The Last Normal Day Parts 4 + 5

Like Birds on a Telephone Wire by Chris A. Smith + The Prosecution Doesn’t Rest by Shane Ferro

Here are the fourth and fifth installments of The Last Normal Day series. To read more about the project and find the first one 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 second about being a Black man wearing a mask in the first days of the pandemic by Zaron Burnett III 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 weepy shit go here. It was “one of the good ones.”

A very thoughtful review of my book was just published in Protean Magazine. I appreciate them taking the time. You can get the book here if you never did although there’s a second one coming out pretty soon shhh.

Saritha Ramakrishna writes:

In the foreword to Welcome to Hell World, Luke O’Neil admits that he does not know what his book is. It covers a lot: loneliness and addiction in all their forms, absurdity and cruelty and how they’re often paired together, people as soft matter shredded by this nation’s exploitative systems. The collection hits upon all the major works in the canon of Americanness: opioid addiction, the border wall, climate change, pollution, the healthcare system, police violence, mass shootings, etc.

And just as important is the gaze on them—how the reddest brutalities are smoothed down by corporatized language, or shouted over by hysterical pleas for civility, refracted through social media and its churn, or blown up by CNN or MSNBC’s fluorescent newsroom. As I read it, O’Neil hasn’t declared this a “hell world” just because there are a bunch of terrible and ruthless systems that ravage people’s lives. It’s also about how people try to position themselves morally to justify these systems, and how they are conditioned to treat even the most powerless people with a kind of cutting, hypocritical moral absolutism.

Like Birds on a Telephone Wire

by Chris A. Smith

I immediately regretted taking the orange. He was a prototypical old surfer dude. Shorts and flip flops, white handlebar mustache, light on his feet despite his pear shape. As part of my pre-surf ritual, I had parked and walked to the bluff overlooking the beach to check the waves. When I passed him on my way back he reached into a plastic bucket by his truck and handed me the fruit, fresh from his backyard. I tossed it in my trunk and then, though I felt silly for doing it, sanitized my hands.

The morning was shading into warmth, the sky a patchwork of diesel-gray clouds, the parking lot filling up just like it always did. The waves were crumbly, extravagantly mediocre, but the ocean has a way of clearing your head no matter the conditions. I paddled out past the breakers and settled into the lineup, bobbing around with everybody else as we waited for waves like birds on a telephone wire.

I feel something like faith when I’m in the water. Time gets deeper. The world slows.

Even as my board rose and fell with the swells, I couldn’t escape the worry. A dozen of us were scattered loosely around a peak, maybe five feet apart from each other. Some talked of work and girlfriends; others scanned the horizon, eyes narrowed, waiting for the next set. Everyone looked healthy, water-slicked hair, tanned faces smeared with zinc oxide. But did any of them have the virus? Could the wind carry it?

It was the second week of March, and the news was uniformly ominous: China in lockdown, surges in Italy and Spain, a disturbing cluster in a suburban Seattle nursing home. As I looked at the surfers around me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were living out the first twenty minutes of a zombie movie, where everyone ignores the crisis until it’s too late and the undead are breaking down the doors. We were all whistling past the graveyard, and each day it got harder to do.

I was in San Diego. My mom had suffered a stroke, and I had been shuttling between there and my home in San Francisco, coordinating her rehabilitation and moving her into an assisted-living facility. Those days would have been tough under any circumstance, but the looming pandemic added a layer of ambient dread. It began to rain, a change in weather to match my mood, and I caught a final wave.

Vons was out of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, but the sandwich place was packed—this was a beach town so there were still plenty of tourists, people in bucket hats and day-glo backpacks trailing kids in their wake. I got a turkey and avocado to go (was it contaminated?) and ate it at my mom’s place amid stacked moving boxes. As I scrolled through Twitter, I saw that the World Health Organization had declared the virus a global pandemic. This was a new kind of bad.

The movers arrived that afternoon. The foreman was a fiftyish guy in a Padres beanie who looked like he’d seen some hardship; his assistant was younger, baby-faced, wearing an oversize white t-shirt. They extended their hands and I demurred, feeling both rude and dumb. The foreman nodded and said “That’s probably smart.” The younger guy scoffed good-naturedly. “I hear it’s just like the flu, dude.”

