Notes on March – September, 2020
“Perhaps if the human race passes from recorded history, the fake crowd sound at COVID-19-era sports events will loop into the endless future.”
– Christopher Breu
September 10, 2020 – I’m standing in the back yard in a haze of forest-fire smog, the air heavy with woodsmoke. All across the state of Oregon the wildfires rage and burn down acres, houses, entire towns. Although we are not in the direct path of the blaze, the signs are everywhere visible, a tangible reminder of whatever these fires have come to signify to us: human precarity; the consequences of mismanaging the resources in our care; the ever-present (though still abstract) spectre of climate change and its slow-motion apocalypse; or maybe just the simple hubris of building one’s house in the path of possible destruction. From where I stand, though, there is only this simple, observable fact: the world – at least the one that I live in – is on fire.
It’s three days before my sister’s wedding. Tomorrow I will fly out to Denver, Colorado with my partner, Amie, and her 11-year-old daughter Kai. The event promises to be “socially distanced,” though mostly by accident: the guest list, once full, has dwindled down to nineteen attendees, in a venue built for a few hundred. I suppose this is just as well, considering the unchecked spread of COVID throughout the U.S. And looking around, I suppose it probably is about time to get out of town for awhile. The air smells like a campfire, heavy with particulate matter and ash. The sky has taken on a sickly yellowish-brown shade, the sun suspended like a dimming bulb overhead. Kai compares it to the recent photographs taken from the surface of Mars, which strikes me as eerily on-point. As for myself, I tend to think of the scene in more general terms: as part of some once-imagined dystopian future, which no longer feels much like the future at all. The air quality index ranges in the 400s, ranked “very hazardous,” with strong recommendations to stay inside and to wear face masks whenever possible. Which is just as well, I suppose. There is a pandemic on, after all.
I find myself now, over a year after all this began, looking back to the start of the pandemic. Wondering how it has changed us. Which is all to say: I am trying to find a clear narrative for the past year of my life, a way to have it all make sense. Back then we lived in a condo complex on the western edge of Portland. Our unit was located in the rear, pushed up against an unused strip of Trimet land and squeezed between a series of carports, trees and shrubs, and the other units. In those days we spoke of social distancing, of “flattening the curve.” We bought toilet paper and hand sanitizer and stocked our pantry with Costco-sized bags of beans and rice meant to last the Apocalypse. We watched Netflix and Hulu. We “met” our friends for drinks and tacos over Zoom. I still recall the almost arbitrary, frictionless passing of time during the early days of COVID-19, as the world began shutting down piece by piece. Time at first seemed to pass slowly, then accelerated somewhat, before finally settling into a kind of stasis, a sort of eternal present with no definite shape or any of the usual markers to track its passing. And even now there appears to be a kind of narrative void at the center of the whole thing, as the world slowly reopens and vaccinations become widely available. Maybe it’s that we’re still living through it to some extent, that this story, whatever it is, is still being written. Or maybe we have pushed up against some kind of void in our symbolic code, some vacant, empty space where we would normally look for meaning. It’s not every day that the world ends, after all, either in a literal or a metaphorical sense.
Tuesday, March 10, 2020. I arrive early, as the sun rises over the hills. I stand at the urinal in the clubhouse men’s room, relinquishing the last of the morning coffee, biding my time before heading out for my weekly on-campus faculty meeting. My job – high school English and social studies teacher for an online charter school – allows me to spend most of my days working from home, up at the clubhouse, grading papers and teaching virtual lessons over Zoom. Despite the onset of what appears to be a global pandemic, my own working life remains largely unchanged. At this point the whole thing even feels slightly abstract, something at a slight remove from my day-to-day life.
In walks John, the maintenance guy for the complex, whistling cheerfully into the day. He sets down a small plastic briefcase containing the chemicals for the hot tub on the countertop and, without so much as a hello, speaks to me of current events.
“So the Dow fell 800 points this morning,” he says. “You keeping up with the news?”
While not exactly close or anything, John and I have established a friendly rapport. He works the grounds of the complex, performing routine maintenance and repairs; I work as a social studies and English teacher for Metro East Web Academy, using the clubhouse as a makeshift office. Often it’s just the two of us up here in the mornings, going about our daily business, whatever that happens to be.
