Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Duration: The ‘I Am Legend’ Afternoon



No. No, it doesn’t. I know, I know, flatten the curve, but I am very careful. Believe me, I don’t like it, but downtown is deserted. Except where it’s not! The pharmacy is open, and there are people who are still working, or who live downtown, queued up to buy something. Cigarettes. Fungus cream. Bandaids. You still get paper cuts in a pandemic.

There are fewer aimless people wandering the margins of downtown than usual. There are Terribly Fit Young Professionals jogging or walking dogs. It will seem even more surreal in a few weeks when it’s warm and the trees start to green up. Right now, it’s like someone hit pause on a movie, then left the house, then left the country.

You see someone up in the skyways and relax: signs of life. You see a construction project that appears idled, and sag — ah, no, there are men up on the scaffold, working. Ah: a fellow on a cherry-picker is working on a municipal pole. Ah: a guy in an orange vest is painting the street to indicate where they’ll cut for some utility work. 

All the people whose job consists, more or less, of typing – they’re gone. The men who put things together and keep the system running are here. They do not seem particularly concerned, but you can only imagine what plots flit through their minds. 

Now I think, it’s not a movie, paused — it’s an engine, stilled. 

It’ll sputter when you try to turn it over again, but it’ll catch.

Provided you don’t wait too long. I’m not a pessimist but I’m not an idiot, either. There’s a huge new rehab of the city’s oldest surviving department store building. It would bring back a beloved old name, restore the structure and give it a new life as an office space with a big open food court. It was due to open soon, but now you can’t help imagine the structure as a giant chrysalis that will birth a stillborn butterfly. The towers under construction continue to rise, but will they be occupied?

The Empire State Building was known colloquially as the Empty State Building for years after it opened. Likewise Chrysler, Cities Services, other late-boom towers. But the hard days passed.

My bank was closed. They had consolidated to a new location, and I went there. I put on the mask. I felt a bit embarrassed, because it freaks out other people. Sorry, but if I’m going to be out and about, it’s masks and it’s gloves. You like these gloves? My wife had a box. I sorted them out in the morning to see how many we had, and thought: mask-wise and glove-wise, we’re good. 

A month ago I would not have liked to think I was counting masks and gloves or keeping a keen eye on the TP consumption, but month-ago-me has been sent to his Borg alcove to hibernate. New me considers going to early-morning Senior Hour at the grocery store to see if there’s flour. Technically, I count. All of a sudden “senior” means over 60 and I am in the club by a whisker and hell yeah, let me in, I need flour. Me, who spat on every AARP mailing before I ripped it up and threw it away.

The bank people were nice and unmasked and normal. Everything was normal. They could not do what I wanted to do. Dang. Masked up and left and went to the office, and here again we have procedures:

Use arm to push through revolving doors. Don’t touch escalator rails. Masked knuckle to push elevator button. Swipe card, go up, swipe card for access, then disinfect —

Hold on. I remember. There’s lots of Purell here. There’s gallons of it. 

In the Before Times prior to the evacuation, there were bottles of Purell everywhere. Some people rolled their eyes: a bit much doncha think. I watched as the level in the big bottles remained constant from day to day, until the evac order came down. I went to the break area where I knew there was a big bottle, and sure enough: 7/8ths full. An unimaginable quantity.

Do I take it home?

Why not?

Because that would be wrong. At some point we’re going to return to the building, and the bug will still be around. People will need this. 

But there’s no guarantee someone else won’t remember it’s here, and come for it. 

I could take it home, guard it, and bring it back. Using a little, if I had to. 

I realize I would feel horrible taking it. Not that someone would see. I would see. Hate to think I’m the kind of guy who would do it and convince himself this was altruistic resource management on behalf of everyone else.

But it wouldn’t hurt to refill the bottles I have in my pocket.

As I leave I get a text from my sister in Fargo, wondering how we are. We’re fine. You? My nephew is not home yet, but is still at college, and working at the golf range, sanitizing clubs and balls. This seems insane but somehow comforting. 

I hear a knock on the window of the lobby, and look up – it’s one of the paper’s employees. He gives me a thumbs-up. I give him the same, and think: so I’m recognizable wearing the mask. Not something you ever think about.

