One of the most overrated series in the pantheon of old-time radio is the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. It was actually a resurrection of classic radio drama that aired 12 years after network radio purged itself of the last remnants of the theater of the mind. Collectors like myself classify it in the same category as fare from the golden age of radio because it was produced and directed by Hyman Brown, a veteran of that bygone era, and usually starred voice actors who were also actors from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. It aired from 1974 to 1982. It was a very prolific series that ran nightly, seven nights a week, 365 days a year.
The quality was telling. There were probably about nine mediocre to horrible episodes for every one good one. The music was canned, the sound effects were minimal and the audio quality was standard ‘70’s A.M. network vintage. But America loved it. Our audience at Radio Talking Book loves it. I run an episode every weekend.
One of the few good offerings was a story called, “The Black Room,” written by Elspeth Eric. Larry Haines plays a man who is abducted by unknown government forces and isolated in a room devoid of light and human companionship. The guy spends months in solitary confinement in the dark room and starts to go crazy inside of his own head. Then one day, a mouse sneaks into the dark room and the guy befriends him. He adopts the little mouse and starts to feed him crumbs of cheese, bread and even an apple. They strike up a kind of friendship that’s sort of cute in a twisted Disney sort of way. Then on one occasion as the guy goes to feed Mr. Mouse, he bites his hand. After that, the mouse disappears and the guy collapses into lethargy. He finally says to Mr. Mouse, “I don’t care.”
Week Four: WWHD?
Monday, April 6, 2020
412 confirmed cases in Nebraska. The death toll has climbed to eight statewide. An outbreak has occurred in Grand Island, which is far too close to my hometown of Kearney for my liking. A note of cautious optimism creeps into the stock market as signs indicate that certain hot spots may be leveling off. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been transferred to the ICU after his symptoms have not abated after 10 days. The governor of Wisconsin tries to postpone his state’s primary until June 9, but is quickly overruled by both the state and national Supreme Court. Kroger announces that all Baker’s stores in Omaha will cap the number of customers at half their maximum capacity. Dr. Pour recommends masks for all who venture out in public. I watch part of a presser with Trump and his medical minions. With apologies to his full-throated supporters, this guy doesn’t appear to be a man in control. He’s not in control of the country, he’s not in control of this crisis and frankly, he’s not in control of himself.
I work from home all day. All goes well with my remote operations. I undercook bacon for breakfast on the Foreman Grill. Maybe the oven would be more effective. For dinner, I make garlic-Italian burgers with a pinch of Ghost Pepper Salt. I do a lot of my work in the evening with the windows open and a cool spring breeze wafting through my living room. Maybe I could get used to this.
Maintenance has been stomping and clomping up and down the stairs all day. I recognize Happy’s voice. They seem to be doing something in the empty apartment across the hall. When I take the trash out at 4:30, I catch the distinctive odor of fresh paint. Am I about to get a new neighbor? No one can replace Lisa, who used to look after Mags for me when I would go out of town. I need to check on Lisa and see how she’s doing. My cleaning lady Maria also calls and confirms that she will be here Wednesday morning. I am surprised that she is still working, but she says several restaurants and stores that paid her are closed right now. It seems that she feels the needed income is worth the risk.
Tuesday, April 7
478 positive cases statewide. 12 souls lost. Folk music legend John Prine has died at age 73 due to complications from COVID-19. Somewhere, Mike Floyd is inconsolable. Wisconsin goes ahead and holds its election. Nebraska University campuses restrict access to essential personnel only. I have a niece and nephew of college age and I envy them. At least they have a legit reason to cut class. I was never this lucky 25 years ago.
I am sleeping well, but finding that I am having more vivid dreams, particularly in the early morning when I would usually be arising for the workday. Years ago, my sleep doctor told me that dreams tend to cluster in the hours directly before the end of a natural REM cycle. I’ve also heard that dreams are more intense when someone naps during the afternoon. I can attest in the affirmative to both of these assertions. No, I don’t dream in color.
More stomping and banging doors across the hall. At around 10 in the morning, someone pulls the fire alarm. The bell sounds like one of those old-fashioned school bells with the loud, long peal, rather than the ear-splitting electronic squeal that characterizes the modern variety. It only lasts for two seconds and does not result in a mass evacuation. At 4:30 in the afternoon, Happy drives below my balcony and hollers, “That looks like a gud cigar!” I ask him what’s going on across the hall and he says they’re getting the place ready for someone to move in. He also says he got stuck in an elevator in another building this morning. I hope he remember his raccoon jerky.
Wednesday, April 8
523 confirmed cases in Nebraska. 15 deaths. Dick’s Sporting Goods announces it will furlough most of its 40,000 workers. Gun nuts read this headline and sneer. Katy tells me she will be going back to work at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind next Monday. This is good news, because it turns out she wasn’t getting federal sick leave pay after all. Mayor Stothert closes all public parks and trailheads through April 30. Police threaten to enforce her order with citations, arrests and towed vehicles. The Omaha Farmers Market is delayed until June.
