In 2008, when Gertrude, my 9/11-widowed mother, remarried, I put on the mask of manic Hamlet to tell that story. But I never liked Shakespeare’s ending, that pile of bodies. In the final coda of my memoir, I gave readers the ending they’d been conditioned to expect, but only as joke. The conspiracy theorist did not kill his family and himself. If you believed my fake newspaper article, which I offered as a parody of journalism, then you aren’t a very good reader, now are you?
The other shoe has finally dropped.
Twelve years later, I am cast in Orwell’s nightmare. I take control of the role of Winston Smith in first-person, so that I can override his author and change his depressing ending. Imagine instead a street scene in Airstrip One, where Outer Party members and proles have gathered to celebrate the latest genocidal event somewhere in the world, when, surprise, prole after prole, puts aside his or her implement, banner, or bag, and unmasks. A lonely accordion in the far distance starts a bittersweet tune, approaching closer and closer; soon other instruments join in, a guitar, a trombone. An impromptu band has formed and begins parading in the square. All at once the crowd begins singing, hands on hearts, faces tilted to the sky. Jumpsuited Outer Party members break into pairs and start waltzing. Soon the whole street crowd is in choreographed motion. They sing, “When at night on TV, our Lordship has spoken to announce the sentence, we show our irreverence…” The Inner Party members are helpless to stop it. “Nous au veut continuer a danser encore.” When a few of the police patrols join in, the Inner Party members know it’s all over for them; the people have won the day. Winston will not accept Big Pharma into his heart as his lord and savior and he will not be shot through the head in the end.
But we aren’t there yet.
Late June 2020 in SoHo, downtown New York City, the smell of burning tires from two nights previous lingered, and occasional police horns whooped and booped at the few leftover BLM protestors who still wandered the streets. I wondered if the police would set another gas-soaked junked cruiser out to be sacrificed for good visuals. Glass and garbage was strewn everywhere in the deserted city. As I rounded the corner to my street, I saw that the glass front of my apartment building, a new high-rise called Victory Mansions, had been covered with plywood in anticipation of more night riots. Someone had already plastered the boards over with posters, which depicted an enormous bespectacled face, more than a meter wide, the face of a man about sixty-five, with a downturned smile, an unsettling look of self-satisfaction. In the lobby, I found that the elevator was again unresponsive to the button, and I began to trek up to the ninth floor loft. On each landing I noticed that the same poster had been glued to the stairwell wall. BIG PHARMA IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
The loft was owned by a guy, let’s call him Charrington, who wanted to run to the country to get away from the riots and the harsh lockdown measures. I needed a place in the city for my new job at the public library. We agreed to swap homes for a few months. I met him on the farm and toured the gardens with him. He wore a white suit, red tie and a straw hat. I think it might have been a Truman Capote tribute. His hair was freshly dyed black and bushy eyebrows were grotesquely dark and false. I wondered how he would fit in in Amenia.
Charrington’s two-million-dollar loft was furnished in mid-century modern, a retro-futuristic style for an imagined future that will never happened: white floors and walls, punctuated by red or black furnishings and one big silent screen of video artwork: never-ending and ever-changing clips, mostly black and white, mostly from old Italian movies. The interior decoration set the expectation that there would be a robot housemaid on hand, automatic sliding closet and bedroom doors, and a blue cube in the center of the living room supplying endless free energy. But none of these things had come to market so far in the 21st century.
“Hello Winston,” said a woman’s voice when I entered the loft. Charrington had programmed Alexa’s greeting with my name as a well-intended but creepy gesture. I did not respond, though it was sometimes hard to suppress my automatic reply. Charrington had let me know that I could ask her anything about the apartment. Alexa, where’s the recycling bin? Alexa, how do you turn off the heat? Alexa, where does Charrington hide his porn? and so on. He explained that I just had to say her name and “she switches on.” When I pointed out that she would have to always be on and listening in order to respond to her name, he contradicted me. But I let it go.
