The Corona Diaries: Week 2

“Cause and effect, chain of events
All of the chaos makes perfect sense
When you’re spinning round, things come undone
Welcome to Earth, third rock from the sun.”

“Third Rock From the Sun”
Performed by Joe Diffie
Written by Sterling Whipple, Tony Martin and John Greenebaum

Week Two: Control

Monday, March 23, 2020

I plug back in. Happy Monday!

61 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Nebraska. The state legislature comes back into session and moves a 100 million dollar appropriations bill forward with no dissenting votes. Who says bipartisanship isn’t possible? Harvey Weinstein has caught the Coronavirus. Silver linings and all that. Rand Paul is the first senator to catch it. Former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar’s husband also has it. Sad end to her campaign.

Bekah comes in shortly after I do and places a bag of Fuji apples in my hands. It’s a kindly gesture that she’s been repeating for about three months. I thank her profusely and wish I could give her a hug. I silently wonder how much longer these luxuries will be available.

Jane feels we should truncate office hours for our own health and safety. Bekah and I are both using this job as much for an emotional crutch as anything. Both of us want to be here to feel structured and productive, if nothing else. Easier for me than Bekah since I have no social life and spend a lot of time alone anyway. Bekah has friends, support groups, art stuff, etc. I just have my job and my apartment.

Bekah says, “I plan to keep on coming in until I’m told not to.” I point out that, even if we are in limited contact, we might still risk contracting or spreading the virus. It’s an obligatory argument and I don’t press too hard. Privately, I wish we’d keep the office open but lock the doors. We’re doing 100 percent of our business by phone, text and E-mail as it is. I floated that idea to Jane on Friday but she resisted because they don’t carry their keys on them as I do and they might get locked out. Jane wants to put up a sign warning away visitors, but Bekah seems to disapprove. The issue is resolved with the office hours remaining as they are; eight to five.

Bekah and I nearly get into a verbal shoving match over the substitution of the Entertainment On the Go segment, which has been put on hiatus until the Go Section of the Omaha World Herald returns. The nature and tone of our disagreement is out of proportion to the issue itself, and I think both of us know it. Why is it so important whether Tom Shomaker or Frank Herzog runs in that slot? That question is never fully answered. It almost feels as if we are two people both trying to grab the same bar of soap floating in a bath tub.

Late evening. I get annoyed when I realize I left the sack of apples at work. I try to post The Corona Diaries: Week One, only to discover that WordPress has rearranged the dashboard. It takes me forever to figure out how to post it. I finally get the date right, but the time won’t update correctly. Pricks!

I cut short my nightly hot bath, complete with a Lavender Lullaby Bath Bomb, just so I can try again to share my inane thoughts with my limited social media circle. Wrestling with WordPress counteracts any relaxation I gained from my bath, and I just go to bed annoyed and weary.

Tuesday, March 24

65 cases confirmed in Nebraska. Over twice as many next door in Iowa, who reported their first COVID-related death today. The Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been postponed for a year. Trump is getting presidential cabin fever. He wants to, “Open things up,” by Easter. What was that I heard about July or August a week ago? Trump did give Governor Ricketts a shout-out, saying that we’re doing a great job of keeping our numbers low. Of course, we haven’t really ramped up testing yet and thus, we have no idea what the numbers really are, but why bring reality into it? Both the federal and state tax deadlines have been pushed back until July 15. The DCHD strongly suggests that all beauty and tanning salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors, etc, close down. Nebraska Furniture Mart, a staple of household buying in the region, announces that it will be closing on Friday until the crisis abates. Guess I shouldn’t have waited to switch out my too-soft mattress for a firmer one. Who knows how long I’ll be waking up with a pillow between my legs and a crick in my neck.

When I board the morning bus, the driver tries to tell me something once we get rolling.

“Hey, man. Can you wait until we hit Benson? I can’t hear you because of the loud rattling.”

20 minutes later at Benson Transfer Center, he tries again. “Sorry, Ryan. Old bus. I wanted to let you know that they are gonna reduce this route. Maybe next week. We’ll probably be going to a weekend schedule, which means the half-hour runs will be cut and we’ll only go once an hour. I won’t be on this route until this thing is over.

“Does that mean they’re going to bench you?” I ask.

“Probably” he says. “A lot of drivers are sidelined for now.”

Early afternoon. Bekah comes into the control room and tells me that, as of tomorrow morning, the North door (the one I usually use) will be locked. They are still seeing patients and only want to keep the South entrance open so as to funnel all people past the new screening station, which just happens to be located right outside our back door.

Bekah says, “You can take the sidewalk around the other way. If you follow it, you will eventually come to the sliding doors. There’s a shortcut, but you’d have to walk through the grass.

Jane doesn’t want me walking through the grass either. “Ryan, you could get your shoes all muddy if it rains.”

At three o’clock, I put on my ridiculously expensive and ineffective Columbia coat and go outside. I exit the North door, hang a hard right and almost immediately, my shoes touch soft, spongy grass. I can feel a little mud as I walk forward, but soon, I encounter solid grass again. I bear right, clicking my tongue once or twice in the absence of my tapping cane so as to produce an echo off the wall of the building. Within two minutes, my cane taps pavement, the sound of the metal tip acting as a sonar off the building, which is still to my right. I turn toward it and soon, I’m walking in the South entrance.