“Yeah, I heard about that,” I say. “The ‘circuit breaker’ was triggered three times in the first hour. I think that’s some kind of record?”
John opens the briefcase and starts lining up the vials into neat rows.
“You know what happened with the Weimar Republic in Germany, right?”
I do, of course; but he’s already explaining it to me again, furnished with details about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and the connection between economic deterioration in Western Europe and the rise of fascism during the 1930s – topics that I myself cover in my World History class, but spoken now with a fresh note of urgency. The implication being, of course, that whatever historical lessons can be found here reverberate through our present moment. With John, his facts are usually in order, though the way they get assembled in his head can often be unpredictable. He has a certain fascination with conspiracy theories, for one, and always seems to be preparing for the eventual collapse of society in one form or another. I wouldn’t exactly call him a “doomsday prepper,” but the overarching theme of societal breakdown seems to form a subtle, but persistent subtext to many of our conversations. And yet, if the social order ever did collapse while I lived here, in unit 7752A, John would surely be the one stocking a cache of firearms and 1,000 cans of beans under the floorboards for the rest of us. And he’d probably keep the lights on, too.
I glance at the time: 7:36. I have a bus to catch if I’m going to make it to MEWA on time for our Tuesday meeting.
“Hey, I know you gotta get going,” he says, “But maybe I can talk to one of your classes someday? Like as a guest speaker or something. I could give the kids some pointers, you know? Like, ‘So, if someone comes for me, I’ve got my bear mace right here. And if someone else comes for me, I’ve got my Louisville Slugger right over here,’” he says, gesturing for effect. I wash my hands for maybe the fifth time that morning and tear off a paper towel from the wall rack.
I tell him I’ll think about it.
Friday, March 13 – It’s two days before the “shelter in place” orders will go into effect for the state of Oregon, and tonight I find myself at The Twilight Bar and Cafe, perhaps against my better judgement, for a local heavy metal show. A sizable crowd has shown up in full heavy metal regalia cerca 1987 – long hair, faded band t-shirts and acid-washed jeans with holes ripped in the knees. Many wear “battle jackets”– denim vests customized with band logo patches sewn onto the fabric, forming a sort of dense, homemade collage. Merch tables occupy the booths near the entrance. There’s a surreal quality to this whole scene, something otherworldly and dreamlike, that has less to do with the death metal imagery than the almost total lack of acknowledgement of the Coronavirus rapidly spreading through our communities. Earlier in the day, Oregon governor Kate Brown had issued an executive order banning gatherings of over 250 people; the Multnomah County Library had closed down until further notice; the NBA, NHL, and NCAA had already cancelled their seasons for 2020; and the Trump administration, hours earlier, declared COVID a national emergency and issued a travel ban on non-US citizens coming from Europe to the United States. The world appeared to be going into shock, closing down piece by piece. Yet for some reason the show at The Twilight is still right on schedule. The venue itself is simply a bar and adjacent stage, tucked into a strip mall off Powell Blvd next to a marijuana dispensary. Can 250 people even fit inside? Does it matter?
Social distancing, this is not.
Later that night I find myself sitting at the bar, ordering cajun tots and beer as local favorites Witch Vomit finish up their set. The bartender hands me a placard with the order number – 13, as it turns out, perhaps an ominous sign in retrospect – and I wonder aloud if I should order a Corona to close out the night. Alcohol, I’ve been told, can kill the virus, and who knows how long it will be before any of us could return. Will the Twilight will even exist after this whole pandemic blows over? It’s hard to say. No one seems to have a clue what will happen next. It feels like the end of something, at least. Whatever it is.
Monday, March 16 – I arrive at the clubhouse at 7:30am, scan my keycard and enter the front door. It is cold and dark and the entire place appears to be deserted. On a table near the entrance someone has placed a container of Clorox wipes with a sign imploring us to use them. I grab a wet wipe and take a seat at the large dining room table near the window, wipe off a spot, and open my laptop.
John the maintenance guy comes up the stairwell from the ground floor.
“Hey, so, we’re closing this whole place down,” he announces from across the room. “It’s getting crazy out here with all this virus stuff, and it’s becoming impossible to maintain a clean environment.”
“So wait – you’re closing it down today?” I ask.
“No, not today. But the entire downstairs is sealed off: the gym, the bathrooms, the hot tub. You know it’s airborne, right, and these virus germs stick to water droplets and moisture, so it’s kind of a plague vector down there.”