Once inside the apartment I double-locked the door behind me and walked to the bank of windows that looked out toward Broadway. If Alexa was always on in the background, attached to security cameras and sensors, there was a chance you were being watched at any moment. It was not inconceivable that AI monitored everybody all the time—there would be money in the national security budget for that—but at any rate, if AI picked up a key term, it could start recording for later analysis. If this all hadn’t come to pass quite yet, it was possible now, finally, to imagine a time when you lived, according to a habit turned instinct, as if your every sound was overheard, your every move, gesture and facial expression were being scrutinized.
If you were one of those persons of interest, I imagine you already lived that way. Persons of interest fell into pretty broad categories, suspected terrorists, truthers, whistleblowers, people who took vitamins, people who had doubts about the state of our democracy, people who omitted the “under God” phrase in the pledge, as well as those who said it all too passionately—and anyone who grew vegetables or owned a pressure canner, “for example, Gertrude.”
I did have an old habit of talking aloud to myself, which was probably not wise in the present circumstances. So far Alexa had just listened in silence and I never asked for her help. I might have asked her how to turn off the video artwork. I felt around the sides and back of the screen for a little welt that might be a power switch, but found none. Winston, what are you doing? I kept expecting her to ask, like the newly sentient Hal.
On Broadway below protests had been going on for about four days. Before the protests began, I had noticed that the unrented storefront opposite my building had been leased, and a dozen young men came and went at intervals in nice cars. I wouldn’t have noticed them if there had been women among them. An all male operation seemed odd. Once the protests began and many stores like Louis Vuitton were looted, I noticed that the newly rented space seemed to be a depot for loading the stolen merchandise into rental trucks. I never reported what I saw because I was the sole resident left in the one building with a view to their goings-on. They, whoever they were, could guess I was the informer. All the other residents had gotten the hell out of the city.
I didn’t mind being in the thick of the protests. I marched along with them on the first day. At least the BLM protests gave us some reprieve from thinking about the pandemic night and day. But I worried that the financial forces in the world were trying to effect a color revolution and so that we would all kill each other so that they wouldn’t have to.
In the distance I noticed a small drone dipping in between and around the buildings, skirting around the apartment, and zipping over to scan the rooftops and alleys. It was probably looking to identify violators of the 8 PM curfew. At night a different crowd replaced the mostly college student protestors who came in the daytime. After curfew Ninja-garbed agitators, whom I guessed were probably undercover cops and organized crime groups with whom they had some kind of understanding, patrolled the streets. As the drone passed my window, it hesitated for a moment to get a good shot of me and then went on.
Below me I saw a small figure dressed all in black, hooded, masked, carrying a roll of posters, a paint brush, and a bucket of glue. When he noticed a “Big Pharma is Watching You” poster, he studied it for a while and then unrolled one of his posters and began to cover the rival’s work. I recognized his poster, a multicolored list of obvious truisms, which copied the yard signs in suburbs upstate. The list wasn’t at all like the declarations, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, or Ignorance is Strength, and so forth, but they did contain a germ of doublethink. Each statement, obvious and true on its face, evoked its opposite insofar as it functioned as kind of rebuttal. Love is Love, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal. “I believe this” virtuously accused some unnamed person of not believing that. I considered that the newer slogans in this Nicene Creed strove to be as powerful as that ironic understatement in the center of the list, “Black Lives Matter,” but the author of the new tacked-on slogans had failed to appreciate what had made the theme of the protest so powerful. And so the collection of new slogans that the hooded figure was now pasting to the wall undermined the one good one.
I then considered that the center phrase, “Science is Real,” stood out, not just because its brevity allowed the font to be relatively large, but because one would only say that about Santa or God. It actually achieved some measure of Orwellian doublethink. The institutions of empiricism were reduced to Peter Pan propaganda, urging us to believe that science is real, just like we must believe fairies are real. “Science doesn’t require belief, at all. Science has nothing to do with belief,” I muttered aloud. That Disney sentiment was ushering in a new attitude toward science that would wholly undermine it, putting skeptical inquiry under suspicion and landing us in a new dark age.
