SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 5, 2020

It’s After the End of the World—Don’t You Know That Yet?

 

As COVID-19 evolved into a pandemic which, for once, really did threaten to kill us all, I vowed to myself and others I wasn’t going to write about it. Nothing more than a passing mention, anyway. Everyone else in the fucking world was writing about it, and I saw no point in adding to the white noise. Then an editor from the Daily News dropped a line asking if I’d do a little piece about my own reaction to the idea of social distancing. Well, after six really, really bad months I wasn’t about to turn down work, so I gave him a quick seven-hundred word piece. Wasn’t happy with the resulting story in the end, but there it was in public. With that chink taken out of the armor I decided, well, maybe I’ll wait a couple of weeks, see what shakes out, and only then offer my own little take. So here we are. Please note, the timeline presented here was as I perceived it. You may have a different timeline, and if so, well, good for you.

*       *       *

When word first began filtering out of China there was some new deadly contagious disease afoot, I listened with only vague interest. I had more pressing, immediate and annoying things to contend with at the time, and wasn’t expecting much out of this Corona virus anyway. I’d heard the same story too many times before.

            For years now I’d been writing about our bi-annual disease panics. I have nothing but respect for the CDC, but for a long time now they’ve gotten it in their heads to regularly feed stories about some deadly new disease and a potential pandemic to an hysteria-hungry media. The media is always more than happy to run wild with such tips, so we were told to fret about SARS, H1N1, Hanta virus, MERS, Ebola, Swine Flu, and on and on. Maybe this is how they entertain themselves over there at the CDC. They always get my hopes up, but after a few hundred, maybe a couple thousand deaths in some far-flung corner of the world and one or two cases in the States, things eventually peter out. A month or so after we first hear about the most recent threat, the shrieking headlines fade and everyone forgets about it. A year, maybe eighteen months later, the whole cycle begins again with some new disease. It was obvious to me that one of these days we’d end up with a new Spanish Flu or Bubonic Plague on our hands, but everything up to that point had been a dud. This Corona virus, I figured, was merely the latest offering from what I’d come to think of as the Disease of the Month Club.

            It was around the beginning of March, when COVID-19, as it was officially known, started to feel like something real, that I began to follow the proceedings with more interest. Suddenly I was hugely entertained, and watched the arm-flapping and sweaty news conferences like they were scenes from a disease-centric Hollywood disaster film with an all-star cast.

            Quick aside here. As an aficionado of the above-mentioned cinematic subgenre (a subgenre that includes the likes of Contagion, Virus, The Killer That Stalked New York, Panic in the Streets, Winds of Terror, The Stand, 28 Days Later, Rabid, Last Man on Earth and dozens of others), my favorite scene from any of them appears in the otherwise dreadful all-star 1995 Ebola movie Outbreak. An infected man coughs in a crowded movie theater, and we get a point-of-view shot from a virus as it flies out of his mouth and swirls around the theater before being sucked into the mouth of another audience member, who promptly starts coughing. It may be the first and only virus POV shot in film history, and it’s pretty fucking great.

            But anyway, back to the impending apocalypse.

            I admit freely that in movies and real life, I always find myself rooting for the disease. Lord knows we need something that’ll wipe out three-quarters of the world’s population, and a disease is a much more efficient means of doing that than the slow burn of climate change. In either case, it’s human stupidity that’ll kill far more than the actual perceived threat, which is what makes the whole sociopolitical and media circus that much more of a black comedy to me. And in the case of COVID-19, we were getting loads of human stupidity front and center, from a president who called the whole thing a hoax to some moonpie in Arizona who died after ingesting aquarium cleaner, thinking it would save him. We were even getting an all-star cast, as celebrities like Tom Hanks, Jackson Browne and Prince Charles announced they’d been infected. Cue the melancholy theme music. For someone who’d been apocalyptically minded since he was a kid, what could be better?

