Walter and Helen, the twins down the street, were so bored that they would sit in their driveway and stack rocks all afternoon. I couldn’t believe it. I would ride by on my bicycle, careful to stay at least three barking Benjamins away from the two of them, and ask if they wanted to walk along the railroad tracks with me, maybe go run around park. My dog, Benjamin, was never far behind, woofing like crazy and sniffing around the bushes for an old sandwich or something.
Of course, they said no. It’s like they wanted to be bored, sitting in the lazy sun and burping at each other. Who could live like that?
The other kids and I figured we’d use this time to explore the woods. School was closed. We spent all day outdoors, away from our frazzled parents. On the far end of our neighborhood, there were a bunch of good, knotted tree trunks and leafy back alleys to stake a day of adventures. Knights in the Castle. Zombie Invasion. That’s right: Kirby, Eleanor, Fat Willy, Bryan, RJ, Spud and I would play around in the woods for hours. Benjamin came too. Occasionally, we’d bring out rolls of foil from our moms’ cupboards and wrap ourselves in costume, pretending to be the hazmat officers who were hosing down our classrooms with white chemicals. Benjamin was the hazmat pooch, we called him. Walter and Helen just sat in their driveway like a sack of apples.
Then, one day, they stood up.
“Hey, Eddie! Hey!” they cried out in unison as I pedaled past. “Hey, Eddie!”
I hit the brakes and called Benjamin closer to me. “Well, what is it, Walter and Helen? You been out here long enough?”
“Naw, we’re gonna go get a watermelon and wrap rubber bands around it ‘til it pops.”
Well, now I really couldn’t believe it. I loosened my grip on the handlebars. “What?”
“Yeah yeah, we saw it on the computer.” They spoke as one. It was unsettling.
I looked around for Fat Willy, for Spud—anyone. Suddenly, the neighborhood was deserted. Where had everyone gone?
“We’re gonna go get a watermelon and wrap rubber bands around—”
“Yeah, all right, all right, I heard you. Whattaya mean ‘til it pops?”
“You put enough rubber bands around anything, Eddie, it’ll pop.”
I was sweating. In mid-April. “Well, all right, let’s see this. You guys better not have anything funny up your sleeve.” I glanced behind me once again—nope, not a soul on the street—and followed Walter and Helen into their weird garage around back of the house.
They even yanked open the door together. Inside, dull light filtered through never-washed windows. We walked into the drab darkness, Benjamin’s tail subsiding, Walter and Helen both reaching for the twine strung from a single bulb overhead. Click.
There it was: a plump watermelon just sitting on their dad’s workbench. A jumbled pile of rubber bands loomed in the immediate background, ready for the operation. I think I gasped.
Without a word, they set to work. Was I supposed to be involved somehow? Were they guessing I’d join them in this crime? I decided to sort of stand near the door and casually observe. Very soon, it seemed like they just forgot I was there, so absorbed were they by the surgical procedure.
Walter and Helen breathed audibly as they took turns yoking the watermelon with rubber bands. Finally! One thing they couldn’t do at the exact same time! A rotation of skills emerged: Walter snapped the band quickly from the top. Helen moved just a beat slower, strapping the melon with an almost maternal care. Her demented child in a stroller.
Something like an hour passed by. I’d started to doodle in the dust on the windowpanes, drawing little characters in bulky helmets, each gripping a great, elongated hose. I figured by now the gang was somewhere deep in the woods, playing at zombie hunters again, probably wondering where me and ol’ Benny had wandered off to. Or maybe they thought we went for ice cream, and they’d be biking past Walter and Helen’s to get over to the Dairy Freeze on Gabel Ave. Maybe, if I screamed loud enough, they’d hear me.
The twins kept at it, dutifully. They seemed robotic, but what else was new? I started assembling pails and moldy boxes, building a little hut for me and Benjamin to live in. He barked at small piles of dirt in the corner. I smoothed the edges of rumpled newspapers into a sort of area rug. When I glanced up, I noticed the watermelon was basically caving inward. I felt a pang of the unknown, an anxiety lurching around the next corner. If I really tuned my ears toward the melon, I swear I could hear it groaning.
