Recently, a friend shared a joke. Question: What’s the difference between COVID-19 and “Romeo and Juliet”? Answer: One is coronavirus; the other is a Veronacrisis.
Ha ha ha.
But it made me wonder whether we’d come to an important juncture in dealing with this invisible, insidious germ: the moment when we find mordant humor in the midst of grief and panic.
After my friend, who is also my housemate, told the joke, she and her partner and my partner and I sat in the living room, eating gluten-free brownies marbled with tahini (sounds weird, but delicious) and riffing about inventions that would help us through this crisis.
“What if there was a thing you could carry — like the back-up camera on your car — that would beep if you got within six feet of another person?”
“How about a wand that would sleuth out coronavirus clinging to your faucet or light switches? You could scan the house each night and know where to clean.” In the absence of such technology, we’ve stepped up our household hygiene; the last person to bed now bleach-spritzes the kitchen counters, the doorknobs, anything we’ve been pawing all day long.
My brother-in-law, phoning from his San Francisco apartment, where he’s sequestered with his wife and daughters, suggests a rubber band — one end attached to your wrist, the other to your pocket — that would allow you to move your hand, but not as far as your face. Just try to scratch that itchy eyebrow and — boing! — your fingers would spring back.
Even after we disperse for bed (it’s my turn tonight to wipe the doorknobs), I keep imagining: a pocket holster for hand sanitizer, a self-cleaning cell phone, a virtual-reality deep-tissue massage.
It’s too soon to know what large or small innovations, what poems or plays or epic novels, will come from this crisis. I’m buoyed by the ways humans have found to reach toward one another when we can’t literally touch: church services via Zoom; concerts to which one can buy an online ticket and listen from the couch; the New Yorkers applauding out their windows every night in a citywide cheer for health care workers.
How will we tell the story of coronavirus, years from now? Will we mark it as the moment when the world turned — first, like a tightening screw, then into a new era of collaboration and equity? Will it be the time when we finally understand that we are in it together, living and dying and gasping on this fragile knob of a planet? That our fates are inextricably tied — that if I cough and fail to cover my mouth, you could get sick?
My father’s mother hoarded twistie-ties and bits of string, aluminum foil and free rain bonnets from the bank. A drawer full of plastic shoehorns. Buttons jumbled in old medicine vials. She’d boast of making a whole tray of cinnamon cookies with a single egg.
Those weren’t idiosyncrasies; they were habits honed by the Depression, the necessary scrimp-and-save of a woman whose husband was gradually disabled from multiple sclerosis, a young mother forced to work — typing, shorthand — to feed her family.
We all carry the stories of our eras, our personal and collective traumas. After my great-uncle died of melanoma at the age of 37, my mother — his protégé and adored niece — pored over medical journals, a self-taught course in what caused cancer. Years later, as a parent, she drove me nuts by prohibiting dental X-rays, hand-stamps visible only in ultraviolet light, and any candy containing red dye #2.
What will be the legacy of this unnerving time? Will my daughter, decades from now, insist that guests pump a glug of hand sanitizer at the door? Will we adopt new ways of greeting — a bow, perhaps, like the Japanese, or a flutter of jazz hands when we meet for the first time? Or will we simply return, once the crisis has passed, to former habits, our auto-pilot, atomized lives?
This is the story I want to tell about coronavirus: That we woke up. That we grasped how much our world relies on fundamental trust, how even a handshake is a gesture of good will: no, nothing in my palm can hurt you.
I hope we learn that life is kinder (and air quality improved) if we drive less, shop efficiently, stagger our working hours and telecommute more, if our jobs allow. I hope it is a rebel yell to care for the most vulnerable, to weave a robust safety net that cushions the old, the ill, those with disabilities, those without citizenship. I hope it is reminder of whose work is truly essential — and a call to pay those workers what they deserve.
Coronavirus is so serious. We need to cry. We have to laugh. A joke, even a lame one, works by ratcheting up tension, then releasing it. It’s not a cure, but it’s a tonic, a momentary easing of that ribcage vice, the tangle of dread that wakes me each morning, vague until I remember, like a punch: Oh, yeah. Pandemic.
I hope comedians are scribbling on the backs of envelopes, writing routines that will help us laugh — gently, ironically, and without demeaning another human being.
Why did the coronavirus cross the road?
I don’t know. Wait for it. pjc
Anndee Hochman is the author of “Anatomies: A Novella and Stories” and an essay collection, “Everyday Acts & Small Subversions.” She lives in Philadelphia.