Lunchtime, Tuesday, Portland: A Stream-of-Consciousness Look at Life During COVID as Told by a Writer and Sometime Asshole

At the bus stop on Stark, I check the Trimet app. Seven minutes before my bus. I was going to wait until I got to the first step on my itinerary, but fifteen minutes is going to be too long to wait for caffeine today. After migrating from position to position on the bed to floor to bed to new position to couch to bed in a sort of narcoleptic Brownian motion, unable to get comfortable or really rest for any length of time, I’ve got enough to do that I want to be alert and aware.

It’s not like riding the bus is a particularly taxing experience in itself, unless you count dealing with some of the assorted bozos, yahoos and miscellaneous miscreants who ride the bus, present company very much included, but still.

I dip into the convenience store about a hundred feet east. The proprietor, an Asian gentleman with a smile behind his surgical mask, waves with one gloved hand and calls out a heavily accented but friendly, “How are you?” I return the wave, offer my ritual “Howdy” and beeline for the sodas. (I cut out energy drinks last week, which seemed like a much better idea then than it does now.) Since I can’t find Mountain Dew readily, I snag a Coke and take it up to the register. Inflation’s a bitch, folks: $2.19 for 20 ounces of soda, but I can get a 2-liter at Safeway for $1.50.

Sometimes I think I’ll never understand capitalism. Or math. Or capitalist math.

I swipe my card, twitching as I imagine the ghost of George Carlin standing behind me grumbling in disapproval at using plastic for a two-dollar purchase. Of course, cash has fallen out of favor since COVID, so people prefer to get their filthy lucre through cards. Kind of like a condom for your wallet, I guess. Keying in my PIN, I grimace trying not to think about how many other hands have touched it. I left my hand sanitizer at home, and my stockpile of gloves is long since depleted, so I make a note to scrub extra hard when I get home. I’m all for exposure and building up a healthy immune system, but even I’m turning into a germaphobe.

The guy thanks me and I’m already opening the bottle as I hit the door. That first cold blast of high-fructose corn syrup and delicious things that make you fat and murder you slowly hits my system, and the caffeine bitch-slaps my somnolent brain to attention.

Back at the bus stop, four minutes to go. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle passes by, and I feel a tiny tug somewhere below and behind my sternum.

Ah, trusty Beetle: promoting benevolent domesticated violence since 1938.

(Punch buggy, anyone?) I note the pang and wall it off, determined to keep my mind on my tasks for the day.

As if to mock my willpower and emotional equilibrium, three more pass me in the next two minutes: red, blue and silver. I grit my teeth against memories, take another long swig of my Coke and focus on looking out for the bus. There it is, off in the distance around 111th. I shove my soda into the left sleeve of my coat so my hands are free, mute Antoine Baril’s masterful thrash-metal medley orchestration of the Transformers soundtrack, and pull out my fare card.

(1986, not Bayverse; I’m not a fucking barbarian, thank you very much.)

The bus pulls up. The driver’s wearing a mask, and once again I realize just how surprised I am that I don’t recall hearing about a single bank robbery or convenience store holdup lately. I tap my fare card, the machine beeps and my two and a half hour window starts. There are only five people on the bus, a rainbow of colors, genders and ages…and me, whose pasty face hasn’t seen a razor in a month. I’m starting to look like a Wookie with space mange and the white in my goatee is more prominent than ever.

I choose a seat near the back door and the bus takes off. There aren’t many options, because 9 out of 10 seats on Trimet buses are walled off with passive-aggressive warnings not to sit here and practice social distancing, blah blah blah.

For the record, I think seven to eight inches is a very social distance…

If I know and like you like that. Otherwise, yeah, totally on board with six feet. Or sixty. 5,280 is a nice round number too…or, let’s get serious about our social distancing. How about an AU?

Astronomical unit

Thirteen blocks later, I get off the bus. My mistake hits me two blocks later. I’ve forgotten the cross street for the 7-11 I’m heading to.

The punishment for not ensuring you know where you’re going on public transit is using your feet, and so I do.