Just for good measure, I go back out the North door and trace the sidewalk in the other direction. I follow Bekah’s instructions and again locate the South door easily. The lady at the screening table is impressed.

“I was outside for about seven minutes total. Do I need to get screened,” I ask. She chuckles dryly. I think she’s bored.

Truthfully, this is a good feeling. I haven’t done a lesson in structured discovery cane travel in about six years. Nothing satisfies quite like the accomplishment of conquering a travel route. I think again of all of those CCB students who have had the misfortune of interruption in their education.

Bekah and I finally shatter all current social norms and share a friendly hug before I leave. If I get the virus, blame her.

Wednesday, March 25

66 cases confirmed in Nebraska. Late last night while I dreamt of a female acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) in a state of undress in a hot tub, Congress finally got serious and agreed upon another COVID stimulus bill, mostly pork-free. Ben Sasse was one of the few senators to vote against it. I respect the hell out of the guy’s willingness to stand on his beliefs against a tidal wave of opposition, but I wonder if he’d be willing to deliver a few Cheese Runzas to my door when he is returned to private life this November. In Denver (my adopted home town), RTD announces that they will be going to a weekend schedule for all buses and light rails. This change could last until September. The catch… They’re not implementing the changes until April 19. So, about the time that President Trump’s economy is supposed to come roaring back from slumber, Denver mass transit spins down. Meanwhile, back in Cornland, Governor Ricketts signs an executive order postponing all evictions across the state until May 31. There was a time when I would’ve felt sympathy for my land lord, but that was before management allowed raccoons to frolic unencumbered in the crawl space above my apartment for the better part of a year. That, plus the dirty trick they pulled when they switched out my thermostat for a touch screen one without telling me, hardens my heart against landlords everywhere.

When the morning bus pulls up, the driver informs me that they are no longer charging fare for riders. When the afternoon bus comes, the driver pulls up so I am compelled to enter through the back door. Social distancing comes to the Omaha Metro bus lines.

My best friend Katy tells me that, as of last night, everyone at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind was sent home. They are all forced to use their own PTO until April 2, when they are supposedly going to start receiving federal sick leave pay. She has enough PTO to make it, but she’ll have to burn it all. This doesn’t come as a shock. The Seattle Lighthouse contracts with Boeing Airlines, and we all know how their bottom line is doing these days.

Katy sounds bummed when she speaks of it. Like me, she’s not crazy about the city in which she lives, but she loves her job. Part of me is relieved. I’ve been worried about Katy even before I was worried about myself. Seattle was one of the first places to amass an outbreak. Katy shrugged it off; another of the NBD crowd. At least she will be home and out of circulation. She’s better at living in seclusion than others, but she lives with her boyfriend. Who knows how a sedentary lifestyle will affect them.

Back in Omaha, my work day is the first smooth one I’ve had since I came back, though there is still an undercurrent of tension in the office. All programs air when they are scheduled to air. Dropbox behaves itself as it should.

Thursday, March 26

81 cases confirmed statewide. National unemployment claims are off the chart, with 3.28 million filing for benefits in one week, which is more than quadruple the previous record. America now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. I am dubious about this claim, since we cannot trust the information that comes from China. In fact, I am stunned that so many people who rightly call President Trump out on his BS will swallow propaganda whole from the Chinese Communist Party. The gang at The Dispatch Podcast drags Logan’s Run out of mothballs in response to a growing chorus on the right who feel that the country should sacrifice its elderly, at-risk population in favor of stimulating the economy. Personally, I think the analogy is more appropriate to Star Trek: The Next Generation. You remember the episode where Winchester from M*A*S*H is euthanized because he commits the grand crime of turning 60, right after he falls in love with Deanna Troi’s mom? This was back when Captain Picard was younger and much happier.

At 7:10 this morning, two minutes before I walk out the door, my phone dies. I know it is dead because Voiceover suddenly stops and the heartbeat click when I touch the home button is non-responsive. I plug the phone in and, 30 seconds later, it “Blee-bloops!” to life. The battery level is 11 percent. This is odd, since I just took it off the charger after it was plugged in all night. A quick check of my battery health shows that I am at 73 percent battery capacity. Small wonder.

This disturbs me. My phone is three years old and I’ve been due for an upgrade for over a year. I haven’t bought a new phone, mostly because a lot of my extra money went toward Mags’ vet bills. I’d half thought of buying a new iPhone during my now-doomed vacation to Des Moines so I could get used to it in the company of my tech nerd buddies, Joe and Wes. But now, is it even safe to buy a new phone? Can I practice social distancing in an Apple Store? Can an Apple employee work a phone with gloves?

My phone is my life line. I do everything with it; communicate with friends and family, interact with social media, monitor my travel, hale Lyft and Uber, order deliveries, listen to music, play Dice World, get anxiety over news alerts, and even work. I use the Dropbox app on my phone to move files around from place to place and also monitor the RTBN audio stream with TuneIn Radio. If I were to be without a phone, I’d be screwed.

When my bus shows up, my driver refuses to let me board through the back door in compliance with Metro’s new policy to maintain social distancing. I try to gently educate my way past his groundless fears.

“My driver yesterday afternoon opened the back door for me and I boarded just fine.”

“What! That’s just wrong! What a prick!” the guy protests. “What was his name? Did he drive you yesterday afternoon? What time?”

“No, I don’t know his name. I left work early yesterday,” I lie.

