The global coronavirus pandemic has fully arrived in the United States in general and the Washington DC metropolitan area in particular. Breaking with our usual local traditions regarding foreign visitors, however, we did not throw it a parade. And while its arrival did not completely reduce Washington to a ghost town, the streets of the Nation’s Capital indeed became mighty sparsely populated, and very quickly at that.
Social distancing was no problem for me, though, since I live in Great Falls, Virginia, where my nearest neighbor’s home is about a hundred and fifty feet away from my front door. Entering my imported sports car within the confines of my garage, I drove, by myself, to a reserved parking space in the parking structure in the basement of the building downtown where my office is located. If there was someone in the elevator, I simply waited for the next one, and my office is large enough that having my clients sit on the couch, some eight feet away from my desk, was an easy precaution. Spacing the appointments so that there was never more than one person in the reception area at any time likewise proved to be no problem, especially since a lot of my clients immediately switched to remote presence options anyway.
Gretchen, being the ideal private secretary she is, naturally foresaw the need for N95 respirator masks and non-allergenic nitrile gloves, which she stocked up on back in January, before the World Health Organization changed the name of this particular coronavirus from SARS-2 to COVID-19, the new name being considered less frightening. And, as regular readers of this Web log will no doubt recall from my posts concerning a certain client who goes by the pseudonym “Ahmed,” Gretchen already had enough disinfectants laid in to sterilize a small hospital, including, she informed me, sixty spray cans of original formula Lysol, and ninety pump bottles of Purell hand sanitizer, neither of which, a container can be found anywhere in the DC area today for love nor money. So before she became tempted to profiteer, I immediately gave her a very respectable bonus in recognition of her admirable degree of perspicacity and told her to donate all of our masks, gloves, disinfectants and hand sanitizer to the DC health system for use by the now highly beleaguered doctors and nurses trying to cope with Washington’s – and the entire nation’s – pathetic lack of preparedness for a event that should have been an obvious inevitability, given the world’s previous experience with similar microbial plagues like N1H1 influenza, Ebola hemorrhagic fever, MERS and, yes, SARS-1. This she did, after I loaned her my car for that purpose, since, living in the city she doesn’t really need one. And whereas I didn’t want her riding around in taxis, Ubers, Zipcars or, God forbid, the Metro during a pandemic, she’s been working from home since St. Patrick’s Day.
So, anybody who wanted an in-person consultation at my office could have one, and if they caught COVID-19, it wouldn’t be from visiting there. Not, as I mentioned, that very many folks did. Roughly eighty-five percent of my appointments during the last weeks of March involved some sort of remote presence software like WebEx, Skype, Zoom or FaceTime, and, as usual in even ordinary times, Dr. Bell’s telephone contraption proved a very popular choice as well. Now, of course, since Washington, Maryland and Virginia (at least northern Virginia, anyway) have been completely locked down by state or city governmental decree since March 30, all such considerations are moot. My downtown office is locked up tight and I conduct all of my consultations remotely from the office on the second floor of my home.
And that’s where I was Friday, having nothing but remote consultations booked from eight in the morning until five-thirty in the afternoon. Around six, as I was winding up some post-consultation research, someone rang the front door bell, and when I accessed the security camera application on my LXDE desktop, I could see it was my brother-in-law Hank, and his sister-in-law Shannon, who, as long-time readers of this Web log will recall, in November 2012 took their respective family’s bank account balances, along with Hank’s family SUV, and ran off together to the wilds of West Virginia, there to prepare for the End Times, which, as staunch conservatives, they were absolutely sure would be precipitated by the re-election of Barack Obama (or the Antichrist, as they would call him) to a second term as President of the United States. Sad to say (for my sister Rose, who is Hank’s wife and Arthur, who is Hank’s brother, and both their large Catholic families since residing, as a result of the abandonment, together in Rose’s house in Fairfax County, Virginia) three and a half years of Donald Trump in the White House has done little to convince Hank and Shannon that the Apocalypse is not still immediately impending. This, despite the fact that Shannon is a rabid Trump supporter, big red MAGA hat and all, which, by the way, she was wearing when she stared back at the front porch camera and barked, “Damn it, Tom! It’s us! Open the [expletive] door!”
