DISCLAIMER: This is not intended as a political post. At its core, it’s about writing, but it will likely reveal some of my political leanings along the way. Just remember, you can wash your hands after reading this. In fact, you should probably wash them *before* reading it, too. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
In early March, I had to fly to Atlanta for my day job. With the COVID-19 crisis looming, I was not enthused about flying into the world’s busiest airport. Armed with copious amounts of hand sanitizer and hopped up on supplements reputed to boost my immune system, I reluctantly boarded a plane at Palm Beach International Airport, idly counting the passengers wearing masks or gloves (fewer than half a dozen on this short flight).
A quick rewind: This was several days before the US had acknowledged COVID-19 as a Big Problem, and many were still unsure just how seriously to take it. I was leaning towards pretty darn seriously, aware that my age and damaged heart put me in a higher risk segment.
Arriving at the office, I doused my borrowed cubicle in Purell, keeping my ears alert for the sound of sniffles and sneezes and coughs – oh my! I was scheduled to stay for the week, but when Fulton County began closing schools due to a reported COVID-19 infection, I decided to cut the trip short. I had rented a car for commuting between the airport, hotel and office, so I arranged to keep the car and drive all the way back to my home in South Florida.
My coworkers gave me some light-hearted shaming about leaving early – particularly when they learned I was driving instead of flying – but I felt more and more sure it was the right move. I wanted to go home.
On the road again (or, still crazy after all these years)
I was looking at a minimum of a 10-hour drive, but wasn’t overly concerned. As a road-warrior touring musician in the 80s, I’d developed the ability to drive for hours on end without tiring. Plus, I had good audio books to listen to, and felt pretty familiar with the roads I would be traveling. But I was still in for a few surprises.
I made it through the dense Atlanta traffic, then settled in for a long drive through a region I’d spent countless hours traversing with a country band early in my career. I knew to expect an onslaught of South of the Border billboards as I neared the Florida state line (the world’s most overhyped rest stop, if you’ve never heard of it), but over the past three decades, some new “roadside attractions” had appeared.
Near Chula, GA, I was surprised to see a massive confederate flag flying high above the highway, visible from a great distance. Okay, I knew I was in the Deep South – this was just a reminder. And I do know some genuinely nice people who still harbor a fondness for that flag, which they swear is based on regional – not racial – pride, so I try not to get too judgy when I see one. (And by the way, how the hell DO you spell judgy? Judgey? Judge-y? But I digress…)
As the miles passed, I noted that the puns in the South of the Border billboards had neither decreased nor improved over the decades. But there were other billboards I hadn’t seen before. Religious conservatives had apparently been investing in roadside advertising, and I found myself repeatedly discouraged from having an abortion, and urged to embrace the teachings of a pale long-haired white guy with a neatly trimmed beard and killer abs.
I’ve seen this kind of thing before: mid-state Florida has a plethora of similar billboards, which are ironically often found side-by-side with billboards advertising roadside strip joints. I guess some people worship at the cross; others worship at the pole. But for the first time, I saw billboards that attacked not only abortion and sin, but the theory of evolution itself. Alrighty then.
Shortly after crossing the Florida line, I was amazed to see an even larger confederate flag, hoisted high above a major interchange. While I was well aware Florida has its share of rednecks (wait – did I say that out loud?), this was the most overt – and certainly the biggest – display of its kind I’d ever seen.
And this is where my thoughts started getting weird (and, if you’ve been patient enough to get this far, where the point of this post begins to emerge).
I was already in a strange mood: frightened enough by an impending health crisis to undertake this marathon drive alone, leaving behind colleagues who’d made it clear they thought I was overreacting. So I was already feeling isolated, a bit disenfranchised, and more than a little freaked out.
As I passed beneath the giant flag, I suddenly flashed on images I’d seen advertising a popular “alternative history” TV show called The Man in the High Castle, in which Axis forces had won WWII, and the eastern US was now under Nazi rule. In these ads, the Statue of Liberty wore a red sash and held one arm aloft in the famed “heil Hitler” salute.
I’ve never watched the show – that image alone suggests it’s too dark for my tastes. But as I drove past the high-flying icon of the losing side of another major war, I had a sudden feeling of living in a different reality: one in which the forces I believed in had been subverted, and into which a new system of values had been installed.
I know, I know – this may all seem very melodramatic. But as a writer I try to stay open to and aware of my emotional and psychological responses to my surroundings. Here I was, crossing the border into my home state after long hours of driving, literally trying to escape from an invisible enemy, only to be greeted by this massive and unapologetic symbol of an ideology I stood against, rising high above me. Already appalled by how the US government was dealing with the Coronavirus, I found myself feeling like the loser in a war where no shots had even been fired.
This feeling was soon exacerbated as I began to encounter billboard after billboard touting a facility where you could take your entire family to enjoy the wholesome fun of firing a fully loaded machine gun.
