Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Corona Jottings: Intermittent Speculations (#1)
As Dickens might have said, you have to be 74 and retired to be fully amazed by the paradoxical Corona virus world. To be among the high-risk group and to be minimally affected, at least in ways that matter. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.
My life certainly has been affected, both in superficial and fundamental ways. Yet I do what I have been doing. What has been stripped away is mostly the serendipitous, the new, the throng one never gave much thought to, those people semi-known, the well-known, the unknown.
When I was in my twenties and lived in New York City I was often surprised by how alone one could be in such a highly and densely populated city. This, most obviously, was at night, late at night, largely before dawn. Walking down Fifth Avenue at two in the morning, being on the Brooklyn Promenade viewing the Bridge by oneself after midnight. The streets that could be so crowded, were often empty in many a neighborhood.
As a kid I was always struck by the easy opposites: full, empty, high, low, etc. I considered myself an introvert and was never bothered by being alone, since that was a common condition for me, though I often overcame it, and as I aged I certainly pursued women when I could. When in my early twenties, that avocation only became a busy one after I acquired some notoriety. If you intend to write, you’d better being equipped with the ability to be alone. I certainly had that ability.
But, at 74, after what some would consider a “full” life, it comes as a shock to have it all pulled out from under you, the proverbial rug swept away, by, bats, rats, whatever vile delicacies you can eat, buy, at a Chinese wet market.
One would have thought – this one, at least – that you may have not seen everything, but enough at my age. Certainly, you wouldn’t think that after three-quarters of a century you and the rest of the world would have a new experience, a pandemic affecting the entire globe, taking place almost all at once, the speed of light practically, or by flight, airlines linking the cities of the globe, in mere months.
I write fiction, but I tend toward realism, so the fantasy and science fiction world may have put such a circumstance forward, and movies may have foretold such calamities, but I had never contemplated actually experiencing it. Nor given it much thought at all. Though, doubtless, some, many, have, evidently. I’ve contemplated nuclear war, though, thankfully, never experienced it. All sorts of things. But not a global pandemic visited upon everyone in such a short time.
The ironies pile up: when we reached the nadir in our national politics – President Trump! The Clown in Chief! – we get to experience something brand new (in its rapid spread), a hybrid virus, animal to human, with a multiplicity of effects, affecting many, all, millions.
But, if you are in, say, a quiet place, a small Midwestern town, the strangeness doubles. Big cities are always strange, new, chaotic, rituals disrupted daily. But after three months, where everything has slowly shut down – and now, even after the so-called “phased” reopening – this town still hesitates and, with the largest employer, the University of Notre Dame, still shut now, during the summer, now upon us, remains eerily quiet. The atmosphere is not so much the one found in the Matt Damon movie, “Contagion” (2011), directed by Steven Soderbergh, but an older film, the 1959 black and white “On the Beach,” directed by, who else?, Stanley Kramer. For the hinterlands that movie captures the mood more accurately than “Contagion”: San Francisco’s empty streets, the way the invisible "fallout" spreads around the globe, invisible, capricious, etc.
Partly, it has to do with just such movement, the regions affected. There hasn’t been a true pandemic in America for a century, and, certainly, nothing like this one in my lifetime, the swiftness of its spread. “On the Beach” posits a dying world without much destruction of property, and it came before the general knowledge of the neutron bomb. The flow of air around the world dictates the victims. Again, the cast, besides being filled with stars, is a group of the mainly educated, worldly types. The mood is discussion and despair, masked with attempts at coping with the inevitable. "Contagion" is riots, mayhem, finally success. There is no success in “On the Beach.” (Kramer wasn’t “into” happy endings.) That matches the more pessimistic view of the current situation: No cure, more to die.
Death seems to be the governing metaphor for our pandemic, along with the attendant social injustice. The death of jobs, the death of social life, the death of the poor, the disenfranchised. We have the Charlie Chaplin figure in the White House, playing any number of slapstick roles that Chaplin became famous for: “The Great Dictator,” in particular. Trump has managed to atomize the country, more so that it had been in the late 20th century. Obama brought it together for a brief period, somewhat, but Trump became the trigger for, once again, blowing apart the world Obama – or at least his true believers – hoped would come about.