And maybe Walter and Helen were even chanting at this point, it’s hard to remember. The next few seconds all happened in one great flash.
“Oh, boy! Eddie! Eddie, come look!” they suddenly shouted. I bonked my head on a ratty suitcase I’d fashioned into a table and looked over at them. Walter and Helen. The terrible, nose-drippy twins from down the street. What had I gotten myself into?
“Oh, boy! Eddie! It’s going to happen!” They ratcheted the assembly line, each one hurriedly following the other with another rubber band. Faster and faster. “Oh, boy!”
I tried to shield Benjamin, but he couldn’t look away either. He peered around my legs, horrified in a way I’d never seen a dog look before. Eyes like saucers, tail rigid.
Helen daintily placed the final rubber band, and that was it: ZZZSSSSPPLLAAATTT!!!! The thing just exploded out across the garage. Like one of those supernova videos they show in science class. It went in every direction—up, down, left, right, in my hair, on Helen’s blouse, on Walter’s suspenders, on Benjamin’s snout. My little hut in the corner crumbled under the barrage. I think a window broke.
After everything settled down, I realized we were covered head to toe in splattered melon. Richly textured globs and flea-sized seeds. We were soaked, totally drenched in chunks. I tried to catch my breath.
Then the twins started chuckling.
“So, that’s it?” I asked, spitting out a fleshy mass. “But what was the point?”
They laughed so hard they started coughing.
“Is this the sort of thing you twins do when you’re not sitting like lumps in the driveway?” I couldn’t get through to them. “Come on, Benjamin. Let’s go meet up with the others.”
Walter and Helen gathered themselves and followed us, giggling.
We stumbled into the shiny afternoon light. I was flecked utterly with fruit bits and juice splotches. Benjamin was doused, his fur all sticky with summer sweetness. It seemed impossibly bright outside. Walter and Helen couldn’t stop laughing. They looked deranged.
I heard my friends yelling something, tearing down the street on their bikes. What luck! I could tell them how crazy the twins were acting, go take a shower real quick and be back in the woods with everyone in no time.
The gang suddenly steered into view, braking abruptly at the end of Walter and Helen’s dumb driveway. The twins shut up and sort of slumped onto the ground. I felt immediate relief. Back to normal, everybody!
Spud cried out first, his eyes frantic with sudden terror: “Holy crap! Zombie!”
The rest of them joined in: “Get ‘im! Aaaahhhhh!!!”
I threw my hands up. “No, no, no, you guys! It’s me! Me and Benny and those awful twins!” I looked around for them, those idiots.
“Kill the zombie!” “Zombie attack!” “This is it, everybody! Get ‘im!”
“No! It’s just watermelon!” They got off their bikes and walked toward us. I started backing up, yanking Benjamin by the collar. “We were just doing this stupid thing with rubber bands! I wasn’t even doing it!” I tripped over a painted cinder block, another mindless project of the industrious twins. My ankle seized in red pain.
Fat Willy had some sort of spiked stick in his hands and he was thwacking it against his thigh. Preparing the weapon. RJ was removing the chain from his bike. Eleanor was twirling her helmet like a primitive rock slung with rope. They looked battle-hardened, streaked with mud. Benjamin curled into my arms. I screamed out in horror: “But it’s just watermelon, you guys!”
Before the stick clocked me in the side of my head, I saw them, the twins, sitting like blameless cows over by the bushes. Covered in fruit and just staring at the grass, mumbling to themselves probably, bored forever.
“If Trump is reelected, it’s an indescribable disaster. It means that the policies of the past four years, which have been extremely destructive to the American population and the world, will be continued and probably accelerated.”
Noam Chomsky has been sounding the alarms of nuclear war and climate change for decades. These threats should seem obvious and dire, but, looking around for half a second at how the U.S. is handling a global pandemic, I’m not holding my breath for the electorate to sprout a spinal cord this year. Of course, being stuck at home, we’ve got a lot of time to think through the impact of our lifestyles and our fixation on corporate power. It seems like a lot things aren’t working very well for us.
