All they had to do was the right thing
Under the unshielded rage of God’s angriest sun
Today’s Hell World features a beautiful and striking and very long essay about life under Covid in Florida from my friend and one of my favorite contemporary writers Jeb Lund which you can read below.
Please subscribe for money if you haven’t yet every other place I write for is dead or dying so it’s just you and me now buddy.
If you missed them please check out these recent posts including an interview with journalist and labor organizer Kim Kelly about why police are not workers and should be kicked out of major labor unions, an interview with a water park worker in Florida, and this interview with Pulitzer winner Wes Lowery about the overabundance of deference given to police by media outlets, the ongoing idiotic debate about “cancel culture” in the media, and the state of journalism today.
Waking up is violent but easy. The problem is everything after that
By Jeb Lund
I grew up in the Bay Area at the height of AIDS panic, and all of that era’s sex paranoia remains burned into my brain, repurposed for Covid-19 and the act of commingling wet breath. A few weeks into this crisis, I found myself having a ten-foot-distant conversation with my neighbor Patty, both of us incredulous at people who still tried to talk to us in-tight face-to-face, like we weren't all suddenly barebacking reality with everyone they'd chit-chatted with that day and everyone in their lives, etc. Patty allowed that she should be able to strike people she considered a threat. I mentioned Florida's attitude toward this legal principle and firearms. I suggested she become militant. I tell that to a lot of people, but I attenuate the humor of it for the audience. I tell every teacher I know to strike.
There are more sirens now. It's hard to tell, because unlike New York, everything isn't quiet. Cars are out on the road—fewer, but enough that hearing a siren can still be vehicular idiocy and not a more sinister house call. But I still hear more of them.
I don’t know why Luke asked me to write about Coronavirus in Florida. I mostly stopped writing last year when a good friend dropped dead in front of his family. (Subscribe to my Substack—we don't update regularly!) Before that, I felt increasingly overborne by events. Things ground to a halt in 2019, but the machine began to break down long before. I ended the 2016 campaign periodically sitting under my desk, high, feeling secure because I wasn't writing anything stupid and feeling good because I was appropriately afraid of everything, but people thought I was exaggerating when I mentioned it.
I wish I could say my seriousness about the novel coronavirus stems solely from believing in science and peer review and that I would take it seriously regardless, but my spouse is immunocompromised, and my father, who lives out in the Bay Area, had Covid-19, back in March or early April. He didn't tell us kids until he was out of the woods, but for days he had fevers over 103º. My stepmom, a former emergency room nurse, couldn't get him admitted anywhere, because he wasn't having respiratory problems. He woke up the same every day: It felt like someone had parked a Volkswagen on him.
We're supposed to say he's out of the woods. I'll believe that when he dies of old age, or something more reasonable that kills men in my family, like colon cancer or car accidents. Sometimes I think about him dropping dead like my friend, only from whatever post-Covid-19 effect triggers the brain’s forgetting to tell the lungs to breathe—or from the one that leads to storms of strokes, like a brain's blood vessels recreating the burning energies depicted on a CRISS ANGEL MINDFREAK poster. Then I wonder how I would die, or my wife, or my friend in Atlanta, or my brother. I think about drowning in open air, alone in a hissing world, and being incapable of saying the overdue apologies I ran out of time for.
After a while I realized that basically all Luke wanted was to hear from a coward living in the mismanaged kleptocracy of Florida, and the thing is, I can do that! I’m frightened right now!
I considered opening with, Every day I wake up frightened, to throw a fucking jolt into a piece about facing down a pandemic in a place where they have a paradise just for the cheeseburgers. But the joke is, I'm not wastin' away here in Coronaville. Sometimes I wake up and just have to pee, on the rare days when I don't wake up from the sensation of my son elbow-dropping my head because—how rude of me—it's 6:45 already.
In this respect, I am serene: My son and I exercise outside to burn off his energy, so I'm out in the sun for hours a day. I'm tanner, I've lost weight, and my phlegm feels looser. I grew a lushly indifferent goatee. My haircut looks like something that belongs on the gatefold cover of a concept album about a form of locomotion by a band named after geography. While the term "Lebowski Phase" has been applied to my appearance and to the fact that my leg injury and medical-marijuana prescription have collided with the reality of never having to drive anywhere again, I must insist that in many respects I have come to look like Jesus Christ. I am pro life and take no pleasure in reporting this.
