A Sport and a Pandemic

You both dance behind digital feathers. That white ostrich plumage avatar you plucked from Instagram and placed over your best bits when you weren’t depositing the cotton mask on your visage. Something barer if both of you were feeling bold. Anything biting away at the loneliness.

These tugs at the phone are the new hugs. Inexact. Incorporeal. Immaterial. Gray matter leaving a deep imprint. Nerves reconfigured. You wonder if you’ll ever feel the frisson in the way you did before.

The preliminary call makes your first dance resemble a job interview. Tidy and inoffensive questions meant to be tendered in person, just squeaking through at this intermediary stage, this quick fix for your appetite. Hello. Heavy breathing. Portentous gasps. Disembodied voices nestling into the pink chaise longue. Because no one else had been occupying the ruffled fringes other than your grumpy cat, who has grown fatigued from your one-sided conversations and who now merely wants you to give her a tasty chicken Temptation. From him: A joke just funny enough to sustain mystique but just inoffensive enough to keep the minnow hanging on the line. From her: An answer just sexy enough to feed his ego but just opaque enough to disguise her intellect.

Neither of you know just how hard the virus rages outside. Both of you could breathe it in if you meet, gasping away in a gulf of heavy coughs, perhaps dying in a way that future scholars may consider romantic. It’s best to be delicate, which is better than being dead. To seek answers that feel anecdotal but that reveal your true commitment to public health.

There’s never an exact formula, but you both want the same thing. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. One flub on either of your part could tilt the train over.

We talked, of course. Just as Rilke instructed us to do. One should not believe too easily in a hookup that can vanish on a vagary.

The lifespan of our sordid pretext is more delicate in this epoch. So much frolicking we did in the days before. Before they closed the bars and the restaurants and even the gyms and all the places where we practiced trivialities. As we got to know each other, we both imagined the places in which we could toss our hungering and languorous forms, clambering and shaking as we shuddered tables that used to be nooks where you could sit down and take a fork and pick at a Denver omelette. Exhibitionistic thrills now as lost as time. These were some of the topics we discussed. Where to do it. How to do it. How often we could do it if we worked up the nerve to meet. Shuttered diners that we could break into if the looting happened again. Just to do it. Again and again. Thundering and thrusting on the abandoned furniture as we watched the rats scurry past our lumbering and languid bodies. Even our dirtiest thoughts glittered with a coruscating joy against the dying sun.

But before we could begin to inhabit such a hypothetical place, we shifted from our iPhones to Zoom. Her face added to the steamy whispers. She came to life with a soft burst of unreliable pixels, a Dachshund leaping from a burning building.

She was an out-of-work real estate broker, a part-time novelist who leaned heavily on similes. He was an unemployed bartender. We talked of the babies we could make. Our contribution to the forthcoming boom of unhappy couples domiciled together to burn away the depression and the solitude. We realized we could never know each other that well. We had ideas about summer. And France was too far away.

We unmatched from each other and I walked alone under an orange firmament. 120 degrees on the other side of the world. Bright fires lapping away at all that was left of the very real need we could never summon the effrontery to confirm. I’ll remember her all my life. Until the app chirps back with another match in about twenty minutes.

Coronavirus Report from Brooklyn

The panic hasn’t quite kicked in, but there is a muted and funereal despair in Brooklyn. You can now more easily spot someone who is under the age of 35 from a distance. They jaunt down the streets with the carefree pep of kids who believe they are immune to COVID. But for the rest of us, there is a slowness, a cautiousness, sometimes a sadness, in the gait. For every stranger could be a carrier. I was received with more looks of suspicion than the norm, with people not only staying physically away from me, but saying nothing in response to my cheery hellos. But for people in the neighborhood that I knew in some capacity, including a guy who works the roti stand who I have a long-running “we’re in a steamy relationship” gag with, there were jokes and friendliness and hellos. The people you know are the ones you can count on. But strangers are increasingly stranger.

