Not Tonight Josephine:
A June 2020 Playlist
New Year’s 2020 will surely go down as a bleak harbinger of ill fortune. Back then, a short lifetime ago from today, the collective consensus was one of relief, of putting 2019 behind us and looking ahead to 2020 with refurbished optimism.
There were noticeable fissures in that optimism, of course. In typical American fashion, our attention spans having been ground into fine grains of sand and our narcissism having been flooded into an impassable morass, most of us didn’t pay those fissures much heed. I didn’t. That thing in some obscure province in China—that was par for the course over there, right? This was SARS, bird flu, swine flu all over again, right? Unfortunate for them, irrelevant to us.
When the quarantine wave crashed over us in March, I remember thinking, And this isn’t even the big one. Like everyone else, I lurched into quarantine lockdown with little to prepare me for it. On the second day of lockdown, while working from home, I was laid off.
Grocery shopping suddenly became a tactical strike, replete with strategic planning and allocations of necessary supplies in the form of pocket-sized hand sanitizers, facemasks, and latex gloves. In those early forays into the lion’s den of grocery stores, I was hyperaware of others who came too close, of death-knell surfaces I might not touch, of coordinating hand sanitizer, glove and mask removal in the proper order like a frontline Ebola responder in Liberia. I was anxious to apply the best practices to protect myself against the unseen enemy.
Then I would note the compounding ironies around me: the careful social distancing while waiting in line outside of Costco but the congested free-for-all at checkout lines inside; people too afraid to touch an unsanitized shopping cart at Whole Foods while showing no hesitation to punch the credit card keypad at checkout; the gloved hands of cashiers who touched cash and registers and countless customers’ items before handling my produce without ever changing gloves or wiping them with sanitizer.
And then there was the in-store music.
I walked through Target wearing a facemask and gloves to the sounds of “Walking on Sunshine.” I waited in line at Whole Foods as the ominous refrain, “You’ll never see me again, so now who’s gonna cry for you” played overhead, and wondered whether some unseen hand had curated these playlists as a macabre joke at the expense of the moment. As I stood in line, loathing my anxiety and the flawed safety charade about me, I couldn’t help but marvel at that unseen curator’s mocking indifference to our collective fear. I wished I could have thought of a playlist first, and considered what songs should be in it. How about Al Green’s “I Can’t Get Next To You?”
But my anxiety and fear didn’t stem from self preservation. As a fit non-smoker of 39 with no underlying conditions save hypothyroidism and a penchant for declaiming personal grievances, I wasn’t exactly in the high-risk population. My fear instead stemmed from a more legitimate concern of unwittingly bringing the virus home to my wife and our infant baby girl, born two weeks prior to the lockdown. I was afraid for our newborn because I didn’t know if she could survive COVID-19, and I was afraid for my wife because her entire day, apart from a few spare and fleeting moments, was occupied with caring for her. One night, when my wife appeared to throw out her back while picking the baby up from her crib, the question wasn’t how do we get through these next couple days as she recovers but rather how do we get through the next ten minutes?
Had it been only myself and my wife at home, I might have treated grocery store forays with much less caution and fear. Perhaps I would have been more irritated by the inconvenience of it all. Perhaps I would have regarded other people’s paranoia with more mocking disdain, and perhaps the pandemic itself would have felt less like a worldwide calamity than a curious novelty to offset the prosaic banalities of adulthood. Had it been only myself and my wife at home, my selfish nihilism might have superseded my conscience. Drop the needle on Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party.”
And perhaps I’d already contracted and recovered from COVID-19 when I was sick for several weeks in early January. I might already have the antibodies, making all my exhaustive paranoia unnecessary. But there was and still is no taking that chance, and so the increasingly ritualized charade of grocery shopping in the age of the coronavirus continues, a nightmare pageant of paranoia against the haunting knowledge that this isn’t even the big one.
This isn’t the Bubonic Plague wiping out an estimated one-third of the European population. This isn’t smallpox decimating an estimated 90% of American indigenous communities. This isn’t a novel and virulent influenza virus like the fall of 1918 that killed the young and healthy. This isn’t the pandemic that will really test our wills and the increasingly frayed social fabric that binds us. Bobby Bland plays “Lovin’ On Borrowed Time.”
This is a coronavirus with a high transmission rate but a low mortality rate that primarily kills the old and infirm. This is a coronavirus that may have already been circulating in the U.S. for several months prior to the lockdown, a highly contagious novel coronavirus that attacks our systems in myriad and sometimes unexpected ways. This is a novel coronavirus that might decimate a fragile newborn’s immune system.
So I embrace the paranoia, slather my hands in sanitizer, don gloves and a mask for what used to be a simple trip to Target, wipe down all interior surfaces of the car when I come home, clean the counters and the floors after unpacking groceries, and put all of my clothes immediately into the wash and then shower before approaching and picking up my daughter. Because that’s what life has become: a confrontation with an invisible and omnipresent threat interrupting every social interaction. The crossing of the street to avoid others while walking the dog; the suspicious glances at the driver at the next gas pump lest they get too close; the strategic planning and mental bracing for a trip to the doctor for a baby’s vaccination schedule; the hostile glare at anyone who dares to cough in public. Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” drifts across the distance between us.
Except it’s summer now, and America is gripped by a second crisis of an equal, if altogether different magnitude. Coronavirus has become an almost inaudible whisper beneath an all-consuming roar, a biological catastrophe replaced with a social one, while a greater economic catastrophe waits patiently in the offing.
But a social catastrophe offers the promise of control and represents the visible versus the invisible, tangible solutions versus opaque projections. It is not the blind and indifferent universe trampling us beneath its ineluctable transit—the social catastrophe is something we, or rather those in power, created, and therefore something we, or rather those in power, can fix. And it will be televised, our resurrected and anachronistic optimism, as The Police play “Every Breath You Take.”
It’s summer now, and whatever ruins lie in wait beyond summer’s brief horizon can at least be ignored by our present immediate challenges. Because in June 2020, isn’t that how we all live our lives now? Enduring each waking moment while bracing for the next?
Meanwhile a cold and indifferent universe watches, disinterested, as Sade’s “Paradise” plays somewhere overhead.