1. The Before
It became elastic and slippery. I did not know that the Coronavirus had rear-ended Mardi Gras.
The first day of Lent is always a hard day for me. There’s that final jubilance of Fat Tuesday, that exhausting night, and then the next morning, the cloud of unrepentant celebration has dropped you off at the last stop on the line and now it’s back to life. With an empty mind, I walked to church and prayed for forgiveness. (This year, I was pretty good). I moped around a little while and that was that.
What New Orleanians know is that the two months after Mardi Gras are beautiful days. Fully into the colorful budding of spring, Nature begins the business of its renewal. Crawfish and festival season go full throttle, and the ideal of the communal becomes real. Music spilling out of the radio, beers on the porch or in the courtyard, a pot of something cooking slowly in the kitchen nearby.
I went back to my regular routine: a couple of hours of CNN and then off to Decatur Street. There was the long, meaningless conversation with Kevin- talk of books, music, poetry, how much he hated his job. He buzzed off to work and I assumed my position. Sitting street level was a perfect satiation of my two favorite things: alcohol and eavesdropping. I sipped beers and listened to fragments of conversations from all over the world. I felt like a giant whale, pulling in all this mental plankton. My synapses firing, ideas were scrawled, then scrubbed, from the walls of my mind.
Kill an afternoon, wait for Kevin to get off, listen to his complaints. A day in the life. Ron and I would share nightly dinner, watch sports or some wrestling, and then I was off with my typewriter to Frenchmen Street, the greatest office in the world. Almost all of my coworkers are my best friends. [Eric works as a poet for hire on Frenchmen St, along with all three of our editors and many of our writers. -ed] Street jazz bands play music every night. Most everyone’s in a good mood and people are excited and curious about what I do. Jokes abound, more beers imbibed. I would take all those disparate, fragmented thoughts that I had digested over the day and as I wrote, I wove them into my poems. My clients accused me of being psychic. I could make people cry. I was my own boss and could press myself pretty hard- but sometimes, you gotta take the eighty bucks and run.
2. The Escape
It’s not that I don’t like LaToya Cantrell, the mayor of New Orleans. I just don’t take her very seriously. She reminds me a bit too much of my family, like a cousin. I would see her on the television, but I never paid her much attention. Little did I know that she was the executioner holding the rope to the guillotine.
I was still listening. On vacation, people wittingly or unwittingly leave work and the serious things at home, drowned out by frozen daiquiris and uproarious laughter. The virus was an afterthought.
It snuck into the conversations. It stood in the dark corner. There was talk about hospitalization, pneumonia, and even a convoluted machine called a “ventilator.” There was one word that was mentioned sharply and quietly, as if it carried the fear with it. Contagious.
It all came slamming down, went sideways, as if in a dream. There was a night that I tried to work and no one was out. I packed up, woke up, and everything was closed. Time stopped, then sped up, then stopped again. I hung out with Ron, told myself that I was there to comfort him, and explain to him what was happening. We were there for each other, discussing news and numbers that seemed incomprehensible.
I reflexively bought a plane ticket, one way. It was my first time. I have always bought tickets knowing when I would be back. I waited and tried to get myself organized. Ron and I went to the grocery store and we filled his refrigerator up, just in case. The days flipped by like a book in the wind and my mind began to wander. I daydreamed out to strange places: not dark, not bad, just strange. My mother and I were in negotiations about what my landing would look like back at home.
An automatic 14 day quarantine, she said. Where I would stay, where I could not go, how I would eat: it was all decided in 20 minutes. As an afterthought, I asked for my father’s number. We hadn’t spoken in 5 years. The relationship between me and my father can be described as a strong but damaged heart. It’s always a relaxing and beautiful thing, and as we talked, we planned that he would pick me up and give me a ride to my mother’s from the airport. When everything becomes surreal, you stop noticing the surreal things.
Flight cancelled. Confusion fell on me like a pile of bricks. I spoke to my mother, told her I may stay a while, see if I could wait it out. Wait what out? I did not know.
What I did not tell her was that I was feeling under the weather. I called my dad later and he refused the news.
“Call me later tonight,” he said. “Be on the plane tomorrow. Promise me. I need you over here.” I could hear his nervousness, in a voice I hadn’t heard in five years.
That night Ron and I had dinner and a long hug. “Hasta luego!”
The drive to the airport was the last ride I had without a mask on, but the first in which the new virus would monopolize the conversation. We wished each other good luck. I walked into a brand new, almost totally empty MSY. After I used the self-serve kiosk a woman was right behind me to sanitize it. I had an hour. It was quiet enough that all the different voices on the televisions could be heard and it created a false sense of conversation around me. I sat waiting, then remembered: SHAKE SHACK. At 11 am, I was the second person in line. I sat and ate my smokeshack burger without seeing a single person.
I reached the jetway and walked into the cabin. One, two, three, four. There were four people on the plane. My mind was swirling, so full that my consciousness enforced a physical peace. The captain got on the overhead intercom and gave the official particulars. It was a pleasant day in DC, he said. When we got to cruising altitude, he would get the chips and we could play a few quick hands of poker.
3. The Quarantine
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is a very interesting place. Just three miles from the White House, it’s the only airport inside a zone of militarily closed airspace. I don’t have to tell you that it’s exceedingly nice, a cross between a cathedral and a spaceship. The windowed walls make you feel like you’re in a big fish tank. It has that funny whiff of prestige. You brace for the idea that you’ll soon see one of those big important Senators pulling their luggage, rushing down the long hallway.
I got off the plane to another absolutely empty airport. It was a movie dream sequence. I sat down on the long spine of the airport high ceilinged, the footfalls of people walking up and down the hallways, looking so far away echoed in the still air. Catching my bearings, the space, the air felt heavier. It didn’t feel like something had gone wrong. It only felt like something had happened. As I walked down the long hallway, I passed the guys who worked on the deck- kneepads, walkie talkies crackling. There were several gaggles of flight crews, discussing what they had done on their few days off. The singular pilots, tall and skinny, walking slowly towards their cockpits. I walked past a TSA agent with a bomb sniffing dog, and when I went into the bathroom, he had the dog bump me gently as I used the urinal. I found the courtesy phone and called my father.
“Hold on, I get off at four, wait for me at the ground pickup.” At pickup, I stepped outside. I waved to the Muslim taxi drivers, talking quietly and smoking cigarettes. I sat down and lit one myself. At an airport that usually bustled like a human anthill, I ticked off the seconds. It was almost two full minutes before a plane came in.