I’m in the middle of Kylie Minogue’s “Timebomb,” when we hit 90th and Maple. Over the music, I can hear a steady beeping coming from the front of the bus. I stop the music, pop our my earbuds and listen. The bus is running smoothly, the motor seems solid and we’re rolling. Eventually, I resume the music.

Later as I debark, I hear two distinctive beeping sounds from the front. It sounds a lot like those obligatory crisis scenes in every medical TV show.

“What’s that,” I ask the driver.

“Oh, uhh, that’s just my hazard lights. I got’em turned on.” I am less than confident in his forthrightness. Why would he turn his hazard lights on just to drop me off?

It turns out that the phone and the bus are harbingers of the chaos that is to come. It starts when Bekah sends a text to us that says, “I won’t be in early today. MeMe will send you a weather, Ryan.”

Then I realize that I forgot to record the birthday announcements for the upcoming week. I grab my antique Perkins braillewriter, roll up some makeshift paper and bang out the birthdays. I barely get them in on time.

9:30 rolls around and I have neither paper that is due for the 10-to-noon block. Quick calls to the two volunteers reveal that both are having issues with Dropbox. Then, in the midst of trying to trouble shoot for them, the broadcast goes dead. It turns out that the volunteer who recorded the Columbus papers left huge gaps of silence in her file. It’s not her fault. Her audio probably dropped out and she didn’t realize it. But the timing sucks worse than my jump shot. I have to air the shows in reverse order, which is no big deal but stressful.

Then another volunteer calls in and says that Dropbox is giving him fits, so I help him through it. Bekah comes in by 11 and helps take up the slack, but before noon, I end up helping five volunteers with uploading issues.

As I sit in the bathroom, the tinkling sound of processed coffee and Diet Dr. Pepper splashing in the water below, I take quiet solace in the knowledge that God is reading my writing. He even reads it before it is published on the internet. He was hovering over my shoulder last night when I wrote about a smooth work day. He was also eavesdropping on our staff meeting yesterday when I asserted that I was sure we had ironed out most of the bumps in our remote reader system. Why else would he deliver a swift, celestial kick to my man parts in an effort to refocus my attention?

A little before one, MeMe asks if she can be excused from our daily meeting so that she can finish some work. Jane agrees, so we abort the usual conference call. I talk to MeMe on the phone and she sounds tired and beleaguered. She is at the greatest risk of contracting the virus, so she works from home and seldom goes out. I worry that it is taking a toll on her.

Jane and MeMe are both senior citizens. Jane is still in the office, but MeMe is self-quarantined. Still, she works her fanny off every day to help Radio Talking Book keep rolling. Susan also calls to check in. She’s a nice old lady who doesn’t read for us, but comes in twice a week to do administrative work with our radios and database. She also reads my mail for me once a week and has been known to run me to the store a time or two.

So when I hear of a segment of the population suggesting that MeMe, Jane and Susan should sacrifice themselves for the greater good, I want to cancel some life-clock crystals.

On the plus side, Bekah lets me read a grant proposal that she wrote and asks for my feedback. It makes me feel pretty good.

When I catch the afternoon bus, the driver has no problem allowing me to enter and exit through the back door. I notice two strips of tape strung across the aisle about half way back.

Further proof that God is pushing the pendulum. Tonight, I get an Email from AT&T. Part of it says:

“To further insure we’re taking the proper steps for our customers and employees, we’ve adjusted our retail store presence to focus on handling first responder and critical customer needs. We’ve also reduced hours and taken extra cleaning and social distancing precautions.”

There’s a rumor going around that broadcasters are first responders. I am a licensed broadcaster in the state of Nebraska. Hmmmm.

Friday, March 27

89 confirmed cases in Nebraska. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces that he has tested positive for COVID-19. President Trump signs the stimulus package, which will cost American tax payers $2.2 trillion. Nebraska has seen its first two casualties from the virus, both reported on the same day. If the good folks are depressed over this, they can now drown their angst by ordering take-out liquor from bars and restaurants, as long as they keep a lid on it.

When the morning bus arrives, I decide to practice a little civil disobedience. As he pulls up, the front door opens, but I move toward the back of the bus, sliding my cane along the metal side until it touches the groove indicating the seam where the back door is located.

“Ryan, you can come in the front! Ryan! Ryan,” the driver yells.

“It’s okay. I’ll come in the back. Open the door, please,” I holler. After a few seconds, I hear a click, indicating that the lock on the door has been released. I step back and wait for the door to swing open, but it doesn’t. There is no way to pull it open, so I’m stuck.

“The door won’t open,” he says. “Come up front.”

I decide not to argue, so I go in the front. Once I am seated and we’re rolling, he says, “The back door is for other people, not you, man.”

I’m sure Rosa Parks is having a nice chuckle somewhere in the Great Beyond. I find it ironic that I’m being told not to go to the back of the bus by an African-American driver.

Later, after we leave Benson Transfer Station, I decide to deal with the issue. I pocket my phone and earbuds, get up and walk toward the front of the bus. There are no strips of tape to block my path.

“Hey, man. I want to ask you a question. I hope you won’t find it intrusive,” I say.

“Go ahead,” he says.

“Are you African-American?”

Without hesitation, he answers, “Nah. I’m Asian, actually.”

“Ahh. Got it,” I say. I quickly shift gears in hopes that he won’t have time to inquire why I’m asking about his race. “If I can ask another question that I hope isn’t presumptuous, do you get offended when people refer to the Coronavirus as, The Chinese Virus?”

