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Op-ed

Coronavirus: a time for humans to hibernate | COMMENTARY

Wearing a protective mask, a pedestrian walks in front of a mural depicting a forest scene at Pennsylvania Ave. and Presstman Street.

We are living in strange times. First the announcements of no public gatherings — not even church and synagogue services. Then the step-by-step closings of formerly dependable businesses. Starbucks reduced their hours and then closed altogether to foot traffic. (Some drive-thru locations remain open).

Heritage Toyota is open for business. I called them and as of this writing they’d be happy to sell me a late model used Toyota.

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The streets are silent and eerie. No children waiting for the bus. No cars on formerly busy thoroughfares. Friends are wary — you may well be contaminated. Relatives shun their children with the same fear. Or at least, consider themselves contaminated because their son came home from college. These are strange times.

A close friend — he lives in New York — aptly described our situation. He wrote, “Normal life has stopped for awhile, requiring hibernation.” He put it so well.

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I go to the Giant grocery store at 6 a.m. — the parking lot is crowded. The store is full. The shelves are empty, except for items no one wants. You get to the point where you buy what you formerly would not consider buying. You take strange colored pasta. It lasts and it is filling. And it’s available. You buy 1% milk, which you’d never choose before, because it’s the only kind in the freezer.

There is a machine named Alexa that, if turning on the light is too difficult for you, will kindly remind you in the dark, “Turn on the light.” That’s convenience.

We are living now without convenience. Before our lives were one convenience after another. A palm-sized phone that placed orders to Starbucks so your drink would be ready when you arrived. Technological wizardry that would allow your teenage children to carry on secret conversations that excluded you completely from their lives.

We now have a list of companies, entities and government offices that are either closed until further notice, or actually open, pending subsequent events. My car was totaled, and the procedures required to obtain a new car are rather daunting — but at least there are still procedures and still men and women talking to me on the phone about how to obtain a replacement title for my car when the Motor Vehicle Administration offices are closed. They talk me through it. Who knows if anyone is at the MVA who can replace my lost title?

Days that used to be vistas of leisure, now stretch out endlessly, friendlessly, as we must keep our distance.

The strip mall a few blocks down the road tells a story, and not a happy one. The deli that had been there forever is now closing. My bank “due to circumstances beyond our control” is closing to customers, though ATMs are still open. How long will they be available? The pharmacy is open and bright, and a kosher deli is remodeling. The kosher deli will operate as takeout only, per the law.

There is no shopping diversion, as clothing and shoe stores are closed for the duration. The only shopping is for food and necessities, like toilet paper. And don’t go looking for toilet paper, it’s been swept from the shelves as if a swarm of locusts had flown through and devoured the rolls.

I wonder if the panic accompanying food shopping is not a displacement of the real panic that oppresses us — the panic of facing a deadly, previously unknown disease. Rather than face that terror, people fill their baskets with food against an unspoken terror. They are correct — the terror is insufficient food in a country previously one of plenty, filled with abundance. The terror is the incremental removal of our freedoms, in a country that has always been the land of the free and the home of the brave. It may have begun as impossible, but staring at the empty grocery shelves, what was impossible has become quite possible.

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Stores are closing. But flower trees are blossoming. The Dow showed some hope with some up days. Are these answered prayers?

We go home to hibernate. We live in strange times, requiring hibernation.

Eileen Pollock is a writer living in Baltimore. She can be reached at eileenpollock@gmail.com.


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