I Refuse to Kill People by Pretending Things Are Fine

Normal life isn’t coming back. To pretend otherwise is deadly.

Patrons wait outside Caffe Dante in New York City on March 19, 2020, days after bars and restaurants were limited to to-go orders by the city. Photo: Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

The few times I’ve gone out to “enjoy” a nonessential service since shelter-in-place began in Chicago, I’ve found it to be an intensely guilt-ridden, hollow experience. Buying a coffee, getting a sandwich, shopping for clothes at Target when I didn’t really need to — I thought these exercises would feel comforting and normal. Instead, they have felt like a perverse mimicry of my old life, a game of pretend played at the expense of workers with a lot less power and security than me.

A week ago, I went to a walk-up window and bought a bubble tea. The shop had been open all month, ever since Illinois entered the tentative “Phase 2” of its reopening plan. I told myself what I was doing was safe. I reasoned it was good for me to support a small business. I hoped it would feel familiar and reassuring to make a silly, small purchase, and thought I deserved to dip a tentative toe back into the pool of normalcy.

The bubble tea shop was shuttered, all its regular tables and chairs piled up in the back. The door was locked, and one window was open a fraction of an inch. A lone employee was behind the counter, making drinks. You were supposed to signal to him you were ready to order by waving at the webcam that had been set up at the window.

When I made my order, the bubble shop employee stood as far away from the slit in the window as possible. A mask protected his face, blue latex gloves covered his hands. We struggled to understand one another through the layers of fabric and glass that separated us. When I pushed my money through the window, he took a step back with his arm extended awkwardly, maintaining as much distance as possible. When he handed me my drink a few minutes later, there was an urgency to his gestures; by shoving-off the drink, he silently begged me to take it and get away from him as quickly as I could.

Taking my drink from this clearly uncomfortable young man, I felt like a monster. It seemed absolutely perverse to subject another human being to all this discomfort and panic. I had imagined buying a drink would be a nice little respite, a fun diversion on one of Chicago’s first properly sunny days. Instead, it felt totally amoral and chilling. Walking home with it in my hand, I felt embarrassingly out of touch with the world, selfish to the point of being pathetic.

The world had been fundamentally transformed, and my purchase was a blatant attempt at denying that fact. I had tried to behave like life was returning to normal, but there was nothing normal about the transaction. There will be no more normal transactions, no thoughtless encounters, no guilt-free purchases. I’m coming to terms with that. I can’t understand why other people won’t.

In many of us there lurks the dangerous, selfish desire to pretend that things are fine. I recognize it for the willful self-delusion that it is, yet I still succumb to it. I try to fight it off for a while, cooking my meals at home and brewing stale coffee. But after a few weeks, the monotony wears thin, and the despair looms, and then I reach for pointless objects and frivolous services, believing that if I spend money with the abandon I once did, I will feel free.

I’ve done the compulsive Amazon-nesting so many other people have. I bought a yoga mat to lounge on, candles to de-stink my apartment, a color-shifting LED lamp I use to read while in the bathtub. I’ve walked to a café and ordered a latte using an iPad the owner had screwed to a brick wall outside the door. I’ve gotten takeout from restaurants where I used to eat.

I can cling to the symbols of my old life, but it’s never coming back. The sooner I accept it, the less harm I will do.

I try to justify these choices to myself. Yet I can’t help but recognize each one of these purchases is but a useless, lapidary little flower growing at the end of a long tendril of human suffering. For every silly, pointless object I buy, there are dozens of humans who were forced to come into work, made to toil in masks and gloves so I can imagine society is intact and everything is fine.

It’s never going to be fine. I can cling to the symbols of my old life, but it’s never coming back. The sooner I accept it, the less harm I will do.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the employee at the bubble tea shop. His discomfort was so palpable. I cannot fathom that throughout the country, there are thousands, maybe millions of Americans going through such uncomfortable, stilted transactions on a daily basis, and doing so gleefully, seeing it as an expression of their liberty. It seems impossible to me that someone could do what I did, over and over again, and feel zero remorse.

Chicago will likely remain in some form of lockdown for many months to come. Current projections hold that our curve won’t peak until mid-June, and we’ll be struggling to keep Covid-19 at bay for a long time after that. My home state of Ohio, however, is poised to open up. Indoor dining will be allowed beginning this week. On Friday, hair salons, gyms, and tattoo parlors will open back up. At the end of the month, children can begin going to daycare.

Like so many other red and purple states, Ohio seems content to carry on as though the coronavirus never happened. It doesn’t matter that the epidemiological data doesn’t support reopening. People have gotten bored with quarantine. Without businesses to frequent and objects to amass, many Americans are left without a means of expressing their identity, or of connecting with the outside world. They can’t tolerate that. The existential emptiness of it is too profound. And so they are going to go back to the malls and the movie theaters, pretending life is as it once was.

I am terrified for everyone I know and love who lives in Ohio, and will be subjected to the spike in cases this experiment will undoubtedly cause. I am horrified to think of the millions of Ohioans who are about to flock back to sit-down dining establishments, and go back to getting haircuts and tattoos, subjecting themselves and others to massive risk in the name of feeling, briefly, as though everything is okay.

Normal life is dead. It had to die so that millions of people might live.

All over the country, people have been taking up arms and protesting for the right to be so reckless. I wonder if any of those protesters tried exercising their rights and wound up feeling hollow the way I did. Does going to TGI Fridays feel the same to them as it used to? Are they comfortable getting their toenails buffed and polished by a terrified worker who is only there under immense financial duress? When they extract these services from people, do they tip 20%? Are they completely inured to what they are doing?

I don’t see how it’s possible to inconvenience and terrorize service workers repeatedly like this, without feeling a shred of regret. Yet I know that’s happening all across the United States, countless times per day. I understand the desire to go out and do these things. I fantasize about sidling up to the bar and ordering a hard cider, too. But I find it impossible to understand anyone who has actually followed through with that desire, and found it remotely satisfying.

Sitting at a restaurant table shrouded in shower curtains is not a return to normal life. Getting a massage from a glove-covered hand won’t heal the pain of isolation. There is no pre-Covid world lurking out there that we can return to. Normal life is dead. It had to die so that millions of people might live. Denying that fact only leads to perverted, distorted attempts at reliving old experiences, usually at the expense of dozens of vulnerable people.

Instead of trying to return to my old way of life, I am choosing to accept my old life is gone. I’m grateful I even get to make such a realization. Many people haven’t been so lucky. They’ve either died, or been forced to labor in unsafe conditions to help prop up another person’s fantasy of regularity.

The luxuries I’ve lost are meaningless, and every attempt at winning them back has felt far more horrific than simply doing away with them. I don’t need to get back to the bars. I don’t “deserve” a new tattoo. I can live without concerts and tanning salons. Keeping other people alive feels much better than whatever pleasure these diversions could give me.

Our lives have changed, and will remain changed forever. We are much better off when we accept that fact. We can’t bargain with the coronavirus; we can’t pivot around it in a way that allows us to pretend it’s not there. All we can do is stop grasping for our old modes of existence, knowing that in so doing, we are helping to keep other people alive. That realization is worth a lot more than any haircut ever was.

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