Month 11 in the Shutdown Lane: The Shot

Month 11 in the Shutdown Lane: The Shot

Remember “flattening the curve”? By March 15, 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic in Chicago threatened a shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment. The governor cancelled St. Patrick’s Day parades and temporarily closed bars, restaurants, schools, churches and stores. Dr. Anthony Fauci told us not to leave our homes except for groceries or medicine or to walk the dog.

“Look at the curves of other outbreaks,” he said, “they go up big peaks, then come down. We need to flatten this curve.”

Staving off the collapse of the nation’s health care system was dependent on the unselfish actions of the body politic: hand-washing, mask-wearing, not traveling and figuring out how to stay at least six feet from others. We were so afraid we’d end up in the makeshift hospital at the cavernous McCormick Place Convention Center that we followed shelter-in-place orders. The curve flattened. For a few weeks. Then it spiked. And spiked again.

On March 20, 2020, I wrote the first in a series of thirteen weekly blog posts, “Week 1: Life in the Shutdown Lane.” By June, I lost interest. Oh, I wrote about it, moaned about it. But as time shifted into months, I stopped marking the time in weeks.Untitled 2

 “Flattening the curve” left the public discourse. Some embrace staying at home. Some double down on mask-wearing and malign
those who don’t. Some defiantly refuse to be masked and mock those who are. And some pay no attention at all as if the rules don’t apply to them. And now, the only hope for this cowboy nation to fight the deadly Covid-19 virus is the vaccine.

The first vaccines arrived in Chicago in mid-December. Priority was given to health care workers and people living and working in long-term care facilities. When the sixty-five and over age group was able to line up, all I heard about on my ever-present Zoom chats were adventures of the shot.

I thought I’d sign up on my doctor’s automated scheduling system, but when I looked, the web page said they don’t do shots. “Click here” it suggested. I clicked there and nothing happened.

“Go on the Walgreen’s site,” a friend insisted. “If there’re no appointments, keep trying.” He’d exhausted himself getting up at all hours of the night checking for available appointments. He thought I should do the same.

“What’s the hurry?” I shrugged. “My life won’t change. Fauci says I still have to wear a mask and stay home.”

Hounded by the challenge, I succumbed to the bird-dog pursuit and registered on every site, not just Walgreen’s. When I received a phone call from Mariano’s pharmacy, I reacted like I’d won the lottery.

It may be a while before I go to the Art Institute, lunch with friends or linger in a grocery store, but after almost a year of restrictions, it sure is nice to have the freedom to do so.

Just the shot in the arm I needed. 

Ghost Story

I used to walk on Chicago sidewalks with my head down watching for pitfalls, unaware of my surroundings — or with a companion, engrossed in conversation. Newspaperman Paul Galloway tutored me  in how to walk, talk and observe all at the same time.

I met Paul when he happened to sit next to me at his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979. As the meeting got underway, a wild woman charged up the timeworn stairs of the old State Street townhouse, raged into the open room screaming and throwing empty chairs around. A policeman was hot on the woman’s heels and escorted her out. We all sat back down and continued the meeting.

During the melee, I assured Paul she was a harmless neighborhood drunk. 

“Does this happen all the time?” He asked.

“Oh no. But we do get drunks. After all, it is AA.”

Paul found that hilarious and from there on we laughed our way into a fast friendship. I’d been sober for three years by then and he peppered me before and after meetings with questions. We had long funny discussions on how to be a sober alcoholic in the crazy world of the newspaper business. He searched police records for the name and history of the woman who rampaged through his first AA meeting. Whenever I saw her on the street I averted my eyes, but Paul greeted her by name.

I’ve read newspapers and watched television news as long as I can remember. Until I met Paul, it never occurred to me to look for those stories walking along city streets. Paul pointed out politicians, criminals, movie stars, sports figures and flash-in-the-pan celebrities. In the middle of a deep philosophical discussion on the nature of god, he’d suddenly blurt out, “Jesse Jackson ahead” or “Bill Curtis crossing the street.”

On one of our many walks through crowds along the bustling bars and restaurants of Rush Street, Paul pointed out young Michael Jordan in line at the Bagel Nosh. He recounted details from the sports page about the newest Chicago Bull.

