When my old iPhone jingle-jangled a couple of days ago, the heads-up on the screen indicated Unknown Caller. As a rule I let such things go to voicemail, but this time — I don’t know why — I picked up and a woman asked if I was who I am, and when I said I was, she said she was Gavin Newsom’s secretary and he wanted to talk with me.
This doesn’t happen much, either. In fact, the middle-aged, as-yet-unwrinkled white governor of California and ex-mayor of San Francisco had never been in touch, not during this plague and not before. I had to wonder. A joke? A hoax? A bot, maybe?
No,when he or it came on, and he or it told me what he or it told me, and I asked him or it a question, and he or it answered, kind of, I understood it was really him.
The governor was calling to say he had news that I’d been seen outside. Didn’t I know that people my age, especially men, people of Paul McCartney’s vintage, weren’t allowed to leave home? I said I did know. But when I pointed out that I’m two months younger than McCartney he told me to get serious.
Hadn’t I noticed that men like Trump, Bernie Sanders, Bernie Madoff, Anthony Fauci, Stephen King, Mitch McConnell, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Wolf Blitzer, Noam Chomsky, Warren Buffett, Warren Beatty, Louis Farrakhan, Larry David, and Al Pacino were dropping like flies? Not to mention Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Charlie Rose?
Newsom said that as the highest elected public servant in the state, he’s responsible for the well-being of everybody in California, be they Democratic voters, Republican voters, or irresponsible non-voters. He didn’t want me becoming a statistic. Therefore he was warning me — if I was seen or detected outside again, he’d have me put on Alcatraz until the end of my life or until there’s a vaccine, whichever comes first.
But, I protested, he was opening the Golden State up. He’d just given restaurants the A-OK for curbside service and florists and sporting goods and liquor stores the A-OK to welcome customers one at a time — what if I needed a hamburger, an arrangement, a basketball, or a six-pack of Guinness?
“A-OK?” he said. “What does A-OK mean?”
“It’s astronaut lingo from the ’60s. All systems go,” I explained. “Well, it’s not A-OK,” he said, “not for relics.”
I had a question: Why were the state, the nation, and the world being turned upside down and inside out, economies ruined, millions if not billions of women and men and children stripped of their livelihoods and educations, facing hopelessness, hunger, and starvation just to give a few dried-up men an additional year or three of non-productive life?
A reasonable question, which he ignored. No disrespect, he said, but it sounded as if I was into my second childhood. Again he warned me — home or Alcatraz — and then I heard a click and a dial tone.
Which was too bad — among other things I wanted to explain why I’d started defying orders and thank him for sending free restaurant meals to my door.
Detected? What had he meant? I’ve been taking my prehistoric iPhone when I suit up and go outside, but first I always turn it off, under the impression that if I do Eric Schmidt and Tim Cook won’t be able to track me. What does a relic know? Maybe the state of California has hired some Israeli outfit capable of tracking anybody on the planet 24/7 from drones invisible to the naked eye.
Detected or seen, he’d said. Maybe somebody in my building squealed on me? That woman with the chihuahua? It’s a brave, boring new 1984-ish world we’re all of us blessed to have lived to find ourselves living in.
But, whatever the source, Gavin’s information was correct. After sheltering in place in my apartment with its view of the Golden Gate, the Bay, Alcatraz, and UC Berkeley for two months and with Jeff Bezos’s “delivery service partners” bringing me contact-free peanut butter and oatmeal, I’d begun going nuts.
Things didn’t get better when Newsom and the state of California started delivering free contact-free restaurant-made food to my door. Paid for mainly by FEMA, it’s for all seniors with incomes of less than $74,940, letting me truthfully squeak in. Why not? They drummed the Eleventh Commandment into us in the Israel Defense Forces — “If They’re Giving, Take.”
Nevertheless, whether paying for food or given it, I was shut in my apartment.
I’d looked in the mirror. Was that pasty, unshaven, wild-haired individual me, or was it Jack Nicholson in The Shining just before he takes an axe to Shelley Duvall? Something had to change. How many times can an Old Leftist rewatch The Bicycle Thief on the Criterion Channel?
BTW — Nicholson and Duvall are both elderly Californians now and as such also under house arrest but probably looking at more than $74,940 a year.