It was still raining when we got on the road, and I followed the moving truck’s blurred tail lights through rush hour traffic down I-5. When they finished, the foreman pulled out his phone for the final paperwork, damp fingers swiping through screens of legalese. In the narrow hallway of my mom’s tiny new apartment, sweaty from the move and uncomfortably close, I typed in my information. Then, imagining the virus streaming behind them, I kept my distance as we walked out into the night, conscious of my steady retreat from shared humanity.

When I arrived at the rehabilitation center my mom was watching CNN, a matchstick figure buoyed by stacks of pillows in a hospital bed. While she was pretty lucid most of the time now, a big stroke essentially short-circuits your brain. Eyes wide, she told me that gangs of teenagers were dealing drugs in the hallways in the wee hours. On some level she knew this wasn’t true, but it felt true. “It’s not safe here,” she insisted. “I need to get out.”

I wanted her out of there, too. As part of the rehab center’s new safety protocols, the front desk now required me to swear that I didn’t feel sick, but staff still came and went unmasked. As I was leaving, CNN aired a segment on that nursing home near Seattle—129 infections and counting.

The next day I moved my mom to her new apartment, and the following day I drove home. The nine-hour grind up the interstate was eerie: traffic was oddly light, and at rest stops people dashed to and from their cars, as if preparing for a storm.

Two days later, the Bay Area’s seven million people locked down. A few days after that, the governor told the whole state to stay home. The zombies had overrun us.

A couple of weeks into the shelter-in-place I was cleaning out my car and came across that orange, wedged into a corner of my trunk, mottled and beaten-up, moldy on one side. I picked it up and threw it in the trash.

Chris A. Smith is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for SFGate, Slate, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones and many other publications.

The Prosecution Doesn’t Rest

by Shane Ferro

It was March 12 and I was in night court. From 5 pm to 1 am, I was based in a windowless room off a basement in the Queens County Criminal Courthouse. I shuttled between that tiny homebase and the cells behind the attached courtroom, interviewing people who had been arrested, calling their families, and standing up with my clients in front of the judge so that they could (hopefully) go home.

It’s one of those days I will never forget. Most of it fades into the background, but certain vignettes surface over and over in my mind.

At some point that evening, a coworker of mine overheard an NYPD officer in the area near the cells coughing. He said something about thinking he had Covid, but his supervisors not allowing him sick leave for it. This was when there were still only a handful of confirmed cases in the city. I thought he was being dramatic, and so apparently did everyone else. At that point, I trusted the official lines, that masks didn’t do anything and that there were only a handful of Covid cases in the city.

I wasn’t the only one. It was brought to the court’s attention, but nothing came of it. I put my hand under the hand sanitizer station for the 50th time that night and moved on. I walked back and forth between the courtroom and the cells. I passed that NYPD officer dozens of times that night. I sanitized and sanitized, but I was not wearing a mask. Neither were any of my clients, who spent hours in that unventilated back room, sitting ducks as a potentially infected police officer hacked away.

At the dinner break, the judge invited us back into a conference room for pizza. And by “us” I mean the lawyers and the court staff. My clients did not get pizza. It was a nice gesture, but I look back and I shudder. There must have been a dozen or more people in that small conference room. It was still cold outside, so no windows were open. We grabbed food from communal boxes and chatted, just inches apart from each other. I left early — not because I was somehow smarter than everyone and thought to be worried about the virus, but because I am new and I’m awkward and I didn’t know anyone.

I kept moving back and forth between the windowless office and the suffocating jail cells. The fluorescent lights flickered. As a first-year attorney, night court is one of the hardest parts of the job. Even when people aren’t likely to stay in jail long, they’ve still been in a cell for something approaching 24 hours. The arrest itself was probably extremely traumatic, regardless of what they are accused of, and it often will trigger some other consequence: immigration issues, an order of protection that prevents them from going back to their house, a children’s services investigation that might threaten their relationship with their children. In night court, my job is to listen to people, and then to deliver some of the bad news about what might come next. It’s nothing next to being the one stuck in a cell, but it’s a lot of secondary traumatic stress all the same.

These days I’ve moved to working from home, but the court still processes people after arrest in person. The ever-moving treadmill of prosecution doesn’t stop, even for a pandemic. I communicate by Skype with clients in those same cells from the comfort of my living room. The usual stress is compounded by poor audio and video quality and an inability to forge any real connection with the person in the cell across from me. I can’t blame those who don’t trust their lawyers right now. We’re just one of a sea of floating heads that appear onscreen for a few minutes while they are actually, physically in jail. We are an abstraction in their nightmare reality.