I turned from the window and sat on the bright red love seat under the large ever-on screen so that my eyes wouldn’t be drawn to the flickering images, which at the moment were featuring the final scenes from Lord of the Flies when the adults arrived, knee-socked, attired all in white. I retrieved from my pocket a recent purchase, a blank booklet, that I had made on my long walk home from work, forty-some-odd blocks. During the enduring lockdown Ubers were rare, subways were so empty it was dangerous to go into them in the evening. So I walked through the mostly deserted streets, as the sun set and the curfew began, merely hoping for a cab that would never come. Along the way, I had passed a small stationary shop in the West Village that was open. The warm glow in its windows, toward which I was mothlike drawn, cheered up the otherwise empty, dark, damp, crooked street. Paper and pen were not considered essential items, and so I surmised that the old lady, staring placidly behind the counter, was some sort of Libertarian rebel illegally doing business. A bell tinkled when I opened the door and she assumed an expression of polite readiness. I realized just then that, of course, I would have to buy something. After pacing slowly through the cramped tiny store, looking at charming writing tools of a bygone era, I picked up a hand-sewn little brown leather booklet with about fifty blank pages of fine paper, smooth creamy paper, designed to appear yellowed by age. Thirty dollars seemed quite a lot to pay for it, but that’s what the hand-written sticker on the back said. I pulled out a fifty and the old woman made small talk as she made change, from an envelop that she withdrew from under the counter, without charging me any tax.
As I now sat on Charrington’s garish loveseat and examined the blank pages of the little book, I thought about the intrepid shop owner with dyed auburn frowzy hair and a necklace of glasses on her breast. She reminded me, I realized, of the grade school English teacher I had had so many years ago, before Gertrude took me out of school. I have never forgotten her, Mrs. uh, Mrs.… I smoothed the booklet on my lap and clicked my pen. I had bought the booklet to get out my thoughts about Gertrude’s death, I realized, as I faced a blank. For days I had been preparing myself for this moment. I decided to start with the year.
A sense of helplessness descended. To whom am I writing? Who is my audience? Shall I preach to the choir, rile up all those who already know that something is very amiss? Or should I try to reach the ones that are under the spell, the terrorized, the PTSD’d, the glovéd, multi-maskers, who still fall asleep every night thinking there’s a very good chance they may drown in their own fluids before sunrise? Must I write to the future, when many of those would-be readers will have, sadly, ventilated or vaxxed themselves out of existence? Surely I must write to you in the present, despite our lack of critical distance, if I want to stop that future from happening. But how? What tone do I take? Dear Reader, who are you? What do you fear? What do you understand? What makes your head buzz with indignation? How do I slip through your filters, with what camouflage should I deck out my words? Shall I mimic your peer group, infiltrate your subconscious, where I might subtly rearrange your patterns of thought with poetry and raw emotion?
Or, if I invite you into my mind, will you accept? Are you able to stand in my shoes and watch with my eyes as I remember the Alien scene of Gertrude’s swollen body arched unnaturally with a tube shoved down her throat? Are you willing to feel the helplessness I felt when I couldn’t open that damn door, that damn sliding glass door, separating me from my dying mother. “Mom” I yelled, slapping the glass. If she could just hear my voice, she would pull herself out of her morphine nightmare. It was then that the guards came shouting something about masks, while my mother was dying alone. I did not care about their damn mask rules.
