Saturday, August 29, 2020

ACROSS AMERICA AND BACK IN THE AGE OF COVID

                                                                                                                       


AUGUST 2020

My sons and I just returned from a road trip across America and back. Somehow we managed to do it in eleven days.

I’m exhausted and wearied in a way I’m not used to. I’m defeated and beaten deep down to my very character. That’s where your hope resides -- and beliefs, and probably your childhood.

What happened is that about halfway through the trip, I had to grapple with the fact that a very close friend of mine – someone I truly cherish and revere – was so sick that no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t see how he was going to survive. This is one of those things so depressing you can barely haul yourself up in the morning.

Corny as it sounds, the friend is America.

I’m not the only one who felt it. Two of my sons, aged 24 and 21, traveled every foot of that trip with me, and by the end – as we pulled onto Los Angeles freeway 91 – one of them said quietly, “What was that?”

The other amended the question. “What is that?”

Yes. What is that?

This kind of travel isn’t new to us.  Unbelievable as it sounds, since 2009, my family have made more than 18 treks across the country, usually from Los Angeles to Toronto, but since my eldest son went to school in Ottawa and my daughter started school in Washington DC., those cities have been added as well, with a few jaunts through the south and west. So we know those roads and we know all the wonderful and wild inanity that makes up the American road.

We know, for instance, that you’re a fool if you don’t white knuckle it through the Mojave desert, where temperatures can get up to 120 Fahrenheit without anyone really commenting on it, even if that’s hot enough to blow your tires. (There’s a gas station between Barstow and Needles that knows just how valuable it is, so it jacks its price a cool 200% of what everyone else charges before Barstow and after Needles).  We know Clines Corners in western New Mexico, we know the fantastic Cowboy Museum (Oklahoma City; never miss it) and every Presidential Museum (Ike’s is the best).  We know motels and hotels and KOA’s. 

Last time, after a long roundabout trip through the south, we were finishing off the last leg through New Mexico, and as we stepped out at a perfectly nondescript rest stop to take a pee, my sixteen year old son sighed and exclaimed, “THIS shithole again??” I couldn’t stop laughing.  Yes. He was right. This shithole again.

You need to have certain appetites to enjoy this kind of thing. Dodge City has to mean something to you. The Jesse James caves must seem perfectly legitimate history; Uranus Fudge Factory must hold some humor; Cadillac Ranch must be profound; and you have to like the weird chemically icy fragrance of mid-range motel air conditioning.
 
You also have to be ready for sudden grandeur and beauty; not just Grand Canyon stuff, but those lush snake rivers of Arkansas -- which just appear out of nowhere over every bridge on the Interstate -- or the canyons of Utah; the Martian vistas of New Mexico and Arizona; and those beautiful rolling plains of Missouri and Kansas. Kentucky is one of the most beautiful states of the union, and how many people know that?  
 
Then your heart and soul gets rocked. Visit what they call the “Lynching Museum” in Montgomery Alabama (the outdoor part) if you want to be altered for life; the strange ruin of the grocery store in Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till allegedly whistled at the owner’s wife; the spookiness of the Tallahatchie River; or just stand in the desert outside Tucumcari at 2 a.m.  In 2018, my sons and I went to Selma to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, but we wound up spending more time in the old cemetery there, grappling with the poignancy of beautifully kept Confederate tombstones and flowers upon graves of children wiped out in the 1918 epidemic, and – who knew? – Edmund Pettus’ decrepit tombstone. 
 
On July 4 of that year, we realized we had made no plans for celebrating Independence Day. With no great thought, we turned off the highway and edged our way into Greenville South Carolina, a town about which we knew nothing. It was just after dark. We parked, waded our way through tailgaters and picnickers, hoped we were headed vaguely in the direction of public fireworks, and got lucky: that night we lay flat on our backs on the high school baseball field as fireworks exploded literally over our heads.  We were filled with eternal goodwill and high spirits, surrounded by people we did not know but with whom we imagined we shared a bond.
 
This is not what we just passed through in August 2020.
 
Everyone knows, I hope, that there is a distance between the America seen on television and the America as it exists. But the gap is so wide now as to make both sides of the story – the Fox side, let’s say, and the MSNBC side – pure propaganda.  And by definition, propaganda means something that isn’t true.
 
The Fox/Trump side, broadly speaking, makes it clear that America today is a vibrant culture of folks who believe in the America dream, are industriously going about their business, and having to fight off the socialism of lazy-ass liberals and assholes who want you to wear masks – oh, and they blow up cities. The MSNBC view is of a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, tolerant group of maskers working toward a just society despite having to fight off the totalitarianism of Trumpers and hayseed crackers with Confederate battle flags. And both groups have found a way of working with COVID.
 
Bullshit. From what my kids and I saw, COVID and politics have put America on the mat.
 
COVID first. This is now a country of people who wear masks and people who don’t. About half don’t. But which half? We conducted a scientific car survey outside the Navajo territory of western New Mexico. A car survey is when you’re at a travel/gas rest stop and you’re in the car waiting for a son or daughter to finish going to the bathroom or buying the necessary Starburst, water, coffee, and Hershey drops. The rest of us, lounging in the car, start counting.  Here’s the result:
 
Everyone going into the rest stop who was wearing a mask was brown. Everyone who was not wearing a mask was white. This is despite the big “YOU MUST WEAR A MASK TO ENTER” sign that is posted, literally, on every business door in America, much good it does.
 
