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.