Story and photos by Pete Shaw
Call me Plum.
My Friend’s four year old daughter, Grape, declared it so. As did her mother, Pear, and her 17 month old brother, Lemon who, holding on to Mother Pear’s leg, looks upon me with wonder and smiles.
For a time, I had been Peach. I am not sure if stone fruits are like citrus ones in propagation. An orange need not grow on an orange tree. Any citrus tree will do, and it is entirely possible to have a lemon tree not only bearing lemons, but also limes, grapefruits, and oranges, their stems skillfully grafted to the lemon tree.
I take umbrage. Who is this (admittedly lovely) person who just changes my name with near reckless abandon? And this is not the first time. For a spell I had been on the other side of things, in the Animalia kingdom. I was Peacock. So proudly I strutted.
I issue protest. “Excuse me, but was I not once Peach, the exalted and mighty, and admittedly a bit fuzzy? Do you have a license to change names, Grape? Or even to sell hair tonic? To bald eagles? In Idaho?”
A pause whose silence emanates far more from confusion than not having watched Bugs Bunny cartoons.
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Your mother also has no idea what I am talking about most of the time. She has learned to smile and nod, hoping the nightmare will soon be over. But it never is. Never really.”
Our conversation meanders, my portions of it bouncing around so as to entertain not only Grape, but my other two partners in fructus. This is important. Of all the things I produce in this life, it is easily silliness that I bring forth in the greatest quantities. But silliness is something different from fooling around, and these are not times for being a fool.
Also important is that I am modeling, mostly, proper behaviors. Aside from the usual uses of “please,” “thank you,” and “you are welcome,” I am also maintaining good distance, even beyond the recommended 6 feet, and I have a mask over my face. Soon my job is done, and I am on my way. Pear will later, once again, try to explain me to Grape, hopefully only with laughter and smiles. Those qualities are always the goal.
My at-distance visit with Grape et al. came as part of my often daily walk, a nearly two hour jaunt, depending upon how many cats demand my attention, that covers about six miles. A month ago, that walk was a bit shorter. But that was when I was still going to the gym and lifting things. However, on February 26 my better 99%, who works in the medical field, decided I should stop going there due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The extra nearly two miles likely does not make up for my leg lifts, but it will have to do.
And honestly, it does well. Aside from the health benefits, each walk offers a new set of Wonders. Every step offers the possibility of surprise. Every moment is new, and even within these strange and ominous times, each is a gift bearing great beauty if you just look with the right set of eyes.
Some of those beauties are quite personal and obvious. Near the northernmost point of my current walk, lives a close Friend and her five year old child, Hope. I come bearing a loaf of bread, one I made the night before. It is good bread. As I walk up the stairs to their door, it is hard to think of anyone more deserving of good bread, which has as much to do with my Friend’s deep involvement in fighting for greater justice as it does her and Hope’s Kind presences in my life. However, I wish everyone had good bread, because everyone deserves good bread. It would be a very different world if we all had it.
I ring the bell, and then I retreat to the lawn, easily beyond six feet. Hope, as it sometimes does, answers the door. As within Grape and Lemon, there is Hope in Hope. Soon their mother is there, and we talk easily. About ten days ago, the easy talk was of unease. She was worried about many things, health of course, but also how people were reacting, particularly people she has known for a long time and in this time of worry, are showing sides of themselves that she never thought existed. She was having difficulty bearing their weight.
“Fear makes people do strange things.”
“Bertrand Russell once said that fear breeds cruelty.”
I know she knows this. For years she has worked for advancing many kinds of justice. For migrants, for the imprisoned, for farmworkers, for other working people. For a better world that must so often seem only a short, tenuous thread from seeming impossible.
They are keeping well. Hope keeps popping in and out, smiling and laughing, asking if they can do this or that. They looks at me through the window, playing hide and seek of a sort. Occasionally I look around in complete confusion.
“Where is Hope? I thought I saw them! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HOPE?!?” I scream to the heavens. My petition is answered with a sharp and loud giggle. The sound of Hope.
I remove the bread from my knapsack. I place it at a point about eight feet from me and my Friend, an equilateral triangle that is simultaneously drawn out in my mind in completely normal fashion, while my old muscle and spiritual memories remember the closer handoffs that had followed a hug of gratitude for presence and all the beauty from it which flowed.
The effect remains, accented by the strictures of the times.
