The Last Normal Day Part 2

A Masked Black Man Trucking Along by Zaron Burnett III

This is the second installment of The Last Normal Day series. To read the introduction to the project and find the first installment by Samantha Irby about gas station food and racing to get home to Michigan just as the virus began to spread go here. To read the third by me Luke about moving house just as the pandemic kicked off and death and my usual type of shit go here.

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A Masked Black Man Trucking Along

by Zaron Burnett III

On February 29th, I walked into the Oakland airport wearing a black bandana covering my face. I was headed home to Los Angeles so I could vote for Bernie Sanders. The bandana had American flags in the four corners, and at the center there was a red eighteen wheeler, but as seen from the vantage point of being in the big rig’s oncoming path. In gold imitation Harley Davidson-style font there were two words: Trucking Along. It was the most American thing I owned. I wore it to amuse myself, but wearing a mask back then was not yet a good idea, especially as a Black man. I was lucky the sheriff’s deputies didn’t shoot me. Cops have itchy trigger fingers these days.

The TSA airport security ignored the patriotism of my display and insisted I remove “all my headgear.” I wanted to get home to cast my vote, so I didn’t fuck around any further. TSA has an unspoken ethos: fuck around and find out. I did not want to find out.

This was all long before wearing a mask in public made other people feel safe. Back then, back on February 29th, a Black man in a mask walking into an American airport was likely the beginning of a tragic news story. People don’t generally expect Black men to be terrorists, but the cops may have suspected I was looking to steal a plane. They tend to have rather wild imaginations when it comes to Black men and what we plan to do next. When I reached the security pavilion I wasn’t allowed to enter until I took off the mask. It’s kinda funny how times change. And so quickly.

Less than a month later, on March 19, the entire state of California shut down and every single non-essential person was ordered by the governor to shelter-in-place. I’d been following the coronavirus story since it first made news in China; the first cases of Covid on the West Coast were reported the day before I flew to Los Angeles. My girlfriend and I talked about the new disease pretty much the whole way to the airport, trying to determine if the virus might be traveling on the cardboard surfaces of any packages sent from China.

My “Trucking Along” bandana was mostly a joke, but that day it was also a legit safety precaution that my girlfriend and I had discussed while I was packing. She’s smarter than I am, which means she is more cautious. I was hung up on my masculinity and was reluctant to wear a mask, since it would look like I was afraid of this new virus. Honestly, it felt unmanly to “mask up” at the time. I can understand why so many others felt that way, even later on when masks were first mandated. But I can’t understand why they still felt that way after the death numbers started to climb. I consider survival to be far more “manly” of a goal than fretting about how protective accessories may imply that I’m afraid of something. But I do get it. I felt the same way on February 29th.

Once I breezed through security and managed to make it to my seat on the plane, I was homebound to go express my voice as an American citizen. Voting is something that’s always mattered to me. But with Bernie Sanders in a two-person fight for the Democratic nomination, I was geeked to go vote. I was willing to risk exposure to the dreaded virus, as long as I could cast my vote for him.

And so there I was, on Leap Day, somewhere high above the clouds, thinking about America’s future. The pilot said we were somewhere in the neighborhood of 36,000 feet in the air. It’s one of my favorite places to be — at least six miles off of the surface of the Earth.

One funny thing about being a freelance writer is that you no longer have any concept of what might constitute a normal day. The same can be said of being a Black man in America. Neither lend themselves to what others might refer to as normalcy. The economic precarity of being a freelancer, compounded by the unique experience that comes with being a Black person in the States, have both conspired to keep normalcy as far away from me as tomorrow. It’s something I know could arrive, but I have no promise that it will. This uneasy awareness of the impermanence of everything is what I would call my own kind of normal.

It sounds terribly existential and French to put it that way, but it’s accurate. I harbor few expectations about tomorrow, other than it’s likely to happen. This is my relationship to normalcy. My constant, you might say. That said, the last normal day I recall, the last day the world felt vaguely normal for everyone else around me, was definitely that day in the sky.

Admittedly it’s a little weird, since February 29th is the extra day added to a leap year. In other times, it’s a day that always feels special. Since I was a boy, it’s been low key one of my favorite days of the year. It’s this ridiculous human adjustment we use to make time work for us. We prefer to force nature into our constructs rather than humble ourselves to its more eternal dynamics.

To make our calendar year function the way we insist, we borrow a quarter of a day from each of the next three years and then enjoy it all at once, every four years. It really ought to be a holiday, mostly since it’s imaginary time, borrowed time, an adjustment of time, whatever you want to call it. February 29th should be a day when no one works. A day everyone just spends doing whatever the fuck they want with their free time. Of course, as a freelance writer, I’d probably spend the day working. I work on most holidays, and consistently work seven days a week.

