Cardella: Notes from a social distance

I sit here at my keyboard. The sun is streaming through the window opposite me in our Center City apartment. We live in a building not that far from a fire station. The sound of its sirens is constant. But not today. Eerily, even the beeping horns — fueled by the anger of drivers caught in clotted traffic — have almost disappeared. I feel as if I’m in an early episode of one of those movies about a future apocalypse — the kinds of movies I usually avoid. At least the survivors in THE WALKING DEAD had an advantage. The zombies are a threat we can see. In our real lives, though, the coronavirus is invisible. It’s in the very air we breathe. And the one who infects us could be a family member or friend. We are forced to shun the human contact we instinctively crave. All humans are a potential source of danger. We live our lives at least 6 feet apart from one another — socially distancing.

My dad used to regale me with tales of life during the time of the Spanish flu, which attacked the world for two years, beginning in 1918. For some reason, my Dad had a morbid fascination for the ways life on earth could possibly end. His guess was that the end would come through nuclear war between us and the Russians. Dad was so certain about that eventuality that he turned our basement into a bomb shelter. Bragged about the concrete walls being 3-feet thick. Told me that it was likely that we would have to defend our shelter. Might have to shoot those who tried to enter. Stockpiled bottled water and canned food, which he rotated to ensure it had not exceeded its expiration date. But the other most obvious way that Dad thought the world might end was a return of the Spanish flu.

He told me stories (in graphic detail) about the horrors of the Spanish flu. Bodies stacked up on sidewalks. Makeshift coffins. On-the-spot  cremations. It didn’t take long to figure out that my father would have been only 1 year old when that pandemic arrived. I’m not sure what that says about Dad’s macabre fantasies except that he had the imagination of H.P. Lovecraft. What would Dad think of what’s happening today? Our lives now seemingly all about hand sanitizers and latex gloves. The daily proclamations by government officials that diminish the scope of our lives as the virus spreads. All of us forced to become germophobes. The creative ways we have adopted to greet folks without shaking hands. Our favorite distractions — new restaurants, sporting events, museums and concerts — have been taken from us. Our lives are under siege. Our civilization shockingly vulnerable. We’re getting a taste of what it’s like for the poor among us. Our existence filled with uncertainty.

Our conversations are limited to the latest update on the relentless progress of the virus. Our newest celebrity is Dr. Anthony Fauci. His whole being — his tone of calm authority, his careful choice of words, his serious demeanor — tells us that it will get worse before it gets better. But that IT will GET BETTER.

The virus has revealed — as if we didn’t know before — that our president is a blithering idiot and a conscious liar. As someone recently wrote, he is like the fictional mayor of Amity in JAWS. That buffoon who kept telling us that we could safely go into the water, even as the Great White shark devoured swimmers. Apparently blinded by Fox News, only four out of 10 Republicans believe the corona virus is “serious.” Trumpers still seem more concerned about Hillary’s emails.

Beyond what the NCAA Tournament brackets would’ve looked like, there are other reasons to wonder about what the ultimate impact of the virus will be. Consider Mayor Kenney’s recently proposed budget. I agree with all the needy projects the mayor wants to support in the next five years. Each one seems worthy. And the idea that all of it can be achieved without new taxes has obvious appeal. Until you examine the premise of the budget. Kenney bases his “no new taxes” pledge on the economy expanding. But the idea that the economy will expand at a time when it’s in free-fall because of the pandemic requires a willful suspension of disbelief. Economists warn that we are almost certainly facing a global recession, even the possibility of a depression. No economist can accurately forecast how long either would last. How can the mayor propose a budget that seems to completely ignore today’s economic realities? We support that plan at our own economic peril. And consider that this is a city administration that has reportedly added new employees and still not reduced overtime costs. Noble as those goals are, the virus should cause the mayor and City Council to rethink the proposed budget because of the current crisis. Maybe this is a time to strengthen our rainy day fund. It’s more than raining now. The impact of the coronavirus is the equivalent of a monsoon.

Times WILL get better. Most of us will survive to see our lives restored. And maybe we will appreciate the things we used to take for granted. Maybe we will even force government to act to improve the lives of the poorest among us.

I take my cue from my wife, “The Unsinkable Fran Cardella.” In the midst of the chaos around us, she winks at me on St. Patty’s Day and says, “Maybe we ought to plan that trip to Ireland when this is over.” 

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