Apr/May 2021  •   Salon

Running for the Bus: Life and Love in the time of COVID

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

My wife and I have been in lockdown for more than a year. One of these days we will be able to get a vaccination, leave our fourth-floor apartment, go out into the sunshine and, though masked and properly distanced, greet neighbors we haven't seen since the winter of 2020. We are the lucky ones, the old not confined in nursing homes where the mortality rate from Covid-19 has been egregious. We have been able to keep in touch with friends and family via Internet video and old-fashioned telephone. We teleconference with doctors instead of making in-person visits to their offices. Neighbors shop for us and bring up our mail and packages. We have suffered from cabin fever and even some depression, but thus far nothing worse. Our physical health—if absence of the usual stomach bugs and colds is any indication—has been better than it was pre-Covid. Lack of exercise has weakened us, how much we'll only know the day we take those first steps down our building's long stairwell. But, to date, we seem to have weathered the pandemic pretty much unscathed.

But at what cost to others? How many people have risked their own health, sometimes fatally, to keep us alive and Covid-free? Last spring, neighbors gathered outside every evening to make noise in support of the health-care workers who have faced down the virus every day in our hospitals and other health-care facilities and as emergency medical personnel. But what about those who were doing so as bus drivers, checkout clerks, garbage collectors, and all the invisible jobs that make it possible for two privileged old White people to "shelter in place." World War II movies sometimes depicted a Black man fighting alongside his White comrades as if there were no prejudice in foxholes. Usually the Black character met a heroic end by sacrificing his life to save his White brothers-in-arms. Reality was a bit different. My uncle, a Marine during that war, told me Blacks in his unit were not allowed to use the same toilets as Whites. They had to make do with a primitive latrine with the word "Niggers" scrawled on the door.

Most of our food has been delivered to our unopened apartment door each week by an online service so oversubscribed last April we had to wait weeks for an available time slot. It's brought by young men (all male so far) mostly "of color." We are old customers, ten years with the service. Before Covid we greeted the delivery man with an open door and handed them his tip in person. Now we include it in the bill we pay online. We still shout a thank-you through the closed door. Sometimes he responds, but often as not he's too winded from the long climb to do so. Perhaps his lack of response indicates skepticism about whether a sufficient tip was really included in the online payment. At Christmas, of all times, I forgot to add it in, an oversight that still haunts me.

After the air in the stairwell has cleared, I open our door and drag the bags of groceries across the threshold. There's no question of my doing anything more than drag. I can't imagine how one person, even a healthy young man, can carry so much weight up four stories. But he does and, if following company protocol, is wearing a mask as he does so. I put a mask on myself before I open the door. So does my wife, though we know infection at that point is remote. And, even though we're now told there's next to no chance of contracting the virus from groceries, I disinfect them anyway.

All of this has kept us Covid-free for more than 12 months. Two of our neighbors, roommates, came down with the virus recently. Both have shopped and run errands for us on a regular basis. One only suffered a mild fever. But the other, our main support since the start of the pandemic, went though agonizing days of fever, pain, sleeplessness, and a nagging rash. They had both behaved responsibly for the past year, as best I could tell. But a year is a long time when you are young and healthy and lonely. And the media was assuring us the worst was over. Restaurants and movie theaters were being allowed to reopen even though the New York Times continued to rate the risk of infection as "severely" or "extremely high risk," and now we have our very own variant of the bug, as is perhaps appropriate for the city that last spring had the worst infection rate in the world and has suffered tens of thousands of deaths.

I know someone who lives across the street from a municipal hospital. Last spring she watched as huge refrigerator trucks pulled up to its loading docks to take on bodies the hospital morgue could no longer accommodate. In my usual stoical/paranoid way, at that point I estimated my chances of surviving the pandemic at 50 percent. Yet here I am, and the vaccine that was once held out more as a hope than a probability by year's end became a reality in November. Now we have three more vaccines available, though distribution has been woefully disorganized.

Early on in the pandemic I heard an interview with the author of a book on the plague of 1649 in Italy, the same area where in 2020 Covid-19 decimated those infected, mostly the old. The author described how one Italian city (Florence?), unlike its neighbors, imposed a complete lockdown. No ordinary citizen was allowed to leave their dwelling. Food was brought to them by the city itself. Anyone violating the lockdown, such as young people partying on rooftops, was arrested. Police patrolled the city limits, demanding of anyone who sought entry a medical certificate that they were plague-free. When the worst was over, Florence had suffered an 18% mortality. Cities around it had rates as high as 80%. If 17th-century Italy could get control of a bug without even knowing what a virus was, why were we having so much trouble controlling a similar disease 500 years later?

In that same century, Daniel Defoe's London knew strict segregation was the best way to control an epidemic. You can read in his A Journey of the Plague Year how local quacks popped up in that 17th-century metropolis just as they were doing in 21st-century America. Street preachers lectured the population on divine retribution, while the rich and their servants exited the city for country estates, just as Manhattanites and Park Slopers were scurrying to their summer homes in the Berkshires and the Poconos. The rest of London's population were confined to their homes at the first sign of anyone in a household coming down with the disease. Guards kept them there until the plague had run its course within those walls.