So disregarding the governor, and also San Francisco’s mayor, the middle-aged London Breed, an unwrinkled woman of color, last week I’d started putting on my beret, Uvex Bionic Face Shield With Clear Polycarbonate Visor, N95 mask, and latex-free, nitrile gloves and begun daily one-hour-long walks outside.
Yes, I know, N95s are supposed to be reserved for combat zone doctors and nurses. But I had some left over from the Mendocino wildfire a couple of years ago, back in a magical time when we could throw a dinner party, attend a Handel recital, shake hands, or go to a Giants double header or a Liz or Bernie rally without a second thought.
Suited up, I went outside. The fresh air and the sunlight and the shuttered businesses! Down I walked towards the bay past a locked-up kiddies playground and locked-up tennis courts and Heritage on the Marina, an upscale retirement home, and more shuttered businesses of every kind. A scene Bernard Rieux, M.D., hero of The Plague by Albert Camus, would have no problem recognizing. Even the Apple Store on Chestnut was deserted and locked until further notice.
But it wasn’t me alone out there. Not quite. There were a few homeless people who apparently hadn’t heard that the city was putting them up in now-deserted hotels where you get food, booze, cable, and marijuana at taxpayer expense — the opposite of a nightmare. Plus a few dog walkers with masks or without. Some of these pets — some, not all — growled at me.
And then you have the many, many Millennials and the younger of the Generation X-ers in Crissy Field and Fort Mason Great Meadow Park hard by the brilliant bluer-than-blue bay under a brilliant, non-polluted, coronavirus-era blue sky.
None wear masks, all are happy or look happy to a relic walking among them while distancing himself, kind of. Here they are jogging, biking, Frisbeeing, skateboarding, picnicking. They’re invulnerable to the bug, right? I go among them, a creepy silver-haired old dude in visor, moth-eaten beret, goggles, N95, and gloves, wondering if they should be admired or pitied. WTF? Don’t they understand what’s happening and what’s likely to happen?
If yes, they’re heroic. As heroic, if not more so, than their great-grandfathers who beat Hitler. They’re a new, like, Greatest Generation. But what if they don’t understand yet that courtesy of the CCP, of neoliberal globalization, of the man in the orange-yellow hairpiece, of God, of Malthus, of Darwin, or of Mother Nature, take your pick of one or all, they’re looking at maybe years if not decades of joblessness and homelessness?
Do they know their futures have maybe been wrecked, or are they putting on a brave face? I’m tempted to ask, to strike up a conversation. But if you know what A-OK means, to talk with another human except on Skype has become to play Russian roulette. Besides, I don’t want to depress anybody or sound as if I’m throwing shade, like. So I control myself.
I go among them, keeping a minimum distance and resisting this impulse, while out in the bay just a few pretty little sailboats also keep a distance one from another and make way for the infrequent humongous container ship from the People’s Republic of China steaming under the Golden Gate loaded with items for Walmarts and Costco. Frequency much reduced. Until a couple of months ago it was a couple every day and three on Sundays. But now just every few days you see one bringing masks, gloves, sanitizer, and Tylenol for the Americans. Under the bridge, past Alcatraz, heading to the port of Oakland.
Soon it’ll be fifty years since Henry Kissinger, who’s now holed up in New York overlooking the UN and who’ll soon be celebrating his one-hundredth birthday, put it into Richard Nixon’s head to reach out to Mao Tse-tung. At the time it seemed like not a bad idea. China is heir to the world’s oldest civilization, and communist or not the Chinese have long loved to do business with those who are younger and not so civilized.
Without interacting with a young person or any other soul, it’s back to my virtual prison cell, where at 7 p.m. daily there’s something to look forward to. Everybody in San Francisco goes to the window and bangs on kitchenware or blows a vuvuzela and goes “woo-woo-woo” in gratitude and esteem and love for the nurses and doctors. Everybody but a crazy old man.
I’ll be honest. Even before Gavin’s threat I was scouring the internet for places with few if any cases and no deaths and nobody buried alive. There are a few. North Korea and Turkmenistan, of course, no cases, no deaths, but can you credit their numbers? Tahiti? Sixty cases, zero deaths, but they’re French. The Falklands? Thirteen cases, zero deaths, and they’re English. The Seychelles, a thousand miles from anywhere, in the Indian Ocean? Even better — no cases, no deaths, and although some of the inhabitants are French, most are Creole.
