April 26, 2020

Adventures in Social Decay: Pandemic as Entertainment


It didn’t take long for the pandemic to overwhelm the entire news cycle, as we were buried in endless reports about how the Corona virus was going to kill us all. It became a hum, like those endless, dire newscasts always playing in the background of End of the World movies.

            As we approached the end of the second week of the lockdown, with the US reporting the highest single-day death rate of any nation on earth for the second day in a row, I said to my wife, “I have no idea why I’ve been in such a good mood lately.”

            There was plenty to be depressed and paranoid about. People were getting sick and dying at such a rate hospitals were overwhelmed. We were all told to stay inside, and told to wear a mask when we dared go outside. Grocery store shelves were still stripped clean of essentials, and trying to find what you needed was a dangerous, even life-threatening challenge. If there were things you couldn’t find at the store, like Tylenol, thermometers or toilet paper, you couldn’t find them online either, and there was no saying when you might be able to. Everyone was out of work and the economy was in a shambles. All the laundromats were closed, so people were forced to wash their clothes by hand in the tub. Pointless fistfights were breaking out on the streets and in what few stores were still open. Morgan still had to go in to work at a lab where at least four of her co-workers had been infected already. Cases of domestic abuse among those trapped in their homes were spiking, and a slow madness was creeping across the entire nation. Society as a whole had, very quickly, been turned upside down with no promise it would ever be righted again. People were going to keep dying, and no one knew when or how we’d be able to bury any of the dead. It looked like we were going to be living this way for a very long time. Those few of us who didn’t die of the virus, anyway.

            Yet I was wandering around the apartment with a song in my heart. A couple of songs, actually, including two seconds of one I hadn’t been able to identify yet. Those two seconds had been circulating around my brain for a month, and it was driving me fucking nuts.

            On Friday, an old neighbor called to tell me a former soldier in the Polish army had warned her that come Monday, just three days away, the US military was going to roll into Brooklyn and establish martial law. “All the supermarkets are going to be closed,” she said, “and we won’t be allowed to go outside for any reason. You might want to get to the store now and make sure you have enough food for three weeks at least.” She was absolutely convinced this was going to happen, and nothing could dissuade her. “Something big is coming,” she told me.

            Well, if it happened, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised, and it would at least be interesting. It would also merely confirm what I’d been saying for years.

            On April fifth, The Guardian ran a story reporting that the more violent and goal-oriented of America’s Neo-Nazi groups were celebrating the pandemic, convinced it would pave the way for the complete collapse of liberal democracy, which would allow them to move in and build a new White Nationalist society in its wake.

            Yes, well. I was celebrating the pandemic myself, but for different reasons. Those people who harbor fantasies of “rebuilding society” in their own image amid the ruins of a Post-Whatever America always give me a chuckle. Having a lot of guns is fine and dandy, but, um, how many civil engineers do they have among their ranks? How many doctors and plumbers?

            The same day that report came out, Surgeon General Jerome Adams publicly warned that the week to come would represent our new Pearl Harbor or 9/11 moment, saying it would be the hardest and saddest week in most American’s lives. It was also strongly recommended that Americans not go to grocery stores in the days to come. It all sounded very ominous, and seemed to imply something far beyond a simple contagious disease was afoot.

            “Jeez,” I thought upon hearing that. ”Maybe that former Polish soldier was right after all.” The next morning when Morgan told me helicopters were circling over north Brooklyn, for a fleeting moment I actually thought we were being occupied by the military. Then she clarified it was just the cops trying to break up a Jewish funeral.

            I wasn’t in the least interested in rebuilding society based on any cockeyed ideals, but I still found myself delighted, exhilarated, and downright entertained by what was happening in New York in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d always had a thing for worst-case scenarios. When I was a kid I longed to see a global thermonuclear war, not out of any political insanity, just because I wanted to see the whole damn program wiped out. Same with my fascination with the possibility of a massive asteroid slamming into earth, obliterating all life. Dystopian and End of the World movies had been among my favorite genres as long as I can remember, and as March rolled into April, New York came to resemble half a dozen of them.

            Since 1789, America had been on a dystopian trajectory, so this new world of lockdowns and toilet paper riots was no big shocker, but toss in some black comedy and sci-fi elements, and I couldn’t resist. I mean, bodies being loaded into freezer trucks with forklifts? Talk of inmates digging mass graves to bury the bodies of the infected? The empty streets, the overwhelming anxiety? People being arrested and fined for going outside, not wearing masks or breaching the six-foot rule? Increasingly invasive surveillance? Violence at supermarkets as people fought over the last box of Fruity Pebbles out of fear there might never be another? Twenty percent of the city’s cops home sick? The subway all but completely stopped? The whole fucking city ground to a standstill, except for pizza delivery guys? And an endlessly hilarious president putting his own clown show on TV every afternoon, just like Bozo? This was the greatest movie ever made, and I couldn’t get enough!

            Does this make me a bad person?

            I know I wasn’t supposed to (especially in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the city), but I couldn’t help but step out and wander around almost every day. I wanted to take in the silent, empty streets, the shuttered businesses, the skies free of airplanes, the whole eschatological vibe. I almost wished I could see again, in hopes of glimpsing a “Repent, the End is Near” sign in front of one of the local churches.

            At home, I began listening to a ten-disc set of Lotte Lenya’s complete Kurt Weill recordings, which seemed an even more appropriate soundtrack to the goings on than Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again.” I was having a grand time.

