Volume 3, Issue 10: Everyone Hides

"You're selling yourself on a vision, a dream of who you are."

On Thursday afternoon, the doorbell rang at my house. The kids were on a Zoom call—my youngest son got kicked out of his kindergarten’s Zoom class the other day for changing his screen name to “catfarts,” and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit proud—and my wife, an interior decorator, was out doing a porch presentation at a client’s home. So it was just me. I saved the piece I was writing about Mark McGwire and bounded downstairs.

I was greeted by a smiling white woman in her mid-50s carrying a bag of carpet samples. She was a sales rep, looking to show off the newest line of rug samples to my wife. I’d seen her before, months ago. My wife hadn’t been home then either, yet this woman tried to pitch me some of these samples, and I am so helplessly brainless about that sort of stuff that, one time, when I was away on a work trip for a few days, my wife painted my room a different color and took me two weeks to notice. And that was only because she told me. I’d be the world’s worst police witness.

Anyway, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and this (maskless) lady’s still out there making cold calls about carpet, and she’s rattling on about something, and I can’t hear her. So I crack the storm door so I can at least make out what she’s saying. She takes this as an invitation and motions to enter my house.

Stunned, I yelled “hey!” and slammed the storm door in her face. Instinctively, I apologized. But I kept the door shut.

She looked at me in a way I can only describe as vacant. Then the light began to flicker. “Ooooooh,” she said, and spread her arms apart cartoonishly. “You’re doing that thing! The distancing!” She then chuckled a little bit, as if she were relieved to discover that there might have actually been a reason I slammed the door in her face. Then she went back into sales mode.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said, pointing to her ears for some reason. “I’m not sick at all. I don’t even have a cold!”

I stood there silently for a second, bewildered by this odd bird who showed up on my porch, before I recovered. I told her my wife wasn’t here and that if she wanted to leave the samples, she could. “I can bring them inside if you want?” she said.

I let her know that, all told, I would prefer she just drop them on the porch. She grinned. “Right! Because of the …” And then she spread her arms apart again. “The thing!”

She then got in her car and drove away, to another house, for another unannounced visit, in the middle of the worst public health crisis of the last 100 years. The rug samples are still sitting on our porch.

*****************

I guess it is inevitable that we would eventually reach the point of the pandemic when everyone is screaming at one another. If there is one constant in this destabilizing era, it’s the total assurance we all have that the terribleness of everything is the direct result of the actions of those we most vigorously disagree with. Our political divisions are so deep that we are having knockdown drag-out fights about things that don’t even have anything to do with political viewpoints at all. There are people I know who suddenly, out of nowhere, hate the post office. The post office!

When we are at a moment like this, when we’re at 15 percent unemployment (and rising), when everyone’s scared, when the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to its citizens and wasted two months where an entire country took a collective action and voluntarily stayed indoors only to learn that no meaningful actions were taking during that time of sacrifice, when the world feels like it’s falling apart … it is difficult not to feel lost. And because this is something we are all experiencing (at different levels of stress, sure, but certainly all at some level of stress), we cannot help and look around, at the way other people are handling it. We can take that collective action, but after two months, that collective action can’t help but fray. And that’s leading us to fighting even more. It is leading us toward shaming.

The writer Michelle Goldberg wrote a terrific piece for the Times on Friday about the desire, the need, to shame people right now. I understand the compulsion. When you see college students having parties and gathering together on sidewalks, when a man with a white goatee scowls at you for wearing a mask walking down the street, when someone just can’t walk down the right damned aisle in the right damned direction at the grocery store, when someone shows up at your front door and tries to sell you rug samples out of nowhere … it can be infuriating. This is such a hard time, and we’ve all made sacrifices, big and small, to try to do our part to get through this, and when you see people being reckless, or deciding that they no longer want to make the sacrifices the rest of us have been making even when all the science says that they should, it can feel like a cheat. It feels like rampant selfishness. It feels … well, it feels like a lot of the last four years have felt like, like egotists and bullies just doing whatever the hell they want. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a man who shoved his way to the front of a long car-rental line by pretending to have an ill family member and being so completely shameless about it that calling him out on his lie was pointless. (“A lack of shame is a superpower.”) When you try to do the right thing, especially when it’s something you very much don’t want to do (staying inside, not seeing family members, keeping your business closed) and see others not trying at all, it leads to helplessness. It feels like the only thing you really can do is shame them.

But Goldberg makes a compelling argument that they are symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.

It’s natural that people are struggling with formulating, enforcing and abiding by new social norms. There are villains here, but they’re not the ones desperate to escape this awful new half-life we’re all living. They’re the ones whose job it was to chart a way out, and just gave up.

The way this has somehow been framed, because of the incompetent federal response (and I highly recommend this The Weeds podcast detailing how bafflingly impotent it has been), is:

  • Those who want to keep the lockdowns in place are liberal elites who don’t care about the economy and don’t understand people needing to get back to work.

  • Those who think we need to loosen the lockdowns and/or are eager to open up the economy are denialists who think old and poor people should be sacrifices at the altar of the market.

Neither of these things are true, but because of the void, because of the lack of a plan, we are left to fight with each other about all of it. And it’s getting worse. It is not difficult to imagine, particularly with tensions rising in an election year, this ramping up into chaos, even violence, with a minimum of provocation. The precipice can seem worryingly close. There’s no direction. There is no plan. So we fight with each other.