Les Claypool of Primus once sang: “Funny thing about weekends when you're unemployed. They don't mean quite so much, except you get to hang out with your working friends.” This is also true if you’re a freelancer. I haven’t taken a weekend off or a scheduled week-long vacation in years. You think about time a lot when you have to spend it the way other people spend money. This is what I was thinking about on my last normal day — how people spend money versus how I spend time.

I was convinced by Bernie Sanders that it was time for Americans to renegotiate the operating principles of our economy. I’ve felt that way since I first understood what an economy is, but Bernie put forward the most ambitious version of a systemic overhaul, one I could lend full-throated support without rationalization or capitulation. Bernie was offering everyone time. Not time off, not vacation time, but time itself.

Most people considered Bernie’s proposals in terms of money: what they would cost, and what costs they would alleviate.

When I listened to Bernie, I heard him talking about time — specifically, mine. If time is money, then every time I make a decision based on how much something would cost me, something essential like healthcare, I must think about it as two costs: financial, but also my time. The unspoken benefit of Medicare For All is that it would free people to make different decisions. Americans wouldn’t have to live in fear of a medical bill. For me, that’d mean I would be free to enjoy my life far more knowing that a serious medical debt wouldn’t cost me years to pay it back. Not only that, but a debt like that would change all the other decisions I’d make during that same time, like where I could live, as well as less direct choices, such as the option to go back to school, or the financial support I could offer my community. Bernie offered healthcare, but he also offered me more time and peace of mind to enjoy my health, which I hear is my true wealth.

Every four years America has its national election for a new leader. We discuss the direction of the country. We argue about the pace of change. Most of the elections in my lifetime have felt like that red eighteen wheeler from my bandana. Each election we get to decide who drives the truck. With Bernie Sanders the question was do we want to keep “Trucking Along?”

What is an election but a test of a country? We’ve been thinking a lot about testing, especially nationwide, these days. On February 29th, the nation was fast approaching Super Tuesday, when 14 states would head to the polls to cast their votes in their state primaries. The contest was down to two choices: Bernie or Joe Biden. This was the result of the South Carolina primary miracle, in which Biden managed to pull off a back-from-the-dead victory with the help of power broker Rep. Jim Clyburn and Barack Obama. Their efforts to secure the Black vote for Biden felt like my own people were working against our collective future.

On Super Tuesday, after I’d cast my vote for Bernie, I sat down before the open maw of cable news and I watched the results come in. I witnessed the exact moment when Bernie’s campaign ran out of time. Just a few weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic might’ve changed Americans’ feelings about the importance of healthcare not tied to employment. But at that time, it sounded like Bernie was offering people free stuff. And how could we possibly pay for it all?

Back on February 29th, I had that feeling the world was normal — it was fucked, but it felt like that normally. It’s hard to find a feeling of normalcy in a nation where just being a Black man means you must contend with the murderous imaginations of your fellow Americans.

It’s difficult to feel anything approaching normal when your neighbors are debating if your life matters or not. Hard to get comfortable when your possible death is treated as an issue for public debate. Then add in the economic precarity that every working person in America feels, and any concept of things feeling normal in this country starts to sound like a cruel joke, kinda like raising a baby in a casino.

When the world shut down in the beginning days of the era of Covid, the well-established idea of time was one of the virus’s first victims. The arrogance of our clocks and calendars was revealed to be an illusion. Hours took on new weight. Days stretched into incomprehensible amounts of time. Weeks felt like months, and months felt like decades. And normal felt like an artifact of a bygone era.

Now, as a culture, we’re collectively attempting to grasp at what normal might feel like in the future. This elides the great truth that nature lives by — now is all there is. Act accordingly.

Three days after February 29th, my last normal day, the march of time brought us the fateful Super Tuesday. The moment when it felt like the nation failed its test. Not enough Americans could imagine a world where our time was valued more than money and our health was prioritized as our most vital wealth. Bernie offered us time, at least, that’s what I heard. But far too many people asked: how could we possibly afford free time?

Now we all value time differently. But that was then, and this is now.

Zaron Burnett III is a Los Angeles-based writer for Mel Magazine. Find him on Twitter.

The Last Normal Day:
Part 1 by Samantha Irby
Part 2 by Zaron Burnett III
Part 3 by Luke O’Neil
Parts 4-5 by Chris A. Smith and Shane Ferro
Part 6 by Kim Kelly
Part 7 by Julieanne Smolinski
Part 8 by Josh Gondelman
Part 9 by Jeb Lund
Part 10 by Joe Keohane
Part 11 by Linda Tirado
Part 12 by Aisha Tyler