We knew it would happen sooner or later. Today was sooner. Our morning volunteers ran afoul of Dropbox and we were scrambling to get their files in time for the morning papers. We failed, causing the show to be 10 minutes over. I was running around in my ratty robe and blown-out slippers when Maria showed up to clean. Then Jane texted and said, “I need to go to the office. Want to tag along?” I texted back that I did, then tried to run to the shower. This is only fair to Jane as I haven’t taken a proper shower in six days. I accidentally flashed Maria as I come out of the bathroom, but she takes it in stride. I don’t think she has the same flexible attitude about my junk that my coworkers do.
We spend about four hours in the office and I program as far ahead as possible. When we arrive at 10:45, the sun is shining and the air is mild. When we leave at 3:10, the wind has picked up and I’m fighting off goose bumps. On the way home, we listen to Mayor Stothert’s presser on her decision to close all city parks.
Thursday, April 9
587 confirmed cases in Nebraska. 15 deaths. Another record-breaking week of national unemployment claims; 6.6 million. Boris Johnson is released from the ICU and his condition is upgraded. UNL, my old school, announces its first case. It was a worker in the Selleck dining hall, which was my dorm when I was there 25 years ago. Six new cases confirmed at the YRTC in Kearney. Animal shelters announce that they are placing record numbers of cats and dogs in homes. My heart aches when I read that one.
On the latest episode of Better Call Saul, our hero drinks his own pee while trekking through the desert. I’m not making it up. YouTube it. As I watch the scene with Katy on Facetime, I catch myself wondering if this pandemic will reach the point where our water supply will be infected by dead bodies and we’ll all have to drink our own pee to survive.
Truthfully, I’m approaching COVID fatigue. Today marks a full week that I’ve been away from work and my normal routine. I haven’t seen anyone socially since…I don’t know when. My gut used to tighten every time my phone chimed with a news alert. Now, I’m just mildly curious. How many infected now? What is the latest sophomoric utterance of our president. Inane debates on social media rage on. Should Governor Ricketts institute a ‘shelter in place’ order? Do we have enough ventilators? Should we wear masks? Is blaming China for the virus racist? Is the virus itself racist since more African-Americans seem to be disproportionately affected? I’m starting to become apathetic toward the whole bloody business.
I make garlic teriyaki chicken for dinner and write a review of Star Trek: Picard, which is almost as bleak as our current situation.
Friday, April 10
643 confirmed cases statewide. 17 deaths. The worldwide death toll hits 100,000; a number that is unfathomable. It is a good Friday for stocks, which continue to rise despite the mounting body count. The IRS promises that the first round of stimulus paychecks will go out next week. The FDA warns Alex Jones to shut the hell up. Every guaranteed constitutional right comes with fools who will inevitably abuse it. The U.S. Olympic Swim Team promises that it will return to Omaha next year. Experts promise that we are almost at our peak projections of infections, but that we need to keep restricted health measures in place. The National Federation of the Blind finally announces that its annual convention scheduled in July will switch from Houston to virtual.
I’m in Westroads Mall trying to find a Cinnabon so I can meet Jean, the manager, who is really Saul Goodman, who is really Jimmy McGill. I want to get his autograph and ask about Breaking Bad, because it is the superior series. I know we’re supposed to stay home, but I hate authority, so I ignore the governor and the mayor. The mall is a ghost building. My cane taps echo off of the walls and ceiling. I try to call AIRA to guide me to Cinnabon, but Rossana from Boulder keeps answering. I try to talk to her, but she will only respond in Spanish. “Ryanito! Ryanito!” she laughs at me before the connection goes dead. Then I hear laughter coming from off in the distance, so I head for it. I find a large table with a group of people around it. I know them all, but they couldn’t possibly all know each other. Martin, Shane, Steve the Piano Player, Haylee, Bekah, Dave from Gallup, Deb, some volunteers from RTBS, Bridgit, Marco from college, Mitch, Marty, Jamie, Brent from the CCB, Kelly, my sister-in-law Missy on a horse, Kim Ann, a theater kid from high school who’s name I can’t remember, Rachel, Chris F, Mike H, Hunter, more people I can’t remember now. Five different women named Amy that I’ve known are all playing cards. They’re playing Pitch, which I don’t know how to play, so I don’t join in. I keep walking around this huge table looking for a seat, but no one will point one out for me or invite me to sit. Many of them get angry that I interrupt their conversations. Then I strike out for Cinnabon and follow the smell until I find it, but it’s The Cookie Company. Katy is behind the counter and she hands me a cookie shaped like her cat Ty. I bite off the tail and she screams at me, “You weren’t supposed to bite him! Bastard!” Then I run off and eventually find Cinnabon. Robin and Bryan Cranston are working there. Not Robin Bryan’s wife, but my ex-girlfriend. Bryan hands me a box full of cinnamon rolls. He tells me not to lick the frosting because it’s blue. I try to say hi to Robin, but she just says, “Fuck. Off.” She’s still left-brained. I walk back to the huge table and everybody suddenly goes dead silent. They all blame me for carrying a box of cinnamon rolls during a pandemic. I turn and flee toward an exit. Outside, the sun is shining, but there are snowflakes on my nose. I hear an idling car and run toward it, pull the passenger door open and fling myself in. Jane is in the driver’s seat. She says, “I’m disappointed in you, Ryan. Flowers smell better!” I turn to the back seat and Alicia and Wes are sitting there. Wes is crying because his wedding is canceled. I hand the box of cinnamon rolls to Alicia and say, “You’ll like these.” She mutters, “It’s too late. I already have cancer.” Then, my old boss David pulls open the car door. Declan and Hallie are with him and I somehow know that their parents don’t know where they are. He says, “Ryan, Joe doesn’t have any room left in his car. Can I ride with you and your charming boss?” My phone rings. I drop the cinnamon rolls. David laughs. Jane says, “That was stupid.”
