Friday, March 27, 2020

a moment in the day: essential

Strange, strange days. I'm driving to work like I always drive to work except that it's eleven in the morning and I'm going to clean out my desk and say goodbye to my little work space.

I used to think, what would it be like when I finally did this, would I come in really early, before the place opened, so I could do it alone? Would I get fired and have to do it right there with all my colleagues around me trying their best not to watch?

Things are never as you predict them to be. Now that this day has come, all of us are doing the same thing. Instead of shame, there's community. And we're doing it in scheduled time slots, all alone, twenty minutes in and out, rubber gloves and masks, every precaution to help keep the virus at bay.

I turn onto Stark Street, drive past the movie theater with "Temporarily Closed" big on its marquee. I expected things to look like a ghost town along the strip, big signs in restaurants and shop windows, but it mostly looks like it's always looked. The road veers leftward, up the hill, curving past big beige houses. As I drive I count the dogs I see, like I always have, because this might be the last time I ever make this commute.

One doggy.

Two doggies.

I feel a little like I'm breaking the law. On Monday, Governor Brown issued the order that Oregonians stay home “to the maximum extent possible,” except for when carrying out essential tasks. I'm going to combine this trip out into the world with an essential trip to the grocery, but going to the office? To pick up my fork and spoon? The old, holey, paint-dripped sneakers I used to change into when I used my lunch break to take a walk in Forest Park? How essential is the box of my favorite tea or that funny toy car that was on my desk when I first arrived years ago, that I kept just because it was always there?

The little decorations that made my work space a bit of home.

A woman is walking a golden retriever down the sidewalk. "Five doggies," I say out loud.

A police car drives past, going the other way.

Don't arrest me, Mr. Policeman. I'm out doing something essential. It's imperative that I retrieve my sock monkeys.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

a moment in the day: spring

Nicholas and me in the bathroom on a Sunday night, he curled up in his blankets, me sitting next to him on the floor, petting him and singing.

It's what we do when he's freaked out: the Fourth of July, thunderstorms. I put on the overhead fan, close the door, and sing over any leftover fireworks sounds that might sneak through. Tonight I've heard no suspicious noises, but lately he's been skittish and hiding in the bathroom a lot. Sometimes I wonder if he can feel my stress, somehow. Smell it with his doggy wonder nose.

I pet him and sing and he settles into his nest of blankets. I don't think much about what I'm singing until the words sound in the tiny, closed-off room.

Spring this year has got me feeling
Like a horse that never left the post.
I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

a moment in the day: filing

Morning, sitting at the computer, again, again. The sky through my skylight is white, not blue, for the first time in days. I wish this room had more windows.

Filing for unemployment again, again. This time, it's the first weekly claim, and I have to answer some questions.

Did you fail to accept an offer of work last week? No.

Did you quit a job last week? No.

Were you fired or suspended from a job last week? No.

Were you away from your permanent residence for more than 3 days last week? Hahahahaha.

Friday, March 20, 2020

a moment in the day: just before I get my notice that I'm laid off

I've been sitting, staring at this computer all day, across the room from where the phone sits on the table, trying to work on a project, trying not to be waiting for the phone to ring.

They're going to call me any minute now to lay me off.

We're all getting laid off. I know this deep in my bookseller bones, have felt sure of this ever since we received notice that for some of us, this Covid-19-related, store-closure-related fifteen-day layoff was going to have to be permanent. I knew then, and I know now, in my pessimist heart, that I will not be going back to work.

I know, I know, so I wish they'd just call and get it over with.

I try not to look at the phone.

Fifteen years, I worked there. It suddenly occurs to me that this is exactly the number of years I was in the circus. My only other really lasting gig. The difference is that those fifteen years in the circus made me feel like a loser, and working at Powell's, I felt... well, I don't know if I'm wired to ever feel like a winner, but it did make me feel as close to what the opposite of a loser is, that I could possibly feel.

The phone across the room, the little red light on top that's always on.