I drain the last of my coffee. “…The bathrooms too?”
“I mean, you can go ahead and piss if you want, that’s fine.”
I thank him. He tells me he’s taking a brief leave of absence for the next few days. In the wake of the recent school closings due to the spread of COVID, his college-age daughter, who attends school in Iowa, has found herself stranded on campus. He and some other parents living in the area have coordinated a sort of rescue plan. Something about renting a van and meeting up in Wyoming. Everything seems to be in disarray, as if the world we know is somehow ending. And maybe it is. I suppose there’s still time to hit up Costco and stock the condo with as many cans of beans that will fit, if it comes to that.
“You know, I’m really not too worried about the virus itself,” John says after a moment. “You and I will be fine. But there are a lot of seniors in this place, and with a mortality rate of about 2%, and somewhere between 800 and 900 units here, well, you just go ahead and do the math.”
He then leaves to go do maintenance-guy-type things, of which I only have the faintest grasp over what they actually entail, but always appreciate. I wish him well. The smooth functioning of day-to-day life in this place, after all, depends on such invisible, routine acts of maintenance carried out behind the scenes. Nobody really thinks about them until something breaks, goes wrong, or ceases to function the way it’s supposed to. Until the world itself stops in its tracks.
April/May, 2020 – Lately I have begun taking long walks through the neighborhoods and footpaths of the southwest hills. From here there are several directions one can travel: up the winding hill towards to cemetery; past the cemetery to the left, toward the Oregon Zoo, temporarily closed and largely abandoned; or past the cemetery to the right, alongside the freeway in the opposite direction, down a shared bike/pedestrian path that dead-ends into a community garden with a single picnic table as a focal point, a place I have dubbed “the picnic table at the end of the world.” This is my preferred route. Walking along the path, dodging joggers and occasionally whole families on bikes, both with and without masks, I can hear the unceasing roar of the traffic regardless of the time of day. It reminds me of a river, or the waves of the ocean. The digital sign perched above the highway no longer posts traffic notifications or projected travel times, opting instead for the urgently-insistent “STAY HOME/ SAVE LIVES,” and I wonder, not for the last time, how long we can keep this up.
Passing the entrance of the clubhouse earlier on my route, I had seen John’s golf cart in its usual parking spot. I wonder how he’s doing these days. The whole place, after all, has been more or less shut down to the residents, the furniture roped off with police caution tape, the gym closed, the hot tub drained and barricaded until further notice. I hope his daughter got back safely from wherever she was in Iowa.
Later on the return trip, Amie sends me a recipe for a “quaran-tini” designed to boost one’s immune system while also, ostensibly, getting drunk. Let’s make this, she texts, sending a link to the recipe. Yeah, sure, I reply. And why not? I have already converted the cabinet above the stove into a wet bar, which I keep stocked from the liquor store across the road, lately christened an “essential business” during the lockdown. We seem to have all the ingredients. And alcohol, we are told, can kill the virus.
May/June, 2020 – One item that pops up in my “recommended” viewing list on Amazon Prime is the classic 1957 film The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Which makes sense, I suppose, given the trajectory of the past few months. It takes place in Sweden during the Bubonic Plague, and features a rather famous recurring motif in which the protagonist, a Swedish knight, engages in an ongoing chess match on the shore with Death. A heavy-handed metaphor, perhaps, yet one that feels surprisingly relevant in the year 2020. How else shall we think of the public guidelines issued by the CDC, the shelter-in-place orders, the mask mandates, or the aggressive push to develop a vaccine against the Coronavirus? They tell us on NPR that such a widespread, all-hands-on-deck effort for a single vaccine is unprecedented in human history; that initial results and ongoing trials have shown promising signs. In the film, the knight ultimately loses the chess match against Death. And maybe we all do, in the end. What feels eerily prescient, though, is the similarity one senses in the atmosphere and general mood of both the film and public life itself during the COVID pandemic. There is the palpable sense of doom, yes, but here I speak more about the curious emptiness of public life, a kind of vacant, hollowed-out space where we once lived and worked and conducted our day-to-day activities, now partially overtaken by the digital realm. It isn’t a perfect analogy, of course: we do not live in the Middle Ages, and COVID is not the Bubonic Plague. But the parallel still discomfits. There is something eerie in the way that the traffic rushes by the complex along the main road, for instance, in an ebb and flow that reminds me sometimes of ocean tides. Meanwhile the CDC continues to give us practical guidance to “flatten the curve,” to forestall our inevitable demise a bit longer, perhaps in its own way a bid to outsmart Death itself. At least for now.