How might a new America lift up future generations? What principles should guide our community through the current crisis and these looming threats? I do see glimmers of hope in a lot of the fleeting actions carried out between neighbors and coworkers and small businesses. Maybe we need to think smaller? Maybe there’s a better way to develop that kindness?
If a Biden ticket is the next incremental sidestep toward that future, well, it sure seems like the sort of work an intern would slap together on a Friday afternoon, but all right. Onward!
I’ve been writing more than ever these past six months. A lot of these latest pieces have gone unpublished—shuffled into folders on my desktop or languishing in magazine editors’ inboxes. And that’s fine. Maybe I’ll roll out a few stray essays from the winter while we’re all quarantined.
But even with all of that, I’m compelled to write more. I’m at home all day, working and writing and talking with my fiancee about the present and the future. What’s next? What unknowable hardship is lurking around tomorrow’s corner? We can’t seem to turn around anymore with running headlong into some gasp-breathing cluster, upending either our lives or our friends’ lives or far-off strangers’ lives. It’s a shattering sort of feeling, far from numbness. It’s an acute pain that redounds to throbbing, hour by hour.
There’s joy, too. Each day is a new chance to create something. Yes, we’re caught up rescheduling a wedding, trying to buy a house, putting out fires at work, but isn’t that all part of the resplendent present, even in chaos? And apart from all that less exciting stuff, the whole point I’m trying to make is that there’s a lot of time each day to write new stories, record some music, create little pieces of magic for your future.
Anyway. Here’s a poem I wrote a few weeks ago. There’s really nowhere else to run with this thing. It’s called “Safe Passage.”
there was then, and then there’s now
and it’s hard to get over
never looking back
if that’s the space
and acting out
and acting out again
sure, it’s hard to get over
never getting over it
and getting stuck in the past
at the bottom of the stack
of photos neatly packed
away for good
if you’re still wondering
what was so good about it, anyway?
might come around
any day now
(was so good, you say?)
if you’re all hung up on
days spent spaced
without the frame
no return to form
without return and form
in a stormy sea
to the mind’s muddled
lack of clarity
is all you are
if you want it
leave the rest outside the door
by the shoes
and doldrum sets
we’ve got plenty more
to go around
if you want it
The intersection of the American prison system and the novel coronavirus outbreak is fraught with social inequity, panic, public responsibility, emergency litigation and the unavoidable threat of a global pandemic looming over every human’s head. It’s a dangerous time to be stuck in the custody of a state that has not built its prison facilities with inmate health in mind. I’ve been reading a great deal of terrific reporting on the prison system and how U.S. governors are (or, more to the point, aren’t) stepping up the plate to provide a meaningful level of safety. Each defendant has a story.
There are about 49,000 inmates held by the state of Ohio as of today. I’ve been following several cases, but the story of Kevin Keith is one that’s been close to my work for the past four years. I’ve written about his 1994 murder conviction here and here. Watch a trailer for a documentary project covering his case here. He’s being held at Marion Correctional Institution.
In late March, Keith, 56, filed an emergency motion for release, citing an “unprecedented health emergency” that casts a sudden, grim shadow over his previous 26 years of dubious incarceration. As a diabetic inmate in close quarters with a sprawling, vulnerable population (and years of civil litigation that raise at least a few questions about his being in there at all), the emergency motion requests that he be let out of prison under judicial release measures (ankle monitoring, etc.).
Here’s the case that Keith’s attorneys laid out:
“Kevin Keith was wrongfully convicted, and his case is pending before [the federal court in the Northern District of Ohio] for a full determination of whether he meets the [federal] standard. The Sixth Circuit has already determined that he has made a prima facie showing of his actual innocence. …
“The layout of the housing does not allow Keith to use social distancing. Recently, a staff member at Marion Correctional Institution tested positive for COVID-19. The media has reported that the infected staff member is a lieutenant, and that four other officers who had come into contact with the lieutenant are now experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.”
As of April 6, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has confirmed that five inmates at Marion have contracted COVID-19. Across the state, 27 prison system staffers have contracted COVID-19, “but most come from Marion,” DeWine said.