The reason I was out was not because I wanted to be, but because, like many residents of Brooklyn, I do not have a washing machine in my building. And I am a big believer in changing your underwear on a daily basis. It took me two days before I worked up the nerve to bundle my dirty clothes. I was out for about 90 minutes, longer than I had been out in the last four days combined. I felt that staying inside the laundromat was akin to playing a respiratory version of Russian roulette. So I decided to go for a wander, keeping my social distance.

Some of the restaurants were shuttered. The ones that remained open — takeout only by city edict — had removed all of their chairs. I observed a long strip of yellow police tape cordoning off booths at a fast food franchise. None of them appeared to be doing any business. And this was lunch hour. But there were kids still working behind the counter. I asked a guy on the register, whose name and restaurant I will not divulge in order to protect him, how he felt about working in these risky conditions. He told me that his boss would fire him if he didn’t work his scheduled shifts and that, on top of this, he was getting some overtime. He needed the money and, like many Americans, didn’t have any savings.

The thing that kept surprising me was how quickly social distancing had turned into a habit of not saying a word to a stranger, almost as if you could catch the Coronavirus by speaking a few words. When I went out into the world to stock up on provisions a few days ago, I encountered an old woman with a sad look, stumbling forward on her walker. I stayed about eight feet away, but I said, “Be careful. And you have a very happy day!” She smiled and told me that I was the first person she had spoken with in three days and she thanked me profusely. I wanted so badly to give her a hug and to let her know that she was not alone. But of course, I couldn’t. Our world is already in the casually cruel practice of letting the old die on their own. The increased and justifiable fear of passing along the virus to someone over the age of 60 has only hardened this habit of isolating ourselves from the truth of our inevitable fate.

The man who ran the laundromat had reduced his hours and placed many signs warning people about the virus. He wore a facemask. I noticed that his family wasn’t there, as they often were. It was just him, doing his best to keep his small business running. When I took out my laundry, I was sized up by a few nervous people who also didn’t want to sit there. Aggressive glares. Don’t come near me. It was quieter than usual, as most of the city now is, with only the television blaring warbling news from the wall. But it was the beginning of a new way of life. Don’t trust strangers. You don’t know what they have. The devil you know is better than the angel you don’t. In this new and unprecedented time of staying inside and self-quarantine, how many people will suffer not from a deadly flu but from loneliness?

Facebook Censorship: “Violating Community Standards”

I have received multiple reports tonight of Facebook stifling the rights of regular citizens to report on developments related to the Coronavirus, claiming that any user who shares helpful and objectively inoffensive information is somehow “violating community standards.”

This is, in short, an obscene violation of the First Amendment — especially because the “offensive” content being shared is often reasonable. Here are some examples of how Facebook is going out of its way to prevent people from having useful discussions:

I’m personally offended by this. As a dedicated rabble-rouser who often goes out of his way to write about the ineffable and the offensive, I have somehow not been hit by this weirdass algorithm — even though I went well out of my way to publicly declare on Facebook, “Mark Zuckerberg should have his virgin tight rectum violated by a flock of lambs jacked up on Viagra. Mark Zuckerberg will never know how to find and stimulate the clitoris – even with his many billions of dollars.”

Where the hell is my violation of community standards, Mark? I feel that I’ve been left out of your censorship party!

But in all seriousness, this draconian assault on basic information sharing is a calumny against free expression and the abundant need to be honest about the place we’re now heading in. If Zuckerberg has decided to withhold information — especially information that was put together by bona-fide journalists who perform their work with objective standards — then this is, in fact, disastrous to discourse and catastrophic to understanding how the terrible flu is spreading. At the present time, it is essential for us to have the floodgates open. And since 2.5 billion people are now on Facebook trying to make sense of a terrible pandemic, then it seems condign to let them vent in any way they need to.

This patently illustrates that Facebook is very much committed to muzzling free speech and destroying our right to disseminate genuinely useful information that will help people survive rather than die. And right now, it is far more important to have people delineating what they are experiencing rather than having Facebook capitulate to the business-as-usual approach to contemporary life. This is not a time for dishonesty. It is a time for truth.

When the world returns to normal, I hope that people will remember how Zuckerberg’s smug crew gleefully silenced us when we needed to talk. I hope that everyone will remember that Facebook went out of its way to be a dance partner with fascism and to pretend that a pandemic that could kill as many as 1.7 million Americans wasn’t just some fly-by-night trend.