He loved reporting intimate details of people’s lives that couldn’t be printed in the paper. This age-old form of communicating the news was in his blood. Was it gossip? Hell yes. He used gossip as a learning tool—how to behave and not behave. Deep down in his funny bone he had an empathic moralistic core. 

Paul’s wife Maggie called one day in 2009.

“Paul’s heart exploded,” she said, “He was at the Asian Garden Massage Spa and his heart exploded! He’s dead!”

A fastidious germaphobe, Paul couldn’t have been there for the “happy ending.” He’d retired from the newspaper, so I knew he hadn’t been on assignment, either. I thought she was joking. 

“What was he doing there?” I asked. Stunned and grieving, Maggie sought answers in the days after Paul’s death, but the spa ladies didn’t speak English.

Paul Galloway. He left one big gossipy story that he would have loved to tell himself.

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Read Roger Ebert’s Obituary of Paul Galloway.

Juror

Juror

When I was a young adult everyone I knew was summoned frequently for jury duty and had their own strategies to get out of serving. I thought it would be fun to be on a jury. I loved the Perry Mason television series and all the courtroom dramas it spawned. Experienced friends dissuaded me with stories of smelly old courtooms, unlovely fellow jurors and hours of boredom.

The jury summons that arrived in the mail listed the legal disqualifiers. If you were a lawyer, related to a lawyer, worked for a lawyer or even knew a lawyer, you were excused. I’m not a lawyer but I knew plenty of them. I’d volunteered on campaigns and lawyers were always running for something or organizing challenges against the Democratic Machine.  

In the early 1980s, law-and order politicians passed a slew of laws with stringent penalties for drug-related crimes. The whole system ballooned—courts, juries, attorneys, jails. It’s not that crime increased. It’s that more laws led to more arrests for the possession and sale of illegal drugs.

The jury pool didn’t expand fast enough. The court system drew from outdated voter registration lists and potential jurors like me and my friends used our easy-outs. Officials devised a quick-fix for the anemic jury pool—they eliminated most of the legal excuses. I looked forward to a day in court. Finally.

I arrived at the Cook County Criminal Court Building at 26th and California wide-eyed and ready on my appointed day. The jury selection room hadn’t opened yet. I waited in the cavernous 1929 yellowed hallway. I had no trouble sizing up the clutches collected outside the courtrooms. The accused were at the center of their group, surrounded by mothers, wives, children, siblings, friends. Every once in a while a public defender rushed out of a closed door to consult with a defendant. As I watched mini-dramas unfold, my bleeding heart told me I’d argue the innocence of each defendant regardless of the evidence. I hoped I’d get selected for one of their juries.

After a long wait on faded steel chairs in the windowless jury selection room, twenty-five of us filed into a courtroom for questioning. The judge described the case of the thirty-something man accused of selling drugs to teenagers. The defense attorney and the prosecutor whittled their way toward twelve jurors as they asked questions about our backgrounds, beliefs and prejudices. I fumbled my answers. I didn’t want to reveal myself in a crowd of strangers.

We took a break and I caught the attention of the defense attorney.

“I can’t be impartial ,” I whispered.

“What’s the problem?” She asked.

“I’m in Alcoholics Anonymous. I know people who’ve bought drugs from people like him and I know he’s guilty.”

When the judge returned, the defense attorney asked that I be dismissed. The prosecutor asked why. I edged toward the door without hearing the answer. The defendant’s lawyer mouthed “thank you”. 

And I felt guilty.

Free at Last: Lima Beans and Love

Free at Last: Lima Beans and Love

Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization movement took root in the 1940s and bloomed thirty years later when seekers started reading books such as The Prophet, I’m Ok-You’re Ok, and Be Here Now. These bestsellers moved me to cultivate a deeper self by rooting out my hatred for lima beans.

I tilled the backyard of my Jersey Shore bungalow and planted seeds of the detested vegetable. After a few weeks, bumps appeared under the thick skin of the seed pod. I diligently hosed away aphids, leafhoppers, and mites, but I was sure my crop was deformed. Consulting Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening, I learned the bumps were part of the bean apparatus—four lima beans per pod.

The morning of the first harvest, I pulled the bean pods from the vines, broke them open and started eating the sun-drenched crop right there on my knees in the garden. My neighbor flew out of her back door.

“Stop! You can’t eat raw lima beans! They’re poison!”

Uh-oh. Another reason to hate them. 

