This is the first installment of The Last Normal Day series. Paid subscribers can get an early look at the second installment about being a Black man wearing a mask in the first days of the pandemic by Zaron Burnett III here and the third installment by me Luke about moving house just as the pandemic kicked off and death and my usual type of shit here.
Where were you on 9/11? Where were you for the Challenger explosion, or when JFK was assassinated, or when Trump was elected just to name a few of the worst things I can think of offhand. You remember right?
The historic pandemic of 2020 will likewise etch itself into our cursed, broken brains for as long as we live, but with a difference: Unlike previous world-changing events, where only pockets of the population may have been directly affected, none of us can insulate ourselves from or ignore the consequences this time like Americans so often do. Everyone everywhere has felt the impact of this pandemic, some in horrific ways, like losing loved ones and not even being able to say goodbye, and others simply as an interruption of the auto-pilot mundanity we long took for granted. It didn’t just happen on the TV, it didn’t just happen to other people somewhere else making it feel removed and distant, it came for us all, and now we’re in it, and to be honest it fucking blows man. Real bad. You don’t need me to tell you that though.
There’s another difference too. While each of us eventually arrived in the same place, eating shit at home for months at a time, or risking our lives at our jobs, the ways in which we first processed what was happening were all unique. It did not come in one fell swoop for everyone, it instead encroached upon us in a series of steps. So your story of the pandemic finally, utterly, irrevocably becoming real was different from mine, which was different from someone in another state, which was different from your friends and family.
The Last Normal Day then is what happened just before. You probably already have a day or a moment in mind yourself. Back in April when we knew absolutely nothing I asked Hell World readers to write in with the last mundane thing they did and the answers were great and that was only like a month into the damn thing. May have jumped the gun on taking stock of our restlessness there.
Here are a few real quick and you can read the rest here if you like.
Visited my mom. She’s alone and lonely. I can’t risk seeing her now and feel so bad.
Giving my friend a hug.
Saw toilet paper on store shelves and thought, "Eh, I'll grab some tomorrow." Swiftly regretted that.
I met friends for dinner and then watched Uncut Gems at their house and ever since then it's frankly like the Uncut Gems stress never left me.
I interviewed at a bar on March 13th and elbow bumped the manager to accept the job. I worked the next day and by Wednesday it was closed indefinitely.
My birthday party at an escape room. We escaped the room now there is no escape.
I ate lunch in a room with 150 people on a film set. Passed gear around like we normally would with multiple people touching it. Put my slate marker in my mouth while filling out a camera report. It all seems unfathomable now.
Taking the last two jars of whole peeled tomatoes at the grocery store, feeling guilty and putting one back for someone else.
What did people leave behind in the days prior to realizing everything was about to change? How did an otherwise normal period of life evolve into something vastly different in retrospect, becoming momentous or heartbreaking or era-defining?
There’s little question at this point, especially given the absolute failure of the United States to present anything resembling a unified, well-planned response to the pandemic, or a meaningful response to the demands of the post-George Floyd civil rights movement, that this will — fingers crossed here because things could always get worse — go down as one of it not the single most tragic periods for a generation of people around the world. This series is an effort, through some of my favorite writer friends and colleagues, to preserve those memories of the “good” old days while they’re still fresh, both for those of us living through a disaster that hasn’t even begun to wind down yet, but also for people who come later on. The ones who’ll wonder what it was like to have such a defined “before” and “after.” It’s about that last day being suspended in between an outdated normalcy and an entirely new mode of behavior for the country and for our own lives. It’s about hovering in the air next to a cliff you’ve just jumped off of without even realizing it yet. Hopefully it will be funny (like Samantha Irby’s below, or Josh Gondelman’s) and sad (like Jeb Lund’s and mine, obviously) in equal measure.
The original idea was to sell this as a book, but given the pace at which the publishing industry moves, it likely wouldn’t have come out until next year, and who knows what the fuck will have happened by then at this point. We may be longing for the time of only 200,000 plus dead.
Over the course of the next week or two I’ll be sharing new essays from a bunch of my favorite writers about their own Last Normal Day. I still haven’t entirely figured out if I’ll email them out each on their own to the newsletter every time because I don’t like to inundate your inbox, or if I’ll gather them together in bunches. Some will be for paid-subscribers only and some will be free so subscribe if you don’t want to miss any. In any case I’ve had to pay these fine folks for their time so if you like what you read and you can do so at this time please purchase a subscription so I can make projects like this possible going forward. Oh and if you want to write in and tell me about your Last Normal Day please feel free. Thanks for reading.