I still have not taken Amazon up on the recommendation, for what it’s worth.
September, 2020 – Just outside of Denver, CO, the skies are clear, vast, expanding into infinity. I am here, in a hotel suite just off the freeway, a place that could be literally anywhere else in America. Although the topography is less aggressively flat here than in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up, the effect is largely the same. One can look out to some point on the horizon and experience almost a kind of vertigo, like standing over the edge of a vast abyss. I fitting symbol, I suppose, for the times we live in.
Amie and I scan the news for updates regarding the wildfires. We check in with friends and family living in Oregon and Washington to see if everyone’s ok. I wonder if this is how it feels to live in a dying civilization: unchecked plague, rampant wildfires burning through an entire region of the country, ongoing protests over police brutality, all while basic public safety measures – like masks, or, later on, the vaccines themselves – become weaponized for the “culture wars.” Meanwhile the deputy governor of Texas appears on my television screen to implore elderly grandparents to die for the economy, and Herman Cain – himself having died recently of COVID – tweets to us from beyond the grave, via one of his former staffers, to tell us that COVID is really not that bad. But for now none of that seems to matter. I can look out across the plains, the mountains poking up at the edge of the sky, the office towers and strip malls positioned in the foreground, shining in the sun. I can listen to the endless drone of the freeway, which sounds the same wherever you go in America. Lately, though, it’s become easier to imagine our built environment as a relic from another era, some antiquated vision of the future based on speed and frictionless travel, slowly crumbling into disrepair over half a century. Maybe someday we’ll look upon their ruins like the Roman aqueducts and think, here once was someone’s vision for America, someone’s dream of uniting an entire continent through technology and infrastructure and concrete and steel. It’s a vision that, however anachronistic, persists well into the 21st Century. At least for now.
And still Oregon burns. By the time they will have gotten the fires under control, an estimated 1,000,000 acres of forest will be lost, along with thousands of homes, and 11 people dead. It never used to be like this. The refrain I keep hearing, though, is that this will become “the new normal” in the near future due to climate change. And combined with a global pandemic, mass protests, and the political turmoil of the past four years, the term “post-apocalyptic” feels less like a hypothetical future than one lying just around the corner. For now, at least, things seem to be holding together, whatever that means these days, for however long that might last. Only time will tell, I suppose.
That year the three of us ended up moving to a farmhouse 30 miles outside the city, a place that felt more comfortable with all of the social distancing mandates in place. I would often sit on the porch, scrolling through my phone and reading the news. All of it seemed to blend together somehow, connected in a way that is still difficult to explain. I sometimes wonder what lay at the center of it all, somewhere between the Q-Anon conspiracy theories and the nightly protests in Portland, the “thin blue line” flags rippling down the highway and the apocalyptic wildfires ravaging the West Coast. All of it seemed to circle around some vast abyss at the center of American life, some tangible emptiness that continues to elude our understanding. It’s still unclear to me what this actually is.
Out here the sky expands into the distance, across the Columbia River and into Washington state. The highway still sounds like the ocean. And although we’re a long way from our former home in the complex, I do find myself thinking every now and then of John the maintenance guy, and all the routine tasks that kept that place running: the vials of hot tub chemicals lined up in neat rows, lightbulbs, ladders, scaffolding, and all he did to hold the residents back from whatever abyss he imagined waiting for us. His way of looking at the world always felt slightly askew, as if he were projecting some deeply internalized fear of the unknown. But who knows – maybe he was onto something all along. Maybe this was simply a rational approach to the world we’ve inherited, a world that has proven more volatile and inscrutable than any of us supposed. Surely, I think to myself, we could do worse than this.
Kevin Hadsell is a writer and teacher living near Portland, Oregon, teaching dual-credit English and social studies at Metro East Web Academy. He has published with McSweeneys Internet Tendency, Litro, The Portland State Vanguard, and Euphemism, among others, and holds an MA in English from Portland State University.