But I was determined to use lima beans to crack open the hardened interior space between the habitual prison of what was and the freedom of what could be. I brought an apronful of beans inside, cooked, salted, and buttered them. They were good. I’d turned a corner. 

Eating the once-dreaded lima bean aerated my closed mind. It served as a gateway to other new experiences: breaking free from a Christian cult, my bad marriage and dead-end jobs. Shifting my consciousness from hating to loving lima beans gave me courage. I could imagine abandoning my secluded basement with its graveyard of empty Smirnoff bottles. Surrendering to a new job as a single mother, my only task was to organize the best plan for a nine-year-old boy’s future happiness—by getting sober. Again.

I returned to Alcoholics Anonynous unable to stop drinking, but too afraid to ask for help. I’d go to meetings, sit in the back, talk to no one, leave early, and go home. Falling into bed sober, I’d feel victorious. The next day, I’d think about nothing but drinking. Drinking and not drinking. I’d drive around in search of a liquor store where no one  knew me. By the time I got the vodka bottle in my hands, I’d feel relieved just holding it. For a few brief moments my body, mind and soul were free.

But I wasn’t free. Before a previous downfall, I’d never even considered sobriety until I was forced into a mental institution. Now it was clear: my drinking was beyond my control. I was a full-blown alcoholic.

I opened up at an AA meeting miles from home on the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. I said my only option was to drink myself to death. Recovered alcoholics from that group sat with me every day until the obsession to drink lifted. It was February 1976. Forty-five years ago.

 Lima beans and love freed me at last.


Maslow’s self-actualizing characteristics:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the superficial and dishonest.
  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
  • Reliant on own experiences and judgement. Independent, not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views.
  • Spontaneous and natural. True to oneself, rather than being how others want.
  • Task centering. Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem ‘beyond’ themselves (instead of outside themselves) to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer are considered to have possessed this quality.
  • Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.
  • Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life’s basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an “innocence of vision”, like that of an artist or child.
  • Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds.
  • Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people value solitude and are comfortable being alone.
  • Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.
  • Peak experiences. All of Maslow’s subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beauty, goodness, and so forth.
  • Socially compassionate. Possessing humanity.
  • Few friends. Few close intimate friends rather than many perfunctory relationships.
  • Gemeinschaftsgefühl. According to Maslow, the self-actualizers possess “Gemeinschaftsgefühl”, which refers to “social interest, community feeling, or a sense of oneness with all humanity.

Bruised but Whole

Bruised but Whole

And then it was over. The Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris didn’t just come and go at noon on January 20. The world came to a screeching halt and shifted into a lower gear of slow and steady governance. And we relaxed.

Before the big day, I complained about all the pomp. I wanted them to hide in the safety of a back room in the Capitol, put their hands on a bible, then get to work. Thank god I wasn’t in charge. In front of the television with my son and his family, I ogled Lady Gaga’s poofy red skirt, Amanda Gorman’s ballet hands, and Bernie Sanders’ wool mittens. Were it not for the pandemic, I would have celebrated on the National Mall wrapped in goose down with my thirteen year-old grandson. Just as I celebrated with his older brother and sister in the 2009 Barack Obama Inauguration. Just as I celebrated with their father in the 1977 Jimmy Carter Inauguration. 

Each of these Inauguration Days marked the “most important election” of our time: Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter, Geroge H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush to Barack Obama. And in the days after each previous Inauguration, the earth didn’t instantly shift under our feet. Indeed, for all the hype and hyperbole, Adminstration staffs admit in their memoirs, “We didn’t know what we were doing. We got off to a slow start.”

The mother of all power transfers washed across the universe with the Biden-Harris swearing-in. Joe Biden, wearing his mask, walked off his inaugural stage and signed seventeen executive actions inclduing a pivot in the Covid-19 pandemic policies. As if on cue, people on Zoom calls reported one after another their first shots for the two-shot coronavirus vaccine. And as the covid death toll passed 400,000 souls, Biden announced his Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Mr. Rogers of the Pandemic. And we relaxed.

Madam Vice-President Kamala Harris, walked off her inaugural stage to perform the swearing-in of Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff. The two new Democrats mark a power transfer in Congress. And we relaxed.

The Biden and Harris familes treated millions of TV viewers to their short walk to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead of the traditional inaugural parade, in the evening we watched one of those pandemic-era technological extravaganzas with Bruce Springsteen and Katie Perry, interspersed with greetings from American workers. And we relaxed.

