Life in a Time of Pandemic: Road Trip Edition (Day 1, Part 1)


Telling people you are planning to drive from one end of the country to the other in the midst of a pandemic gives rise to some questions. Do you think it’s safer to drive than fly? The answer is “maybe.” We have to make more stops, but we won’t have the hours of sharing air with strangers in a confined space. Also, we’ve brought our car to Florida and need to get it back to LA, along with all of our stuff, so it’s attractive to feel like driving is the safer option. Do you think an AirBnB would be cleaner than a hotel? Not really. I feel like the cleanliness of individually-owned properties is less predictable than a hotel that is part of a chain. In New Mexico, where we’ll spend our second night, the occupancy for hotels is capped at 25%, so it will be almost empty, and I figure I can wipe down surfaces and touch points in a single room with less error than in a house.

On the flip side, we’ve also made the decision to spend the first night with my uncle, who lives deep in the country heart of Texas. Because my uncle is not one for phones, emails, or plane trips, and because he is still recovering from a badly broken leg several months back, my family worries for him, and would like me visit. Paul is not a fan of this; he worries because he doesn’t want to be responsible for making him sick. I don’t either, but, I reason, we’ve been sequestered for several weeks, my uncle’s house is fairly large so we can spread out, and as an essential worker, he has been going to work, so he’s being exposed to some outside people already. Of course, the flip side of that is that we are also being exposed to him. Either way, though, we’ll need to do two week quarantine when we get back to Los Angeles. When I tell Paul my family is in favor of us going. He asks “are they okay if we go and then one of us gets sick and dies?” This is a fair question, so I call my mother and uncle and ask: They all say to go for it, and think it is weird that I should ask. Apparently, if something tragic happens, my husband may blame me, but my family will not.

April 24, Friday –Pre move plans always include going to bed early and getting up mega-early the day of the move… and never really work that way. Still, we are loaded and on the road by sometime between 8:30 and 9am. In addition to the bag of snacks we had on our way east, I’ve put together another bag, containing rubbing alcohol, a roll paper towels, a roll of toilet paper, and a container of Clorox wipes A small container of hand sanitizer sits in the center console, along with the cloth masks my mother has sent.

It should take about eleven hours to get to my uncle’s house. We have one “fun” item on the the itinerary, which is stopping at a Buc-ee’s filling station and purchasing brisket sandwiches for lunch after we cross into Alabama.

Our last planned stop in Gainesville is the Starbucks for Paul, but as we near it, we see the the drive-through line — the only line since there’s no in-store service — extends down the street. We keep driving, planning to find a sugary caffeine drink on down the road.

Two hours later, it’s time for our first bathroom break. Since restaurants are closed, the choices are gas stations and state rest areas and I think rest areas are the way to go. The bathrooms are spacious and, with few people traveling for leisure and mostly-male truckers, I’m guessing not crowded. When we arrive, I enact for the first time the routine I have planned: using a Clorox wipe to open every door handle, latch the stall door, and, after perching the wipe on the top of the door while I use the facilities, using it again to exit the stall, push on the faucet handles and activate the dryers. I wipe each touch point I pass as as a little act of service to whomever uses it next.
 
In Tallahassee, where we went to grad-school back in the day, our pre-pandemic plans had been to see friends, reach out to professors, revisit old haunts. Our new plan is to drive straight through. But outside of town we decide we can each text one friend, and offer to drive by and wave. Twenty minutes later we have a short ten-year reunion with our friend Susie, with us parked at the end of her driveway and she standing eight or ten feet away.  She tells us about her kids, the birds in the backyard, working from home and painting designs on furniture.

Social distance reunion

She is in the middle of her workday, and we are still ten hours from our destination, so after fifteen minutes we are on our way. We make another spontaneous detour to see the graduate student housing where we lived for three years, only to discover the university has razed most of the buildings, including the one where we lived.

The line for the Starbucks in Tallahassee is even longer that the one in Gainesville, so we continue to the highway.

Before leaving, I asked the Facebook what music we should listen to on our trip, and got a handful of responses that includes Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Step Inside this House by Lyle Lovett, so we’ve downloaded these, along with an album I’ve been hearing about all week, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. These all seem a little less “basic” than the music we listened to coming the other direction– Paul’s choices of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and the Hamilton soundtrack.

We play the Lucinda Williams, and I’m getting into it — I’ve always had an affinity for raspy female recording artists — but four songs in, Paul says “I don’t think I can do it.” He hits the control on the steering wheel that I’ve never gotten the hang of, and next thing I know, we’re listening to “Memories” by Maroon 5, which, I have to admit, is catchy. I’ve always had an affection for the earworm masterpiece that is Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and that affection transfers to this pop song that borrows heavily from it.

