By Anndee Hochman
My roommate is trying to fix the dripping faucet. This is not a coronavirus problem: the tap in the kitchen has been weepy for years, and we’ve all mastered the decisive handle-twist—jam down, then pull quickly to the right—required to stop the drip.
But now that we’re sheltering at home, with an obsessive hand-washing routine and plenty of time to spare, Megan’s got a YouTube instructional video, an Allen key and a Rosie-the-Riveter look of determination on her face.
It’s a DIY kind of time, when social distancing calls us to stay twice an arm’s length from everyone but our co-habitants. That includes the UPS carrier, the cashier at Trader Joe’s and anyone we might, under ordinary circumstances, call to rewire the blitzed dining room sconce, trouble-shoot a malfunctioning modem or plumb the kitchen sink.
For us, this isn’t entirely a new normal. We—my partner and I, and our two longtime housemates—are the kind of Mt. Airy bunch my college-aged daughter wryly calls “crunchy,” by which she means that we shop at the co-op, still have a landline and brew our own kombucha in the basement.
As a child, reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books, it was easy to romanticize pioneer life. I wanted to dip my own candles and sew my own clothes, like Laura and her sisters. Tapping the trees, then making maple candy from the syrup, sounded like so much sticky delight. I envied the Ingalls family’s resourcefulness and grit through punishing winter storms and bouts of scarlet fever.
As an adult, I’ve found a cozy spot somewhere between the 1870s and this surreal century. I don’t cobble my own shoes, but I can sew a pair of pajamas, bake challah from scratch, grow basil in the side yard and—each redolent, profligate August—whirr it into enough pesto to last all winter.
I don’t aspire to live off the grid. I like the grid. I rely on it. But as our zone of activity shrinks in response to state and local stay-in-place orders, and as non-essential businesses shutter around us, we’re forced to rethink so many of the tasks we used to casually out-source.
Pharmacy emptied of hand sanitizer? No problem; we’ll mix our own with rubbing alcohol and aloe vera left from last summer’s sunburn! Physical therapist no longer taking appointments? Work that shoulder in the living room with elastic bands and hand weights!
Here’s the irony. Just as we’re separating for the sake of health—literally walking a wide berth around strangers on the sidewalk—we’re understanding the fathomless depth of our interdependence.
Each day, each choice, reminds me: My friend, who has asthma, considers getting tested for coronavirus after possible exposure to someone who may have the illness. On one hand, she’d like to know if she’s infected, so she can take extra steps to protect her in-laws. At the same time, she knows COVID-19 tests, and the protective gear that health workers need to administer them, are woefully scarce.
Or how about this one: We want to bolster struggling, family-owned restaurants, but we feel wary of take-out that might carry coronavirus—studies show it can live on plastic for up to three days—into our home. Or this: the spray cleaner that promises to kill the virus contains chemicals we’d normally shun as toxic for us and the environment. A grocery delivery service might keep someone employed—but is that really a good thing right now, for their health and for our own?
We’re learning how intimately tied we are, on the most micro scale—my hug or handshake could make you sick—and the global stage. One reason face masks are in such short supply is that China, where most health-care safety products are made, quit producing them for two months while workers were under quarantine. If the coronavirus has a sense of humor, it must be laughing its spiky, microbial head in irony.
With governors’ orders to sideline all “non-essential” workers, we’re learning, painfully, whose labor really counts. The guy who pumps your gas. The woman who, now gloved in blue latex, delivers your mail. The health care workers—applaud their altruism and pray for their well-being—who swab the throats of feverish strangers. The people who, night after tedious night, re-stock store shelves emptied of toilet paper.
The most crucial workers are often the most invisible, the least rewarded, the hardest slammed in any crisis. This tiny, mighty germ is showing us that. It’s showing us the true fabric of our safety net, the nodes of privilege and the gaping holes of racism and poverty. It is shouting —could the message possibly be any louder?—that sufficient food, clean water, affordable housing and accessible health care should be rights guaranteed to every human being.
We are not a do-it-yourself species. Even on the mid-19th-century prairie, survival depended on barter, on neighbors, on sharing mistakes, expertise and griefs. We are in debt to one another, more than we can say.
There’s a teaching, in Judaism, that human beings are always connected—bound by circumstance and need, by blood and choice, tethered to ancestors, teachers and people not yet born—and when we light candles at the start of any ritual, their glow illuminates those links.
That’s what coronavirus is showing us, in a devastating flash of light. This time, let’s not look away.
Anndee Hochman is the author of “Anatomies: A Novella and Stories” and an essay collection, “Everyday Acts & Small Subversions.” She lives in Mt. Airy.