It wasn’t an uncommon sight, just a comforting one.
David Thrasher stood outside his Art Store on Market Street in downtown New Albany, gesturing to passing traffic; however, actual cars were few and far between, and the asphalt remained unencumbered by tires for long stretches on a Tuesday around noon.
For Dave the pandemic was a flashback.
“Look at that,” he said to me, pointing at the emptiness. “It’s like when I first opened. You could go out there, lie down and take a nap.”
Dave’s Art Store is a civic institution, not so much a retail business as an office, workshop and museum filled with his vast collection of pop culture relics, which occasionally are combined into purely Thrasherist creations.
For 20 years Dave’s been telling passing strollers that admission to the Art Store is free – but it costs ten bucks to get back out. He’s also the originator of the phrase that best describes New Albany: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”
The two of us chatted for a while, maintaining the six-foot separation required of social distancing (“we never were all that close,” Dave chortled), and knowing that his projects require a fair amount of travel, I asked if it was even possible to work at the present time of our down-hunkering.
“I’ve been tested,” he replied, shrugging.
There was an appropriate pause.
“Just not for the virus.”
Then: “They can pay me anytime. I’ve got so much money I’m burning it for fuel.”
Thanks, my friend. Those were laughs I needed badly.
You’d think there’d be plenty to write about during a pandemic, which is perhaps the single biggest story line of my six decades on earth, except that I’m finding it very hard to concentrate. I can’t begin to coherently organize my thoughts, much less make sentences from them.
Times are tough, but having spent ample time reading about history, what’s happening now in the world isn’t all that surprising. From the Black Death through cholera and malaria outbreaks, through the post-World War I influenza pandemic, and now COVID-19, humanity receives periodic post-it notes from Mother Nature.
I’m reminded of George Carlin’s rant on the futility of “saving” our planet.
The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are! We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.
It would be glib for me to shrug and say fine; if a pandemic is inevitable, let’s allow the herd to be culled, but the problem with this attitude is there’s no way to pick the precise group slated for thinning. It might be your own, especially if you’re ignoring reality. After all, the coronavirus isn’t checking IDs … or political party registrations.
Rather, the virus is killing people. It's making others very ill, causing untold disruption to lives everywhere, and in large measure exposing and exploiting any and all societal fault lines it stumbles across -- and dude, we have oodles of those. While it might be possible to chart these weak spots in an orderly fashion, my omnibus verdict is fast, off the cuff and goes something like this:
There’s science and rationality, and then there’s stupidity and superstition. Ignore the former at your peril, because the latter has about as much substance as light beer.
Ah, yes: beer. I still receive a few “craft beer news service” e-mails. Clicking on a link the other day, I was transported to an oh-so-familiar place where typically under-informed commentators as yet embrace their narcissism and debate the relative merits of yet another wave of copycat IPA releases.
I tried mightily, but after a few paragraphs it stopped registering. Oblivious geekdom is a place I’m no longer interested inhabiting. True, I was saying this well before the pandemic, but now it all seems yawningly frivolous.
Similarly, in spite of not being a sportsball obsessive for many a moon, when all the various ball seasons abruptly ended last month and the Derby and Olympics both were postponed, the stoppages barely dented my consciousness. I felt almost nothing.
Will I care at all when the games finally resume?
The single most important consideration for me at this precise moment is the profound, inexcusable and damnable dysfunction of America’s economic and political systems, because this fustercluck will cost us far too many lives.
Finishing a close second is the way this kakistocracy has acted as a sort of truth serum during the COVID-19 curve-flattening measures, pertaining both to leaders and the (mis)led.
History teaches us that a crisis like this invariably reveals and exaggerates traits already ingrained in us. At present I’m convinced that half or more of the adults in this country, if sent back in time to 1945 and forced to tour the concentration camps in Europe as residents nearby were obligated to do at the war's conclusion, would view the scene and dismiss it as a fake fact.
Only then, a poor third, comes the overwhelming sadness of watching helplessly as most aspects of daily life that lie central to my being, from which I’ve derived (and in equal measure pissed away) money throughout my adult life -- food, drink, travel, tourism -- have been gutted.
They’ll be back once this is over, but irreparably changed; whether for better or worse won’t be known for a while.
I need to take a deep breath. Have some Scotch whisky. Settle down.
It should be remembered that informed opinion in Europe after World War II was overwhelmingly pessimistic. After so much unrelenting and devastating conflict over a period of decades, future prosperity seemed unlikely. Could civilization even survive the horror?
It could, and it did. The experts were wrong. To close this column with a modicum of optimism, a passage from the late historian Tony Judt’s remarkable, highly recommended book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945:
'Post-war', then, lasted a long time; longer, certainly, than historians have sometimes supposed, recounting the difficult post-war years in the flattering light of the prosperous decades to come. Few Europeans in that time, well-informed or otherwise, anticipated the scale of change that was about to break upon them. The experience of the past half-century had induced in many a skeptical pessimism. In the years preceding World War One Europe was an optimistic continent whose statesmen and commentators looked to a confident future. Thirty years on, after World War Two, people had their eyes firmly and nervously fixed upon the terrible past. Many observers anticipated more of the same: another post-war depression, a re-run of the politics of extremism, a third world war.
But the very scale of the collective misery that Europeans had brought upon themselves in the first half of the century had a profoundly de-politicizing effect: far from turning to extreme solutions, in the manner of the years following World War One, the European publics of the gloomy post-World War Two years turned away from politics. The implications of this could be discerned only vaguely at the time—in the failure of Fascist or Communist parties to cash in upon the difficulties of daily existence; in the way in which economics displaced politics as the goal and language of collective action; in the emergence of domestic recreations and domestic consumption in place of participation in public affairs.
And something else was happening. As The New Yorker's Janet Flanner had noticed back in May 1946, the second highest priority (after underclothes) in France's post-war agenda for 'utility' products was baby-carriages. For the first time in many years, Europeans were starting to have babies again. In the UK the birthrate in 1949 was up by 11 percent on 1937; in France it had risen by an unprecedented 33 percent. The implications of this remarkable burst of fertility, in a continent whose leading demographic marker since 1913 had been premature death, were momentous. In more ways than most contemporaries could possibly have foreseen, a new Europe was being born.
Perhaps even America can be reborn -- as opposed to "born again." Stay healthy and safe, my friends. Some sweet day soon, we'll be clinking glasses again.
March 26: ON THE AVENUES: It's a tad premature to sing the healing game.
March 19: ON THE AVENUES: If it's a war, then the food service biz needs to be issued a few weapons. We need improvisation and flexibility to survive the shutdown.
March 12: ON THE AVENUES: Keep calm and carry on.
March 5: ON THE AVENUES: I've got the spirit, but lose the feeling.