As I have said, I am frequently awakened by my son, whose full name is My Beautiful Five-Year-Old Son Maitland. He is a treasure who spends quarantine within earshot of 24-hour news, regurgitating West Wing Democrat observations of mine with five-year-old precocity to harvest follows for Instagram. Maitland is an influencer already on record as supporting L’Oréal, opposing Medicare For All, and, when I first read him the shaggy start to this piece, he said, "Not a good look." He's a natural.
Waking up is violent but easy. The problem is everything after that. By the time I close my eyes, I'm not sure what I felt most on any given day—anger, sadness, impotence, a resentful churning need for vengeance, despair. Any one can seem like a day's dominant emotional dysfunction and then suddenly be overwhelmed by the dread that suffuses prolonged thought about the world outside.
I am one of the people who is Taking It Seriously. Seriously Taking It Seriously, though—not the people who say they're taking it seriously and then tell you about:
• Going to a recent indoor birthday party.
• Having a multi-course dinner at a fancy restaurant, "But it was okay because it was [extremely not-worth-a-life celebration]!"
• A full-contact playdate their kid had recently with two other children.
I abhor these people. I have an existential loathing of these people, and a granular scientific indictment. I enjoy reading new articles to learn new ways in which they are a danger to me. My apprehension is rich and exquisite. May their friends shun them, and may they be abandoned by their gods.
Sooner or later, every day, I think of the threats arrayed against me and my family. Each day, I see the most recent thing said by my governor, Ronald Fuckface DeSantis, in which he explicitly endorses and declares his intent to pursue actions that all available data say will kill Floridians by the thousands. Each day, I think about how, if I do so much as suggest fostering a free exchange of ideas about the proportional value of using every means to stop him, I will be arrested.
Every day, I bounce the "Evil or Moronic?" debate around my brain. I check in with an alumna buddy in Atlanta to see whose governor has shown more recent determination to murder his citizens. I gotta give Brian Kemp credit, because he's really holding his own. Naturally, this leads to wondering if either of them have a natural or acculturated advantage in terms of idiocy and malevolence. DeSantis' enrollment at Yale and Harvard and service in the military problematizes the idiocy narrative only for as long as it takes to remember all the people you've met who've gone to any of them and were dumber than dogshit. It would seem like fate to be murdered by an oaf, but I don't know that it's not merciful to at least be murdered purposefully rather than contemptuously and indolently.
Eventually, this leads to spending some time thinking about DeSantis as a kind of lethal bro angel. It's hard not to see his shitchyeah, brah, people are dyin', it's classic! expression and recognize that the state's chief executive resembles a lout you don't want to run into walking alone at FSU after a home loss. I prefer my jokes about the governor, but my friend David Roth nailed it when he said that DeSantis seemed like a person who would describe himself as “kind of a DUI guy.”
I know there's supposedly a culture war out there. There's a truck in my neighborhood with a Q sticker, and another with a Three-Percenter sticker, and there are more than a few neighbors of the "easily victimized white dude who owns a $50,000 truck he rarely takes off the pavement and who becomes physically belligerent when you correct him" variety, but there's a reason why you really only see “war” shit on YouTube. Few Americans are hostile to general safety protocols, and even fewer act out against them. I live where hate groups and old fashioned unaffiliated redneck trash drive in from the county to make a show of rebel flags, rolling coal and honking to intimidate protests, but people line up six feet apart at Home Depot, wear masks at Publix and get takeout at the pizza place outside without insisting on barging in. Most wars don’t need one side of them to be this manufactured.