I jolt awake. Alexa tells me that It is 7:23 AM. I run out to the computer and write down as much as I can remember of the dream.
That night, I take a Unisom before bed.
Saturday, April 11
One month ago today, I sat at Bridgit’s dining room table and shared Indian food with her. We talked like two normal people. Declan and I discussed the merits of eating toast with toothpaste on it. Within a 20-minute window, President Trump restricted travel to Europe, the NBA suspended its season and Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife had contracted COVID-19. I think this was the last time I socialized with anyone outside of work.
I brave the Hy-Vee jungle. Sadly, Sheila is too busy to assist me, so I shop with a guy named Chris. He tries very hard, but he reiterates that he is new at this location and doesn’t know the store very well. I want to make a cheesy bacon and chicken ranch casserole for Easter dinner, but I don’t have the patience to find all of the ingredients necessary with Chris as my guide, so I just get the basics and go. Chris sounds as if he might have a developmental disability, but who can tell? He might just be from Blue Heaven, Idaho.
I talk to Shane for a while. He’s in his garage looking for parts to their trampoline. Amy doesn’t know how to cook eggs over easy. I also talk to Mitch. He’s been working from home for a month now and he’s sick of it. He forbids his wife to go to Hy-Vee, but she ignores him and goes anyway. Alicia auditions a new Christian music show on an internet radio station.
I get into an argument with Maida on Facebook because I joke about hiring an escort during the pandemic despite social distancing rules. She is disgusted with me for being lighthearted at a time like this. Honest to God! I’ve spent the last month alternating between sadness, anxiety, hopefulness, anger and boredom. If I can’t laugh at our current situation, what the hell is left?
I view it the same way I view my blindness. Blindness can often be frustrating, enraging, depressing, annoying and occasionally, hopeful. At the end of the day, you just have to sit back and laugh at the circumstances. Either that, or descend into the maelstrom of madness. I think of it as The Hawkeye Syndrome, patterned after the main character on M*A*S*H who finds his circumstances so absurd and deadly at the same time that his coping mechanism is to act crazy. I think he spent most of his time in his bathrobe, too.
Sunday, April 12
Facebook is littered by posts with sentiments ranging from, “He has risen, indeed,” to “Why can’t our conservative governor order us to shelter in place,” to, “Happy police state!” Other than a few extra bunnies and talk of a guy who rose from the dead, not much different.
I try an Instacart order for my casserole. At first, it looks like it won’t be here in time and I try desperately to cancel the order. Then, my shopper makes it to the store and ultimately delivers my groceries right at the end of the window.
The cheesy chicken bacon broccoli ranch casserole turns out wonderfully. I spend Easter dinner on a Zoom call with Joe, Sharonda, Wes, Kelly and a lot of people I don’t know from Iowa. I last about two hours before I get a call from Dad, then take a post-dinner nap. I write a little bit and engage in some overdue music therapy. The NFB of Omaha chapter tries to hold a catch-up conference call in the absence of an in-person chapter meeting, but our phone conference number doesn’t seem to work, so it’s a bust. Later, Wes, Kelly and I have a quiet call to wind down the day. Kelly drinks a glass of wine before her new job starts tomorrow. I indulge in one cold can of Coors Light and a bowl of sugar-free instant pudding. Wes abstains.
Honestly, gentle readers, this may be the last Corona Diary. Even though some signs point toward resolution, this crisis feels interminable. I’m running out of words. The days really do feel as if they are melting together, high-lighted by bad news from the media and petty drama from social media that now seems more ridiculous in a heightened pressure cooker environment. What is left to say? If I say it, who would hear it? It’s like being in that ghost mall, circling around that huge table full of people, screaming at people who are intent upon acting in the same manner they always do. COVID-19 is temporary. People are permanent.
How did the story of “The Black Room,” end, you wonder? Well, I shouldn’t spoil it. I’ll just say that it wasn’t Mr. Mouse at all, and it turned out that she had more important things to occupy her time than a human with bread crumbs.
555,398 confirmed cases in the United States. 22,073 deaths.