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  1. Narratives

Our world is shifting into another gear, one that’s slow and surreal and anxious

People are out — or not — caught between what was and what will be.

ST. PETERSBURG — We’d been bracing for the weeks ahead, calendar squares full of inked-in weddings, budget flights, doubleheaders and deadlines. One by one, the emails came, each event postponed, canceled, called off, until the days bled together into one untethered expanse.

Time pooled strangely. My girlfriend had nowhere to be, so she slept in. She browsed online, wishlisting items.

We drove Central Avenue on Tuesday morning as the city teetered toward its looming social crater. Neon dots of construction workers ducked through the dusty shells of apartments-to-be. Cars kicked up flurries of leaves on the way to jobs that hadn’t yet gone remote, like mine.

We had been taking dusk walks, trying to stretch stir-crazed legs. Kenwood has always been peaceful, all porchlight and crickets and potbellied cats. But now I sensed the held breath behind every curtain drawn tight. Blocks went by in a hush. When a couple biked by and smiled, I felt a whisper of relief. And when we caught a window glimpse of strangers lit up in blue, bingeing the same lowbrow reality show we’d been watching to calm our sizzling brains, I laughed.

How long would life take this strange, distant shape? Stranger still was the disconnect between those who’d been reading dispatches from Italy, China and Seattle, and those who had not yet adopted the ambient fear. I walked, waited.

***

My favorite white-haired poll worker greeted me with a mask stretched clear up to his glasses. Others inside wore blue masks and thin gloves, but couldn’t avoid touching my license — I couldn’t stop noticing fingerprints these days.

My coffee shop had set up camp in the sunny parking lot, with headache-curing cold brew on tap. Lines were short, but the owner was trying hard to keep the baristas working.

I tried to drop off an overdue library book, but the book drop was closed. A sign read: “An imminent weather, facility or civil emergency is in progress.”

Co-workers told me they noticed fewer bridge jams and ghostly parking lots. People mowed lawns at 10 a.m. on weekdays. They heard rustling leaves.

Traffic on U.S. 19 flowed with uncharacteristic ease past gas stations down to $1.99 a gallon, past a barbecue joint whose marquee read CURBSIDE SERVICE. At Publix, some shoppers floated by unhurried, plucking a single frozen pizza, a tin of cat food. Other families assembled rations against an invisible intruder: Eggos, Yoplait and small armies of Gatorade. A storm-ready millennial opted for an obscene pile of Hormel HOT With Beans.

“We’re not getting ready for a hurricane,” scoffed a ponytailed man who parked his scooter by the wiped-clean toilet paper shelves. A few aisles away, a grandmother advocated for a Coca-Cola 12-pack, no mere 2-liter, trilling to her son: “It’s going to be a long time.”

Later, an emergency alert appeared on my phone, urging me to respect the new group-size guidelines, and to “Be kind, responsible.”

***

SUNDAY SERVICE CANCELED, said the sign outside Northwest Presbyterian.

Birds pecked in vacant ballfields. I tried to order takeout from my favorite banh mi spot, but they had already gone dark.

Behind the prevailing quiet lay an amorphous panic. Fears came scrolling down the Twitter timeline. It had been only days since celebrities had fallen ill and pro sports shut down and hand-washing no longer seemed like enough.

Breaking news rolled in and kept rolling, TV tickers dire with death tolls and projections. Emails began: “UPDATED” and “NEW.” In the brain-bending algorithms of social media, news of campsite closures appeared beside canceled brain surgeries, and “Chinese virus” slurs followed photos of college students hastily unbunking beds. A lit-up highway sign in L.A. said “LESS IS MORE.” The Florida House hastily paused its session so cleaners, clad in blue space suits, could swab the chambers.

New phrases became old punch lines, with “love in the time of coronavirus” and curve-flattening and social-distancing. White-collar workers wrangled kids and Gchatted and debated the merits of sweatpants versus slacks; grocery cashiers stomached fears of infection and scanned produce, every tomato newly alive with possible disease.

News broke of mass layoffs and inmates sleeping on jail floors, pressed close. Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical mused, “Yeah, people are going to die, which is terrible, but like, inevitable?” She deleted her video. Airports filled with weary Americans returning home, filling escalators and lobbies with suitcases as they pressed toward fever checks. People posted cat photos and Zoom conferenced at happy hour into co-workers’ cluttered apartments.