            Weird thing was, despite constant coverage of the growing national panic, none of it seemed to be touching Bensonhurst. Not that I saw anyway. People were going about their business as usual, the stores were well-stocked, and though you heard a lot of people talking about Corona virus on the street and a certain percentage were wearing those useless surgical masks, no one seemed to be fretting. Maybe they all thought we were simply too isolated in that remote corner of Brooklyn to be bothered, even if the local demographic was made up of the two ethnic groups who were hit hardest first.

            All that changed on Monday the sixteenth. I don’t know exactly what happened. Was that the day the WHO declared it a bona-fide pandemic that would kill us all? Maybe it was just the ever-mounting numbers of the dead and infected around the globe. Maybe that was the day the first cases were announced in New York. Whatever the trigger, there had been a shift of some kind in the local consciousness. In an instant it seems, I was no longer a mere chuckling member of the audience, but an extra lurking around the edges of the growing onscreen mayhem. Up until then I’d taken no serious—or at least deliberate—precautions, assuming the whole thing would evaporate as quickly as H1N1 hysteria had. I still ran my daily errands as per usual, and the term “social distancing” was, to my mind, merely redundant. All those public figures who announced with much ballyhoo they were self-quarantining were clearly just hopping on the hip new bandwagon in hopes of getting a little extra attention. Becoming infected and self-quarantining was fast becoming the new national pastime. People were simply being frantic and dumb, as per usual.

            But then that Monday morning I went to the store to pick up some flour, some canned tomatoes, some cereal and coffee, not because we were stockpiling, but simply because we needed them.

            The first store was not only unusually crowded for that hour, there was no flour or coffee or canned tomatoes left on the shelves. Figuring they were simply between deliveries, I went to another store and found the same thing to be the case. It was the same story again at a third supermarket, where I overheard the manager tell a stock boy the delivery truck they were expecting wasn’t going to show up that day, and there was no saying when it might. The hysterical hoarding had begun, and it went way beyond toilet paper. People were grabbing up cartfuls of things they didn’t need and would never use, simply because they wanted a lot of everything on hand before it wasn’t around anymore. These “fuck everyone else, I’m gonna get what’s mine” runs on the supermarkets are always one of the earliest signs of the dystopia to come. There was even a sudden nationwide cat litter shortage, which was very bad news for us.

            The helpful if severe Chinese lady who runs the bodega where I stop every day for beer warned me to avoid going out so much (“Every day there is more danger!” She said). She also instructed me to wash my hands a lot and clean the apartment, going so far as to offer to come over and help me clean if I’d like.

            “I, um, think I’m doing okay. But thank you.” I mean, it was an incredibly kind offer, but, yeah, no.

            At the same time, strangers who just a day earlier would have stopped to offer assistance on the street or in the grocery store were staying six feet away or more, and refused to talk to me, even if I was asking for a quick bit of help finding something. It seems the hysteria was beginning to take hold as planned. It still felt like the standard playbook—see Orwell or Mencken—but things were swirling far beyond merely installing hand sanitizers in office buildings.

            The mayor had announced the closure of bars, restaurants, Broadway shows, movie theaters and, eventually, schools. Most of that I didn’t give a good goddamn about. Considering there were no bars around me, even that was no big deal (so long as that bodega stayed open), but dammit I was supposed to meet a friend who owed me money at a bar in Park Slope the next day. It looked like I’d have to put that on hold until the pandemic, um, went away.

            The next morning, still not thinking about it all too much, I loaded up a hefty laundry bag and dragged it around the corner to the laundromat, only to find it was closed. That laundromat, so far as I could tell, had never, ever been closed until now. Well that was unexpected. I dragged the bag another block south to the bigger, brighter and far more expensive laundromat, only to find that one shuttered as well. That was no good. I didn’t own that many clothes to begin with, and if I couldn’t wash them, I was going to march into those End Times smelling pretty sour.

            At a press conference that afternoon, someone in the Trump administration encouraged all Americans to eat at Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and other fast food joints as much as possible.

