~ Illustrations by Ken Wahrenberger ~
A strong gale was blowing down Boulevard Hassan II as Abdelfattah paced the sidewalk in front of a shuttered café. Since the school closed where he worked as a guardian and parking attendant, he had been at home with his wife and three children, surfing precariously above the tide of anxiety that rose as quickly as his income had dried up. He was not salaried like the rest of the staff, and now he stood waiting for a teacher whom he enjoyed chatting with, this time for moral and material support.
“How long do you think it will last?” he asked the young man who sat on his bike with one foot on the curb. “Mon dieu, it can’t go on like this until September, I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The lines in his forehead seemed deeper beneath the brim of his baseball cap, and his voice, which could have belonged to a 1970’s radio host with its nicotine smoothness, betrayed more than a hint of exasperation. And exhaustion. After all, there would be no trillion-dollar stimulus plan for Morocco, maybe nothing at all even after the sudden largesse of the King trickled down through shadowy hands.
On a normal Friday afternoon, Abdelfattah would be in front of the school with a cigarette poised between his fingers, sitting on a thin piece of cardboard that doubled as a prayer rug. As the shiny, German-made automobiles dropped off and picked up their children, he would jog up and down, accepting with graciousness whatever metal dropped from their soft hands before the window slid silently up again. Still chic with his knock-off Ray Bans.
“Not even my own brother and father, wallah…” he shook his head, not looking at the bills in his right hand. Curfew was about to fall. Two uniforms were approaching on motorcycles as the wind carried off his parting blessings.
In a Comfortable Rhythm
Psssst! Pressure cookers whistle from home to home like clockwork three times a day. Bells for summoning deities tinkle periodically and mothers chat across rooftops after taking the wash down. Little children aren’t allowed on most roofs it seems, but teenage jump-ropers come up and older uncles and aunties walk laps and swing their arms energetically. In Kathmandu the lockdown is being taken seriously but without drama. Masked people even mingle outdoors, which they weren’t able to do during the lockdowns of the last Maoist insurgency, apparently. But the money will soon run out as the nationwide closure is extended on a weekly basis to prevent alarm. The rhythm might be changing.
Opening the windows to let the incense clear out, Zak goes to the roof to look out at the city and bow to the Great Stupa, half visible from the three-story building where he took a room when it became clear that leaving Nepal would be impossible. He came on vacation to meditate and find inspiration at the holy sites of the Buddha. Having passed up repatriation flight offers to America, he considers himself very lucky to be “stuck” where he is. Had he made it to India as he‘d planned, things might not be so calm, and had his flight back to Thailand not been canceled he’d be subject to the 100°F afternoons of Thailand’s hottest months. Slipping into the rhythm of meditating, praying, studying Tibetan and eating two meals a day, the lockdown lifestyle couldn’t be better actually. (Now if only he could renounce his iPhone!) For those content in solitude and accustomed to somewhat austere lifestyles, little has changed. And if the local monastery’s library opened just one day a week, then Zak’s “normal” life would be complete. But this will do.
Looking out at the springtime city, smog-less for three weeks now, it doesn’t look like the earth is trying to shake us off, but that seems to be the reality. Zak recalls the seers’ forecasts that predict this coronavirus being the start of a much longer and darker night for the world. Knowing this makes political defeats and everything else a bit easier for him to accept. And he’s accepted all of it by now. All that’s left is to get cooking.
Playing the Blues Away
It was a few minutes from the hour on Sunday afternoon as Robin checked her computer to see how many participants would tune in for her live lesson: A Klezmer Tune a Week. So far, it had had overwhelmingly positive reviews from her devoted students, many of whom she used to see in person. Happily confined to their home in rural Upstate New York, she and her husband were grateful for the timely, and long-awaited, installation of high-speed internet.
As teachers, they’ve been spared from the tsunami of unemployment that is sweeping the rest of the country. For the time being, knowledge is still in demand. However, even the most recalcitrant old-school profs must finally face their encroaching adversary: virtual teaching.
Luckily, Robin had already shown students from Australia to Iran how to make the clarinet laugh, growl and wail from the comfort of home. In fact, she was enjoying “social distancing.” Her new internet enterprise was becoming a hit, and isolation was nothing new in the house set 15 minutes from town, surrounded by deer who gamboled with undiminished bliss.
“But it’s sad when you don’t say hello to people, when you can’t chat with a friend at Latte Lounge,” she mused.
Even for those left high and dry, the honeymoon is giving way to hints of exile. It didn’t help that more people shot fearful glances from above their face masks at the grocery store, that some didn’t wear masks at all, or that moontape continued to be maddeningly scarce.
Poised with her clarinet in hand, she took a deep breath and said to herself: this will be easy. In the corner of her screen a small window reflected a transformed musician, framed by the art of her beloved home, and still quite beautiful.
One thought on “Three Vignettes in the Shadow of COVID”
A wonderful trilogy – with art, no less. Thank you Sam, Zak and Ken. Such talented young men you are. And I’m honored, Sam, to have been the inspiration for one of your vignettes.