Life during coronavirus wartime: a diary

Lake Harriet walking path
Walk it off: Lake Harriet walking path, March 15. (Photo by Jim Walsh)

“Was just thinking how fast life has changed in just a week. Wow,” Minnesota Public Radio’s Cathy Wurzer tweeted on March 18, confirming the creeping feeling I’d had when I started keeping notes last week, about what is now a long bygone era. 

Things are moving fast; greetings to you and yours from my Kingfield foxhole, which my partner/girlfriend Mary Beth has stocked with pandemic food and supplies, and where I, a lifelong asthmatic and allergy sufferer, freak out, hunker down, check in with family and friends and write it down. One man’s one-week diary of the COVID-19 outbreak:

Monday, March 9: Sitting at an area pub that shall not be named, the bartender announces to a few regulars, “Someone was in here last night, sitting right there, who said they had the coronavirus.” On cue, all twelve arms and hands resting on the bar lift up in unison to a disgusted chorus of, “WTF?,” followed by jokes, information and a display of the “we’re-strangers-but-all-in-this-together” attitude that is the silver lining to this plague. All over the world, people are comparing the pandemic to the Titanic and any optimistic act to the band playing on as the ship sank; this is my first fleeting feeling of COVID-19 camaraderie. 

Tuesday, March 10: I heed the warnings to stay home and skip a couple live music gigs in bars, the thought of which suddenly feels super claustrophobic to me. I was born with asthma and allergies and I know what it’s like to be on steroids, in an ambulance and sucking for your life from an oxygen mask, so like everyone else I have made the coronavirus all about me and I am not messing around.

Wednesday, March 11: “There’s no crisis here. Do you see anyone in crisis here?” says my buddy, after I confess to being scared about the wicked pandemic crisis this way coming. He’s right: We’re sitting at one of our last-ditch restaurant hangs, and it’s business as usual, surrounded by a roomful of crisis-oblivious diners and barflies. Later, driving home on a particularly dark and stark 35W, Trump’s unnervingly robotic tone coming over the radio in his bleak address to the nation mirrors the industrial claustrophobia of the freeway, and a shudder goes through me. “Cancel everything. Seriously,” writes my medical professional sister, sharing on Facebook the Atlantic magazine’s “Cancel Everything” article. But people are still going out and I hear Kurt Cobain in my head, on a loop: “Here we are now entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious.” 

Thursday, March 12: I bail on my thrice-weekly basketball game, as I don’t like the idea of being around panting sweaty men. I check in with an old Italian journalist friend in Paris, who writes, “This is a bad animal coming your way, Jim.” I’ve spent my life trying to be an optimist, and in this space I’ve tried to do the same, but this sense of dread and impending doom is hard to shake. Hello, isolation. Goodbye, fellow humans. Not for nothing is the Current’s album of the week Grimes’ “Miss Anthropocene,” which deejay Mac Wilson tells listeners “is about the world coming to an end very soon … conceived as Grimes takes on several different personas of environmental destruction and apocalypse.” I’ve got two music gigs coming up, wondering if I’ll join the rest of the canceled hoards, and I’m wondering if I should rub elbows with anyone anywhere on fast-approaching St. Paddy’s Day. That night, on one of his last studio broadcasts, Stephen Colbert gets hammered and looks like he’s losing his mind, another face of the nation.

Friday, March 13: Friday the 13th jokes abound on social media. Gallows humor is a way to get by. The first COVID-19 case in Minnesota was discovered one week ago today; now it’s up to 21, with school closings and sports and entertainment shutdowns all around the country. A week ago today my son and daughter-in-law celebrated his birthday at a quarter-full Target Center for the Timberwolves game; today the NBA season is postponed. In the morning, I pick up my daughter and her boyfriend from the airport, returning from Washington, D.C. They’d toured the Capitol hours before it was shut down and are happy to be out of “insane D.C.” We don’t hug hello or goodbye. Later I walk around Lake Harriet, determined to keep my lungs and spirits up, and it’s never been this quiet. Friday afternoons are usually loud with airplane traffic, but there’s a 9/11-like stillness in the air. The late-winter ice on the lake mirrors the desolation of the time, and the city. I stay unplugged from the news, darkly addicted though I am, and dial up MPR’s eerie audience-less broadcast of the Minnesota Orchestra. 

Saturday, March 14: Good books and good music are my go-to balms but, lemmingly, I start my day the way I have for the last two weeks — with coffee and monitoring of the Strib, MinnPost, and the New York Times’ virus maps and updates. For some mental-health reason I go into social media isolation, too. I walk the lake again, where most considerate people are staying several feet away from each other. National and state emergencies were declared the day before, but people are still going out to dinner, movies, live music. Maybe I’m overreacting? Maybe the hysteria peaked, got our attention and now we proceed semi-normally? I get my answer from the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel, whose opinion piece, “Please, Don’t Go Out to the Bars Tonight,” states that “gathering in groups right now is selfish and puts the lives of others at risk.” 

To keep her spirits up, Mary Beth has been working and I resist parroting the latest bad news back to her and being “the harbinger of bad news in our house.” We watch “Downton Abbey The Motion Picture” for escape, she goes to bed and I get a few laughs from Netflix’s “Marc Maron: End Times Fun,” whose host eerily cracks, in a special filmed last year: “I don’t know what it’s gonna take to get everybody, you know, to … you would think at this point that we’d … haven’t we been entertained enough? Weird thing for me to say, but Jesus. Like, isn’t there something that could bring everyone together and just realize, like, we’ve got to put a stop to, like, almost everything, right? Oh my god! What would it take? Something terrible. That’s what brings people together. Nothing good. Occasionally, a concert outdoors. But that never really goes anywhere. It’s gotta be something bad and big. Get everyone to snap out of this, whatever it is, trance.”  

Sunday, March 15: Wake up to a brilliant sunrise. Take it in, linger with coffee, consider sticking my head in the sand all day. Fat chance: Texts, Sunday morning news shows and newspapers jar me back. All over the world the pandemic is spreading, and Minnesota’s case count nearly triples overnight, standing at 35. I walk Lake Harriet and Bde Maka Ska on a gorgeous sunny day and am treated to all sorts of beautiful signs and sounds of life: robins singing, children laughing, and gorgeous what-me-pandemic-worry? blue skies. Still wondering what to do about St. Patrick’s Day, my most holy of Holy Days and still not feeling it. Start binging the LOL philosophy of our country’s greatest crank and hypochondriac, Larry David, on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” 

Monday, March 16: One week after my Titanic band experience at the pub, Gov. Tim Walz shutters all bars, restaurants and other gathering places in hopes of stopping the spread of COVID-19. It’s a ghost town. I work, write, edit and walk the lake. Staying in. Determined to not get sick and to keep it together. Push-ups, sit-ups, yoga, books, music, whiskey. Read about how the virus had been predicted in the work of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Margaret Atwood, zombie movies and others; drift off to the sound of Jennifer Warnes’ exquisite “Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen” in my headphones, wait for the other shoe to drop, the next body count, and wonder where we’ll all be when we meet here next.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].