Brent Crane is a San Diego-based writer, and has been published by The New York Times, The Atlantic and The New Yorker.
The first time I went to my grocery store after physical-distancing orders were put in place, I made a faux pas. It was a strange experience from the beginning: lining up on the sidewalk in little painted circles, dropping my reusable bag outside the door, navigating the store’s newly designed layout, all the while scrubbing my glasses of fog from mask-breath. After my groceries had been bagged, I approached the register to pay, nearly through with the ordeal.
The cashier recoiled.
“Whoa, there!” he exclaimed, fearfully, stepping back (in placid Southern California, it amounted to a howl). Silly me: I hadn’t given him time to clear the area before approaching. Whoops.
Though my overall experience at the store was new, that visceral tinge of shame and embarrassment from screwing up in public felt all too familiar; one experiences it almost daily abroad.
Life under lockdown feels a lot like foreign travel. The new rules of communication and commerce have turned once-familiar environments into alien ones. It creates an uncanny disconnect with a place you thought you knew.
Navigating social interactions has taken on the air of interlingual communication. How far apart do we sit? When we see each other, are we elbow-bumping or just waving? Is movie night still on?
Even the pandemic’s terminology flummoxes. Remdesivir? Avifavir? Hydroxychloroquine? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
And from all of these interactions emerge the innumerable and awkward blunders and gaffes. They are of the same variety that crop up constantly in another country, where you are ignorant of the ways things are, and are not, done. In China, you left your chopsticks upright; in Thailand, you touched a baby’s head; in Brazil, you flashed an “okay” sign. Walking the dog through your own neighbourhood, you hugged an old friend – whoops. Most of us may not be flying internationally any more, but we are, in a sense, very far away.
These past few months, with most everything closed in California and the threat of police tickets looming for group gatherings or not wearing a mask, it was far easier to remain a hermit. But as lockdown rules ease across the continent and life creaks back to normal, the sense of cultural dislocation only grows. We are entering the uncanny valley of a postlockdown, prevaccine world.
The brewery’s back open, wanna go? Mike’s having a get-together at his place this weekend, you in? Gonna make it to softball practice? Given that, epidemiologically, nothing has changed since lockdown began, we are each faced with gauging our own level of risk-taking. In the ensuing calculus, everyone’s response will be different.
But how does one turn down an invitation – or encourage a friend’s participation – without seeming too cautious or offending? No one knows, exactly. Each new social opportunity comes with that feeling of cultural dislocation, of having suddenly wound up in a different country.
The pandemic has also been like travelling in that it brings into stark relief a place’s character. As a Bostonian living in a Southern California beach town, I’ve always felt like a traveller, a bit out of place. But it has been interesting to see how this stubborn refuge of California hippiedom has swallowed the quarantine pill.
There has been the cool skepticism of the sort one might expect from sunburnt beach bums and hula-hooping hippies, convinced, with a kind of religious fervency, that “positive vibes” conquer all. And then there have been the orderly, educated young liberals, respecting state orders. In that sense, the pandemic has only reinforced pre-existing norms.
But it has also caused curious new rifts. A few weeks into lockdown, my friends, who had to reschedule their April wedding, were married in a small private ceremony. Afterward, we held a tiny get-together outside their apartment with four (physically distanced) couples.
Some time into it, a neighbour poked her head over the fence. “I can’t believe this,” she shrieked, her face red with indignation at our gathering. “A bunch of idiots!” she howled, qualifying the insult with an unprintable expletive. It was an outrageous outburst anywhere, this sudden, venomous shaming from a stranger, but especially so here. “Where am I?” I thought to myself.
In late February, I spent 10 days travelling in Japan. The virus had already turned life upside-down there. Schools were closed. Hotels emptied. Everyone wore masks. It was the first time I’d ever donned one, and I enjoyed it. The mask made me feel anonymous, something the traveller often craves, especially after a long, transoceanic flight, when you’re feeling exhausted and anti-social. I learned to read people’s expressions by the movement of their eyes.
But I also liked the feeling of solidarity that came with it, of furthering a common cause. That, especially, is a rare experience for a traveller, who is typically a mere observer, only out for photos and dinner-table tales, removed from national events. Now, my nationality was irrelevant; I was buckling down with everyone else.
It was an eerie experience returning home, to relive the dawn of COVID-19 in North America. That backward time-travel, usually a curious novelty of transpacific flight, now produced horrible vertigo.
Again, I saw classes cancelled, hotels emptied, masks donned. In the blink of an eye (or the infection of a cell), I saw the Earth shrink. In normal times, you go abroad to find a new world. In a pandemic, one finds you.
Alas, there is no guide.
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