In a Plague-Time Extended: Trying to Love Humanity Again
Twenty-second in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
“Why I Live at the P.O.,” the hilarious short story by Eudora Welty, relates the high pique that drives the narrator — the postmistress of China Grove’s post office, “next to smallest” in the state of Mississippi — to move out of the family home when, one by one, each member finds some idiotic reason to turn against her. If one wants some peace, what else can one do, the blinkered narrator asks, but go live at one’s workplace?
I’ve been thinking of this story, because, while Welty’s narrator has had it with her family, I confess I have had it with our larger family — humanity. Thanks to humanity — specifically, the anti-vaccine contingent — we the masses are being forced into extra innings with the COVID-19 pandemic. That these, um, knuckleheads refuse the jab, while millions the world over have no chance getting even one, compounds my anger and disgust. With Dr. Anthony Fauci, our Virgil guiding us through COVID Hell, now saying the Omicron variant “will find just about everybody,” finding refuge at one’s workplace (including the P.O.) is a no-go, thanks again to “humanity.”
This is not a comfortable place for this humanist to be: angry and disgusted with humanity, throwing scare-quotes around what should be an honorific, Humanity. It has been said the Universe owes us nothing and neither, I suppose, does humanity. Even though as a commentator and artist I have endeavored over decades to portray humanity at its best, defining it upward, rather than the modern downward tendency, toward dysfunction and pathology. I hate it that humanity is proving — by its own blinkered free choice — its pathology and dysfunction.
To rekindle my love for humanity — yes, love: In equilibrium, I brim with love for humanity, feel at one with my fellow human beings — I have of late cast my mind over those images of humanity that, experienced long ago, surface whenever I call them up, or they come to me unbidden, images that always make me smile, muse, comprehend. These singular human beings — whose names I never learned — cannot know it, but they have played, and still play, their part in Life as I have come to understand it. So, zooming back in time, some of those impressions follow, in the order experienced.
I: In the late 1960s, when I was in grad school in Italy (in Bologna), I returned to Rome after several visits in company (with my roommate; with classmates, one of whom had a car). This time, before I departed Italy after a memorable year, I wanted to immerse myself deeper in one of the grandest cradles of civilization, on my own, da sola. I’d just finished lunch in a ristorante, near the Piazza di Spagna, that featured communal dining at long tables. For company, I had a middle-aged avvocato (lawyer) opposite me who, as I set into my grilled spinaci, stopped me, rose, and administered a proper dressing of oil and vinegar (“Prego”). Then, my rudimentary Italian waning, I chatted with an American photographer on assignment for Time Life, an Indiana Jones sort at middle age. Afterwards, on the sidewalk, we all parted with a light-hearted “Ciao.”
That’s when I noticed the heat, the July heat: O Dio, it was an oven! It had to have been hot in the ristorante, too (this was before air-conditioning), but I hadn’t noticed it, no doubt because of the charming company. But outside on the broiling sidewalk — it was so oppressive I wondered: Is this when it all, you know, stops….? Just then, with all my mental powers directed to moving my feet, I passed a middle-aged woman, a vendor selling sachets of lavender. I bought a sachet, we commiserated about the heat, I moved on. Then I heard a plop: The woman had dropped to a crate behind her, gasping: “Non posso piu, non posso piu” — “I can’t anymore.”
Cara Signora, I can’t tell you how many times I have thought of you since then, hoping that was not your last gasp. What I took from you, and your humanity, was this: We, somehow, find it in ourselves to go on. Memory of your utterance, so visceral, comes over me whenever I take in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” the lines near the end: “I can’t go on like this.” “That’s what you think.” We go on, we do. And, dear woman, I still have that sachet of lavender.
II. About 30 years ago, I was driving across the country, from Washington, D.C. where my husband and I then lived, to Los Angeles, taking the southern route. I was in Texas, passing through Amarillo, when I stopped at a large truck stop that advertised an all-you-can-eat buffet. Little did I know I was about to get served a big helping of fun.
