The Many Meanings of Counterfeit

A few days ago, the owner of Cup Foods in Minneapolis called police on George Floyd.  He claimed that Floyd had paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.  Police responded, put him in handcuffs, and then Officer Derek Chauvin sat on his neck until he died.

That sequence of events seems strange to me, especially since I’ve had some experience with matters such as these.

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About 10 years ago, I was passed a counterfeit $50 bill in Southern California. I was working at a party in a gated community in the west San Fernando Valley.  There were fancy homes with lots of square footage. There was a jazz band playing in the front yard.  There was an inflatable bounce with kids jumping inside.  There were hired princesses with fabulous smiles and tiaras.  There were food carts.  And I was the strolling magician.

At the end of my shift, the moderately drunk host gave me a bunch of cash and I drove away happy.  The next day, however, a gas station cashier informed me that the fifty I’d been given was counterfeit.  He didn’t call the police.  He just didn’t take the bill.

Once I discovered that the bill was a fake, I reported it to the Sheriff’s Department.  They were terribly dismissive of the matter.  They seemed to imply that I was making the report as revenge of some sort, which was strange, because they knew nothing of the situation beyond what I told them.  They regarded it as a trivial matter.  They also said that it wasn’t their jurisdiction, and referred me to the Secret Service, of all things.

So I called the Secret Service Office in downtown Los Angeles.  Someone took the details.  They said, however, that there was nothing that they could do.

“We don’t pursue anything under $2,500,” the woman said.

And that’s how I lost $50 to a drunk guy who passed me a counterfeit.  Nobody cuffed him.  Nobody killed him.  He was a white guy in a gated community.

So when I hear about an officer handcuffing somebody and even killing them for a $20 counterfeit bill, you can imagine my puzzlement.

The COVID Set

Last Sunday, I performed magic for a live audience in a backyard.  It was my first live magic show of the COVID-19 era (not counting shows in which I was performing for an audience in my computer).  Truth be told, creating and executing that show was a journey with many bumps, forks, and side roads, but one that I’m sure I’ll take many more times in the next few months.

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The occasion was the 90th birthday of my mother, Sally.  She owns a two-story house in suburbia in which she lives with her Shih Tzu dog Phoebe.  Since the beginning of March, she has been isolating in that house.  We’ve all been quite strict about her isolation, because she is at very high risk of death if she contracts COVID.  She has diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and she can sleep through the night only with the aid of oxygen.

“If I get this thing,” she has said, “I die.”

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As Mom’s birthday approached, we struggled with ways to make her birthday special.  We had originally planned to travel somewhere—Europe, for example, or maybe just New York City.  Claire and I have been visiting her on a regular basis, but have not gone inside the house at all.  It seemed quite a shame that she would be isolated, unable to kiss or hug anyone, unable to be comforted, on such a momentous, albeit bittersweet occasion.  Ninety, of course, brings with it an expectation of passage.

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Gradually, an itinerary for the day formed in my head.  I decided we would bring her a meal at noon from her favorite restaurant.  We would Zoom with her relatives from 1 – 3 pm.  And then her new neighbors would come over and visit in the backyard in an appropriately distanced way.

The neighbor family consists of a couple, Codi and Jeff, plus their three children, aged 2, 3, and 10.  Codi has been doing all of Mom’s grocery shopping for no extra charge (Mom just pays for the groceries), and we have all been astounded at their generosity.  Her help has saved me an hour in driving time, and probably another hour or two on top of that, every week.  Their help has also helped my mother feel less alone, and reminded her that people care for her.  Given that Codi and Jeff’s family are such angels, I offered to do a magic show for them at 3 pm.

But I had to think long and hard about the show.  The first challenge was my performing space.  I couldn’t perform inside of the house, of course.  And in the backyard, the main section of the yard has no shade.  Since it promised to be a hot, sunny day, that was out of the question.  The only option, unfortunately, was on the side of the house, beneath a large pomegranate tree that hadn’t been trimmed lately.  But it was quite a poor option.  My audience couldn’t be in front of me.  I would have to face the house and some garbage cans, and the audience would have to take shelter beneath a patio overhang to the far right of my stage area.  My mother, of course, would have to sit at a safe distance from there.  The only option was a space far to the left.

The performing situation, then, was the famed Dancefloor of Death that we magicians dread.  That’s a situation that magicians often face in hotel ballrooms, in which the magician is instructed to perform on the dancefloor, with half the audience seated to his right, the other half seated to his left, and the DJ directly facing him.  It’s a horrible performing situation.  First of all, your angles are terrible.  Not only that, but you’re always turning right or left to talk to people, and in the process, ignoring the other half of the room.  If you’ve ever tried to perform in that situation, you know that it’s a recipe for a bad audience response.

I also realized that I would have to perform a no-touch show.  No onstage volunteers.  No handling of props.  No borrowing items from the audience.  That meant that all pick-a-card tricks were out.  My Tossed-Out Deck was also verboten.  As I thought about that, however, I realized that I could perform some card tricks; there were workarounds.  For example, if a trick required that a card be signed, I could actually ask the spectator to name a card, and then ask him or her for their name and for a number between 1 and 100.  That makes the card nearly as unique as a signed card.  Under those conditions, I placed Card to Pocket on my set list.

