Today is Good Friday. It’s not even 7 a.m. yet as I start writing this, and it’s already one of those mornings. I got out of bed around 5:15 because I had been just lying there, wakeful but unrested, since about 4:30. I felt shitty last night for the obvious general reason, but the proximate cause was seeing TV news about people standing in extraordinarily long lines at food banks in San Antonio. This morning I still feel shitty, or I feel shitty anew. Any particular development I could cite this morning would be something you will probably have been aware of too: Trump saying he wants to “reopen” America in May, “despite expert concerns” in The Guardian’s deadpan phrase; worldwide coronavirus deaths surely to pass 100,000 today; drone footage showing a mass grave on Hart Island in New York City; a CNN headline: “Detroit hospital workers say people are dying in the ER hallways before help can arrive.” I feel bad about feeling bad already first thing this morning, especially since I’m relatively safe and comfortable. But why wouldn’t I be depressed?
Two days ago, someone I follow named Matthew Segal tweeted: “I liked Passover better when the plagues were metaphors.”
I have a number of things planned and in mind to write about. Half an hour ago I was lying on the couch, wishing I could go back to sleep, trying to muster the will to read something – but all the coronavirus coverage feels too daunting and draining, and the review I’ve started reading in the NYRB of a new biography of P.T. Barnum seems pointless – or to continue proofing a book I co-edited (pre-pandemic) for publication this fall (but that’s aggravating work because I’m, perhaps wrongly, anticipating arguments with a copy editor I don’t know personally, and whose judgment I now don’t trust, over an important issue of style that’s crucially related to the book’s subject matter).
I also tried to gather my thoughts to write the entry I had in mind to write next, but couldn’t quite manage that. And it crossed my mind how published words on a page or screen, fully composed and edited to a sheen, are always a misrepresentation or at best an approximation. The human mind does that to raw experience, and in some ways that’s a good thing. I guess that’s where literature comes from, and I do like literature. But experience itself is a raw thing, and never more so than right now. When I began this diary in early March, I quoted my friend John Singleton’s advice that I should write “in a state of free-fall.” Well, this morning that’s how I feel. So here I am, just trying to write myself out of my funk.
Our next-door neighbor, Severin, told me over the fence that he’s now a homeschooling dad – his daughter is staying with him four days a week, because Severin’s ex has two pre-school-age children at home now and no day care. Severin is also studying for important exams that he has to pass to advance his career. Garrett and Tonya across the street are being, Garrett told me, “maybe fifty percent productive” in their jobs, because they’re sharing the duties of taking care of their toddler. I’ve been seeing Garrett more than usual lately, sitting in their front yard while the little girl plays on the lawn, or walking around with her on his shoulders. We stood six feet apart in the street the other day and traded notes. He said he’s grateful at least to have a job. Yesterday was the day it was reported that yet another 6.6 million people around the U.S. had filed for unemployment over the previous week.
I told Jenny about my conversation with Garrett. She ruefully observed that, if she had been laid off now, with the mandated additional $600 per week, she would be getting more from unemployment than she’s earning now by being employed slightly more than full time. She has a heavy class load this quarter, and she’s having to adjust on the fly to teaching online, and several hours of Zoom screen time most days is tiring for her brain, eyes, and rear end. And she’s going to be unemployed anyway come August, or quite possibly June. Will that extra $600 per week still be on offer then?
Jenny also said that, as a teacher, she doesn’t feel free to be only fifty percent productive. Her employer for the past fifteen-plus years, and for now, is the administrative hierarchy at the University of Washington. But the people her work actually serves are students on the brink of adult life, many of whom have a lot at stake. Her ENGL105 class, for example, is for foreign graduate students who have to pass an exam to prove that their English is good enough to be teaching assistants in undergrad courses in their fields of study. Their exam is to teach a sample lesson for several raters who judge their English and their teaching, and if they fail it they don’t get TAships next quarter. Jenny’s job is to prepare them to pass that exam. I used to enjoy sitting in on that class when Jenny asked me to, raising my hand to ask questions as a pretend undergrad or rater. It was neat to feel like I was learning tidbits here and there, possibly useful if I ever get to be a contestant on Jeopardy, about mechanical engineering or calculus or macroeconomic theory, from young people with real enthusiasm for those subjects.
This past Tuesday morning, as I worked at the dining table, I could overhear Jenny talking on Zoom to her current ENGL105 students: “It’s fine if you eat breakfast during class, as long as you’re not making a presentation at the time. … Everybody say ‘corona.’ … My allergies are acting up a little. It’s nothing to do with coronavirus. … Oh – my cat just popped into the screen for a minute! … Do any of you watch or listen to the news on the Internet? I understand that you want to get a lot of your news in your own language, but it’s a good opportunity if you get at least some of your news from English-language sources. It’s good for your pronunciation.”
