Letter from America: March 16, 2020

Belfast, Maine, USA. Monday, March 16, 2020. Life has taken on a surreal quality, like living on a set of a zombie apocalypse movie. In my midcoast Maine town of 6,700, shelves in the Hannaford supermarket are three quarters empty. If your company’s product is still on the shelf, you might want to think about what you’re doing wrong.

Late last week Hannaford was full of overflowing shopping carts as big as my Kia. Belfast had long since run out of hand sanitizer and medical masks. On Friday the discount store got in a shipment of hand sanitizer, and with a one-per-customer limit, they ran out in less than a day.

Three days ago the supermarket was out of toilet paper and my Bustelo Caribbean coffee. But both items were still available at the dollar store, that new feature of the American cultural landscape where the poor go to shop.

Last Thursday our food co-op did its busiest hour ever. The bulk rice and lentils, canned black beans, pasta and spaghetti sauce are all gone. The middle class is ready.

I bought enough food to last a month. I helped my mother get enough for 2-3 weeks – that’s all she wanted.

Is a month too much? Am I hoarding? Has everyone got enough food and essentials to self-quarantine for at least two weeks?

On Friday, Gina, assistant director of the Belfast Soup Kitchen, told soup kitchen patrons that starting Monday, today, there will be no more sit-down meals, that all food will be handed out through the front door. And so vanishes what is for the poor of Belfast a rare social outlet almost as nourishing as the food itself. And what if the soup kitchen breaks down altogether? Never mind the tens of millions of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, some of my soup kitchen friends live meal to meal, or close to it.

In recent years we have developed a term for this, a term that didn’t exist before, much as the word homeless was rarely heard. The term is food insecurity and it stalks the land, from inner cities to the ancient, dilapidated mobile homes that dot the Swanville Road, along with yards full of junk cars. Years ago I delivered free firewood to a family that emptied its toilet by tossing the contents of a 20-liter bucket into the woods behind their mobile home’s back door.

Other soup kitchen friends – Robert, Elvis – are homeless. I sometimes see Robert several times a day, sleeping in the library, eating at Alexia’s Pizza or just hanging out on the street. He always looks like he has five coats on. Maybe he does.

Elvis lugs around town heavy shopping bags filled with God knows what and he hangs out down by the waterfront, even in the cold. Elvis isn’t his real name – he’s the world’s poorest Elvis impersonator. Surely he and Robert have little if any food stored away. Hell, I don’t even know where they sleep at night. I suppose they will go to the Waldo County Hospital emergency room if they get sick – but what if they don’t go there? Elvis looks like he wouldn’t go there if he were at death’s door.

And what of the tens of millions among us who do live paycheck to paycheck, in a country where three people have as much wealth as the bottom half of society, as much as 150 million people?

Can they afford to stock up on food, toilet paper and hand sanitizer? And what of those who harvest our food and live in the shadows, on the vilified margins of society, with no documents and little or no grasp of the predominant language, those who in their cars and vans?

Who knows. Such ignorance of what is going on all around us is one of many symptoms of a country that believes little in government or shared experience and has little sense of communal, shared societal destiny, where wealth isolates from all but disease.

And those chickens are coming home to roost all over the place. Will this crisis lay bare the folly of 83 million Americans with inadequate access to healthcare? My flatmate John says Jesus will take care of this when he returns. He’s not kidding.

Or will this upheaval reinforce a vaunted individualism that has led to 100 million guns with precious few restrictions? Will we pull together or will it be dog-eat-dog?

No one knows.

It’s Monday morning and schools are closing all over the place. Belfast schools closed over the weekend, and with them went the bulk of my income. I am a substitute teacher. Other school employees will continue to be paid, but we substitutes will be left to fend for ourselves.

Yesterday morning I exchanged emails with high-ranking State Senator Geoff Gratwick, influential State Representative Shenna Bellows, and first-term Belfast Representative Jan Dodge. The

state will likely declare a ban on rental evictions, home foreclosures and utility cutoffs.

Debt collection may be next, and that may unleash termites to gnaw away at the foundation of an economy where a citizen’s duty has shifted over the last 40 years from production to consumption and where the biggest industry produces nothing but the movement of money from here to there. We’re watching 250 years of history shift in a matter of days.

I have volunteered all over the place. I have given my name and phone number to Waldo County General Hospital; to my Unitarian Universalist church; to Waldo County Emergency Response; to Debbie, who manages the senior housing where my 85-year-old mother lives; to H.O.M.E. Co-op, an organization that serves the northern tier of Appalachia’s poor – where I used to work. I have filled my car with gas and I’m ready to help, to do my part. I have taken up my post and I wait for the hammer to drop. I’m as ready as I can be. Or am I?

With nothing else to do but wait, I went hiking Saturday and Sunday in the Maine woods, for the first time since the fall. What snow and ice were left were manageable. And there too the surreal prevailed. The birds and chipmunks were going about their business as usual, as if nothing were afoot in the land.

On Saturday’s 18-kilometer hike on the Hills to Sea Trail, I was passed by a few runners who did their best to keep their distance on the narrow trail. They were all friendly. In Maine we get snowstorms that dump as much as a meter of snow, and famously reserved Mainers are always more friendly in such calamities. We all have something to talk about, a shared experience.

But will that hold?

Walking home from Saturday’s hike I stopped in at Front Street Pub. It was happy hour. I had two beers and sweet-potato fries, and I watched college basketball games from years ago on one of the pub’s various televisions. Every year the entire country eagerly awaits the end-of-season college basketball tournaments and championships, but this year they are all canceled.

I soaked in the experience of sharing a couple of beers in a public space. Would it be the last time for a while?

On Sunday’s 13-kilometer hike on the Little River Trail, I saw only one other person, where I would normally see six, eight or 10 hikers and dog walkers. She too was friendly, and she too was part of a surreal landscape, unfolding a chair beside the river, to read a book in temperatures of 2-3 Celsius. I had never seen such a thing.

Were those my last hikes for another while, as I and others run around trying to put out medical and societal forest fires? Or will life take on an eery silence and inactivity where there will be little to do but walk the woods? The Belfast Maskers community theater canceled its run of “As You Like It.” All lectures, talks, poetry readings and political meetings of various stripes have been canceled. And on and on. Our movie theater is on “condensed” schedule, but how long will that last? Will the YMCA, a great winter resource, be next?

On my hikes I took photos and texted them to my good, dear friend Maurizio, who, with his family of five, has been in lockdown in Udine, Italy for seven days – now eight. Maurizio sent me a photo of a street empty of everything but one police car. We can’t go out, Maurizio wrote. If we do, the police await us.

Is this where Belfast is headed? On television they are saying we are 10 days behind locked-down Italy. But no authority will be able to keep rural Mainers out of their 90,000 square kilometers of woods.

Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at thedeftpen@gmail.com.