June 1, 2020
In the days following March 11, when the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus was a pandemic, I completely stopped going to large, populated places, like grocery stores, during peak shopping hours. My dread of the novel coronavirus had its grips on me unlike anything I’ve ever known. Since then, however, I’ve progressed from fearful to cautious, and I write to share my personal breakthrough.
This morning I had to pick up a box of contact lenses from Walmart’s Vision Center, and the patient entrance, that would take me there directly, where there would be no people, was locked; everyone was required to enter through the main door, so the greeter could trace each person.
Confessedly, I noticed this from my car in the parking lot because I could see too many people entering and exiting without a mask, and I didn’t want to come in contact with them. As an African-American with a weak immune system, statistics revealed that I was more vulnerable to the disease. My doctors warned me about how deadly the coronavirus was, and I believed them, so much so that these past few months have reduced me to a lonely prisoner in my home, where Netflix had become my fantasy cellmate.
To wear a mask or to not wear a mask wasn’t a political decision for me, but a logical, scientifically-based one. I simply didn’t want to contract the virus, I wanted to live. I was afraid, so I sat in my car and waited.
During this time, I phoned two people—first my longtime friend and mentor, Dr. François Clemmons, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame, to say hello and to see how he was doing; second was someone I’ll call Terry, to protect his privacy, a young car salesperson who’d become my friend. I needed to ask him a question about a disturbing Netflix documentary that I’d just watched.
I called François first, because, for more than twenty years, he has always been a source of reassurance, even though he’d probably been impacted by the pandemic more than I. He’s an extroverted, gregarious, gay, seventy-five-year-old African-American man who lives alone, and being cooped up in his house has been painfully difficult for him. Currently, he can’t attend his church, he isn’t able to spend hours holding court with his fans in the grocery store, and he can’t steal hugs and kisses from his boyfriends and pretend wives.
“Dr. Deanster Man”—this was the nickname he gave me—“do you realize that I haven’t had a hug from a human being in three months? If it weren’t for Princess”—his dog—“who enjoys being hugged and loved, I don’t know what I’d do,” he lamented.
François’ words reminded me of how we all long to touch one another, and brought back to life words that I once heard or read. The paraphrased version goes something like this: The sense of touch is one of the first and last of physical experiences, and we want it to be tender. We want to be touched, but often dare not say so, yet we are starved for the laying on of hands. I empathized with François.
I told François that I was sitting in my car, parked in front of a Walmart, afraid to enter the store. In typical François fashion, he asked a series of logical questions:
“Do you have a mask?”
“Do you have hand sanitizer?”
“Do you believe you can stay six feet from the folks going in and out of Walmart?”
“Chile, then go ahead and go in there and do what you have to do. There is no need to be afraid. God did not give us the spirit of fear,” he added, quoting scripture, as he was prone to do from time to time.
I knew, deep down, that François made complete, total sense.
“Okay, I’ll go in, as soon as I make one more phone call,” I said, still stalling, but feeling better after we said goodbye.
To give myself a bit more time, I rang Terry. He’s in his late twenties, I’m guessing, married with two small children. Four years ago, he was the first person to greet me at the car dealership where he worked. I was looking for a more suitable vehicle to transport my aging mother who lived with me at the time. Terry and I hit it off right away. He was a very good, convincing salesperson; he had a warm smile; his kind words—which I’ve come to learn he always has, for everyone—struck me as entirely genuine. (I’ve since bought two vehicles from him.) But I also connected with him because I liked his story. He began at the dealership as a car washer, and then worked his way up, and now he’s one of their top salespersons. He’s doing all he can to support his family.
Terry shared more about himself as he showed me around the lot that first day we’d met. He’d moved from New England to Tennessee with his parents, who run a local family-owned restaurant, which he, of course, recommended I try. He warned me not to be surprised if his mother, a dedicated Buffalo Bills football fan, pulled out photos she’d taken with the Bills’ former star quarterback, Jim Kelly.
The first time I ate there, I did, indeed, receive a warm welcome from Terry’s mother. Not having ever seen me in the restaurant, she asked how I’d heard about it. I told her that Terry had sold me a car, and suggested that I come there to eat. As a mother often does, she grinned one of those ear-to-ear proud-mom grins and went to the back and got her husband to come out and meet me, and while she was away, she did, in fact, grab a few Buffalo Bills photos to show me. Terry’s sister sometimes helps out at the restaurant, and I was introduced to her as well. I rarely forget a face, and since meeting her, she and I have run into each other several times in town, and we exchange hellos.
She was the reason I called Terry.
Terry answered the phone with his usual warmth. He asked how I was doing. Because I was scared and upset, I launched right in. I told him I’d had better months but knew that there were others who’d had it worse. That I’d been in daily Zoom meetings to develop protocols to ensure that our students would be as safe as possible, should the university reopen in the fall. That I was angered by the atrocious murder of George Floyd, and that the police officers involved had to be held accountable.
“That was awful,” Terry agreed. He told me he was otherwise good, that he and his family were healthy. That he’d been quite busy at work. “We’ve sold almost all of our cars, and our lot is nearly empty. Due to the pandemic, car manufacturers are closed, so there are no cars being made,” he explained.
“I’m having my truck serviced next Monday,” I said, “so I hope I’ll get to see you.”
“I’ll be here,” he said.
At what should have been the time I said goodbye and ended the call, I hesitantly added, “Terry, I do not want to pry, but over the weekend, I watched a documentary about child molester, Jeffrey Epstein. I wanted to know more about how he could have gotten away with abusing children for so long. I was not prepared for what I saw. The most powerful part of the documentary were the interviews with the survivors, all adult women now, who bravely told their stories about how they were manipulated into Epstein’s world. The face and voice of one of the women interviewed, in particular, was familiar to me. Was it your sister?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered simply.
“I don’t need to know anything else, but I respect her courage to describe and re-live such a life-altering experience,” I replied.
Terry thanked me. Then he added, “I’ll be sure to tell her. She really likes you and will appreciate what you’ve said. Being a part of that documentary and telling her story was healing for her, and she knows that millions of people will watch it and understand what really happened, so please don’t think that you’re prying.”
“Looking forward to seeing you in a few days,” I said, and ended the call.
Without hesitation, I put on my mask, exited my car, and went in to pick up my contact lenses, with less fear and more courage.
W. Marichal Gentry
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. W. Marichal’s contribution will be directed to COVID-19 Relief Fund for Black Communities.