Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

“Real Things”: Notes From The Hot Zone

This one jumps around a lot, and some of it may seem irrelevant at first, but it all comes together in the end, I promise. Also, it gets political, which may make some of you uncomfortable. Frankly, after the week I’ve had, I don’t care. You’ve been warned. Buckle up.


Some background first.

I haven’t had occasion to talk about it much in this space– this is a pop culture site, after all, and I’d rather use my column to talk about old TV shows or favorite childhood mystery books or seventies pulp paperbacks. Most of you know my usual beat.

But my day job changed a couple of years back, and so did Julie’s. For many years I was a commercial printing and bindery guy in the morning and a schoolteacher in the afternoon, and on weekends I wrote columns and stories for various publishers. And Julie was a social worker. It added up to a comfortable enough lifestyle.

But Julie got laid off, and both my weekday employers started cutting my hours. Then we had a couple of close calls with Julie’s health; I’m not going to go into details but it was scary. Julie has diabetes and that turns everything medical up to eleven. Everything.

Plus she has to take insulin to stay alive. For those of you who don’t know, a ten-day vial of insulin smaller than my thumb retails for $300 over the counter. If you are diabetic and need insulin, without insurance there is no recourse.

There was a period of about four months where we were completely uninsured and it emptied our savings. I was seriously considering some sort of crime to cover the extra $900 a month it was going to take to keep my wife alive. In desperation I googled “get free insulin” and found a pharmaceutical program that would help. And friends helped. We scraped by.

But I swore, never again.

Every decision we’ve made since then has been governed by that. Everything is about keeping Julie’s insulin coming in and her other medical needs met. She is a walking litany of pre-existing conditions; losing our health insurance would be the equivalent of a death sentence. We could never afford to get it back under the current system.

This is the sword hanging over us. All. The. Time.

A couple of years ago it became obvious that the day jobs weren’t cutting it. So we both changed employers. Julie ended up the head cashier at a hospital garage and I drive a paratransit wheelchair-lift van for a company that mostly serves Medicare and Medicaid patients. Both are sort of on the fringes of health care. Neither one of us works at what we went to school for, but part of being an adult is that you have to take the job that’s available, not the one that sings to your muse. At least my current employer lets me teach my Young Authors class on Mondays after school still, so I get to keep my hand in. I still write on the weekends, though going from a forty-hour week to a fifty or sixty-hour one has cut my output some. But we no longer are terrified about health issues, so it was a fair trade.

That’s our situation.

…Or it was. Pre-pandemic.

Now… it’s a little different.

Now we’re both on the front lines of a war.

A few weeks ago my boss sent out an email saying ambulance companies were horribly overloaded and at Hopelink’s request she had agreed to start taking COVID patients. She was asking drivers to volunteer to be part of this, but she wouldn’t assign it.

Julie and I talked it over from every angle. The bottom line was, times are tough and getting tougher. My hours were already getting cut because of the lockdown, people are canceling appointments for anything except essential trips like dialysis. Even those are down. COVID rides will probably be the only ones left soon. My company already has a bunch of people taking time off and going on standby. That’s not an option for me. Neither Julie or me can be jobless; certainly not voluntarily jobless where you can’t collect unemployment. Unlike all those perky celebs posting inspirational videos, we can’t afford to just stay home and shelter in place. Julie was already at risk anyway, her hospital’s across the street from where the first COVID deaths were recorded here. She is one of two employees left in the garage after a round of layoffs, and there are already rumblings about whether she is ‘essential’ hospital staff or not.

This way my job, at least, would be guaranteed. Moreover, if I agreed to be part of the COVID team of drivers then I’d be supplied with masks and gloves and the whole biohazard defense kit. The risk would be measurable, a known quantity, and I’d be equipped for it. (The boss lady looks like she’s annoyed with the world all the time, she has what’s called ‘resting bitchface,’ but I knew from experience that her heart is as big as a house and if we are doing right by our patients then she always has our backs. If any of us took high-risk duty she would make damn sure we were ready for it.)

I went through all this reasoning for my wife, ending with the fact that the biggest risk was to her, so I figured it was her decision.

Julie just said, “We have to do our part, your people need help. The right thing to do is always the right thing to do.”

The woman I married, everyone.

(I have some community spirit. I’m not a monster. But I’d have taken the out if Julie had said no. She didn’t even consider it. My wife embarrasses me into being better than I am, most days.)

So I agreed to be one of the COVID-cleared drivers.

The first-morning prep was almost funny. The boss called me into her office and started filling up a box. “Okay here’s kits; mask, gown, gloves, booties. Probably can skip the booties. Here’s some wipes, here’s Lysol, here’s some other cleaner, here’s a roll of paper towels. Wipe down EVERYTHING after you drop off, and throw away the gown and stuff, put it back in the baggies. There’s instructions.”

“What black market are you using? You could chuck the whole van thing and just auction off the box.”

That got a thin smile. “There’s only five of you doing this. These are the spill kits I had. I’m starting you with ten but when you get down to five you have to tell me because it’s mail order and it takes a week.”

I stared. “Me and four others? That’s IT?” Out of a pool of forty-three.