More from Keith’s attorneys:
“Keith’s tragic situation will be made much worse if he contracts COVID-19, as he is particularly vulnerable to severe illness due to his diabetes.”
“Keith recognizes that the complexity of the case has led to an extended consideration time, but because he is in the category of individuals who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, Keith moves this Court for an order permitting his release until the current health crisis subsides. In these unprecedented times, extreme measures are necessary and justified. He would, of course, consent to being electronically monitored at all times, and he would provide the Court with addresses and contact information for his mother, with whom he would be staying.”
The warden file an opposition on the same day, writing that the federal court lacks the jurisdiction to grant this request. (“Keith’s complaint—that he should be released because of fears of contracting COVID-19—are more akin to a complaint on the conditions of confinement, rather than the legality of his confinement,” warden Lyneal Wainwright wrote.”)
On April 2, federal judge James Knepp denied his request. Read the full order here.
“The Court is mindful that circumstances faced by this country in general, and [Keith] as well as other prisoners specifically, are certainly extraordinary. But Petitioner has not shown his particular circumstances to be ‘exceptional.’
“Although [Keith] points to his age and diabetic status as heightened risk factors for severe illness, these factors (and other risk factors) are surely shared by many inmates throughout the prison population, and indeed by other inmates at Marion Correctional Institution where [Keith] is incarcerated. Therefore, the undersigned finds that this is not the ‘very unusual case,’ where a habeas petitioner [like Keith] should be released pending a determination on the merits.”
She carried two wine glasses to the ring of chairs in the backyard and set them on the oak stump that her family had used as a fireside table for many years. A gathering point. This was routine by now; she’d cart out the glasses and the bottle again tomorrow night, certainly. The sun lay low behind waning trees, and the cold sky grew bruised in purple and orange. In sorrow, she slowly built a good fire.
If only, she thought, he could slide open the glass door of their home and walk down the hill to join her again.
He was there, watching. He liked to watch her do the small things that made a day. Brewing coffee in the French press, walking Barney up and down Sargasso Street, crocheting a floral pattern in the gently dim light of their living room. She’d answer game show trivia without ever looking up from her work. She laughed at her own jokes. Drinking wine and recounting their days.
She poured from a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, a slim bottle that would be empty before long. The fire was crackling nicely, and she stared into its warmth. The house stood above her, just up the knoll, sort of looming in an unavoidable way.
He sat down on the green chair across from her. She was wrapped in a red blanket, woolen and scented with time spent laughing on the couch together. Barney’s fur still clung to the weathered fabric. She felt warmer now—the fire, the blanket—but was she really? It’s impossible to say what happens in the space between mind and body. What does it mean to feel something? If she shivered, would she notice? Would he?
Of course he’d notice. He liked to watch her, noting small shifts in attitude and physical tone, not interjecting so much as leaning in and making his supportive presence known. Listening. When her father began to forget her name a few years back, he listened to her describe moments in her childhood that she’d never shared before. A steaming pot of coffee at the kitchen table. He’d called her by her sister’s name when she first took off on her bike, learning to ride and feeling a cresting, nervous pride when her father let go and watched her sail around the bend in the driveway. The young girl in 1981 rode for hours, whole weekends, up and down Sargasso Street in a long buried era.
They’d been excellent listeners, something their friends had remarked on over the years.
He tried to lean in now, passing through the small licks of flame in the backyard. He tried to say her name aloud, to correct all the fleeting moments that had gone wrong.
How long would it be like this?
She poured another glass. He lingered, floating, will-o’-the-wisp draping light across her downcast eyes. She poured another glass.
I don’t do this too often, but back in the day I’d toss “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the speakers when I could tell we were about to go over the edge. When the walls started breathing. By the time we saw the walls breathing, it was too late to get out. And, sure, but you could say the same thing about anything, right? Once each day gets going, an entirely new universe bends across your life and there’s no way to undo it. Each day is its own chance at enlightenment. You’re in it. The only way out is in.
