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Do Not Re-Enter?
Pandemic thoughts I never thought I would have
My friend and built-environment explorer partner-in-crime Rachel Taylor wrote this on Twitter the other day:
I feel this, so much.
I’ve written about some of this before—here, after I got my first vaccine dose, and here, with a little more on the notion that the pandemic has forced Millennials to finally grow up. At that point, I was feeling, as were a lot of people, that the vaccine marked the end. I observed the public health precautions pretty strongly, but I had looked forward to a snap back to normal. For me, that was March 5, 2020, my final completely normal day.
Let me note here that there are folks who have never quite accepted that what happened in the last year actually happened, and so for them, the whole discussion of “reentry” is a non-issue. I assume they find it silly, a kind of neuroticism. Well, I didn’t think “reentry” was really going to be a real issue a month or two ago. Or at any point during the pandemic. Until now.
A few weeks ago my wife and I took a day trip and had dinner at a buffet. We figured, along with our (well, mainly my) love of buffets, that perhaps forcing ourselves to handle shared tongs and touch shared surfaces would put us back in a pre-pandemic mindset. I’m not kidding—we both felt, on and off, a kind of guilt at going out and acting like things were normal, when for so many people they still aren’t. (And, as it goes, a man seated behind us was coughing. That made us feel something, but not guilt.)
The other day, I met a former colleague in Maryland and drove around a bit, shopped at a few thrift stores, took some pictures of interesting buildings, and, yes, had dinner at a Chinese buffet. My normal routine. And somehow, it just....didn’t fit. Something was off.
What is that feeling? I’m trying to think through it. Part of it is that businesses are struggling right now, and while they definitely appreciate the patronage, many of them are quite obviously understaffed and struggling to perform at the level that people expect. I don’t fault them, and I don’t leave bad tips or bad reviews. But I don’t exactly enjoy plunking down money on meals—which have ticked up in price—when my own finances don’t allow for that much disposable income. I’d like to wait to go out to eat until restaurants are functioning at their pre-pandemic level. But will they be able to do that if customers don’t support them now? I don’t know. I hope so. Probably not.
Part of it, going off that last bit, is the feeling that everything is just a little bit off. My family and I made it through this pretty much unscathed. As it turns out, even being laid off at the cusp of reopening was a blessing in disguise, because I’m quite enjoying freelancing and writing here. But I can’t begin to imagine how much pain and trauma people are holding on to right now. I think I understand the emerging idea that those of us who are vaccinated and ready to return to normal should nonetheless attempt some kind of solidarity.
I’m also thinking about how the hell my wife and I will afford a house in the coming years. Weird economic things are going on with money, stocks, lumber, employment, real estate, commuting, retail. Does anybody quite know what is going on? Everything seems to be in flux.
The weird economic news brings to mind one of my old college professors, who taught environmental economics and environmental studies. He wasn’t much for green energy or electric cars, or any of that stuff. He talked a lot about sustainability, fragility, complex and emergent systems; I’m quite sure he was heavily influenced by James Howard Kunstler. Are we seeing, right now, a collapse of systems that are simply too big and complex to manage or understand? Trade, energy, finance?
And there’s another thing, maybe even a more obvious one. I feel as if I’m aware of death in a way that I was not before. I’ve been sheltered, privileged, blessed—whatever you want to call it—in my life. In some ways, this pandemic year has made real for me dismal and frightening possibilities which are made real for many people much earlier in life. I’m still pretty young, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to simply not think about my health or the health of my friends and family. Mentally, anyway, the pandemic has probably added a few years to my age.
On my drive the other day, I kept accidentally hitting cicadas. They collide into your car, and there are so many of them now they look from a distance like swarms of flies around streetlamps. The more that I’ve become interested in urbanist and transportation issues, the more I feel ambivalent about the car. It’s not that I care very much about bugs, but there’s some metaphor there. It’s not possible to drive a car without engaging in a kind of violence. But that doesn’t and won’t stop me from driving. What, if anything, does that say about me? I didn’t want to be thinking about this as I flitted from thrift store to buffet dinner. But I couldn’t help myself.
I felt similarly back at that buffet dinner with my wife. The place had crab legs, and a table next to us took way more than they could eat and left a pile. It was painful to watch their table cleared, to think of crabs being caught killed and split in half so they could be thrown in the trash. It felt evil. I wanted them to charged for waste and banned from the restaurant. I felt guilty for eating in restaurant where this happened.
I can’t imagine myself having these thoughts before the pandemic. Perhaps a year inside with your own mind will do that. Perhaps it’s also a kind of maturity, in some way. I feel as though I’ve moved forward in life, no longer able to be breezy and autonomous, no longer able to completely lose myself in something frivolous. Perhaps, at its best, this has prepared me for homeownership, fatherhood—the things that first impose on your life and then become your life.
Back to the buffet—my buffet dinner alone, that is. The sushi area was half-closed. The advertised Korean BBQ station had been removed. There were chains linked between the steam tables, preventing you from accessing both sides of them. It was a minor annoyance to reach for the dishes not facing me. The make-your-own hibachi cook was busy, not with customers but with various restaurant tasks. The food was obviously at least a few hours old—dry, soggy, all around edible but unpleasant.
I’ve never really been bothered by bad buffets. I’ve eaten at a few of them, because I’ve been to a lot of buffets! It was always just kind of fun, like a kid in a candy shop feeling, even if one particular meal was subpar. This time, I just had trouble enjoying it. I was put off in an almost visceral way by the hard, dry dumpling skin and the soggy egg roll and the hibachi noodles swimming in some kind of thick, almost gelatinous cooking oil. My old sheer excitement was just gone. Sitting there, I wondered, have I outgrown this? Or did I just get a restaurant on a bad night? Maybe both. I’ll be trying more of these places, and I’m curious to see how they’re handling reopening.
But there’s just something different in me now. I don’t know what it is, but it’s real. It isn’t depression, and it isn’t fear of getting sick, and it isn’t virtue signaling or “wearing a mask so people don’t think I’m a Republican.” So it isn’t what the folks who laugh at reentry anxiety probably think it is.
I’d like your thoughts on this one. Comment and email away!