Thursday, May 21, 2020

Mother’s Day, Ant Bait, TSA, Texas Troopers: Three Stories

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Mother’s Day, Ant Bait. As more states relax their stay-at-home orders, I see way more people in the grocery stores, and way fewer people wearing masks. After Mother’s Day, I am thinking of ordering my groceries instead.

Calm woman carrying adorable child on hands and taking selfie on smartphone near river and mountains

Because on the morning of Mother’s Day (which I totally forgot about, because who knows what day it is) I went to the grocery store. My daughter, the RN, is a traveling nurse working in the ICU COVID-19 wards in one of the hottest spots in Georgia.

I am staying in her house in Texas for the next two months, where I traveled to from my home in Seattle. I was not terrified at all to be traveling. She has already had the virus, recovered and gone back to the front lines. I am here to pet-sit, because people are too afraid to pet-sit strange animals since it came out that cats, dogs and tigers, I guess, can get it and spread it to each other — but not to humans, unless maybe you decide to eat your pet. Groceries are plentiful now, but who knows, it’s early yet.

Fortunately for me, my daughter has a puppy and a cat, but no tigers.

SO, thinking that ten in the morning is a relatively quiet grocery time, but also thinking it was like, Monday, maybe, or even Tuesday, I enter the grocery store, and it is humming, alive with people. What are all these people here for?

Oh, yeah.

Mother’s Day. I think of my daughter. Her three kids, my grandchildren, are with their dad and his wife right now. The custody has shifted since she began working on the COVID units. I saw the grandkids when I first came. We did the blanket-hug-with-mask thing, but I probably won’t see them again while I am here. A lot of people go in and out of their dad’s house — their “nana,” his wife’s mother, some cousins who are watched by nana while their parents work, also in healthcare. For me, it is not safe to have the grandkids visiting every weekend.

It is morning. Katy should be sleeping in her motel room right now in Georgia, because she is working the night shift. I picture her in bed, eyes shut tight against the light leaking in, her scrubs in a pile by the door. She has six pairs, so she can strip and shower when she comes back and so she only has to wash them once a week. She has a note taped on the outside of her door: Housekeeping — Please leave linens outside. DO NOT ENTER. Thank you.

White Petaled Flowers

The motel has other traveling nurses in it, I presume, other ICU nurses called to Georgia, but Katy and I don’t talk much or even text much. She is working twelve, sometimes fourteen hours at a time, sleeping, then getting up to work again. She has, she says, random days off, where she mostly lays in bed and watches TV, and sleeps. I get a “Happy Mother’s Day” GIF that night, before she starts her shift. Just saying. forgot it was Mother’s Day, not her. I GIF her back, a funny one. A sweet one, I know, will make her cry, make her miss her kids even more. She has learned not to cry too much. There is too much to cry over, patients who will never see their families again. Too many. Too much. For me, I try not to dwell on the possibility that she will get sick again. I know that it is a possibility, one I try not to put numbers on.

In the store the cashiers are masked, the staff is masked, there are shields at the registers. But my anxiety is rising because there are way more people than I expected, and only maybe 75 percent of the shoppers are wearing masks. It is an inventory I take when I go into a store. How crowded? How safe? How many masks? More, really, than 75 percent are wearing them, but it doesn’t count if you wear it as a beard net or a chin guard, or have it pulled below your nose…

The worst are the clueless or actively rebellious who have decided it is all a hoax, exaggerated, fake news, or think its okay not to wear one, because “they are not sick.” Please look up “asymptomatic,” Typhoid Mary and John. That’s right. I am talking to you. Or really, thinking at you.

They seem to come in pairs today, maskless couples walking around the store, getting breakfast items and last-minute cards. The maskless seem to also be the first ones to lean their heads next to yours, to reach over you, to grab whatever it is they can’t wait ten seconds for while you make a selection.

