Playing Keep-Away: A Tragicomedy in Three Acts

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

What goes around comes around

A couple of decades ago, when my wife and I were first married, she owned a little purple car emblazoned with a bumper sticker announcing that “what goes around comes around.”

I’ve long thought of this phrase as a cautionary tale, designed to take the more hifalutin’ among us down a peg. Don’t think the rules don’t apply to you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that fate will grant you an exception. There is no beating the odds. Just wait, you’ll get yours, buddy.

It seems like a karmic argument for the Golden Rule.

So when it comes to coronavirus, I have my ear to the ground, listening carefully. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Now, with Passover so recently behind us, as I hope against hope that the horror will pass over our home, I’m thinking of a prayer that we recite on another Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). This part of the liturgy, a somber reflection on the fate that awaits us, begins with “who shall live and who shall die.” The reference is to God’s judgment upon the worthiness of our deeds and the punishment to be meted out upon the sinners among us (umm, that would be all of us).

There is no escape. Just when I start thinking that I may be rewarded for staying holed up in my house for weeks, on the phone my mother reminds me of the number of New York residents who have already perished of coronavirus. As transplanted New Yorkers, we find the very thought sobering. What will become of my 93 year old uncle, back in my old hometown? And what of my cousins, my uncle’s son and grandchildren?

Even here in California, where we haven’t been hit nearly as hard as New York and New Jersey have, we are holding our collective breath. At Kaiser Hospital in Fresno, ten nurses have come down with coronavirus. One of them is fighting for her life on a ventilator, while her fully masked fellow nurses protest on the street and cars passing by beep their horns in support. Is there no hope for the bravest among us, our modern-day martyr Nightingales?

Some say that infection and death haven’t hit peak levels here yet. We’re getting ready for the worst. A few days ago, our governor visited the big, empty arena where the Sacramento Kings used to play; it has now been converted into a hospital ward. He estimated that 56% of Californians will be sickened by coronavirus, then worked with the federal government to send enormous hospital ships to dock on the shores of our state.

So who in my little circle of family and friends will be stricken by this plague? Whom will it open its ugly maw to consume? Will it be someone from work? Will it be one of my nephews or nieces? Or someone in my own house? Will it be me?

Will it be one of my elderly parents? Will my wife and I need to don masks and head to the airport for an unscheduled flight to the epicenter, a graveside service at our family plot in Queens? Or will my parents be bereaved in their old age as they witness me being lowered into the ground near Sacramento?

These are the thoughts that wake me in the night and overwhelm me with a feeling of helplessness.

Seder for One

It’s been about three weeks since my last foray into a supermarket. I was on a mission to obtain five pounds of matzo to FedEx to my parents. I never would have imagined that such a mundane task as going to the store would turn into a surreal experience. From applying an alcohol wipe to the cart handle to surveying the aisles empty of people to doing our social distancing duty by standing six feet apart in the checkout line, the post-apocalyptic vibe made me start to understand the many online “Twilight Zone” references.

Perhaps the one point in my matzo expedition that felt full-on Cormac McCarthy was turning the cart into an aisle and finding another shopper already there, both of us registering a double-take.

I scooted by the poor woman sheepishly, hugging the edge of the aisle, somehow without knocking any cans, jars or boxes off the shelves.

The “kosher food” nook was a tiny corner all the way at the back of the store. I snagged my parents’ matzos as well as two bottles of Kedem grape juice. I had initially planned on sending the juice to my parents along with the matzos, but ended up keeping it for my own little Seder (after discovering that sending glass bottles from point A to point B is not the simplest or cheapest undertaking one may choose to pursue).

My parents received the matzos, and held a little Seder all by themselves on each of the first two nights of Passover. I did the same, from the easy chair in my bedroom that, these days, serves as my teleworking workspace. I set up everything on the little side table next to my chair. And as I read the Haggadah, I fondly remembered the large family Seders of years gone by. Traditionally, the youngest at table asks the “Four Questions,” but when it’s just yourself, you do both the asking and the answering. And all the singing.

In recent years, I have typically attended a Seder at an area synagogue. I no longer join my parents at their home for Seder, due both to the distance and logistics, as well as other family factors that are probably best left unenumerated here. But this year, there were no community Seders at synagogues due to the coronavirus lockdown. While some attended virtual Seders on Zoom, the Orthodox Jewish community (which does not use technology on the Sabbath or holidays) was pretty much left to its own devices. You either celebrated with immediate family or you had a Seder for one. (Disclosure: I am not Orthodox, not even close, but am affiliated with an area Chabad House, which is.)

About a week before Passover, the rabbi phoned to tell me that shmura matzos would be delivered to each congregant’s home. The Yiddish word shmura is derived from the Hebrew shomer, to watch. The creation of these matzos is closely guarded, from the time of wheat growing in the field until they are boxed up for sale, to ensure that no hametz (leaven) touches them. These traditionally round matzos are baked, typically in Brooklyn, for just a few minutes. They come out of the oven super crispy, and typically burned on one side. Some of them are individually sealed in plastic and shipped all over the world. Shmura matzos are traditionally used for the “afikomen,” the last matzo eaten at the Seder table following the festive meal, “after which no dessert ought to be set on the table,” according to the Haggadah.

I live about 30 minutes from the synagogue, so I did not really expect shmura matzos to be transported all the way out here. But they were. And when I confessed to the rabbi that I had no maror, the traditional bitter herb (grated horseradish root), he brought me a little bag of it along with the matzos. In true social distancing spirit, he arranged to leave it on my doorstep.

