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.]

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.

A Man Who Thinks He Has No One

[Continued from a previous post]

I’m thinking about two people.

I first met George when he was in his fifties, but he was still as buff as a high school athlete.  He worked out a couple hours a day (his manager said four hours, but I suspect it was more like a couple) and was careful about what he ate.  He surfed, ran, and lifted weights.  He lived a superb physical life.

George also owned Stick ‘n’ Stein, a large neighborhood restaurant in El Segundo, California.  He was personable, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.  More than once, I saw George say no to customers who demanded unreasonable things.  Once, on a particularly hectic day of demanding drinkers and rambunctious families, I saw him walk outside the front door and yell at the top of his lungs.

“Aughhhhhhhh!”

George needed to get that out of his system.  Then he came back inside and returned to work.  That day, I made sure not to ask George any favors.

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In many ways, Calvin was George’s opposite.  Every evening, Cal sat at his same spot at the counter at Stick ‘n’ Stein restaurant in El Segundo, a TV in front of him.  He wielded his own personal remote control like a Samurai warrior.

Click!  Click!  Click! 

He was emperor over all he surveyed!

Calvin was 300 pounds of pure intelligence.  Behind his Coke-bottle glasses lay an incisive brain that answered all “Jeopardy” questions before the onscreen contestants.  He could explain technical topics with great ease–the tax code, complex legislative proposals, obscure scientific concepts, anything nonartistic.  And as the evening wore on, he flipped from channel to channel and watched junk shows one after another: 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, Joe Dirt, Deuce Bigelow, and the like.  It was charming and sad at the same time.

But, as you’ll recall from a previous post, Calvin began to feel proprietary over his own personal seat at the counter.  One day, Cal walked into the restaurant at 5 pm to the sight of somebody sitting in his seat. He was incensed.  He demanded that George remove the customer from his regular seat.

“You want what?!”

“Remove the customer from that seat.  It’s my seat.”

But George refused.

“Why are you insulting me like this?” Calvin asked.

“I’m not insulting you.  I like you.  You’re a nice guy.  You’re a great customer.”

“But that’s my seat!  I spend hundreds of dollars here every month.  You make a lot of money off of me.  You’d think I’d get some special consideration for that.”

“You can sit anywhere else,” George said, gesturing with his arm to the many empty seats.  “Anywhere.  Take your pick.”

“I–want–my–seat.”

But George wouldn’t be rude to another paying customer, so Calvin stormed out of the restaurant.  He didn’t come the next day, or the next, or the next.  We all wondered when and if he would return.  Finally, three weeks later, Calvin showed up again, a pile of papers wedged under his arm, eying his beloved seat, which was, thankfully, empty.

“I think George got the message,” Cal said smugly.  “He paid a price.”

And with that, Cal returned to his beloved spot, took out his remote control, and began flipping through the channels again. He was back.

But a year later, Cal stopped showing up again, first one evening, then a second, then for an entire week.

“Oh God, what did we do now?” I said to the busboy.

“No telling,” the busboy said.

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“I was talking about politics with him last week.”

“Oh no.”

“He likes George W. Bush.  I had to set him straight.”

“That must have been it.”

One week stretched into two, which stretched into four.  The waiters and I thought of it as a kind of sad joke.

But George was genuinely worried.  One day, George did something that I never expected him to do.  Somehow, he procured Calvin’s address.  He drove over and visited Cal’s apartment building.  He knocked, but no one answered.  So George knocked on the apartment manager’s door.

“I’m trying to get in contact with Calvin,” George said.

“Oh, he’s in the hospital,” the woman said.

George would have said Oh my God, but he’s not that kind of man.  He just listened.

“Yeah, the ambulance came by and took him away one night.  He hasn’t been back in weeks.”

Unexpectedly, George took it further.

I don’t know what happened in that hospital visit, but it must have been extraordinary.  Here’s a man who thinks he has no one lying in a hospital bed.  Suddenly, here’s a restaurant owner appearing at his door.  Suddenly, looking at George in the doorway, Calvin knew that he had a friend.  It was certainly something he never expected.