So I get my few items, one of which is ant bait, which is the purpose of the trip. I am in Texas, and how is it cars get ants? I have three fiery red bites on my shins from driving yesterday to her storage unit to look for something she wants me to get, a nursing book on respiratory diseases, an item that I knew I ultimately wouldn’t find in the jumble of stacked bins and detritus — books from school, important things mixed with things she can’t throw away yet because she might get them repaired, the kids’ old toys and bikes they have outgrown. She made this move just before she got sick and the house is missing odd things I need in the kitchen, the dressers and her bedframe that is stacked clear in the back. I need to hire help to unload that storage, so when she gets back she is not sleeping on the mattress on the floor, while she goes through another quarantine before she can work again.

One ant bites me even as I drive to the store, even as I am actively plotting his death, while his tiny pals march in a ragged line into the cupholder.

Ant bait, orange juice, coffee, bread.

Orange juice. Unmasked lady, why, oh why must you hand-molest a bottle of orange juice, only to reject it and touch two more before you finally take the same kind you always get? I want to say it, but then I picture a full-on tirade of why this is all a hoax and she is not sick and people are exaggerating and the news reports are fake…talking, talking, talking while her respiratory droplets gather into a glowing green cloud around her face, form into an arrow, and fly straight at me, like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon from the ‘60’s.

I skip the orange juice.

My new normal, if I am in the store and I see someone who is unmasked coming toward me, is to turn around and walk away — like they are my neighbor who only showers twice a year.

I already can guess what funky smell is on them.

I have perfected the 180 degree turn-and-run.

The orange juice molester is my final trigger. Screw this. I have ant bait, bread and coffee. I head for the checkout. All I want to do is get out of there and poison some car ants on the drive home.

I have already figured out to use the big grocery cart when I have to go into a store, even if I am only getting a few things. Because of...people.

The unmasked, oblivious or malignant shoppers who want to crowd you in the aisles or in the checkout line. In the self-checkout people can and do come up on you, so I go to the regular checkout line, keeping my distance from the man in front of me, a tall, lean-hipped Texan, with white hair and worn cowboy boots. He wears his mask with a matter-of-fact air, but I can see his shoulders are tense.

It is still Mother’s Day. I am still in this goddamn store. I have only been in it for ten minutes, if that, but I feel like I have run a marathon. The lights begin to look brighter, hurting my eyes, and my ears buzz a little. My heart is beating too fast. I recognize the signs of an oncoming panic attack, and I take deep, slow breaths through my mask, and talk to myself silently. You are almost out of here. You can do this.

I look at the cashier, a young black woman, another essential worker. I focus on her hair, a trick I have learned when my anxiety rises, to focus on something I can see. Her hair is woven into tiny, glossy black braids that spiral and I can see that it is her natural hair, not a wig. She has a look of patience above her mask, one that looks like a mask itself; like she has the same self-talk going on. I am calm, she tells herself. She is getting through the day one customer at a time. It is a forced calm, a calm she is trying to project onto the shoppers who come in, who are easily triggered into tantrums, or suddenly can’t remember their pin numbers.

The older man is asking for something and she is explaining something, indicating the customer service desk. I can’t hear what it is about, because my ears are buzzing and the noise of air conditioning system is getting louder. He doesn’t understand. I watch as she explains it again, still with that look of iron patience and calm. She would be a good nurse, I think. Maybe she is taking nursing classes and working at the same time. She is the right age, with an abundance of determination that shows in her body language. On the third explanation, he gives up and goes to the customer service desk. He looks distressed.

I move up. It is my turn.

Right behind me is a couple, well into their fifties, who should know better, about everything, but don’t. They are not wearing masks and they have their eyes on a semi-wilted looking bunch of roses at the end cap, where the impulse items are displayed when you check out. I am ahead of them and I have strategically placed the giant cart behind me. I unload my three items onto the belt. Ant bait, coffee, bread. The cart puts a physical barrier between me and the couple, a barrier I need because they are ignoring the six-foot distance lines on the floor.

They creep closer and closer, discussing this sad bunch of roses, heads together, exchanging each other’s air. They can see the flowers, but they want to smell them. They close the gap to smell and breathe on the flowers. I press my butt against the cart, inching it back. They subconciously move back too, but then go in for another smell and more discussion. They are oblivous to me, to the other shoppers, to everything but their mission to get mom some flowers or something, because it is Mother’s Day.