These are, of course, uncertain times. When I was in elementary school, every so often we would perform a drill regarding how to respond in the event of a nuclear blast. There was probably a loud and constant noise like a siren or a bell, and when it went off, everyone got under their desks. There, we were told, lay sanctuary.
It was a strange thing to grow up with, and I remember in 7th or 8th grade–about 1984–a made-for-tv film about the results of a nuclear strike, The Day After. It was terrifying, and many people watched. We talked about it in some of our classes, as did many students throughout the country.
But there was something intangible about it all. It was not visceral, for I was not around people who spent a good portion of their daily lives clearly worried that a nuclear war was just around the next hour. They’d been being told that for years, and perhaps it got boring.
There were no lockdowns, and while reminders were all around, they blended into the background after awhile. The old fallout shelter signs on the sides of buildings near my grandparents’ home in Brooklyn, New York are etched in my mind, not as trauma, but as something seen that adds to warm memories.
The coronavirus feels more tangible. It’s all around, inescapable. It is the news. Go for a walk, and most everyone is giving distance. It is the dominant issue of the moment, and for many it will be a defining one of their lives. It certainly feels like it is for mine.
For Grape, Lemon, and Hope, it will doubtless prove formative. It seems so much more bizarre than thinking that my fellow students and I hiding under desks during a nuclear strike, when New York City was no more than 30 miles away, was going to help things.
There is safety in space. But there is also safety in Love and all that flows from it.
I walk at off-peak hours, regardless of the state of public health. This time of year is always magical. The Snow Trees, as my better 99% might call them, are in bloom, some of their flowers’ white and pink petals already blanketing the sidewalks, hell strips, streets, and cars beneath them.
People are taking to gardening. One plot along my walk, depending upon your mood, is worth circumventing. Upon that bit of land lies three raised beds, each about three feet high and wide, and eight feet long.
Michelangelo’s David has enormous hands and feet, even for its 17 foot height, disproportions that celebrate the human form. It is a seminal work in a European civilization trying to free itself from an earlier ideal that art should exalt God, not humans, and for the most part that ideal resulted in paintings that strike me as incredibly boring and even desultory, even if part of a continuum that brought forth the Renaissance.
Those raised beds, on a slight rise that makes them appear even larger, strike my better 99% as exaggerated coffins. Sandals for David. When we walk together, we now avoid that place. She, for the coffins. Me, because it reminds me of nicer walks. A 4 AM stroll through an almost empty Florence, Italy, passing and appreciating the replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece outside the Palazzo Vecchio, walking along streets that this most famous of stonecutters trod five centuries earlier. Later, crossing the Ponte Santa Trinita over the Arno River, holding hands, enjoying the sun slowly wake across the Ponte Vecchio. That was Magic, and we took it in.
Most gardens are not so ominous as the local morgue. Along my route I see beautiful chards and beets that have made it through the Winter, and newly planted crops of lettuces and kales are sprouting. I see adults teaching their children how to garden. Seed, water, and Love and care.
Many people are laying out on their curbings items they do not need, offering them to others who do. Baby clothes. Food. Books. Toys.
Signs of hope.
I pass by some schools. They are quiet. Even in the Summer they are not this silent. Signs that we need more than just hope.
Unfortunately, our president seems hell bent on relying much more heavily on hope than much else, particularly science. But hope detached from reality, as we are seeing, can be dangerous.
He is a menace, the guy on the corner yelling a gibberish of conspiracies, nonsense, and uselessness into the ether. But Trump is given the trappings of authority–as well as much of its very real power–that comes in this strange portion of the early 21st century where a man as far as can be from Jesus Christ is exalted by many preachers as sent by God Himself.
Trump has been a terrible leader through all this, which is no surprise as even by our country’s sordid standards for leaders . That he is a buffoon is also no surprise. And as well, he sadly has filled my expectations for posing danger to people who rely on the words of leaders during a crisis. His press conferences are full of lies and distortions when talking about his and his administration’s response to the virus. Worse, they are also full of statements regarding the virus and how to take care of oneself and one’s loved ones that run in direct contradiction to what medical professionals say.
For what it is worth, at some point, with absolutely no data to go on save for whatever his gut produces, which is to say no data, Trump said come April, the virus would have run its course. I knew this was nonsense. My better 99% knew this was nonsense. But now, here we are, in April, and the virus does not just remain, but is piling up the corpses.