That night, at 1 am, I stumbled out of the courthouse and waited for an Uber to take me home, where I hoped to get a few hours of fitful sleep before taking the subway back to my office. That was the last normal morning. I went to court that day, again maskless, moving back and forth between courtrooms, trying to find a judge who would take five minutes to vacate a bench warrant for a person who had shown up at the courthouse unplanned. In one courtroom and back out to another. All the judges were in a meeting, trying to figure out what to do about the coronavirus. Finally one agreed to see me and my client. When it was over, I walked out to an eerily empty courthouse.

I trudged back to the office where I heard the announcement that we were shutting down. The court was still undecided about what to do, but we would be working from home. Someone had been in contact with someone who tested positive. Thankfully, not a person who shared my particular little space, but it was terrifying all the same.

It was 5pm on March 13th, and life as we knew it was over. The Time of Corona was upon us.

Shane Ferro is a public defender in New York City and the author of the newsletter Cruel and Unusual, a journey through America’s obsession with incarceration and punishment.

The Last Normal Day:
Part 1 by Samantha Irby
Part 2 by Zaron Burnett III
Part 3 by Luke O’Neil
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

Here are a few stories readers wrote in via email or comments.

1) One of my last normal weekend days was March 7. I drove from LA to San Diego to see Dillinger Four play a show for someone’s birthday.

The bar was packed, the mood was light, and Paddy made lots of jokes about “having the rona” which I still chuckled at. I wore earplugs but bummed two smokes from someone outside. It was the last relatively carefree day I’ve had. We really were just spewing particles at each other for hours.

The following week I would get sent home from my county job in Skid Row. I spent the summer distributing food and staffing a quarantine site for people experiencing homelessness. It was nice to feel useful, but then the funding ran out. At least through the end of this fiscal year I still have an income, which means I’m relatively unscathed. But I am dreading the explosion in the homeless population we will certainly face as people get evicted. This is the year our milquetoast mayor just gave up. I think he gave out prepaid visas funded by the Qataris or some shit? I dunno, that was months ago. He only cares about the 2028 Olympics now.

My dad got sick in April. He couldn’t get a test (gotta love Ohio), but all the signs were there. He refused to go to the hospital on the assumption he wouldn’t leave it alive. Given that he waited at least a week to let me know he was sick, I’m sure there’s a whole galaxy of post-covid symptoms he’s dealing with and hiding in the miles between us.

Everything was on fire figuratively, then literally. Nothing surprises me anymore, even when the shaking started a few weeks ago. I crawled under the kitchen table just thinking “Ahh yes, an earthquake, why not? Perhaps we will fall into the fucking ocean.”

2) Goddamnit, your last day of hope was so similar to mine — also at a Bernie rally but in Virginia — that I'm crying a little at work.  Our last date/last day of fun was driving up to Brooklyn to see a show by Krystal Ball and Saagar with guests Kyle Kuklinski and Michael Brooks on March 6. Driving into the heart of a pandemic no one even really knew was happening. With Michael's passing, I think that night of getting drunk with a bunch of leftists and laughing ourselves silly at Michael's mocking Chris Matthews impression has taken on almost religious significance for me. We used to smile, you see. We used to dream. After Nevada, even Super Tuesday seemed like just a bump in the road for a few hours that night. Even the Trump fans Saagar drew to the event seemed on our side. Whoops.

3) The before times slice of life genre fits so neatly between the balm of nostalgia and the agonizing grief of today.

My last normal day was a terrible day. My dog had been slowly dying of cancer for a few months before all this came crashing down. My parents had been sick most of January for no discernable reason. Not covid, but flu, then pneumonia and all the shit in between. Feeling particularly pessimistic on a walk in January I told my recovering mother — with my dog on my mind who walked with us and wouldn't stop squatting for a piss because of the tumors on her bladder — that I had a bad feeling about this year. I said I see a lot of death coming. Guess I was right.

In mid-February I saw two long distance friends I met on the internet a million years ago on some anime message boards back when the internet was differently dangerous and decentralized. One friend hosted the other two of us, me hopping over from the state next door and the other flying all the fuck the way in from London. Covid was background noise at this point. The east coast's problem. We spent the whole time reminiscing about the last time we all saw each other four years before that, and I left that trip thinking, well, that specific three person friendship is probably done, because if you're gonna spend four days talking about the past and not have anything new to talk about next time, maybe there's not a lot in common anymore. I was half right. I talk to one still, the one that's nearer. She spent most of the year alone in quarantine and I've been worried about her mental state. I realized soon after the trip that I wouldn't be seeing our friend in London any time soon anyway and I just didn't have it in me to keep the nostalgia times rolling.

