New World

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On the day before Mayor London Breed announced a shelter in place order for the City and County of San Francisco, my daughter, Sara, and I hit the road to Tacoma. We were on a sad mission: to empty her dorm. Her college, like most others throughout the country, had shifted to online learning for the rest of the academic year.  She had to move out by month’s end. A large wet blanket had been tossed over Sara’s freshman year, including her participation in a Division 3 lacrosse team.

As we rolled through Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State, we came across the economic wreckage already caused by the pandemic, then less than a week old. In McCloud, the general store proprietor told us that virtually everyone in town had been laid off after a large meditation conference, which drew more than 100 European visitors, had been cancelled. She didn’t think her business could last the summer unless things changed.  In Ashland, Oregon we heard a similar story from a hotel desk clerk; 40 employees had been let go. 

A steady stream of large recreational vehicles sped northward, repositioning themselves.  Either a subculture was on the move, or Canadians were fleeing home. The latter theory was bolstered by a short conversation we had in a parking lot, where a Canadian woman told us she was heading home from Palm Springs “in case things get really bad,” since her native country offered better, or at least less expensive, health care services.     

Shops and eateries were shuttered everywhere we went, most with cheery or stony placards expressing hope that someday soon they’d reopen. On our way back to San Francsco, in Eugene, now with my wife, Debbie, onboard our shelter-in-vehicle road trip, we stopped at a spacious Japanese restaurant that was offering carryout only. A small family – wife, husband, and three-year-old daughter, with a five-week old son at home – greeted us warmly.  

“It’s so good to be having a conversation with someone!” the husband proclaimed. He’d laid off all his employees, but as an immigrant from Korea he believed in America, that we’d survive these hard times and return to prosperity.  

A pair of female college students came in and joined the conversation. They’d been waitstaff at a noted restaurant nearby, which, to save unemployment compensation money, had kept them on without any hours.  The Japanese restaurateur was shocked at such poor employer behavior.

“I’m a graduating senior at the University of Oregon,” said one of the students, Taylor. “But there won’t be a commencement.  I was hoping to move to Portland for a job, but now I guess I’ll have to go back to Texas, where I’m from.”

Debbie asked the proprietor if we could buy a glass a sake.  He explained that he wasn’t allowed to sell it, as he only could offer carryout.

“What if you tell us how much it’d cost, and we just happen to tip that amount,” she asked.

“What a wonderful idea,” he said.

“Sake for the house,” I announced, gesturing toward the college students. “To surviving the apocalypse!” I toasted, as we all raised our glasses

“There’s nothing to do but drink and watch Netflix,” said the younger woman, a University of Oregon junior. “I just got out a relationship and I have no idea how dating works in these circumstances.”

“Let’s have a graduation ceremony,” said Debbie. “I mean, you’ve been cheated out of yours.”

“Really?” exclaimed Taylor. “That’d be awesome!”

Taylor put a red napkin on her head, her “cap.” Debbie grabbed a menu, stood up, and solemnly “read” names, until announcing Taylor’s, who marched up the “aisle.”  

“Thank you!” she said, tearfully, hugging Debbie. The proprietor grinned wildly while he and his family carefully maintained their distance.

Further down the road, in Grant’s Pass, we pulled over briefly in front of an antique shop. A friendly older gentleman sauntered over, noticing our California license plates. He leaned towards Debbie, sitting in the passenger window.

“I hear that state’s on lockdown,” he smiled.

“I hope not,” said Debbie. “We’re on our way home, we just came from Washington.”

“Washington!” the man stepped back, frowning. “That’s the center of this epidemic.”

“Would it be okay if my wife used your bathroom,” I asked. 

“No, no,” he said, backing quickly away. “There’s one across the street,” he gestured vaguely, and hurried back into his shop.

As we headed home, we noticed the intense beauty all around us. Gigantic Redwood trees, which had survived multiple human pandemics. The rocky coast, sea lions barking offshore.  The coast was in full, vibrant, spring bloom.  

“What should we do about Passover,” I asked Debbie.

“I dunno,” she said. “There’s no place to Exodus during a pandemic…Freedom is where your family is, I suppose.”

We drove on in silence, each in our own thoughts.  

I considered how April is a universal time of reflection and resurrection, celebrated by Easter, Ramadan, Passover, and Earth Day.  As we prayer, meditate, or medicate in our homes, and on the steps of churches and mosques, the message from the “universe” or its envoys – viruses, increasing numbers of wildfires, twisted political discourse – seems quite clear. It’s time to slowdown, nurture our families, friends and communities, and rededicate ourselves to leading thoughtful lives of beauty. 

Take good care of yourselves, View readers!