They are trying to decide if these fucking wilted orangish grocery store roses are good enough for mom. Judging by this couple’s age, mom must be at least seventy years old. I exchange a look with the cashier. Her eyes say “I know. I deal with it all day.” I shake my head in sympathy. The couple remains oblivious, going in for another whiff, breathing on the flowers again.

Jesus.

Here mom, have some COVID-19 for Mother’s Day. We have always hated you.

Now we can say it with flowers.

Story Two: TSA at the Airport.

I am at Seattle-Tacoma airport, for essential travel. It’s not real busy, and most people are wearing masks. And practicing social distancing.

United has assured me the seating is such that on a three-on-three setup, the middle seat is left open. But the plane is emptier than that, thank God. Still, I wear my mask the whole trip. I have never seen such a clean plane, and the flight attendants wipe down the touchpoints throughout the trip, leaving a smell of industrial disinfectant. On the two-and-a-half hour flight to Denver, not one person heads for the restroom. We are not getting in that box, not to pee, not for anything.

But before I board, I have to go through security. I get in line, six and more feet apart from the others, who are masked and not eager to crowd each other. But guess what group is not totally masked, and clustering around each other, less than two feet away from each other?

That’s right. The TSA workers.

These screeners neccesarily work closer than is safe, but a good half of them aren’t even trying to maintain a safe distance from each other or wearing masks. I watch a young female TSA worker as I wait, who takes every spare moment to flirt with her co-worker, a handsome young man who is wearing a mask. She ignores how he leans away from her, not at all picking up on his body language and he winces every time she wanders over. She finds reasons to touch him, and smiles at him with her bright white teeth, full wattage, talking, talking.

I take a wider look. The travelers, for the most part, are wearing masks. But the TSA workers, a good half of them. No masks.

What the ever-loving fuck?

I use the time in line to Tweet this information to @SeaTac; @TSA; @GovInslee. I am already pissed, and I am not even in the boarding area yet. I have had those random patdowns from the TSA, because of my mild-mannered demeanor, also because I can never remember to buy the expedited pre-screened, preferred, safe passenger thingy in enough time before any trip, the one that lets you bypass the security lines. I hate the whole idea of the TSA, and they are, as an underpaid group generally, as jerky as any suburban security cop patrolling a group of cul-de-sacs in a neighborhood of Karens. It is a weird culture of the powerless with too much power, who get to ignore our rights against unreasonable searches, and touch our bodies.

I feel sorry for anyone who gets pulled out of line for one of those random patdowns, I think.

And yup. I get asked to hold on, and a TSA woman, this one masked, lets me know she needs to pat my chubby thighs. Dammit. Every goddamn time. They have a mandatory number of these “random” patdowns.

Nope, not smuggling anything. Just Norwegian. She barely touches me, then lets me get my stuff off the screening belt. They pick me far too often, because I have learned to wear my “mask” when going through the airport. Inoffensive, not outraged. I make a note to myself to get the prescreened passenger thing, which costs about $80 for the year, a rich person’s tax that buys you less harassment at the airport. But I will probably forget.

To be fair, for many months after 9/11 they would “randomly” pat down my brother, who is a “dark Norwegian,” with olive skin and black hair. When his hair turned white early — a family trait — these “random” patdowns ceased.

Or maybe he just got sick of it and bought the expedited, pre-screened thingy.

Story Three: Texas Troopers Enforce the Mandate

At the Austin airport, I deplane. There are two Texas State Patrol troopers by the exit gate. Their job is to take the form, sent by the airlines after I booked my ticket, that requires passengers from hotspots like Seattle to agree to a 14-day quarantine when traveling from certain cities — New York and the tri-state area, New Orleans, Seattle, and some others. Violating the order can cost you a $1,000 fine, the paper informs me. This order is a mandate from the governor of Texas, Greg Abbot. I have this paper folded in my backpack, which I filled with wipes and hand sanitizer and my medications.