The one percent, the most comprehensive phrase of the last ten years, has profited from atomization, pitting, as it does, the one against the many, making solitary individuals the winner, in this case, a relatively few individuals. Well, the ninety-nine percent soldiers, so to speak, on. But it remains a numbers game. One of the many contrarian effects of the pandemic is that so many citizens have abided by the new “rules”, aping each other's behavior, when they can and many have. One for all, all for one, so to speak. But there is a limit and three months seems to be it.
People were on the streets, at least in Minneapolis. Not everyone was sheltering in place, only the compliant, the old, professionals working from home, retirees, the middle and upper-middle class. And certainly not the police. The authorities could dispatch four officers to a down-at-the-heels neighborhood store to check on a reported malfeasance. A counterfeit bill. I was once in a Kansas City, Mo. Panera (a long story) and a woman, a slight so-called African-American (how many generations could she be from Africa? Obama was, is, only one: the formerly downtrodden are often stuck with the hyphen. When was the last time you heard Anglo-American used?), was attempting to pay for her lunch with a twenty dollar bill, apparently a fake, and the clerk, a white woman, ancestral derivation unclear, objected. The patron was short, thin, oddly dressed, insofar as some sort of elegance had been achieved, but everything seemed threadbare, not quite right. There was some repartee about the bill and the woman retrieved it, leaving the meal behind, sauntering out retaining as much joie de vivre as the encounter allowed. I, the somewhat Irish American at a nearby table, eating my sad lunch, observed the playlet. The clerk rolled her eyes, and said something to a coworker, and the lunch crowd never stopped eating.
But, in Minneapolis, the teenage clerk at its corner store, hailing from some other ethnic group, called the police, but only after the six-foot-six male customer had departed with the purchased cigarettes. And that clerk had taken the bogus bill and had not objected, given the size of the person who gave it to him. George Floyd didn’t go far. He was lingering outside the corner store, smoking doubtless. Minneapolis never sleeps, obviously, or has an abundance of law enforcement, since they sent four officers to the scene. And since there were people going to and fro (three months of quarantine having sprung leaks) and equipped as they were with the newer phones, with cameras better than the ones that went up with the earliest satellites, caught the denouement, the last nine minutes or so. The world got to see one of the last shows of the now canceled COPS, the snuff film version. The weird look of Officer Chauvin (nomen est omen, Officer Chauvinistic) peering at the onlookers with George Floyd passed out under the cop’s knee to neck.
Speaking of knee to neck, we’ll turn to The Donald, our president. Nothing about him has been a surprise. More was known about Trump’s personal life, public life, than any other previous commander in chief. The Right Wing had tried to make Bill Clinton’s personal life known wide and far before he was elected, but those revelations paled compared to what those paying attention knew about Trump. He strove to be a public figure all his life. The more notoriety the better. Tabloids obliged over the decades. The American electorate is more than fickle – it is hugely ignorant, or, more gently, not over educated when it comes to picking its national (or even local) leaders. It prefers to forget. Let bygones be bygones. There’s always the over informed minority, which is a category I sometimes occupy. Americans are good at what I have called “remembering to forget.” It has helped the country move along over a couple of centuries.
Since his election Trump has had his knee on the neck of the government, and it, at least all the GOP has obliged. The Imperial Presidency was denounced during the late Nixon years (recall the guards’ ridiculous Gilbert & Sullivan uniforms), but in our present time it is clear that the Senate runs the world. So we have the epicene Kentuckian running our political world, enhanced by his dominatrix-seeming spouse. I suppose, over time, the three branches of our government are a shell game, each branch having its way for some period of time. The Senate, though, given Obama’s sorry lack of experience and fight, has been in control for a while.
Nonetheless, the pandemic was a gift horse that Trump looked in the mouth for too long a time. It was a gift. It could have been his redemption, of a minor sort. Something he didn’t start, bring about, a world event he would be swept up into, the Wizard of Oz’s tornado, Dorothy in the sky. But, Trump doesn’t change, has no instinct for salvation. He does what he does, mainly fail, all those bankruptcies trailing behind him. So he continued to botch and bluster. And we are where we are.
[To be continued.]
I am not bothering with links. I might supply them eventually.