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There were many other tricks that I could not do.  No sponge balls, for sure.  Bill in Lemon was impossible, because I would have to borrow a $20 bill.  (I could have performed a Signed Card to Lemon, using the signature strategy mentioned above, or a Chosen Card to Lemon, but chose not to work out the new moves.)

Also, almost no mentalism was possible.  One of my methods involves asking for thoughts to be written down and secured in envelopes, and that was out.  I perform TOXIC with a spectator’s phone, and that was out.  No book tests could be performed, because the spectators would have to handle my books.  Technicolor Prediction was out because the spectators couldn’t handle my envelopes.  My coin bend would have to be modified because I couldn’t borrow someone’s quarter and they couldn’t sign it.  My Double Cross was out because I couldn’t touch a spectator’s hand.  My Kurotsuke wasn’t possible, either, because nobody could grab any object of mine.  I also couldn’t perform Psychokinetic Time unless I used my own watch, and that makes the effect much weaker.  The only mentalism trick that seemed to require no touch was the Invisible Deck.

Fortunately, over the past 15 years, I’ve developed a silent opening segment (to music) that warms up the audience and lets them get to know me.  It seemed tailor made for this situation.  It includes the following tricks:

  • Torch to Rose
  • Glass Production
  • Linking Rings
  • 50-foot streamer production from a rolled-up map
  • Extended Salt Pour
  • Billiard Balls
  • Fingertip flowers
  • Spring Flowers from a Cone of Construction Paper
  • BEKOS
  • Tom Frank’s Yes We Have No Bananas!

This silent segment generally takes about 15 minutes, so that was taken care of.  As I thought about these tricks, I was also thinking about my summer walkaround gig at the 5-star Terranea Resort, which may or may not happen.  I realized that there are a number of tricks of the silent or manipulative sort that I should quickly work up, if my summer walkaround gig is to be successful.  This includes no-touch classic tricks such as:

  • The Shell Game
  • A coin matrix
  • The Endless Chain
  • A walkaround Billiard Ball routine
  • A thimble routine
  • Three Fly
  • Dice Matrix
  • Coin Flurry

Some of these require a table, of course, and I don’t own one of those walkaround tables; I’ve always preferred to work in the hands or on the customer’s table.  I guess I’ll be buying one of those.

Back to my 90th birthday set, the silent magic segment was easy.  When I moved into the talking part of my show, however, I ran smack into limitations.  I could perform my rope routine, but I couldn’t invite up any spectators to hold or test the rope.  I could vanish silks, but I couldn’t invite up spectators to hold the silks.  I couldn’t perform my Impossible Rope Escape, because nobody could get close enough to me to tie me up.  I usually toss a fake egg into the audience to choose a volunteer, but that was out, too.

The rest of my set list, then, looked like this:

  • My version of The Coloring Book (which is custom made and doesn’t look anything like the original trick)
  • Flash $100 Bill Production (using flash paper)
  • Daryl’s Rope Routine
  • D’Lite routine
  • 51 Cards to Pocket
  • Die Box

Mentalism:

  • Invisible Deck
  • Dice divination

Fortunately, it was enough material to make a full show.  It looked like it would take about 45 minutes to perform, which is a perfectly respectable length of time.

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I got a good sleep the night before the show.  I was eager to pull off this show.  After all, I had really performed for people for weeks.  When I arrived at the house, however, I realized that my performing spot—underneath an old pomegranate tree—was difficult.  The branches hadn’t been trimmed in a couple weeks, and I would have to use gardening shears to give myself some headroom.  Even after doing that, however, I realized that anything involving fire was too dangerous because the branches were still too low.  Therefore, Torch to Rose and my Flash $100 Bill Production were both out.

Still, the rest of the show was quite doable, so I set up, and by 3:15, Codi and Jeff’s family had arrived.  They were mostly dressed in masks, but I wasn’t.  After all, how can you perform for people if they can’t see your face?  You can’t project, you can’t emote, and the audience doesn’t connect.  I didn’t remark upon my lack of a mask, but simply kept my distance.  I was never closer to them than 20 feet.

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I also worried about the 2- and 3-year-olds.  I envisioned them staggering towards me, as kids that age do, and endangering my health.  I imagined the show being disrupted.  I imagined me running from them in comic terror.

Despite my fears, the show generally went to plan.  I wouldn’t call it my best show.  I wouldn’t even call it an average show.  It was rather subpar because I was performing on The Dancefloor of Death.  On the other hand, I think the audience understood my limitations and cut me some slack.  I also suspect they were laughing and gasping underneath those masks, even though I couldn’t see them.  The 2- and 3-year-olds knew to keep their distance, too.

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And the angles certainly did mar the show.  Often, I had to make a choice between exposing a trick to Codi and Jeff’s family, or exposing it to my mother; I always chose my mother.  Billiard balls, after all, are quite angular.  The music was great, and my Audio Ape remote system worked flawlessly.  Mistakes crept into the show, and it always had to do with the performing situation.  I stepped on and destroyed my pair of performing sunglasses, which I wear only for the first trick.  I also dropped a couple of tricks from my set list on the fly, just because they didn’t feel right.  But certain tricks felt like naturals for this situation, including Invisible Deck, which is a perfect no-touch set piece.  BEKOS was perfect, as well.

After I had finished, though, it got weird.  Usually after a show, I mingle through the audience to let my new fans get to know me, passing out my business card and allowing them to float their own ideas about hiring me for their own events.  They all want a piece of me.  They ask me how I got into magic, how long I’ve been doing it, and then showering me with compliments about my virtuosity and their astonishing experience.  However, after this show, I was afraid to mingle with the audience, and they were afraid to mingle with me.  They drifted off in their masks.  It’s a sign of the times.