Sanitation workers are pumping out a storm sewer, and the worker nearest me, a portly man maybe ten years older than me, directs me around the side of the truck closest to the traffic. I thank him and do as directed, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as I thread my way between the cones and the truck, hoping I don’t taken out by some jackoff in a Prius. There are more ignominious ends I can think of…but not many.

My first destination is in sight, and I walk in, immediately struck by how closely everyone’s packed together, ignoring the lines on the floor which give a visual indicator of what six feet actually means with such titanic disdain it can only be a put-on.

I’m uncomfortably aware of the fact I’m now standing, for the second time today already, in a petri dish.

The good news is, the aisle leading to the ATM is clear. I run my card, complete the transaction and run another. Stupid withdrawal limits. Ridiculous to have to run your card twice just to make the rent payment, but at least the ATM is fee-free, so I don’t have to deal with that insult. Business concluded, I thread my way through the store, staying as far away from everyone else as I can and not even attempting to be subtle about it. I hit the fresh air and take a long breath, realizing as I do that my palms are sweating. Apparently a month of house arrest has also given me a touch of agoraphobia. Wonderful…bring on the happy medication!

I cross at the light, cross again, and commit the intersection to memory so I don’t do something moronic like, oh, GET OFF THE BUS TWO STOPS TOO SOON again. At the bus stop, I take a puff off my vape. Portland PD has somebody jacked up in the parking lot: a motorcycle unit and one of the standard SUVs. I can see the rose emblem, and part of me ruminates on how intimidating a rose as symbol for law enforcement really is while another part is occupied with Baril.

I check my phone. The bus is 15 minutes out, so I scope out the sights there are to be seen, the fine hairs on the back of my neck raising a little. It’s not that the city is dead; there’s plenty of traffic. But it moves listlessly, unless you count the guy in the Volvo station wagon who makes a snap judgment that he’s in the wrong lane and jumps sharply over, missing the curb by far less margin than I’m comfortable with and barely avoiding clipping the rear bumper of the truck in front of him. Good thing, too; the truck’s rear end looks to be held together by bumper stickers promoting various state and national parks or pleading for environmental justice. One good tap and that thing would probably come apart like a crispy egg. A black car pulls up, more or less into the space previously occupied by the Volvo. The passenger window rolls down and a dark hand with blunt, spatulate fingers flicks out a chicken bone right onto the street.

I roll my eyes. Stay classy, bro.

I look down the street for the bus, just in time to see a guy on a bicycle riding full-tilt boogie down the sidewalk, which annoys the hell out of me. Portland is really big on bicyclists, even giving them dedicated lanes on the street. But no, we can’t keep wheels where wheels go and away from where feet go. I step back as far as I dare, the heel of my right sneaker hanging precariously off the curb. The bicyclist blows right past me as if it’s his God-given right to be a sidewalk hog, even giving me a broad smile and nod of his head, ignoring the death-ray glower I level at him.

Finally, the bus lurches into sight. I get on and check the directions for my next destination: the post office. Luckily, the bus’s routing means it has a stop more or less right in front, which makes this pretty easy. I get off the bus, head into the post office and am slightly disoriented at the number of people, the overwhelming majority of whom are wearing masks and a couple sporting pale blue examination gloves.

I need envelopes, so I find a couple of the bubble-insulated sort which will fill the bill and look around, scoping for pens. There are none, which for some reason sets off a cognitive dissonance frisson in my brain until I remember It’s a pandemic, dumbass. Ain’t nobody leaving pens around for any and everyone to use! Even knowing damned well I don’t have a pen, I check my pockets anyway, as if by happy happenstance one might have just magically fallen into my pocket. Surprising absolutely no one, my pockets are bereft of any ink delivery devices.

I look at the line, look at the envelopes and think, There’s a convenience store over there. Convenience stores sell pens. I’ll go buy a pen and come right back. But as I push the door open, I look down at the unpaid-for envelopes in my hand and two words drift across my consciousness:

FEDERAL OFFENSE!!!!!*

Handcuffs really aren't a good look on me.

Abandoning that plan, I go get in line like the good citizen sheep I’m pretending to be. Of all the reasons I can think of for ending up with a federal beef, two dollars’ worth of envelopes has got to be the dumbest. Besides, I need postage anyway. Two birds, one stone.

