It began so very gently…
There were whispers, soft and occasional, of some far-flung contagion.
The whispers grew louder and more numerous. Soon everyone was whispering — and eying one another skeptically.
I couldn’t pretend not to notice, on my morning walks-for-coffee, that dozens of citizens were crossing the street to avoid going past me. It was like junior high all over again.
Friends stopped calling or visiting. That was like high school.
For a week-or-so, the strangeness continued unchanged. Then one beautiful morning, someone opened a can of delirium and poured it over the planet. And like billions of mystified earthlings I was left wondering where life as I knew it had disappeared to. And if I’d ever set eyes on it again.
Though my memories of the global COVID-19 crisis are confessedly fuzzy (alcohol is likely a strong factor), a few key incidents stick out strongly in my mind. Together, these Postcards from the Pandemic tell the story of — I’m not sure what, exactly. But on the off-chance that they might be of interest to someone, somewhere, I’ve collected them below.
Postcard I: The Blue Supermarket
I was on foot, en route to the Blue Supermarket. I needed a few things.
A lot of people needed a few things, it turns out. Long ant-lines of people were streaming through the parking lot, into the blue building.
A woman wearing an enormous wooden crucifix grabbed the last shopping cart. She would’ve flattened me with it if I hadn’t stepped out of the way.
“The sky is falling,” she said to me — with her eyes — as she careened by, squeezing her crucifix.
I looked up. It was slightly overcast. But otherwise, the sky looked fine.
I followed the woman through the blue doors and into Pandemonium, where wide-eyed beings were filling shopping carts wildly with everything they could put their paws on.
I’d strolled into a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Or was it a Goya?
It could’ve been a Dali…
Before I could decide which, someone rammed me with their cart. It was full to the brim with frozen meat. I dodged another cart full of bread and pasta, another full of milk and cheese.
When I finally reached the meat section, the shelves were empty.
There wasn’t any pasta, either. Or bread.
There was no milk.
There was one can of coffee left on the shelf. Before anyone else could, I snatched it.
As I made my way to the checkout, I passed an ancient woman, leaning hard on her aluminum walker, gazing forlornly at the empty shelves.
I wanted to say something reassuring about humanity. As I stood there trying to think of something, a wave of panicked shoppers crashed into my back and swept me out to the seafood section, where not a single fish was available for purchase.
An hour later, coffee can in hand, I stepped back through the blue doors, into the parking lot. I was just in time to see a pack of toilet paper topple out of a woman’s cart.
I picked up the pack and ran after her.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The woman turned.
She was wearing an enormous wooden crucifix.
“The sky is falling,” her eyes said again.
My lips said: “You dropped this.”
I cleared my throat. The woman’s eyes widened with terror.
“Keep it!” she snapped. Then she gave her crucifix a tug. And chugged away like a steam engine.
I looked up at the sky again.
Perhaps it is falling, I thought.
Postcard II: Hell
It was a Monday. Though it might’ve been a Tuesday. Or a Saturday.
It was a Wednesday. I’m pretty sure. Time was behaving strangely in those days.
One thing was certain: I needed a coffee in the worst way.
Luckily — it’s pure coincidence — I live in close proximity to at least a dozen coffee shops.
I headed to Burnt Earth first. It not only my favorite shop, it’s directly across the street from my apartment. When I saw the “In Light of Recent Events” sign in the darkened window, I pointed my nose, stung but undeterred, to the next shop over.
But Jitters was closed, too. “Due to the Present Difficulties.” So I crossed the street to The French Press.
A note was taped to its door.
I didn’t need to read the rest. I walked a little faster. Breathing rapidly.
Kettle Black — closed.
Roasted — closed.
Has Beans — closed.
I didn’t know what to do. So I kept walking.
I visited every java-serving establishment I could think of. There was an asterisk, alas, next to every one of them.
“Due to Recent Events…”
“We Apologize, But…”
“For Your Health and Safety…”
“I’m So Very, Very Sorry.”
Walking home, I felt like a parched carpenter tramping through desert sand.
Mouth dry, feet aching, Satan almost succeeded in tempting me to enter a convenience store. My faith in potable coffee alone kept me going, straight past it.
An hour later, staggering through my apartment door, sans coffee for the first time in my adult life…
I wept, just about.