Meanwhile I was reading in news media disturbingly similar reports about politicians and even medical "experts," most of them johnnies-come-lately to the crisis. Hydroxychloroquine and even Clorox became our equivalents of the miracle cures offered by the pop-up medicos of 17th-century London, for a price. We were being told the virus would disappear "miraculously," by Easter, or surely when warm weather arrived. Masks were forbidden, then mandatory. Finally a savior appeared in the person of the Governor of New York State. At his daily press conference, he preached patience, hope, brotherly and sisterly love, and more to the point, mitigation of the virus's spread by isolation or when that was impossible by strict mitigation. It seemed to work. The infamous "curve," that all-too-familiar rising line we were presented with each day like the trajectory of a ballistic missile, began to curve downward.

Yet today, a year later, with four vaccines available and face masks as common as running shoes, this city is still at "extremely high risk." Our governor, by last summer already author of a book about how he slayed the Covid dragon, recipient of an Emmy nomination for his Churchillian performances on TV during those early months of the pandemic, is now under investigation by state and federal authorities for criminal fraud. It seems he authorized if not mandated that nursing homes in this state, which are legion and notoriously corrupt, to accept Covid-positive patients from hospitals even when they were ill-prepared to do so. To boot, patients who died of Covid after transfer to hospitals from those nursing homes were not counted as nursing-home deaths. Worst of all, to me, the nursing-home industry, a big contributor to that same governor's political war chest, was granted immunity by him from legal liability.

Lucky for him he's also the subject of sexual harassment allegations that are diverting attention from the thousands of deaths he is being held personally responsible for. The news is full each day of whose blouse he is said to have explored uninvited, along with daily assertions from his staff of what an ill-tempered, tear-making tyrant he is. Meanwhile, the 9,000 deaths of elderly he may face jail time for is hardly in the news.

Not a pretty picture. An embarrassment, in fact, if my feelings as a citizen of this nation count. That a health crisis of this kind could be so ineptly handled at every level of government is unimaginable. We managed to banish Ebola from our shores through simple isolation and contact-tracing, and Ebola makes Covid look like a bout of the sniffles. We dealt successfully with SARS-1 (officially, Covid-19 is SARS-2), MERS, and other deadly threats expeditiously over the last couple decades. Trump was certainly feckless and made things worse, but we knew he was incompetent long before the "China virus" reached Seattle. And we had an historical paradigm for what to expect of a viral pandemic from the 1918 influenza, which took between 50 and 100 million lives worldwide when the world's population was about a quarter of what it is today. How could we screw up so badly?

It surely wasn't a failure of science, that fancy and deceptive word we give to knowledge of the testable kind based on observable facts, rigorous reason, and healthy skepticism. A vaccine that was supposed to take between five and twenty years to develop was produced in less than one year, initially by a German couple of Turkish ancestry who partnered with American Pfizer to produce and distribute it. Masks, PPE, and "social distancing" worked. But here we are in our third or fourth "wave" of infection, and we are still dealing with the disease as if it were an unavoidable act of God—or the demon Democrats.

Back in March, when nobody seemed to know what was going on, a journalist interviewed an epidemiologist with many decades of experience dealing with epidemics and pandemics. Before answering the journalist's specific question, she said she must first make something clear: "Disease," she said, "is political."

She was proven right over and over in the following months. Shutdowns and even mask-wearing became partisan issues. Trump called upon Michiganders to "liberate" the state from Covid restrictions. Masks became a plot by liberals to control the rest of us. A caller to the Rush Limbaugh Show said that when he was in the military, he was trained to immediately hood an enemy prisoner, not to conceal the prisoner's whereabouts from him but to let him know he was completely under the control of his captors. A face mask, according to that caller, was a way for the Left to control the citizens of the United States of America in much the same fashion. And now we have anti-vaxers, as much as 30 percent of us, who worry that the vaccines contain microchips and other insidious material, including a substance that turns the vaccinated into atheists!

But for me the year of isolation in some ways has turned out to be anything but an ordeal. Nothing focuses your attention like death, or makes you think about what's important and what's not. Our lives are filled with mental and emotional clutter. We exhaust ourselves with to-do lists that never end. We can prioritize all we like, the list never gets any shorter. The one thing we don't have time to fit enough of into our schedules, not even a couple old codgers like me and my wife, is people, other human beings. Covid changed that. People—family, friends, even the nice woman taking my complaint on an 800 number—became what really counted. Our local pharmacist, son of immigrant parents born on the Indian subcontinent, instantly recognizes my voice when I called for a refill, his own voice full of genuine caring. Neighbors we barely nodded to on the street before the start of the pandemic offered their services, whatever we need, don't hesitate. Friendships that had been allowed to fade over the years reclaimed their proper place at the center of our lives, not just catch-as-catch-can as they were before lockdown. I began looking up classmates I haven't seen in 50 years. Not surprisingly, many are no longer above ground.

People who endured ongoing aerial bombardment must have experienced something like this, though of course in a more urgent way: Live for today, love for today. If it's really important, do it now. Or, just as essential: relax, stare out the window, watch the leaves and snow fall, enjoy the screeches of the children playing on the street and the noises of workers and machines making road repairs. You can't waste time, you can only misuse it.

