Fin de Siècle:
Summer Scream, Covid-19

From techie "cool" and Millennial "awesome" to covid-19 quarantine and masks and rubber gloves, summer 2020 has seen some changes, not all of them agréable. But at least those odious words "cool" and "awesome" have been retired, at least for the moment. Now it is a search for the "new normal," which may not be found anytime soon.

"Shall I risk a kiss?" the young man asks himself. "No, better not," he tells himself. "She coughed during dinner."

Passion has been replaced by caution, and the latest thing no longer seems to matter. All is vanity, the dusty path to "whatever" and "who cares?" We are caught both in a moral vacuum and one of morale as well. Or as First Lady Melania Trump puts it, "I don't give a fucking shit." Did she learn English in a brothel?

Summer has been a hard season to bare this year with its promised harvest of autumn death. "It is what it is," says the guy in charge who could care less, lesser, and least, his numbers plummeting in the polls and feeling existential angst. The choices are clear: either be a winner, not a whiner, and win reelection; or go to jail on a variety of criminal charges both civil and state related. The dream of Queen Ivanka in the White House fades fast from the frenzied mind of the Liar King.

Lockdown in Cardigan, Wales, is where the story begins for me. In late April I was headed to Paris to read at poetry events that would soon be cancelled when I realized that going to Paris was not an option for me. US citizens were too risky to allow in. But the Home Office of the United Kingdom allowed me to overstay till the last day of May, and the owner of Quay Street Studios in Cardigan where I'd been staying allowed me to remain till I could safely leave. Not a bad deal!

If you must be locked down somewhere, Cardigan is probably the best place to be, especially on Quay Street just a few steps from the Teifi river and the Aberteifi Castle at the end of High Street overlooking the old bridge. If only lockdown had been permanent there, I could have stayed forever in this moist land of fiery green grass, rolling hills, and sheep safely grazing. Cardigan has history and to the poetic soul is still vibrantly alive. If I must die, let it be here and now and not in that other place without poetry and grace from which I came, the united states of anything, everything, and nothing.

But I had a date for that end of grace: 31 May 2020. Then I must somehow exit Shangri La and return to that other place where the grass is still green but does not burn your eyes. As the days approached the end of May in Cardigan, I began to grow anxious. How would I get out? Where would I go? Would I be murdered by the ruffians on the "other side," people who spoke the same language I spoke but with the indifference of slaughterhouse workers? "Hit her again, Billy, I think she's still alive."

Since I could not get into France, or any other European country, my choice was singular: I would have to return to the United States, soon to be the epicenter of coronavirus due to its flesh-eating, Cyclops president who refuses to read, think, or listen. His mind was the gating factor in all intelligent response, meaning intelligent response was not possible, only scapegoating. Under his "rule" the United States has not grown great, greater, or even better; it has become pathetic as a wounded deer.

I arranged a British Airways flight from London Heathrow airport to Los Angles International Airport on 31 May, the only nonstop flight I could get to California, and struggled to the airport the day before by bus and train with emergency workers. The absence of open restrooms was one of the first things that made you aware that pleasure travel was a thing of the past. You learned to hold your pee, as you did your tongue when things did not go well. Food, other than a bag of chips, was hard to find; and alcoholic beverages, now considered a luxury, were eliminated. And regarding the latter, if you brought your own bottle, it was cruelly confiscated by airport security. When in your life, I ask, did you ever need more a drink than now? Mood was maintained by deep breathing and picturing a flickering light at the end of a tunnel. Patience no longer existed, only edgy tolerance.

But let me fast-forward by quoting from a letter that I recently sent to a friend:

Hello Penny,

Apologies for not writing sooner. Too much has happened and the bad stuff does not seem to stop.

Here is summary:

Flew to Los Angeles on 31 May and was greeted by protests and looting. I was hoping for a rest after an exhausting trip: bus and train to Heathrow, sitting up all night in the airport, then flight to LA. Not to be. Barely got into a Trader Joe's grocery store in LA before the looting and lockdown began there. Rested, if you want to call it that, for a couple of days in LA; then flew to San Francisco, where I had two things to do. Go to banks to change beneficiaries on savings accounts—yes, in case I got covid and died—and vacate a locker, essentially clearing out of San Francisco. Normally this could all be done in a few days, or a week, perhaps; it took a month. About 100% of stores looted there and boarded up. Initial problem of getting T-Mobile account. All cellular phone stores were looted, and not reopened for a couple of weeks afterwards. That will slow you down doing anything. Finding open bank offices also a problem, then waiting in line outside to get in another. Getting UPS to show up to ship my stuff took about another week. Had to beg. All reminded me of trying to get hot water for a bath in India years ago. Finally, the hotel clerk in one place told me, "In India you can only hope." I learned to slow down.

