Dispatches from a Pandemic
— Artists are morbid creatures, when the average person sees as a city burning to the ground, they are overcome by the tragedy, while the artist sees the basis for their next masterpiece.
An Instagram story posted soon after quarantines started to take effect
TODD: I’m a little disappointed that it’s not zombies. I always thought zombies would be involved at the end of the world.
I had texted nearly all the people I love most in the world, texting impulsively in large part because of the anxiety I felt concerning those people who are over the age of 50, who aren’t in the best health, and whose delayed responses made me want to reach out to more people, so I did. The first text back was Todd, who is squarely in his 30s, healthy enough, and who I wasn’t worried about — he had watched enough Evil Dead, The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, etc, that if anything, he’d be thrilled to be living through an apocalyptic scenario. That this was the particular scenario, one in which the most challenging obstacle isn’t fighting off violent gangs — undead or otherwise — but rather fighting off boredom now that most work has stopped, public gatherings and events are cancelled, and bars, restaurants, gyms, and anything else that involves fun with other people is prohibited; felt like the practical joke of an alien race known throughout the universe for being assholes.
But the truth, of course, is that we are the assholes. I had spent the last few days seeing an enormous outpouring of kind gestures, public messages of support, of people and organizations coming together to take care of the most vulnerable people, so much so that my cynical heart began to feel optimistic, like finally, the best of our species would overcome our worst impulses, but whenever I went into a supermarket and saw empty shelves of items even though THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF ANYTHING because enough dipshits think they need to hoard toilet paper — which lasts several days, if not weeks — daily just threw all that good will out the window. This egregious show of paranoia, lack of reason, and the need to assuage one’s fears and anxieties by doing the least helpful thing imaginable, made Todd’s next text seem appropriate, since humanity’s worst impulses aren’t found in nuclear arsenals, warfare, or even unjust economic systems, it’s selfish stupidity.
TODD: It all ends with a whimper and not a bang.
KENDRA: Do you guys wanna hang today I’m sad that I might be out of a job soon.
Kendra and I had been friends for months, ever since she saw me do a performance at a local dive bar. I did a monologue about a veteran who turns his disgust at the civilian world into a movement for budding right wing terrorists. Kendra was, like myself, a veteran, and got the satire and knew exactly the kind of person I was lampooning, and from that bonding experience our friendship was born. She was cast in the production of my play Puerto Rican Nocturne, a play that is now in limbo — opening night was last Friday, when things began to close down — something that cut us all deep. Earlier that day, me and the producer were discussing the logistics behind filming the play and putting it out online, but things were still in flux. In that text, Kendra had copied Jiri, who played her husband. The entire cast had become close, and I particularly bonded with Kendra, Jiri, our lead actress Cherish, and Manny. But the latter two were busy so the three of us agreed to go out in order to cheer up our friend.
Within an hour, the governor declared that all dine in restaurants and bars would close. Kendra is a bartender, and since all theatre companies had shut down the previous week, she was now without either of her gigs. Even as the urgency over the importance of social distancing took hold, I wanted to be there for my friend. She needed one last hurrah to distract her for a few hours more from the difficult existence that the next 30 days (at least) would have in store for her. And every other service industry person was facing the same dilemma and going to work one last night in the hopes of putting even the smallest dent into their unknown financial future. My heart went out to all of them, but most of all, to Kendra.
But before you think too well of me, I also could not deny the situation that lay before me. I have long bemoaned how the vast majority of writers today are sheltered, dull, and pampered. That the prevalence of science fiction and fantasy isn’t solely because those genres sell well, it’s because they don’t have any worthwhile real-life experiences to draw upon. Writers today aren’t signing up to fight in a war, or travel the world, or even to hang out on the bad side of town. The adventurous miscreants, sailors, soldiers, criminals, hard drinkers and addicts who have written some of the best literature of all time wouldn’t recognize the bland, soft-skinned, mild mannered, socially awkward, neurotic messes that make up too much of the literary world. And those pussies would have, and likely did, see their governor’s call to close the bars and public spaces and said to themselves, I’m going to take this seriously and stay at home, play D&D or spend all night on a chat thread with my writer’s group coming up with fun writing games we can do to past this next month.