But I have no illusions about the present situation. If we get through this crisis, not just my wife and I but all of us, the world we knew pre-January 2020 will be waiting to reclaim us. Americans are no less compassionate than other peoples and no less needy. But we are a nation founded on and for gain—gain and religiosity of a very constipated kind. Put the two together, and there's not much room left for what is human, certainly not for the freedom to be fully human. If our lives are filled with busywork and fear, what's left? If we only feel at peace with our selves when we have exhausted them in pointless make-work, however well it pays, or when we have abased ourselves to a deity who allows his representatives to destroy the very redemption from fear and suffering they claim is offered us by him, what's left? Has no one read Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor"?

An important aid in getting through the past year was also due to that same young man who brings up our mail and packages. Just before the pandemic, he told me he had completed a personal memoir. Would I be interested in reading it?

I said of course I would. Not only is that young man (32 seems obscenely young to me) a good neighbor, he, Tuan, is the adopted son of a good friend who died suddenly four years ago, leaving his two boys, adoptees from an orphanage in Hanoi, on their own 3,000 miles from the land of their birth and extended families. At the time of my friend's death, Tuan's adoptive brother had already moved upstate and now lives in Vietnam. But Tuan is a New Yorker in a sense that I, a migrant from New Jersey, never will be. He's also a survivor, not just of a single mother's death when he was still a young child, but of a wrenching transfer to a nation where he knew nothing of the language or social norms, making him as much a victim as a beneficiary of his adoption.

His memoir, The Mango Tree, is the product of a natural-born story-teller, and it belies or perhaps is very much in accord with the author's unremarkable academic experience. Helping him realize his narrative has helped make the last year more meaningful for me than it might otherwise have been. It also forged a firm friendship between us.

I've said Tuan is very much a New Yorker. But this is a city that stands apart even in America for placing material gain above all else. The old, unless they are still high-rollers, like the poor and the powerless, are irrelevant. But Tuan is not just a New Yorker. He's also Vietnamese, and that means respecting and looking out for elders. His memoir is an engine as well as a chronicle of that identity. His purpose in writing it, and doing so in the midst of a visit to Vietnam, which turned out to be as essential an interlude as the chapters about his childhood in a rural village and his years in that orphanage, was to rediscover that identity. Looking after me and my wife (though he seems to think me a piker of just four-score years because his grandmother is into her 90s and hasn't a gray hair on her head) is part of who he is. Hopefully, he will always remain that person and not be coopted by a social environment in which the humanity we maintain is practiced despite rather than because of said environment.

Another friend, a Finn almost twice Tuan's age, came down with the virus last spring. She apparently recovered, but now seems to be experiencing "long Covid," heart and possibly lung damage. She had already been struggling with chronic health issues that could be put down to the professional stress she lives under. What she should do is retire and devote herself to a secondary family business she and her husband started up many years ago. But that's not the American way.

I once had another friend, a very close one, more like a brother than a friend, someone I could call in the middle of the night if my car broke down, someone whom, though married with a family of his own, I could and did ask for shelter when I had none and got it without question of hesitation. He also was an immigrant, from a small town in Ecuador. He died when he was scarcely into his forties. Like Tuan, he understood and tried to maintain the values of the people he had been born into: that you work for the sake of living, not the other way around; that the people in your life are what makes it worth living; that human company, a shared couple hours of conversation over a cup of tea in a local diner is the acme of what's good in life—values we all give lip service to while we still running hard on the hamster wheel that is the world we live in.

Al, my friend, said something that sums it all up. We were deep into one of our conversations about books or the meaning of meaning. Or we might have been sitting in his parked car, as good a venue for good talk as any other place. We saw someone running to catch up with a bus whose doors were about to close and pull away. He remarked how that wouldn't happen in Ecuador, at least not in the part he came from. He didn't make this comment with any sense of superiority. Al had come to this country when he was just eight years old. He told me he still cried when he heard the Star Spangled Banner.

In New York City buses can come along as close as every ten minutes. Even so, we run for one rather than wait for the next. Why? Because that's what everyone else does. We would probably feel ashamed of ourselves if we didn't. Al remarked that you wouldn't see someone dashing for a bus like that in Rio Bamba, even though it could be an hour, not ten minutes, till the next one came along. Why? Because there'll always be another.

We take a condescending attitude toward an attitude like that, not just toward buses but toward the kind of society it represents: the dozing Mexican under a mammoth sombrero being the classic caricature. Mañana. But after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans about 15 years ago, someone put a microphone in front of one of the survivors, a middle-aged man from one of the old neighborhoods that had been washed away. He said, if you want to understand what a New Orleanean is like, you have to realize they have more in common with a Mexican than with someone from the rest of the United States. They work as hard as they need to to support themselves and their family. But they do so in order to spend as much time as possible with family and friends. They work to live, and they think they know what the words "to live" mean.

Hopefully, this year of the Covid—or however long it lasts—will teach us that lesson without our having to sacrifice another 500,000 to the gods of greed and the loss of our very mortal souls.