            “That’s because those places don’t offer sick leave,” Morgan noted.

            Yeah, this was a black comedy alright, with the president himself edging things straight toward Strangelove territory.

            My friend Ken, who’s even more skeptical about damn near everything than I am, sent me an article by Stanford Medical School epidemiologist and statistician John P.A. Ioannidis. In the article, which had appeared the previous day, Dr. Ioannidis argued that we simply didn’t have the numbers yet to draw any viable scientific conclusions about COVID-19, and so the often draconian measures being taken to control the spread were premature at best, catastrophic at worst. He also noted that it was entirely likely that had COVID-19 not been identified a few months earlier, the whole thing would’ve gone unnoticed, this year’s flu season simply going into the books as a bit more severe than usual.

            I found it all very comforting. In fact this Dr. Ioannidis, it struck me, might make an interesting interview. So I spent the afternoon researching his background (he was both well-known and legit), jotting down some semi-intelligent questions, and tracking down his contact info.

            Before giving him a tap, however, I paused, and I paused for two reasons.

            Since by all accounts large scale testing was going to begin in the States before long (it was hoped, anyway), it was entirely likely the core of his argument would be outdated in two weeks, and I had no idea if I’d be able to sell the interview before then. No, it was too late for logic at that point as it was. The masses had ingested the doomsday scenario without needing any proof. Human stupidity is so much more dangerous when the humans in question are scared to death.

            Second and most importantly, as noted above, I didn’t want to add to the noise, so I set the story aside.

            By then it was impossible to find news about anything other than the growing pandemic. Along with the standard symptoms we all kept hearing about, it was further reported that a loss of taste and smell, red eyes, and mild disorientation were all undeniable preliminary symptoms of the viral death blow to come.

            “Uh-oh,” I said aloud when I first heard that. Then I remembered I’d been expressing all those symptoms every goddamn day for about thirty-five years now. Unless we hear COVID-19 has a much longer incubation period than what we’d been told, I decided not to worry about it too much.

            As the reported number of infections grew and the economy crumbled, the creeping madness widened and deepened. More and more cops, firefighters and MTA employees were testing positive and dying. The city was slouching toward some kind of serious collapse, and there were whispers of moving in the National Guard, as had been done in other cities. I tried to keep my conspiratorial tendencies at bay, successfully for the most part. Still, I couldn’t shake the notion this pandemic wasn’t really all it was cracked up to be, like the others, but we were on the verge of martial law anyway.

            The Chinese lady at the bodega told me they had no more milk, and wasn’t sure when they’d be getting any more. She did, however, start selling surgical masks and hand sanitizers, should I need any. A bread deliveryman in another store told the Middle Eastern clerk the bakery outlet hadn’t had any white bread in stock for a week. The shelves at the bigger supermarkets remained bare, the managers just shrugging and apologizing in response to any customer questions. I was starting to get a queasy vibe. Before long, the scoops would be on their way.

            On the morning of the nineteenth, my friend Derek wrote to tell me the governor of Pennsylvania had closed down the whole state, with only essential businesses remaining open, though it was unclear what constituted “essential.” All residents were ordered to stay confined to their homes. In the news I saw the same thing had been declared in California. And by that afternoon, it had been announced in New York as well, going into effect Sunday night. At that point, we were all ordered to stay inside except for trips to the grocery store or pharmacy.

            It says something sad and grim and coldly rational about this country that it was reported that home healthcare workers—those people who look after Alzheimer’s cases and the terminally ill—were declared non-essential and told to stay home, while liquor store clerks and restaurant delivery guys were deemed essential. And sure enough, that very day, an hour before they were supposed to show up, the vet techs who’d been making twice-weekly house calls for months to help us care for our sickly elderly cat, called to say they wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. At least until the threat had passed and the lockdown was lifted.

