What if Thanos was right?
If you don’t know who Thanos is, you should probably just stop reading. There’s only so much I can accomplish in 1,500 words or less. If you DO know who Thanos is but have not seen Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers: Endgame, STOP. Because: spoiler alert.
Everyone else, which basically means everyone, please continue.
Yesterday I went in to the office. I had a face to face meeting in the building where our new offices will be sometime before the end of this year. The meeting started a little late - like three months late. It was originally scheduled for first week in March, when the world turned upside down. So I had, for the first time in three months, what I used to call a normal day.
I woke up, a teeny bit energized because something different was going to happen. Life under quarantine becomes familiar to the point of contempt and, eventually, madness: the same comfy t-shirts, the same every-three-or-four-days shaving schedule (because who cares?), the same commute from the bedroom to the basement to the bathroom to the basement to the bathroom to the living room to the bedroom. (Fact Check: CNN has asked that I update the above to confirm I pee more than twice daily.)
I showered, shaved (off-schedule!) and put on big boy clothes. First problem: I gained weight. No waffling, pun intended, my pants and belt assured me this was so. It was the second time I had worn a belt since March and it wasn’t funny. It was also the second time I’d worn socks, which is slightly more funny because in life under quarantine socks slowly vanish from our lives. Think about that.
Hopped in the car and went. Traffic was…okay. Hey it wasn’t Mad Max, there were cars on their way from here to there, but it wasn’t gridlock. I didn’t want to murder anyone on Interstate 422 or, as I like to call it, the Future Location of My Last Big Mistake. Cars were moving, slowdowns didn’t become stops. I went 30 miles in 35-ish minutes; in hindsight probably too fast, but when you’re accustomed to a wall in front of you that is suddenly not there, the euphoria can influence your foot. The same commute at the same time used to take between 75 and 95 minutes.
In center city Philadelphia there were boards on ground floor windows, stores and restaurants and banks, making some blocks look like bombed out eastern Europe. But it was sunny, soon to be uber-hot, and that was okay. In the garage under our building one of the typically two attendants was there but he was sitting and smiling and waving to drivers as we came in. There’s no reason for an attendant because today there are enough spaces to accommodate cars in locked-up positions so you don’t have to leave your key for fear of blocking anyone else in. But just in case, he was there, and available, and happy to be getting a paycheck. He recognized me.
The little bodega-type newsstand across the courtyard from my office was open, but only the manager was there. He is Indian or Pakistani or something like that, and he usually has three people working in the mornings: a young Latina, a middle-aged Latina, and a young dude – obviously to carry and stock things – of unknown national origin. Everyone in the place is always very nice; I missed the ladies at the register, but had a nice chat with the manager as I paid for my coffee and Diet Pepsi.
The elevators to our offices had stickers in them telling me where to stand and mandating four or fewer occupants per elevator. That seems completely untenable in real life but in bizarre-coming-out-of-quarantine world it never presented an issue. There was never more than one other person with me in the elevator, all day.
Once I got there it was weird, don’t get me wrong. For example Ronda wasn’t there. Ronda is the company receptionist (Is that still an acceptable term? Or is Ronda a Lobby Engagement Coordinator?) and she’s awesome. She has a daughter the same age as mine but you’d never know it; she looks 25 years younger than me, and is a consistent ray of sunshine. But the floor was far from empty. On our side of the floor I would say there were five or six people, and probably twice that on the other side of the floor, where Finance sits. One of my neighbors from around the corner, on the way to the rest room, didn’t know I was in and was on his speakerphone all day. It was comforting, like opening the windows on the first nice day of Spring.
Walking to the new building, three blocks east, was pleasant, not surreal. There were enough people to remind you that you’re in the city but not enough to be an annoyance. Like in the real world, some people walk in twos and threes but others are alone. People were walking small dogs. Some people carried things, briefcases or boxes. They were generally dressed more casually than business attire but that’s not unusual for a day in June expected to be in the low 90s and humid.
Oh, and everyone is wearing a mask.
Some people walk around outside without them, but not many. It’s still a city street, there are still people, and I guess safe beats sorry. As the heat and humidity climbed, wearing the mask outside was less pleasant but the solidarity of pretty much everyone doing it helped more than I would have guessed. It’s just the new normal, and everyone is doing their part.
In the new building lobby attendants and security guards were polite and helpful. I needed help signing in and getting around the floors under construction in the new building, and had no problems – no one was too busy or under water to help me. Construction workers were friendly, working in the air conditioning, diligent but not oblivious to visitors.
Walking back I was ecstatic to find the Super Wawa open for business and I stopped in to pick up lunch. For the first time things looked…wrong. Wawas anywhere, anytime, are always bustling. And with good reason. While Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” in the 20th and 21st centuries God switched to Wawa. There were easily as many employees in the store as there were customers. Only one set of doors were available (instead of two) for in-and-out, and there was a uniformed guard stationed there. I assume, in the civil unrest of the past few weeks, a corporate edict was issued that hoagies must be protected no matter the cost.
Despite the one-to-one staffing ratio it took about 10 minutes to get my hoagie and I think only the cashier actually made eye contact. Wawa is usually a beacon of good food and good service, very consistent. This was the first and only same-or-worse interaction of my day, and it stings a little. ‘Cause I gotta hava Wawa.
All day my face to face interactions were pleasant and anything but distant despite the mandatory six feet. I was happy to see people who seemed happy to see me. I had the same small annoyances I would have normally had any other day: For example, I mistakenly tried to download an update of Microsoft Teams, screwed it up, and needed Helpdesk assistance. The assistance was prompt, friendly, ultimately successful. Boo-yah.
So what if Thanos was right? On the streets and in the offices everyone looked the same behind their masks: the same ratio of black and white and brown, the same ratio of male versus female. Everything was familiar and…nice. Just fewer people. People who had a little space – six feet to be exact – to be a little more friendly, a little more present, a little more thoughtful, a little more human.
I got into work early (on time for me) and left on time. I was productive; I felt productive. It was a good day.
Sometime in the future we will all be “back,” and life will look more like February than June, 2020. Or will it? I have a sense that many people are going to want to live and work differently going forward, even when the restrictions have been lifted. I kind of hope so. I’m one of those people: I never wanted to work from home, never saw the value. I was masochistically committed to my commute, even when I had other options. Now, not so much.
I can see me being happy and productive splitting my time. Being one place helps me appreciate the other place much more. I anticipate that the opportunity to do both, as the work and circumstances allow, will be welcome and productive. Mutually beneficial.
What if Thanos was right and the answer is a dispassionate snap: Fifty percent of people vanish and suddenly life’s little psychosocial repetitive stress injuries melt away and we’re all magically able to work and live together, like we’re supposed to. Like we want to.
Makes you think.
Oh, by the way, racism is wrong. It took me more than a week and almost completely debilitating anxiety to write something that had nothing to do with what is going on around us. Because I just couldn’t make the words work. But I finally managed to write something I am OK with publishing that has nothing to do with racial injustice or radical ideology or disgusting political hacks or criminals who masquerade as freedom fighters, hiding among families and children in real pain. I don’t understand why we can’t align behind the single point we can agree on – that this is not good enough – and move forward from there together instead of….
I guess I will try again next week.