It's a strange time for all of us, and it may be hard for some of us to express just how strange it is. Today's post isn't so much about art, except insofar as writing is art. There's no pictures, just the mental one my wonderful wife painted about life during this pandemic:, she calls it Breadlines and Bathroom Tissue:
The last thing I wanted to do today, the day before Easter, was to go to the store. Enduring crowds on a good day is a challenge for me, let alone enduring them as they’re clamouring to get their last-minute eggs, bunnies and other assorted basket fillers for the children. But, I needed a few things, bleach for my white laundry, which I’d been putting off doing, vanilla because you just can’t make a decent rice pudding without it, and a few other odds and ends that have come to be necessary to running a modern-day household.
As I passed by the dollar store, I gulped, maybe a little too loudly because it seemed I was being eyeballed by the dozens of people lined up outside the store, waiting patiently for their turn to be allowed inside. I thought about turning back; if the line was that long at a place like this, imagine how long it would be at a proper supermarket.
“I’ve come this far,” I told myself, “in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.” As I took my place in line outside FreshCo, I smiled from behind my surgical mask, “not great, but not bad, either, considering.” The line extended just beyond the back of the building, and everyone appeared to be keeping the required distance from each other.
As I stood there, I observed the couple in front of me; nice people, I’m guessing about ten to fifteen years older than me, but then again, who can tell? It seems many people look older than they are, and I, for some strange accident of genetics, look much younger. He was tall, but bent, with a white beard and a top half much slimmer than the bottom. He kept putting his arm around his wife, patting her. It was nice to see. The wife, hair dyed to what I would guess was an approximation of the natural colour of her youth, seemed to wear the weight of the years on her face. Her eyes were deeply lined from behind her glasses. She was slender and tidy looking, she moved quickly bouncing from her husband’s grasp to periodically pick up trash as the line progressed. Each time she did, she looked all around, wanting to be noticed; it was evident she was used to being noticed, probably many decades ago, just for showing up, but the mind doesn’t always record the passage accurately. No one noticed, we all have our own issues to deal with. Well, I did, but, I’ve never been one to give attention to those who are outright seeking it. There’s something so crassly solipsistic about such displays, I simply can’t reward them.
In any event, although I did notice her, my mind had quickly turned from her and her husband to the oddly “normal” predicament in which I found myself. How did we get from the exciting dawn of a new decade to breadlines and shortages of bathroom tissue? Just a month ago, we, my husband and I, were enjoying the fruits of his successful and reasonably lucrative art career and making plans to move cross-country to return to the splendid beauty of the East coast. Nothing lavish, just a modest home, near the ocean with enough acreage to have a hobby farm, full of organic fruits and vegetables and a few fowl. Things were looking good, and despite my continued observations that the economy wasn’t “going as well as the media portrayed it”, OUR economy was going well, and really, that was the main concern.
At some point, and to be honest, I don’t even know exactly when it was, but at some point, there were rumblings about some virus in China, spreading like wildfire, killing the elderly, the sick and the weak. I think I responded much like the rest of the world, with a concern and sympathy for the suffering of fellow inhabitants of this Earth, but with that safe detachment, that most of us have when hearing of some ill that has befallen others far, far away.
These rumblings continued for a while, until people here started getting sick. At first, it seemed no big deal, if we’re completely honest. “They shouldn’t have been over there in the first place,” is what we told ourselves and our friends behind closed doors, “over there” needing no definition. Still safe, still happy, the bubble continued intact.
As time marched on and, February gave way to March, I think it’s safe to say we began to get concerned. Not so concerned to stop what we’d been doing but concerned enough to begin to grab an extra pack of toilet paper, maybe a few extra bottles of hand sanitizer, some extra beans and tuna. Couldn’t hurt, just in case the worst happens.
Then, the other shoe dropped. The date is different depending on where one lives, but for us, it was March 17, the day the Premier declared a state of emergency, closed restaurants, bars, shops, schools, and implored citizens to stay home, and on St. Patrick’s Day, no less! No gatherings of people were permitted, if such gatherings exceeded 50 persons. All of a sudden, people were out of work and with the long Canadian winter coming to a sunny end, had nowhere to go. No pubs for a beer with pals, no dine in restaurants in which to watch the “big game” (well, there were no big games, major sports, hockey, basketball, baseball, were all called off). The federal government stepped in to promise aid, money for those workers who were left without a means of income.
Well, yeeeee haw! I can’t comment on what other people in other jurisdictions did, but what I observed was, at that time, a big party! The bar was closed, but the grocery stores were open, so the social scene just moved over a block or two. Never mind the province is recording between 300 and 500 new cases of this deadly virus every 24 hours, the atmosphere, for many was that of a vacation, “I’m getting paid, the weather is nice, now work, yippee!” I honestly can’t count the number of times I went into a store to retrieve essential household items during the last two weeks of March, clad in a mask and gloves (I’m a germaphobe, and now an unapologetic one), that I encountered crowded supermarkets, people standing around in huddles of 5 or 6, catching up on the latest gossip, planning get togethers, and the usual lonely heart fellas, you know the type, no teeth, no stature, no prospects, making a feeble attempt to meet the lady of their dreams by employing lines like, “I bet you’re pretty under that mask,” or “wanna come home and quarantine with me?”