“Well, yeah, kinda,” he says. “I think people who call it that are inconsiderate. I mean, I know the virus came from China and all that, but there’s a lot of people all over the world who spread it from place to place. It’s not like our country took it seriously at first, anyway.”

I can’t argue the point.

“Are you worried about getting the virus?”

“Yeah, a little,” he says, his voice lowering a bit. “I have a wife and kids. I really worry about them catching it. I just try to be careful at work and wash my hands a lot.”

“But what if I have the virus,” I ask? “Don’t you worry you might get it from me if I board at the front of the bus.”

He waits a beat, then says, “Well, you’re not really that close to me, anyway. I know you’re good.”

At that point, we turn off of 72nd Street on to Newport, he pulls up to my stop. We both wish each other well. “God bless,” he says as I step off.

This will be the last time we see each other for a while. Monday morning, he goes on to what is called a Waiting Board, while I get to sleep in an extra half-hour before going to work in the wake of Metro’s route reduction.

My pal Bridgit would scold me at this point if she were here. She’s previously cautioned me about judging the race of a person by only their voice. I truly do hope I encounter this guy again. Maybe we can go out somewhere and have a beer summit. He can tell me all about his culture, and I will impress him by taking the stairs unassisted, rather than the elevator or a, “Handicap ramp.”

The day is notable because Bekah and I have a candid conversation about control freaks. I won’t share most of it because a lot of it is personal, but she and I both admit that we’re very much alike in our need to control our space.

After the weight of killer viruses, racial and ableist stereotypes and heartfelt discussions about control, my day is leavened when I teach Jane how to use Dice World to play Yahtzee. It only takes her 15 minutes to figure it out.

“I don’t really like this game, Ryan,” she mutters. “I don’t like playing games on my phone.”

“Ok, boomer,” I reply.

“Asshole,” she retorts. I guess the threat of unseen death all around us has slowly eroded the veil of professionalism that used to exemplify our idyllic work environment. I think she’s really upset because I came from behind and won the game. If any of you reading this play Dice World, barrage Reubenjane with game requests.

Truthfully, I’m trying to cheer Jane up because she seems down. In her own way, I think this change in routine has hit her the hardest. Bekah, MeMe and I are all scrambling to make Radio Talking Book sound as close to normal as possible. In some ways, my days are busier and longer than they were when we were operating under standard conditions. Yet, Jane is the public face of the company. She is a hard-wired extrovert who has sales and public relations in her blood. During normal times, she was constantly on the go at breakfast meetings, luncheons, afternoon seminars and evening gatherings. If she’s not out on the road spreading our good word or visiting listeners to help them with their radios. She’s bringing in people for tours, on-air interviews and fundraising chats. In the wake of the cancelations of all of the fairs and conferences we usually attend at this time of year, Jane’s professional life has largely been put on hold.

I talk to my folks on the phone. They are headed to the lake this afternoon for the weekend, even though the weather is supposed to be lousy. Mom plans to send me a care package and she promises to toss a couple rolls of toilet paper in. She’s sent other care packages to her grandkids up at the ranch, but they seem to be taking longer and longer to get there of late.

That night, I again order delivery from Doordash. Once again, I call the driver and ask if he wants a ‘no contact’ delivery. Once again, he says, “That’s alright. I’m not really worried about it.”

Saturday, March 28

I try to unplug from the news again, but my phone won’t let me. Due to expanded testing, Nebraska has seen 95 confirmed cases. But I’m really worried about Iowa. They have 298 confirmed cases. My pal Wes lives in Des Moines. I was supposed to be waking up on his air mattress this weekend with an aching back and a need for strong coffee. Joe and Sharonda live there. They just celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary last October. Sharonda has underlying health conditions. Ross just moved to Des Moines a month ago to take a new job. He may be stranded and unable to come back to visit his family if things get worse. Alicia and Dana live in central Iowa. I wonder what’s next for all of them.

When the morning bus pulls up, the driver opens the back door instead of the front. The crime scene tape is strung across the aisle just in front of my seat. He drops me at the wrong spot, but it only takes a few extra seconds for me to retrace my steps and locate the building.

As I walk around to the south door, I stop in the moist grass. The air is chilly and smells strongly of rain. There is no distant traffic. But the thing that really captures my attention are the sounds of many birds singing in the nearby trees. I stop on the lawn of Medical Building Three and just listen. The birds sound as if it’s just another normal day in paradise. I have no idea what kind of birds they are. Mom or Grandma would know. But their chorus is a peaceful counterpoint to the chaos of this new normal. A flock of geese flies overhead, honking their way westward. Where are they headed? Can they fly some place safe? Is there any place safe, I wonder?

I stand in the grass for nearly 10 minutes, just soaking up the bird song and mercifully cool air. Then, the serenity of my morning is blown to hell when my phone beeps. “On my way,” Michael texts. I remind him to park in the south lot and use the sliding doors because the north door is locked.

Things go smoothly. Both remote readers get their papers in on time. Michael does just fine and reads a magazine in one of our recording booths. At 11:15, we’re all done and we decide to take off early. Michael drops me at Hy-vee again. He tells me that things are still crazy where he works. His manager, normally a belligerent fellow in temperament, threw a tantrum the other evening, complete with cursing and flying objects. When Michael drops me at the store, I hand him a $10 bill, careful not to let our hands touch. I tell him to fill his tank, but he tells me he’s going to use it for lunch at Raising Cane’s. Lucky duck.