A former co-worker told me her St. Pete neighbor works at a hospital, and as far as she has witnessed, his new nighttime routine goes like this: Pull in, honk the horn, strip down to boxers on the stoop, and don’t let the clothes touch the door.

My 25-year-old brother FaceTimed me shirtless from his tiny apartment balcony in Paris, angling for a slice of sun. He flipped the camera to show me a cat running across a rooftop. There wasn’t much else to look at in a country that now required you to write something like a hall pass to step outside. In North Carolina, my retired dad worried over his savings, spiraling. My youngest brother, a college soccer player who had just gotten healthy again, lost his spring season. I refilled my inhalers.

Everywhere were worse stories, of people who couldn’t get home to see dying relatives, or couldn’t get tested, or feared the day evictions began again. Everywhere were people who thought the virus was a hoax or a political ploy. In an open letter, a renowned public health professor shared his “Rule of Cockroaches”: “For every one you see, there are 9 to 20 in the wall.” The U.S. death toll hit 100. I kept refreshing.

In a way, it felt like the aftermath of 9/11, with collective eyes attuned to one unfolding story. In a lonely country, made more lonely this month, maybe we could still help each other. I hoped, anyway.

***

At the hour of bar closures, the evening the revelry was supposed to stop, I biked downtown. I passed empty parking lots, hip shops gone dark, and a guy locking the gate of a tiki bar before any guests could, as the sign put it, SHAKE YOUR SHAMROCK WITH OUR FLOCK. A few blocks later, St. Patrick’s Day crowds spilled onto the sidewalks, in green beads and clover T-shirts. As people sipped drafts, a biker blamed the “ass---- mayor” for shuttering restaurants, which he hadn’t.

Earlier, the surreal had announced itself in the void of civic life, but here, it appeared in the form of panama hats and Bud Light by the bottle. It continued with the viral panoramas of shirtless spring breakers at Clearwater Beach, drunk on invincibility, that prompted a friend on lockdown in San Francisco to message me: Who ARE THEY?

“Our society is crumbling,” spat a woman in the grass at Vinoy Park, immediately exploding a wet cough into her phone. A panting jogger loped by, hacking for air. On the Northshore playground, piles of children tumbled, shrieking, touching, colliding. People, everywhere — bursting out of unnatural hibernation into the clear spring evening, skating, walking dogs, even juggling, along the seawall. Not 6 feet apart. There was relief in the air, but also, a privileged remove from the endless scroll of exponential graphs.

“Everybody’s freaking out!” I heard a woman exclaim to friends she’d run into by the water. She laughed, and introduced her kids to these other parents. They all shook hands.

***

On a Wednesday walk, the day Italy announced a record 475 dead, the day Tampa Bay canceled Mass, the day the news ticker put cases in Florida at 314 and climbing, I passed laid-back construction workers and, gruesomely, a man putting in his dentures with grimy hands.

Stacked chairs announced shuttered bars, and signs in the windows of thrift shops and chiropractors hinted at what was to come: “Closed Early due to low foot traffic.” “Shortened hours.” “Due to COVID-19 ...” “PLEASE REMAIN IN YOUR CAR or 15 feet from door UNTIL A STAFF MEMBER WAVES YOU IN.”

Online were more headlines, warning of recession, of unemployment hitting 20 percent. Our daily news now included “grocery rules” and tips for bean-buying and freezing milk.

A woman carrying a carton of takeout soup stepped away from me into sidewalk grass. Even respectful actions in this augmented reality ring of strangeness.

At home, my girlfriend changed out of work clothes, back from her occupational therapy patients at an assisted living facility. She’d had to buzz a doorbell by an entryway blanketed with laminated warnings, then have her forehead temperature checked. Hand sanitizer flowed, but nobody seemed to be able to shake the feeling of an inevitable bomb.

Homebodies both, we settled into the couch, again. We’d finished all of our puzzles, so she distracted herself by concocting miso ramen and elaborate snacks. The dogs slept. Along the overpass outside our living room window, the highway still churned, though more mutely than usual. I put off vacuuming. I refreshed the news and learned of more layoffs at our paper, delivered by phone. Roses bloomed on the coffee table in slow motion — I’ve watched them now for four days.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill.

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