The Haggadah (“retelling”) is a paper bound booklet, typically sponsored by Maxwell House coffee, that recites the story of our exodus from Egypt. It begins “Slaves were we to the Pharaohs in Egypt” and describes the harshness of our bondage, Moses beseeching the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” and then the ten plagues that the Lord brought upon the Egyptians. Among those plagues were a number of bodily afflictions, bringing to mind our current plague. My favorite of the plagues, however, has always been the second one, frogs. Reading the book of Exodus, or its excerpts in the Haggadah, I am entranced by the vivid imagery of frogs jumping into the mixing bowl and occupying the king’s bedchamber and having to be chased out of his bed. I wonder why the Egyptians didn’t catch and kill those frogs and roast them for dinner. Instead, their amphibian corpses were wasted, as they were shoveled into heaps, “and the land stank.”

Finally, we painted the blood of a lamb on our doorposts so the angel knew to “pass over” our homes while slaying the firstborn of every household. This was too much even for the Pharaoh, who thrust us out of Egypt without notice. It was early in the morning, before the dough for our daily bread, left on the hot rocks to bake, had time to rise. And so we left Egypt with flat crackers to eat, the matzo that we eat for the eight days of Passover each year.

I made a point of leaning in my easy chair, a traditional symbol that, as slaves no more, we now have leisure to relax. I quietly sang Dayenu, the song that lists the many gifts bestowed upon us by God, starting with the splitting of the Red Sea that allowed our escape from Egypt. And after I had tasted the matzo and the bitter herb, I went to the kitchen and microwaved a bowl of vegetarian matzo ball soup for my dinner. Then I returned to my chair to munch on the shmura matzo and drink the final two cups of grape juice, while I finished the Haggadah with its tuneful songs of praise to God.

I am thankful to have found a way to conduct a solo Passover Seder in the time of coronavirus. And the pragmatist in me could not avoid the thought that, for some of us, this year’s Seder might be our last, should this plague fail to pass over our houses.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

It was about 35 years ago when I first visited California. I took a vacation from my job in the office of a giant drug manufacturer’s print shop when my recently married sister offered a spare bedroom. I was treated to some of the sights of San Francisco from the back seat of their tiny car, zipping up and down the hills. This is the famous Hyde Street, my brother-in-law announced. “And this is the corner of Run and Hyde.” I rolled my eyes at the corny joke, but today, I realize that all of us have now arrived at that famous intersection. We wear masks, wash our hands dozens of times each day, and hide indoors as we bob and weave, hoping to dodge the deadly bullet known as COVID-19. We are running scared.

I find it difficult to avoid anger when some of us fight against our current quarantine, wishing only to “return to normal,” no matter the cost. Be strong, state governors, and hold the line lest this deadly virus flare up and consume thousands more of us. I’d rather stay home than die.

I ask you to stop for a minute to think about how easing restrictions on social distancing dishonors the efforts of our health care heroes, the doctors, nurses, lab techs and hospital staff who are placing their lives on the line every minute of every day to save as many of us as they can. Gathering in public further dishonors the efforts of our essential workers, the grocers, long-haul truckers, delivery people, cooks, repair people, utility workers, firefighters, police and National Guard, and others working long shifts, disregarding the risks of becoming desperately ill themselves.

The online newspapers are full of articles about communities that stand on porches and hang out windows at 7:00 each evening to clap, hoot and holler, to cheer on those brave souls putting their lives on the line for the rest of us. I smile broadly. Indeed, it is the small expressions of gratitude that are the finest things in life. And though the naysayers point out that the clappers do nothing to flatten the curve, I beg to differ. For we are doomed without the efforts of our doctors, nurses and essential workers. Clapping as our way of saying “thanks for a job well done” is the least we can do. And who knows? It might be just the bit of encouragement that some of them need to go on. They are human, too.

I have not gone farther than our patio in 21 days. Staying home seems a small price to pay, far less than those toiling on the front lines.

My wife texts our neighbors to make sure they’re okay. She monitors our neighborhood site on Facebook. We do our best to find connection in this time of disconnectedness.

I decide that it’s time to see whether there is any clapping going on in our neighborhood, any cheering for our heroes. I want to participate.

So, a few minutes before seven in the evening, as the sun waxes low and the shadows begin to lengthen, I step out our front door and take in the scene. I look up and down the street. The quiet is jarring. Two teenage boys with skateboards saunter down the sidewalk across the street. Once they are out of sight, no one.

I realize that this suburban street is not a clapping kind of neighborhood. Everyone more or less keeps to themselves. Public displays of appreciation are unknown here. Under my breath, I begin singing.

Cheer for our doctors, cheer for our nurses,
hospital staff and essential workers,

Firefighters, police, delivery drivers

I make up more words to the chant as I go along, whispering in the silence. I think: If I raise my voice to audible levels or begin clapping, someone will probably call the cops. And, COVID-19 notwithstanding, they will come.

A dog on the next street barks once. And then the stillness returns. This does not portend ingratitude, I think, even if it betrays a paucity of community spirit. It is the sound of one hand clapping.

Silence, but for the frogs croaking in the background, oblivious of that long ago Egyptian plague, engaged in their spring mating ritual in the ponds and streams, along the banks of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, and along the shores of Reeds Creek.