My Life in the Plague

Photograph Source: thierry ehrmann – CC BY 2.0

I spend most of my days and nights in a relatively small room, about 20 feet by 20 feet with about 8 feet headroom. I refer to it as my “cell” and like to say I have entered “the monastic phase” of my life. I sleep in my cell and write and read in my cell. I have just moved here after living in a much larger space, and also after having lived for the past twenty years by myself. I was alone but not lonely. Now I share space with the 84-year-old woman who owns the place and who has her bedroom on the opposite side of the house. We met in the kitchen and the living room, occasionally eat together and share a common bathroom. The rent is good: $475 a month, including utilities, plus there’s free WIFI.

Living with another person takes some adjustment, especially now with the coronavirus. We use separate dishes and silverware, wash our hands frequently and make jokes about washing and wiping surfaces. We also laugh about consumers buying and stockpiling more toilet paper than they’ll ever use in a year. That compulsion strikes me as an index of the ways that the virus hits people on a primal level. “Yeah,” Thora, my housemate, said last night when we were watching the news on PBS, which heightens my anxiety level. Thora added, “It’s life and death.” When I lived by myself for 20 years I did not own a TV, and rarely if ever watched the news on TV. Thora watches religiously and surfs from station to station. She’s an addict. I can only take it in very small doses.

One thing I have noticed, after watching TV news with her for two weeks, is how repetitive it is and how one-dimensional and simplified. The anchors, reporters and the so-called experts who are called upon to comment, sound like talking machines who don’t think much, if at all. In the wake of the crisis, I have put myself under a kind of house arrest, though I can and do go outside, get into my car, drive, go shopping in Cotati, to the local library for DVDs, and to the bank to deposit checks. I have thought about what many of us have gone through over the past five or six years: drought followed by fire, and smoke, forced evacuations, and now the coronavirus. It feels biblical.

Indeed, it’s the plague, which is why I went to the library and borrowed Albert Camus 1947 novel, La Peste, which was translated into English in 1948 published as The Plague. I’m a Camus fan and am looking forward to reading the book and wondering in what ways it’s revealing about the current pandemic. I happen to prefer the word “plague” which conjures up all kinds of horrible images.

I’m inside my cell right now, on my computer. Occasionally, I look out at the flowers in bloom. I listen to the bird songs. I can hear, in the distance, the sound of traffic on Old Redwood Highway, which runs in front of the house where I am now living. Thora’s daughter and son-in-law have a house next door. I often visit them; we also eat together. It’s not communal but it has some aspects of communal living, including shared food and appliances such as a machine to wash clothes, and a line to hang them in the backyard.

I’m at Thora’s because I was evicted from the place where I was living. The landlord sold the property and the new owners wanted to occupy the house, after ripping it apart and remodeling big time. One of the great pluses about moving has been downsizing. I threw away tons of stuff and I’ve stowed papers in Cotati. I also sold some of my archive to the University of Texas. I feel lighter. I like having nearly everything I want and need in my cell, with the kitchen a few steps away and the bathroom around the corner.

Thora spreads out and makes messes. She seems to be incapable of throwing stuff away. She can also be forgetful. The hard part about living here is being in someone else’s space. It’s Thora’s house. She doesn’t have many rules, but she has some, including no watching sports on her TV. I can live with that. I like living through the plague with a small community. I know I can count on Thora, whom I have known for 40-years, and on her daughter and son-in-law. If we have to go down, we can go down together. I expect the plague will get worse and that it will linger. People I know and love will probably die. I think about the writers and thinkers who have urged all of us to be hopeful, to create community and to solve our own problems independent of governments. I know that some of that is possible. I also believe that the only way to survive the plague is if and when governments act in concert. Too bad Trump doesn’t know how to cooperate or tell the truth. Meanwhile, I’m trying not to touch my face with my own hands.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.