But hoping in San Francisco did not help. Hoping did not seem helpful or hopeful; it simply led to disappointment. But at last I got to the banks and shipped my stuff. It's in Puigcerda, Spain, now and heading to Swansea next. I have been in communication with Swansea Self Storage. They are still in lockdown mode. Maybe that is good. In the US reopening began way too soon under Trump and you can see the result; Americans are now no longer welcome anywhere. Now he wants the kids to return to school, with the idea that it will help his reelection chances. This one is a tough sell; people like their kids alive and well. And just yesterday he got the CDC to reduce testing requirements so that US covid numbers will look better.

From San Francisco, I boarded the Amtrak train to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. This was in those days, a few months back, when so many thought covid was going to just go away like the sniffles and a cold. The wearing of masks at this retreat in Colorado was minimal. You got looks for wearing a mask, not the other way around. I remember the pugnacious little blond standing in line at the Kum & Go just waiting for a fight with the clerk. She didn't get it, as clerks have been told to just ignore such people. The pugnacious blond left looking more angry than when she came in. I picture her back at home slamming the door, yanking the dog off the couch by the collar, kicking it in the rear, and denouncing it as a "damned Democratic—like all the other bad dogs I've ever known."

Then it was onto to Denver, Colorado, where covid numbers continued their ascent. Finally, governor Polis issued emergency alerts on wearing masks for three mornings in a row, adding, "Anyone who does not wear a mask is a selfish bastard." Turned out a lot of selfish bastards in Colorado. I was pleased, sort of, to see that there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Colorado at that time. That increased the wearing of masks slightly, though mask-wearing has nothing to do with preventing the plague. "Bubonic Plague" sounded scarier to people than covid-19, I guess. The usual routine almost everywhere was to wear a mask to get into a place, then remove it once by the desk or cash register. Something wrong with the American psyche? Warped and stubborn, to say the least. One guy was ordered by an Amtrak station master to put on a mask or get out. He chose to get out, putting on a mask to get by the conductor when the train arrived, then removing it when boarded. An incorrigible jerk with a lot of company; the minimal-compliance mob.

Then I went on out to the east coast to Seekonk, Massachusetts. With such an interesting name, possibly Native American for "black goose," I thought it might be an interesting place. I found it more peculiar than interesting. But with few sidewalks and crosswalks, I found it more dangerous than interesting or peculiar. As one local told me when asked about the lack of street-crossing safety, "I guess we like to dodge cars." Indeed, it is an art in Seekonk. I think that it is safe there only if you are in a car or your house. Few pedestrians are to be seen. I read one restaurant review that was positive about the food but noted the danger of actually getting there on foot.

I then visited Providence, Rhode Island, where there are some sidewalks and crosswalks but not nearly enough in my opinion. Everywhere there are gas stations, auto-repair shops, and tire outlets. I finally got the message that these are car-friendly, not people-friendly places. While many cities have closed streets to automobile traffic to make them pedestrian-friendly (Swansea, San Francisco, and Paris come to mind), Massachusetts and Rhode Island have done the opposite. And what sidewalks there are are broken and uneven with weeds growing out of the cracks. Easy to miss seeing the raised edge of a crack among weeds and find yourself flat on the ground.

At this point I was beginning to plot my return to Europe and decided Chicago was the best place from which to do that. In Chicago you can fly nonstop to many places, including Ireland, London, Paris, and Barcelona. But I deemed the timing now wrong for returning. No one really wanted covid-sick Americans on their soil, and end-of-summer rents were outrageous. I decided to wait awhile. But the question became where to go.

I looked up what were considered to be the cheapest and least-touristed states in the US. Kentucky and Indiana seemed to be the choicest of undesirable states. I knew of no one, now or in the future, who was planning a vacation there. Also, my grandmother, born not long after the Civil War and long deceased, was from Kentucky but never spoke of it in Venice, California, when I visited. However, Kentucky is the Bourbon capitol of the US. I thought: Yum, what a place to slumber unnoticed and undisturbed. I decided to head to Louisville, the state capitol. But like Los Angeles it has been severely battered by looting following the Black Lives Matter protests (again today here). Many windows still boarded up and few people venturing into the streets and stores. "Fourth Street Live," once lively, now looked like "Fourth Street Dead." The marketing word "vibrant" looked like it needed to go on vacation. One of the hotels I stayed in, Home2, a Hilton apartment-hotel operation and very good, closed while I was there. Simply not enough business. They sent me to another Hilton nearby, the Hilton Garden Inn. I am currently at a Best Western across the river from Louisville in Clarksville, Indiana, calculating my next step. But I have plenty of writing work to do now, and there is always the contemplation of the California fires, still burning, which nearly took down my son's house in the Santa Cruz mountains a few days ago, and the upcoming elections. I could use a little dullness in my life at this point. Ennui, boredom, and their dull relatives all welcome at this point in time.