Most of my friends and colleagues from this gig live in New York, so I've already sat through weeks of descriptions of streets silent except for ambulances, and I’ve already woken for weeks to the half-twilight of nightmares where friends died in a spare white hallway. There aren't a lot of surprises in store for Florida, and no images I can describe that would make you want to turn back now. It's like we're waiting for the rolling premiere of a franchise blockbuster. The dead won't really start packing them in for a few more weeks, but all the scariest shit hit YouTube when it opened in New York a thousand years ago. The coronavirus as an image, what it functionally is, as a horror, feels as familiar as the Scream mask, and the context that makes that scary as hell already feels dangerously been-and-gone, like an apprehension that Florida had for too long before the actual scare came.
There's a hope that all this will come to little again. Despite Governor DeSantis' refusal to take the initiative on shutting down the state until the last dollar was wrung from the last snowbird, the original shellacking never came. The Tampa Bay Times sampled smartphone data and concluded that Floridians overwhelmingly took the initiative to stay home, and they were aided in their quarantine process by the fact that Florida is car-dependent and atomized.
The heartbreaking realization, as you gradually run across more people who are Not Taking It Seriously or are Expressing Moronic Skepticism, is that for a month there about 80 percent of America was on board with doing the right thing. We, a people who suck at doing the right thing even for the wrong reasons, stood on the side of doing the harder thing if it helped people who weren't even us.
I really can't tell if I feel more anger than sadness at the fact that those who were meant to encourage us in safety, to serve us by offering difficult guidance, wasted our sacrifice and our trust. They squandered the patience given by a beggared and exhausted people. All they had to do was the right thing, and if they weren't sure what that was, they could have erred on the side of saving people’s lives and hoping it counted, and they failed.
Instead, more people will die, and we'll be shut down again, and we will realize we are fundamentally unequipped for life with Covid-19. Florida is built on enclosed air-conditioned spaces: It's dependent on divorcing yourself from Florida as a climate and place. Asking Floridians to generate a public life under the unshielded rage of God’s angriest sun and baked from beneath by a sprawling pave-ocalypse requires asking them to rebel against everything their infrastructure has taught them for as long as they can remember. It is a car culture to the flesh and bone, and a restaurant relocating indoor tables to a road patio would park its diners inches away from eternity.
A picnic day like that is months off, again. It's time to go back inside and resume Inside Time. Inside Time melts away. I saw a headline around the Fourth of July, from the New York Times, that read, "In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both," and I remember seeing colleagues tweet, mmmm, so true, and, gets at something crucial we aren't talking about, and shit like that, and I was like, "Buddy, let's get in the DeLorean and visit March." I have nowhere to go, anyway, and all life is timeless.
We have no family in the area and have had no break. It's the three of us, like No Exit, but if most of the dialogue was the word "no" and a lot of stuff about poop and butts and farts, good guys and bad guys, and what Lego Star Wars would do, but with a lot of excruciated pleading for silence because Mom and Dad Are Working Right Now and We Love You Very Much but Jesus Christ Please Stop for the Love of God I Will Give You a Dollar If You Go in Your Room and Be Quiet and Play That Kindle App That Teaches You to Read That You Pay Attention to More Than Us Even Though I Would Read You a Fucking Novel If You'd Just Shut Up and Sit Still.
I'm resigned to staying in here until 2022. I’m screaming, but I will do it. I'm lucky in that I have access to a community pool and a neighborhood where my son and I can roam around on bikes and romp and look at water and birds and turtles. When we're lazy, we have a porch where we can feel nature without feeling exposed. We have a dependable (ok!!! haha!!!) income, and I can do irregularly scheduled work that allows me to be Parent rather than Employee. Exercise, meals and stories take up enough hours that I might as well lean into it.
But we’re lucky. We have a house and prescription mood-altering drugs and one thousand years of undersleep, but we are in less immediate danger than most. The state, almost reflexively, reaches out to open more doors even as Covid-19 blows past reopening benchmark after reopening benchmark.
The inexorable march for commerce doesn’t even come from malice in many cases; people in charge just don’t know how to do anything else but extort and scold people into working under any conditions, so long as it devours most of their time. All the exploitive principles are expected to work the same even if the world they built is fraudulent. We feed meat and the virus into the machines, irrespective of what the data says, and pray for rain. Watching Florida government on the state and local level is like watching two parents bring an alcoholic home after he got kicked out of rehab and deciding that the best course of action is leaving him with $5,000 in an apartment up the street from a dive bar and then going to Cancun for the week. It was on the calendar already, there wasn’t any choice, he looked very healthy at the time!