When President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrived at the front door of the White House around 4:00 pm, they waved to us and turned to walk inside. For a few brief seconds, they stared at a closed door. The White House Chief Usher who opens the door and offically greets the First Family was nowhere to be seen. From his Palm Beach golf course, at 11:30 am, thirty minutes before the official end of his chaotic presidency, Donald Trump, getting in one last cheap trick, had given the order to fire the Chief Usher. 

And still, we relaxed.

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Buy my book, “In That Number” at ReganBurke.com, Amazon.com, or your favorite independent book store.

MLK: The Drum Major Instinct

MLK: The Drum Major Instinct

Fifty-three years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a prophetic sermon he called the The Drum Major Instinct. He riffed off a passage in the New Testament where Jesus’ disciples got mad at him because they wanted to be credentialed leaders, to be praised for their importance, the “drum major instinct”.  In the 1940s the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, wrote in the Twelve Steps that this desire for an important place in society, the “social” instinct, is necessary for community survival. Both men cautioned that this natural god-given instinct, unbridled, can turn on us, become an obsession for power and supremacy and eventually distort our personalities. 

I know a bit about the desire for attention. During these pandemic shutdown months, online Zoom meetings have become the stage and meeting room for events. Last month I was the featured speaker in one square among nearly five hundred muted souls on Zoom. At the end all I heard was thank you from the host. People wrote kindly in the Chat but I still wish I could hear that applause. My book was published in October 2020 and the enthusiasm I need to promote it has waned, due to—you got it—no applause.

Donald Trump heard a lot of applause throughout his entire presidency, even during the months most of us followed the stay-at-home orders of Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force leaders. Whew! Trump’s drum-major instinct has rampaged so out of control that he still says the Democrats stole the election he lost to Joe Biden.

MLK:  “… the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up…by spreading evil, vicious, lying gossip on people…”

Trump spread evil, vicious lies to his duped white followers continually until they finally exploded into a blood-and-guts frenzy on January 6. They sacked the US Capitol in an effort to thwart the official declaration of the election results. Five people died. King nailed this aberrant behavior in a prescient accusation: his drum-major instinct makes him think he is somebody big because he is white. 

MLK and Bill Wilson remind us we all have the drum-major instinct. We all want the admiration of others. They caution us to keep it in check, to watch out we don’t let our drum-major emotions go awry, that we don’t act superior to others. I confess I do feel and act superior to the insurrectionists, the white fundamentalists, the angry male mob who sieged the Capitol. I condemn them in conversation, even post condemnations on social media. Experience tells me if I don’t stop, I’ll soon be in a full blown mire of self-loathing, questioning how I got there. King and Wilson both offer an ancient solution to keep my own potential soul-sick personality at bay. Love and service. Be a drum major for love. Help others.

I’m open to it. That’s the best I can do today.

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The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., February 4, 1968, Atlanta, Ga. Listen Here: http://okra.stanford.edu/media/audio/DrumMajorInstinct.mp3

My book, “In That Number” is available at ReganBurke.com, Amazon.com or in your favorite independent bookstore.

Christmas Benediction

Christmas Benediction

Christmas Benediction

In 2012, four years before I had my screaming knees replaced, David Sperling and I waited in Chicago’s January cold outside the Metro. We came for a tribute to recently deceased Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States. The program, produced in collaboration with Young Chicago Authors, starred Matt Damon, an old friend of Zinn’s.

David graciously accepted my unlovely whining about waiting in the deep freeze, then bending one painful knee after another up the stairs to the balcony. We went for Matt Damon, but discovered a bigger star, Kevin Coval.

Coval is the creative director of Young Chicago Authors. In between MC’ing other performers, Kevin recited a poem that seeded his future book, A People’s History of Chicago.

I met Kevin a year later and sheepishly confessed I wished to be a writer. He invited me to write with the Young Chicago Authors on Saturday afternoons. It took two years for me to hop the Division bus to Milwaukee Avenue and climb the stairs to the free poetry writing workshop known as “Check the Method”. I thought I’d be an observer but found myself participating. 

Kevin’s work with young poets (who recite hard truths from the stages of “Louder Than a Bomb” poetry slams) made me realize I wouldn’t die if I wrote my own story out loud. And so I did.