Which, as usual, and against my better judgment, also as usual, I did.
“Okay, Tom,” Shannon demanded as I met them in the living room, “Do you [expletive] believe us now?”
“That Barack Obama has finally caused the end of the world?” I japed as I motioned to the living room furniture, indicating that they should have seat. “Or that COVID-19 is the the first of the Four Horsemen? Either of you want coffee or tea? Perhaps a light snack?”
“Damn it, Tom,” Hank protested as he sunk into the lounge chair next to the bookcase by the window overlooking the front yard, “can’t you see how serious this is? Some coffee with a shot of bourbon would be nice. Got any doughnuts?”
“I have some excellent croissants,” I replied. “Almond, strawberry cream cheese, plum, apple pecan and raspberry. Also some awesome chocolate eclairs – with real egg custard filling, of course.”
“Um, yeah,” Hank mused staring up at the ceiling. Obviously, there aren’t a whole lot of gourmet pastries in West Virginia and it had been a while since he’d had to make a decision like this. “Let’s see… um, how about… strawberry cream cheese?”
“Coming right up,” I assured him as I rose from my seat on the living room couch. “Shannon?”
“Oh… [expletive],” she spat contemptuously, “all right, Hank, let’s humor him. I’ll have a [expletive] chocolate eclair. You have any brandy to put in my coffee, Tom?”
“Sure,” I responded. “Hennessy XO good for you?”
“Jesus [expletive] Christ!” she admonished. “You have got to stop throwing your money away on stuff like that and start buying some guns and ammunition!”
“So,” I razzed her, “I take it you would like your volcanic soil, shade grown organic Kona peaberry coffee plain, then?”
“I didn’t say that,” she shot back. “Make the [expletive] brandy a double. It’s been a long drive from West Virginia.”
“Certainly,” I said as I departed for the kitchen. “And that will be Woodford Reserve Chocolate Malted Rye bourbon for you, Hank. Double?”
“Oh hell,” he sighed, “why not?”
I decided to let them stew for a bit while I heated up the croissants and made the coffee (I opted for the apple pecan and a shot of Bushmills 21, by the way), spending the time perusing the email Inbox on my iPhone. When I returned to the living room with a tray of spiked coffee and pastries, Hank was sound asleep in the lounge chair, snoring softly. I guess it had been a long drive from West Virginia.
“Hank!” Shannon shouted as I entered. “Wake the [expletive] up!”
Hank woke with a start, looking around in confusion for a moment as he recalled where he was. A broad smile spread across his face when he saw the pastries and coffee. “Oh, yeah,” he quietly remarked as I handed him his plate and cup. “Just like old times.”
“Speaking of which,” I mentioned, “how about, when this coronavirus crisis is over, you come back to Fairfax? Rose and the kids really miss you, Hank, I’m sure you must realize that.”
“Forget it, Tom,” Shannon declared as she bit off a third of her eclair. “Given the circumstances,” she continued while chewing, then washing the eclair down with a righteous gulp of coffee with brandy, “you should be asking about coming to our survival complex and discussing the logistics of moving your sister’s family and mine there to join you.”
“If I were to suggest that to Rose,” I assured her, “I’m certain all I could expect would be a nice, hard slap in the face. And if I told your husband Arthur that, at this point, I think he’d just break down and cry. What do you two think you’re trying to accomplish, anyway?”
“We think,” Shannon insisted, “that it won’t be too long before you, Rose, Arthur and all the kids are down on your knees thanking us for saving them from what’s coming!”
“What’s coming,” I opined, “is an extended lockdown, followed by a protracted period of economic recovery. Things might not get back to normal for six to eight months. That’s the minimum time it took after the 1918 influenza pandemic. In some places, it hung on well into 1920, which also might happen with the coronavirus this time if certain Red State governors don’t take their heads out of their nether splits and order their citizens to stay at home like the rest of us. And of course, there’s a chance the virus might flare up again, but a vaccine should be available by the middle of next year. They didn’t have anything like that a hundred years ago, naturally, but even so, by 1921, everything was more or less back to normal anyway. Today, we should be able to do considerably better than that, so I’m not worried.”