We have friends who are teachers, and we are scared for their spouses and kids. I don't know what Florida's plan for its teachers is other than to murder them. Again, I don't know if DeSantis is an idiot for flirting with giving enormous bipartisan sympathy to arguably the most effective labor group in the state, or a genius for flirting with finally eliminating a lobbying obstacle to conservative governance by simply liquidating its members as a class.
I worry if I start listing all the things I'm scared of, they'll never stop, but every day I see my son reach for something he should be able to reach for, and I either have a low-grade panic response and stifle it, or I have the panic response and yelp at him to get his attention and tell him to stop, startle him, and add another layer of gun-shy haunting to his day. I'm afraid he'll eventually become an animal in a Skinner Box in which all the buttons and levers are electrocuted, and there are no prizes.
I'm afraid that my son will always be emotionally arrested at two years behind the development of people the same age who had siblings in their house, or who, like many kids in my neighborhood, had parents who thought kids were invincible to Covid-19 and let them play with whomever they wanted. I worry that he may pay a price year after year even into adulthood because other kids got to practice socializing as we rode past. They got to hang out with people their own age and run around and do vitally stupid shit and say "butts" a lot, and he got look at me heartbroken and knowing empirically and epidemiologically that he couldn't play with his friends anymore but still needing to know why, and knowing that I couldn't tell him anything more sophisticated and anything less terrifying than, "So we don't get sick."
The other day he started crying and then screaming, "I hate the sickness! I hate the sickness!" repeating it in a higher and higher register, until he was up even past that piercing birdlike screech that prepubescent boys make whenever trying to sound like lasers or dinosaurs or squealing brakes. Every day I worry that I see another little bit of his capacity for happiness is dying—that the same awkward process of terror that took me from happy little kid to profoundly unhappy teen to scarred adult is even more rapidly at work, and each day another sparkling and joyous little light of childhood winks out in him, replaced by fear as a necessity of life.
I know that there is no plan for us. Conservatives don't want to be taxed or have their businesses lose money, so people are being kicked off unemployment and sent back to work with no test and trace protocols, irregular access to PPE, overwhelmed hospitals and often limited access to any care. We're doing all this as Florida blooms scarlet like paint being spilled into a mold shaped like the state. We're sending the men in the gasoline suits right at the heart of the fire.
It's a cruelly lazy little culling genocide of the working class, a Wall Street gamble that the blow to the labor force won't be more than a blip on the Dow and, a little recession aside, the One Percent will come out ten years later owning an even greater percentage of the United States. To the extent that there is a plan, that's the plan, and whether you land on the dead or the living part of any of those exchanges is more of a Your Problem than a Their Problem.
For now, it's enough to be hermits and hope the rest of Florida goes on strike by going inside and staying there and writing letters to representatives threatening to never come out. Cooking the same things, getting the same exercise in the same places, having the same awkward conversations on VOIP delay, and living every moment outside like we're three drinks in so we’re ready to get belligerent with anyone who is getting too close. Living every moment with some low-level neurasthenia that grows spine-deep and for the rest of our lives sends shuddering disequilibrium at the thought of air that never seems to move, hallways that lengthen without exits, and objects that seem both unavoidable and unclean. It’s fine. We’re all fine, here, now. How are you?
I feel a sudden Git Offa Mah Land thing about my son, a resolute commitment to homeschooling for the foreseeable future and to keeping the gummymint away. It sucks so much. I was so happy to send him to the public school just a few blocks away, instead of the shitty little charter schools nearby, but now that it’s Plague or Parents, he’s got his parents. Between us, he'll have access to 1.5 first-class educations. I still have my grandpa's service weapons from WWII, the last time America was in a war with fascism, when we took the opposing side. I'll empty a couple magazines into anyone who comes onto my property and tries to stop me from teaching my son critical race theory, Howard Zinn, and Leonard Levy's Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. I refuse to turn my back on the heritage of my youth, of watching thousands of hours of MASH, by refusing to wear a mask outside or in fact any time I am doing anything other than drinking gin that I made in a tent.