            New York City’s health commissioner released a poorly-worded statement announcing the city was going to start burying the dead in mass graves in a local park, without bothering to clarify the park in question was Hart Island, home to the city’s Potter’s Field, not Central Park. (And I suppose pointing out that thousands were buried under Washington Square Park wouldn’t have helped his case.)

            The mayor announced the city would be closing a few streets to cars and trucks, creating more free and open space for pedestrians to roam about and safely get some air. Then he quickly rescinded the plan, saying it would require too many cops to enforce the six-foot rule in that supposedly free space.

            I was on my way to the store for the first time in a week when I was stopped by two female cops.

            “What are you doing out?” One of them asked. I couldn’t tell if their hands were poised near their holsters or not.

            I thought a moment, trying to compose a response that wouldn’t get me locked up. I also figured it was wise not to point out they were both clearly violating the six-foot rule. “Umm,” I said. “I need to buy some cheese.”

            Alex Jones started pushing the inevitable and way-too-easy “Corona virus escaped from a Chinese lab” conspiracy. Morgan explained to me in scientific detail why this was not feasible given the design of the virus, but conspiracists have never been known to let dumb things like “science” get in the way of a good story. Thing about Jones, he always tends to lift his conspiracies directly from mainstream science fiction movies, so the source is never that hard to pinpoint. In this case it was the hilariously stinky 1994 miniseries based on Stephen King’s The Stand. But after the Chinese lab story was shoved from Jones’ croaking mouth into the president’s pockmarked brain, that was that, and suddenly an estimated thirty percent of the American people were buying into the nonsense. Well, good for them.

            It all kept getting funnier and funnier, even as it grew more terrifying. My friend Linda noted the whole thing seemed to be turning into one of my novels, which I accepted as high praise.

            This may make me an even worse person in most eyes, but something in me suspected that quite a few people around the country (and not just the Neo Nazis) were as entertained by the plague fallout as I was. Not those who’d become sick or had lost friends and family to the disease, certainly, but those who exhibited no symptoms, who had barely been touched by the disease proper. Watching it all come down was really something, wasn’t it? It was an adventure, a much needed boot in the ass to knock us out of our complacency, the daily fog in which most of us lived. You had to re-think each action, strategize trips to the store, and find ways to distract yourself and the kids before you all went mad. We were reduced to nihilistic fundamentals, and there was a challenge to it which had never confronted most Americans before. You have to imagine, as bad as things were, for at least a few of them it was a revelation. The pandemic, and the draconian measures taken to control its spread, had forced us to recognize our own lives again. Of course the ever-present threat of agonizing death couldn’t hurt, either.

            But enough of that. From my perspective, what had been the greatest dystopian sci-fi disease movie ever made began to morph into something even better: a Japanese Disaster Film.

            For those who haven’t seen one, let me explain. When Japanese filmmakers set out to make a disaster movie, they’re never content to focus on one measly little disaster. They have to cram as many disasters as possible into the story. So if you’re making a film about a massive tsunami ( 1973’s Tidal Wave), you can’t just give audiences a tsunami and call it a day, no, you need to toss in an earthquake and raging fires as well. If you want to make a disease movie (1990’s Virus), you also have to toss in earthquakes and nuclear disasters along with the contagion. And if you’re going to take on the End of the World (1973’s Last Days of Man on Earth), you need to destroy the world in every conceivable way: famine, pollution, natural disasters, mass suicides and nuclear war.

            As the pandemic marched on around the globe and the numbers of the dead and infected continued to climb, a few enterprising souls began tacking their own side disasters onto the Corona virus in an effort to prove the end really was near. Some trolled through the Bible looking for proof this was all a prophecy come true, while others went the conspiratorial route and just made shit up.

            Even though it happens every year, suddenly the locust swarms in Israel and Africa took on newfound significance. Was it mere coincidence this was all happening right around Passover? The pink super moon in early April, read by some as biblical and others less so, was nevertheless seen as another portent of doom. First you get the pandemic, then the pink Super Moon, then the world comes to an end.

            David Icke, Alex Jones and other conspiracy theorists on the edge have been pushing hard the clear connection between the rollout of G5 technology (which they insist is nothing but a bioweapon designed to disperse crowds by inflicting immediate flu-like symptoms) and the emergence of COVID-19, noting that Wuhan was one of the first test markets where G5 towers were installed. The idea had enough legs to inspire true believers around England to start burning newly installed G5 towers.

            My favorite, though, was the guy who went on Facebook in March and gave us the exact date the world would end. Claiming to be a retired CIA agent, he said, he had inside knowledge that earlier this year, all the leaders of the world had a secret meeting at the UN. At this meeting they decided to unleash the Corona virus, but only as a distraction. They wanted an excuse to force people to stay home with their families, not wanting to come right out and tell them an enormous asteroid was going to slam into the earth in the final days of April, obliterating all life.

            This was turning into my childhood dream come true, minus the mushroom clouds rising in the distance. But then those fucking QAnon people had to latch onto the asteroid idea and run with it, which ruined everything. Those silly asses are congenitally incapable of ever being right about anything.

            Still a pretty darn good movie, though. I just hope the laundromats reopen again sometime soon. We’re running out of sheets.

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Postscript: That two-second song clip that had been stuck in my head for months turned out to be from Killdozer’s cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” if anyone was wondering.


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