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This COVID tragedy has damaged magic badly, to be sure, but it hasn’t killed it.  There are still people who want to be amazed, to feel the wonder lift their hearts.  And one day, this flu shall pass.

The War on Baby Boomers

It’s an old story, so I won’t bore you with the whole spiel.  The media called them the ’60s Generation, but demographers and advertisers called them the Baby Boomers, because when GIs returned from WWII, it caused a boom in births and a bump in the population.

All during my youth, they were a big deal.  Everybody looked to them to see what the future would look like.  Under their reign, racial barriers came down.  Whites started treating minorities like real people.  Whites started marrying blacks.  Kids started growing their hair long.  They didn’t see the use in raising their pinky while drinking tea or maintaining the perfect lawn.  They wanted to express themselves, find meaning, and gaze at their own navel.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

The generation before them didn’t have a name.  But then Tom Brokaw came along and named them after the fact: The Greatest Generation.  And they were great, because they had real, life-or-death challenges that later generations didn’t really have.  They fought for everything they got.  They cleaned up the corruption that was rife within society throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

But now, those generations are under attack.  A virus has targeted them.  The media talks about the virus targeting the elderly, but let’s not forget that these people were a very big deal in their day.  They won World War II.  They brought us the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Aretha.  They took us to the moon.

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Now, a small slice of American culture is saying that the mass death they are experiencing is just fine.

“Many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs, anyway….” Bill O’Reilly said in an appearance on Fox News.  “A simple man tells the truth.”

Simple, yes, although not in the way that he means it.  Truth, no.

What O’Reilly is implying, of course, is that we shouldn’t mourn these generations because they would’ve died soon, anyway.  Well, O’Reilly is going to die soon, anyway, too.  But when that happens, I won’t go around disrespecting his life, because every life deserves dignity and respect.  Some people have no class.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick put his foot in it, too, when he said:

“There are things more important than living,” and that those generations of Americans might be “willing to take a chance” on dying for the good of the economy.

Vicious, yes.  Pro life, most certainly no.

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Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

My own mother was a member of that Greatest Generation.  She remembers Pearl Harbor, blackout curtains and air-raid sirens.  She was a mother when Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe on the podium.  She worked hard for her Masters Degree, raised two good kids, and received her reward by retiring in a house on the hill.

My mother doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed body and soul so that a serial sexual harasser like Bill O’Reilly can try to goose his stock portfolio, or Dan Patrick can try to service the Texas oil companies by forcing people back into their cars.  They built this country before us.  It’s theirs.  Show a little respect, why doncha.

True Tales of Horror from the Grocery Store

I wouldn’t want to be a grocery checker right now.  They’re the infantry, the poor sods that the generals send in first to get mowed down by gunfire.  I hole up at home watching Netflix and eating too much cheese.

However, I do know a Vons checker.  His name is Miguel, and he has some tales to tell from the front lines.

20200408_055238Miguel remembers quite clearly the day the COVID panic hit.  It was Friday the 13th of March.

“All of the sudden, a flood of people came in and we were overwhelmed,” Miguel said.  “We were running all of the checkstands, plus all of the new self-checkout stands.  We started running out of things, but whenever we brought out a new palette, people were just grabbing things off it before it could even get to the right aisle.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  We usually close at 1 am, but that night, we decided to close at 10.  We just ran out of supplies.

“On Saturdays, we usually opened at 5 am, but it soon became obvious that that wasn’t enough time to get all the products restocked, so we waited until 7.  When we opened the door, it was even crazier than the day before.  People were in a state of buy buy buy.  It turned out being a record sales day.”

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That was over a month ago, of course, which seems like a lifetime ago.  In general, people have been calm and polite to each other, says Miguel, even more now than before the pandemic.  However, there have been exceptions.

“My manager tried to enforce the limits on toilet paper on this one customer, and he threatened to beat him up,” Miguel said.  “On another occasion, he received a death threat.  Those people haven’t been back to the store.”

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Every morning at 5 am, there’s a line waiting outside the store, because that’s when the store is fully stocked.  Generally, it’s about 10 people deep, usually maintaining a 6-foot distance from each other.  By 7, they begin their 2-hour window for seniors, pregnant women, and the disabled.

One day, a guy appeared in that line who obviously didn’t fit into the required categories, and the manager questioned him about it.

“Well listen, my kids gotta eat, too!” the man said in a belligerent manner.

The manager let him in.  They’re grocery clerks, after all, not paramilitary forces.

A few days ago, I talked with Miguel again.  He hadn’t seen his girlfriend in five weeks.  He was working long hours.  The anxiety was getting to him.  Fortunately, the crowds have slowed down considerably.  In addition, corporate is treating them extremely well.  However, there are still incidents.

One day, a female clerk was standing at the front door making sure that people were wearing masks, and a man objected.

“This is not a prison!” he yelled.  “We have rights!”

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Another customer who was stopped for not wearing a mask yelled: “I fought in Vietnam!  I can do whatever I want!”

Did I mention that most customers have been extremely kind and polite?