Once again, Sheila is my shopping aid. She is maintaining her positive attitude and generous spirit. I only buy a few things. In case I suddenly have to shelter in place, I have enough food and toilet paper for two weeks.

I check out. Sheila walks me and my cart to the front entrance. I bid her goodbye, dip my hand in my pocket to grab my phone and summon a Lyft… And my fingers flutter like bird wings against the cloth of my jeans. I left my phone on the charger at work. My stomach plummets, my balls tuck up and my head spins like a Tilt-A-Whirl.

What now? Can I borrow a land line in the store and call someone to come get me? Jane would certainly do it, but I don’t know her number. Could I call Kevin, Robert and Bonnie, Mitch and Jenni, Bob and Laurie, or Nancy? Impossible. I don’t know their numbers either. The only Omaha number I can remember is that of Radio Talking Book. Remembering phone numbers is so ‘90’s.

Sheila finally uses her own cell phone to call me a cab. She has to Google the number for Metro Taxi because I’ve never used it. She offers to wait with me until my ride comes, but I tell her to get on with her busy day.

It’s a long wait without my phone. I can’t monitor the progress of the cab, or call them to get an ETA. I can’t pass the time on Twitter or Facebook, play Dice World or flirt with Kelly on WhatsApp. I can’t listen to music or check Email. All I can do is guard my grocery cart and wait. What am I going to do if they take an hour?

Actually, it takes a cab about 15 minutes to show up. My driver is named James. Turns out that he knows a predecessor of mine who used to work at RTBN. He knows a few other blind people. It takes me back to a time when, for better or worse, cab drivers were more interwoven in the blindness community than are ridesharing drivers of today.

James has a speech impediment. At first, I wonder if it’s an accent, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask him where he’s from. I’ll guess Asia or India, and he’ll turn out to be from some place like Blue Heaven, Idaho. He drives me home, waits while I dump my groceries in my fridge, then drives me to work so I can pick up my phone. He keeps talking to me on the way, but he’s hard to understand at times. I am grateful for the music he plays. Billy Joel, Styx, The Pretenders, Night Ranger and Boston, along with the moist breeze from the open window, help me relax as we drive.

James drops me at the south door and I pay him $20. Thank God I have cash! I run inside, snatch my phone off the desk, unplug the charging cord, check the time and realize that I have two minutes to make the bus home. Not enough time to wash my hands. I run outside, dash across the empty street and make the bus stop. I made it!

There’s a fine drizzle, but I whip out my phone anyway and decide to leave Katy a quick message telling her about my crazy day. The message is about two minutes. I finish, send the message… And my phone dies. My stomach drops. My balls tuck up. The bus rolls to the curb and the back door opens.

I manage to restart the phone during the trip. It tells me I have 3 percent battery, yet I make it all the way home with Foreigner, Electric Light Orchestra and Grand Funk Railroad for company, all while the battery level remains constant.

It’s 3 PM when a sudden, loud peal of thunder heralds the arrival of a storm. I think it may be the first of the season. I go out on my balcony to bring in my folding rocker. The rain feels good on my face and arms. The thunder booms and the wind rattles my screen door. My robe billows up and I wonder if God cares that I’m au naturel underneath. Are any birds watching? Do they care? I stand there until I start to shiver, then come back in, peel off my soaking wet robe and crawl into bed.

Then I remember to call AT&T. After deftly navigating the maze of menus, I finally reach Bryson, the store manager at the Dodge Street location. Yes, they are still maintaining limited store hours locally. Yes, they have all models of the iPhone 11 available. Yes, they can work with me on setting up the phone and it won’t violate their new social distancing policy. No, they are not open tomorrow. No, he can’t help me with account details until I get there. I tell him I’ll probably see him Monday afternoon and hang up. I am relieved that AT&T is still open so I won’t have to venture to the Apple Store, which is clear over in Village Point.

Finally, I begin to relax. The storm has died down. It was a short one. For me, it felt like a much needed purge. I slap on my mask, turn on a Robert B. Parker book and begin to doze.

Shit! I forgot to take Bridgit her newspapers for packing!

Sunday, March 29

For the first time in 13 days, I sleep in. I don’t go anywhere or do anything all day, except help Michael with programming remotely. He does a fine job running the computer and I tell him he’s ready to fly solo next weekend. He’s lonely at work with no one but the ghosts in the empty building to talk to.

I am bound and determined to unplug for the day. I believe my mental health depends on social distancing from current events for a time. I read my book, grill some breakfast sausage, play virtual Farkle with Wes and Kelly and get annoyed by an AT&T customer service rep who jive talks me about an upgrade package. Maybe it’s time to switch to Verizon.

Bridgit sounds as if her voice is coming from the depths of a pressure cooker. She and Ross picked the worst time to move and their landlord isn’t very sympathetic to their plight. Luckily, she doesn’t bust my chops about the newspapers. Instead, she tries to explain to her eight-year-old that Santa’s elves are social distancing up at the North Pole.

Katy and I watch the latest episode of Better Call Saul via Facetime. At one point, Saul and Kim have a major fight. Kim says, “Either we end this now and enjoy the time we had and go our separate ways, or…or…or maybe we get married.” This cracks my shit up! I wonder how many relationships around the country are now cases of life imitating art in the wake of compulsory isolation.

All in all, a quiet day.

