November 3, 2020
On Thursday, October 22, I went to early vote in Nashville.
It was actually my second attempt. A couple of days previous, I drove to my polling location at what I thought would be a slow period, the early birds having already done their civic duty while the pre-lunch crowd had yet to arrive. My prediction couldn’t have been more wrong. In the twenty-five years I’ve lived in Nashville, I had never seen so many people voting early in such numbers. There was a line wrapped around the entire Belle Meade City Hall parking lot, and a frustrated cop was directing the gridlocked traffic. So I left. It was not lost on me that bailing was a form of privilege, that my work schedule would allow me to make the attempt another day. News was already coming out of metro Atlanta counties like Clayton, Fulton, and DeKalb that voters—mostly African American—were waiting some ten hours or more in line to cast their ballots.
On that Thursday morning, I parked at the Belle Meade Kroger about a quarter of a mile away and then walked down West End Avenue, which has no sidewalks between Belle Meade Plaza and City Hall. To all of the commuters who eyed me on the shoulder, I must have been a lunatic. And there was the line, already and again. I’d come prepared with a book—Olivia Laing’s Crudo—as well as a sweater, since the morning was chilly. When I donned my mask and took my place in line, it was 8:00 a.m., on the number. Once again, my privilege wasn’t lost on me. Mine was not one of the 1,600 polling places shuttered since 2012. I was unlikely to have my registration challenged. I didn’t need to bring a foldout chair or a bag lunch and fluids to get me through this as yet unknown stretch of time.
I’ve since finished Laing’s novel, but it wasn’t the right book for what would turn out to be a long wait. It was too on the nose for the moment, like reading a war novel in a foxhole, telling, as it did, the tale of a middle-aged British writer named Kathy whose wedding is fast approaching in the summer of 2017 while it also seems the world is plunging to climatological destruction amidst the rise of fascism—a midlife crisis for our protagonist in the Age of Existential Crises:
Walk back, Armageddon. A bird had landed in the tallest birch. She couldn’t make it out with her glasses on, or with them off. 40, not a bad run in the history of human existence but she’d really rather it all kept going, water in the taps, whales in the oceans, fruit and duvets, the whole sumptuous parade, she was into it thanks, she’d like that show to run and run.
True, I thought, yes, that is exactly how it is. But I made two mental moves that give me small comfort in such moments: I considered the fact that there were probably plenty of people in this line on the opposite end of the political spectrum who thought such fears were overblown (or who feared people with my fears might soon be in charge), and that the trick was not to either/or the argument but to both/and it. Oh my people, I thought, how can we both/and? The second trick: I put my phone away and simply looked around.
Not surprisingly, my cohort was mostly like me, since zip code is destiny these days: entirely white folks—Belle Meade’s the Ladue of Nashville, or its Park Avenue, pick your city—in various states of business casual garb, though there was here and there the occasional surgeon in scrubs or the hard-hatted construction worker. Most notably there was a grandmother who was clearly babysitting—her charge was between two and three years old and could not stand still—and she was determined to let everyone around her know she was doing a good job of it, being a good sport, and therefore we should be too, perhaps because the boy was on the edge of unruly. “Life is an adventure, Caleb, it’s just an adventure,” she stated as he leaped to smash an ant with both feet, kicked a pebble down a grate, and ran to inspect the drain. I slipped then into my oldest and most reliable habit to counter boredom. When I used to play a ton of tennis, I’d recall as many points as I could manage. I go through the same routine now after a jiujitsu match or after a long jag of writing, thinking through every takedown and counter, parsing every sentence in a scene.
