This op-ed was rejected by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.
(Sometime in the future.)
Tell me about life before the coronavirus, Grandfather.
It was another life. Things were more sociable then, especially in the great cities. There was at least one café on every block and people thought nothing of approaching total strangers. It was safe to be friendlier then.
We all seemed to have plenty of money. There was more work. There was a job for everybody who wanted one. People worked in offices together, side by side. You didn’t just talk facing a screen. Your life wasn’t lived on a little screen. You knew how your coworkers smelled.
Part of this, I suppose, was that you thought you knew what people were thinking. Everybody didn’t always have to wear a mask, for starters, so their faces weren’t hidden. Masks turn us all into spies. Guarding our important secrets.
Back then, an extremely corrupt politician named Trump was in charge. It was easy to blame Trump for everything. But Trump wasn’t really in charge of anything.
Still, there seemed plenty to talk about. The latest books, for example. I can’t prove it, but I think people read more. They borrowed books from the libraries, which were full of people. Just as the streets were full of people.
Were any wearing masks, Grandfather? Did you trust them?
Nobody wore a mask before the pandemic. It would’ve seemed strange.
Unless you were in China or India, because of the smog.
But you didn’t necessarily trust your neighbors. You couldn’t. Just as in no time, you didn’t know which neighbors were out to kill you simply by breathing on you, you also couldn’t predict which neighbors might turn out to be maniacs with a babysitter caged in the basement.
You did trust your neighbor at the theater or the movie theater. It seemed there was always something to go to, it gave everybody something to talk about, and you had a convenient excuse for a date. You didn’t have to think up something.
There were plenty of restaurants, of course, full of people. This was true across the country. You didn’t have to sit six feet apart to survive. And there were bars, too, where people went to drink and talk with each other. The bars made a lot of money, like the musicians who played in them. People will pay for live music.
Were things better then between the races, Grandfather?
Things were awful. Things were always awful between the white people in charge and everybody else.
Part of the problem is our guilt. We’re proud of our guilt, beginning with all we did to the Native Americans. We certainly don’t want to give up our guilt, no matter what it costs.
You have to understand. Look, this country is like a big ship in the middle of the ocean. It takes an awfully long time to turn it around.
In those days there were statues everywhere, put up by the people in charge. Like most statues, they were designed to help people forget, not to make them remember. So the statues got taken down. It wasn’t enough, it was only a start. If you ask me, personally I think it can only ever be a start.
You told me once that you traveled all the time. Was that true?
We traveled everywhere. We took it for granted. The entire planet felt safe, and available. The rich thought nothing of flying to Paris or across the country for dinner and a romantic weekend. The rest of us took a train. It didn’t matter how crowded we were. That was part of the fun.
Did everybody think that the virus would end one day soon?
We hoped so. Nobody with any brains thought so. I knew it would always be with us. The scientists said that it would. So humanity had better be prepared. We had to make our changes permanent changes. We had to alter everything we did. And we were thinking we only had to worry about climate change! Now this. It made falling in love very different, I promise you.
Few people want to die, and like being reminded that they don’t matter much. During the third wave and fourth wave and fifth wave of the virus we thought back with great nostalgia on a time when we didn’t know what those terms meant. Then we lost count. I couldn’t possibly tell you which wave we’re on now.
How was falling in love different then, Grandfather?
You saw what you were getting, for starters. You didn’t just go by the eyes, like Muslims. And your voice wasn’t muffled. You could hear each other clearly.
You weren’t compelled to assume the other person was diseased. That helps.
It was easier to meet strangers, of course.
You make the past sound too good to be true, Grandfather.
I suppose it was. We didn’t realize how happy we were. It was another world.