Then, at 3:40 PM, reality roars back into my life like a pickup truck. Wes texts me and says, “Damn! Joe Diffie passed away due to this virus.”

Channel Six confirms the story. Joe Diffie, age 61, was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Friday and passed away from complications stemming from the infection today. Damn! He was younger than my parents, my boss and many of our volunteers.

Joe Diffie. Staple of my latter teenage years when I came back to country music. I gave my pal Shane his second album, Regular Joe, as a high school graduation gift. When we were roommates at the center, Shane would crank up “I Ain’t Leavin’ Till She’s Gone,” and belt it out at the top of his lungs. A television sitcom was named after one of his songs, “Third Rock From the Sun.” I saw Joe in concert in Council Bluffs in the summer of 1995. I had the pleasure of shaking his hand after the show. He seemed like a humble guy. Alicia and I saw him again in the summer of 2002 when he was touring with Tracy Lawrence and Mark Chesnutt. I saw him for a third time at the Nebraska State Fair in 2007 just before I left for Denver. He never failed to put on a crowd-pleasing show.

I text Shane and break the news to him. “Thanks for alerting us to it dude. I’m just stunned.” Shane was always rather laconic in his emotional expressions.

When Kenny Rogers passed away a week ago, no one was surprised. He was 81 years old. But this… This is a shocker. And as I prepare to head out to the balcony for my weekly cigar and beer, I don’t listen to the usual book or radio show. Instead, the neighbors are treated to “Good Brown Gravy.” It’s a beautiful day with the sun out in all of its glory, a gentle breeze and a temperature of 61. A nice day for your last one, if you have a choice.

Joe was best known for his frivolous novelty songs; “John Deere Green,” “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox,” “Pickup Man.” To me, his best work was his serious stuff. “Ships That Don’t Come In,” was kind of an anthem for me during my college years. But it was his very first hit, “Home,” that was always my personal favorite. The lyrics now seem darkly prescient. Life seemed so simple at first, but as we travel onward toward an unknown destination, our path becomes exponentially more fraught and circuitous.

“Now the miles I’ve put behind me ain’t as hard as the miles that lay ahead
And it’s way too late to listen to the words of wisdom that my daddy said.
The straight and narrow path he showed me turned into a thousand winding roads.
My footsteps carry me away, but in my mind, I’m always goin’ home.”

RIP, Joe. At last, you’ve made it.

108 confirmed cases in Nebraska.

Performed by Joe Diffie
Written by Fred Lehner and Andy Spooner

The Corona Diaries

In 2010, I read the book, One Second After, by William R. Forstchen. My former pal Eddie, bona fide conspiracy theorist, recommended it to me. I devoured it in a day and a half.

The premise is simple. A foreign power detonates an Electromagnetic Pulse bomb (EMP) over America, causing all power to fail. Society quickly crumbles with no electricity to run it. The action centers on a small town in South Carolina and illustrates the changes that take place as order breaks down.

As I reviewed the book with my friends I said, “If this ever were to really happen, blind people would be the first to go.”

No one disagreed.

Week One: Anatomy of a Hoax

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Shit gets real when I wake up with a sore throat.

Your brain has a way of lying to you when you’re first getting sick. You tell yourself things like, my CPAP mask just slipped while I slept and I just have a dry throat. But after an hour of wakefulness when that swollen feeling is still in your neck, you know it’s not a dry throat.

We had been discussing measures to prepare for the spread of COVID-19 for several days at work. Other radio reading services around the country have already asked their volunteers to stay home. Some are discussing the possibility of closing altogether. The day before, I’d tried to phone a former coworker in Boulder, only to be greeted by his voicemail. I didn’t bother to text him.

In staff meetings, the other ladies have a plan. Bekah pulls up LogMeIn and figures out how to access all of the computers in the control room. At one point in a meeting, she says, “I Don’t mean to be a dick, but if we get shut down, I can cover your end, right Ryan?”

And I can’t argue with her. Whatever happens behind the scenes, the show must go on. But I get quietly furious inside. But this is a nice little pond where I work and I don’t want to create ripples. I want to scream, I’m not being paid a salary of $$$ just to sit with my thumb up my ass! I just sit quietly and absorb, knowing I can’t work from home remotely because, for some unknown reason, NVDA won’t interface as it did last winter.

So I get up on Saturday morning with the hope that I can still bring Mitch over from Plattsmouth and we can connect JAWS Remote Access from work to home. But first, I have to conquer the grocery store.

The night before, I call Hy-vee customer service and they inform me that they aren’t delivering for at least the next week because they are all jammed up due to their transition back from a central distribution center to deliveries from their local stores. Their timing is worse than my dancing.

So, I get up and grab a Lyft over to my neighborhood Hy-vee. Sheila helps me shop. She is an angel. She is cheerful, positive and she knows what the hell she’s doing. I make it home an hour later with nearly everything I wanted, except for distilled water, which is essential for my CPAP.

I call Mitch and tell him that I can’t find the password to the router at work, which is apparently necessary to make JAWS Remote Access functional. This is more complicated than NVDA, which relies on a central server. I don’t yet tell him that I have a sore throat and developing cough. He thinks that everyone is overreacting to the virus. I can’t blame him much. I was fairly flippant over it a week ago.

