04. Scraping Their Forks

April 2020

How many times do I need to remind myself not to look at my telephone first thing in the morning? I woke up to a message about freezes, pay cuts, and furloughs at the school where I teach. I should work on my resume.

Instead, I press on with reading The Plague. When Camus describes the town’s refusal to recognize the reality of the disease, it feels like an indictment of those February days when I still went to the library, made plans, and believed a complimentary bottle of hand sanitizer would protect us all. “They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views,” Camus writes. “How should they have a thought to anything like the plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.”

The future is not ruled out, but it’s harder to imagine. I’d like to use this time to become a Zen lesson in the art of presence; instead, I have the attention span of a goldfish: understanding the world only nine seconds at a time.

We wear bandanas and scarves across our mouths like a haphazard gang or makeshift religion. The effect in the streets is midway between a spur-of-the-moment heist and a ritual of atonement. In these masked days, two factoids come to mind:

  1. The smile is the expression that can be seen from farthest away.

  2. A smile without contracted muscles around the eyes can “unmask the false friend.”

This pandemic season reminds me of the logic of grief: the constant loop of forgetting followed by painfully remembering that everything has changed.

On my desk, there’s my bandana, my notebook, and a photograph of my parents. I wonder what they would make of this situation if they could see how the world has changed. Would they have any familial wisdom or generational memory to share? I have no idea. There is no frame of reference.

I’m beginning to pray even though I don’t believe in much, and I don’t know what to say. For now, I bow my head and hang onto a line from Voltaire: “Doubt is not an entirely agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”

An old man in New Orleans once told me that doubt is a conversation.

The other day I stood at the window and watched raindrops slide down the glass like I was six years old again. My thoughts echoed the weather, petulant and gloomy. What am I doing with this life? I should rethink everything. Make some big decisions. Go back to school. Become a nurse, a scientist, or a mystic. Become essential. Leave America behind and walk the earth.

“Make something for lunch,” she said. “Start there.”

At the supermarket, our bemused collectivism has shifted into something more twitchy. A man sniped at a girl for not standing six feet away. Others blithely plowed through the aisles and shouldered past me like creatures from another planet, unmasked and uncaring.

I left the usual bag of groceries by my elderly neighbor’s door, a woman I admire because she lives only on blue cheese, dark chocolate, and papaya. I knocked lightly and headed down the stairwell like a backward thief. I heard her voice calling behind me: “Slow down, there’s no reason to hurry through this world.”

Flipping through an old notebook last night, I came across a page dedicated to the first time I saw a painting by Hubert Robert. (Such beautiful cadence in that name: Hubert Robert. Say it out loud and you can’t help but smile.) Standing before Robert’s 18th-century fantasies of living among the ruins, I tried to understand the hum in my belly, the sense of longing.

Everyone pines for a fictional past sometimes. Whether it’s childhood or the romanticized grandeur of Rome, nostalgia for a better time is hardwired. Preparing to tell the tale of Odysseus, Homer had said, “Come now, let me tell you stories of better men,” and Ovid mourned the loss of the noble ages of gold and silver in the year 8.

But I miss sitting in diners and listening to people murmur and jive, scraping their forks and stirring their coffee. I miss the mumble of humanity punctuated by a stray phrase.

Maybe the magnolias.
Some kind of crazy.
What she doesn’t understand.
Ate too much.

I miss the sound of old men talking about trout and tackle, or a short-order cook bitching about the weather. I miss the energy of the third shift in some far-flung Waffle House when the night owls and long-haul truckers would arrive. The souls living by their own clocks, these men and women drinking bottomless cups of coffee in front of personal chess sets and notebooks packed with manifestos and promises. Most of all, I miss sitting among strangers and feeling irritated and fascinated.

The other day a man hollered from a rooftop on First Avenue: “I’m gonna give you a treat tonight!” A bit of Vegas patter ricocheted across the buildings and Sinatra began sing “Come Fly with Me,” his voice reverberating through the shuttered streets, otherworldly and haunted. I stood in the rain wearing my bandana and listened to the whole thing. After the song ended, I cheered along with strangers who whistled and shouted unseen from their windows.