How are you doing? I miss Cardigan and the Teifi and walking to the market every day and the walks up the river in the late afternoon and going by the graveyard at Saint Mary's. I got a lot done there and thoroughly enjoyed Quay street leading down and around to the river. I wish I could have gone in one of the old bars like the Saddlers Arms on High Street and had a drink. They were all closed during the lockdown. I'll bet they have stories to tell of other troubles in other troubled times.


That's a mouthful, isn't it?

I'm now at a town named Georgetown in Indiana, founded by a man named George W. Waltz, who founded a number of towns in Indiana and named them all Georgetown in honor of himself. Apparently neither he nor the post office envisioned back then the problem that would cause. I'm killing time here, murdering it you might say, but I seem to have a plan. I always have a plan, even if it is not an awfully good one. In difficult times a so-so plan may be the best you can do. "Be strong," a friend of mine always says. "Strong people always have plans." She, like the President, likes strong people. I don't, and I hate the President. I counter her with "Weak people have plans too! They're just not high-quality plans like ours." "Ours?" she shrieks. "What do you mean 'Ours'?" We go on like this in the hardware store until people are staring at us. I think I need to take my temperature again.

My hotel here, the Red Roof Inn, is listed by as located in Georgetown, but I have begun to have doubts about this. The hardware store is located in Edwardsville Plaza, right across the street from Cash Saver market. At the market this morning I asked, "Is this Edwardsville or Georgetown?" The girl at the register looked hesitant. Was she taking her temperature on breaks? Was she too having an existential crisis? "Georgetown," she finally said. Was she lying to me and the sun and the earth and the sky would disappear when I walked out of the market? I guess not. I still had my bag of groceries with bottle of wine in hand when I left the market. Would Black Lives Matter protesters suddenly appear marching down the street? Would a white-supremacy militia appear coming down the street from the other side? Would both groups halt, face each other, then start laughing? "What the hell are we doing here?" people on both side would be heard saying. Then they would all head for the local tavern for beer, properly distanced on the patio, of course! Unfortunately none of that happened and I was still stuck facing reality. And elections, unlikely to be fair, were not going away.


Indiana, verdant, humid. Flat but not as flat as Kansas. Rolling-hills flat, some curvature. Thick grass everywhere. Green but not fiery green as in Wales. But lush and good enough for now. The African Lyft driver who drove me from Louisville, Kentucky, to Clarksville, Indiana, told me he preferred Indiana to Kentucky. "Calmer," he said in a slow, calm voice. I felt that now standing in the middle of nowhere and staring out over small straight roads that ran through the fields but did not strangle them. A train blowing its horn in the distance reminded me that there were other places than this field and provided perspective. But for the moment I felt content. The anxiety was gone.

Was it fin de siècle right here and now? Had some fundamental shift occurred? Was I too dumb, too numb to know? Was I now singing in the wrong key? Was I a modal melody in an atonal scherzo by Arnold Schoenberg? Was I plainsong playing along with Varèse and Stockhausen? As usual, was I out of place? Oh, my!

For my plans there must always be noise and pans, the clatter of a new era and copious error. Isn't that how it's supposed to be? Noise and celebration and nonsense? Or am I wrong about that? Am I old, sentimental, the broken pot that needs be tossed out? Is that the way it used to be but shall never be again? We'll have to wait and see.

Satori contrari, the old brain conceives: What will be will not be what was. Was and to be are not the same, blame the universe and elections on that; or just be lame and blame blame. And something viral and out of control. Idiots everywhere spawning, pawning conviction for gold. And Trump-19. And "Moscow" Mitch and Lindsey "Toady" Graham, who, according to Professor Warren, keeps his spine in a box. America Great Ape, Great Ungrateful Grape, begin again, begin to spin out of control. Deny mad Mussolini his tyrannical whims. Queen Ivanka missed her cue one-hundred years ago and is out of synch with the times.

But let our verse become more terse now. The times demand lean lines. "When our leaders are nothing but dirty butts we must wash our hands, put on masks, and not be the emperor's clowns."

I hear a calm voice say, "You were talking of plans. Tell me about them."

I will get the hell out of here and not return to Richard Sanderell's monster USA (Oo-Suh) until I have pondered it deeply. I will find a cave, I will stare out to sea. I will ... Then and only then will I come back to view the dead body of the electorate or the recovering patient on a ventilator. Nothing will be familiar other than familiarity itself, and I will distrust even that. "Differ with the door bell but not with the door knob." The door knob knows. But I will always leave room for the little ones and fun. Cheers!

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By Louis Martin