I have arrived, to pet-sit while my daughter is nursing on COVID ICU units in Georgia for two months where they have called for outside medical workers to deal with the rising cases.

The troopers are sitting side-by-side on stools, in front of a little podium. Almost shoulder-to-shoulder.

Neither one is wearing a mask. I wore my mask during the whole trip and through the Denver airport, and I still have mine on. I hand them the paper, and step back.

Their job is to make sure I have promised to keep my potentially asymptomatic ass at my declared destination, my daughter’s house, for 14 days. But again, THEY ARE NOT WEARING MASKS.

I give them the form, and step back from them. They check it, ask me about whether I have symptoms, and to repeat the address where I will be staying. I give them the correct answers.

I really, really don’t want to confront a member of the Texas State Patrol, but it comes out of my mouth anyway.

“So how come you guys aren’t, you know, wearing masks?” I circle mine with my finger and raise my eyebrows.

I get a real deer-in-the-headlights look from both of them. It takes a few seconds, where they exchange confused looks. It is apparent I am the only one that has asked this question. They answer at the same time, but they give two different answers.

The first trooper says, “It’s too late for that.” At the same time, his partner answers, “It’s all bullshit anyway.”

I take a beat, looking at them. They look like kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar, and it dawns on me. They were told to wear masks, but Partner One didn’t believe in the whole thing. They were both male, and the younger one, maybe in his late twenties, is the one who calls it “bullshit.” His partner, a guy in his mid-thirties, looks like he maybe believes in it but has been stuck with his partner anyway, the “bullshit” trooper. Or because of his “bullshit” partner, it is too late for that.

Whatever.

“Is there anything else you need from me, troopers?”

I get a small double-take. Most civilians address all cops as “officer.” “Trooper” is a rank, not a job. I wait for the answer while they squirm.

No.

There wasn’t anything else they needed from me.

Postscript. The Sheriff Checks On Me.

Ten days later, I am in my daughter’s house, wrangling a puppy, a pocket beagle with long silky ears and regular bouts of the zoomies, who likes to snatch socks and chew on everything. It is three in the afternoon, and I am still in my pajamas, working on an article. I get an “unknown caller” on my cellphone with a Texas area code.

“Hello?” I expect it to be a robocall of some sort.

It is an officer, a local sheriff, who identifies himself and right away he tells me he is checking on my quarantine. He has a pleasant voice with no trace of a Texas drawl. He asks me if I am staying in (yes, sir) and if I have any symptoms (no sir, thanks for asking). By the way, he says, I am outside your house now, in a green truck. If you will just step outside and wave to me, that will complete the check.

I am in too-big leopard-print drawstring bottoms, a T-shirt that doesn’t match, and flip-flops. I am not sure if I have brushed my hair since I got up. I have no bra on.

I slip on a jacket, and step out. I see the truck, but his face inside the cab of the unmarked, pine-green pickup is a dark blur against the hot Texas sunlight. I wave, squinting, and he gives me a thumbs up, then drives off.

I text my daughter. I know that even if she is sleeping, she will want to hear this one. I also know that by now she is tossing and turning, because her hips and legs and feet hurt. In Georgia it is four p.m., five hours before her shift, and maybe six hours since she went to sleep. It is more math, a Dali painting of melting clocks — my inner Seattle time, adjusted to Central Texas time, her one-hour-later-but also “early morning” Georgia time for her, five hours before her next twelve or fourteen-hour night shift.

The patients in the COVID wards, she tells me, never sleep.

“I just got a quarantine check by the sheriff.”

… … …

“I don’t believe you.”

… … …

“No, really.”

I take a screenshot of the phone number with the Texas prefix and send it.

… … …

“Wow.”

… … …

“I know, right?”

I picture her head sinking back onto the pillow, her long, dark hair tangled, fraying on top from where the elastics on the masks and shields pull on it, breaking off strands. I put the phone down, face up, next to my laptop. Maybe she will call before she leaves for work. But in another minute, the screen lights up. She is typing.

… … …

… … …

“Mom, nobody says ‘I know, right?’ anymore.”

… … …

“Yah, whatevs. Go back to sleep for a while.”

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