It’s hard to watch. The numbers change, clocking ever upward through 120,000. Ticking toward 32,000 Benghazis and past 42 World Trade Centers. It’s tough to see outrage dilute to apathy and the further still to antipathy. People must be exhausted to the point where it is an effort just to ask your neighbor to put on a mask.
And, from afar it seems, we’re learning indifference kills. Schools of fish survive because they watch their neighbors and their neighbors watch them. A free swimming fish is a dead fish.
Here amidst the collective, you may remember the restaurant host down the street. Despite meeting them just one time, he always asks about our kids. Behind his mask terror roams over the upper half of his face. I wonder if he watches the news and imagines their untimely peril. Will they die by illness? Or shot whilst driving? Or trampled in a riot? I’m sure he must wonder why I don’t just bring them here where they can be safe? I wonder about this myself.
I got my second post pandemic haircut. Khun Lek is my hair stylist. She’s from a farm town 12 hours away. She came to Bangkok with a high school education 17 years ago. She has her own shop. Cuts hair up front, sleeps and cooks in the back. Because of the nature of things, she’s gotten minimal help from the government and her landlord hasn’t eased her rent during a mandated closure.
A neighborhood allows for watching though, and I see her playing badminton with neighbors. Doing aerobics in the park. Bowing to the spirit houses. Making offerings at the temple. Life has continued, but I’m sure she is hungry. She’s said as much with an uneasy laugh. Even though allowed to open, business on her tourist heavy street is way down.
I check into her shop on a phone app. She clips away behind a mask and a full face shield. She unloops the mask off my ear to cut and furrows her brow.
In limited English, she says. “So….., America? What’s going on there? Why they do like they do? So many people die? America so powerful. So much money. What’s wrong there?”
I watch the clippings fall to the floor. I can offer no good answer.
Suddenly, my world is smaller and bigger at the same time. Smaller as those in my social orbit spin out of this world. Meme-ing themselves into oblivion. It’s hard to see people you learned from, grew up with, drank with, or danced with, people you feel you’ve walked with seem to vanish from your path. You hike up and down and turn around and the crowd is suddenly quieter.
The world is larger, too, fewer and more expensive flights, broaden the latitude. Quarantines add time. An American passport, once one of the most versatile, has plummeted in value to almost pariah status. And because that’s the passport we’ve got, we’re pariahs as well. Though it may have gone down a bit different than expected, it seems we’ve got our wall. But we’re stuck inside.
I write this missive in a Bangkok coffee shop near the center of the Thai universe. Traffic, trains and people rush by on a cooler morning.
Ho Chi Minh, returned to Vietnam after a stint in Europe. He and others watched as the old men of Europe limped home after their wars. The world had changed in the eyes of colonies. The old men wore tottering.
I mention this because I glanced up just now to find a woman reading the Bangkok Post. This cartoon was prominently printed on page 5. I wondered about our own age. Our own position.
Help each other out America. Put on a mask. Wash your hands. We can overcome.