But also scoring a perfect double zero is American Samoa. Nice people, U.S. territory, birthplace of the late Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney. Only two problems — getting there and, U.S. passport or no U.S. passport, getting in. Despite that, I was thinking how it might be done when an Unknown Caller jingle-jangled, and I answered.
Eureka — I’d been thinking how to shlep my bones halfway around the world so as to claw back a year or two or three of halfway meaningful life when the fix was visible from my window. Gavin’s threat wasn’t a threat at all. It was him offering a Get Out of Jail Free card.
Granted, if the Rock was still a working prison, it would by now be like all the prisons, old folks’ homes, and slaughterhouses from sea to shining sea — i.e., a killing ground. But as everybody knows it was closed just before Oswald shot JFK. Do the unmasked young know who Oswald and JFK were? Following which a band of Native Americans retook, occupied, or squatted on it until they were kicked off so the National Park Service could make it into a tourist attraction. The only visitors to the ex-Rock from then until a couple of months ago were loads of moms, dads, and kids from Dubuque packed into the Alcatraz Cruises ferry.
You ask if I’ve ever been.
Never — did real New Yorkers ever visit the top of the Empire State Building or Windows on the World? The nearest I’ve come was Birdman of Alcatraz in a real movie theater with the late, much-missed Burt Lancaster playing a double murderer who develops a cure for an avian viral infection, and Escape From Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood, a Californian who just turned ninety.
I wonder if he’s toeing Gavin’s line.
Anyway, both Wikipedia and the National Park website are illuminating. We learn the on-island shop carries books, memorabilia, souvenirs, posters, keychains. A fire gutted the lighthouse keeper’s house during the Native American takeover, but the light is said to operate automatically. Ditto the foghorn. This is true. I see the winking light every night and hear the horn. Plus we’re told about and shown pictures of a nice-looking, well-tended flower garden created originally by inmates.
And now COVID-19 has closed Alcatraz even to Mom, Dad, and the kids from Dubuque, closed it to sightseers from Wuhan, New Delhi, Abu Dhabi, Oslo, and wherever, closed it to all but the gulls until they exhume Albert Sabin or Jonas Salk and one or both of them find a vaccine, in other words for decades if not forever.
Good — no, better than good. Ideal, provided there’s water, power, refrigeration, toilet, and internet and an old man can have the visor-free, goggle-free, mask-free, glove-free run of the island. Can I assume Gavin will find a way to keep me fed? I think I can.
And so an hour ago I dialed 916-445-2841, the governor of California’s publicly listed office number. I wanted to take him up on his offer, starting immediately. The flower garden? Has it been overrun by weeds? I’d be happy to spend as many hours a day as necessary to restore it, and without the state even paying me.
But when I called that number, leaving my own caller ID enabled, and asked for the governor’s secretary, a lady or young woman asked how she could help, and when I told her about the governor’s call and his idea and said I’d decided it was a good one, she said nothing for a couple of beats and then asked me if this was some kind of a joke. Aisha was her name, and no, there was no record of such a call, and no, she wasn’t the governor’s personal secretary. Could she pass me along to her? No, she couldn’t. All she could do is warn me that if I ever wasted the office’s time again, I was liable to be charged under the Golden State’s penal code section 217 or 148.
Click and dial tone.
Google says 217 relates to assault on a public official. That’s a stretch, no? One-forty-eight, not so much:
Every person who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any public officer … in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office or employment, when no other punishment is prescribed, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment.
Not a great stretch, not in the state at the end of the rainbow. A prosecutor might persuade a jury that by wasting the governor’s time or the time of his staff at this time of warlike emergency I was keeping the state’s top officer and/or his staff from discharging his or their duty. In response to the plague, Gavin emptied jails up and down the state of all except rapists and first-degree murderers, so wouldn’t it be ironic if I got out of house arrest just to be put in among them?
For me to call again and demand to speak with his secretary would be too risky.
So here’s my plan. Starting tomorrow I’ll be going out not for an hour a day, but for hours and hours, trusting either a Zionist drone or the chihuahua woman or both catch me at it.
When the news reaches Gavin, and he calls to tell me he warned me, it’ll be, like, A-OK. I’ll say my bags are packed and I’m ready to share the gardening with Clint.