While the majority of the world is being forced to retreat and avoid the outside world, my occupation (a USPS Letter Carrier) puts me in the unique position of being required to stay out in it, and in effect watch firsthand as society breaks down, evolves, devolves, and mutates into something surreal and somewhat unrecognizable. I’ve decided that I’m going write down as many of my observations as I can and share them here with you, my social network.
I am socially conditioned to greet people with a, “Hi, how are you?” And most people seem conditioned to respond with the blanket statement of, “I’m fine, thanks.” And vice versa. But between yesterday and today I’m noticing a lot more awkward pauses between the question and the answer. A lot more, “I think” added after the response, usually accompanied by a nervous laugh. This virus is not only doing what viruses do, health-wise, but it’s also changing human behaviors in ways we can’t even predict. The meaningless and soulless daily interactions are taking on new meanings. The more sincere, “How are YOU doing?” which now follows the awkward auto-response carries more weight. I imagine this is just the tip of the iceberg, so to say. Our world is going to change, and change fast. Some things for the worse, and some for the better…. maybe… hopefully. I now close all my interactions and conversations with, “stay healthy”, and I mean it… truly.
Today I stopped off to get a coffee at one of my favorite lunch spots. They’re operating under limited hours now, which seems to be the trend, and they only offer items to go. There are a few other people in there besides myself and the employees. Everyone is expressionless. While I’m usually greeted with boisterous hellos, and offer energetic greetings back, today nothing. The hello I am greeted with is through gritted teeth. The tension is thick. Nobody wants to display any emotion, either in response to the stress. Or is there a fear of seeming “too happy” during a crisis? We have to be serious in serious times, right? I don’t know. People look and act as if they’re holding back a tsunami of emotions, and they probably are. At some point, people will no longer be able to hold these feelings back. I don’t respond well to tense social situations… they make me nervous. I fumble for my debit card. My signature on the touch screen doesn’t even resemble mine as I rush to just get it done. I don’t want to linger longer than I have to, for fear of what the others around me might think. That stress and tension I felt from everyone else has now got me in its grips. There’s another virus at work here. I say something funny as I grab my coffee and start to leave. Humor is the only thing I know to do in situations such as these. I see a faint crack of a smile on the girl who helped me. Maybe it’ll all be okay after all.
Spent a little less than an hour this morning in the cab of a two-ton delivery truck with a coworker. Close quarters, to say the least. Or at least closer than one likes to get these days. We had to travel to the next town over to pick up a vehicle which was mistakenly dropped off at the wrong office. I jumped at the chance to do this task. It was a refreshing break from the monotony of the morning routine before getting out onto our routes. From the moment my coworker and I sat in the truck, to the moment we exited it, all of our conversations were about Covid-19. We talked about what we’d heard, or read, or heard what others had read, and what it was that we were feeling. It started out calm, but which each exchange seemed to escalate in volume. Granted the truck is loud, and one has to talk loudly to be heard. But I think we each felt a cathartic release as we tried to make sense of it all, at little less than a scream. For a moment, as the exchange escalated, it felt as if we were trying to outdo each other with Corona news. I remarked how it kind of felt like the framing sequence in the 1983 Twilight Zone film when Dan Ackroyd and Albert Brooks are driving an ambulance, and Ackroyd asks Brooks if he, “wants to see something REALLY scary?” That pop culture reference was lost on my passenger, but it made me smile. This coworker and I are both the same age. Both have young families (although mine isn’t so young anymore). And both share a similar work-ethic, which has afforded us a strong “work friend” relationship. I feel comfortable talking about my fears and questions with him, and based on the tone of the conversation, I’m guessing he feels similar. It’s nice to open up about this. To talk. While we are all “socially distancing” ourselves, I can’t help but feel we are all getting emotionally closer. While I don’t encourage anyone to confine themselves to the cab of a truck with someone,I do recommend talking, even if it is, “REALLY scary!” Or write. Or draw or paint. Hell, if I had a lick of musical talent I’d write a song about all this. Instead I just keep singing Elvis Costello’s “Waiting For The End Of The World” over and over in my head.
Two days in a row now I’ve been greeted at the door of a house by a man who’s family I’ve delivered to for 9 years. The funny thing is, in 9 years, I don’t think I’ve ever had more than a handful of interactions that consisted of nothing more than a very brief, “hi”. Yesterday included a very animated wave and a boisterous, “thank you!” after I’d started walking away from his front porch. Today he greeted me as I approached with a, “I saw you coming…” as he handed me an outgoing letter. Punctuating his first statement with, “I’ll keep my distance though”. I smiled and wished him good health, as his wife then approached me from the driveway with a smile and wave. I’m not holding my breath, but in some ways it almost seems as if the world is correcting itself. People are all a little nicer. The streets are travelled by fewer cars, and the ones that are on the roads seem to be driving more carefully and less distracted. Families are being forced (for lack of a better term) to spend time together, cooking meals and homeschooling and focusing on health, both physical and mental. I wonder, will people start writing letters again? I’ll be honest, only a small population of people still correspond via the mail. Senior citizens and prison inmates being the two largest demographics that I see. In the last 4 or 5 days we’ve see a dramatic drop in mail volume, meaning letters and catalogs and things like that. There’s been a slow increase though in packages, and I predicted about a week ago that it’ll climb faster and faster as people start to order things online out of necessity, panic, and/or boredom. Our Postmaster has told us to expect Christmas time volumes of packages, mostly Amazon, to start up very soon. Then, I predict, it’ll disappear in a flash. Buy will a lack of the daily grind and outside stimulation force people to take up new interests or hobbies? Will we then see letters, and postcards, and care packages flooding the mail ways? I hope so. Because writing is incredibly therapeutic. A few days into this and I find myself writing EVERY thought down, and my daily grind hasn’t slowed much at all. I find the quiet streets are inspiring, as much as I do a bit lonely and scary.