After a little while, Paul starts Weezer album, which I think I remember liking. Now, though, high-hat cymbal feels constant and grating and tinny — but I don’t say anything. It’s good to listen to an entire album and experience it as a whole, I tell myself.

At 2:15pm, Kelly Clarkson plays as we discuss the new Heidi Klum-Tim Gunn show Making the Cut, trying to break down precisely what it means to have a taste problem, what it means to feel more expensive, and how each of these might translate to both the entertainment industry and life. “I think maybe we’d be better off,” says Paul, “if I felt more expensive to people.”

By this time we are already passing billboards for the Buc-ee’s, even though we’re still 100 miles out. For those who don’t know, Buc-ee’s is a Texas-based gas-station chain. A Buc–ee’s generally has at least a couple dozen gas pumps (one location has 100), and a convenience stores the size of a small Costco. Each store has a deli, a fudgery, a meat carvery, a desert case, and lots of branded tchotchkes. Fans wax poetic about the signature chopped brisket sandwich which, in case you don’t get the chance — tastes like a heightened McRib’s with pickles on it.

As we cross into Alabama, we can see some congestion going the other direction, at a checkpoint going from Alabama into Florida. There’s no checkpoint in our direction. For us, the only slow-down is the line of cars entering the Buc-ee’s.

If you squint, you can read the Sweet Home Alabama sign.

I’m a bit ashamed of how much social environment affects my perspective. I’ve found myself wearing the mask outside when there’s no one within a hundred feet. Based on my reading and common sense, I know this is unnecessary, but everyone else is doing it, so I do, too. In Alabama, outside the Buc-ee’s, the opposite is true. People are hanging out by their vehicles, and those entering aren’t wearing masks. For a moment, this seems reasonable. The store is as big as a theme park– we’ll be able to social distance easily, right?

A Buc-ee’s picture I stole from the internet.

But as soon as we walk through the sliding glass doors we realize this is not right. The lines at the two checkout stands are spaced in six foot increments, but because of this the lines extend down main aisle of the store — the same aisle that every customer needs to traverse to get to the contents of the store. While customers have space from the person in front of them in line, they are also within two feet of every customer entering the store .. like us.

Paul and I look at each other and in unison don our masks.

All around us, people without masks dart away from each other, like bumper cars, or like people with no umbrellas trying to dodge the rain. “If we come home with the virus,” I joke to Paul, as we grab our foil wrapped sandwiches from the bustling carvery, “it’s probably because we had to gett sandwiches at Buc-ee’s.” It wasn’t that funny of a joke.

We eat our sandwiches in the car. We’ve reached what I’ll come the “depressing part of the day.” Which is that time you are thinking you should be almost done driving, but according to the GPS you have five or six more hours to go…


Two Weeks Outside the Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis.

Inspired by the New Yorker article, “A Week in Seattle, The Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis.”

I’m writing this on March 13, and already I’m forgetting the dates, having to reconstruct them: It was the second to last day of February, (Friday, Feb 28, 2020) when Paul and I flew from the airport in Jacksonville, Florida to our home city of Los Angeles. Heading from the east coast to the west coast, I felt what one of my film professors used to call the point of attack: describing it as “not the storm that hits the village, but the sound of thunder in distance.”

The thunder in the distance was 50 or so sick people in Seattle, the first cases of “community spread” of Covid 19 in the United States. While two-thousand people had died in far away lands, no one had died in the U.S. From our temporary home in Gainesville, Florida, Seattle felt far away, barely real. Was I over-reacting? I wondered as I directed Paul to pick up some TSA approved sized containers of hand sanitizer. But arriving at the airport early enough to spend several hours in the company of travelers, I wondered if I had reacted enough. In the waiting area an man was repeatedly coughing. We were about twelve feet away. I felt the urge to move farther, until Paul spotted some medical equipment and pegged his malady as something non-virus-related, like emphysema, or possible lung cancer… and I felt an ignoble sense of relief about the fact that this man likely had something chronic and serious, instead of contagious.

On the plane, the woman in front of us wore gloves and a mask by the window. Looked with trepidation as two Chinese men took the seats beside her. For the duration of the flight, the two Chinese men never coughed, but as on every flight I’ve taken ever, it seems, there were coughs throughout the cabin. In truth, all coughs on planes make me flinch; I have too many memories of catching colds on planes and having to deal with illness while juggling whatever itinerary prompted my travels. This week I had a series of meetings planned and didn’t want any crimps in my plans, be they Corona or common cold. I took the scarf I wore around my neck, and wrapped it instead over my face, feeling it must offer some protection against any stray droplets floating through the cabin. 

We arrived in Los Angeles late, slept, and woke the next morning — Saturday the 29th — to read on our phones that the first virus-related death had occurred in the U.S., in Seattle. 

On Monday, I had my first meeting. The exec was mildly apologetic when opted to bump elbows instead of shaking hands. At Tuesday’s meeting with another exec, we forgot and hugged. On Wednesday, a TSA worker at LAX reported he had come down with the virus.