Later, I go to Walgreen’s and buy two jugs of distilled water. It strikes me as strange that they have a full supply. Then, I go to the pharmacist and ask where I might go to get tested for COVID-19. I tell her that I may have symptoms. She tells me she’s been getting a lot of calls like that all day and no one at either Walgreen’s or CVS knows what to tell their customers. I leave feeling disheartened.

Later, I sneak over to work to put in some programming, suspecting that I won’t be in on Monday. I also use AIRA to locate the password written on the back of the router. I stay for nearly two hours, wiping down the control room with Clorox Wipes before I leave.

ON the way home on the bus, my phone blows up with news alerts about a joint press conference with Governor Ricketts, Mayor Stothert and official from the Nebraska Health Department. The reason… The first community spread case of COVID-19 has been detected in Douglas County. For the first time, I hang on every word uttered by public officials.

After the presser, I call my boss and explain that I will not be attending our annual fundraiser the next day. She sounds disappointed but understanding. I go to bed that night feeling depressed and defeated until the Alka-Seltzer Night Time cold medicine kicks in.

Sunday, March 15

One more case confirmed in Douglas County. More schools set to close as of Monday. Even public libraries are closing. Thank God MeMe is no longer a librarian. I wonder if she misses it.

I self-quarantine. The hardest part of the day is between 4 PM and 6 PM when I know that many people are having a good time at Wining in the Dark.

When I first went two years ago, I objected on philosophical grounds. Those ‘In the Dark’ experiences are gimmicky and don’t really give anyone a true glimpse into what it’s like to be blind. Quite the opposite. They often play on fear and stereotypes in the name of profit. Yet, the fact that the sleepshades are optional and that the event did not take place in darkness made it much more palatable. My abiding affection for the participants bridges the remainder of the gap. But I stay home and drink a couple of Coors instead.

Monday, March 16

I watch my first presser of the White House COVID-19 task force. Trump appears exhausted and ineffectual. After everything his enemies have thrown at him, could a germ be the thing that pierces his armor?

It’s the worst day of the week emotionally. My sore throat is worse, the cough is dry and I keep obsessing over news reports and social media anecdotes. I wonder if I’ll have to be isolated for weeks on end.

I call Nebraska Medicine first thing in the morning. They can’t get me into see my regular doc for 10 days. The first available doc at my usual clinic isn’t available until Wednesday afternoon at 4:20. They check other clinics and discover that I can get in at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. I snatch it up like a fat guy grabbing a cookie, even though it’s down town.

I spend much of the mid-day alternating between pacing, checking the news and trying in vain to focus on a C. J. Box mystery that I’ve already read.

Then, at three in the afternoon, Mitch calls me from my work. I don’t know how the hell he does it, but we somehow get NVDA Remote to work again. Katy and I tried for over an hour nine months ago and we couldn’t make it function. When I got into the computers and hear the tell-tale, “Beep beep!” alerting me to access, I nearly cried.

20 minutes later, Adrienne from the Nebraska Commission for the Blind came over and helped me connect my touch screen thermostat to both Siri and Alexa. For the first time in almost three weeks, I can control my thermostat without having to call AIRA. If I catch a fever, at least I can jack up the heat independently.

As I take a hot bath before bed, I realize that my sore throat is nearly gone. The day had started off with anxiety and gloom, but I went to bed that night in a great mood.

Tuesday, Mar 17

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. Mayor Stothert tried to keep the bars open, but ended up limiting crowd sizes on recommendation of the CDC and HHS. This effectively killed the holiday, which is the biggest for bars and pubs.

It was a sad day at Radio Talking Book because we made the decision to ask our volunteers to stay home starting Wednesday. So Tuesday was their last day to come in and read at our location. This was a heartbreaker, but necessary. Like our listeners, most of our volunteers are retirement age and fall within the highest risk. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s sad. I spend a lot of time checking the playlist remotely, but still feel sidelined during the most impactful event we’ve faced since I started working there.

Wednesday, Mar 18

23 confirmed cases in Douglas County. The second community case is detected, which means Governor Ricketts will take more drastic steps to limit the spread. I find Dr. Adi Pour, Douglas County Health Director, to be a calming presence. Maybe it’s her accent. Mayor Stothert declares a 72-hour state of emergency for Omaha. All restaurants are limited to delivery and take-out. All bars are closed.

I get up at 7 AM, shower, slam two large cups of coffee and hale a Lyft. At 8:05, I walk into the Clarkson Family Clinic. At 8:15, I’m stepping on a scale, answering questions from a grumpy nurse. At one point she says, “So… Could you not get into see your regular doctor?” I answer politely, deciding to cut her some slack. She’s on the front lines of this thing and the days ahead for her will likely get worse.

I can’t remember my doctor’s name since he’s not my regular physician. He is young, cheerful and relaxed in a casual manner that typifies professionals under 40. He examines me, asks about my symptoms and checks my throat. He only finds slight redness. He and I agree that I probably have a cold. After all, it’s cold and flu season in Nebraska. He prescribes Tylenol, Mucinex and one or two more days of self-isolation before I go back to work. I thank him, bump elbows and leave with a large weight off my heart.

In the afternoon, I participate in a work conference call. Much of the talk centers around our new remote methods, getting volunteers set up with Dropbox folders, assigning them digital recorders or phone apps, etc. There seems to be some debate as to when and how we should air regular COVID updates. I realize that work won’t look the same as it did when I left it last Friday.

After the call, I take a catnap and realize that the only thing I will miss about my temporary isolation are my afternoon siestas.