The more arbitrary the rule, the more mercilessly it is enforced. The nurses advanced cautiously wit
h the guards. They were wearing flimsy paper ponchos and plastic face shields, which protected them from nothing, not even their fears. The guards were not PPE’d up, only wearing surgical masks. They were sizing me up like dog catchers. That terrified me. It honestly did. Have you ever been looked at like that? At that moment it crystalized. Everything was horribly wrong. The world has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
When I described the event to friends, they ignored the part about my mom dying alone and focused on my story about having been being beaten for not having a mask, and they begged me rethink my tale. That never happens, they said. People don’t get beaten up by hospital guards for not wearing masks. Maskless pregnant ladies don’t get slapped in grocery stores by other customers. That never happens. Cops don’t put pastors in chokeholds for holding Easter service. If anything, it’s the “anti-maskers” who are aggressive, get out of control, who start the problem, whine about liberties and rights and freedoms. Well your freedoms don’t extend to being an asshole, asshole.
These are the rules. Don’t ask questions. Don’t try to see your dying mother. That’s not allowed. We all have to do our part. Essential workers are heroes. You have to respect them.
The “hero” label is a useful contrivance to get young men to die in wars for oil or to get them to shut up upon return about some of the unseemly actions they may have been made to perform. The more ribbons you pin on them, the less likely they are to confess to the rapes and child murders, so as not to disappoint the parade-goers, flag wavers and such. Is it so, too, for the “front line” nurses and doctors, the Covid heroes? But when the operation is over, these soon-to-be vaccinated heroes, like depleted-uranium-sickened Iraqi war vets, will become an unwieldy burden on the system. And they, too, will be thrown aside.
I had noticed that most of the media fuss in March 2020 was about protecting the medical workers from the patients, not treating the patients per se. That didn’t seem right. It was as if the virus’s victims themselves were just the extras in this Covid-19 movie. They had no lines and their names didn’t appear when the credits rolled at the end. Just the body count. Oh, but I am over-generalizing based on my one bad experience. Undoubtedly, there were many good nurses who objected when the ventilators were wheeled in before they were needed. Undoubtedly, there were doctors who prescribed drugs off label, searching for the cure. But those scenes have been edited from the final cut that made it to cable TV. I’m not allow to hear about them.
Thoughtcrime is real.
Yesterday, desperate to talk to someone, I recklessly tested out my library co-workers when they expressed their condolences. I said, “My mom was a healthy fifty-nine. She could not have gotten sick enough in five days to warrant being ventilated.” The automatic reply came as expected, “Yeah, I know. Covid is so dangerous; no one is safe.” It did not seem to register with them that they had just disagreed with the grieving son. It was as if they couldn’t detect any information that conflicted with their Covid narrative. Maybe Charrington was right. Some robots only switch on to listen to data that they are programmed to hear. I provocatively went a step further, “But her only symptom was loss of smell. She didn’t say she had respiratory problems.” Again the auto-reply came, with a solemn headshake, “It’s so unpredictable. That’s what makes it so dangerous.” Then I tried an outright accusation of malfeasance on the part of the hospital. “Since when are hospitals offered 39K to put patients on ventilators?” The amazing reply was, “That’s the one good thing about this pandemic. Finally, the government is paying for our healthcare.”
Down with Big Pharma.
She died alone. No one held her hand. With a DNR order in place, no one entered the ICU chamber. The nurses watched her data remotely as she flatlined. Another statistic appeared in the World-O-Meter data, one that would alter a distant decimal place of the average age of victims, going from 78.999998 to 78.999997. After registering the death, the nurses turned their attention back to uploading their dance video to YouTube, just as I came running down the hall. Later I saw said video of the two-stepping medical professionals that was recorded while my mother’s heart was slowing to a stop.
I couldn’t make an international call on my phone while I was stuck in transit, so no family members were calling for Gertrude. With no one trying to visit, the hospital must have assumed she had no one to advocate for her. I wondered if they had simply drugged Gertrude straight off so that she never even knew what they were doing to her body. She would have been afraid very afraid.
I don’t want to think of her frightened like that alone. It was too horrible to think about. I couldn’t write about that. I was not ready to face that. I put the booklet away.
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