Now, when we’d all come out of it, talking about the way the pine trees wriggled and how the sun went all purple for a while, the big goal was to draw something meaningful out of the experience and improve our lives with that knowledge. Lift up our friends with our glowing empathy. You’re tuned in, so now what? It’s all about kindness and the trembling resolution that life will never be the same. It will never snap back. So, knowing that, how would you like to live?
When the world goes dark for a spell, and it often does, I look to blues clubs to satisfy the longing in my soul. Here in Cleveland, I’ve got my pick of the scene, but none as fine as the Bad Boys of Blues jam night each Thursday at Brothers Lounge. They’ve been at it since 1994.
Over the years, I’ve spent countless nights at Brothers with those guys—Michael Bay on guitar, Michael Barrick on bass and Jim Wall on drums. They rotate guest singers on the mic each week. Together, they’re one of the greatest live bands I’ve ever seen. If you come around the neighborhood, I’ll bet you a shiny nickel that you’ll walk away from their set shaking your head in elated disbelief. You’ll feel good. You’ll want more.
I’ve been at this for a while, and I’ve never lost a nickel.
When I was a young boy growing up in suburban Cleveland, my dad would bring me and my brother to his guitar lessons on West Boulevard. We’d trundle up the stairs to a sparsely arranged apartment, where Bay taught his students and fell deeper in love with the guitar. He wore a long ponytail back then. He plied us children with musical trinkets and Beanie Babies. These days, he keeps what little hair is left closely cropped.
“I remember when you were this tall,” he says, back in the present, holding his palm waist-high anytime I catch him after a set and lay out the latest headlines from my life. Got a dog at home now; quit my job at the paper; living downtown now; hell, Michael, I’m getting married, and who would have thought? He looks on with Stoic pleasure, the glimmer of wisdom in his blue eyes. “I’m happy for you.”
I began spending some serious time with Bay in 2013 when I embarked on a long profile of him for the local alt-weekly. At the time, it was the most in-depth project I’d taken on. I hung around the Bad Boys jam nights to observe, lingering in dark corners. This was the first moonshot I’d taken at the paper, a stab at a story that I felt revealed a deeper level of the Cleveland community. I love music dearly, and as I grew up I realized that Bay’s outlook on life jibed heavily with a gentle, rooted outlook on life, something I admired from afar as I was honing my own chops as a creative-type out there in the world. We met at Vietnamese restaurants and at his home studio in Tremont for most of the interviews, talking for hours about his work as a musician and what he’d learned along the way. I asked him about the meaning of it all, trying to find something profound in the commonplace moments of a musician’s drift through the day-to-day. What were the stakes? What can a life spent playing guitar tell the rest of us about ourselves?
“This might be the last time I ever play,” Bay said in his studio once, effecting a hypothetical onstage. “This may be the last performance ever. If I knew that, would I think about something else, would I be someplace else, would I care less about this, would I pull back? No. If this was the last thing I was ever going to do as a performer, I would put everything I had into this moment. One day, it will be my last performance. Hopefully, not for a very long time. But this could be it.”
Seven years later, when I walked into Brothers on March 12, 2020, there he was, setting up his amp and preparing for work. Barrick and Wall were with him, gathering themselves. That night, the guest was jazzy lounge singer Becky Boyd. What luck! She’s a dynamo! This felt right. I took a seat at the empty bar and settled in for an evening of music.
The Bad Boys jam nights are a weekly hub of the local music community, events where rookies and vets alike can perform together and cut their teeth in front of a rowdy, loving audience. It’s a supportive space. The Bad Boys play an hour-long set, and the rest of the night is turned over to the scene. Bring your guitar, bring your bass, your harmonica, your maracas, whatever: All are welcome. As the night goes on, Bay groups together musicians with the same general experience level, playing ringleader and building impromptu bands. These events are a sort of magnetic force for musicians seeking camaraderie in the best of times. For those musicians, it’s critical to have this venue to develop your craft. And even at the bar, as an observer, it’s pure fun. On March 12, we were far from the best of times, however, and we needed music badly. Things were falling apart outside.
