I wasn’t that surprised by my infection, since voluntary quarantines had already commenced and that essay I’d read in The Atlantic suggested that between forty and seventy percent of the world’s population would catch the disease. Given a fatality rate of 2%, I declined to do the math on how many deaths would ensue. Really, I felt fine. My days began with prayer, as usual, and work at the law office was as boring as ever. I’d set up a phone date with Tongo to learn about his recent prison work, and also what he’d thought about my last manuscript.
While the epidemic advanced mid-spring, we saw that evolution of life under sovereignty of the Internet had readied us for lives of quarantine. Many jobs could be done from home, and delivery-based purchase of food and other necessities had been normed for years. Of course you had to have a job that could be worked from home, and income for deliveries. Even in emergencies, America worked for those for whom it worked. Or, as Walter Benjamin wrote: The condition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.
While we waited, handwashing signs went up in the bathroom and co-workers asked after the baby. I played email tag with Malika and realized I had to write to Ute and looked forward to my call with Tongo. Vague headache symptoms persisted through my work day in the law office, which used to be an embalming studio, and some colleagues concluded the ventilation system made them sicker than any possible virus. Thoroughfares were littered with discarded Mardi Gras beads which, I was told, were swept up post-festivity by Department of Corrections inmates at a pay-rate of one cent an hour.
When I took calls at work I’d rove the law-office parking lot, among inexplicable chained junked cars present on account of backstories I’d never know. The sun was low and gleaming on the bricks when Tongo and I connected, and it was good to hear his voice even though satellites muffled what he was saying. At the end of the call he said a poem with lines like Right angle made between a point on a Louisiana plantation and 5-year old’s rubber ball 3 feet high and falling like a deportee plane to complete my interpretation (of garden variety genocide).
The virus popped up in Jefferson parish and then in New Rochelle, where my brother went for his childhood piano lessons. News stories, each more alarming than the last, continued to proliferate along with a simmering collective unease. Each morning I said a prayer turning on the phone: Lord, prepare me for any news that I am about to receive. My scratch math based on projected infectiousness, fatality rates and current world population, suggested sixty million dead at the low end. I’d watched La Jetee with my co-pastor, followed by the 12 Monkeys chaser, not knowing then we were prepping.
I couldn’t renew my library copy of Camus’ Plague because there were three new holds on it: other denizens seeking literature’s aid to negotiate a disaster without precedent or contour. Credible graduate students gesture to the sublime, cite Blanchot, and call it a seminar. But your woebegone would-be novelist? I’d caught it from the mobs on Bourbon Street – I was sure of that as I was sure our son had been conceived the first day in town. Our taxi driver Abdul advised while ferrying to Chartres (“Charters”): “God’s got a blessing for you in New Orleans”.
Past people seeking blessings made pilgrimage to the national shrine of St. Roch, protector against plague and patron of miracle cures. During a nineteenth-century epidemic of yellow fever, a priest named Thevis pledged to God that if He spared his parish, a chapel would be built in honor of the saint. No one died, and the consequent building, plus the aboveground cemetery around it, formed the heart of a namesake neighborhood near the law office. Something told me take a stroll over on my lunch break. Since pandemic-induced remote work commenced next week, it was one of my last chances.
And then, as expected, the order came down Friday that we would be working from home for at least a month, which was also as long as Louisiana public schools would be closed. I’d be having my family leave after that, so I wouldn’t be back in the office for at least two months – and, of course, pretending that anyone knew what the immediate future actually looked like in light of the virus, and whether any of us would be coming back, was a reality of which I was fully conscious. Everyone else had gone home to do their panic-shopping.
That Sunday my co-pastor and I realized we’d better invite some of our friends over for kitchen-table community organizing in light of the massive default on the part of local and federal government that was already underway. (Something about living in New Orleans made this even more real.) By the time dessert was served we had, miraculously, hammered out plans for a mutual aid project which would blanket the neighborhood with flyers and begin to generate systems of support for those who didn’t have one. I confess that it was hard to focus on my first day working from home.
By Tuesday we’d commenced a national prayer call with participants from three states, and more than one article I’d read described the country’s predicament as “a medical Katrina”. The baby needed a bath, and we were all set to canvass the neighborhood with three thousand green flyers announcing our new project. I called up Malik Rahim to check in, and he said he’d been out to a decimated Wal-Mart that morning and wouldn’t be venturing out again without a mask. My co-pastor and I realized almost right away that this moment was what the Internet had been for all along.
As had been the case for over a year, my inbox was notably not full of old friends checking in on me. In fact, electronic communication seemed somehow as desolate as the streets through which I’d bicycle on the way to check our letters at the post office, having to give myself some errand in order to get out of the house. The Hawaiian guitar hold music on freeconferencecall.com, which had come to seem like my theme music during a season of professional organizing starting in 2016, was reappearing in our prayer calls. Feedback is a complete style of playing.
Our hastily assembled mutual-aid society disseminated two thousand green flyers through the leafy streets of Bayou St. John, defined as the area hemmed in by Moss, Broad, Esplanade, and the Lafitte greenway. Glued to the computer like many people working from home I’d read an article in which an NIH doctor suggested we had eight days until America looked like Italy did on March 19. The accompanying photo depicted Army trucks hauling off bodies to be buried funerals; its headline declared a generation has died. Testing on demand remained unavailable and there were almost eight thousand cases in New York.
Over the weekend we rested and read volumes two and three, respectively, of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. During my co-pastor’s pregnancy she took my recommendation and read book one, The Fifth Season, so we were both ensconced in the author’s fabulation before it began to seem ominously prescient. Jemisin’s evil earth unleashes assorted calamities at unpredictable intervals. Survival’s possible only for communities that attend to the immemorial disaster-prep wisdom called stonelore. Now we were among people who had forgotten that Fifth Seasons happened, who had no stonelore – unless it turned out that’s what Scripture has been all along. Maybe?