Every time I go to the grocery store, I take all the precautions.  I put on my face mask.  I seal it up on the edges with medical tape.  I put a playing card in the pocket to physically block the virus.  I don’t even take a shopping cart; I just hold my bags.  I rush through the store, picking up products quickly one after another, trying not to pass through anybody else’s exhaust, so to speak, avoiding close contact.  But Miguel has to work in that environment eight hours a day, five days a week.

I mentioned to him that to many, food workers are heroes.

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But Miguel would have none of it.  He launched into a monologue about heroes, that nobody at Vons is patting themselves on the back for being a hero, that when you see it in the newspapers, it’s all just hype from the unions, that the employees have all the gloves they want, all the masks they want, extra hand sanitizer, and blah blah blah.  Finally, I just interrupted him.

“Look, that’s what heroes say,” I said.  “Somebody rescues a little kid from a burning house, and they say that say they’re not a hero, that they just did what anybody else would have done.  Some soldier saves 15 buddies who are pinned down by enemy fire, and guess what, he says he’s not a hero, too, that his 5 other buddies who died are the heroes.  Dude, that’s what all heroes say!  Accept it!  You are a kind of hero!”

That shut him up.

[Miguel is a food clerk at a Vons in the north San Fernando Valley.]

How I Killed My Father

Years ago, I gave my father the flu.  Six weeks later, he died of it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.  The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire.  There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did.  Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be.  We’ve seen the movie Contagion.  We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets.  We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths.  Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.

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My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager.  I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.

“Come on, just take one puff.”

By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”

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By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot.  The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness.  He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional.  Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat.  He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that.  He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it.  Decency was part of the profile, too.  He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night.  He never drank.  He wasn’t loud or obnoxious.  He coached my Little League baseball team.

One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera.  Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space.  I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.

“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.

“Taking your picture,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said.  “It’s a good picture.”

He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it.  To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”

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My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking.

By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world.  One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off.  I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything.  The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood.  However, I eventually just came out with it.

“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.

“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully.  “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”

“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you.  Have you gone to the doctor?”

“I’m okay.”

“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”

“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”

“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened.  Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out.  We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.

“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.

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So I left it to her.  Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.

“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.

So Mom started a campaign.  She discussed and cajoled.  She used reverse and double-reverse psychology.  She tried every trick in the book.  After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.

So my sister decided to give it a try.  She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America.  She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.

“Okay,” he said.

So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello.  Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor.  When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.

“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.

“No,” he said.  “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said.  “I want you to get examined.”

“Oh no.”

“Dad, we’re already here….”

“I said no.”

Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen.  His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent.  And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy.  His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.

“I worry about you,” I told my father.  “You could be very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”

“You’re only 57 years old,” I said.  “You shouldn’t be this frail.”

“I’m not frail.  And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio.  I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”

I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health.  In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels.  Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air.  Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe.  The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.

I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health.  I was the man who told everybody how to live forever.  At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health.  It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.

What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything.  It seemed ridiculous, but it was true.  We couldn’t make him save himself.  We couldn’t arrest him.  We couldn’t drag him bodily.  We couldn’t trick him.  It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.

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In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house.  He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it.  He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family.  During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves.  That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed.  Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching.  He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.

That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu.  For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life.  I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few.  I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion.  The trash bins were filled with Kleenex.  But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.

“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”

So I visited Dad in that big house.  It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia.  I hugged him, which he always bristled at.  I spent time with him.  We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch.  He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean.  To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.

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We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father.  I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.

“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said.  “Wow, I thought it was me.”

Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me.  He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything.  Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes.  He was gasping for air.  He was panicking.  His world was changing.  He was running out of time.

On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.

“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said.  “You better come today.  It’s serious.”

Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen.  I pretty much stopped working.  The family spent all of our time at the hospital.  Mom slept there.  Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.

There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed.  Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead.  He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling.  We came in and said our goodbyes individually.  I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself.  In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself.  Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.

I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu.  Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it.  After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu.  Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes.  In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that.  Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.

“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.

Perhaps it was his fault.  Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’.  When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry.  But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders.  I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.

 

As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.  Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many.  It looms above us like a black cloud.  But hey, I’ve been there.  My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth.  I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014.  I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him.  I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book.  But he only made it to 1989.

That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage.  It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.

Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.

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Mom with my partner Claire.

“I think about him every day,” she says.  “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”

Sometimes, I catch her crying.

“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.

Like a nightmare, it’s happening again.  Mom also started smoking in the 1940s.  She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs.  Now, she too has COPD.  She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded.  She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen.  All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.

“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”

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She’s right.  As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar.  She doesn’t let anyone in, even me.  She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets.  She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.

The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house.  Her birthday is in May.

When Mom needs food, I shop for her.  Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone.  She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out.  Then she carries the groceries inside.  She washes each package with rubbing alcohol.  Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach.  She can’t be too careful.  She loves life.  She still finds it sweet, indeed.

This week, I read the statistics.  Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID.  Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die.  Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market.  He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives.  It’s worth the lives we lose.  After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.

I just think of my father.  I would have liked another 30 years with him.  I would have liked to get to know him better.  I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in.  Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone.  I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew.  His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.

And then there’s his soul.  I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire.  He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world.  He had no ulterior motives.  I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it.  I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.

Love Has a Lot to Do With It

You may think that the story I’m about to tell you has one lesson, but be careful what you conclude that lesson is.  It’s not what you may think.  You may, for example, assume from the photos and the story that you should panic.

The apocalypse is coming!  We’re all going to starve!  We’re all going to turn into cannibals!