My dog finally had a massive seizure the night before my mother and I would've otherwise left for my first ever vacation abroad — for both my 30th birthday and a self-given reward for finishing my masters in 2019 — that we had cancelled just days before. We spent the first weeks of March nervously following the news and pitching  flimsy displays of bravado back and forth: Let's just fucking do it, it'll be fine, we're healthy and fit aside from that whole pneumonia thing you're still dealing with, etc. But Europe closed down all at once basically so the decision was made for us.

Then the seizure happened, and I was like... fuck. I would have to have been at the airport by 5 am in our original timeline, and I already had been nervous about leaving my dying dog for two weeks with my father. If my father had to take her and have her put down and I wasn't there for it I would've lost my shit, so maybe this is for the better? Like most people my relationship with my father is contentious, as he is an emotionally unavailable Trump fanboy, and I feel too much all the time and also nothing at all, but I cried when Elizabeth Warren dropped out (it's fine you can drag me). I also believe in the Bernie platform and that The Strokes concert was, indeed, lit. I spent my whole youth wanting to see The Strokes live and it never happened, but they played for him? Good enough. I didn't cry when he dropped out because I was pretty catatonic by that point. I contain multitudes.

So I called the vet when they opened the next morning and had an awkward conversation where I scheduled the death of my dearest loved one and the receptionist hummed a little and said they were pretty busy that day. Would four in the afternoon work? I said I guess it would have to and we finalized it. I had a day with my miserable, pain racked dog, but I didn't really know what to do with her. I stayed near her, but I also had to do some remote work and fill out an application for a job I already applied to and submitted an application for. They always make you do it twice. It was for a job I don't remember because I didn't get it, but it wasn't anything interesting or useful, a constant my whole resume reflects. I thought the masters would help and it hasn't yet. It's in criminal justice, which is something I don't believe in quite the same way anymore. It makes my options limited now because I'm not gonna perpetuate that bullshit. I thought I could do some good from within but that's a lie and it's not possible.

When there was an hour left I put everything away and sat with my dog. I had been pretty chill up until that point thanks to the depression not letting anything through the fog, but it sort of did hit me then and I sat there and cried all over her. We'd been through a lot. She spent three years in a shelter where no one would take her, then nine years with me, even through the time I detonated my life and started over. She still liked me after that even though I have only ever been lost, sad, and mediocre. Dad didn't want to come to her appointment, saying it was too much for him, and that tracks for what I know about him. So I just went with my mom. Dad showed up anyway a few minutes later. We held her and she went to sleep, as the vet said, and then I tried to set her head down on the ground, but I expected muscular resistance to it out of habit, and instead dropped her on the tile. Fuckin stupid.

Then we talked about payment. What's a few hundred dollars more after all the thousands spent trying to get her this far?

I texted my one close friend directly after that that I could use what would probably be our last dinner together because the covid walls were closing in on us. I went to our favorite vegan restaurant and ordered house tofu, but covid times already hit these guys and their to-go operation wasn't very well stocked, so they didn't have any more. I took the inferior steamed tofu to my friend's house and we debated for a few minutes whether or not the utensils and boxes needed to be sanitized first. We risked it. I was hungry. After some Disney feel good classics I said, well I guess this is it for a while. See you some time. And then I didn't see her again until August, which I only did because in July my dad got bored of quarantine (his words) and went out to play pool at a bar and brought covid back with him and infected me and my mom. So I knew I was inoculated for a little while. Confronted with his selfishness he parroted his buddies on Fox and said well, we were all gonna get it anyway. Mom got pretty sick for a week and a half, and I have given up hope my smell and taste will ever fully come back, but we're all alive. Dad's 100% fine, of course. Barely affected him.

Anyway. March 20 was my last normal day that wasn't normal at all. In the scheme of things, at least there was a solid line between life and death and decisions that impacted alternate timelines and whatnot, whereas now there doesn't appear to be any of that. I'm still looking for a new job that doesn't make me want to die constantly and hating myself for not being grateful enough for having one already and upset that I can't embrace the bright side of how little this all has impacted me.