It happened when we were standing in line to see Pee-wee Herman. My mother-in-law’s Christmas present was VIP tickets to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on its 35th anniversary plus a photo opportunity with Paul Reubens at Atlanta’s Tabernacle. The push notifications started: Fulton County schools, cancelled; the NCAA basketball tournament (that was to be played a few blocks from where we stood), not happening; Disneyland closed for the 4th time in 65 years; MLS, MLB, NBA, all done. It was time to start “social distancing.”
Because of social distancing, we would not be able to get pictures with Mr. Reubens; we’d instead get a private question-and-answer time with him, but from like 20 feet away. They took our phones and sealed them in thick bags as we entered the former church, and we began what was a delightful experience, despite the hysteria going on around us. The outbreak had come to America, but we were safely in Pee Wee’s playhouse.
That was Thursday, March 12. On Friday the 13th, I went to my office and accomplished next to nothing. I signed up for COVID-19 daily newsletters from Johns Hopkins; I read several twitter threads; I wondered if the experiences we’d planned and given each of our children for Christmas would be possible. I lost hope that the spring break trip to Amsterdam and Berlin would happen. At least 3 times, I clicked the Delta app on my phone, hit “contact” and let the phone ring and be answered by the platinum reservation line so that I could cancel our flight, only to hang up once I got to a real person. A few days later, Germany closed its borders; I sent a Facebook message to my distant relative Andreas in Wolfenbüttel: “our trip doesn’t seem possible.”
I was heartbroken. Since 1990, when my great aunt traced our family to northern Germany, and we met Andreas and his parents at a family reunion, I’d wanted to see where our people had lived and continue to live. We’d finally planned and paid for the trip; I’d be taking my family to see his, and we’d spend Easter together in Berlin. But then the outbreak happened.
We hiked up Stone Mountain on Saturday, watched our church service online on Sunday, and we started homeschooling on Monday. The kids’ schools’ digital learning plans were rolled out in full, and our new normal began. More closures and distancing measures began each day of the week, and the black dog that jumped onto my back over the weekend started wrestling me to the ground.
We tried to schedule educational movies to watch at night, like “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Forrest Gump,” “A Few Good Men,” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and they were welcomed escapes, but then I’d either need 3 stiff drinks or to go to bed early. The black dog often attacked at night, and watching red digital numerals transform into new red digital numerals on my ceiling became an early morning ritualized torture. The week lasted a month.
My bride and I were supposed to fly to New Orleans Thursday; the conference was cancelled. After wasting hours each day trying to find a new place we could go for our spring break, I realized making plans for early April is impossible; only in early April can we plan for early April.
Atlanta announced its bars and restaurants would be closed Thursday at midnight. Immediately upon learning such from twitter, I walked outside to find a restaurant to enjoy for lunch while I still could. I found one on my sixth stop–a place the Spanish honorary consulate general had recommended (my eldest interviewed him a few days prior) for us to “pre-game” for our supposed trip to Spain in late May. I sat on the patio and texted my bride–“This is our last chance for the foreseeable future to enjoy a restaurant in Atlanta. Want to join me at Bulla?” They joined me 20 minutes later. We stayed for over two hours, until the assistant manager told us they had to close. The next day, Sandy Springs enacted the same measure, so we went out to dinner Friday night for the last time in our little suburb for the foreseeable future.
Before we went out to eat Friday night, I had a “virtual happy hour” via Microsoft Teams with 3 of my best friends from childhood who are in Nashville, Birmingham, and Atlanta. It was the highlight of my month-long week. I had 3 tall glasses of Japanese whisky in my office and laughed with the guys on the screen until everyone returned to real life an hour later.
I woke up Saturday morning to a text from my friend Mike with a link to a Rolling Stone article: Kenny Rogers was dead at 81. I got out of bed, went into the basement to my turntable, and played his “Greatest Hits” album alone in the dark and wept for over an hour. Kenny was the first musician I can remember loving as a kid; “The Gambler” has been my iphone ringtone for nearly a decade. I found the “Six Pack” DVD my brother gave me several Christmases ago and decided we’d all watch it once they were up.
That night, our neighborhood had a “social distancing happy hour stroll” from 6pm to 7pm, and neighbors brought dogs and children into the streets, held open containers, and talked to each other, in three dimensions, as if life were normal. Then my children and I raided our recycling bin and grabbed the crepe myrtle tops by a neighbor’s curb for some backyard fire pit time until dark.
It’s Sunday again. Ten days since we stood in line for Pee-wee. Church is still online only and will continue to be through Easter. The rain won’t start until this afternoon, so we’ll go for a hike by the Chattahoochee and play in the yard for as long as we have daylight and clear skies. I just got a Facebook message from the President of our HOA–we’ll have “social distancing happy hour strolls” every evening at 6pm for those who want to participate, and maybe we can work together to make this new normal tolerable until we don’t have to tolerate it at all. And maybe the black dog will stop tearing at my hope in this new future–a future that likely won’t include any of our anticipated trips or experiences; a future that mandates six feet of space and two-dimensional happy hours–and allow me to find the rays of light hiding within the gray skies.