Last week, I got back to Pennsylvania for a visit, the first time since late February. That previous visit was by chance: free time, I thought I’d be bearing down on finding a job in March, so may as well kick back for a few days before this. Two weeks later, the world ended.
Four months on, things had finally leveled out enough in both Pennsylvania and New York that I could manage this. Without my normal bus line that drops me off a hundred yards from the house in PA. Martz Trailways started running its NYC line in early June, out of Wilkes Barre, an hour north from where I’m going. My siblings agreed to get me up and back on weekend days with a week visit in between.
The bus ride was unnerving. The subway ride into Manhattan was, too, my first since the day after St. Patrick’s Day. It featured one dude without a mask coughing (I changed cars as train was still in station) and another carrying on into his cellphone with mask dropped (I went to other end of the car). This is the kind of shit I don’t want to see going forward. Subway cars are not the street, and people can’t treat them as such. They’re enclosed public spaces, the exact kind of place where this virus will thrive, and everyone needs to wear a mask all the time.
Port Authority wasn’t much better. I cringed when I saw a gang of about 30 people around the gate I was supposed to leave from, with the station otherwise empty. I spied the departure map from the actual gate number and realized Martz was sending out two buses at the same time, one to Wilkes Barre and another to “Water Park” (a large water park in the Poconos that surely must be a good getaway for NYC families), both trips leaving from adjacent gates. I knew I was in the right place, the only one standing at the correct gate for Wilkes Barre.
Finally, the drivers came in and told everyone what was going on. It turned out a majority of those passengers were going to Delaware Water Gap. In the past 20 years, a lot of black and hispanic New Yorkers have moved to the Poconos, where housing was much cheaper in the 90s and 00s, advertising that you could “live in a house in the beautiful Poconos while working in New York City every day.” And that’s just what a lot of people do these days. Which seems nuts to me, but I gather there are even people commuting to NYC from Wilkes Barre and Scranton. As it panned out, about 15 people got on each bus.
I tripled-masked for this trip. Much like the subway, a bus, especially a bus for an hours-long trip, is the exact kind of place I picture the virus being a threat. Thus, a mask is necessary. I had three cotton surgical masks and put them on, one on top of the other. It felt safe, but I was still on edge. I heard one sneeze and two coughs during the trip. A loudmouth kid got on at Delaware Water Gap and rode to Scranton, on his cellphone the entire time, although I couldn’t tell if his mask was on. This is the exact kind of shit I don’t want to experience in an enclosed public space. While I wouldn’t say I’m dreading subway and bus rides going forward, I surely anticipate having to deal with assholes who aren’t grasping how the virus works and never will.
Rural Pennsylvania had such a different vibe from New York City. Obviously, but this was something new. I noted earlier the discrepancy between people living in an urban area, particularly one where over 700 people a day were dying for much of April, processing this thing differently from people in a more sparsely populated area with a much lower death count. I could see just by walking around my hometown, it’s easy to go maskless as nearly every encounter could be more than six feet apart.
Don’t get me wrong. I encounter maskless assholes on the streets of my neighborhood daily. I don’t just mean people with that insulting “masked pull down to chin” nonsense. I mean people with zero intention of ever wearing a mask. Usually in 20s and teens. Usually male. The dipshit contingent, a strange, surly mix of stupidity, arrogance and sociopathy. Rest assured, as this thing needlessly drags on for months, it will be these sad clowns who keep this thing alive and thriving.
My siblings had warned me, watch out for Redners (a wonderful local market owned by employees, comparable to any urban supermarket I’ve shopped in). The “live free or die” zealots had been purposely going maskless there to wave their freak flags high. The governor had just passed a public mask ordinance a few days early, but my siblings didn’t expect it to have any effect on these geniuses.
Lo and behold, every person at Redners had a mask on while I was there! I was pleasantly surprised. Frankly, every store and restaurant I was in, people had masks on and were respecting the ordinance. The only place I didn’t see this was Tractor Supply Company by the Walmart in St. Clair, a few surly-looking assholes in their lone-wolf t-shirts, all scowls and angry eyes. They should know, they have company in New York City just as dumb and misguided as they are.
I have to admit, it was wonderful to run the back roads around my hometown without a mask, where I rarely see anyone. In the entire week I was there, I came across three people on my route: one dude checking his mailbox, one runner and one walker. The closest I got to any of them was about 12 feet. (I really don’t understand how people go running with masks on. I can do my four-mile walks in mid-80 degree heat and humidity, but that level of cardio must be march harder. It seems like about an 80/20 split in NYC with runners and masks, 80 without, 20 with. I really don’t care all that much as we’re in open air and sunlight, save to say I’ve encountered too many runners who don’t seem to grasp that nearly brushing my shoulder as they pass isn’t quite six feet.)
People back there were just as rattled and spooked as we’ve been in New York. We got pounded by this thing like very few places on earth, but Pennsylvania took a beating, too. I’m hoping this isn’t the formula for this thing to go away. That where you live needs to be ravaged by the virus before you have enough people with sense to mask up, socially distance and fight this thing. When you’re going through the virus in a harsh way, like we did In New York City, like states like Florida and Texas are experiencing now, it adds a layer of fear and tension to daily life that’s incredibly stressful. I can tell people in Idaho and South Dakota haven't experienced this – people anywhere where they’re going brazenly maskless and acting like this is a political issue and not a medical one.