Then I poured myself a glass of water, drank it — and grimaced. Thinking:
I should’ve said yes to the Devil. Because this is hell.
Postcard III: Bigfoot
That was the edict, at the height of the pandemic, in practically every city on Earth. With most businesses closed — some permanently — there was little reason to leave one’s residence, anyway.
So, like millions of others, I stayed home. For three months.
The wiser citizens of earth used their time in isolation to cultivate fascinating hobbies. Backgammon, I’m told, surged in popularity. So did alcoholism. I’ve never been one to drink to excess, but I drank to excess with regularity in those days. I’ve never cared for backgammon.
Luckily, my liquor cabinet was well-stocked.
I’d been shut up in my apartment, continuously tipsy, for — I’m not sure how long. All my clocks had stopped. The calendar ran off with the dish and spoon. Or so I suspected.
For sanity’s sake (my synaptic traffic was deader than the city streets) I decided, Plague be damned, intoxication be damned, to venture out-of-doors one day.
Staggering down an empty street, rounding a corner, I collided with a liquor-smelling old man wearing a soiled fedora. We both fell flat on our backs.
Instead of getting onto my feet — I didn’t feel up to it — I just lay there, gazing at the clouds. The old man did the same.
We got to talking. Clouds make philosophers of us all. Alcohol only enhances the ideologic effect.
“Anything is possible, now,” said the old man, at one point. “I wonder about Bigfoot, even. I wonder about God. Do you believe in Bigfoot?”
“I’m an atheist,” I said.
The old man sighed.
“I’m not sure what I believe anymore,” he said.
I saw a cloud that looked almost exactly like a giant ape. I was about to point it out to my new friend when he pointed it out to me. We both had a good laugh.
When we finally got to our feet again, the old man straightened out his fedora (he’d fallen on it, it seemed), and stretched out his hand.
I hesitated. I was pretty sure handshaking had been outlawed. But I was desperate for the human contact.
I wrung the old man’s hand, heartily. Then he hugged me unexpectedly. Hugging was definitely outlawed. He must’ve felt desperate, too.
As I watched him stagger across the street…
I smiled for the first time in weeks.
Postcard IV: The Red Circle
Leaning on my balcony railing one summer morning, hung-over, I noticed a glowing OPEN sign in the window of — Burnt Earth. My favorite coffee shop.
I rubbed my eyes. The vision lingered. I contemplated jumping over the railing — I was only four stories off the ground — but opted for the stairwell.
The shop was empty. Except for a statue-like man standing behind the counter.
As I approached the counter, the man shook his head. He pointed to the far side of the room, where the words STAND HERE, circumscribed by a red circle, were painted on the floor.
From the safety of the circle, I shouted for an Americano.
A few minutes later, the masked man — he was wearing gloves now, too — set down my beverage like a volatile chemical, and backed away. Now it was acceptable to approach the counter, drop my change in a bleach-smelling pail and, most importantly, grab my Americano — the first decent coffee I’d laid eyes on in months.
As hot as it was, I swallowed the whole cup in thirty seconds flat.
“Can I get a refill?” I asked, wiping my mouth.
The masked man pointed again to the red circle.
Several Americanos later, I stepped out the door. I felt revitalized. Despite the hangover.
I was half-way home when I stopped in my tracks, turned around…
And headed straight back to Burnt Earth.
Though the pandemic hasn’t technically ended — there are still new cases every day — the worst of it is hopefully over. Businesses are finally reopening their doors, and citizens, albeit masked, are again creeping out-of-doors, eying one another skeptically.
You’ll wake up one morning and everything will be back to normal.
I tell myself that every day. And though I’ve waited as faithfully for normalcy as any sea-captain’s betrothed, it still hasn’t appeared on the horizon. Perhaps it never will.
Being served steak by an ashen man in a hazardous materials suit isn’t a very soothing experience, no. But it’s better than no steak at all.
However long the pandemic lasts, I do hope to be able to one day say, “It was something to live through.” Like most plagues, its history will eventually make for engaging reading material, but actually living through it was monotonous. After dying of boredom for the fourth time, I stopped keeping track.
COVID-19 really has been something to live through, though. But I wouldn’t live through it again. Not for all the liquor in the world. Or all the Americanos, even.
This essay was first published in Transition.