Outside, records fall and progress rolls on. A governor whose go-to pejorative for opponents of all ages and sexes is very likely still “queef” watches as even the president concedes that a Republican National Convention here would be too lethal, as the state repeatedly sets records for daily deaths, beats out all of Europe in terms of new daily cases, leads the nation in cases per day, then tries to set them again. And then, every day, our governor makes his ahegao-but-for-ethnic-cleansing face and psychotically clangs a bell indicating that Florida just became the 15,000 customer at Leadshoe Larry’s Kicked-in-the-Dick, and it’s time for all us lucky winners to line up and drop our pants.
Florida’s lethality is so tacky that it’s almost camp, but there is no satisfaction in being right about how wrong everything is. Nobody gets a prize for correctly guessing the surplus death toll. All you have to do is look someone else in the eye working in life under Covid.
I’m old now, so I have Humiliating Injury Syndrome (HIS), and somehow in the month between the Super Bowl and the pandemic, I tore a rotator cuff, a labrum, or both, by throwing a (mini!!!) football with friends. After four months, I broke down and went to get an MRI. I skulked down corridors and lurked in a corner of a waiting room, like playing spies with an opponent who was the air. Even the clean and modern fixtures felt miasmic and corrupted, like they were a parking garage in an Alan Pakula film.
Eventually a nurse emerged from an office, crinkled her brown eyes, waved and surprised me by asking after my family by name. She lives three blocks away from me and had hosted me at a party once. Later that day, as my car coasted down the approach to my house, I saw a garage door open and my neighbor’s son walk out on his way to his shift at the same grocery store that I treat emotionally like a Superfund site.
I thought about how much I unconsciously held my breath where they work, and how I unconsciously associate those places with poor choices. The danger of the world outside is so massive that I reflexively need to cordon off the threat into areas of blame and blamelessness. In a moment of crisis, years of conservative rhetorical conditioning in the discourse have taught me to reflexively pathologize those in harm’s way. There is less chaos if someone is at least responsible for something. There is less risk to me, if it turns out someone else’s epidemic is someone else’s fault.
But it is someone else’s fault. And it’s not some poor fucker doomed to sit in a box somewhere and accept paper money and hand metal money back and point at where toilets are, because that’s how he keeps the lights on. It’s not the person consigned to some life-sucking task that, on the best of days, is too humiliating and cruelly impoverished of purpose to ever be a reason why someone should die. It’s not the person around whom you hold your breath because you don’t know where they’ve been. It’s the person and people who put us all in position to suddenly feel like we’re suffocating together.
I hate that I sometimes unconsciously hold my breath around strangers, and I hate that they have heard it. I think of my neighbors, and of the workers on whom we’re dependent, and the permanent uncertain shortness of breath I feel, and I want every moment of their anxiety and mine gathered up and then rained on those who shepherded it into being, those who nurtured it and feasted on it, those who profited from it and were indifferent toward it. Those who consider themselves DUI guys and those who pay to elect them and give them sinecures and who are simply too rich to be arrested for boating under the influence anymore.
I think of how I hold my breath near good people and near vulnerable people in places I am wary of and that we all need to share, and I wonder if we will simply hold our breath for the rest of the year, and if we’ve bargained for standing near each other and holding it for all of the next. And I wish so eagerly that all our suspended futures and the air between us might catch at the throats of those who put us here. That justice for a man like Ron DeSantis might be a permanent and sucking terror: stuck always in an involuntary startled gasp at the sight of responsibility, afraid at the approach of every stranger, incapable of drawing a full and restful breath, and never knowing peace again.
Jeb Lund used to write about politics for Rolling Stone, The Guardian and Gawker, and a bunch of other places, and was the Spectacle of Trump Editor at 50 States of Blue. He and David Roth have a podcast about Hallmark original movies that is mostly funny and exasperated and not unkind, and it's not ultimately about the movies anyway. It's fine and people enjoy it. Don't make it weird. He also has a podcast where he watches every Dennis Quaid movie in a row. That is also completely normal.
