COVID, Kroger, and History 

I live in Midtown, Memphis. There's a Kroger a few blocks away, where I shop. The parking lot is very tight and people know to go slowly. As far as I know, nobody's gotten run over or much bunged-up. Going there, you slow way down. You have to slow way down to keep a little space between you and the people you pass among, an array of Midtowners. Everybody wears a mask.

Nobody's in a hurry and there are six feet between you and everybody else at the checkout. Kids hang onto their moms. People in motorized carts beep as they back up. There's an occasional traffic jam, but in slow-mo, so everybody can see to back up a little. People look at one another. It's better than being crushed up against each other.

Of course, people in the aisles have to pass one another closely — close enough to speak and not too close to feel closed-in on. So they're polite and they get a good look at each other, and nobody's mad at anybody. There's just enough institution about the place to suggest decorum, but no real supervision. People are being adults. Even the kids.

If you go in the afternoon you can expect a crowd, rain or shine. Bring a book for when you stand in line at the checkout; it'll take a while. I use the queue time to assemble my checkbook and license — and to people-watch. I like what I see, folks tending to their business but not frenetic about it. An attitude of patience prevails. I haven't ever heard anyone get loud in there.

There will be immense relief once the vaccine gets around. Until it does, we're going to be in an open-air concentration camp. Anybody can get the virus, which is itself innocent, just a piece of self-reproducing dust. It's not evil, but it is a problem. Centuries ago, a number of people would have died, but it wouldn't have caused the kind of dislocation it has today because such a bug couldn't travel on nonexistent trade routes. Smallpox brought from Europe killed much of the post-contact North American population along just such trade routes from the Atlantic into the country. Descendants of third-wave migrants were virtually wiped out, all the way to Ohio.

The so-called Spanish flu, which originally spread from an army barracks in Olathe, Kansas, took six million people worldwide 100 years ago. Among the people it took were blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson's mom and pop, and nine of his 10 brothers and sisters. He was on his way back to New Orleans from playing in a jazz orchestra in France during World War I when it struck. He and one brother were the only survivors from the family.

click to enlarge People wore masks for protection during the Spanish flu pandemic, as well. - SATORI13 | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Satori13 | Dreamstime.com
  • People wore masks for protection during the Spanish flu pandemic, as well.

My Uncle Julius was a volunteer emergency medic during that time — 1919 — going around giving people alcohol rubs to bring their fever down, always smoking a cigar. For reasons unknown to me, the docs of the time thought smoking cigars would protect you from the flu. It didn't, but the flu didn't get everybody either. Julius told me people were crying out of windows for someone to take the dead bodies away. He said he heard a story of an undertaker called to undertake a pile of corpses, who, upon seeing the pile, had a heart attack. The medics just threw him on top.

The Spanish flu killed as many world citizens as the Nazis killed Jews. For a short time after the initial pandemic, people were mandated to mask up, wash their hands, shy away from crowds, quarantine if they felt sick, and so forth, no different than what we're doing now, 100 years later. And for a while the curve got flattened until some Libertarian types thought their rights were being stepped on. So just to commemorate the "conquering" of the disease, a bunch of anti-maskers held a parade to celebrate, which kicked off a second wave in the U.S. that got spread by train.

We do know it's spiking all over Tennessee and all over Memphis because our governor didn't have the intestinal fortitude to order mandatory masking. Some of the people at the Kroger might be carrying the COVID; it's impossible to know. They may not know they have it, or be truly asymptomatic and not show it at all but for the antibodies they make. Bless their toughness, they can still transmit it. But so far, so good. It's been 10 months and I haven't caught it, even though I've been a little casual about it.

Avoiding COVID is not rocket science, but the disease can be lethal, especially if you are poor, already sick with something or immunocompromised, or living with a large number of people in a small space. Or just if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or if you're foolish enough to ignore factual history and distrust the reported science for whatever reason. If that's you, you are playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun and issuing a compulsory invitation to the game to your family and friends.

Andy Cohen is a musician who lives in Midtown.

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