March 16, 2020
It’s been a weird week. I’m in Washington, DC at the moment but had planned to be in New York. The first of my plans starting getting knocked over on Monday, two days after my son’s eighth birthday, so I guess that was March 9. Today’s the sixteenth, and every plan I’d made, not just for this week but seemingly until at least the fall is toast. School is out for my kids until at least April 2, but that seems like wishful thinking. There is, however, something liberating about having your calendar wiped clean. All these obligations vanished, revealing how irrelevant they were in the first place. This isn’t the first crisis I’ve experienced in my life, but it’s been a while since the last one, and I welcome the clarifying effect it has on one’s priorities.
I’m with my fiancé Lea today. We had to run an errand, and on the way home she wanted a cup of coffee. We parked outside the shop. When she went to get out of the car, I suggested that I go instead, that maybe only one of us should take the risk. I’m not sure how epidemiologically sound this quasi-chivalric gesture was but I welcomed the chance to make it. She waited in the car, and I ventured into the cupcake-coffee place. Inside, the management had cordoned off the seating area. Usually, the place played loud music. Today it was silent. The condiments bar was bare: no milk, no spoons, no napkins, nothing displayed that a person could touch and contaminate. It was like a coffee shop built in an emergency room. Despite the dour atmosphere, the two baristas seemed in good spirits. They cracked jokes as they poured milk into my americano with their rubber-gloved hands. Their actions—as well as everyone else’s—felt deliberate, purposeful. I’ll remember getting that cup of coffee for Lea for a long time.
Maybe I’m over analyzing this interaction and its relevance, but I don’t think so. A crisis clarifies. People show you who they are. Communities show you who they are. For years now—over a drink, or at dinner—I’ve heard people wonder aloud whether or not America, riven as it is with division, would be able to pull together again if it was hit with a major crisis like a Pearl Harbor or September 11. So far, it seems as though people are. It won’t last forever, and it won’t need to. But right now, it’s happening in gestures as small as a cup of coffee.
When I got home, I reread a favorite poem of mine, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white