’m gonna do more of that.
“But there’s one thing we don’t have in the house and can’t get: a thermometer.”
“You could buy one online for a hundred bucks or something,” I suggested.
“No, we can’t do that either. That’s where we tried to buy one.”
On March 20 it was announced that the filing deadline for federal income tax was being delayed to July 15. And I read in the Seattle Times that – which I think Jenny already knew – a coronavirus testing center was being opened at Northgate, not far from us, but for UW Medicine patients only. That’s us, but you still need a referral from your primary care provider.
Yesterday, March 21, I woke to the news that Kenny Rogers had died at age 81. As crossover country artists go he was never one of my favorites, and he had way too much plastic surgery for no good reason, but it still made me sad. It also made me wonder whether, from now on, whenever an elderly celebrity dies we’re going to have to wonder if it was from the coronavirus. I watched Dolly Parton’s heartfelt video tribute message – you probably did too – and I shared it with a few friends, with the comment: “Her boobs might be famously fake, but the rest of her is very real.”
Also on the 21st, I read a March 19 Guardian op-ed by epidemiologist Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: “We cannot tackle the biological epidemic of Covid-19 without tackling the political epidemic of insecurity lest people have their lives saved by our interventions, only to have their livelihoods ruined by them. That means we have to tackle the epidemic of Covid-19 and the epidemic of insecurity at the same time.”
That reminded me of something Dr. Paul Farmer told a small group I was part of, in 2004 on the porch of his house in Cange, Haiti: “I’m tired of bringing people on the edge of death from tuberculosis, AIDS, or other diseases to the point where they can become economically active, and then watching them suffer because they have no way to make a living.”
What is the purpose of public health and public education [Farmer continued], if not to serve the poorest of the poor? We’re hurtling forward on a planet where there’s the privatization of everything. When I was growing up in Florida in a trailer park, you could turn on the tap and drink water. Now everyone is drinking water out of bottles. I’m just so worried about the public part of this. We’re raising money and investing it in everything from banks to hospitals. Can we, and should we, as NGOs, give the state a free pass?
Yesterday was also the day my once and hopefully future friend’s 23-year-old son was supposed to fly to Miami for a month’s training before working for six months aboard a cruise ship. I wonder if he went.
There. Now I’m all caught up. Wait – Jenny just told me that 79-year-old Placido Domingo has tested positive for the coronavirus. Now I’m all caught up.