I’m not a poet, but when I’m hungry for fresh writing, I slip into the Saturday workshop.  This fall, poet teacher Idris Goodwin joined Kevin Coval. Idris is the Director of The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. It was like the Super Bowl of creative writing. I’ve never been so intimidated in my life.

At the end of the six-week session, each writer showcased a poem generated from the class. I present this hour-long showcase as a gift to you. My poem appears below the video. 

Watch out! You’ll find it hard to catch your breath between poets.

Christmas Benediction

by Regan Burke

May all the lights be green

May the terriers be dancin & teasin

May the squirrels be jumpin in the trees ‘n

May the sweet ones be there.

May the scolds be elsewhere.

May the student be singing Butterfly

May the Rottweiler be lullabied

May Henry’s girlfriend be out of heat

May I be kind to the toothless athlete

May Dumpster Dan’s chicken bones be back in the bin

May the actress be wearing her jeweled Christmas pin

May old cowboy boots flirt with me

May squirrels exercise Henry

May sentient ones smell love

May viral loads rise above

Through the treeless branches to the heavens

May our enemies be unleavened

May we be serene

May all the lights be green

Death in the Horizon

Death in the Horizon

The boundary between the lake and the sky is blurred today. They are the same shade of grey. A few loosely formed clouds dip below what might be sea level. But that would be impossible—clouds falling into the water. 

From my third floor window on sunny days, I see the true horizon on the surface of Lake Michigan through leafless tree branches. On dreary days like this, it’s impossible to know if the heavens meet the earth. I’m lucky though. If my building faced west, the visible horizon would be obstructed by high rises, the prairie, and forested limestone bluffs in the The Driftless Area of the Upper Mississippi. How would I know my place in the world? At water’s edge, I can imagine the circling of the horizon around the earth. I feel the earth move toward it.

As it is, when the sky is blue and the lake bluer I see the offing, that mysterious part of the sea closest to the horizon where sloops disappear and mermaids live. This is what I miss the most when I’m away from the lake. And when the offing blurs into the colorless sky, I’m thrown off kilter. I lose my place in the world’s geography. 

I’ve been staring, gazing and glancing out the same window sitting at the same desk between Zoom classes and story-writing for the last nine months of the pandemic. I’ve studied all four seasons. And I’ve had it. I’m not a nature writer or a poet. If I were, I’d still rather write about people than how the universe on the other side of my window affects my mood. 

I miss public life. I miss the culture of going to the movies with friends. On Saturday mornings, Marca Bristo used to text me a list of movie choices, times and locations. Usually she had a restaurant in mind too. She talked me into seeing movies I would never have picked myself, like Nazi movies which I’d sworn off for life until Marca wanted to see the Boy in the Striped Pajamas. 

Our long-held love for movies expanded in the era of Roger Ebert. In our after-movie chatter, either Marca or I inevitably reminisced, “Roger would have loved this one.” We went to the movies between side effects of her chemotherapy to keep everything as normal as possible. Our friendship went beyond movie gab, of course. She didn’t speak too much about the details of her cancer but she did talk about the process of dying. What a privilege to be such a friend. How could I know the last movie we’d see together would be Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

Marca died six months before the covid shutdown. I’m glad she didn’t spend the last year of her life shut out of the movies. Gazing at the gloomy horizon isn’t what makes me yearn to sit in movie theaters. Missing Marca does.

Killer Objects

If the fire alarm goes off in my building, I’ll grab my most precious possession and run. That’s Henry the West Highland Terrier, of course, the only other sentient being residing in my third-floor condo.

As for other objects in this art-filled overly-momentoed nine hundred square foot nest, nothing brings me more joy than two bird feeders sitting atop my bedroom air conditioner.  The concrete cactus planters are the latest in a long line of failed birdfeeders I’ve had over the years. Conventional see-through Audobon plastic houses that suction-cup to the window are handy. But they survive only until the next thirty mile an hour wind blows in from Lake Michigan. More than one has fallen onto a car roof in the driveway below, which is why birdfeeders are forbidden by condo rules.

The planters, formed by a smooth cement composite, have a one-inch lip—perfect for perching birds to tip into the bird seed, cracked corn and peanut bits. As soon as I open the window in front of my desk to pour feed into the troughs, a flock of plump house sparrows appear on the balcony. I’ve had rare visits from cardinals, orioles, crows and one glorious Downy Woodpecker.

