Welcome to Dystopia
So we are in week 700 of the Corona Virus outbreak in Seattle, a city with 3.4 million people. Or maybe it’s only week three. The big sports stadiums are shuttered, the schools are closed and Mayor Pete Buttigieg hosted Jimmy Kimmel. Welcome to Dystopia. The landscape is surreal.
Meanwhile I have to venture into one of the highest risk areas in the city; Pill Hill, where all the clinics and hospitals are -Harborview; Virginia Mason and the two Swedish campuses. I have to retrieve my new model sleep apnea mask. I HAVE to. Without a working mask, my sleep is interrupted 12 times each hour. That’s every eight minutes…no, seven…shut up, I haven’t had real sleep in months. Five. Yeah, every five minutes. Anyway…
I long ago learned that it’s not practical for me to keep a car in Seattle. So I bus it, or Uber it. I write, so these trips keep me seeing real people with real lives. Social distancing? That’s my thing. I spend days on end alone, checking in by phone, most of the time. Seattleites are famous for “social distancing.” The famous Seattle Freeze. So I ride. To see what’s going on, see and meet real people, not just the ones in my bubble or from the private bubble of a car where I have to watch the road. So, Coronavirus or not, I drag my sleep-deprived ass onto the bus. I want to see who is still riding, and I know at least the 5 is not crowded. I want to see the stops, see how empty the streets are or are not.
The 5 bus takes me downtown to transfer to the 3 or 4, to Swedish Cherry Hill (as opposed to Swedish First Hill). It’s Friday, normally a busy bus day. Today the 5 has three passengers, including me, and along the route we pick up a few more. A pretty good social distance. I sit right up front, by the door. Fresh air every time the door opens. Downtown is not as empty as it will be in a couple more days. It’s cold, supplemented by a chill onshore March wind, which freezes my stainless hoops, making my ears cold. It’s 40 degrees, colder with that marine wind. I have an excuse to wrap my face with my winter scarf, something I see other women doing.
I have some N95 masks in a Ziploc bag in my backpack, left over from two wildfire seasons ago, when the air was grey and yellow for weeks. But they don’t protect you from getting it, they say. I’m not ready to look weirder than I already do, so I leave them in my pack.
Downtown, on Fifth, I see wealthy Chinese couples with high-end masks, filters, thick cloth, tight fits. One younger Chinese couple have pretty cool ones. Hers is a kitty face, his has graphic logos. I’m jealous and think about ordering something cool for me. From…China?
I’m happy to see the sleep apnea technician is Jorge, the same one who fitted my old apnea mask a year ago. I lost 20 pounds last year, mostly in my face I guess, so finally my insurance will cover a new one. Jorge notices that I have lost weight, even though it’s been a year since I’ve been to see him. Or, maybe, he just read it on my chart as the reason my old model doesn’t fit anymore. I choose to be flattered.
The reason I’m happy to see Jorge is not because of his skills, which fall into the range of high competence. The deal is, he is gorgeous. He also has one of those African accents filtered through a British school system, a song of a voice that I love to listen to. I know he’s married, I know he’s got children, but it doesn’t matter to my limbic system. I don’t hear most of what he says as I fall into the spell of that voice, those dimples, white teeth and liquid brown eyes with the clear, clear whites. Sigh. I hold very still as he adjusts the straps.
In no time at all the spell breaks as he begins to pack up my new equipment. I stammer out a couple of questions, just to stall a bit, to hang on one more glowing minute.
“What if it doesn’t work?” He smiles. White teeth and warm dimples appear.
“It will work.” I believe him. With all my heart.
“What if it breaks?” He stands up. It’s time for me to go.
“It won’t break.” There is no way to guarantee that, but still, I believe him.
I thank him and drift out in a haze, cartoon hearts rising from me like bubbles rising in a fountain Coke. I look for the freight elevator I took to this floor.
Going into the hospital I encountered a barricade of screeners at tables. They ask if you have been sick, have a temperature, or have been around people who are sick, or around people from out of the country. I don’t snort at the absurdity of that last question. I live seven miles from the Life Care nursing home, the one that made international news and made Seattle ground zero for the US Coronavirus outbreak. Like being in the TSA line at the airport, I sense it’s not time to make jokes, especially ones that aren’t really funny.
