Before. “Nope. You’ve now just infected your other clean hand with germs,” my wife’s OB/GYN dryly instructed. She then put on her own latex gloves and demonstrated how to put them on and take them off while keeping your hands sterile.
We were in my wife and newborn son’s hospital room the day after his birth, on Leap Day, February 29. CNN, muted on the TV above us, was showing the same three b-roll shots of ambulances in front of a nursing home in King County, Wash., outside of Seattle; over and over again.
My wife had given birth to our son a week before all hospitals in Austin closed to visitors. I had been able to be in the delivery room and attempt to sleep in their room with them. Our doctors were on daily calls about the pandemic and preparing for it: Get ready. This is going to be serious.
“Yeah, you should probably just stay home and not leave the house,” the OB/GYN recommended in her usual inconclusively sarcastic tone, which previously had always been reassuring.
Three days later, people at the supermarket glanced at my purple latex gloves, not wanting to make eye contact afterward. He’s brought the germs. Or maybe my hands were simply another reminder that unforeseen change was coming. Ordinary life was unraveling. Or fleeting.
There were no reported cases yet in Austin. Yet the sense was It’s coming…
It was 3 am, and the grocery store was busier than a Saturday afternoon. Going to the store at that hour had always been so relaxing for me. I had been able to take my time, getting stoned beforehand and going slowly through the aisles. This night carts were everywhere. Family members and college roommates yelled at one another across other carts.
“They got baked beans.”
“Yeah! Get ’em all.”
Freshly printed signs from the customer service desk were Scotch-taped to some shelves: Limit 2.
I had a detached perspective, still ecstatic over the healthy birth of our second son.
No diapers. OK.
No wipes. OK.
My family had entered a nurturing and joyous bubble that was about to overlap with a global and collective bubble of sickness, hundreds of thousands of deaths, a foreseeable yet unstoppable economic depression, disruption, and anxiety.
I strolled down the aisles away from the shelves that formerly held canned goods and pasta and toilet paper, and tried out the produce section. I crossed paths with a fellow bemused middle-aged man, and we shared a smile.
“Time to get creative,” I said as we both looked on a large shelf with nothing but cucumbers.
“The composting toilet got here!” Another brown box had arrived on our porch.
Months into the pandemic now, I felt I should be getting an honorary mention from Jeff Bezos for doing my part to get him to $200 billion in wealth. (I know he’s been busy, so a Christmas card would be fine.)
I opened the Luggable Loo ® box and put the portable toilet in our “Front of moving truck” pile in our moving staging area. It shared a plastic bin with gloves, hand sanitizer, wipes, and granola bars, so it wouldn’t get mixed up with our stuff that would be packed into the back of the moving truck.
We were leaving Austin after 15 years, moving outside Washington, D.C., to be close to family who could help with our domestic chaos, which had yet to become normalized. To minimize “sharing germs” (as our oldest son, a 4-year old, understood this new world), we planned our driving route to avoid going inside, anywhere.
Well, there are some unintended benefits to this now. Somewhere between Texarkana and Little Rock, this crossed my mind as I sat with my pants down at my ankles, using our new toilet in an empty parking lot behind a permanently closed Mexican restaurant: There are a lot of closed businesses now to privately take a shit outside of.
I am not alone in finding time on the john to be one of the more relaxing and thought-provoking daily activities. (In this case, the john is a seat on a bucket, with a bag, which you seal and then keep in the bucket until it can be disposed.) It was an unseasonably cool afternoon. A thunderstorm had passed, and I watched as a portly raccoon stumbled out of the dumpster across the lot from me. Maybe the place had just closed…
The swirl of recent events went through my head again on that toilet outside the restaurant. A new healthy son, a global pandemic, shutdowns, working from home with no day care for our oldest son, a cross-country move with no one helping, so my wife and I could try to stay healthy and be able to take care of young children.
After I had my turn on the toilet, it was my wife’s turn, and I took over holding the baby. I thought of the people we knew and worked with in Austin who had had Covid-19 already. A young woman with two children had just come out of a fever that kept her on the couch for days. Her oldest son is 12, and had been taking care of the baby while the mom lay prostrate. He kissed his mother on her forehead when she got up for the first time. “I thought you were dying,” he told her through tears.
I kissed my son’s forehead, then his cheeks, knees, and belly, I said to him, “Well, I knew we were heading for interesting times,” before handing him back, packing up the Luggable Loo®, and buckling up for the drive.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.