The Last Normal Day:
Part 2 by Zaron Burnett III
Part 3 by Luke O’Neil
Parts 4-5 by Chris A. Smith and Shane Ferro
Part 6 by Kim Kelly
Part 7 by Julieanne Smolinski
Part 8 by Josh Gondelman
Part 9 by Jeb Lund
Part 10 by Joe Keohane
Part 11 by Linda Tirado
Part 12 by Aisha Tyler
Packing and Unpacking
The day before the last normal day I was sitting in this bland corporate apartment in Chicago strategizing the fastest and least physically taxing way to pack up all my shit and drive it back to Michigan while somehow also managing to avoid all the death germs between there and here. I had been in Chicago for six weeks for work, which I thought meant that I was going to spend six weeks getting drunk with all my old friends from high school every night, but the job actually required my full un-hungover attention, and oh yeah, it was WINTER IN CHICAGO and no one wanted to leave their houses, let alone put on lipstick and pants with a zipper to meet me downtown for an overpriced drink. Oh the halcyon days of February 2020, when we had no idea just how much our future selves would regret not hauling our asses out in the snow to expectorate all over each other in a bar.
I like to have the news on when I’m puttering around at home because I find the drone of the newscasters oddly soothing, so I was aware that there was some kind of sickness that was happening in some other part of the world but, like, when everything is breaking news absolutely nothing is breaking news. MSNBC was breathlessly reporting that people in Europe and Asia were coughing to death from some new virus unlike any the world had ever seen before, and that airports were shutting down, but then with the exact same urgency would be reading a rundown of the president’s angry sports tweets. No one I knew really understood the magnitude of the crisis that was about to hit us. I went to work, I came back to my temporary home, I did all that again, and then suddenly the screaming headlines were like:
WASH YOUR HANDS
DON’T OPEN THE DOOR FOR ANY DELIVERY PERSON AND SPRAY YOUR MAIL WITH LYSOL
CANCEL ALL YOUR RESTAURANT RESERVATIONS
GLARE AT ANYONE WHO SO MUCH AS CLEARS THEIR THROAT IN YOUR GENERAL VICINITY
STOCKPILE TOILET PAPER FOR NO DISCERNIBLE REASON
SHOULD YOU BE WORRIED THAT YOUR CAT HAS COVID????????
GOOD LUCK FINDING SANITIZER!
PURCHASE THE DIGITAL VERSION OF “CONTAGION” ON AN IMPULSE AND TRY NOT TO SCREAM TO DEATH IMAGINING THAT AS OUR COLLECTIVE FUTURE
One day my boss emailed something to the effect of “Fuck this job. Flee the city before it’s too late!” and sure I’d been trying to open doors with my elbow for a week at that point but that’s when it really hit me that it wasn’t just a bad flu other people were catching. Covid was here and it was real and I needed to get back to my hermetically sealed bunker in Michigan before I caught it from a grocery cart or a high five.
I had a day to pack up my dumb apartment and hit the road so I could ride out the lockdown with all of my books and shirts (and my wife, I guess!) and instead of immediately throwing everything in a suitcase and hauling ass home I sat on the side of the bed and googled “coronavirus symptoms” while hoping the tickle in my throat was just allergies. (IT WAS.)
I was driving this rental car that was nicer than anything I’d ever even seen in real life before: a giant silver Cadillac SUV that was so fancy it didn’t even have a name, just a combination of letters and numbers that probably translated to “this bitch is too broke to drive this” in morse code or some shit. The multiple trips up and down in a high-rise elevator crawling with other people’s potentially deadly filth filled me with a sense of doom, while also forcing me to examine how one person could have so many different types of emotional wreckage. My contract said I was supposed to work for six or maybe seven (unlikely, though!) weeks. So then why on earth had I purchased:
-an Anthropologie fruit bowl made from surprisingly heavy wood, which was beautiful, but honestly the six pears I let rot inside it could have turned to mold just as easily on the fucking counter
-several different varieties of scented luxury candle, for an apartment with two distinct rooms, into which I never invited a single person
-a 96-count container of Tide Pods, literally the kind you buy for your large family of offensive linemen whose uniforms are in constant need of washing
What is it about me that feels compelled to make a concrete box filled with someone else’s generic furniture feel “cozy” when I’m just going to sleep and eat microwaved gluten-free frozen dinners in it?
Nothing feels more ridiculous than needing to pack in a hurry and confirming that you are a frivolous person who makes terrible decisions yet doesn’t have time to, ummm, unpack all that? I was trying to Jenga all this unnecessary garbage into the back of a car whose automatic seat positioning I had yet to figure out, a feature the Enterprise salesman had enthusiastically sold me on without ever teaching me how to use. It was midnight in the parking garage my fancy dorm shared with one of those acoustic-guitar-young-people churches (you know the kind I’m talking about) and I hoped no one came out and either 1) caught me looking like I was stealing my own stuff in the middle of the night or 2) infected me with a deadly virus they had recently caught on an airplane.
