A Letter from Washington, DC
The newsroom of the Washington Post, which sits in a castle-like skyscraper seven blocks from the White House, offers plenty of discreet locations to fetch snacks. Shortly after an early lunch on Tuesday, March 10, I found myself following a zigzag path between the cubicles of the Metro section in search of something to sate my post-salad cravings.
First, I headed to the transportation editor’s desk, where a Lucite box reliably brims with wrapped chocolates. But the container was empty. From the opposite side of the newsroom, my No. 2 favorite snack-spot beckoned: a side table next to the work station of the railways and airports reporter. She rotates between a box or two of Girl Scout cookies. Or a pouch of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup miniatures. Or, on that day, a bag of Rold Gold pretzel sticks.
So on I marched, down a short path that overlooks the newsroom’s open-air “Hub,” the Post’s central nervous system. Here, large screen television screens show the major networks and a huge black monitor flashes which articles are dominating the nation’s eyeballs. No longer was “Ukraine” and “whistleblower” filling the CNN chyrons or our internal metrics board’s URLs. Now, “China” and “coronavirus.” But surely, I thought—as my non-Purell’d hand unclipped the yellow-and-brown pretzel bag and rummaged around—it would be just a matter of days before those keywords would be replaced by newer ones on a completely different American crisis.
Back at my desk, a colleague and I continued reporting out a story about a woman’s rape allegation. I checked in with another teammate about his forthcoming book on mass shootings and whether the publisher in New York had generated a cover yet. Would be it a photo or an illustration? We agreed an illustration was best. I made plans to visit later in the week a forthcoming profile subject, a ninety-five-year-old World War II veteran who witnessed the flag raising at Iwo Jima, at his home at a military retirement center in northwest Washington. Still hankering for salt or sugar—the intermittent fasting diet I’d just begun was making me hangry—I stalked back to the Rold Gold bag and, with my bare hand, grabbed another fistful.
When I returned to my cubicle, everyone on my team was buzzing about a Los Angeles Times reporter’s tweet announcing the newspaper had just suspended work-related air travel and “is prepping the newsroom to work from home to help slow the spread of coronavirus.” Was this an overreaction? How could news organizations, you know, get the news, if we couldn’t travel? But wasn’t that also the right call? Were we next?
By 3:00 p.m., our inboxes broke the news from our publisher: leadership was encouraging—but not mandating—us to work from home. “We intend to continue our operations at full scale even with this change in employee locations,” he wrote. The memo, just three paragraphs, itself was news, covered by The Hill, the Washingtonian, and the Associated Press, whose article was published on the web site of the New York Times. Of course, at least one conservative outlet, the Daily Caller, seemed to imply with their article’s headline that we were acting foolish: “‘Mass Hysteria’: WaPo Quarantines Entire Staff Over Coronavirus.” The top piece’s top comment: “Maybe they can stay at home permanently. Their propaganda rag will not be missed.” The second-highest had a familiar ring: “No surprise. Wapoooo is a disgusting fake news loser!!”
All I could do was laugh. Where in the article did it note anyone at the Post who sounded “hysterical?” And who said we were “quarantined”? Were these the two keywords editors ginned up to boost their traffic and make their own metric magic? And why mock a newsroom teeming with hardworking reporters, editors, engineers, audio and visual producers—the list goes on—for taking precautions in the face of covering a virus wreaking havoc on the world?
By the end of the day, I waved farewell to my teammates. When I came home, our neighbors invited us to their deck for champagne. It was our friend’s birthday. All the kids emerged, riding their bikes and scooters up and down the freshly paved alley. We stayed out later than normal, feting our wonderful friend, asking him about the meaning of life at the age of fifty.
Soon, a policeman showed up on his motorcycle, making the neighborhood rounds. Kids took turns riding his sidecar, hopping in and out, their bare hands gripping the sides, while all of us parents whipped out our phones for pictures and future Instagram uploads. Officer, would you like some champagne? He didn’t respond. Come on up! I thanked him for his service and then asked how long he’d been a cop. Twenty years, he said. I smiled and said that’s about the same time I’ve been a Post reporter. I came in the year 2000, at the end of the Bill Clinton administration, I told him. Times were different then, right? I asked. The officer, a barrel-chested man with large black sunglasses, nodded, and then loaded the next kid waiting into the sidecar.
In the morning, my wife and I dropped our daughters off at school, which happens to have a lot of families who work for The World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It occurred to me, as we were filing inside the hallways to drop off our youngest in her kindergarten class, that the parents roaming these halls might have just returned from Dulles airport after an overseas flight somewhere. So many of our school’s families are always telling us tales of their exotic itineraries—quick trips to Manila or London. Had anyone traveled to Beijing or Wuhan? Italy was already making news for its skyrocketing number of cases and its lockdown of its northern region. Did we have many Italian families? I knew of at least one. But I’d just seen them the other day. I pulled aside one teacher who I’m close with. You think the school will close? They’ll close, right? She shrugged. Not sure, she said. I said, Good luck to you.
