A friend wrote to me last week from California, saying, “Just wondering if you decided to go to Mississippi, after all—though as things get more confounding each day, I rather hope not. Either way, do be careful, and let your paranoid streak—I know you have one anyway—dominate for a while.”
I wrote back to him in a day or so, answering, “Right. We didn’t go. I’m not even sure why. That’s one of the oddities of this ‘type’ of plague (though maybe all plagues are alike): you’re not strongly motivated to do one thing or another; be prudent or not. I’m resolute about washing my hands. Okay. But last night we went down to Portland, ate a handsome fish dinner, drank some French wine, stayed in a new, well-scrubbed Hilton and now are home feeling pretty good about things. Ought we not have? If we now both get sick, will we particularly care? Sorry you’re worrying; or possibly I’m sorry that I’m not much.”
Maybe it’s federalism that causes information (which can travel so fast) to settle down upon its disparate citizenries so unevenly—each state a little dukedom, jealous of its prerogatives and strangenesses. A Maine village—such as where I live—is already a kind of quarantine zone; social distancing the long-established New England zeitgeist turned into a wall sampler by old Frost. That, departed, much-lamented sage, Wolfman Jack, used to say that the success of a pop tune had to do with “whether the Midwest can dig it.” He knew how vast the continent is and how it levels things.
Something similar must be true with plagues: we speak the same language in Maine and Chicago and Billings, but do we pay the same attention to warnings and alarms as do those unfortunates inside the Beltway and up the Corridor? No one I know in Boothbay thinks we’re part of that nexus. We’re up here. We’re on the way to nowhere, and we like that. It’s different and so are we.
Still, I’m giving this plague a go. I’m definitely in the target demographic—seventy-six, my wife seventy-four—but we’re both absent any underlying conditions (well, that we know about). Kristina bought some disinfectant “wipes” and I went over the inside of my Tahoe fairly well (I’d used the valet park at the Hilton, making me think the steering wheel might be suspect). I wipe down my barbells at the gym. I’ve harkened to the wisdom for real soap over the few-remaining mini hand sanitizers I still have (a friend from Mississippi wrote with a recipe for making my own, using . . . I don’t know . . . aloe and alcohol in little spray bottles purchasable—though no longer—at the Dollar General). We gave one to our cleaning lady who’d decided that since her hands were in water all day, she probably wasn’t susceptible, but was willing to take the little pink beaker “just in case.” I, at the moment, can’t find any of the other ones.
And yet, when I ventured to our only grocery store this weekend (I for sure wore plastic gloves for navigating the various contaminated surfaces and basket handles), I happened to see my friend the sheriff’s deputy, who does the exercise bike beside me at the Y (the bike to nowhere, I call it). “I guess you’re pretty used to wearing plastic gloves in your line of work,” I said. “Naa,” he said, reaching a big bare mitt inside the phony-cheese cold case and giving me his rueful, cop smile. “Not unless I’m picking up body parts, you know. Screw it, I say. Life’s too short, in my view.” “Okay. I suppose,” I said, feeling a bit silly with my white-gloved hands that looked a bit like cadaver hands. Later on I realized he could’ve said “life’s too long” and meant pretty much the same thing.
I’ve been thinking for quite some time that this country’s become close to ungovernable now. And not just since Trump, who among his many misprisions, makes me and most of us who’re not lunatics think the country’s at least governed by the wrong people, and may be inching nearer to anarchy. I’ve actually thought this for a long time—maybe decades. Admittedly, our founding forbears intended our democracy to be both solid and precarious at the same time. E pluribus unum, et cetera. Maybe you could never tell Americans what to do. But there’s no good sense that’s in any way common anymore. We think it’s our “constitutional” right to be able to louse things up if we want to and have that be okay. We don’t like government (I personally don’t mind it); except plenty of us want to be in government and be running things. And yet everybody wants government to fix stuff when we screw it up. Or when nature does—like this plague we’re watching sweep through just now, killing our citizens, who might’ve had a better shot at survival were it not for these young shit-for-brains who cornered the market on Purell—which must’ve seemed like a really great idea ‘til someone put their names and pictures in the New York Times. Sunlight is its own strong disinfectant. But is there enough of that to go around? How many of us in my supermarket, having the chance to snap up the last bottle of hand sanitizer, would give the first thought to the next poor schlub who came along later? Would I? I’d like to think I would.
Writing about all this, of course, isn’t the same as taking our emergency-fast-becoming-a-calamity seriously. At least it’s not the same as taking it seriously enough. Something (some essence like qi, a life-force energy out of the spheres) needs to circulate among us and all our raddled purposes. Maybe in the form of just plain, good citizenship; the thought that we’re all actually in this mess together—either going up or going down—so that you don’t take the last hand sanitizer when you already have a dozen, or risk the health of others in the fancy restaurant just because you’ve got cabin fever. I don’t think I’m paranoid in believing that. I think it’s just good sense.