For the rest of the week the people I met with were becoming more vigilant. The execs offered elbow bumps. An assistant and and intern still offered their hands to shake, Instinctively I took their hands – then sanitized afterward. I declined all offers of water, opting to stick to my own bottle.

At L.A. restaurants, I gingerly opened the plastic menus, thinking how many had touched them before me. On our last evening in town, Saturday, March 7, we visited our favorite restaurant in Thai Town and found it at half capacity. That day, in the first cases of Coronavirus in Florida, who’d been announced earlier in the week, died, and two new cases were diagnosed. These cases were in counties far from our temporary home, but I knew that the campus we were returning to campus would be the convergence point for thousands of students who had just traveled over their spring break, across the state, the country and the world.

By the time we boarded our return flight on Sunday March 8, Italy and Iran had become hotspots and cases in the U.S. had climbed from 50 to 500.

Our route back to Florida took us through two international airports. Dallas, where we changed planes, and Nashville, where stopped to take on new passengers. I watched as the new people entered. A woman attempted to put her large bag in an overhead bins but it was too heavy for her. A man helped, grabbing the hard surfaces of her luggage with his hands. Soon after, a flight attendant came through, closing every bin with flat hands. The bin with the large case wouldn’t close; she pulled the same suitcase out again, rotating it all around until it fit. Nothing out of the ordinary for a week before, but now I could only count: touch, touch, touch. With the luggage arranged, the flight attendant she laid her palms flat to the bin to slam it closed, touch, then approached our row, taking the laminated safety card from the seat pocket of nearby passenger and using it to demonstrate safety protocols before replacing it the card. Touch.

Back in Florida, Paul joined others on the parking lot shuttle to pick up the car while I waited in the crowd for my bag at the carousel. Though it was 2am when we reached our Gainesville home, I wasn’t too tired to shower.  

The next morning (Monday, March 9), while Paul went to school. I walked to the Family Dollar and purchased a three-pack of Clorox wipes. There were still plenty of options on the shelves, and I again wondered if I was planning for something that wouldn’t be an issue where we were.

That day the stock market plunged, and that evening, we received an email from Public Affairs at our university saying the provost was advising us to move our classes online where possible, but that nothing was mandatory. A fellow teacher texted immediately, opting out of in-person teaching, because she was caring for an older, immune-compromised relative.  Another fellow teacher, who taught mostly hands-on production classes said she wouldn’t be teaching online. She said nothing, but I detected in her manner the slightest judgement about our fellow teachers decision to opt out.

All my life I have dreaded being thought of a malingerer, have built an identity around being a “hard worker.” Partly due to a reluctance to be perceived otherwise, and partly because it felt too late to figure out how to teach online in half a day, I wrote to my Tuesday (March 10) class – comprised of 19 students who met in a classroom with seating for about 40 – and said that we’d be meeting in person. I explained that I’d be putting a canister of Clorox wipes by the door, that they should grab a Clorox wipe on the way in, space themselves a chair apart, and wipe down their desk area before sitting. This felt like an abundance of caution as I reminded each student who entered. They laughed as they complied. I was being safer than most, I thought, we could continue this way for the semester.

Yet one student said that my class was her only class that wasn’t online, and that otherwise, she would be flying home. Home was New York.

“You’re more likely to get it on the plane to than here,” said one of her classmates.

“I don’t care, because then when I get it, I’ll be home with my family, not alone in my dorm room,” she retorted.

That night I sent the same Clorox / spacing announcement to my Wednesday class , adding that if that if any student had extenuating circumstances they should let me know. One student wrote to say had traveled internationally over break break. Another had a cold she thought was just a cold, but didn’t want to miss class or make her classmates uncomfortable.  By now I’d had time to watch a tutorial on how to create a Zoom meeting. I decided to make the switch and teach the class online. On Thursday the edict came down, that starting this coming week (beginning Monday, March 16) online classes will be mandatory.

Expo Line!

If you know me, you know I am a big fan of public transportation, and that I hold the idealistic view that a good public transportation could change the face of Los Angeles.  The new Expo Line is the first train to connect the city going east-west.  Eventually it is supposed to go all the way from the Santa Monica (the city closest to the ocean) to downtown LA.  

It is also the first train that has a stop close to my house, and another close to my work, so you can imagine that I was excited to try it out.  At this point I should say that although I am emotionally pro-train, I am not pro-train-at-the-expense-of-buses.  People need to get within a couple blocks of their destination or they won’t (or won’t be able to) use public transportation.  It does greatly diminished good to transport someone 16 miles in 25 minutes by train, if upon arrival, there is no bus to take them the last mile.

