Polo Mallets and the Pandemic
This may not be the end of days, but the mood is grim.
New Year’s Eve is a perennial disappointment. So much planning, anticipation, jumbled recitals of sentimental songs, awkward kisses. And then, when the party is over, nothing changes. There is a brief but fleeting sense of renewal that erodes around January 4th. The first month of the year is dreary slog, but things improve, as winter turns to spring. 2019 was OK. I did some interesting things. I traveled to some interesting places. I wasn’t sure about 2020. But I wasn’t expecting this.
Things didn’t work out quite the way I thought.
I’ve been around for a while. I remember a grittier New York, when homeless people would congregate in Columbus Circle and burn garbage for heat. I was in New York City on 9/11. I recall the air pungent with fire and smoke, and with fear, as subways stood still and the airspace emptied but for F-16s. Panic turned to fear, fear to anger, anger to complacency, complacency to boredom, boredom to a new normal. I remember that fabled Superbowl show punctuated by a wardrobe malfunction. Perhaps at those junctures in time we had the power to remake the world but lacked the communal will to do so. Or, it could be that those events accumulated like raindrops in a pond and forced tectonic movements in the status quo. There are setbacks, and disagreements, and necessary compromises. On one hand, everything that doesn’t go on forever, will eventually end. But what’s different about the present crisis is that, the conclusion is nebulous, the time span is indefinite, the enemy is invisible, and at times it seems we are powerless in the provision of our common defense. Whereas, we’re used to hurricanes and earthquakes affecting another person, in another place. But this is new.
A pandemic can be an equalizer — we all get sick, we all die. Those who are rich and powerful are not more immune than those who are poor and anonymous. An insidious virus can bring down the walls of social class, reduce them to rubble on the floors of common humanity. But, at the same time, while it can be posited that, in principle, everyone is equally vulnerable, not everyone is equal in their capacity to respond. There is nothing quite like a common crisis to lay bare the divide between those who have and those who don’t. It seems like, who you know is as important in the provision of medical care as it is in getting a job. Those with money and connections seem to have easy access to testing and treatment. Those without, they scramble to collect what falls from the table. As though, there’s a rich and leisurely class who can escape to the Hamptons when the moment demands. And when it’s time to administer a medical exam, they put down their polo mallets, and lounge in a wicker patio chair, as the nurse administers a test on the veranda of their ranch, looking onto the Long Island Sound.
Realistically, when panic prevails, there is some common cause, but stronger is an instinct for self-preservation. That’s why cities seem like a real-life iteration of Lord of the Flies. Toilet paper is as valuable a currency as the dollar itself. Hoarders stockpile canned ravioli that millennials had previously rejected as the mass-produced, over-processed vestiges of a world perverted by Baby Boomers. Chef Boyardee is suddenly en vogue again, laying bare a world order so undone as to have succumbed to a crescendo of chaos.
We appreciate things that are simple and true, that we never realized were worthy of appreciation: routine, in all of its mundane forms. Banality, in all of its unremarkable configurations. Walking to work without a mask, riding the subway without anxiety, eating at a restaurant without social distancing.
This virus ravaged China and it was obvious to some that it would terrorize Americans in even greater numbers. Unless Americans have some sort of Freedom Immunity, some chromosomal gift passed down from Thomas Jefferson, the virus would get to them, at long last. And there is hardly an option to hide behind fortified walls overgrown with ivy, to retreat to gated communities and feign ignorance to those places where the glimmer and the glamour don’t show. To get roped into this, is all but inevitable.
People wax poetic about a Utopian time “before Corona,” as though life but a month ago was so easy, so simple, before a virus spread desolation and woe. I never realized my life was so great in February 2020. Dressing for work, commuting to work, the lunch rush. All of that, now, seems so distant, so attenuated from reality. Before Corona, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. At least, in principle. In practice, that was never truly the case. There is, of course, a tendency to vilify the present and lionize it when its the past. And it is appealing, at this moment, to recall the good old days.
Things will be different on the other side. I just wonder, when the world changes, can we change with it?