We Need A Guaranteed Income for All Americans During the Pandemic

Nearly every working-class American is one or two paychecks from being out on the streets. And the shuttering of bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues in Los Angeles and New York City — all necessary, but all committed with cruel and thoughtless consideration for the American worker — is going to take a significant and life-altering hit on the vast majority of Americans who aren’t cushioned by savings or a 401k plan that they can cash out to survive during this unprecedented time. According to data, 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. And 45% of those Americans have no savings at all. It is unconscionable and morally unacceptable to leave these Americans without a financial safeguard. Yes, evictions are frozen in New York City. But there isn’t a rent freeze. And when the housing courts reopen, the restaurant workers — who are undoubtedly struggling to find last-minute funds to make rent in the next two weeks — will be left vulnerable to greedy landlords who have been looking for an opportunity to evict their tenants, do a retrofit, raise the rent, and make more money.

Moreover, with businesses circling the wagons right now just to survive, anyone unemployed right now is also left in the lurch. The emergency Coronavirus bill now being worked out by Congress allows for sick leave, but leaves about 59 million Americans uncovered. If you work for a business with more than 500 employees — say a restaurant franchise like McDonald’s — or the government, you’re not going to qualify for paid leave. Some companies, such as Target and Walmart, have stated that they would allow for two weeks of sick leave should any employee contract COVID-19. But this still doesn’t account for the likelihood that, as quarantine measures continue and more venues and establishments close down, the employees who work for these places will not have an alternative income.

The only mechanism that would alleviate this unfair burden upon the unemployed, the working poor, and the middle class would be a guaranteed income granted to all Americans during the next two months. This must be accompanied by a rent freeze, a freeze on credit card interest and late fees, and numerous other pieces of financial legislation to rectify a situation that we could not foresee happening.

This isn’t about radicalism. It’s about democratic humanism. It’s about an empathy for all that should never be a partisan issue.

Because this isn’t just about workers meeting their basic needs. For the estimated 30 million Americans who are presently uninsured — and for the working class population using a healthplan with a high deductible — are going to face significant costs just to get checked out for the Coronavirus — such as the teacher hit with a $10,000 emergency room bill who got checked out after she returned from Italy. (The irony is that the teacher merely visited the ER and didn’t get tested.)

It’s one thing for Governor Andrew Cuomo to end the seven day waiting period on unemployment. But these benefits must be issued at an amount that is realistic to survive on. Is it fair for the bartenders and waiters now out of work to have to use their two weeks of paid sick leave to survive what may be two months of quarantine? It is not. It is, in fact, deeply inhumane.

Unless our legislators relish the destruction of working-class lives — and there is good reason to believe that Republicans and Democrats alike simply do not care — we must issue a guaranteed income at the federal level during the next two months that kicks in immediately. Creating such a financial cushion for everyone will alleviate stress and encourage people to self-quarantine. For how many of these workers are now looking for alternative income streams that are likely unsafe for them and unsafe for the population?

The Way We Live Now

@grayareapod

I just bought 19 cans of soup. Getting ready for the ##apocalypse. ##Coronavirus ##soup ##stockpile ##pandemic ##quarantine ##food

♬ (Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult

This morning, I bought nineteen cans of soup just to be on the safe side. Tomorrow, I will purchase a great deal more, along with numerous rolls of toilet paper, which is now in high demand. Regular people are now snapping at each other in once civilized venues. Personally, I’d rather come out of this with a modest sense of dignity. But that requires a great deal of prep. I’m seeing supermarket shelves in my neighborhood turn into barren cavities of emptiness. As for the soup, I’m watching the grocery circulars like a hawk for good deals. I’ve never purchased this much soup at one time in my life. But strange times require strange measures. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching far too many apocalyptic movies, it’s this: you can’t trust a government to provide for the people. Especially when you have a sociopathic nincompoop out of his depth running things from the top. Weeks will pass. And while the rest of you may be contemplating cannibalism or eating a dead mouse for lunch, I’ll be living it large with Creamy Chicken Noodle. I make it a personal habit to not eat human flesh. And I’m certainly not going to let any damned virus disrupt my culinary sensibilities.

