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nonfiction

5 p.m.

At 5:20 p.m., my speakers come to life with music. A streaming radio station from Minneapolis, my hometown. It’s an alarm I set three or four years ago, timed for a brief segment of banter between the empathetic DJ and a charming curmudgeon of a newsman I’d known from Twitter. The newsman has since retired, but I keep the 5:20 alarm. The music reminds me to end my work day and transition to something else. I’ve worked from home for years, and so the coronavirus stay-at-home order had not been a huge change for my nine to five. But after five is harder. These days, the music station is often playing songs by musicians who’ve fallen ill or died from the coronavirus. They now interrupt their usual programming with news headlines from NPR and their sister news station. I think of friends and family in far off Minnesota.

The debate in the news today has been over face masks. Preparing for my walk, I’ve dug out a stylish scarf and a black balaclava I once wore under my bike helmet in winter (the bike rides are shorter now and the winters are warmer). But neither of these things will easily and comfortably stay over my nose and mouth. And it’s warm out. Near 70 degrees. I don’t plan to go inside any buildings on today’s walk. I plan to avoid other people, walk less-trafficked streets. So I hang the scarf and the balaclava on my coatrack for another day. I step outside, wondering if this was a mistake.

Outside silence. There are cars. But this is Friday at what would be rush hour. The time between distant vrooms and whooshes can be counted slowly. Tens of seconds filled instead with bird song. Wind rustling blue tarps on the scaffolding of the old school. The squeaking sound of vinyl rubbing against vinyl as a sun-bleached banner relaxes its folds to lay flat against a chain-link fence that clatters on its poles. Somewhere a soft clinking of metal at the same rhythm as a railroad crossing’s warning bell.

“Hey There,” a man shouts. He’s the first person I’ve seen out. But he’s not talking to me. He is in a hurry, taking big strides in black shorts, black sandals, black gloves, black jacket, black sunglasses, black sandals.

The speakerphone in his hand replies to his greeting: “Hi Mr. ———. How are you today?”

I wander further. The sun is out. The flowering trees are all in bloom. Neighbors are talking to each other at a distance across front yards.

I am squinting as I face the low evening sun and fail to spot two athletic men until we are twelve feet apart. They recoil from me, struggling to break step and fall in to a single file line, balancing like schoolchildren at the edge of a garden.

A restaurant on 14th Street has music blaring and perhaps eight people near its tiny outdoor bar, many with drinks in hand. Everything is to-go now, but perhaps if the to-go order takes long enough to prepare, the restaurant can sell two rounds of drinks. I stay on the quieter side of the street. Two women walking their dog notice what I’ve noticed. One says, “I do not understand these people. It makes me so angry!”

Just then my phone vibrates with a New York Times alert: “The C.D.C. advises all Americans to wear non-medical masks, President Trump said. He added: ‘I’m choosing not to do it. It’s only a recommendation.’”

I turn away from the commercial streets. I walk minor residential streets, but even these are busy now. I turn down an alley to avoid crossing paths with more people. I follow the alleys home. At my gate, I wave my touch-less key fob and pull the gate towards me by grabbing a low area of the fence my neighbors are less likely to have touched. Inside the apartment I hang my coat, wondering if it is contaminated. I wash my hands and begin making dinner.


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

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Categories
nonfiction

Observations In The Time of Coronavirus: 2 p.m.

Note: With this post, I’m picking up where I left off over the winter in a series writing about the hours of the day in a randomized order. The images and poems are observations from 2019. The prose that follows here and in subsequent posts will document the same place and hour under coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

Construction, Stillness and Caffeine Withdrawal

2 p.m. // The construction site outside my window begins to quiet down in the 2 p.m. hour (construction is considered “essential” under Mayor Bowser’s stay-at-home order). The crew shows up between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., so anyone on site much later than 2:30 or 3 p.m. is likely due overtime pay. The hammers and rebar cutters and beeping trucks slow. Only a few finishing touches and cleanup are left on the day’s big push. No new messes or deliveries. With less noise from the work crew, I open my windows. The sound of birdsong has taken over the empty city. 

Inside the apartment, I have a big cooking project going. Chili in the slow-cooker fills the space with the smell of spices that I’ll harvest at dinner time. I give it a stir and then chop an apple and heat some water for herbal tea.

2 p.m. is the hour I long ago set to stop having caffeine. In practice, this alert—when it popped up on my phone—had become a reminder to hurry up and make a final cup of coffee to go with my light afternoon snack (lately an apple with peanut butter or cashews). 

Back in mid-February, when COVID was barely on my radar, I listened to this interview with Michael Pollan about caffeine (and the short Audible story he was promoting). Pollan doesn’t come up with any serious health reasons to avoid caffeine, but a researcher suggests he can’t understand the chemical compound without getting it out of his system for a time. And that’s what Pollan sets out to do. As he tapers his dosage and goes through withdrawal, he finds it harder to write, but his sleep is far better, and his moods more level. As I listened, I realized that I’ve had caffeine in my bloodstream almost continuously since my first barista job in the mid-1990s. Few days off from coffee in 25 years, if any. Maybe this caffeine-tapering experiment is one worth trying? And so I began gradually brewing smaller and smaller doses of caffeine in the morning, and cut out any small amounts of caffeine (green tea, chocolate) from my 2 p.m. snack. 

Making a major change to your daily chemical addictions just as a global pandemic starts might sound ill advised. It might be something you postpone along with the baseball season and St. Patrick’s Day bar crawls. But I was deep in to the experiment by the time stay-at-home became the clear best practice for flattening the curve of COVID’s spread. At least I’m ahead of the game if coffee becomes as scarce as toilet paper. I’m not completely off the drug yet. There is still about 1/4 real coffee mixed in with the decaf I’ve started brewing in the morning (and even decaf has traces of caffeine). I no longer feel a craving for a 2 p.m. dose, and could probably go to all-decaf tomorrow if I wanted (but I’ll wait until I run out of regular). I’m finding that the afternoon is less up and down, steadier. And I’m sleeping well, which is likely not what most people are saying these days.  

Still, I get tired by the end of the 2 p.m. hour. I start my day of screen work and house chores around the same time the construction crew starts their day of building concrete forms and positioning rebar. As the clock nears 3, I remind myself it’s OK to take it slow. I play a guided meditation on my phone instead of clicking on the unread COVID alerts from the Post and the Times. I’ll come back to email later. 


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

Thanks for reading!

If you like posts like this, there are a number of ways you can support Erik and Future Cartographic.