Illinois had pretty much shut down by that point and the highway was post-apocalyptic empty, which, if we’re keeping it all the way real, was kind of a relief. Pandemic cons: Death, uncertainty, economic collapse, the fall of our society. Pandemic pro: Absolutely zero traffic on I-94 at rush hour on a Wednesday. I’m sorry! I hate merging!
But it was fucking creepy, speeding down the expressway with seven other cars at 9am on a weekday. I kept waiting for the sky to turn black or zombies to surround the car (does the insurance cover destruction by the undead?) and pull me out so they could peel all the flesh off my bones or whatever but none of that happened. It was just me and a podcast about how social media destroys your brain barreling toward Michigan going 90 mph and hoping not to get pulled over.
I didn’t want to stop to pee (or poop, can you fucking imagine) because in those early days, before we knew officially that people couldn’t cough near you or breathe in the same room you were in, not touching your face and singing “Happy Birthday” while you washed your hands was the thing, and no place on this planet is worse for trying to keep bacteria off your goddamn hands than a gas station bathroom some stranger barfed in and pissed all over. I had wanted to get a coffee as big as my head on my way out of town but I resisted, resigning myself to the two swallows of water it took to get a couple Advil and an allergy pill down my throat so I could make the two plus hour drive back to Michigan without stopping. An hour into the trip my sluggish bladder and nonexistent pelvic floor were like, “Hey babe, isn’t your favorite truck stop near here?” and I sighed, but not too hard because I didn’t want to mess around and piss my pants in that nice ass car. I took the exit. My reward for working and packing and driving and making it halfway to my house was going to be a delicious gas station corn dog. I’d fucking earned it!
The Flying J Truck Stop in Lake Station, Indiana is basically an all-purpose gas station where you can take a shower and wash your clothes, but it’s also a restaurant and an electronics store and most definitely a hub for trafficking of some variety, and I didn’t even know a magical wonderland like it even existed until a few years ago when I was regularly driving back and forth between Kalamazoo and Chicago (before I finally left the big city for good) and stumbled upon it while looking for someplace clean to go to the bathroom that offered both a fully-stocked assortment of canned Arizona beverages and live ammunition. The Flying J is always teeming with grimy, unwashed truckers grunting racism at you as you squeeze past the freestanding Cinnabon kiosk. Nearby are the chafing dishes of congealed barbecued rib goo rapidly decomposing under the heat lamps at the hot bar next to the cigarettes and porn, and if you are lucky there will be one (but hopefully two!) glistening, grease-soaked, golden-brown batter-dipped carcinogen logs rotating on a crisping spit, or whatever they call those rolling curling irons they cook steamed sausages on, manned by delightful women named Brenda or Donna who always say things like “looking good today, sweetie” even when you are not, in fact, looking good. The corndogs are 2 for $2 because it’s Indiana for god's sake, and if they have two available you fucking! buy! two! They are meant to be consumed alone, without condiments, while softly weeping behind the wheel of the regular-person car you were forced to park next to a Bigfoot 4 with both confederate vanity plates and a Baby on Board sticker affixed to it, the hot juice from ground chicken lips and cat meat scorching your chin on its path to your shirt.
I had a mild panic attack while filling up the car: touching a gas pump feels like a dare even under normal circumstances. Having to wrap my clammy hand around the visible dirt and invisible disease at the onset of a mysterious, rapidly spreading global pandemic??? I could hardly fucking breathe! I could feel the germs slithering onto my skin, oozing into my open pores. I watched the numbers and did the deep breathing my nurse practitioner taught me and imagined someone at my funeral rolling their eyes like “of course that dumb bitch stopped to get a fucking hot dog,” but listen, I was down to a quarter of a tank and I’m a forty year old woman who has never done a single kegel exercise, I didn’t want to wet myself, ok?????
I walked into the station with my hands up like I was under arrest, trying not to accidentally touch anything or let anything accidentally touch me, and I scrubbed my hands and went to the bathroom and scrubbed them again while casually breathing in a billion droplets hanging in the damp potpourri air because we didn’t know yet about the whole mask business. I bought a can of Diet Coke and a corn dog and one pocket-sized Purell for every pocket of every single item of clothing I owned, and I took them to my car full of shit I didn’t need that I’d bought several weeks earlier that now felt like several lifetimes ago, and I sat behind the wheel of the car and cried from the stress and confusion of it all. Then I got worried that the virus was somehow living on my corndog and tossed it in a nearby trash can just in case those rumors about stomach acid killing coronavirus weren’t true, (they aren’t), and I drove the rest of the way home. I have not left since.
When I do, I know where I’m going. In two years, when we are all safely vaccinated and I no longer have to wedge food through the custom hole cut into my germ-soiled face mask, the Flying J, and its precious oily meat sticks, will be my first destination.