When I click into my inbox, there are new emails from a thread of some beloved coworkers I've been talking with, and oh god, three of them have been laid off. They got it in an email, not a phone call. Tears start to wash across my stoic pessimist bookseller eyes. Three women who are some of the most competent women I've ever worked with.

This goddamn virus. And the rest of us are next, I know, I know, but for a second I stop, noticing that their layoffs happened almost an hour ago.

I check my spam folder for mine. Nothing.

I go back to the thread and read the messages of my coworkers, my friends. One of them writes, "I hope if you haven’t gotten an email that means you get to keep your jobs!"

My whole body starts to shake.

I wrap my arms around me. Then push my face into my hands and cry hard.

I cry for them, but I also cry because suddenly, for myself, I feel hope. I can't help it. And hope can be a terrible, dangerous thing.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

a moment in the day: wrong number

When the phone rings, my heart kicks me in the throat, even though I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that my layoff from work is going to be permanent and they'll be calling to tell me any day now. I've been staring at the computer all morning, trying to understand the ins and outs of my future health care options and everything's vague and my head hurts. The name on the phone is not my work; it's some man's name, but I'm afraid to not answer it.

"Hello"? Trying to sound cheery.

He's quiet so I have to strain to make it out: "—services?"

"Excuse me?" I ask.

His voice is low and a little timid, a little ragged. "Is this Financial Aid Services?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, it's not."

"Oh, OK," he says. A little pause. "Sorry. Wrong number."

I don't know how it can be so easy to hear, not only sadness or worry, but particularly some kind of tired despair, in the voice of someone you don't know.

"Oh, no problem!" Trying to sound cheery.

The air sound on the line is gone. "Good luck," I say to the dead receiver before I hang up the phone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

a moment in the day: filing

Morning, cup of coffee going cold. Blue sky showing through the skylight in my upstairs work room. I'm filing for unemployment for the temporary (but very possibly permanent) layoff from work that this pandemic has given me.

The website for Oregon unemployment tells me I need to be able to provide my job history for the last eighteen months, including "Your salary and total income from each employer." Does my total income mean I need to total up my gross wage (?)... my net earnings (?)... for the last eighteen months, then? With cost of living increases, my hourly wage is not the same as it was eighteen months ago.

I gather my information the way I always do things. I overdo it. I make a spreadsheet.

The website that stores my paycheck information lets me export to Excel all the dates and earnings info going back to 2014. But it doesn't include my hourly wage for each of those paychecks. Looking back and forth between the dates on my spreadsheet and the dates on the web page, I click into my pay stubs here and there, up and down the list, recording the information manually.

I undoubtedly don't need my information to be this dialed-in. I for sure don't need this information going all the way back to 2014. But somehow I have this weird need to have all the information, get it all while I can, before I never have access to it again.

These numbers on this spreadsheet, these are my life. Going back through years when I felt good about what I did, when I got to work intimately with books. The years during which I, myself, got to stand at the Powell's podium in events to celebrate books I had a hand in.

Click into a November pay stub, record the number on the spreadsheet. Choose a date further down, say August. The salary's the same. Control-C to copy the November number and then control-V to fill the fields in, going down to July.

Control-V, control-V, control-V. It feels satisfying the way working on spreadsheets always does to me.

And it feels so almost like work, like me at the office working on my reports, and so already nostalgic, that I could almost cry.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

a moment in the day: live stream

During the social distancing that is the responsible response to the coronavirus right now (yes, people, right now), there are some theaters and companies in the arts community that are live-streaming performances that would otherwise have been performing... live. I mean with an audience.

Right now, I'm watching the live stream of a man playing a huge, elaborate theater organ in a high school gymnasium. A good friend of mine has parents who own one of these theater organs, and she sent me a link. Her parents know the organist and would be watching him live right now, if things were different. The picture on my screen is a view from above, the top of a man's head, his back, his hands running up and back across a quadruple set of organ keys.

He's just coming to the big finish of... that piece. The one I know and you know but I can never remember the name of. Which I sometimes think is The Bridge Over the River Kwai, but it's not. That one.