Thursday, March 19

Four more cases confirmed in Nebraska. It is now considered to be a statewide epidemic. The governor of California issues a statewide order for everyone to stay home during the outbreak. Everyone on the Commentary Podcast sounds nervous and out of sorts.

It’s raining cats and dogs, so I take a Lyft to work. The driver tells me that he things COVID is, “No biggie.” When I get to work, everything feels normal. 10 minutes later when MeMe calls instead of walking in, I realize that things aren’t in fact normal.

And that’s the whole day. No live newspaper reads. No volunteers poking their heads in just to say hi and shoot the breeze. No snacks to share. Jane seems preoccupied. Bekah is in stress mode, so I keep my distance; more than six feet. I want to give both of them huge hugs, but of course… I buy lunch for Jane and Bekah. Bekah wants all three of us to eat together. This is odd since she is in ‘le’me alone’ mode, but Bekah is a study in contradictions, so I roll with it.

Many volunteers call and Email to test their new remote recording capabilities. I spend an extra hour at work making sure everything is operating as it should, but I am delighted to be there so it doesn’t matter.

Bekah comes in near the end of the day and asks how I feel about her taking tomorrow off. I tell her to go for it because she’s earned it. Jane kindly gives me a ride home so I won’t have to catch the bus in the rain. When I get inside my apartment, I immediately wash my hands. Grandpa would be proud.

Friday, Mar 20

Omaha’s third community case is confirmed. The Dow Jones continues to plummet, spending four of the last five weeks in decline. Illinois goes on lockdown.

I take the bus into work. The driver warns me that the powers that be are talking about reductions in service due to low ridership.

Bekah is gone for the day. Things go smoothly at work. Jane and I share lunch from Village Inn. I push her out the door at 3:30 and am gone an hour later. A group of us were supposed to have dinner at Shuck’s Seafood Market, but I go home and order Smitty’s instead. I ask the Doordash guy if he wants a ‘no contact’ delivery. He says, “Nah, I’m not worried about it.”

I call Hy-vee customer service again and they tell me that delivery is available, but the first open time slot won’t be for another week. Instacart isn’t available for 72 hours. I haven’t tried Baker’s or Target yet.

Saturday, March 21

I decide to unplug from the news for the weekend. I go into work to help Michael with the changes. It’s rough, because Dropbox decides to automatically upgrade everyone to a trial work plan. This jacks up my JAWS and confuses Michael. We have to get Bekah out of bed to figure it out. Michael goes on the air to read the Omaha World Herald live because our volunteer can’t upload the recorded file. The volunteer sounds frustrated and I apologize that he had to waste over an hour of his time. Michael sounds nervous on the air, but he gets through it with a smile.

Afterward, Michael gives me a ride to my neighborhood Hy-vee. He works at a different Hy-vee during the week and says that it’s a madhouse. Apparently, the cashiers are ordered not to wear protective gloves because it makes the customers nervous. He is tempted to quit, but won’t because he’s getting a lot of hours and is being paid Christmas wages.

When I get to Hy-vee, I again am blessed to get Sheila for a shopping assistant. She is still positive, friendly and competent. I ask her if she is tempted to quit. She says, “A lot of us think about it, but I know that a lot of people need our help.” God bless her. Again, I find everything I need, including Diet Dr. Pepper. I don’t waste energy checking on toilet paper. I nearly bump my head on the plastic barrier at the check-out counter. The clerk scoffs at its obvious ineffectiveness.

I send Wes a message that evening telling him that I’m canceling my trip to Iowa to visit him the following weekend. We will try to postpone it to a later date. He tells me that his wedding is up in the air. They want to get married, but are not sure about the reception or guest list. Later, I am depressed when I learned that the Colorado Center for the Blind sent all of their students home for the duration of the crisis. Long term interruption in skills training can be crippling for someone in the learning mode.

Sunday, March 22

On the way to work, my Lyft driver, a circus artist by trade, says to me, “I feel like ridesharing services should all be suspended and the state should be responsible for getting people in need where they need to go.” These are the idiots who can’t even get testing up and going! Out loud, I say, “If it weren’t for Lyft and Uber, I’d be well and truly fucked.” She laughs.

Michael and I hit it again that morning. He tries to record the World Herald, but he battles with his inner perfectionist and spends too much time editing his work. His show is eight minutes short. Otherwise, the morning is smooth. I drive through Runza on the way home. At 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon, there are no cars in the drive-through and my order is ready right away.

I talk to my old pal Jeff in Lincoln and he tells me that he cut his foot in the shower and had to make a run to an emergency clinic. While checking out, he passed a girl on her way in who subsequently reported that she might have COVID symptoms. Jeff got the hell away from her, choosing to wait outside in the chilly air.

As I read an emo account of a COVID victim in Chicago on Facebook that strikes me as a bit forced, I realize that the most anxiety-inducing factor in this whole business is the notion that we have no idea how long it will last. President Trump told us that it will probably be well into July or August before we get a handle on it. Ironic, since he was calling it a hoax almost a month ago. I have never seen a crisis like this in my lifetime. I have no idea where it will take our country, emotionally, spiritually or financially. I have no idea what my life (or my ass) will look like a month from now.

At 5:15 PM, I put on my favorite Bumblebee Coat, go outside to the balcony and fire up my first cigar in two weeks. It feels like two months since I’ve had one. Oh well, I think… I may as well enjoy it while my lungs are still good.