Case in point:  The bus I currently take to work, the 550, has for months been the subject of rumors. They say that because of the new Expo Line, the 550 will be discontinued in June, when the routes are revised. 

Currently, my daily routine is to walk the four blocks to my bus stop, get on the bus, and ride it to within a block of my work.  So last Monday,  along with the thrill of riding a train, I was also conducting an experiment to see how I would fare without the existence of my regular bus.

I walked the same four blocks to the corner, and took the 780 down Fairfax.  Although I’d never taken this particular bus before, I knew it went to the Metro transit hub just north of the train station. Since they call it a hub–I assumed that with the opening the station, the buses would now loop around there as well–increasing the “hub-iness.” Not the case! I found myself on a busy corner, waiting for yet another bus.  I thought about walking, but as I was not exactly sure where the train station was, or if there were sidewalks to get there, it seemed safest to wait.

In the end, taking the train took twice as long as taking the bus, and although I am lucky enough to have an all-you-can-ride pass, this is often not the case.  Metro does not offer transfers, so it would have cost me three times as much to use the train: $4.50 instead of $1.50.  That’s one way–so $9.00 both ways. I could easily drive to work and park for less. Had I been a new rider of Metro, the overall experience might have just confirmed all my preconceptions about how it’s not worth it.

LA Metro if you are reading this:  I know that money is an issued, but please do your best to maintain your routes.  When you change your routes, try to feed them to your new train stops when possible.  Offer transfers so that you reward your more frequent riders instead of punishing them and making them look for other alternatives. I’m a supporter, and I want to tell all my friends that you are awesome so that they will use you…but I can’t do that until you are actually awesome!

Bus Etiquette


On this one particular bus, the 728 going east a little after 8am, I often have to sit sideways. I don’t prefer to sit sideways, I prefer to sit facing front, but for some reason, this particular bus has a high percentage of women passengers who take the aisle seats, then put their bags and purses on the window seat, and then avoid the eyes of anyone coming up the aisle, saying, in not so many words but pretty clearly, “I don’t want you to sit here.” It also sounds like they are saying “I think I am better than you, and so I don’t want you to sit here,” which vexes me. What is this, elementary school? And, hello, you’re riding the bus in L.A. I’m a big proponent of public transportation, really enthusiastic about the concept, but I have a grip on reality. If you take public transportation in Los Angeles, unless you are an eccentric millionaire masquerading as a homeless person, you are poor. At least poorer than your co-workers who pay to park their cars in a downtown parking structure. We’re all kinda in the poor boat (or bus) together, so what’s with the putting on airs? This kind of behavior irks me. Especially when the bus starts to fill up, and they still won’t move.

But maybe I’m misinterpreting. Maybe these women are really saying something else, like, “I have an uber contagious disease, and I don’t want you to catch it. I’m looking out for you.”

Tweets I Never Sent

I was going to tweet this morning–not like the early bird that catches the worm, but on Twitter, but then, as I was punching my pithy yet profound thoughts into my Blackberry, the a message popped up suggesting that I upgrade to the new improved Twitter. I thought–hell, why not? What else am I doing on the bus? I have time to upgrade AND tweet, and I’ll be all current with the technology and shit.

This was not true, however. Upgrading literally took half of one bus trip and all of the other, and most of the walk to work, and I’ll tell ya, these days, there is no time to be tweeting at work.
So what I was about to say, before I was interrupted, was that today I saw the bus-driver-who-never-smiles…smile.
Since this is a different venue from Twitter, I think I’ll elaborate, and say that the driver of the bus that arrives at my stop at 8:08 AM, which, despite my best efforts, is the bus I end up on most frequently, never smiles. She also never talks, and pretty much avoids eye contact. It’s not a spaced out vibe. It’s a “Honey, I know you’re there, doesn’t mean I have to look at you” vibe.
Each morning I get on the bus, usually out of breath from having run for a block alongside it to the stop, which I know she must see. I’m not running behind the bus, I’m racing it to the stop, since the only place it can stop is at the stop, and then there’s no waiting for some pedestrian just because she’s running and waving her arms. But whatever. Each morning I pay, with my TAP card–she doesn’t take kindly to people who have to count their change at the pay stand. Each morning I say something like “hi” or “good morning.” She never answers–just looks straight ahead. One say I said, “I like your bracelet.”
She stopped wearing jewelry.
Today though, at a stop light, I looked at her face in the rearview mirror, and she was SMILING. Teeth were showing. And then she was waving, looking in a direction that was not straight ahead even. I craned my head to look out the window as we drove away. It was a toddler, waving.
The busdriver caught me catching her smiling in the mirror and she looked pissed. She looked straight ahead again.
But a few minutes later, two kids and their mom got off the bus, using the front doors. SHE SMILED AT THEM, TOO.
She likes kids, apparently. Enough to smile at them.
Not much to do with this information though.
Except maybe tweet it.