On Christmas Eve, I went to the laundromat as they’re closed the following two days. It was surprisingly under-populated. The last chapter of my New York book regards this laundromat, and the wonderful dog of the owners, Yagi. Yagi's been missing in action since the virus started in March, the owners wisely finding it better to leave him at home to prevent people touching him in public. A stuffed toy dog sits in the display window where Yagi is often found dozing between his favorite customers.
It was surprisingly under-populated. The owner had a boombox he sometimes plays when the TV isn’t on behind the counter of his change station. It was playing “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees.
“Man, that’s the song of the year,” I said to the owner. He laughed.
“I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense!”
We’re all just stayin’ alive. Well, not all of us: 326,000 of us and counting aren’t staying alive. We’re averaging about 2,600 people per day whose EKG’s are flatlining on the Bee Gees’ pulsing beat. Over 18 million people and counting have had this thing in one form or another, probably a few million of them who’ve had their health severely damaged or ruined.
And still I’m seeing people walking around NYC without masks daily! The past week has been especially trying, post-blizzard, with the streets even more cramped from unshoveled sidewalks and banks of snow from ploughs and car owners shoveling out. Thankfully, it’s been above freezing all week, and a horrifying squall that lasted all night on Christmas Eve wiped out all but the largest banks. The old “walking in the street” trick to avoid the assholes hadn't been working with a three-foot wall of snow on the street side of parked cars. Those dreaming of a white Christmas settled for a wet Christmas, and ultimately that’s good news.
We’re on the cusp of the worst stage of the virus, during one of the worst health crises the world has faced in years. The president is spending all his time either golfing or on Twitter rallying morons (and taking their money) for his lost cause of overturning an election he fairly and decisively lost. I guess there’s never been a better time to toy with fascism? Did you ever think this would happen in our country, in our lifetime? If someone had told you four years ago how all this was going to play out, would you have laughed at the person and considered him insane? Which part: that the president would brazenly attempt to destroy democracy and our electoral system, or that he would address the challenge of conquering a deadly pandemic by indulging in pathetic, self-absorbed social-media outbursts?
Who needs Joseph Goebbels when we have Twitter?
Last December, I wrote about missing Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania due to grand jury duty in Queens. That seems like a gilded age of innocence and a lifetime ago. This year, I missed it again and am missing Christmas due to the virus, and all the odd and troubling travel issues accompanying this level of the outbreak. Sure, I could hop on a bus if I want and go. But the Covid rates in PA lately are worse than what we had in NYC in April when 700 people were dying per day. I would imagine that with the general population more spread out there, and hospitals more well-versed in how to treat this thing, the death toll won’t be quite as staggering. But the past few months, we’ve seen what happens when entire swaths of the country pretend this thing isn’t real, so that what happened in NYC in April has happened or is happening almost everywhere in the country. When it should have been stopped in its tracks shortly thereafter, or at least kept to a minimum, as most sane countries have done. Live free or die? These days, it’s live free and die.
It's been a strange, unsettling year for everyone. If you are working, you’re either at home, realizing this “work from home” thing kind of blows (after fantasizing for years that it would be paradise), or at a job requiring bodies, like hospitals, retail, restaurants or shipping warehouses, and sweating bullets if you have underlying medical conditions, or live with someone who does. Or there are those of us who haven’t worked much of the year! This has been mindblowing for me, but at least not financially devastating as it has been for millions. (All those Depression-era lectures from my parents must have worked, because I’ve been spending money like Ebenezer Scrooge this year.) I’ve made the best of it, with my Supermax back-patio calisthenics workout. One good thing I pulled from all this: you don’t need a gym to stay in good physical condition. But I surely do miss the social aspect of gyms, a cornerstone of my social life in Manhattan. We’re all missing cornerstones that have us feeling like the building is about to come down.
Walking every day, regardless of the weather, has helped. Of course, walking exposes me to assholes. (Sorry to sound like a broken record. 2020 has been a broken record, with the needle stuck in the groove of death.) The whole mask thing has revealed a wide swath of society, mostly teenage to early middle-aged males, to be either sociopaths or so pathologically irresponsible that they should be barred from the general public. Most people I encounter on any given day are playing by the rules, in tune and empathetic. Why is it that the relatively small number of people who aren’t any of these things bothers me so? I would answer that I can normally handle stupidity, but not when it has a body count. It’s deeply offensive and so unaligned with the core values of what makes America great that it deserves to be driven home repeatedly. I’ll start having real problems when I come across these assholes and don’t feel this flicker of rage. Our maskless days are months away, I would guess late summer or next fall, so there’s plenty more time to work through this. I’m being too generous with people who have lost this thread of humanity and wonder if they even had it before the virus so clearly exposed them.
But that’s much of what 2020 has been about! That peculiar balance between hope and despair. The need to be around people, even when doing so might end up killing you, or you might end up killing them. We’re getting rid of a maniac, which is great news. But as we watch him hijack Airforce One to Fantasy Island, it’s been deeply disturbing to watch a startling majority of a political party, and millions of fellow Americans, go there with him. As I’ve learned working so many years in Manhattan offices, it never pays to go there with someone in a position of power. Sooner or later, you either embrace that insanity or walk away. Here’s hoping most people are sane enough to choose the latter.
So, let’s do that, walk away from 2020, slowly and quietly, so that it doesn’t hear us leaving. Face forward. Don’t turn you back. Don’t make eye contact. No sudden motions. Just breathe. In. Out. In. Out. If 2020 lunges towards you, turn tail and haul ass. Hopefully, you’ll find a climbable tree and get far enough up it that it doesn’t sink its gnarled fangs into your flank. History will note this as one of mankind’s worst years, and be brutally honest and unforgiving with so many people who just can’t grasp that now (and probably never will). Given the Twilight Zone episode so many of us are living in, I’ll do my part to take the road more traveled, you know, sanity. It’s the only way out.