And that is pretty much how we saw it go across the country. Half of the people wear masks and half of them don’t, and the ones who go without are invariably white. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re blind to the power of COVID. No one is blind about that. How can anyone be?  Just look around.
 
All the schoolyards are deserted, and schools are starting to look like they could use a coat of paint. The playing fields are empty, and we didn’t see one baseball or pick-up soccer game. As a result, the streets are pretty much deserted as well. There are few places to even pull over and have a picnic, so we did most of our rest stop picnicking in our car, or in sad and depressing public benches in the middle of nowhere. We felt like characters in a “Twilight Zone” episode, where the characters have landed in an alien earthling exhibit but the alien curators forgot to put in the people.
 
Almost everywhere we went, there were few public restrooms and no restaurants or coffee shops or fast food outlets you could sit in. Almost all food is from drive-thrus, because who else can stay open? (I’ve seen these TV commercials where plucky entrepreneurs keep their deli open and are popping out to deliver curbside pick-up, but we didn’t see anything like that; mostly I saw deserted small towns and Wal-Marts with a fifth of the parking lot full).
 
There are, however, cops. There are cops everywhere. They’re staked out in speed traps and they cruise slowly through deserted towns. They don’t look friendly, but then, small town American cops haven’t looked friendly in years – they’re so tricked out like they’re doing battle in Fallujah, it’s best to stay the hell away from them no matter what happens to you.
 
If you stay in hotels, you have to clean your hotel room first – making sure everyone is using masks as they do so.  And bring your own fan. If you’re camping, you have to avoid your fellow campers, who are almost certainly not wearing masks and are super friendly and ready to shake hands because they’re testing you: are you one of them, or one of us?
 
This is life on the road: gas, wash hands, drive-thru, wash hands, drive, gas, wash hands, pee break, wash hands, keep driving, watch for cops, drive through deserted towns, find somewhere to stay, clean it, eat drive-thru, hit the road the next morning. And watch for cops.
 
There are no cultural exhibits open, and there certainly aren’t any museums. There’s nowhere local to stop and eat.  Nothing that makes the bleakness of America wonderful or intriguing. It’s all closed. Most of it is probably out of business.
 
If ever there were a clearer example of a failure of leadership, I can’t imagine what it is.  I’m not just talking Trump and his maniacs. That’s too easy. I’m talking all of them.  All of them. But how could this happen, when the country is run by such smart people?
 
And that leads me to why we were on this trip in the first place.
 
We were taking my daughter to Washington DC so she could move into her first apartment. She’s a student at American University, and five days before AU reversed its stance on in-person classes, my daughter and three of her friends had to sign a year-long lease in DC due to the cutback in dorm options. Then the University dropped its inevitable bombshell (online classes), and all these kids have been left stuck in apartments they didn’t really need in a city they didn’t need to live in.  Oh well.  One must love academy planning.
 
But here’s the thing: it’s DC, right?  This is where the power brokers live, as well as most of the folks we’re seeing on MSNBC and Fox and CNN every night. This is where it’s all coming from.
 
Now, that world took our breath away.  The lovely Georgian homes in Chevy Chase, Bethesda, downtown Washington, and Georgetown; $4,000,000 Tudor cottages nestled within gorgeously and shrewdly manicured ivy and weeping willows, immaculate Regency townhouses, literal mansions on grassy hills, and highrise condos overlooking the Potomac.  This is the way to live.
 
And they do. These are the homes of all the folks I watch on television every night like an idiot.  The folks who either work for the government in some way or are retired with a book or podcast deal, or they are, literally, the actual headline stars on cable news. I won’t even get into the 535 members of Congress. They’re living in those houses too, and their world – outside of having to wear a mask at Starbucks – looks to be going pretty good.
 
So our trip was a slingshot around this oasis, and it made us wonder just who is complicit in what, and just how this country got to such a state with all those smart people overseeing things.
 
And… do they know?
 
Do these folks know, for instance, that you’ll see more Trump-Pence signs and Confederate flags in western Pennsylvania than you’ll see in Tennessee? Maybe they just stick to the old stereotypes on that one. Do they know that much of southern Illinois looks like it’s decided to shut down for pretty much the rest of the century? Or that Oklahoma is the winner of the COVID Denial Award? In one of its most prosperous suburbs, we discovered not just that we were the only ones wearing masks, but that whole sit-down restaurants were fully open and tables were packed side by side. At least, I guess, it’s activity and human contact. No Twilight Zone here, although I suspect about 20% of them are going to die within the next fifteen days.
 
What we saw, in short, was a country that simply isn’t functioning anymore.  It’s waiting for ‘something’ to happen. It doesn’t know what, but something has to happen. The question is, is it going to be a good thing or a bad thing?
 
The fact that this has been allowed to happen is a national crime. That the system is so poorly designed that one mentally ill moron in the White House can do so much damage – and that the system is so ill-equipped and its leaders so weak that he has the power to do so – is pitiful. That we blame so much of our current disaster on the one moron is even more pitiful.
 
We all know what a ghost town is, but whoever heard of a ghost country?
 
Perhaps that phrase answers the question my sons posed.
What was that?
 
What is that?
 
Ghost America. Gone. And this is before the Civil War to come.  It’s to weep.



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