            It also says something sad, grim, and inevitable that Morgan, who works at one of the clinical labs that would be running the COVID-19 tests, had to get an official document proving she was an essential worker to show any cops or National Guardsmen who might stop her on her way to her job. She was as essential in the eyes of the government as any pizza delivery guy, anyway.

            In the meantime my job, it seems, was to stay inside for weeks, maybe months, and avoid—and I’m citing the governor directly here—participating in any pick-up basketball games at the local park. I guess I’ll do my best.

            As I continued to pooh-pooh the hysteria as nothing more than, well, hysteria, a cover for yet another power grab, Morgan was doing her own research into COVID-19, reading the journal papers and gathering anecdotal evidence from hospital workers. She was growing increasingly worried, and it only grew worse when the test samples began flooding into the lab. She had no direct contact with them—the testing took place in another department—but she heard about the results. Yes, COVID-19 was real, she assured me, and scary as hell, and we’d completely blown it as a nation. She asked me to stop running my pointless morning errands unless they were necessary. I agreed, but in my head I was thinking if I was going to be infected, I’d likely been infected a long time back already.

            Still, after the lockdown went into effect, my once daily runs to the store became weekly, and while putting on my shoes to go out I couldn’t help but feel like Edward G. Robinson heading off to the market to replenish his supplies of Soylent products before the daily food riots began.

            Walking the eerily empty and silent streets a few minutes later, I also couldn’t help but feel like Vincent Price wandering the empty post-plague streets in The Last Man on Earth or Charlton Heston in Omega Man. Even though only a few hundred had died in New York by the end of the first week of the lockdown, it really did feel like three-quarters of the earth’s population had already been wiped away. On good days that comforting thought holds until I get to the supermarket, which remains as frantic as ever, the shelves still stripped clean of Soylent crackers. Somehow seeing a world in crisis through the prism of Seventies science fiction movies made everything a little easier. The city and the whole world had changed dramatically and quickly, and I could tick off a dozen films which had been plundered by reality. I knew the danger was real, that it was likely people I knew would get sick, but it didn’t frighten me. I was too fascinated by the twisted and stupid social mechanisms at play.

            At least the “staying inside” part was a breeze, just a bit more unnerving when it was mandated by the state.

            At Morgan’s urging I began wearing a face mask whenever I headed out to the store or the bank. Again I couldn’t help but notice there was something grimly hilarious about telling a bank teller to have a nice day when you’re both wearing surgical masks in a vain effort to ward off the plague.

            It didn’t take long before those businesses deemed essential started shutting down along with everything else. The laundromat around the corner posted a sign announcing they’d be closed until at least some point in April. The bigger laundromat a block to the south was only open on random days and at random hours, so it was always a good idea to call over there before lugging an unwieldy laundry bag down to the sidewalk. The bank cut its hours severely, and was now only open from ten to one on weekdays. The dry cleaning sweatshop across the street went silent, as did the decent Chinese takeout joint on the corner. When and if the delis and drugstore would be open became a matter of dumb luck.

            My friend Derek wrote to tell me things were even worse by him, with the bank only open by appointment and no one allowed to enter the drugstore. So what would happen when the supermarkets closed down? They were mostly out of stock as it was anyway. How long would it be before the riots began? Or would people be too terrified of getting sick to riot?

            On the Monday that marked the start of the lockdown’s second week, everything—and I mean everything—in the neighborhood was closed. No one could tell me if this was permanent or not, just that everything was closed, and I was running dangerously low on smokes.

            I always knew this day would come, both in terms of the lockdown and the pandemic, though I wasn’t certain I’d be around to experience it first-hand. It’s been mighty fascinating, I’ll give it that. I must say combining the two was a smart (if standard playbook) move, but I’ll be curious to see how and if it comes to an end. As of this writing, the end of the lockdown has already been pushed back from two weeks to a month, then likely two months. Remember, governments find it very quick and easy to institute draconian measures to control the masses in a time of crisis, but it always takes them a very, very long time to lift them again once the threat has passed.

            Or maybe we’ll all be dead!

 

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