You may assume, as well, that you run fast–don’t walk, don’t dawdle–to the nearest grocery store and fight for survival, grab toilet paper out of other customers’ hands, that you growl like a wolf and stockpile loads and loads of grocery items.  That, however, would be a stupid assumption.  Did I mention that it would be imbecilic?  Really, this is the closest thing you’re going to get in your adult life to a valid IQ test.

Let me emphasize, guys: There’s nothing wrong with our food supply.  Taliban bombers haven’t carpet-bombed our farms.  There’s no plague of locusts besetting the land.  No terrorists have blown up all the Vons trucks.  Tomorrow morning, you will still have a great choice of produce, packaged goods, canned goods, frozen dinners, and even all that disgusting junk food that you can stuff into your piehole.

What’s wrong, see, is the people.  Some of the simplest among us are panicking.  Without reason.  Without any reason at all.

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That said, I shopped for two today.  First, I was shopping for my live-in girlfriend and myself.  And secondly, I was shopping for my mother.

Mom, see, is at high risk for death if she contracts COVID-19.  She’s 89 years old, soon to turn 90, and she smoked for 40 years.  Even though she quit in the ’90s, her habit left her with a gift that keeps on giving: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which impairs lung function.  Ever prudent, Mom started isolating herself hard two weeks ago.  She shopped for groceries at 7 am, when nobody was in the stores.  She avoided any other retail stores.  She stayed inside.

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Mom in 2014 admiring a 10th-century castle in Ireland

Then just a week ago, Mom saw the writing on the wall and started isolating even harder.  She decided she was going to stay inside her four-bedroom, two-story suburban house almost completely.  She and her little Shih Tzu Phoebe would shut the world out absolutely.  She wouldn’t even shop for herself.  She wouldn’t go to the bank.  She wouldn’t meet anybody for coffee.

Of course, this strategy only works if you have somebody to shop for you.  That’s me, thank you.  I volunteered to do it because I’m at fairly low risk.  After all, I have exercised about an hour a day for the past 40 years and have terrific lungs.  I’ve never smoked.  I’ve never had anything go even mildly wrong with my body.  I’m as healthy as a hose, even if I can’t always spell.  Plus, I’m doing it because–hello!–she’s my mother.

So this afternoon, I drove down to Albertsons Grocery Store in La Habra.  It’s the nice suburban community in Southern California where I live.  I walked in with three cloth grocery bags, because I didn’t want to put my hands anywhere near any filthy, germ-laden grocery cart.  I would just pile all my groceries into the bags and carry them around the store.

Stepping into the store, I knew there would be shortages, but I had no idea how extensive the shortages would be.  First, I checked out the essentials that everybody is stockpiling: hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, toilet paper, and water.  Predictably, those products were all cleaned out.

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They were out of rubbing alcohol, and even placed a limit on the number you could buy.

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Predictably, all toilet paper was gone.

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All water was gone, even though there’s no threat to the nation’s water supply.

But I was surprised to find that some related products were cleaned out, as well, including dish detergent, baby wipes, diapers, and various cleaning products.

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Baby wipes were out.

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Many cleaning products were sold out.

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All of the hand dish detergent was sold out.

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Napkins were sold out.

As I strolled around the store, I discovered other more offbeat shortages, as well.  For example, all the tortillas were sold out.  It makes sense, I guess, because the store is right on the edge of a Mexican-American community, but really, can’t you give a guy a break on his beloved tacos and burritos?

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All tortillas were sold out.

There were also no potatoes at all, only yams, and the only onions left were red onions.  Turns out tomatoes and carrots are pretty popular, too, because they were nowhere to be found.

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Albertsons placed a limit on the amount of potatoes you could buy, but by the time I got there, the limit had reached zero.

All the eggs were gone, too.  I love my omelettes!

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Eggs gone.  I guess it’s Cap’n Crunch for breakfast.

And rice, beans, and pasta sauce were gone, too.

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Rice, beans, and pasta were mostly sold out.

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In all, I bought $37 worth of groceries for Claire and I, and $95 worth of groceries for Mom.  By the time I got to the end of our grocery lists, I was lugging around three heavy bags.  I considered going through a regular checkstand, but decided against it because I didn’t want anybody filthy checker’s hands touching my products.  So I decided to do self-checkout.  That was a little dicey, though.  There was a lot of tapping the touchscreen and putting products on scales.  And then whenever I made a mistake, a grocery employee jumped over my shoulder and pushed the right buttons, uncomfortably close.

By the time I got to the car, I immediately jumped into the driver’s seat and slathered gobs of sanitizer onto my hands.  I couldn’t believe I had gotten through that ordeal.  It took me over an hour.

I drove a half-hour to Mom’s house and called her from her driveway.

“I’m here, Mom,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll open the garage door,” she said.

Within moments, the garage door started opening.  I took her two grocery bags out of the trunk and left the bags inside the garage.  Then I walked outside of the garage.  She grabbed the two bags and headed for her kitchen.

“Make sure to wash the bags!” I said.  “Don’t forget to wash the handles of the bags!”

“I won’t,” she said.

“And wash all of the products!”

“I know!”

Within a couple minutes, Mom was back in the garage, washing the cloth grocery bags in a sink.  She used bleach, just to make sure.  Then she dried them.  All the while, I kept a respectful 25 feet away from her.  Finally, she left the bags in the middle of the garage for me.  Once she had moved back a safe distance, I stepped up and grabbed the bags.