This is what it’s coming to folks… co-workers caught hoarding latex gloves. Soap dispensers stolen from the men’s locker room. Toilet paper locked up in cages. People’s true colors are shining through, and they are not “beautiful like a rainbow” as Cyndi Lauper had so eloquently suggested.
Every morning in the office now starts with a safety talk from our Postmaster. We’re updated on the current state of affairs and any changes to protocol that may have been implemented since the previous day. Today we were given small bottles of hand sanitizer, an item which up until now hadn’t been made available to us. But this wasn’t just any hand sanitizer, this is a locally distilled hand sanitizer that is 70% ethanol and glycerol. It’s Vermont after all, and of course we would be given locally made “craft” hand sanitizer. Our postmaster took the time to remind us all to use it sparingly and NOT to drink it. And looking around the room at my coworkers, I think he was only half kidding.
Last week I had the “brilliant” idea to try and keep a diary of what was happening out in the world. I thought it would be fun, and therapeutic, and a great way to process all of this. Others agreed and thought it would be funny and I heard a lot of, “what a great idea!” At first it was fun, and easy. Thoughts, ideas, and observations all flooded my brain as I walked around in a much quieter space. All the people I shared these writings with loved them and wanted to see and read more. It seemed perfect! I had a captive audience, and a seemingly endless source of ideas. But I noticed something happening this weekend. I wasn’t running short on ideas or observations, but they weren’t fun or funny. I found myself starting each entry full of energy and vigor, but would quickly find myself veering into a darker place full of sadness and frustration. This is not where I wanted to be. Like right now, my fingers are wanting to type about the loneliness and solitude we all must be feeling. That of course will lead to a bit about fears and anxieties. And maybe, just maybe, I can twist my narrative into a short anecdote about hope and kindness, and wrap it all up until the following day. But where’s the fun? Where are the laughs I want to provide and I so enjoy giving? This isn’t as easy as snapping a picture of some trash in the street and assigning it a quirky play on words. See, here I go, getting all serious. Ugh… these are serious times, right? It makes sense to be serious, correct? But I don’t want to appear more in tune with my emotions than I am. I’m not trying to capture something here and exploit it. I’m just being honest is all. I’d love to find the humor, but it’s hard. It’s a different world, and it’s become different FAST! Just yesterday I was singing the praises of how noticeably quieter the streets are. How all you can hear sometimes are the birds singing and chirping instead of traffic. Today I’m cursing the deafening silence and longing for the sounds of engines and tires tearing down the streets. I’ve commented how comforting the genuine concern is from people about my well being. But today I’m feeling like answering the question of how I’m doing one more time will send me over the edge. It’s been nice seeing families gathered inside their homes, as they look out their windows and watch me walk by. Today their looks feel filled with fear and uncertainty, and I can’t help but feel like I must look like a contagion to them. I don’t know how long this will last. No one does. My fun document of the strange days we live in seems more like it will become a document of my decent in madness. I’m officially longing for traffic. I’m wishing for crowds. I’m missing hugs and handshakes, and normal human interaction.
So…. does anyone have any good jokes?
I always relished the idea of one day being told I was “essential”…
Now, not so much.
A lone man walks into a dimly lit room. In the center of the room is a circle of 8 empty folding metal chairs. The man pulls one of the chairs back, scraping the metal legs along the floor, before seating himself. He checks the time on his phone. He leans forward, elbows on his knees, and clears his throat and begins to speak.
“Hello… my name is John Rovnak and I have Quarantine Envy. I know, I know that must sound horrible, but it’s true. I can’t lie to myself or others anymore. I find myself thinking about it all the time. Imaging myself at home… not able to leave… trapped. The solitude, the quiet, the safe warm indoors. I fantasize about what it must be like. Every morning I hit the snooze button on my alarm and role-play what it would be like to not have to wake up to go to work. I pretend I don’t have to put pants on, because… who needs them when you’re at home? Sometimes my mind goes to really dark places… like my bedroom, with all the blinds still closed… no sunlight… and I just sit there… quietly. But then reality hits, and I open my eyes and I realize that I’m standing outside, in my uniform, with arms full of mail and I weep. Not on the outside, of course… but on the inside. I walk past your houses everyday… I see all you people sitting around, with your loved ones, laughing and playing board games… posting on social media… cooking your carefully planned out meals. But do you see me, the “un-quarantined”, walking around outside? Do you have any idea what it’s like to NOT be doing a jigsaw puzzle at one o’clock in the afternoon on a Thursday?!?! Can you imagine yourselves to NOT being able to finish an eight episode series on Netflix, because you still need to get a good nights sleep?!?! What if you couldn’t photograph your kids doing homework, and post it on social media? Think about THAT?!?! But don’t you worry, because someday I’ll get there… someday, I’ll be quarantined too!!!!”
The man looks around the room at the other seven empty chairs in wonder. He mumbles to himself.
“I guess everyone else stayed home…”
He stands up, shrugs his shoulders, and adjusts the chair. He walks out of the room.