In a recent poll, for what polls are worth, 90 percent of Republicans say they trusted the information they got about the coronavirus from Donald Trump. Ninety percent of them also say they trusted the information they got about the coronavirus from their doctors. It seems unlikely that the union of both those 90 percent lists is a complete intersection, but it must be close.
That is extremely odd. As my better 99% put it with her usual precision, the information from Trump is contradictory to that of doctors. A large swathe of the US population that regards experts as Samuel Johnson regarded critics, and who relied on Trump’s self-proclaimed expertise–at one point he claimed numerous doctors were amazed at his knowledge of the virus–may find out the hard way that people who spend their lives researching, studying, processing, refining, and sharing information regarding viruses, or whatever field they are in, are much more reliable on issues surrounding their lives’ work than a bloviating jackass whose only expertise lies in ignorance, selfishness, and cruelty.
Let’s cut to the chase. The man is an asshole.
Many people are behaving cruelly. They are scared. They should be. But some responses to that fear, such as the rise in violence against people of Asian descent, particularly those of Chinese descent–fanned by Trump’s and other Republicans early insistence on racializing the virus–solve nothing and only make matters worse.
We are at the least witnessing an intense convulsion of capitalism. The system as it currently stands is failing. That should be no surprise. Capitalism is very good at privatizing wealth, and it does that exceptionally well in times of crisis. Those crises are often a result of capitalism, a nasty self-sustaining cycle that brings in money for the most rapacious, leaving in its wake a flotsam and jetsam of humanity. A capitalist economy, especially one so brutal as the form found in the US, requires sacrifice, and a slowly gaining number of high priests and their inquisitors, such as Texas Lt. governor Dan Patrick, suggested what the naturalist set sometimes call “culling the herd.” Patrick thinks the elderly–who are nothing but leeches in a neoliberal economy–should be willing to die so that capitalism does not fall, replaced by the godless, communist, fascist, and whatever other fear-buzzwords governing institutions found in the heathen backwaters of countries like those in Europe whose people fought for and won various stages of a human right to health care, and in general, a far more robust social safety net than found in the US.
Patrick, along with other loathsome and contemptible sorts such as Fox News personality Brit Hume, proclaim their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of liberty. However, last I checked, their names were not appearing in any obituaries. Just as with soldiers, they are always willing to send other people like you, me, our Friends, our family members, Grape, Pear, Lemon, and Hope to die. Lead the way gentlemen, and don’t look back.
I would be remiss if I did not note that those social democracies of Europe whose people enjoy those protections, exist as they do because of a legacy of colonization and imperialism that greatly benefited, and continues to benefit, their economies.
And I would be remiss as well if I did not mention that whatever route I take on my walk, it carries me upon the traditional lands of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, bands of the Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla and many of other Tribes of Chinook that lived in these places that now recognized as the Portland Metro region. I thank the descendants of these tribes for being the original stewards and protectors of these lands since time immemorial.
There are many signs of Light.
My new old Friend, Jill, who I first met in elementary school, is now, like her mother before her, a teacher, not far from where we grew up. The schools are empty, but she is teaching over a computer setup. Good for her students, which is to say, good for the future.
My new old Friend Carrie, who I also met in elementary school, is like me, far from where we grew up. She is worried about her children, which is to say, she is worried about the future. She is right to be. She, no pun intended, carries on.
Another Friend of old, Suzanne, celebrated her birthday. That is wondrous at any time, but more so in this time. Friend Keith, as Kind a person as I have ever known, celebrates another turn around the sun today.
My old Friends Brett and Matt, separately, make music that they share online. Music is important. Art is important. Sharing is important.
My father has turned 95. In his family, it is not entirely uncommon to live into your 90s. But the ceiling seems to be 96. I take immunosuppressants. My father lives in New Jersey, so the time I can be with him is limited. My better 99% does not like me flying during the Winter because jets are germ factories on any given day, and much more so during the flu season. This coronavirus is predicted to hang around for about 18 months, and getting on a plane during that period is, by her reasoning, decidedly not a good idea. I long ago learned this Wisdom: if she thinks something is not a good idea, then it is not a good idea.
Ultimately, if it came down to it, she would not stop me. And she would not hold it against me. Because the fact is that when those 18 months are up–assuming this does not last even longer–my dad will be halfway through 96. Last Summer may be the last time I saw him. I am fine and at peace with that. I have long treated my East Coast swings as the last time I would see him. He knows I Love him. He knows I know he Loves me.