I had dinner with an old friend at an Italian place with outdoor seating. Well, it was pushing 90 that day, and we found that the outdoor seating was in direct sunlight despite the table umbrella. It was too much, so we asked if we could go inside. I wasn’t too nuts about this, given New York state’s reticence to move forward with indoor dining, but there was just no way we’d last an hour out there. As it was, we were seated at a booth with high walls. Frankly, I was more worried about the occupancy level, as I could see the place slowly getting more crowded as we ate. (Pennsylvania indoor restaurants were at 50% occupancy at the time, now reduced to 25%.) We had our masks down most of the time to eat and drink. I didn’t know how to handle this, if I was supposed to keep putting the mask on and off, or what. It didn’t feel natural or right to have my mask off in this situation, but I knew the person eating with me had been as diligent as I’d been with the virus.
Our high-school teacher was supposed to join us, but I knew she was worried about potentially exposing her husband (with an underlying condition) to the virus. She came to greet us but told us she had to pass on the indoor dining. (I assured her the outdoor version of this would have been just as uncomfortable!) Before leaving, she gave me the gift of life: an unopened N-95 mask she had from a painting project she was working on a few years ago. I could wear this instead of the triple-mask set-up I had going for the bus ride back. I’d never been so over-joyed to receive a present, like an eight-year-old getting a G.I. Joe for Christmas! Hopefully, next time I get back there we can arrange some outdoor meeting that works.
That N-95 mask was hard on my face the whole trip back from Wilkes Barre. Hurt the bridge of my nose. Dug into my cheeks. But the peace of mind it gave me to know I was wearing something that would offer me the best protection possible was worth it. The bus was more crowded on the way back, more people getting on in Scranton and Pocono Mountain than had got off on the way in. By the time we left Delaware Water Gap, there were 25 people on that bus. Roughly every two-seat row taken, no chance of getting six feet between each person. I suspect if everyone masks up and does this thing right, a situation like this is manageable. But I’ve learned in New York City, you need to account for assholes, people who just don’t grasp the gravity of the situation. Dropping their masks to talk on cellphones, coughing or sneezing while they do so. I’m anticipating this as I know there are people out there too fucking stupid to handle this thing. And it’s great that I can N-95 it for at least the next few bus trips!
Overall, it was a great trip. It’s hard to communicate how trying it was to spend four months in a studio apartment with maybe 2-3 hours a day outside. That’s what people aren’t getting about New York City: most people live in small spaces, often in roommate situations. This is hard to pull off when you can’t go anywhere or do anything. That’s loosened up in the past month (obviously too much in terms of bars), but our normal lifestyles are centered on using the city as much as possible, counting heavily on public transportation and being part of a bustling metropolis. No bustle starting in March. Things got rough mentally by end of May. Just in time for a few riots and daily protests. (I still find it hard to believe they’ve had no lasting impact on virus spread.) To top it all off, the landlord had some troubling health issues in early June. Nothing life threatening, but just enough to get under my skin with all this other shit going on in the world.
I wouldn’t say I came close to a nervous breakdown, but I reached a low plateau in mid-June where I felt isolated and unnerved. Not in a good place. I brought myself out of it by maintaining the exercise schedule on the back patio, walking daily, and training my mind to not focus so much on the negatives and to let go of what I couldn’t control. It worked, at least so much that I feel normal now and in a much better frame of mind. I’ve noticed one big change: when something needs to get done, I just do it. Rather than letting it become another thing playing on my mind. I picked up a few good mental practices in response to the virus. My attitude is if this thing is going to massively interrupt my life and make things hard for the next few months, the least I can do is reduce the stress by removing extraneous bullshit.
Speaking of, I normally avoid politics in my writing. But I need to state that the past few weeks have been jaw-dropping with Trump and his “response” to the virus. Never mind the ongoing mask debacle that has most likely led to the deaths of thousands and infections of hundreds of thousands. The disturbing smear job of the CDC and Dr. Fauci has done even more to damage the deadly, ill-conceived political take so many wrong-headed fools have on this issue. Just when I think he can’t do any more wrong, he does things that are like pages from a George Orwell novel. Only this shit is real, and it will guarantee months more suffering and stumbling with the virus. I feel like I’m living through a time in history where new lows are being created. That one day historians will look back on 2020 and realize that it got no worse than this in the history of American presidents, as if we were being led by a clandestine operative for a foreign agency trying to destroy the country. I don’t get it; the lack of leadership and constant mixed messages are puzzling. I’ve been indifferent on Trump most of the way. The last four months have been one long, unbelievable streak of inaction, unaccountability and childish head games that amount to the exact opposite of what we need to fight a raging pandemic. I don’t state this as any condemnation of the president. There’s still time for him to take control, guide the country to a safer place and get this virus under control, for the sake of our lives and the economy. I’m not holding my breath. Are you?