When he finishes playing, he takes the mic and announces that this is the moment in the show where, normally, there'd be a bunch of applause but even with no live audience, he'd still like to present one last piece.

He says, for the encore of our performance, what better piece could there be than The Stars and Stripes Forever.

Oh god.

Hands up and back across the quadruple set of keys—and his feet, too, stomping across the pedals. A sound so bombastic and so uniquely patriotic.

In the circus, when the tent was burning down, as the people ran over each other to get out, the band would play The Stars and Stripes Forever.

I usually think of that bit of trivia when I hear the tune, but tonight it hits a little hard.

The organist switches settings on the instrument and tiny, cheery bells ring out over the rest of the notes. For a moment, those bells, the beautifully ostentatious rise and fall and rise again of the music makes me feel light inside.

But patriotic music has a bad ring to it right now. Trump ignoring the rise of this virus, Trump disbanding the National Security Council's pandemic unit. How far behind we are. How botched our response has been that only now are we getting smart and isolating. Waiting, waiting, waiting for testing.

The organist's hands up and back across the quadruple set of keys. Feet stomping the foot pedals. The grand, old anthem winds up to its big finish.

And then it's over. The player reaches and flips a switch and turns off the organ. Turns and walks off the stage.

The silence in the big high school gymnasium is eerie enough that I burst into tears.

Friday, March 13, 2020

a moment in the day: blow

I'm getting ready for work. Just finished cooking a stir-fry and dishing it out into two matching containers for my breakfast and lunch. Food feels a little different, these days, since people have started hoarding it. Empty shelves in the grocery store. The weird run on toilet paper. Empty shelves in the frozen vegetable aisle last night so that all I could get was a potato-sack-sized bag of peas.

Then late last night, absorbed in a design project, I looked up from the glow of the computer and realized I hadn't eaten anything for dinner, and I thought, good. I should save it.

Makes me think about that Simpsons episode, the one where their dog Santa's Little Helper has to have an operation and the family is doing their best to tighten their belts.

Lisa says, I made a new bar of soap by squeezing all our little soap slivers together.

Bart says, I didn't take a bath today, and I may not take one tomorrow.

I've always fancied myself a Lisa, but as far as resourcefulness, I think it's obvious that I'm a Bart.

Stepping into the bathroom to wash my face and put on my makeup, I go to grab a bit of toilet paper to blow my nose.


Yank my hand back.

Glance at how many rolls we have left.

No. I can wait. There are tissues at work.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

a moment in the day: trying to sleep

It's the middle of the night. It's almost morning. It's two o'clock. It's four-fifty-five and the alarm is about to go off.

Don't look.

I turn over in bed, keeping my eyes closed away from the blue glow of the clock. It's cold. I tug on the covers but Nicholas between us is sleeping on top and I don't want to disturb him. The covers reach halfway across me, stopping at the edge of my shoulder.

Don't think, don't wake up, try to go back to sleep.

I shove my hands under the pillow to get them warm. It's the middle of the night. It's almost morning. Waking up these days is that immediate, oh yeah, remember all those things you're worried about? I guess it's always that way a little, but right now, it's all too much.

Will the city shut down, will people keep buying all the toilet paper for no reason, will everything grind to a halt, will I lose my job, our insurance...

Someone I love has a health issue and I desperately want to see them but coronavirus means I can't get on a plane and arrive on their doorstep with my love and my potential germs.

Don't think, don't wake up.

I recite from the alphabet. My trick for going back to sleep. Topic: names. Where did I leave off last night? The letter K.

Kate. Kathy. Kathleen. Katharine. Kwame. (Yesterday on NPR they had Kwame Alexander on, talking about poetry, and—stop. Don't think.) Karl. Karla. Kyan. Kevin.


The start of something like a dream. My hands moving. Coming together. The movement of my hands.

As sometimes happens when I'm trying to go back to sleep, I start to dream of doing something, and my body mimics it, and the movement rouses me. My fingers jerk. I'm wide awake again.

I was washing my hands.