Check out Jeb’s latest piece for Hell World’s Last Normal Day series here.
Ok here’s me again with a couple more things.
You’ll want to read this in the New York Times today about a forthcoming documentary on ICE. After it was completed the filmmakers were apparently threatened with legal action by the agency over the inclusion of parts that made ICE look even worse than they already look doing literally everything else they do.
Some of the contentious scenes include ICE officers lying to immigrants to gain access to their homes and mocking them after taking them into custody. One shows an officer illegally picking the lock to an apartment building during a raid.
At town hall meetings captured on camera, agency spokesmen reassured the public that the organization’s focus was on arresting and deporting immigrants who had committed serious crimes. But the filmmakers observed numerous occasions in which officers expressed satisfaction after being told by supervisors to arrest as many people as possible, even those without criminal records.
“Start taking collaterals, man,” a supervisor in New York said over a speakerphone to an officer who was making street arrests as the filmmakers listened in. “I don’t care what you do, but bring at least two people,” he said.
Here’s one disgusting detail among many.
They followed Border Patrol tactical agents who took pride in rescuing migrants from deadly dehydration even as the agents acknowledged that their tactics were pushing the migrants further into harm’s way. They showed how the government had at times evaluated the success of its border policies based not only on the number of migrants apprehended, but on the number who died while crossing.
A reader named Adam wrote to me.
“I live in a rural community in Idaho whose ICU is currently at capacity but our health board meetings keep getting swamped by ‘activists’ to protest any sort of guidance/mandates on masks It pisses me off that these people seem to be immune to math/charts/graphs/science in any form,” he wrote.
So he built a site called It’s Not Just the Flu for people to write in with their firsthand accounts of getting sick. Read some here or add your own.
When the lockdown started a few staff were told to shield and we were already short staffed so we were relying on agency staff to make up the numbers. There was a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment and confusion about how to use it. We were told that the manufacturer had increased the price of surgical masks by 1000% and we were to use it sparingly. We were told at one point that we couldn't wear masks and then told we could use a limited amount. 2 residents had been in hospital and were sent back without testing. We also started accepting new residents from hospital for end of life care. The symptoms started to show in several residents and then quickly spread.
I developed symptoms and tested positive on April 20th. Out of 20+ staff only 3 of us contracted the virus. We were off sick and our company would not furlough us and did not pay sickness pay so we were only entitled to SSP. I did not have the usual symptoms of fever and a cough but I had diarrhoea and nausea, terrible headaches which wouldn't shift, flu-like aches and pain all over my body, shortness of breath kidney pain and other symptoms. After 4 weeks I tested negative but didn't feel much better and then new symptoms started to develop. I could hardly walk, had constant pain all over, difficulty breathing, awful headaches and terrible fatigue. It is 14 weeks since I tested positive and I rarely have the energy to get out of bed and have symptoms nearly every day. On a good day I can walk to the corner shop but that wipes me out and I am back in bed the following day. It was difficult to get the doctors to take the symptoms seriously and lots of people believed we were exaggerating. Luckily it is now being recognised as a real condition as more people are sharing their experiences, especially on on-line support groups set up by other sufferers. I have just had some initial tests and my chest x-ray is showing some scarring on my lungs. I am waiting for further tests.
I have had to claim benefits to top up the SSP and am getting more into debt every day but can't possibly work as I can hardly get out of bed.
Everyday is different, some days are horrendous, others I just feel completely exhausted. There are many strange and scary symptoms that I have not mentioned like loss of coordination and balance, numbness or pins and needles all over, electric shock type feelings in all areas, a terrible metallic taste in my mouth, loss of appetite, brain fog – confusion, memory loss etc and many more. The anxiety about money, the insomnia, isolation and helplessness tend to worsen the physical symptoms. I am currently waiting for the new Covid Rehab Clinics to open as my doctor has referred me and I don't know when this nightmare is going to end.
God this is a pretty song.
It’s just a life
Dusk gives way to night
Then holds the light
Felt a pain and let it last
Let it grow with goodness and
Future present, Future passed
By the fields of cloud and bone
Calcified, laid out like a home