Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

Navigating the Covidian Miasma

Shelves at Kroger Co.’s Ralphs supermarket amid fears of the coronavirus, Los Angeles, Calif., March 15, 2020 (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)

On a sunny Friday noon, five hours before our state was about to go into lockdown, I was in the kitchen with my daughter, laying out ration rules for the coming duration. One can of fizzy water a day, or one can of pop. Go light on the milk. And so on. I shut the fridge door and was about to discuss the Five-Square Rule of toilet-paper consumption — at least until we’re down to one-ply, then it’s seven — when she asked whether we had any hummus.

“We got hummus galore,” I said, thinking that would be a great name for a Bond girl in the Lebanese version, and opened the door.

The light in the fridge was off. Looked around the kitchen: All the clocks were blank. Turned on a switch: nothing. The power was out.

In the Before Times, your thoughts would go to the ice cream in the freezer. Dang it, it’s going to get soft. And then it’ll refreeze, and it’ll have crystals. I can’t believe I’m going to have to eat ice cream with some crystals tonight.

Now, in Covidian Miasma times: We have a fortnight of sustenance in the freezer. If it spoils, we die.

No — that’s ridiculous. If we cook and eat everything in the freezer, we can accumulate so much excess stored protein that we can live on ramen noodles for a week. There are 24 packets of ramen. One per person, one per day. Possible problem: They are all chicken-flavored. If I’d known this was coming, I would have varied the flavor. Shrimp would be nice.

Of course, if I’d known this was coming, I would have liquidated all my assets and buried them in the backyard. The neighbor might have wondered: What are you doing there, friend?

“I cashed out of the market because a deadly virus is coming from China in six months and blood will run down Wall Street like a crimson tsunami of panic, so, you know, just planning ahead.”

“Does China know about this?”

“Good point. I should tell them. Also, if I were you, I’d get the variety pack of ramen.”

Not that it would have done any good to tell China before this got out of hand. It’s interesting how the view of China has changed over the last few weeks.

Previous assumption: China learns of a bad new disease affecting people, sends a team of government officials wearing impeccable suits who ride a sleek train from a gorgeous new station designed by a world-class architect; they arrive at the hospital, gather evidence in a stressful situation, reminding each other that “Paul Krugman is counting on us” when things get tough; then they present the data to the world like good global citizens.

Current assumption: China learns of a bad new disease, sends a team of government officials wearing impeccable suits who ride a sleek train from a gorgeous new station designed by a world-class architect; they arrive at the hospital and shoot everyone.

A lot of people believed the first scenario, and even if they had doubts, would you look at the price of 4K TVs these days!

Anyway. Power’s out. Nothing to do but walk the dog. It was a bright day, warm for late March. Many families were out in the front yard playing with the toddlers, tossing a ball to the dog. Ping! My phone buzzed. A text from the power company: The juice would be restored by 12:45. It was possible I would be spared both chicken-ramen fatigue and crystallized ice cream. Might get COVID-19 on my walk, but everything in life is a trade-off.

The dog took me where he wanted to go. I listened to my favorite talk-show host, who was angry about the lard in the relief bill passed by Congress. Me too, but it also feels like being annoyed by the cologne of the Civil War field-hospital doctor who’s sawing off your leg without anesthesia.

Ah, the dog found something in a pile of leaves. While he sticks his snout into the redolent pile a plane passes high overhead, and I wonder who’s on board. How many? Ten? Forty? I was supposed to take a plane to New York in a few months to take a cruise to go to England. Last month I thought: It’ll all be over by then. Then I thought: We’ll do it at summer’s end. Now I think: Wonder if I’ll ever see England again.

A truck from the power company turns the corner. I give the driver a thumbs-up: thanks for working tirelessly to prevent a disappointing ice-cream experience but also to maintain the comforting pretense of civilization! But mostly the ice-cream part.

When I got home it was 12:48, and the power was still out. In the Before Times, I might have feigned anger — why, these slack-bodied layabouts had best get cracking lest I come over and apply a switch to their fly-blown shanks — but now I’m grateful for believing that it’ll probably be on soon.

Belief, not hope.

At 12:55 something went ding! And a fan turned on, and the computer sang a merry, satisfied chord, and the boiler clicked and started to warm up the house. Civilization, and what we expect of it, had come through again. We’ll get through this; we’ll pull together and make it.

I wrote a note, dated two weeks into the future. “Candles are gone, we ate the dog.” Put it in an envelope to be opened in a fortnight. If we’re doing better than that, it’s all good.

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