“Love you!” I said, and left.

And, in fact, that’s quite true: Love has a lot to do with it.

Holding My Breath Till It’s Over

I love bike riding.  It would’ve killed me if this COVID crisis had stolen riding from me, because it’s something of an addiction.  I would’ve gone through a bit of a withdrawal, feeling like ants are crawling on my skin and such.  I would’ve felt like I weighed 300 pounds.  I would’ve had mood swings.  Fortunately, it looks like bike riding is okay.

So around 5 pm today, I took my regular bike ride.  It’s my usual time, more or less.  It’s strange that riding your bicycle for an hour counts for self-isolation.  I don’t touch anyone.  I don’t get close to anyone.  I just ride and sweat.

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My regular bike ride is about 50 minutes long.  If I don’t run into any interference from cars or pedestrians, I can usually make it to the first major intersection in 4:20.  Today, I made it in 4:15, so I felt pretty damn good.  At that point, I usually hit the WALK button, but today, I didn’t.  Seriously, who wants to touch a WALK button these days?  I just straddled my bike and waited for the light to change.

Since I live in the suburbs, I make most of my ride on the sidewalk.  Nobody walks on the sidewalk out here.  But today, at the 7-minute point, I began the steepest incline of the ride, and that’s when I saw him.  He was a germ-carrying human being.  He was walking towards me with a truculent insistence.  It wasn’t a wide sidewalk, and I shuddered to think of passing within his airspace.  The CDC, after all, says that you should maintain a 6-foot distance from other people.

So I jumped the curb and rode in the street.  As I passed him, I wasn’t exactly six feet away from him, maybe 5 feet, so I held my breath.  Then, after I passed him, I kept holding my breath.  I was envisioning germs that he had shed floating in the air behind him like exhaust.  I didn’t want to breathe in his exhaust.

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Further on, I spotted two young women and their dog on the sidewalk.  They were truculent and insistent, as well.  I held my breath passing them, as well.

If I’m working hard, I can usually make it to the top of the first hill by 12:00, but today, I made it in 11:10.  It was my version of a 4-minute mile; I was elated.  Once you get to the top, of course, you can top the crest and speed to the bottom.  I upshifted and gained speed.  The wind was whooshing against my face and Beck was pounding in my earbuds.  There was wild hillsides to the right of me and to the left of me, nobody around, and I was in heaven’s county, if for just a few moments.

When I got to the bottom, I immediately spotted a young homeless woman sitting on the curb.  Although I was traveling at high speed, it looked like she had a bicycle and a Sparkletts bottle with her, which didn’t quite make sense, a disheveled young woman sitting on the curb in the suburbs with a Stingray bicycle and something you shouldn’t carry on a Stingray bicycle.  With homeless people, I guess not making sense is the point.  I held my breath while passing her, too.

At the 12-minute and 13-minute points, I passed two other people walking.  It struck me as odd, because usually, I hardly pass anybody on my bike rides at this hour.  Gradually, I began to realize what was happening.  All the gyms are closed.  Ah yes.  Fit people everywhere are hankering for somewhere to work out, and they’re suddenly realizing what I realized many years ago, that riding your bike on the road is free, man, it’s free!

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At the 22-minute point, I reached Ralph B. Clark Park, where I usually veer in and ride its picturesque streets for a few minutes.  It’s quite pleasant.  There’s a lake, geese, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, hares, and gently sloping hills.  But to my surprise, today the park was closed.  People were walking in and out of it, but there were barriers set up in the roadway and park rangers standing nearby.  I guess parks qualify as dangerously social.

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By the 31-minute point, I had exerted myself quite a lot, which pleased me immensely.  Then I jumped off-road to my favorite part of the ride.  It’s a trail that gives me the joy of riding on dirt.  There are trees, uncertain footing, and tree roots to maneuver.  At the midway point, there’s a steep hill, and I looked forward to it.

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When I got there, though, I encountered something that began to really annoy me: more people.  This was starting to really piss me off.  It was a smiling young Asian couple and their two toddlers, who were riding little toy cars.  I slowed down, smiled at them, and held my breath as I rode past.

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A minute later, I ran across four different people taking their walks.  I passed within only about a foot of one of them, holding my breath all the way.

When the dirt section of my ride was over, I hopped onto the sidewalk and crossed the street.  It was getting on towards sunset.  I was listening to Beck’s first big album, Odelay, in my earbuds, which seriously rocks.  It’s weird, loud, and sprawling, and it makes me ride harder and faster.  I pushed my body even more.  Then suddenly, I passed three young women walking together.  I smiled politely, but held my breath.

At the 41-minute point, I encountered my local shopping center.  I veered off to take a look at the local gym.  It was a sad sight.  The parking lot was empty.  There was a sign on the door saying that it was closed indefinitely.  So that’s where they all came from.  I took a picture, shook my head, and rode away.

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When I returned home, I knew I’d gotten a good workout, but knew that I wasn’t going to bicycle at 5 pm anymore.  From now on, I swear, I’m switching to noon workouts.  Too much breath holding.

Update, 3/24/20: A doctor gave me further advice on airborne exposure during exercise today, and told me that “you’re not being paranoid.”  He continued:

“People diffuse the virus when they breathe and it can travel in aerosolized droplets forward as far as a few feet. If they are breathing forcibly because they are exercising then they will aerosolize more frequently with their breaths and perhaps the spread will be diffuse further away. It is very unlikely but I can imagine a cyclist passing at the wrong time, in the wrong place and inhaling deeper (they are also breathing more heavily).