She sighed. “Some guys pulled out.” Her face darkened a little. “Anyway. It is what it is. The ambulance companies can’t handle it all and I’m trying to keep the doors open here.”

There didn’t seem to be anything to say to that, so I just nodded and took my box of sanitizing loot out to the van to start the day. But in my head I could only think, FIVE. Out of forty-three. Jesus, you fuckers, my wife is stepping up, at more risk than you and with a lot less support. You cowardly bastards.

The work itself has been mostly okay. Honestly we deal with immuno-compromised people at assisted-living places and dialysis centers all the time, I was already in the habit of keeping my van as clean as I could; I had my own stash of Lysol and towels and sanitizer on hand that I’d bought for my vehicle three months ago, before people started hoarding the stuff. I wear gloves all the time anyway because ratcheting wheelchair securements is hard on the hands. Traffic’s very light and parking is a lot easier. Spring has come and we are finally seeing the sun again.

If not for the air of existential dread hanging over everything, it would almost be pleasant. I like driving and I like the people I drive around. They are invariably gracious and sweet, and so grateful for every little thing. They worry about me much more than themselves. They apologize for being a burden. They apologize for not TIPPING for Christ’s sake.

Other people are worrying a lot more about me than I am as well. The second day the boss lady called me into her office again to give me a cloth mask in addition to the ones included with the spill kits. “My sister in law made these, I want all the drivers masked up. This is for your regular rides, don’t use the kits except for virus rides. Gloves too– oh, you have them. Okay.” (Like I said, she has our backs.)

With Julie, however, it’s a different story. She’s not supplied with anything. Masks are reserved for actual medical personnel, even though Julie deals with dozens– hundreds– of people every day out in the garage, patients and their families. They’re using her booth for COVID testing so her workspace has moved to about ten yards away. She’s making out the best she can with Windex and a bandanna.

When I saw this I gave her the cloth mask I’d been given. And my Junk Shop colleague Jim MacQuarrie was as alarmed seeing that picture as I was; he is sending some masks his wife made. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, regular folks are stepping up. It’s heartening.

Julie and I are getting all sorts of compliments and encouragement.

You guys are straight-up heroes.

I’m so proud of you two!

Thank you for what you do.

And then there’s the signs.


–it all feels… wrong, somehow. I keep thinking of the column Jim Wright wrote about how it gets tiring, being a Navy veteran constantly thanked for his service.

“Thank you for your service.”

That’s what the cashier said, like every other cashier.

I acknowledged it. I did. I wasn’t a bitter curmudgeon about it. He said thanks, I nodded, or grunted, or whatever. I didn’t profusely thank the cashier for his thank you or break down in tearful gratitude and a heartful rendition of Lee Greenwood’s Proud To Be An American, but I acknowledged his appreciation. As I said, if it had ended there, there wouldn’t have been posts on social media.

But it didn’t end there.

I acknowledged the thanks. And I acknowledged it the second time he brought it up as well.

I said I appreciated it.

After that, I don’t want to talk about it. It makes me uncomfortable for reasons that are none of your damned business – but I’ll explain anyway here in a minute.

That doesn’t matter though, does it? My comfort. That’s something else I have to sacrifice as a veteran. America needs veterans to be symbols, heroes, not people, so my discomfort doesn’t matter – so long as you feel good.

The whole piece is here and it’s well worth your time. When I first read it, years ago, the vehemence startled me a little, but I’m catching up to it myself now. Coming from printing, I know what it costs to put up “Health Care Heroes!” signs and banners up at every hospital. (It costs a fucking LOT, and I’m sure that it’s not being donated freely. There’s always a company logo somewhere at the very least, and you can damn well bet it’s getting written off next year at tax time.)

People who aren’t in health care, who are just trudging in to their regular retail job that’s been declared essential, they’re getting the hero treatment too.

The fiction of this “hero” narrative is what’s irritating. It’s not the well-meaning thanks. I understand that people are trying to be supportive as best they can. I’m honored when my patients say how grateful they are. It’s my privilege and pleasure to be of service to them. Julie and I both appreciate it when our friends express admiration for the jobs we’re doing. Honest.

But we’re not doing it for free. We get money. We get health insurance. We need both. We have no choice.

I remember when Wil Wheaton was negotiating with the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation when he was going to leave the show, and they said they wouldn’t give him any more money but they would make his character a lieutenant, how about that?

I’m paraphrasing, but as I recall, the way Wheaton tells it, he stared at them, baffled, and said, “Wesley Crusher isn’t real. I’m talking about real things.” They wouldn’t budge and he left the show.

With me yet? Try this. Most of you probably remember the Iran hostage crisis back in the seventies, when Tehran embassy staff were held captive by fanatics for months. When they were finally released, the hostages were hailed as heroes. There were parades. Plural. Our long national nightmare was over.

Amidst all this hoopla, Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko made a point, a very sensible and practical one, that no one wanted to hear. He was pilloried for it.

The hostages aren’t heroes, he said. They’re victims of a crime. They don’t deserve a parade. No more than somebody who gets mugged deserves one. Or someone who has a family member killed by a burglar does. Or whatever.