When I heard about the visit, I tried to wrap my mind around it.  George was a businessman, pure and simple.  He’s presented with a customer who is a royal pain in the ass.  The savvy businessman could have simply ignored the irascible customer.  Nobody would have blamed him.  He had nothing in common with this overweight nerd.  In fact, he sometimes worried about Calvin breaking his counter seat, as another overweight customer had done, and what it had cost him.  But somehow, I don’t know how, Calvin had become somebody to George.  Over the months and years, they had talked and found common ground.  Somehow, George had begun to care.

It was all so surprising to me.  Still, maybe I should have known.  This was El Segundo, which residents often refer to as Mayberry.  Los Angeles is often considered just a cold collection of interchangeable municipalities.  People move cities as easily as they change toothbrushes.  It’s just the way it is these days.  But somehow, El Segundo had shown me a different way.

DSC00403Australian family 6 11 10 smallerTracy 6 11 10 smallerIt turned out that Calvin, at the tender age of 40, was suffering from a variety of health problems.  I should have guessed.  At the Stick, after inhaling his greasy meal–buffalo wings, fried fish, onion rings, whatever, ketchup and dressing and butter to the max–Calvin would always bring out his pharmacopeia, a collection of about 15 prescription bottles that he dutifully downed with a big glass of Pepsi.  Obviously, there were a lot of things wrong with Cal.  As the evening wore on, the food and the pharmaceuticals would have a dramatic effect on him.  By 9 pm, he was often asleep in his seat, buttressed from falling by his extra fat.

Once, around 8:30 pm, I was talking to Cal about a magic trick using a salt shaker.

“I’ll show you,” I said.  “Pass me that salt shaker, would you?”

“You know that I studied magic under the famous…” Calvin said, and in the process, wiggled his fingers as he reached for the salt shaker, but strangely, he never finished that sentence with what I knew he was going to finish it with: “John Scarne.”  Instead, he fell asleep.  I’m not kidding.  In the middle of a sentence, he fell asleep.  No lie.  While reaching for a salt shaker, he fell asleep.

“Cal?” I said softly.

I glanced with alarm at the busboy Manny, who was also listening in on the conversation, and he shot me back an astonished look.  I was glad that Manny had seen it, because otherwise, nobody would have believed me.  We moved away, not wanting to wake him.  When Cal finally awoke again, I went over to him.

“You know, you fell asleep during the middle of a sentence,” I said.

Cal suddenly stiffened.

“No I didn’t.”

“Cal, I was talking to you.  You were reaching for the salt shaker, wiggling your fingers, talking about magic, and then you just…fell asleep.”

“I did not.”

“Do you have narcolepsy?  Is that what they call it?”

“No I don’t.”

“I think you should go to a doctor and tell him what happened.”

After a few minutes, Cal had calmed down.

“I have sleep apnea,” he said quietly.  “But it’s nobody’s business.”

I was puzzled.

“But you fell asleep, you didn’t stop breathing.”

Cal insisted that there is a relationship between sleep apnea and sudden onset of sleep, and I suppose there is.  Now, looking back, things make more sense.  I assume that his extra weight had something to do with the apnea, and that perhaps the apnea kept him from getting a full night’s sleep.  Apparently, some of the medicines that he took were meant to treat his apnea.  But in the end, the portrait that I should have realized I was looking at was of a troubled, overweight specimen in very poor health at the tender age of 45.

Calvin spent months in the hospital, and George would visit him occasionally.  It took him a long time–a year or two–to get back to full health, but he finally got there.  But by that time, Stick ‘n’ Stein, that great “Cheers” coffee shop where everybody knows your name, had closed its doors forever.  Apparently, George had been renting the property, and the absentee landlord suddenly doubled the rent and that was that.  Seventeen years’ worth of friends and neighbors had to go somewhere else.  All those good times had to go somewhere else.  And Calvin had no Stick to return to.

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I hear that now, Cal has adopted another coffee shop in town, I don’t know exactly which one, but I hear it’s a chain.  I can see him now, coming in the door carrying his black accountant’s bag.  I can see him now, taking out his own personal remote control.  I can see him now, falling asleep at the counter while watching Police Academy 7.  I can hear him now, giving the young manager the third degree.

Who’s that sitting in my seat?!