On the same page of my notebook I have something that Eugene Smith, the Jonestown survivor whose memoir I’m collaborating on, said to me on the phone on Monday: “This country needs a reset. And I thought this was gonna do that, but I don’t think it’s gonna do that because it’s not gonna last long enough.” Trump, said Eugene, is “everything that Jones wanted to be.”
I just paused writing to check the news online. As of 8 a.m. Seattle time today, April 10, 2020, the top headline on The Guardian’s U.S. site is: “Wisconsin: the state where American democracy went to die.”
On Wednesday I ran a couple of errands, on foot around the neighborhood. First I went to Sip ’n’ Ship to pick up mail. Just before I got there my phone buzzed in my pocket, and it was my friend Tom Derry in Detroit. Tom and I hadn’t talked in several years, and he had just been thinking of me. I’ve known Tom since 1991, when he was a young mailman and a pillar of the wonderful grassroots group the Tiger Stadium Fan Club and I was writing, with Michael Betzold, the book Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story. We reconnected in 2012, when I passed through Detroit on my Home Free road trip and Tom was leading the effort by the Navin Field Grounds Crew – a bunch of guys and gals with rakes and a riding mower – to tend the historic ballfield at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where Tiger Stadium was and should still be, in defiance of the City of Detroit and its cops. (Their work is wonderfully documented in Jason Roche’s film Stealing Home.)
A year later, Tom’s friend Dave Mesrey wangled an offer for me to write a cover story about the Grounds Crew for the Detroit alt-weekly Metro Times, timed to coincide with Opening Day of baseball season in 2014. The article was published with a beautiful and poignant aerial photo of the lovingly groomed field. In the piece, I recounted a conversation Tom and I had had when he took me to visit the field in 2012. Behind the famous flagpole – still there in center field – the newish Motor City Casino loomed from the other side of the Fisher Freeway.
“Casinos are bad,” I had remarked to Tom that day.
“Yeah, they are,” he agreed. “Every time I take a picture, I try to take it with Brooks Lumber in the background, not the casino.”
“But the casino’s right there, behind center field.”
“Yeah, and you can’t keep it out of the picture, unless you Photoshop it or something. It’s owned by Mrs. Ilitch. Sometimes I wonder if Mike Ilitch ever looks down from the upper floor, across the street, to watch the peasants working on the old ball grounds.”
It was billionaire Tigers owner Mike Ilitch who forced the spending of several hundred million dollars of public money to replace Tiger Stadium with bland Comerica Park in the Woodward corridor, at the epicenter of his pizza and real estate empire. “I wonder how Ilitch sleeps at night,” I wondered.
“I’m guessin’ he sleeps really well,” said Tom. “’Cause he doesn’t care! He doesn’t give a shit.”
So this Wednesday I chatted happily with Tom for half an hour while sitting on the sidewalk in the spring sunshine, leaning against a building across 76th Street from Sip ’n’ Ship. He told me that he had retired from the Postal Service after 34 years and was now taking long walks daily (but always crossing the street to socially distance), his wife Sara was still working in a lab because her work was considered essential, and Sara’s son Erik was comfortably set up in a room in their house in Redford Township, taking his University of Michigan classes online. Erik was doing great, Tom said proudly, and at least now he didn’t have to make the hour-long drive to Ann Arbor every day.
We reminisced about the time we drove from Detroit to Baltimore in Tom’s van, with our friend Baseball John Miramonti, overnight while listening to cassette recordings of Ernie Harwell, and held up the SAVE TIGER STADIUM banner in left field at the overrated new stadium there. Tom told me that Baseball John passed away a couple years ago, which I hadn’t known. Baseball John was widely known around Detroit, back in the day, as “the guy who sits in the right field bleachers,” and was literally pals with Kirk Gibson and with visiting players including George Brett. I told Tom some of my news in turn, and I reassured him that, like him and his family, Jenny and I were doing as well as could be expected, considering.
Tom and I said goodbye, and I stood up and walked over to Sip ’n’ Ship to get my mail. Then I walked to the pharmacy at Fred Meyer to pick up a prescription for Jenny. My route took me past the stupa outside the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism on the corner of 1st Avenue NW and NW 83rd Street. I thought I might circumambulate the stupa a time or two. I always figure it might do some good, which is also why, whenever Jenny and I walk to our nearby park, we always walk around the park clockwise. At the stupa, taped to the end of one section of prayer wheels was a homemade sign on an 8 ½” x 11” sheet protected from the weather by plastic:
For your safety and
to prevent the spread of the
We ask that you DO NOT
spin the prayer wheels at this
Please continue to pray,
recite, or circumambulate as
you are able.
May you be healthy and well.
So I circumambulated, but I didn’t touch the prayer wheels. A monk was standing nearby, and we waved shyly to each other.