Earlier that day, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine had described an imminent order prohibiting “mass gatherings” of more than 100 people. The clanging mechanics of state government were mobilizing suddenly and rapidly against the novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., against the spread of COVID-19 and its inevitable horrors in the American health care system. The borders of our lives were rearranging themselves quickly. The governor’s order was shocking, although not entirely surprising.
I’d been watching the disease with a growing wariness since the first reported case in the U.S. landed in the newspapers in late January, far out west in Seattle. I became intimately familiar with the New York Times app and the vaporous blush of the date appearing on the screen. “Thursday, March 12, 2020.” If that feels like another era by the time you read this, it may as well be.
I watched maps of the U.S. burst into fresh pox each morning. New York City. South Beach. I counted rolls of toilet paper in our closet. Is seven gonna be enough? I held my head in my hands, and then remembered to keep my hands off my face. I parsed event contracts and rescheduled a wedding with my fiancée.
The pace of it was astonishing.
Earlier that week, Ohio recorded its first positive COVID-19 tests: three cases plotted vaguely in greater Cleveland on March 9. It had landed on our shores, as we knew it would. We’d known all along, of course. By March 24, the state of Ohio had tallied 564 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths. This was far from the worst scenario in the U.S. (where New York State is listing more than 25,000 confirmed cases), and that’s due in part to DeWine’s aggressive posture against this disease. He was the first U.S. governor to ban gatherings of more than 100 people, effectively shutting down the state’s entertainment business. It almost seems quaint now.
“This is an attempt to make sure everyone understands that we cannot be gathered together,” DeWine said during his March 12 press conference, a daily event that even by then had become a must-watch for anyone in the state with a passing interest in their own safety. “We all have to take care of each other as we move forward. We are going to get through this, and we’re trying to get through it without losing too many of us.”
I tuned into these briefings with steadily cementing awe. Where I didn’t register outright surprise at the governor’s actions, I felt a belly-deep jolt of shock. The ripple effects of the pandemic were staggering. With each passing hour, what comes next?
And so, with the executive order hanging over our heads the next day, I figured this may be the last night for a good while that I’d be able to flee into Cleveland’s west side and seek refuge at a blues club. On Twitter, I shared the details of local venues hosting their supposed final shows—small, independent clubs that could use all the help we might conjure on this strange night. It felt like flouting the emergent law on one hand, while lifting up a threatened community on the other. It felt like a vulnerable thing to do, a possible mistake.
I’d planned on checking out Kendall Street Company, an upstart jam band out of Charlottesville, Va., here in Cleveland for the first time, playing Beachland Tavern that night, but as I scanned the local music listings for that Thursday I figured I should probably clock in at my old haunt and hang with the Bad Boys of Blues. Kendall Street Company performed to four people that night, according to Beachland Tavern owner Cindy Barber. The Bad Boys of Blues saw maybe 25 people in the bar that night, by my count. Nowadays, we tell stories in numbers.
“Thank you so much for coming out,” Boyd said as the band fell into place. She took a slug of beer. “We appreciate your support of musicians in this town.” The small crowd clapped. At the bar, I listed to starboard and attempted to keep a six-foot radius between myself and anyone else.
The night’s setlist mixed joy with sadness, and each song’s improvisational textures were better than the last. I thought I might only stay for one song, just pop my head in and raise a glass to the band, but I couldn’t peel away from the music. It felt good. The Aretha Franklin tune was spellbinding. Here’s how it went down:
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye
“All of Me” by Frank Sinatra
“Summertime” by Ella Fitzgerald
“God Bless the Child” by Billie Holliday
“Wayfaring Stranger” by Johnny Cash
“Girls Night Out” by Becky Boyd & Tim Matson (the night’s only original)
“River’s Invitation” by Aretha Franklin (with a fine “Come Together” tease at the end)
I worked my way through a few Stone IPAs as the set went on. It was jarring, though, catching snippets of the same conversation from everyone else in the room. Between songs, they were all talking about it. A couple to my left was even discussing a weekend trip to New Orleans—and this on the same day I’d canceled my New Orleans bachelor party plans! I began to feel guilty even being out here in the first place. We were all on the same page, but we were reading the whole mess totally differently.