Okay, so maybe some shots were being fired in this war after all. And I was definitely feeling like I was on the losing side.
Coming home to a changed world
I finally made it home, and learned that during my 11 hours in a rented Toyota, the world had changed. The virus had been formally recognized as a pandemic, schools and businesses were telling people to stay home, and the country was scrambling to respond. The very next morning, headlines described a passenger who knew he was infected with Coronavirus, who had flown on a major airline into the same Florida airport I was supposed to return to – on the same night I would have arrived. And – surprise, surprise – coworkers who had shamed me the day before were now singing a markedly different tune during the morning conference call.
I’ve made countless long road trips before, and I hope to again in the future. But this was a drive I will never forget – because of what I felt, what I saw, and because of the changed world I arrived to find.
In Chuck Palahniuk’s new writing how-to, the astonishingly good Consider This, the famed author of Fight Club talks repeatedly about an essential lesson one of his mentors taught him:
“Write about the moment after which everything is different.”
~ Tom Spanbauer
By the time I got home, I knew I was experiencing one of those moments.
This was not my first. I’m pretty old, so I’ve been witness to a fair amount of history. I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. (I remember my mother disapproved of them singing “yeah, yeah, yeah,” and felt that “yes” was a more proper word choice. My father just disapproved of their haircuts.) I remember John F. Kennedy being assassinated, and can recall being in the room when my mom gasped, having just seen Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. I remember the bugler butchering “Taps” at JFK’s funeral. And then the season of assassinations began: Martin Luther King. Robert F. Kennedy. I watched men walk on the moon, heard Nixon resign. Saw some of the older neighborhood boys come home damaged – or in boxes – from a place called Viet Nam, while my big brother and his friends kept a keen eye on their draft numbers.
Shared cultural touchpoints
The memories I just described are certainly not unique to me. Most of us have at least a few shared cultural touchpoints in our lives. By that I mean the sort of thing where you are among a large group of people who will forever remember where they were and what they were doing when the thing happened. In the ‘80s, the Challenger space shuttle disaster left a lasting imprint on many Americans. A more recent example that a wider range of generations share would be 9/11. You may have other such touchpoints in your life; for many Americans, the 2016 election was one.
But at the time I’m writing this, we’re experiencing something quite unusual: a shared moment of crisis that is darn near universal in its impact. And I think that regardless of our political views, ALL of us are going through stuff right now that is unique, memorable and important. Here’s my advice:
Don’t miss it.
Take it in, be emotionally affected by it, be informed by it; be changed by it. And know this:
We are witnessing history.
Amidst all the fear, uncertainty and self-protection, keep your eyes (and your ears, and your mind) wide open. Take note of the powerful, evocative moments you encounter. Collect them. File them. Use them.
As an example, have you gone out and shopped for food while under lockdown? Notice the smell of the mask, the steamy claustrophobia of having your mouth and nose covered, the bizarre and contradictory sense of both kinship and fear you feel towards everybody else you encounter. And that’s just at the damn grocery store.
I remember my ex used to talk wistfully of walking away from her career and becoming a grocery store checkout clerk. She viewed it as a carefree job, a dreamlike escape from her own high-pressure, shark-infested profession. A place free of worry, safe from threat. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about spontaneously falling in love with a woman working at this kind of job, describing how powerfully she could affect him with just a smile. Now that woman’s smile would be hidden beneath the mask she’s wearing to earn maybe eight dollars an hour, while she risks her life to make sure we have enough toilet paper.
The moment after which everything is different.
If this isn’t one of those moments, I don’t know what is.
What has been seen cannot be unseen
Although we might have thought our 24/7 news cycle has already numbed us, we are seeing new and unexpected images for which our psyches are ill-prepared. A mass grave – not in some faraway undeveloped country, but in New York City:
A group of anti-quarantine protesters pressed like zombies against the doors of the Ohio Statehouse:
A shopper who hasn’t quite mastered the nuances of using PPE (personal protective equipment):
We are seeing things we’ve never seen. Things that cannot be unseen. But for a writer, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
These are memories to hold onto, and to harvest and explore – as an artist, as a storyteller, and as a human being. Take the time to file these memories away, ideally in a way that you’ll be able to access in the future.
Make no mistake: This is a genuine crisis we face, with both immediate and long-term implications. It will change things. Watch it happen. Take part in the change. But above all, remember it: the before, the during, the after.
Pay attention. Keep track of what you see, hear and feel. Write it down.
Then go wash your hands.
How about you?
What are some sights, sounds or experiences from this crisis that will stay with you forever? Please share them in the comments section below. Then go wash your hands. Again.
For what it’s worth, here’s my mental soundtrack for this post. The video’s a bit odd, but I’ve always dug the song. Thanks for reading, and stay safe!