I strip off the latex gloves I put on to protect me from bus germs before I “gel in” with the sanitizers placed on each table in pump bottles. I get a sticker, dated, that says I have been screened. They instruct me to put it on the upper right side of my jacket.
Swedish on Cherry Hill is one of the busiest and biggest hospitals in Seattle, but today it is shockingly empty. The hum of people is gone. The normally crowded waiting area, with the surgery screen reporting patients’ progress through surgery, color coded like traffic lights, has no one sitting in the chairs trying to read the flickering sign, acutely aware of each minute grinding by. Mostly I see hospital workers going back and forth. They look reassuringly calm. It’s midafternoon, but it feels like midnight. You can hear the hospital itself breathing quietly, as if in a light slumber, ready to wake up and move quickly if necessary, but getting some rest in the meantime.
I go to the elevator and press the button awkwardly with my elbow. And stand there. And press. And stand there. It’s not working. I look at the second elevator door and it has an “Out of Order” sign on it.
A hospital employee sees me and tells me to follow him.
“We’re using the freight elevator.”
I get on and he presses “A” for me. Then four other employees get on with us. They are all carrying coolers labeled “Biohazard.”
Of course, I think. Why not?
So, OK. I’m back out the door, at the bus stop outside. It’s almost four now, which means the hospital day shift workers will join me on the bus down the hill to transfer to other busses and the light rail stations. This time each seat is taken. Before getting on, I use the hand sanitizer clipped to my backpack. I put a fresh pair of gloves and wrap my scarf around my nose and mouth. I grab the jump seat by the front door when it happens.
With only standing room left, a drunk stumbles in. He begins dangling on the bar over my head. He is skinny and underdressed for the temperature, which has dipped to 37. He is happy, full of antifreeze and not cold.
“Let’s all sing 99 bottles of beer!” he calls out. Ninety-nine eyes glare at him. Yes, 99 eyes. There are fifty people on this bus, not at all a comfortable “social distance,” and the person sitting across from me has a gauze patch over his left eye, freshly applied. I wind my scarf tighter around my nose and mouth as the drunk eyes us all, his captive audience.
Drunky is aggressively keeping up his babble. The bus hisses, stops, and he sways toward me, mid-babble. I can smell his beer breath.
Which means I just breathed the air from his lungs.
I stand up.
“Dude! Get your drunk ass out of my way. I don’t wanna breathe your air!”
I hear myself say it. On Saturday, the Seattle Times will publish my letter to the editor demanding the city furnish our homeless camps portapotties, sanitizing stations and testing. Seattle, for all the millions it spends on the homeless, has stubbornly refused to provide these services, fearing the camps will “look too permanent.” But today is Friday, and I just inhaled a homeless drunk’s personal lung air.
I get a smattering of applause as I push past him and get off the bus, but it only embarrasses me. I’m a mile away from my stop for the 5 home, but I don’t care. I walk down Fifth Avenue, not Third, which is where the downtown buses travel. Fifth is where the fancy hotels and shops are. I walk past the downtown Westin Hotel where the Obamas used to stay when they came to Seattle. It seems like a lifetime ago.
It takes me the whole mile, walking in the raw wind, to go from pissed at Drunky to pissed at myself. I should have gotten off the bus as soon as he started his act. Then I start to worry. How long does it take to incubate? The news is full of confusion over that question. Three to fourteen days. I tell myself no virus could live in the high octane blood circulating in Drunky.
But I’m probably gonna die now.
Back on the 5, my new sleep mask is zipped tightly in my backpack. As we cross the Aurora bridge, the sight of the boats bobbing in the chop soothes me a little. Gorgeous Jorge’s dimply smile comes back to me. The sunlight starts cutting through the clouds on its way down, making a dancing gold soup out of the chop.
It’s beautiful, this city.
Oh well, if I do get sick and die, it was probably worth it. A swath of bright blue sky opens over the Olympics to the west. Yeah. Definitely worth it.
IT was a rocky week on Wall Street, as most securities fell and some saw record declines. Seattle-area companies felt the pain as sharply as any.
Some key Seattle-area public companies hit hard by coronavirus-induced stock market crash