People are reaching out to each other as they can. I see conversations conducted across window panes, at distance. I see people helping each other, offering to deliver food and medicines, as well as other needed supplies. People are organizing their own supply chains, realizing the strength in their numbers. People are organizing to take care of each other, and to some degree, to stand up after this coronavirus is defeated and flex their muscle as they demand things not go back to the way they were.
Workers around the country–particularly those who not so long ago were being jeered for being loser sorts unworthy of a living wage, which in a capitalist economy is to say, unworthy of life–are suddenly essential. And they are flexing their muscle, demanding better protections and higher wages on the job. Sanitation workers, bus drivers, autoworkers–all have been making their demands, and many have been winning.
Workers at Amazon and and at some businesses affiliated with it are rising up, walking off the job, unsatisfied with unsafe working conditions. Within prisons, including those incarcerated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, the jailed are organizing. Outside their cells, people are demanding their released, both on human rights and public health safety grounds.
Today, around the country, including in Portland, tenants are beginning a rent strike. With the upsurge in lost jobs due to the coronavirus, many people cannot make their rent payments. People are uniting, saying if they are not getting their working wages, they should not be expected to pay the rent, and they should not be kicked to the curb. Many are questioning why landlords are allowed to exist and why housing is not considered a fundamental human right.
I suspect all of this terrifies the one percent, particularly because it has laid bare a clear, sharply drawn line between their interests and working peoples’ interests. As we are seeing, the system does not do very well if it does not have workers. And yet, a lot because of the US business community’s sustained attack on workers and unions following World War II up to this day, chopping away what remains of the New Deal’s moderate reforms to capitalism, the ruling class wants to force people back to work as soon as possible, seemingly fine with the predictable number of deaths that will result from that. For those deemed essential, it’s business as usual, management wringing out as much profit as possible. They are no different than the priests of old who made the streets run with other people’s blood in order to appease their gods.
This is a time when class lines and interests have been sharply drawn. This capitalist system does not work without exploiting workers and their labor. Billionaires are not being classified as essential workers. They are leeches, and they should be abolished. As should the system that created them and their ill-gotten gains.
It is nice seeing more and more working people picking up on this, realizing that, yes indeed, the system will not work without their work. And when we flex our collective muscle, we can, as my Friend Ahjamu often says, bring the ruling class to its knees. It is imperative we do.
The seeds for gains are being sown, as ever, right now. We need to continue them because for too many people, a return to whatever we once called normal is unacceptable because what was normal was not working for too many people . Organize, organize, organize.
One park I often pass through on my walks has a children’s playground. It usually has at least a few kids and guardians hanging around it. But more recently, the crowds have been sparse at best. With good reason. The City has closed the playgrounds, a smart choice that would have been more Wise if implemented a few weeks earlier. Regardless, the playground no longer seems a spot for easy spreading of the coronavirus. The park is largely empty, with a few people here and there violating the City’s rules by running their dog on the sports fields which are supposed to be closed to activity. Presumably, that means team activity, and with only three or four people and their canine buddies taking to three baseball fields, safe distance is nearly guaranteed. The sunshine and silence, together, are odd.
On most days, my walk passes Grape’s house twice. About 15 minutes after my first pass, I turn myself around and start heading home, passing Chez Grape again, marking in my mind the start of my walk’s final leg. Pear has long been a Kind and gentle presence in my life. I feel a deep sense of comfort when in the middle of all these and many other thoughts, I think of her being nearby. She soothes me.
One day, perhaps–my better 99% is not so sure–Grape will understand me. Pear will doubtlessly, upon noticing this, put a frustrated hand to a furrowed brow, pinching her cheeks as she so often does when confused. Which she so often is when dealing with me. Or rather, I will say, “Grape, this is the moment where your mother, like so many times, sighs and shakes her head, pondering where this fits in the pantheon of maternal failures.” Perhaps they both will laugh. Perhaps I will need to dig further into my ever expanding mental catalogue of what makes these particular beautiful individuals laugh.
But laughter should be confused with foolishness no more than movement with action. Perhaps Grape–by then, doubtless of a new name and with a new name for me–will ask about this time of coronavirus. What did I do? What did others do? What could we have done better? How did things change? How did we change things?
How did we organize?
She may wonder how she can take this further.
The answers must be of the highest gauge of seriousness, hopefully replete with an earned Wisdom gained with the least amount of suffering.