But we are just people. We are people, and we are scared, and sometimes when people are scared, they say things they don’t mean, or they lash out when they shouldn’t, or they act erratically. Everyone is going through their own private battle right now, and those battles can ebb and flow. Some days I feel totally fine about everything; other days I think we’re on the edge of apocalypse … and then I’ll feel fine again by the end of the day. This is an unprecedented situation. I’m not going to get everything perfect. No one is. Two weeks ago I said on Twitter that I’d keep a list of business that opened in Georgia despite the public health hazard and make sure to boycott them when this is over. That was a stupid thing to say, showing a near-total lack of compassion and empathy for any business owner dealing with this impossibility of this situation, particularly in this state; I regretted it immediately. I’m not even sure I was all that fair with the rug sample woman. She’s just trying to make a living through all this herself, after all. We’re all screwing up a ton, even with the best of intentions.

And everybody’s trying to keep their heads above water here. I’m not sure dunking on the people struggling to do so does anybody any good. It doesn’t help them, and it won’t make you feel any better either. Your neighbors are not the bad guys. Are they handling things differently than you? Maybe. Are they wrong? Probably. But you cannot change their behavior. You cannot do anything but make yourself feel worse. And besides: No one has the answers anyway. We’re all left to ourselves, guessing, doing the best we can to keep our shit together. And often failing.

We’re all just trying to make it through it. That person you want to shame, they’re going through this too. They’re scared too.

***********************

On September 11, 2001, I walked all the way down from Mount Sinai hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Bowery and Spring on the Lower East Side. I didn’t have a cell phone, I had no previous meeting place settled, so I just went to my friend Eric’s place, because that was where all my friends hung out all the time. I just figured that’s where everyone would go.

I was right. Our whole crew was there, on the roof like we always were, this time gaping blankly at the smoke coming from where the World Trade Center buildings had been just a few hours before. We stood there, silently, staring.

The night went on, and people came and went, and we drank and tried to keep our wits, and attempted to decipher what the world meant now, what the hell we were all going to do.

At one point, I was sitting with my friends Aileen and Mark. Mark made the decision, suddenly, that he was going to go give blood, right then. Our friend Tom told him he’d already tried that, that the hospital nearby wasn’t actually taking blood, that they were overloaded with people doing that, that they asked him to just go home and come back in a few days if that was something he really wanted to do.

Something in Mark snapped. “You know what, Tom, FUCK YOU,” he screamed. “What the fuck do you know?” He then punched the wall and stormed out of the apartment. We sat there, stunned. My friend Aileen thought Mark was being an asshole and wanted to go yell at him about it. Tom suggested she leave him be.

“There’s no right way to handle this,” Tom said. “He’s just scared like the rest of us. Nothing about this is right. No reaction is wrong.”

I do think I have a responsibility, to my family, to my community, to the health and well-beings of my loved ones and society at large, to try to do the right thing, to take all the proper precautions, to take care of our own. I hope and beg everyone around me to do the same. But it’s a terrifying time. None of us know what’s going to happen, and none of us know the rules. We’re all just walking around in the dark, hands in front of us, hoping we’re not about to plummet off a cliff. I can do what I think is the correct thing. I can hope others also do the correct thing. But nothing about this is right.

And so I’m not going to turn against my fellow citizens. I am not in a fight with them. They are just trying to get through this like I am. Maybe some daffy lady won’t get off my porch with her rug samples. Maybe some guy is angry he can’t get his mulch. Maybe someone doesn’t like how my mask makes him feel. I have to give them the room to do that, to work through what they are working through. They are going through this, and they are scared, just like I am. Everyone reacts differently. They’re still people. They are not my enemy.

I can take care of my people. I can hope everyone else does what I believe to be the right thing. I want this to be over, and I believe doing the right thing will make it over more quickly, and will save more lives. But when this is over, your community will still be your community. Your neighbors will still be your neighbors. This is a moment of high anxiety, and high emotion. But we’re still all just people. We’re still all doing our best. Our neighbors are not our enemies. We gotta remember that. I gotta remember that.

I might not let you in my house. But I’ll try to be better about not slamming the door in your face either.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. The Post Office Is Magic and the Most Democratic Institution We Have, NBC News. This was the letters piece I’d hinted about over the last couple of weeks. It turned out well, and is another reason to send me letters.

  2. Sports Nostalgia Is Bad for the Soul, New York. Or, more to the point, the best players ever are all playing right now. Or should be playing right now.

  3. Baseball Year in Review: 2006, MLB.com. This did inspire me to watch the two Wainwright strikeouts a lot.

  4. Better Know a Player: Travis Hafner, MLB.com. Pronk!

  5. The Thirty: Every Team’s Pop Culture Connection, MLB.com. A disappointing lack of Cardinals results here.

  6. This Week in Genre History: Iron Man, SYFY Wire. We are all still living in the shadow of this movie.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we looked back at the movie year of 1982, and also “Blow Out” and “The Counselor.”

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week. Taping next week.

Seeing Red, I’ve talked to Bernie, and he’s going to take some time to figure out his next move after being cut from the radio station last week. But we are both committed to bringing the podcast back when we can. (And there is baseball, of course.)

LAUGH THAT I NEEDED THIS WEEK

My goodness, Best in Show remains perfect in every possible way.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“The President Is Winning His War on American Institutions,” George Packer, The Atlantic. Written right before the coronavirus truly hit, this is a deeply, on-the-record reported piece about how our government has been eaten from the inside out. This was actually more depressing than a lot of the coronavirus news I read this week.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

After the NBC piece, you have to write me! So send 'em:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Oh Comely,” Neutral Milk Hotel. It has been a Neutral Milk Hotel sort of month so far.

I want to emphasize something that was in the last CV Stories newsletter this week: The Stockdale Paradox. Read it. I feel like it may be helpful to people right now. I know it was helpful for me.

Also, I wrangled my father and his three brothers on a Zoom call last night, and I’m pretty sure I’m now worthy of a Congressional Medal of Honor myself.

Be safe, all.

Best,
Will