Then there is me, someone who sees their literary lineage as being that of Cervantes, Lord Byron, Hemingway, Bukowski, Selby Jr., Hunter S., Burroughs, and other bad ass motherfuckers who’d look at a pandemic and say — Bring it. No way was I passing on the opportunity to go out on a night like this. Not a fake apocalyptic night, like Y2K that never materialized. This was the real deal, the night before a city goes quiet.
My gym would officially close at noon, so I showed up at 8:30. There were maybe ten people working out, while the employees wiped down surfaces repeatedly. News played on the televisions and I tried to run. I got to four miles, one off my goal, but I couldn’t concentrate. While I am in a better situation than Kendra and many of my theatre friends, given that I have a salaried job that will continue through the outbreak, I still have a lot of concerns that need to be resolved. I’m in the middle of a divorce. I need a new apartment. A new car. My salary barely covers my expenses, I live off of overtime, and how much will I realistically be able to get as this continues and deepens in its impact? When does this new normal end, does it ever? Of course, people will be sociable again, and we will be able to shake hands or bump into someone and not fear getting a deadly virus, but in some ways, this pandemic is playing into the anti-social, everything is delivered to you, human contact being limited, living lives largely through social media platforms, trends of the 21st century. Are we about to become lonelier, and how will that loneliness impact us when it isn’t tied to social distancing due to a disease?
I parked my car thinking we were going to Supernova, an arcade bar, but there was already a sign posted in the door that they were closed for business. I messaged Kendra and Jiri, who suggested the Chiba Bar, a Japanese joint a few blocks south. White lights illuminate the trees downtown, which during the holidays is festive, and during the summer is celebratory and inviting, but tonight they mostly serve to expose how empty the streets are. Not that the city I live in, Colorado Springs, is happening on a Monday night, but this was multiple blocks with zero cars parked on the road. The most I saw was five on a given block. Occasionally a couple people would pass by and dip into whatever bar was still open. Most, however, had already closed, although the lights were on as employees wearing masks and gloves disinfected tables and chairs and door handles. What stopped me in my tracks, however, were the posters on storefronts advertising upcoming events. Concerts, plays, workshops. Many for the upcoming weekend. All of them cancelled now. I thought of all the work those people put into their event. All the anticipation. All the marketing. All the practice.
Our lives have stopped. It isn’t a pause.
Even if a show can be re-mounted, it won’t be the same. The momentum created by the producers and cast can’t really be duplicated. Whatever new iteration will be that, new, and when you are talking about gigs that may pay nothing or next to it, a postponement signals death. You might as well start from scrap. Some of the workshops can be done virtually, and but for the musical and theatrical performances, is there a space for a live performance? I’ve heard that one company is doing live streaming, and we are going to just film the work itself, but this is not what we had been anticipating. As great as these ideas are to keep something alive, the original intent is gone. What we are living through now is a reset. Like the World Wars and the plagues of the past. You are no longer the same person and neither is the project because neither is the world.
America hasn’t experienced a quarantine for 100 years. America’s biggest advantage throughout its history is the geographical distance between itself and Eurasia. Being surrounded by two oceans protected it, before planes made water borders or any borders fairly obsolete in terms of shielding from disasters. And for 100 years, the location of America shielded it from other pandemics, like SARS, MERS, and H1N1, so much so that the country convinced itself that it was exceptional and disasters happen elsewhere. What frightens me isn’t the Coronavirus, and not just because my youth and good health all but guarantee that I’d survive it, what frightens me is the lack of preparedness in the American psyche to being this vulnerable.
Was this a good idea? Was my shitting on writers who stayed in the comfort of their home instead of confronting this strange night head-on some hubristic bullshit on my part? This doesn’t feel inspiring. It’s just sad. Which of course is the pain Hemingway felt too, all the way up to when he blew his brains out. Even that is idolized. A soldier falling on their sword. A world in need of stoic, brave men to confront the horrors of our species. Just a fancy myth meant to hide some ugly pain.
The unhealthiest and oldest people in my life are all safe and that feels anticlimactic. Not that I wanted them to be sick, but when so much of the life I was living is on hold, and a lack of my old routine being in place to keep me distracted from my real concerns, I could’ve used something to focus on. I could’ve used a mission. The illness of a loved one means when my own life weighs too heavily on me, I have someone to check up on, to buy things for, to listen to, to encourage. I’d even feel special if they died. No wait, that’s the boredom talking. I’m a good person, I wouldn’t really be that self-serving. I don’t really want anyone to die. I just want something to happen.