Still, I’d come for something important.
The way that the Bad Boys jam is by taking turns soloing within the structure of a given song. And, let’s just be clear here, they tear it up, alternately shredding and dipping into deep emotional waters, dynamic tempos flaring across each composition, but the backbone of the song is always there. Barrick, a trained trumpeter from his time in the military, tends to use his solos as an exploratory flange drive-by on four strings; he draws unbelievable sounds out of his bass, sounds that might resemble a mothership landing at twilight. Wall will usually get down into one solo each night, taking the skins on a proggy journey far from the foundational beat (but if you count carefully, you’ll find that he’s hovering above the time signature all along). And Bay will deliver the goods on guitar, whatever the moment is calling for, flipping chord progressions and lilting melodies with the ease of a monk. It’s fine craftsmanship.
In times of great duress and in times of great clarity, I turn to music. Without it, I don’t know if I’d have another proper release valve. What, drugs? Endurance sports? I’d be stuck, hung out to dry without an anchor for my mental health. I need these moments with myself and a song, and it’s better still when the band is onstage, working through the same moment that I am.
I worried about a lot of things that night. It was clear that the coronavirus outbreak was not diminishing; all the social distancing in the world would only “flatten the curve,” we were told. And, yes, my fiancée and I battened down the hatches for good when I got back home, curled up with our dog and stayed put. We wanted to be part of the greater social attempt to smother this disease. We wanted to do our part. But, no, it was clear that things were going to get worse in America.
In the meantime, the service industry was going to collapse. These little grottos of creativity and employment were going to fall on hard times—immediately.
On March 15, 2020, DeWine ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants in Ohio, effective at 9 p.m. that night. By then it was the weekend, and I’d been staying in the apartment with my fiancée, Bridget, for a few days. We tuned in to the afternoon press conference, knowing that the inevitable was here. And we didn’t disagree with the governor’s steady leadership, but the impact of it all was incredible.
The complete inevitability of DeWine’s latest order spilled out from the TV. Bridget and I took it in, sitting four stories above West 6th Street in downtown Cleveland, where only hours before we’d watched bartenders and servers wheel dollies of ice and beer into bars for big St. Patrick’s Day plans. Green streamers everywhere. Green balloons. It was disorienting. No more parades. No more shows.
After the Bad Boys set a few nights earlier, I’d bumped elbows with Bay before asking him what he thought of all this. This might be the last gig for a while, no?
“Oh, it’ll be all right,” he told me.
What we think, we become. And what more was there to say?
On March 22, the governor formalized the next phase of our response to the disease in Ohio: shelter in place, stay at home, and that’s an order. All non-essential businesses would close. And while I couldn’t argue with any of this, it felt more and more like everything was essential. If you’re reading this and it sounds glib, please know that we were still in the early throes of it. We were adapting as quickly as we could. Everything we’d known—it was all essential to all of us.
Bridget and I by then had become deeply familiar with our apartment. The nooks and strange crannies we’d never scrutinized. We’d built out corners of the living room as our makeshift offices, often finding ourselves roped into overlapping Skype meetings, chattering over each other to explain some inscrutable detail of the latest project at work. Our dog milled about. We cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. We looked out the window. We spent long evenings on the phone. We talked about the wedding, about the future.
Before all of this, I’d often catch a nightcap show around town somewhere. I’d duck out to see about some music. My years at the alt-weekly had kept me tapped into the city’s great vein, close to the heat of local bands and the blues. I felt lost without it. And as the press conferences piled on, it was alarming how swiftly everything changed. Hours were measured in weeks, as everyone was keen to joke about on Twitter. I commiserated with basketball fans cast adrift without their sport. We drank heavily and chatted over Skype about the things we hoped would come back to us soon. It was too much to talk about the oppressive, horrific human cost that hung above us all.
And I guess the point in writing all of this is to leave a record of just a few things I was thinking about in those early days: the things that mattered and the things I missed. I wanted to tell you about how I was doing before it slipped further way.
It’s clear that everything is going to continue to change, and, of course, that was always how it was. The moment ends. Another one begins.
