When I was a boy and wanted to listen to music, I would pull an album from its sleeve and put it on the record player. The arm would lift and move into place. There was a moment of nothing, then the song began.
But the nothing was something: the sound before the sound, a faint scratching.
If I loved the song, I might lift the needle and put it back at the beginning. Or wait inside the nothing, the second or so before the next song began. Sometimes I’d listen with my full attention: Maynard Ferguson playing trumpet on “MacArthur Park” or Rickie Lee Jones’ sad throatiness on “The Last Chance Texaco.” Other times the music receded into the background while I read or focused on other things.
Since the pandemic began I have often thought of my earlier self, the one in high school or in the first year after I left home and lived in the dorm at Baylor. I had so many ideas about what I would become and how my life might unfold. And here I am, 58 years old, sorting through it all to discover (yet again) my future.
The college where I teach ended classes on March 12 and my courses migrated online. Within a few days, Bill would begin working from home. We were fortunate (and we knew it) to keep our jobs in the midst of so much chaos.
At the beginning, I read for hours about COVID-19 and the deaths in Italy, then Spain, then the horror in New York City and the spreading contagion across the globe. The images were shocking: refrigerated trucks lined up outside hospitals to hold the dead; makeshift clinics in Central Park; rows of coffins being buried in a Potter’s Field; the death toll rising faster than anyone could really comprehend.
In a creepy way, the horror of it felt exciting. Everyone kept repeating: I can’t believe this is happening. It’s extraordinary. The world has turned upside down.
Bill and I wore masks and gloves from the very beginning, when we were the only ones in the supermarket taking precautions. (We had masks left over from the California wildfires.) People understood what we were doing, but they looked at us as if we were over-reacting.
But that was then. Face masks are required; many people wear gloves to enter a business. Bottles of hand sanitizer are everywhere.
The sense of excitement, though, has ended. This is a different phase, one more difficult to comprehend. Complacency is growing. Taking care of ourselves (and protecting others) has become politicized so that a mask (or its absence) represents “liberal” or “conservative.” This has led to what we are seeing now: another wave of infections spreading through the U.S. Whether this is “more first wave” or “second wave” seems like splitting hairs.
When the album came to the end, the needle would make this whooshing sound as the album continued to turn beneath it. This would go on till I would get up, return the arm to its cradle and turn off the record player.
But sometimes I would listen to that nothing — scratchy, somehow hollow like air in a cave… it wasn’t music but it had a beat to it: thrrup, thrrup, thrrup. It was neither pleasing nor irritating, just the sound of the end. Sometimes it became such a part of the room’s noise I no longer heard it.
Thrrup. Thrrup. Thrrup. It’s lost to time, in a way, because we rarely hear it anymore. Record players are used by a limited few. Only people of a certain age (and those who have reverted to vinyl) know the sound.
I’ve come to that point in the pandemic. I no longer look ahead and imagine the future. The question of how this will play out grows larger. Sure, people believe a vaccine will come, but the fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps, which took four years. It became available in 1968, the year I started first grade.
Optimists point to the sheer volume of researchers devoting their attention to a COVID-19 vaccine. But President Nixon declared a War on Cancer in 1971 that marshaled the greatest medical minds to cure it. Fifty years later, despite significant advances, it remains undone. Just because throngs of researchers are working doesn’t mean solutions are imminent.
My days have become strange and monotonous. Our social life has crumbled to the occasional socially-distanced evening or a zoom happy hour. I cook three meals/day and have for months. Restaurants are rare, and then only for take-out. Travel (and the fun of planning) is off the table. Teaching and work are virtual.
Another day begins, then it ends a few hours later. That’s how it feels.
We are entering another month of this crisis. How many more? And then… a year? Could it be two years of this lockdown we call our lives? If this holding pattern had a sound it would be like an album’s end, the needle left in the black groove, an eerie rhythmic turning.