I remember expressing my rage to my husband, who I had earlier forbidden to attend shops during this pandemic; he’s a big heathy man of almost 50, but any time he’s gotten sick, any time he’s gotten an infection, it’s found it’s way to his lungs. It seemed prudent that I, only a year younger, but seemingly of insanely strong and resistant stock, and well protected by medical masks and gloves, be the one to procure our necessary sundries. People, I told him, were not taking this thing seriously. FreshCo had become what I derisively called “Old Home Week,” a term most small-town folk understand as the week when the small fair comes and the villagers gather.
April came in, the sun began to warm us a little. Some days, the mercury hit double digits. In our neck of the woods, that’s exciting, winter is bitter, cold and, well, just awful. And as people continued, bare faced and craving contact, continued about their usual routine, just substituting pub for produce section, the virus raged through the land. It wasn’t just the elderly, the infirm; even reasonably healthy younger people were getting it, some dying, but among those that survived, horror stories about the severity emerged. So, we watched the numbers, we watched them closely, demanding to know not just the state, province or general area of the infected, but the city, town, village, street. We had to know. It was our right. Who were they, where do they live, where did these, “diseased people” go before they were officially declared diseased? Not here? Okay, business as usual, well, inside the framework we have, we’re good, no official cases here, just in the bordering towns, but not here, so, I can still go over to the store and see who’s around.
Apparently no one thought about those who might be sick and didn’t suffer symptoms severe enough to warrant medical intervention and therefore refrained from seeing same, either from a desire to save such resources for those more needy, or for a desire not to want to be “marked,” to be ordered to stay home for two whole weeks, to have to “government in your business”. Thing is, the government is fully in your business, yours, mine, all of ours. They’re talking about using mobile data to track contacts, for crying out loud… that’s the government in your business.
Obviously, the spread continued, and community spread became endemic; it was no longer just some guy went to Europe or wherever and came back and got sick, this thing was passing from person to person, neither of whom had never left the county let alone the country, and the hammer came down again. Now, no gatherings over 5 persons, no gatherings with people outside your own household, more closures, no shopping on Saturday for paint or supplies for your home renovation, no new construction, a stronger order to stay home. And if you think they’re kidding, they’re not, stiff fines and police presence are well in place and well employed to drive the message that we’re not fooling around home. They’ve even closed the cannabis stores!
So, as I stand in line, a line that’s slowly moving, I recall how we got here; after all the measures cited above, they’ve even limited the number of people permitted in store an a given time. Stores have imposed strict limits on the most commonly desired goods, 3 bread, 2 cartons of eggs, 2 meat products, 1 pack of bathroom tissue per family. I can’t help but think of my childhood. Not because I was deprived or dealt with shortages, but for the exact opposite. In fact, my entire life, like most of us, has been the exact opposite.
I have very distinct memories of being a child, sitting on my little yellow rocking chair in front of the television in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, watching some news magazine or other with my mother. They were pretty much all the same to me back then, a precocious child who hadn’t yet attained even double digit status, they all showed the same, or very similar footage, of women, all middle aged, all about 50 pounds too heavy, in faded dresses, with scarves over their head, looking solemn and resolute as they stood in line for basic goods, goods that they, once inside, would be told were limited and as such, they could only have the allotment prescribed. I remember being horrified at these images, and saddened, in the way that only an innocent child can be. I wondered what it would feel like to be one of those women, who, I suspected weren’t as old as they appeared, but wore the brunt of their lot on their face. I had no conception of political ideology, or economic theory, back then, all I saw were sad women, mostly, in line to get things we, meaning myself and my parents, could get whenever we wanted and in as large or small a quantity as we desired.
Fast forward to today, the day before Easter, 2020, I’m no longer 9, but I am almost 49, and here I stand, the wind blowing cold air, almost freezing, in my face, whipping my hair about, doing something that I never even thought about doing, something so remote to my very existence that, it never entered my mind, save the times I watched those news programs. Here I was standing in line, with many others, mask and glove clad, for the basic necessities that only weeks before we took for granted as being perpetually available for our immediate purchase and consumption. I suspect that life, for us, has changed, not just for the time being, but forever. We will, years from now be telling our children and grandchildren about the “good old days,” when there were packed bars where we, or those younger than us, danced on top of each other to rhythmically loud music, when we walked into restaurants, seated at communal tables when a booth wasn’t available, when hugging a long lost pal from days gone by upon seeing them in a shop was not only a socially accepted custom, but one that was celebrated as showing warmth and human kindness. I’m recording it all in writing, because I want to remember this soon to be mythical time, a time bore breadlines and bathroom tissue.