That my life — and yours — could become so easily uprooted is a testament to just how swiftly the Coronavirus has altered the nature of regular life. Sure, you can still ride the subway. But who wants to be on a crowded car? Last night, I decided to grab a beer at a watering hole and wait it out rather than risk some unwanted tango with respiratory particulates. I had touched a subway pole while standing. And this seemed especially foolhardy. So I hit the bar’s bathroom and washed my hands while reciting thirty lines from Hamlet.

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson contracted the Coronavirus, with their shirtless son Chet insisting, “They’re not tripping.” And that offensive news pretty much kickstarted events as we now live them. Sports organizations have suspended seasons. Broadway has gone dark. Even Disneyland is now closed. Depending on where you live, there are bans on social gatherings with more than 250 or 500 people. The stock market had its worst Dow Jones drop in history. Personally I lost $500. And I’m usually a somewhat savvy investor.

All this went down just in the last 24 hours. If you’re not sitting on a 401k that you can cash out or some savings that will crest you along in the next few months, your life is pretty much fucked if you don’t have a traditional nine-to-five job. And that’s the conversation nobody wants to have right now. You can’t really meet people. but you can have hilarious phone conversations. You can’t perform or be out in public. You can’t date. If you’re a business that relies on social interaction to survive, then your quotidian way of getting by has been heinously compromised. This is, in short, a disaster.

On the other hand, maybe we needed this. We operate in a world in which life flits by at a pace that people could not imagine a century ago. And maybe a pause from this regular onslaught might cause us to reflect on what the presently ignoble corporate covenant with the American worker truly is. Why do we share so much? Why must we be constantly on call to show how essential we are? Looking at this from the other end of the telescope, we do know that the stock market was eventually going to take a snooze with the bears. And when it recovers in about six months, it won’t be nearly as bad as it could have been, had it collapsed in “more natural” conditions. More importantly, the Coronavirus will undoubtedly expose just how Third World America is in relation to healthcare. The terrible Faustian bargain of working for the Man just so you and your family can get a shitty deductible. Well, that’s pure evil. By every objective standard. Here in America, we’re going to see a terrible uptick in Coronavirus cases in the next few weeks. We’re going to see people die. Just as they did in Italy, which is four weeks ahead of us and better equipped for this pandemic than we are. But Americans will die nonetheless. And this is something that never needed to happen. And it would not have happened, had we been committed to universal healthcare and gentle honesty.

The way we live now needs to be one of increasing isolation if we want to stand any chance of stopping this — a slam dunk for introverts, but a tough sell for the rest of us. We have been living on borrowed time for a few decades. And it took a crazy virus to reveal the terrible truth of how we don’t look out for each other. That it should take a pandemic hitting at the human race out of the blue to reveal our skewered priorities says much, I think, about how much harder we need to give a damn about other people and enact policies that will allow them to thrive. For thrive we must. Against the Coronavirus. Against all the forces that vitiate our possibilities. Against anything that gets in the way of people living their best possible lives.

We’re All Going to Die: A Special Guest Column

[Reluctant Habits recently reached out to Horace Flipperbottom, a former Department of the Interior official and author of the memoir, Twelve Years in a Bunker: How I Had Fun While Living as a Recluse, to get some thoughts about what to expect about the Coronavirus strain now sweeping the world.]

Some may view the Department of the Interior as the government’s answer to an unwanted cable channel that is part of a promising television bundle. Sure, you’re never going to watch our shows or even know the type of television we produce. But you can’t deny the fact that we are here. Anyway, I served for sixteen years in the Department of the Interior. Sure, nobody noticed me when I rolled in late to work and, on Fridays, my coworkers never asked what type of wild weekend plans were ahead of me. But I did serve as a government official nonetheless. And this has to count for something! So when The Atlantic came calling, asking me to express some thoughts alongside my DHS colleague Juliette Kayyem, I was more than happy to tell them to stick their invite where the sun don’t shine and take up Mr. Champion’s more enticing offer to speak my mind here. (Mr. Champion, knowing of my great passion for mini golf, was kind enough to offer me a $25 Scandia Fun Center voucher for my thoughts, even though I cannot use it during these tough antisocial times.) Sure, they laughed at me not long after the Y2K virus hit and I holed up for a dozen years in a bunker with thousands of cans. But, dammit, I’m alive! And because I am alive, this makes me very well qualified to speak about what to expect with the disease known as COVID-19. Because staying alive when you know there’s a minor chance that a lot of people could die sooner rather than later is, as my job recruiter has informed me, a skill that you want to highlight on your resume.