In line, I tried to review the pandemic’s course, starting in early March, my own lockdown beginning in jiujitsu class one afternoon, after weeks of watching the news. I was struggling beneath a twenty-something kid I had in half-guard while spying—this is no exaggeration—a bead of sweat dribble down his nose’s bridge to swell and then fall straight into my open mouth. “I’m out,” I thought, “I am done.” Soon after, my kids’ school closed and their classes lurched into remote-learning mode. Sewanee sent its students home ahead of Spring break and we were in full lockdown. The days passed in page views: it was all screens all the time. The writing hours I lost plunging down news wormholes, as if, just as Italo Calvino had described, gazing at the world was like beholding the Medusa. The decision to no longer watch the Coronavirus Task Force briefings, since they redlined my blood pressure, since everything was decidedly not under control, despite Pence’s protestations and Trump’s crazy cameos. Facebook was nothing but echo-chamber agitprop. Kroger’s toilet paper and paper towel aisles were decimated. The three-hundred-dollar grocery shopping excursions, heavy on the canned goods. A laughable trip to Friedman’s Army/Navy for end-of-the-world supplies. Ammo bought in Monteagle for a gun I didn’t even own. The cooking, the cooking, the things I fed my children! (One of my favorites: toasted homemade sourdough my chef-buddy was compulsively baking in his closed restaurant, covered in broccoli rabe pesto and avocado, plus a soft-boiled egg on top.) The spring air wafting in through open windows. The visibility and the morning birdsong. The unprecedented views from Sewanee’s bluffs, as if the entire planet had just received a fresh coat of paint. I-24 empty at rush hour. The virus not gone by April like a miracle. The belief, as worldwide carbon emissions plummeted by nearly eight percent, that the planet could heal itself, and quickly, if we helped it. The images of dolphins swimming in the clear channels of Venice’s canals, even if these were later debunked. The Instagram stories from friends still in New York City, my birthplace, straight out of The Omega Man: entirely barren avenues I’d dreamed of as a boy when our only imminent doom was nuclear. The daily check on the Johns Hopkins University interactive COVID map, the state-to-state hot zones widening like bomb blasts. My elderly parents reporting from lockdown on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The all-day sirens echoing in the deserted streets. The first cases of the coronavirus in their building. Going out on their terrace every evening to cheer the healthcare workers. The mass graves on Hart Island. Meg Wolitzer’s dad dying of COVID. Lorrie Moore’s dad dying of COVID. John Prine, Herman Cain, and Tom Seaver dying of COVID. The thousands who died, are still dying, whose names are known primarily to their friends and families, whom they spoke to—if they did at all, in the end—via FaceTime. Florida opening for Spring Break and summer coming into view. The gift—the great gift—of my daughters’ sleep-away camp managing to open for a three-week session. Them returning from having been around friends and away from screens as entirely different humans, more in their bodies somehow. The awareness of so much pain everywhere. And then George Floyd’s murder. And further revelations surrounding those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. And now, as the protests spread around the globe, it seemed that COVID-19 was built to expose how sick America was as a country—racially, socially, and economically, the entire body republic immunocompromised, but not congenitally, rather from four decades (or, a more honest accounting, four centuries) of unhealthy behavior. Too much brought on by a hybrid of moral rot and indifference, a mini-stroke that compromises the brain’s capacity to comprehend the future, this same dire news, Cassandra-warned, that we ignored. The Post Office under siege. Biden still in the basement. Trump on the stump. RBG dead. ACB ascendant. The White House’s super-spreader event to celebrate his Supreme Court pick like some fuck-you to a country still reeling from lockdown. Trump, lit up with COVID, before, during, or after that first horrendous debate, hellbent, after his triumphal return from Walter Reed to the White House, after his moment on the terrace—visibly struggling with the effort it cost him to climb the steps—of denying Americans the very same healthcare that saved his life.
One question lingered: how much had I missed?
I cast my ballot.
That afternoon, returning from an errand and taking my favorite shortcut home through Nashville’s Valley Brook neighborhood, I ran into the Biden motorcade.
It was parked at what was obviously a rich donor’s house, this being the evening of the Nashville debate, and here, at the roadblock, was another impatient policeman, signaling that I needed to turn around. The presidential motorcade remains one of the most impressive political spectacles there is, a raw demonstration of power. Metro squad cars and motorcycles and state police SUVs forming the outer layer, while the inner core is comprised of the Secret Service’s fleet of SOCNORTH Suburbans. And somewhere in that house, unquestionably one of the safest places on planet Earth since it was, at the moment, one of its hardest targets in the world, was perhaps the next President of the United States. You don’t have to be literary person to inject the optics with meaning, although these were ominously strobe-lit in blue and red. Political power in this country can feel at once so insulated and removed, and it’s perhaps worse now, when so many of us have been in lockdown since March, when we need to feel that leadership and connection more than ever.
I dutifully turned around and took the long way home; during my drive, this was the question I kept repeating to myself:
How are we going to get out of this?
How are we going to get out of this?
How are we going to get out of this?
If the body republic is sick, then each and every one of its citizens comprise its immune-response. We the People are either its white blood cells or its cytokine storm. How we get out of this, what’s on the other side, is to be determined. The entire world is watching what happens. Because no matter what the outcome, we come out of this by going to vote, and by helping others, however we can, to cast their vote as well.
And then the hard part begins.