“You’ll be pontificating out of the other side of your mouth,” Shannon growled, “when the water shuts off and the lights go out!”
“Well,” I observed, “the places in the United States that actually had electricity and running water a hundred and two years ago continued to have them throughout the flu pandemic. You’re talking about a complete societal collapse, which I’m sure suits your world view. But it doesn’t mean anything remotely resembling that is going to happen.”
“Hah!” she scoffed, swigging more coffee with brandy and snarfing off another mouthful of eclair. “I guess we will see about that, won’t we?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “We certainly shall. But tell me something – isn’t it true that the majority of people in West Virginia believe this whole coronavirus crisis is a hoax?”
“Yeah,” Hank nodded as he munched his croissant, “you’re right about that, Tom. When Shannon talks about the coronavirus being a sign of the End Times back there, most folks just stare at her like she has two heads. Except for the rest of them, who think it’s real, but that God sent it to punish illegal aliens, New Yorkers, Californians and other sinners, and they all think they’re immune to it because they’re good Christians and their prayers to the Lord are going to protect them.”
“Sounds like, when it comes to coronavirus, conspiracy theories and magical thinking aren’t restricted to your man Trump,” I concluded, pointing at Shannon’s big red MAGA hat. “His followers seem to be likewise afflicted. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“No,” Shannon flatly stated as she finished off her eclair. “Not one bit.”
“Well,” I told her, “frankly, I find the entire state of West Virginia rather disturbing. Here we have a place where you can’t spit without hitting a fossil and practically everyone who lives there believes the world was created by some bearded old man in the sky during one week six thousand years ago. Have you and your survivalist buddies given any thought to what that region might be like if the world outside it actually did collapse into chaos and barbarism?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Shannon said with an indifferent shrug as she finished off her coffee. “Our policy will be to shoot anyone who comes inside the concertina wire perimeter.”
“A concertina wire perimeter?” I smirked. “What do your neighbors think of that?”
“It’s not laid out now, dumb [expletive],” she scolded. “Not only would that give advance warning of our intentions, it would provide intruders with additional time to scout for weaknesses in our defenses.”
“And actually,” Hank chimed in, “our neighbors are too far away to see a concertina wire perimeter anyhow.”
“We spend a lot of time,” Shannon smugly confided, “thinking seriously about this [expletive], Tom. I just wish you would spend ten [expletive] minutes thinking about it seriously yourself. Got any more coffee?”
“Sure,” I replied, returning to the kitchen and bringing back a tray with a pot full and three bottles of liquor.
“Okay!” Hank enthused as he spied the beverages. “One thing I’ll give you, Tom, you’re one hell of a host!”
“Thanks,” I acknowledged as I set the tray on the living room coffee table.
“Yeah, it’s nice,” Shannon taunted, grandly gesturing at our surroundings with one hand as she poured brandy into her coffee cup with the other. “But you’re living in a house of cards.”
“Yeah,” Hank agreed, “just look at all the things you depend on – the police, the fire department, the mailman, the supermarkets, all that stuff. How are you going to survive if those people get sick?”
“If the mortality rate for coronavirus was thirty percent instead of three percent,” I allowed as I prepared a second Bushmills 21 coffee, “you might have a point worth considering. But as it is, your math doesn’t add up – or should I say, doesn’t multiply out. And under the circumstances, I might add, going around fear mongering isn’t going to win you any friends.”
“We don’t need friends,” Shannon declared, poking a finger in my direction. “We need allies. Like you.”
“Now.. what makes me think,” I wondered aloud, “that the next thing you’re going to do is ask me for money?”
“Just a few grand,” Hank interjected.
“Ten grand, actually,” Shannon corrected.
“To do what with?” I asked.
Hank dramatically put his coffee cup down and leaned forward. “Masks, Tom,” he whispered in a conspiratorial tone. “Top quality N95 respirator masks.”
“And gloves,” Shannon added. “Nitrile gloves – genuine hypoallergenic.”