“There are two solutions:

Option1: Mitigate risk. There are less cars around and so you should indeed consider riding at safe distances from pedestrians. If you are never passing pedestrians within a certain radius you should be fine. Roads are eerily vacant here in Chicago. Just don’t take anything for granted when it comes to motorized vehicles.

Option 2: Ride with a bandana covering your face. I know this is not perfect but it is a barrier protection that reduces exposure. It shouldn’t be license to ride too close to people but it will give you added protection. The down side is that it might be uncomfortable. The bandana will significantly reduce exposure but it will not drop to zero. After a certain amount of time and if you encountered many pedestrians you might want to clean the bandana. Perhaps change it for a second one half way through the ride.”

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It Tells You Something About People

Two days ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom recommended that all bars close in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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Claire and I have been quite careful about exposing ourselves to other carriers.  I’ve been staying inside and working on my home computer.  Claire has been teaching her college classes over Zoom.  When we shop for groceries, we try to touch as little as possible.  We use our own bags rather than using a shopping cart.  When we get home, we wipe all our products down with rubbing alcohol.  We’re conscientious.

Tonight, we drove around town, just to see what was going on.  The St. Jude’s Hospital ER was staffed by people wearing high-tech face masks.  There were signs saying NO VISITORS.  The parking lot was fairly empty, so we figured they were just waiting for the crush of patients.

Driving home along Imperial Highway, we cruised by the dive bars in town.  As we passed Hedz ‘n’ Tales, we were surprised that their parking lot was completely packed, and further down, Duffy’s Bar was nearly so.

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Maybe it’s that alcoholics can’t stop themselves.  Or maybe it’s that they just don’t care.  Or maybe it’s that they’re in such a haze that they don’t know whether they’re at home or at the bar.

Either way, it tells you something about people.

In Search of a Meal That Wouldn’t Kill Me

[When I first posted this on March 16, 2020, some people commented that I was being unnecessarily paranoid.  It’s now a month later, and nobody says that now.]

On Saturday, I drove from Las Vegas to my home in Los Angeles.  I’m a professional magician, so I work late and get up late.  I had eaten breakfast around 1 pm and hit the road around 4 pm.  As I drove, though, I realized that I would get hungry during my drive.  Still, I didn’t want to stop.  Fast-food restaurants might be transmitting the COVID-19 virus.

So as I crossed Primm, which is on the stateline, I popped a Kind Bar.

I drove through the desert.  There were very few cars on the road.  About an hour later, I approached Baker, where I usually stop for a meal at The Mad Greek.  I was a little hungry.

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“Maybe Baker residents aren’t exposed to the virus yet,” I thought.  “Maybe they don’t fly internationally.  After all, they’re pretty isolated.”

Then I thought about all the drivers who stop in Baker.  Lots of international travelers stop here–Chinese, Italians, South Koreans.

“Naw,” I thought, and drove on.

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I kept driving through the desert, and gradually, it got dark.  I listened to my music–John Mayer, Dinah Washington, Roger Miller.  An hour later, when I arrived in Barstow, I was really hungry.  So I pulled over to the side of the road and looked up on the Internet whether you could catch COVID-19 from eating food.

A CDC spokesperson said that “currently, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”

Two Rutgers University food scientists said that “scientists will never say anything is at zero risk, but I’m not worried at all about getting the coronavirus from food. Hypothetically, yes, perhaps your piece of meat could have the virus on it. But your stomach acids will kill it. Plus the coronavirus is not equipped to get through your intestine’s walls, which is how foodborne diseases make you sick.”

Then I thought, “What about fast-food workers touching my paper bag or food wrapping paper?”  And the article continued:

“There’s no scientific data that’s related to that. It’s believed that the virus can survive on cardboard for 24 hours; steel or wood for maybe three days. The mantra in food science is: Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.  And cook your food.”

So I sat there in a Barstow parking lot thinking that there’s virtually no risk of contracting COVID through my food except if an infected food worker touches their face or washes up incorrectly.  The key, it seemed, was to choose a good fast-food restaurant.

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I started driving down Main Street in Barstow, which happens to be the old Route 66 before the interstate came through.  I looked at the restaurants that I passed, one by one, and asked myself if I wanted to trust their workers’ cleanliness.

Taco Bell, no.

China Buffet, definitely no.

Barstow Burger, too local, may not follow responsible guidelines.

Del Taco, no.

IHOP, no.  I don’t even like to eat there when there’s no pandemic!

Jack in the Box, no.

Der Weinerschnitzel, no.

Lola’s Kitchen, too local.

Jenny’s Mexican Grill, too local.

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What I wanted, see, was a chain that paid attention to hiring smart workers.  I wanted a chain that had a good, responsible corporate structure.  I wanted a corporation that sent memos to their workers advising them that we’re in a crisis, and that not washing your hands is grounds for firing.

I continued for a couple more miles down Main Street and found nothing.  Apparently, Barstow’s main drag is all cheapo joints, nothing decent at all.  So I hopped back onto the interstate and started driving towards Los Angeles.  Twenty minutes down the road, I stopped in Victorville.  There, I found a Mimi’s.

“That’ll do,” I thought.