Later that morning, my colleague and close friend, who lives a few blocks away, was hosting a few of us Post reporters who live in the neighborhood for coffee and pastries. A meeting of the “dispossessed,” he cheerfully said in his email invitation. We all gathered around his big kitchen island—a meeting of our newspaper’s Cleveland Park bureau, we joked—neither hugging or handshaking. I brought a bottle of Germ-X with me and neither ate nor drank. I left after forty minutes.
When I got home, I logged back on. That’s when the panic began. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, announced that up to 70 percent of the people in her country could be infected with coronavirus “as long as this situation continues to exist.” I really didn’t hear her caveat. All I heard was 70 percent. Then, seemingly minutes later, the Washington Post issued an alert on my phone—one of seemingly hundreds that have come to dominate the soundtrack of my life, perhaps yours too: “The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the coronavirus a global pandemic . . . ”
Trapped at my home office, I scoured Twitter for updates. For updates to updates. Over the next few days, thankfully, stories I’d been working on up until this point still needed finishing.
But my denial continued to linger. I called up the son of the ninety-five-year-old at the military retirement community. Just confirming that a photographer and I are still having lunch with your dad on Thursday? Yep, all good, the son said. But then, after seeing a headline about nursing homes restricting visitors, I dialed up the retirement center to double check. Am I allowed to come for the interview? The response was polite, but swift: No. I felt slightly ridiculous for even asking at that point, but, obviously, I still wanted to produce.
And there went my pre-corona frame of mind. The moment reminded me a lot of what it was like to cover the September 11 attacks a little more than a year into my tenure at the newspaper. That day, I’d gone to Dulles seeking out relatives of people who perished. Hours later, though, when I returned to my Virginia bureau, I still had to write a school board story. The Fauquier County school system was weighing whether to allow homeschoolers to participate in public school classes or extracurricular activities. Not important in the grand scheme, but still. Didn’t we need to write articles about things outside the epicenter of a tragedy?
Saturday morning, after I ducked into a neighborhood grocery and bakery to grab canned food and everything bagels, my wife Caroline and our two daughters, Margot, who is nearly 8, and Hilary, 6, needed a hike. We took a left out our front door and headed to the Tregaron Conservancy, a twenty-acre wooded estate of winding trails and gardens, plus a large pond. The preserve, free and open to the public, has always felt like our neighborhood’s personal secret garden in the middle of the city, a place bursting with trees and plants—sugar maples, tulip poplars and oaks, plus rhododendron and honeysuckle shrubs—smack dab between two subway stops on the Red Line. Most important, the paths are wide. You can be around people but not be bunched up against them.
When we reached a large meadow, the kids immediately dropped their jackets and demanded to play tag. We had the place to ourselves other than two older women sitting off to the side, staring at their phones. My kids pointed their fingers at me, Daddy’s It. Margot, the oldest, crinkled her eyebrows and stuck out her tongue. I chased after my wife first, but only gave it a halfhearted sprint. I was trying to lull the girls into believing I’d given up on them and was only pursuing the other parent, when my real plan was to pivot sharply and sprint after Margot.
As soon as I began to make that turn, though, I stopped. One of the women watching us was talking loudly on her phone. “Did Governor Cooper ban gatherings of more than two hundred people? Or one hundred?” I stopped, curious which state she was talking about and checked my phone. North Carolina. Shouldn’t I have known that? Did I need to call this in? Were gatherings that large being banned in Washington? Were there more than one hundred people in Tregaron? Would they close down the preserve? Margot and Hilary were standing by a small tree, picking at the cage wiring wrapped around it. I ran over. No surfaces! I said.
We all walked toward the summit of the big hilltop. The kids scrambled down, their hands flying every which way, as if they were always a half-second from tumbling over and falling on their heads. My wife walked down but I stayed at the top. A tall guy was chatting up his friends. “We’re all waiting for the first ‘Pentagon Positive,’” he was saying.
My wife and kids were yelling my name. When I met them at a trail, I was looking on Twitter, trying to find the latest number of confirmed cases in Virginia, Maryland, and the District. If a massive outbreak afflicted the Pentagon, I wondered, how much would those total numbers go up? What about in my newsroom? Who would be the first “Washington Post Positive”?
“Daddy,” Margot said, standing on a bunch of rocks in a stream. “It’s family time.”
“What are you doing on the phone?” Caroline asked.
“Just monitoring the end of the world,” I said, half-smiling.
“Give it a break,” Caroline said, “and just be with us.”