Yesterday I spent a couple hours out running errands. The little book-publishing outfit I run received a second outstanding Amazon order for the same book (When Tribesmen Came Calling, Qaisar Shareef’s fine memoir of his career as Pakistan and Ukraine country head for Procter & Gamble Company), and I didn’t want to accrue any more naughty points with Amazon for late fulfillment, so I planned an expedition to the post office. And I thought I’d better get some groceries. So I girded my loins – not literally, but that’s how it felt – and left the house.
The Wedgwood P.O., on 35th Avenue NE just above 77th Street, is my post office of choice, even though it’s not the nearest to my house, because going to it allows me to get a sandwich at Grateful Bread and donuts for Jenny (and myself) at Top Pot. That particular P.O. is a pretty constricted space, but the half dozen or so other postal patrons who came and went while I was there were pretty good about social distance, overall. The employees had rigged hard plastic barriers to hang along the counter between customers and staff, leaving a few inches to pass packages and receipts back and forth. I had a moment of unease when a little old lady with a cane slowly approached the door near where I was standing. Every fiber of my well-brought-up being wanted to hold the door for her, but I couldn’t without going very close to her and reaching over her to hold the door. So I stood there and watched a little old lady open the door of a public building herself, which I think is a darn shame. But she did manage just fine.
Last week I spent an hour at our neighborhood Fred Meyer loading up on groceries – including some toilet paper of opportunity, back in stock – and came home exhausted from all the additional effort it took to negotiate social distancing while pushing a shopping cart. You have to stay alert and make a series of in-the-moment decisions about whether to enter an aisle, based on how many other shoppers are there and whether any of them are lingering near products that are on your shopping list. And sometimes you go into an unpopulated aisle, but then people come in after you from one or, worse, both ends. And no social distancing was taking place at the checkouts, so I used self-checkout (which I’m opposed to on principle) for my full large cart’s worth of stuff, which was tedious.
As I said, I came home exhausted. But anyway, yesterday I seized the opportunity to buy more groceries at the Safeway in Wedgwood because, as the proverbial mountain climber would say, it was there. Going forward I think I’ll be trying online grocery shopping, which Fred Meyer is now offering and which both my father and my mother-in-law recommend.
On the same outing yesterday I also topped up the gas tank, even though it was still about three-quarters full, and picked up from my rented box at Greenwood Sip ’n’ Ship the strangely rare copies I had ordered of volumes 2 and 3 of Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, because those were the volumes I didn’t have copies of, and they cover the period of global crisis defined by the Second World War and include the classic essays “The Lion and the Unicorn” and “A Nice Cup of Tea.” Volume 2 has the wonderful title My Country Right or Left. Sip ’n’ Ship had enterprisingly managed to source small bottles of hand sanitizer attached to little carabiners and with labels depicting a Seattle skyline. I bought one for $10 because I appreciate Sip ’n’ Ship and want to support the local people who own and run it.
The last thing I did yesterday, other than stopping for gas, was stop by my friend Pete Comley’s apartment off Lake City Way to drop off a plastic bag (sanitized as best I could) containing five John Grisham novels I had picked up with him in mind at Little Free Libraries here and there around Seattle. Pete is a great lover of speculative and dystopian fiction both classic and contemporary and, thanks to him, in recent years I’ve read The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by Wells, The Martian Chronicles and other stories by Bradbury, and much more. Pete is a big enthusiast of Stephen King and has lately been talking up The Stand – the one about a pandemic – but I haven’t tackled it yet because it’s really long.
Anyway, I managed in turn to turn Pete on to Grisham. He liked The Firm and asked which others I’d recommend, so I made it a project to give thought to that, since I’ve literally read them all. The ones I dropped off yesterday were The Guardians (the latest, pretty good), The Reckoning (masterfully executed, bone-chilling Southern Gothic), A Time to Kill (still the best of the whole bunch, with a killer premise, pardon the pun), The Innocent Man (gripping true crime set in small-town Oklahoma), and Playing for Pizza, one of Grisham’s shorter fun trifles, about an American football team in Italy. I texted Pete and invited him to come to the door so we could say hi from a safe distance, but he was on a phone call at the time and we didn’t manage to see each other.
As of this morning life feels somehow more constricted and claustrophobic, as if overnight the screw tightened another turn, and I feel grateful to have had the compulsion – thus the opportunity – to run errands yesterday. The powers that be back east are talking today about recommending that all Americans wear masks in public (a confusing switch from what they’ve been saying); Pence is comparing the U.S. to Italy and urging vigilance about social distancing for another 30 days (and is immediately undermined by Trump); the governor of Florida has finally issued a statewide stay-at-home order; and Captain Brett Crozier of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier the Theodore Roosevelt, docked at Guam, has released a desperate letter pleading for “decisive action” to save the lives of his 4,000-strong crew: “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.” And Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since 1945, underscoring what the UN said yesterday about this being the greatest global crisis since World War II.
In one of my previous lives I had the great good fortune to attend the tournament in person several years running. I helped raise a boy in the London suburb of West Byfleet, and tennis had a lot to do with turning him into the fine young man that he is today. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, when Stefan was eight years old, I picked him up after school and then walked him to his tennis lesson at the Byfleet Lawn Tennis Club (where I myself once played doubles with an 80-year-old man who boasted of having played with the legendary Bunny Austin). On the way to the club that day, I told Stefan about what was happening in New York, where it was still morning. A thoughtful pause followed. Then he asked: “Eth, is it a big deal?” How do you answer such a question from an eight-year-old? This is how I answered: “Yes, Stef, it’s a big deal.”
Wimbledon is less than 30 minutes straight down the train line from West Byfleet via Byfleet & New Haw, Weybridge, Walton-on-Thames, Hersham, Esher, Surbiton, Berrylands, New Malden, and Raynes Park. There Stefan and I gorged annually on a smorgasbord of first-week world-class tennis on the outer courts, including getting to see Martina Navratilova being her utterly cool and magnificent self, in the flesh, on No. 2 Court, the infamous “Graveyard of Champions” where Pete Sampras shockingly lost in the second round to George Bastl in 2002. Among my happiest memories of what was otherwise a largely unhappy and frustrating period of my life are long days at Wimbledon with Stefan, that ended only when play was called after 9 p.m. on Centre Court (where commoners like us could pay just £2, with proceeds to charity, to see non-top-ranked players compete in the evening). The melancholy that fell with the midsummer dusk was just like I used to feel as a kid back on Silver Lake Street in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, when our moms would call us in from our games of pickup baseball and kick the can. You wanted play to go on forever.
This January 27, before either of us had much inkling of what was about to hit us, I got an email from Stefan, now 27: “Eth!! Hope you are well. I have some news, myself and Jorden are engaged! … We would love you and Jenny to come over for the wedding in May 2021.”
We’ll be there if we possibly can. I hope we can.