My favorite these days is the black-capped chickadee. She appears alone, flits in for a bite and scrams. The chickadee is a tiny dark-headed bird with white cheeks. Her white underbelly is blushed with pale yellow feathers. I once thought I was going color-blind because when a chickadee lands, blue flashes in my mind’s eye. They are not blue. If that’s God’s way of making himself known, I’ll take it.

On December 3 at 1:14 pm I ruminated away from my worn-out keyboard just as a peregrine falcon fluttered into the flock of terrified sparrows feeding at the trough. Peregrines eat other birds. The sparrows escaped and the falcon sat there alone, surprised at where he’d found himself. His feathers looked new, like they’d not been used much. His head swiveled almost 180 degrees on his foot-long body. He eyeballed me with knife-like precision. I could see nothing else as he hopped onto the balcony railing. I tried to type a text about the sighting to a birder friend, without moving my hands or looking at the keyboard. The peregrine searched the neighborhood for about fifteen minutes before casting off into his urban jungle. 

A new TV series, “Earth at Night in Color,” includes a half-hour on Chicago’s infamous peregrine falcons. The raptor has decided high rise dwellings are as good as the cliffs where their ancestors lived. The peregrine is the fastest animal, bird or beast, in the world. It dive-bombs other birds at 200 miles per hour, killing them in midair.  Whenever I come across a dead pigeon I look to see if a peregrine is hovering overhead waiting to dine.

How glum to know now my little bird friends are bait. But my resolve to keep the feeders full has deepened.

A peregrine falcon screeches from a perch above the University Club of Chicago, on Monroe Street at South Michigan Avenue on July 1, 2014. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

Shutdown Holiday

Shutdown Holiday

Years from now, publications will appear describing what happened during the pandemic year 2020. Mystery books will include courtroom dramas defending murderers who snapped under the influence of cabin fever. Memoirs will be riddled with hours-long drives to grandma’s care center, only to wave to her from the parking lot. Chapters headed “Thanksgiving 2020” will describe ongoing feuds stemming from last-minute cancellations to the traditional family dinner. All stories will include descriptions of face-coverings and condemnations for and against mask-wearing.

In the Zoom gatherings I joined over Thanksgiving weekend, I could already see these stories brewing (ok, maybe not the cabin-fever murderer). In fact, I have my own who-done-it idea percolating.  It’s about a family trying to kill off the nonagenarian wealthy matriarch by insisting on a twenty-person no-masks-allowed family gathering. 

When my old friend, Abe, called and said, “let’s have dinner at Gibson’s,” I welcomed deliverance from Zoom socials. I forgot that I promised the mayor I’d stay home when she shook her finger at me on the TV. The last time I had dinner with Abe at Gibson’s, the Irish Rovers marched around to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The next day, Governor Pritzker got mad at us and shut down all the restaurants in Illinois. Eight months later, after a slight reprieve in the summer, indoor dining is shutdown again, but outside?

“Yes!” I answered. 

Abe is the kind of man who doesn’t talk on the phone. He’s such a good storyteller that he must see you in person, get your reaction, dangle unfinished vignettes that tease questions from you (“what happened next?”). Once he’s tantalized your curiosity and aroused your receptivity, he comes in with a big punch line that leaves you craving for more. This kind of storytelling cannot be done over Zoom.

Gibson’s has opened its second floor for diners. The steakhouse gets away with it by removing all the windows and calling it outdoors. The heat is turned way up. The first floor is sealed off, forbidden territory. I felt guilty enough about ignoring the command to stay home that I insisted on sitting at a table on the sidewalk terrace, outside, surrounded by umbrella-like flaming gas heaters.

I never removed my deep purple full-length down coat and hood with matching face covering. Abe notoriously underdresses for Chicago winters. He wore a windbreaker and wool beanie and brought a blanket. Our body heat swatted away the forty degree cold, at first.

The aroma of grilled steaks hovered around our table like a sizzling dust storm. We ordered a fast-cooking black and blue sirloin to split. Abe ordered a salad.

Forty minutes later Abe was still forking around in the arugula between his stories. My fleece-lined pants, wool socks and snow boots failed me as my body heat dissipated. I whined. Abe called the waiter.

“Could we have the steak now?”

“Oh, I was waiting for you to finish your salad before I put it in.”

That vaccine cannot come soon enough.