As I walked out of the women’s restroom after washing up, two 40-ish women walked in, with the lead character in front. Turning her head around to speak to her friend, and speaking directly into my ear, she said: “What I need, Wanda, is a mechanical man.” I laughed inwardly, headed for the buffet; then, curiosity doing its job, I turned and headed back into the restroom, wanting to get what Mrs. Malaprop called “the perpendiculars.” The two women were in the stalls, using their outdoor voices, clearly not caring who heard. As I re-washed my hands and re-brushed my hair, I heard it all: a man problem of long standing — “Years!” — with a man named Russell (not Russ but Russell). Reconstructed here, Friend of Wanda’s argument was: “If he doesn’t commit next time we’re together, Wanda, I am gone. Gone! I want what any woman wants: marriage. What does he think I’m hanging around for: a lifetime of putt-putt golf?” [Expletive deleted.]
Dear Friend of Wanda: I hope Russell did commit, but I am guessing he did not; when does Noncommittal ever become a joyous Yes? I’m also guessing that, with your understanding of human psychology and your ability to express your needs, you soon gave Russell an ultimatum, he shrugged, and you were gone. What you needed was not a “mechanical man,” but a man who runs toward danger, like a firefighter or police officer. I hope you landed him, are living happily ever after, and are writing your memoir, “The Wit and Wisdom of.” And in this household, if there’s a dust-up with my sweetie husband (this characterization came to me during our courting), I just have to say “What I need, Wanda, is a mechanical man” — and we both crack up. Dust-up resolved.
III. About 25 years ago, my husband and I were indulging a favorite weekend activity — going antiquing. Usually we headed up from D.C. to Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, but this time we were in another favorite antiquing destination, Lambertville, New Jersey. It was late afternoon, after the crowds, and this particular shop was empty but for us. We approached the gentleman behind the counter to ask about a particular item (I forget what it was); we probably asked its provenance. The man, probably in his fifties, said he did not know, he was just sitting in for his friend the owner, but, if we wanted, he’d call and ask.
Continuing the conversation, it came out that the man was a veteran of the war in Vietnam (my husband spent a career in the military, the Navy, but was not in Vietnam). There was an openness about this man that it seemed appropriate to ask him about his war: “How was it for you?” He said he had fought at Khe Sanh, which of course we knew, and acknowledged to him, to be one of the worst battles of the war, by then 30 years in the past. The man paused, looked at us, then looked away and said: “After Khe Sanh, it’s not possible for me to have a bad day.”
Dear Sir: I trust that your equanimity, so hard earned in the aftermath of hellish combat, has served you well through the years. Wresting Life from the jaws of Death, you wrestled your nightmares, sorted your priorities, found peace. If you sustained moral injury because of what war forced you to do, I trust you healed that wound. For my husband and me, you have become emblematic, not only of the life-spark, but the sheer gratitude of surviving mortal crisis — a war, a serious illness, a pandemic.
Finally: There was a little old lady we’d regularly encounter at the Howard Johnson cafeteria on Wisconsin Ave. in D.C., who would place napkins over each dish on her tray, removing the napkin only when she ate the item, then replacing it before moving to the next. Our Lady of the Hot Shoppes — following the science! — knew about viruses and germs long before COVID.
O.K., I am starting — starting — to feel warmer again about my fellow human beings, having splashed around in the warm memories of various pilgrims I have encountered on our grand progress through Life. It has been vivifying to evoke fundamental human qualities of endurance, wit, equanimity, qualities necessary to surviving crises like COVID-19. Still, there is the contrariness of humanity, which still could undo us. The poet Walt Whitman, in “Song of Myself,” wrote of our prodigiousness — ”I contain multitudes” — but also our contrariness: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself.”
Very well: Contradict yourself, Humanity. But still, get the vaccine, dammit, or you can’t get a full embrace from me. We need to get to a more mature humanity: one that feels for the masses what we feel for our precious selves.
For other posts in this series, see here.