“Completely hypoallergenic,” Hank vouched.
“And hand sanitizer,” Shannon continued. “We’re talking real Purell, Tom, still in the shrink wrap. And Lysol. Gallons of it, on shipping pallets. And protective gowns. And face shields.”
“And toilet paper,” Hank enthused. “Mountains of it. And paper towels, too. Not those wimpy ones, either, we’re talking double, triple ply, super absorbent, top of the line stuff.”
“And this is for your, um, survival bunker?” I inquired.
“Well, sure,” Hank dissembled, “some of it. I mean, we already have…”
“He means,” Shannon interrupted, “You can never have too many resources like that in times like these.”
“Okay,” I dryly replied as I slowly sipped my second cup of spiked coffee. “I think I sense something… of, shall we say, a sub rosa nature afoot here. Let me guess. Tell me if I’m wrong. Somebody came to you two and offered all this pandemic-related merchandise, sight unseen. Come on, tell me the truth. Neither of you have actually laid eyes this unbelievable hoard of things, all of which are currently in ridiculously short supply, now have you?”
At that, Hank bowed his head sheepishly. “Well, Tom, it’s like this. We…”
“Our source is absolutely trustworthy!” Shannon broke in.
“So you’ve dealt with this person before,” I sought to confirm, “and… successfully?”
“No,” Shannon hissed back at me in obvious irritation, “not directly. But he comes highly recommended.”
“By someone,” I pressed, “who you have, in fact, conducted authentic off-the-books, fell-from-the-back-of-a-truck, shady deals with, totaling multiple thousands of dollars in the past, right?”
“Not exactly, Tom,” Hank began, “but…”
“Will you shut up?” Shannon demanded, throwing Hank a stern glance. “Look, Tom, we can turn the ten grand around and have it back to you in two weeks, max, okay? We’ll even pay you interest if you want. How about five percent per week?”
“Do I look like a payday loan lender?” I asked.
“No, no, of course not, Tom,” Hank babbled in his best conciliatory tone, “she just meant that…”
“Stop telling people what I [expletive] mean!” Shannon shouted at Hank.
“Sorry,” Hank mumbled.
“Tom,” Shannon persisted, “this is a straightforward business proposition, that’s all.”
“It most certainly is not,” I objected. “In my opinion, it’s obviously a scheme to profiteer during a time of national crisis, and I’m not going along with it. Besides, it’s also painfully evident to me that you two could very well get killed in what is most likely a transparent and amateurish rip-off scam where I would be almost certain to never see my ten thousand dollars again.”
“But Tom,” Hank beseeched. “It’s not like…”
“Forget it,” I cut him off. “Even if I thought there really was a stash of crisis goods like that and you two could actually buy them and get my money back by selling them at inflated prices to desperate people, I wouldn’t go along with your proposal, only on strictly moral grounds, if for no other reason.”
“Oh yeah?” Shannon challenged as she killed her second cup of coffee and brandy. “Let’s see how high and mighty the great Tom Collins Martini feels when he has to come running to us with his tail between his legs six months from now, begging forgiveness for being such a [expletive] self righteous idiot! Come on, Hank, finish your god damned coffee! We’ve got other stops to make tonight before we head back to West Virginia.”
“Uh, sure,” Hank murmured as he gulped down his drink. “But, um… even if Tom won’t front us the ten grand, we… um, you know…”
“Ah [expletive]!” Shannon exclaimed as she rose from her seat. “I don’t suppose you could at least spare a couple of hundred for gas and [expletive] to get us back to West Virginia, could you?”
“Of course,” I assured her, and having had the foresight to grab my wallet on the way down to answer the front door, it was no problem to take it out of my pants pocket and peel off five hundred bucks, which I promptly handed to her. “No problem. Have a nice trip.”
In moments, they were gone. And as they departed, it occurred to me it was a good thing I didn’t mention that I had directed Gretchen to give away all those masks and gloves to the doctors and nurses who needed them to protect themselves while they saved lives. Because I’m pretty sure if I had, Shannon would have punched me in the face.