In the last song of the Bad Boys’ set, each night for the past 26 years, here’s how it would go, back when we had our rituals: Barrick swerves abruptly into a jaunty bass line and Wall flushes some nice cymbal work, dusting a sort of game-show theme while Bay moves to the mic. It’s the end of the set, and he’s going to lay out the rules for what comes next, the actual jam night proceedings. He’s going to ground us in something greater.
“Good evening, Brothers Lounge! Is anyone having a good time?”
The crowd cheers, roars, claps.
“Is anyone having a helluva good time?”
Clapping, roaring, cheering, but louder now, more earnest in some way.
“In case you were wondering, our guest and host is the fabulous Becky Boyd!
“On bass tonight, the irrepressible Michael Barrick!
“On drums, the outstanding Jim Wall!
“My name is Michael Bay, and we are the Bad Boys of Blues.”
And on this point he grips the neck of his guitar and works a little riff into the mix, joining his friends in a brief jam. It doesn’t really matter what you’re playing, just that you’re making music in the moment before it all slips away. Then Bay goes back to the mic.
“So, it’s Thursday. It’s jam night! If you want to play, you’ve got to see me. If you don’t, you’ve got to stay all night. Those are the rules! And while we’re here, we’re gonna remember three things. No. 1: Here at Brothers, all the guys are good-lookin’. It’s true! Just ask ’em. No. 2: Here at Brothers, all the beer is cold. Have a whole bunch! Tip your server well! And No. 3: Here at Brothers, when you take time to check out all the lovely women who are here tonight, take your time, walk up to them, introduce yourself. And as you do, remember one thing: They’re all my sisters, so if you can’t treat ’em right, don’t treat ’em at all!
“And with that, jam night begins.”
Like most who came of age in the mid-00’s and had a passing interest in psychedelic mushrooms and cannabis, I spent a lot of time listening to Incubus. Their early stuff was on repeat in my ’93 Geo Prizm, let’s just say. And while I drifted on in my life to catch different musical waves, for whatever reason this song spun out of the cosmos toward me this week. I’m glad it did. Stuck in my head absurdly.
I guess I’d just add that my passing interest in psychedelic mushrooms and cannabis became not only a career choice but a serious therapeutic cog in the great wheel of fortune in my life. I’ve sifted through enough ups and downs to know that it all shakes out about even in the end. Of course, I could be totally kidding myself. I’ve barely scratched the surface of how maddening and tragic this universe can be. But the lessons are the same: Buckle up, brace yourself, keep your loved ones close. Listen to your heart.
We’re going to be all right.
But we’ve been warned.
Every Monday, while I lived in Athens and for much longer that that, Art and Peggy Gish led a lunch-hour vigil outside the county courthouse. They were calling for international peace and justice. They were local heroes, I thought, and I was fortunate enough to spend time talking with them occasionally as a writer and editor at the off-campus progressive newspaper, The InterActivist.
I’m writing an essay now that’s sending me backward to this era. It was around this time that I began to think about the tiers of society—the comfortable and the afflicted, as salty gumshoe reporters might have once said. It’s easy, once you’re looking at your jagged community with clear eyes, to see that some need help and others need to be held accountable for how their relative comfort is distorting society. Inaction breeds inequality. Inequality foments the us-vs.-them narrative that keeps us locked in wartime. The engine steams ahead. You can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train.
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are in Cleveland tomorrow night. I’m not one to get all bent out of shape over presidential politics as sport, to believe that a high office would do anything but corrupt its own electorate, but this is a simple enough decision. One set of values lifts people up. The other set of values: Well, “nothing would fundamentally change,” we’re told.
Two stories as old as time.
I hesitate to make the 2020 Democratic primary sound like the great climax of political narrative, but it seems to be a pretty obvious parable for the future. Which path does your heart lead you down as you scout the horizon line of your self-as-yet-to-be? How do you visualize a better world for your children? What story are you telling yourself about who you are?
Art and Peggy Gish were featured in a short documentary called Old Radicals. It’s terrific. A good reminder that life is both short and long, and each decision you make leads you and your community into the next moment.