I take off the mask when I’m in the car, because the car is Safe. I really don’t think the mask was necessary. But I have to return tomorrow to do some notary work, and that means outside, and that means a mask. At least I’ve topped off the Purell! Coffee and flour stocks diminished a bit, TP holding steady, did away with the wine that needed drinking. Dinner is great; Daughter and Rotaria make banana bread. But I’m kicking myself because I have to go out tomorrow before the lockdown, and jeez: my wife and I knew we had to get this thing notarized, but you let it slide, there’s other stuff to do, it sits there, and then you’re dialing UPS and asking the necessary questions about the notary’s hours and how many people they have on hand, because for some stupid reason, you can’t just have one witness. A will and testament needs two. 

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  1. Lois Lane Coolidge

    I am not in NY, but I am still in the heart of a city. 

    I run.

    I do not wear a mask. (I do not have one to wear, even if I wanted to wear one.)

    I do veer wide of others on the sidewalks. 

    Even though there is not a “shelter in place” order here, whenever I see anyone else, I am glad that I am dragging around my sixty pounds of a canine because he is like my justification for being outside. He is like a stamp on my forehead that says, “Here’s a good reason!” Plus when his tongue lolls out to one side, people’s faces tend to soften. whatever else they might be thinking. (Dogs can’t get Covid-19, don’t cha know.)

    Of course these other people have their own reasons to be out. There are more policemen than normal. There was a group of nurses in their pink and blue scrubs who were walking (I guess?) to the hospital. There are the people still getting “to go” orders curbside from restaurants that are trying anyway they can to just hang on.

    But the people I see the most are the homeless who are slumped on the parks’ benches, more obvious now without the normal hustle and bustle of life to obscure them.

    I avoid them like the plague, guilty that I think not of their hardships but of their state of hygiene.

    I hope their numbers don’t increase.

    • #1
    • March 24, 2020, at 6:11 AM PDT
  2. TallCon Coolidge

    So I may have this wrong but whenever I see folk elbowing open the doors (or using the gentle foot nudge) I think “Are they going to wash their elbow as much as their hands?”

    Just curious. I’m learning new things every day in the Duration.

    Oh, it’s great seeing James posting so much. If Rob starts to post we know it’s the end times.

    • #2
    • March 24, 2020, at 6:54 AM PDT
    • This comment has been edited.
  3. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    If it takes a national lockdown to get more Lileks, well, that’s definitely upside.

    A man whose face is on the header of his column for how many years is surprised he is identifiable though wearing a mask? Isn’t that like Clark Kent thinking a pair of glasses makes him unrecognizable?


    • #3
    • March 24, 2020, at 7:03 AM PDT
  4. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    TallCon (View Comment):

    So I may have this wrong but whenever I see folk elbowing open the doors (or using the gentle foot nudge) I think “Are they going to wash their elbow as much as their hands?”

    Probably not. But I’d wager they’re less likely to touch their faces with their elbows.

    • #4
    • March 24, 2020, at 7:19 AM PDT
  5. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Why, James, are you wearing a mask? They are recommended for people who are coughing–to protect healthy people from them–not the other way around. If I see someone wearing one, I assume they have plague and give them extra personal space. I’m in a hospital, working with specimens known to be contaminated with the virus and we aren’t wearing masks. Of course we take precautions–reasonable ones. Save the masks for the front-line people actually working with sick, coughing patients, eh?

    • #5
    • March 24, 2020, at 7:27 AM PDT
  6. ToryWarWriter Thatcher

    I am surprised you didnt do this as one of your old ramble podcasts.

    • #6
    • March 24, 2020, at 9:21 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. cirby Member

    Went by Home Depot today for some ant poison, and saw a total of two guys wearing masks. One was normal, but the other one was a little fellow, with a little head, and the mask was just sort of hanging off of his ears and nose, only covering his mouth from the front. Might as well have been wearing a sheet of typing paper.


    • #7
    • March 24, 2020, at 9:56 AM PDT
  8. Richard Fulmer Member

    James Lileks: my wife and I knew we had to get this thing notarized

    This seems like something out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Humans wiped off the face of the Earth by a virus as they stood in line at the notary. Extinction by red tape. Who needs nuclear war, meteors, ice ages, or volcanoes when you’ve got bureaucracy?

    • #8
    • March 24, 2020, at 2:47 PM PDT
    • This comment has been edited.