I’ve been urging people, in as calm a tone as I can muster, to listen to the experts, advising people about the benefits of never talking to another soul for twelve years. Advice like mine is meant to be empowering, but now I fear it may also be misleading. Because avoiding people just isn’t going to cut it. You need to view anyone other than yourself as a potential COVID-19 carrier. Other human beings are your enemy. If America believes that life is going to continue as normal, they may be wrong. They could also be right. But when you look at any probability figure, the important thing to remember in this grand game is that your only guarantee of living during a pandemic is to exist with the odds stacked in your favor. And if that means living a joyless life without people and firmly committed to paranoia, so be it. The facts are these: You could catch the Coronavirus from anyone. You should probably be sitting on a gigantic stockpile of toilet paper and alcoholic hand sanitizer, even if you have to rob a Costco warehouse and take out a few people during the heist. You should learn how to fire guns in the event that someone catches onto the fact that you have more toilet paper and hand sanitizer than anybody else. It’s a simple Darwinian formula. Survival of the fittest. Those who know how to keep a fresh roll of soft Charmin near the bunker toilet for twelve years are going to come out of this just fine. Plus, you’ll be able to touch your face without feeling self-conscious.

Disruptions are almost certain to multiply in the weeks to come. You will have more reason to reconsider some stranger on the subway scratching his ass as a diabolical threat to your health. They’re canceling conferences and gatherings not out of panic, but because, even if we didn’t have the Coronavirus to contend with, the human race was long overdue to test out a protracted period of not socializing with each other, perhaps bonding over endearing videos uploaded to YouTube featuring cats attempting to live out their luxurious lives while wearing face masks.

Aggressive steps are essential to protecting the public from a virus that could be deadly or that could be a temporary footnote in our culture, perhaps momentarily popular like Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” or La Roux’s “Bulletproof.” Yes, people will still perform these one hit wonders at karaoke years later and wonder what all the fuss was all about. But for those of us in know, we will be able to say to the COVID-19 virus, “You may have been temporary and inexplicably popular, thanks in part to the willingness of media to cover you in ways that caused these songs to infect the minds of most people who were surfing the Internet while bored at work. But we took you seriously when you endured! And we will never forget you!”

I live in suburban Massachusetts. When I emerged from the bunker, I built a frighteningly enormous home with aggressive air purifiers, one protected by towering walls filigreed with painful barbed wire. I vote by absentee ballot and my vote is often Republican. I don’t leave my home. I don’t take any chances. I stopped taking chances when I realized that leaving my fortified compound involved minute but nevertheless undeniable risk. I am insulated by vast wealth. My neighbors are white and male and libertarian. Many of them have gone through divorces, but they still live lonely yet meaningful lives. My neighbors and I communicate by telegraph. We’re doing what we can to keep Morse code alive. My neighbors and I will never again set foot in the real world. We’ve been waiting for something like the Coronavirus to happen for a long time. Some may say that being part of a rich and sheltered elite is a bad place to be as you’re speculating about what may happen to the American people. But the way I see it, you have two choices. You can leave the house and risk the possibility that you can die. Or you can die on your own antiseptic terms.

The fact remains that we’re all going to die. It’s just a question of whether or not we want to risk the low probability of dropping dead in the real world or kicking the bucket on our own terms. As I write this, twenty-two people have died in the United States from COVID-19. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration informs us that 102 people die from auto accidents each day. A death is a death is a death — as I believe the poet Gertrude Stein once wrote. I will never drive a car. I will never leave my home. I will live by taking no risks. Please join me in my noble quest.