This far back, the jazzy black and yellow stripes the post office has laid out for social distancing are absent, and so I count tiles and guesstimate six feet as best I can. Again that feeling of being closed in a sealed petri dish closes over me. Claustrophobia too? Hey, let’s just have a big old fucking phobia picnic in my brain! Step right up, hurry hurry HURRRRRRAAAAAYYYYY! Lots of seating, no line, no waiting! Can we get some clowns too, so I can see if somehow I’ve acquired coulrophobia, or ooohhh, some puppies to test for cynophobia?

The line is moving slowly. Even through her mask, at this distance, I can see the clerk looks like she’s on the last thread of her patience with repeating the same spiels over and over. “No, you just fill out the card and put it in your mailbox to change your address.” “No, sir, these are the $26 super-express envelopes.” “No, ma’am, it will be three to five days with regular postage…yes, ma’am, to get it there in two days that’ll be [insert amount just a half-step shy of outright usery]…no, ma’am, that’s the fee.”

As I listen with half an ear, I rifle my pockets for the items I need to send: two keys and a thumb drive, in two separate envelopes. When I get to the counter, I explain I want to purchase the envelopes and postage.

“What are you putting in them?”

“Keys and a flash drive.”

“Where are you sending them?”

“Portland.” (Technically accurate enough; still in the metro area, and I’m in no mood to fence.)

“That’ll be $8.68.”

I pay and she begins doling out stamps at a pace which makes snails look like Red Bull fiends on a meth bender. Arnold Palmer and pears. I bite back a grimace. I’ve got nothing against Arnold Palmer per se; by all accounts he was a really nice guy. But I cannot fathom the appeal of golf and wish I’d had the foresight to just buy a book of my own damn stamps, purely for aesthetic reasons.

“Put those on the envelopes and be sure to address them,” she says, her voice gray and lifeless. Stable benefits or not, being essential personnel during a pandemic and having to deal with the ambulatory brain-dead day in and day out has got to be soul crushing. I give her the best smile I can muster and get out of the way so she can deal with someone who actually needs an explanation of the finer points of mailing small items in the modern age.

At an out of the way counter, I peel off the stamps and apply them one by one. The end result is sloppy, but it’s not like I’m worried about staying inside the lines.

I seal the one with the flash drive and bite back a sudden burst of anxiety as I realize the contents of this package have the potential to alter the trajectory of my life in such a profound way that only the divorce papers I filled out two years ago even come close.

The thought makes me feel a little woozy, but I don’t dare grab the counter for support. Mustn’t start a panic.

Now I still need a pen, so I cross the street and make my way over to the convenience store. It’s a much bigger intersection, just off I-5, and I’m struck again by the wary lifelessness in the way the drivers drive and the pedestrians exchange strained smiles. I can’t imagine my own looks any better. It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday, and the juxtaposition between the oddity of my own presence on a city street at this time of day (Friday I was in my bedroom, working remotely from 8-4 like a good minion) and the odd, shambling pace of the too-infrequent traffic, coupled with the relative desertion of the parking lots I pass, touches off something in my brain which isn’t quite a distress signal, but close.

I get to the convenience store, enter and find the pens conveniently located right at the door. Four bucks for good pens is a little spendy, but it beats using one of those Bic stick pens which always seem to stop working after two or three good uses.

One of the most important lessons I learned in college was the importance of not cheaping out on writing utensils.

Seeing the register is occupied, I post up at a socially responsible, CDC-approved distance.

“Oh! And can I get a pizza?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Can you bake it for me?”

“Yes, ma’am, but you’ll have to pay for it first.”

“Okay….Oh! And can I get a carton of Camel 99s?”

“Let me look…no, ma’am, we don’t have any of those.”

“Do you have Marlboro black?”

“Yes, ma’am, we do have those.”

“Oh! And on the pizza, can you have them turn it down a few degrees just before it comes out so it’s chewy and not crispy?”

FOR FUCK’S SAKE, LADY! IT’S 7-11, NOT FUCKING BURGER KING!