I walked in and walked up to the to-go counter.  I didn’t touch anything.  I didn’t shake anybody’s hand.  A young brunette woman took my order, and afterwards, I told her how I trusted Mimi’s but didn’t trust about 40 other restaurants that I had passed.

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“Yeah, I always carry around this,” she said, and pulled a tiny hand sanitizer from her pocket.

As I waited for my food, I looked around.  It was a Saturday night at 8 pm, and yet there were only about five tables with customers, nothing more.  Everybody had gotten the word.  The people who were at the tables must have all been either unplugged from the media or stupid.

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Fifteen minutes later, I hopped into my car with a to-go bag in my hands.  I didn’t start the engine.  I slathered hand sanitizer all over my hands and rubbed it in for 20 seconds.  Then I started eating.  It was a brioche burger and it was unbelievably good. My long search for a good meal that wouldn’t kill me was over.

I Haven’t Touched Anything Yet

As I write this, it’s March 14.  The world has just entered the scary phase of the COVID-19 crisis.  Over 125,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with it.  Over 4,000 worldwide have died from it.  In the United States, nearly 40 people have died, and most people expect many more.  Institutions are closing down.  On grocery shelves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper are virtually unobtainable.  It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes.

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My 89-year-old mother has begun to isolate herself.  She smoked for 40 years and has lung disease, so she’s in an even higher risk category than other 89-year-olds.  Not only that, but she lives in Diamond Bar, where 80% of the population is Chinese, many of them Chinese nationals who travel back and forth from China.

Mom rarely goes out.  She shops for groceries only at 7 am, when the aisles are empty.  She uses hand sanitizer when she touches anything–the shopping cart, cans of food, the change she gets back, anything.  She doesn’t shake hands with anybody.  She doesn’t look at anybody.  She just returns to her house and shuts herself in.  She has a gate in her front yard that she keeps locked.  Nobody can even knock on her door.  Safely in her big old house, she has most everything she needs–television, a kitchen, a home office, everything.  She and her little Shih Tzu dog Phoebe are a population of two.

Two days ago, however, Mom realized that she needed to go to the pharmacy soon for refills.  She didn’t want to do it herself, though, so she called me.

“Can you pick up my meds?” she said.

“Sure,” I said.

“And shop for my groceries?”

“Okay.”

I am so healthy and exercise so much that I’m a pretty low risk.

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“I’ll call you with a list, and then you can bring it to me without having contact with me,” Mom said.  “Call me from your cell phone when you’re outside and I’ll open the garage door.  You leave the grocery bags in the garage and go.  When you’re gone, I’ll pick it up and sanitize the bag and all the things in it.”

Everybody has to be careful in these Kafkaesque days. We are afraid of shadows because shadows are attacking us.

I’ve been visiting Las Vegas this past week.  I’ve been staying with friends, an eightysomething mother and a fiftysomething daughter, who aren’t paranoid about things.  They have a huge house with lots of rooms.  They do take precautions, but they don’t get crazy about it. I offered to cancel my stay with them, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

“You’re fine,” they said.

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I camped out in a lovely bedroom they made up for me.  I spent the week working here on my computer, but had only one all-important in-person meeting.  When I walked into his house, we didn’t shake hands.  We talked from a distance of six feet. We met for three hours, excitedly talking about our exciting ideas for business, and then I left without shaking his hand.  Once back in my car, I slathered my hands with sanitizer.

The next day, I was driving to the park to take a walk.  As I cruised along Pecos Avenue, I thought, “As long as I don’t touch anything, I’m okay.”  Cars were all around me, and people inside, but I wasn’t touching them.  I was happy.

I arrived at lovely Sunset Park and started exercising.  I walked around the lake, past geese, ducks, and even people, and I thought, “I haven’t touched anything yet.” People walked past me, but not within six feet of me. Our eyes met, but we didn’t touch. Then I walked away from the lake and into the desert trails, talking to a friend in Seattle on my phone through earbuds while passing desert shrubbery, jackrabbits, and the occasional human organism, and I thought, “I haven’t touched anything yet.”

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I didn’t touch anything for a full hour and eight minutes! Then I got into my car and didn’t touch anything that other people had touched, just the door handle and the steering wheel, and drove back to my friends’ house.  I walked inside and had dinner with my friends.  They suggested I go to a Vegas show, take advantage of discount tickets and low crowds, and I thought, “Nawwww.”

At dinner, they talked about one of their friends.  He is a divorced father.  He had a business trip planned for this week, but the event got cancelled.  He decided to use the airline tickets, anyway, to visit his daughter.  He hopped onto the plane and traveled all the way across the country.  When he arrived, his ex-wife said no, you can’t see your daughter.

“You’re a disease risk to her,” she said.  “You’ve just been on a plane!”

It’s been a bitter divorce.

After dinner, I got onto my computer, which nobody else had touched, and started working, because I always need to work.  Every so often, I got onto Facebook and socialized with people, saying hello, how are you, isn’t this weird, without touching them or being around them.

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Later today, I will get into my car and drive the five hours back to Los Angeles without touching anything that anybody else had touched. And if by chance I do, I have lots of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.  I will listen to Beck and Tito Puente and Sam Smith on my Bluetooth speaker and speed back home.  But there’s one nightmare scenario that I’ve thought about.  God forbid this tragedy comes to pass.  Please God, oh please, I beseech you, don’t make it so that I have to go into a public bathroom.