Like illness. Or death.
Chiba Bar is largely empty. The bar itself is crowded, but the lounge area has three people who aren’t remotely close to one another. Across the street at T-Byrds, it looks like the entire place is packed. When Kendra walks in, equipped with an afro wig and 70s style blouse, I tell her the people are T-Byrds are probably going to get infected.
KENDRA: It’ll be worth it, they’re going to be quarantined anyway. What the fuck are we doing that’s any better?
The server walks up and she knows Kendra, who asks her what her plans are. The girl doesn’t know, and her stress and sadness are palpable. We ordered a couple shots of fernet and when she leaves Kendra’s eyes darken.
Jiri is taking forever to arrive, and I do my best to cheer up Kendra by talking about the stuff she could focus on during this time.
KENDRA: You know, you’re probably right. I could finally read all the books I’ve been meaning to read. I used to love to draw. I could pick that back up. Maybe get some actors together to write material and put it online.
JON: You can create something new.
KENDRA: Yeah! I don’t have to sit around for the next month just feeling sorry myself. I could come up with some cool shit. So what should we toast to?
JON: Lets, lets toast to rediscovering our passions.
A few minutes later Jiri arrives, and proceeds to talk about his friend Devin who is a dance instructor, and how he is trying to find ways of doing dance videos he could make money from. Jiri asks us if we are free this week to go on a couple days’ road trip to Moab with him. I think to myself, everyone is either hustling or trying to escape. I’ll make this plan, and that one, maybe this will break through, or if it doesn’t I’ll try this other thing.
It occurs to me, as I look around the room, that everyone is smiling, cracking jokes, if someone walked in with no context as to why we are here tonight, it would look like any other bar scene. It would be jovial, relaxed. It would be people avoiding their problems. The normalcy meets the bizarre when you factor in that unlike other nights, none of us know when we can come back to this place, or if this place will continue existing after the quarantine, or that we are about to be quarantined. Are we sure that the problems we think we are avoiding are even the right ones to avoid? Are we blind to even that?
Kendra gets up and starts dancing. It’s techno music, which she grooves to freely, instinctively. I join her, and Jiri takes pictures, laughing at us. For a few minutes we forget, and I am just happy to be with my friends.
The fucking weather won’t cooperate. Maybe it’s the writer in me, but for the day after restaurants and bars close and the stock market crashes to also be a rainy day, feels way too on the nose.
The country is shutting down, step by step. Colorado is following suit, albeit in a less severe manner as New York or California. We aren’t being confined to our homes yet, but that might just be a few days off. I feel like the concerns I had a few days ago don’t really matter. I am in love, and thinking of her now, checking in, trying to crack jokes even though it is so hard to laugh today. Love seems like a trivial thing at a time like this, especially the pursuit of someone in that way. The social distancing may require emotional distancing. I had recently thought a lot about my future, with all my plans. The stuff I want out of my day job. The things I want to do creatively, with this new era in my life I was talking to some friends about before everything stopped. That too seems like a waste to think about, or at least, to stress about.
While the rain is not the most pleasant thing to focus on, it is something that is currently happening. Today feels, in a tangible way, like all I got. And today I got my kids, who play in the apartment with so much joy, screeching and laughing and chasing each other, all I want to do is focus on that.
I am ready to pass out, not from drinking, which I’ve barely done, but from being awake for almost twenty hours. I embrace Kendra on the way out.
JON: Don’t be a stranger, if you need anything, hit me up.
KENDRA: Of course, we’re gonna do some awesome shit!
Jiri and I walk out, and we notice steam coming out of a building down the street. Jiri is bathed in blue light, and I get him to pose so I can take a picture. It looks like a still from a movie. The colors, the mood, they all match how I feel at that moment. We get in his car so he can take me back to mine. I rub my eyes and hang my head.
JIRI: You look exhausted man.
JON: I am. What a fucking day.
JIRI: Yeah, but we made it through right? And we made it through together.
JON: Yeah, like we’re a crew. It’s been a while since I had that.
JIRI: Today was rough, go home, get some sleep. Tomorrow will be better.