“Yes, ma’am,” the clerk says. I get the impression at this point he’d submit to receiving the sexual attentions of an angry male tiger if only this woman would get out of his hair. He sees me and waves me over to the next, vacant register while the woman fumbles for her ID and debit card. Since EMV chips became a thing in the US, most merchants don’t ask for it unless you spend over a certain threshold in-store. I put down my pens. He scans them. I run my card. A-OK. Now I have pens.

I step out of the store into a light, misting drizzle. I’m not surprised; part of me wonders what took so long. I fill out the envelope with the flash drive carefully, printing using my best penmanship, which admittedly looks like I dipped a hawk’s talons in ink and just hoped for the best. Then I tuck it under my coat, to protect it from the rain. The other one I don’t care about; it can get punched, spindled, mutilated or rained on from here to Christmas for all it matters to me. Business attended to, I start back to the post office so I can complete this seemingly simple transaction and move on with my day.

A woman’s standing at the bus stop, and she blows out an obnoxious cloud of smoke as I walk past. Even in my most belligerent pro-smokers’-rights days, I was never deliberately that kind of a jerk. I give her a nod as I walk past, holding my breath until I’m well upwind, and keep going, offering to her under my breath the benediction revealed unto the faithful by St. Ice of T, one of the pioneers of West Coast rap and masters of the Twitter game:

Why don’t you eat a hot bowl of dicks?

I cross into the post office parking lot and set out for the mailboxes, keeping my head on a swivel. With fewer cars on the road, people seem way more willing to do dumb shit, and I’m not interested in getting creamed doing a simple errand. I enter through the lane opposite the way the traffic’s going…and a BMW SUV piloted by a blonde woman of, shall we say, a certain age, turns into the entry lane.

Which I am currently occupying.

Which forces me to jump out of the way.

This self-indulgent, bleach-blonde idiot with too much bloody money, meanwhile, keeps right on going as if she didn’t miss clipping me by less than six feet thanks solely to my own good reflexes. I stifle the urge to throw her a Jersey salute, mutter some choice and dark imprecations about cliches and deposit the envelope, then scurry to the sidewalk as quickly as I can manage and start trudging to my bus stop.

Thankfully, the bus doesn’t take long to arrive. When it does, I again choose a seat as close to the back door as I can manage. This time, it proves to be a mistake.

The guy across the aisle is a walking Tinder cliche, wearing red basketball shorts and sprawled out like he’s at home on his couch, which means if I cared to I could probably learn very quickly what color his underwear is. (Spoiler: NOPE.) This would be annoying enough, but he’s also carrying on a conversation with someone I presume to be his baby mama.

On speakerphone. (Seriously? Have you never heard of holding the phone to your ear?)

At maximum volume. (Dude, nobody wants to hear about your domestic arrangements. Least of all not on the bus. Even less when I’m playing my music at full volume and can STILL hear you running your trap.)

While talking like he’s a card-carrying member of the original Death Row Records lineup.

(You’re not even Kanye, hoss. Maybe somewhere around Bieber.)

“Well, look, I can file for full custody of your kid and you can see her every day!…I got a job, I got benefits, I’ll have my own place next year…No, your kid can call me Daddy…she can call me Daddy the Muthafuckin’ Boss!”

I roll my eyes, grit my teeth and try very hard to ignore the little devil on my shoulder, which is lobbying at full force for me to suffer a “slip” and conveniently end up with my fist in this socially oblivious sack of ass’s testicles. Just about the time the dwindling fuse on my patience is about to expire, I pull the cord for my stop. The bus shimmies to a halt, I press on the door and call, “Thank you!” to the driver. I hit the bricks and head for home, where my first step is to scrub my hands.

For about two minutes.

Then I sink onto my bed, my wonderful, comfy, amazing bed, and I think to myself:

When are they going to open the bars again?

Thanks for playing along, y’all. More goodies coming tomorrow, including some big news about The Soulforger Chronicles, so stay tuned!

*In memory of Terry Pratchett, who famously wrote, “Multiple exclamation marks,’ he went on, shaking his head, ‘are a sure sign of a diseased mind.” To be fair, he wasn’t wrong…

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