That’s what I keep thinking about.

Victims of a crime.

That’s fiction. These are real things.

It’s nice that everyone seems to think Julie and I and thousands of others are heroes. We’re not. We’re just fucking desperate. In our household, we don’t dare risk cutting off Julie’s insulin. Period. Everything else is irrelevant.

“Victims of a crime” feels a lot more valid to me than “heroes” does, as a label. We’re not volunteers. We’re trapped. Hostages to a system we have no say in running.

And Julie and I have it a lot better than many other friends of ours here in town.

Our friend Kris (from Hello Earth) has been working as a delivery driver. She finally quit taking the Amazon gigs. She had this to say about it…

I’m not sure why I feel the need to say this, but I’ve shared with you some of my BC (Before Corona) concerns with working for Amazon so I feel like giving an update.
I’ve stopped driving for Amazon on the subcontracted basis I was. I already felt ethically uneasy, but before all this started at least it was steady and paid well.
Now, I’ve watched them respond to the threat of the virus without either speed or compassion, and I’m not putting myself out there for it. They were slow to adopt measures at their facilities to protect warehouse workers and gig drivers alike. I have learned of illness at warehouses I frequent from the news–not from Amazon. The number of shifts I could find dropped drastically even as demand rose. On top of that, the payout for each shift dropped as well.
I know that people in the gig economy are trading security for flexibility. I’m not owed anything by the tenets of my tenuous employment. However, to continue to funnel workers with no benefits into unsafe conditions without access to supplies, at lower wages and even less expectation of continued employment makes extra clear what we already knew: they don’t care about human beings at all, because there’s an endless stream of us in these uncertain times.
I was willing to take the higher pay they offered for stormy days and high demand holidays. I’m not willing to take less money for fewer hours just to have a trickle coming in.

There’s an endless stream of us. There’s always going to be someone who needs the work bad enough that they’ll put up with all kinds of shitty treatment. Think about that. Especially think about how businesses are building that desperation into their business model.

And remember real things. That’s what I’m talking about here. You want to know who people are? How do they deal with real things? Platitudes and posters? Or actual, genuine effort to make things better?

What we’re seeing now isn’t heroism. It’s people doing the best they can inside a system that counts on their helplessness. It’s built-in and it’s the key factor in keeping it running.

We can fix it but it’s going to be hard and they will fight us. Understand that the people in charge literally do not care if we die. They are depending on all of us out here being too exhausted and too dispirited and too beaten to pay attention to boring things like voting in down-ballot elections.

Show them they’re wrong.

That’s heroism. Since the subject came up. Showing up when you don’t have to.

Back next week with something cool… and lighter, I promise.

I’ll need the break from all these goddamn real things.

Wash your hands.


  1. humanbelly

    First-rate, forthright, frank and admirably-open post about your family’s considerable challenges in navigating not only this tsunami of a crisis– but our rapidly-failing healthcare system as well. Thank you so much for sharing it here– and it certainly wasn’t political enough in nature to cause any offense whatsoever that I can see. Great job.

    I do wonder. . . both ends of the spectrum you discuss, re: “essential workers– heroes or human sacrifice to greed?”— they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course. Especially in cases like yours, where someone with a heart recognizes that folks are gonna need him to perform this service well and conscientiously. Honestly, the first one that ALWAYS comes to my mind (in blizzards, heat waves, and torrential downpours) are the teams that pick up our trash and recycling– no matter what. This is a crummy job on a good day– and they are right now quite understandably scared to death AND overloaded (’cause we’re all home, creating extra trash)– but they continue on, because they must. But make no mistake– a person in our cast heard her neighbor call out to one of them, “Thank You! You guys are heroes!” — And he immediately shouted back, “They sent us out here to die–!!” The guys in our neighborhood are still giving us waves, though, in spite of that sense of foreboding. . .


  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Had this discussion with a co-worker, yesterday, who is also a Navy veteran. He said he doesn’t vote because the candidates are a joke. I told him he is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. By not participating, you l;eave the decision to those who are happy with joke candidates. The more people who participate, the more the parties and candidates have to please a broader spectrum and you get better candidates. If your representatives aren’t doing their jobs, vote them out of office and keep doing it until you get ones who will. he brought up term limits, which I reminded him require a constitutional amendment to be proposed by Congress, passed and sent to the states for ratification, which means a vote by the people who would face the limits. His answer was that’s not fair. My reply; vote them out, replace them with people who will respond to the people’s will and pass such an amendment and then do the same in the states until it is ratified and Congress faces similar limits as the presidency. The fewer people involved, the easier it is to game the system. Voter turnouts in this country are horrible; the only way to enact change is get people involved.

    Heroism is usually a matter of circumstances that cause a person to react based on their character. For many, it wasn’t a conscious choice. People doing their jobs in an emergency is usually not a choice; but a necessity of life. I’m in an “essential” job; I’d prefer to stay home and be safe, since my wife has a compromised immune system. Like you, I take the precautions I can. However, my corporate masters did give us a choice, though a limited one. We could use sick time and paid time off to isolate, if we felt vulnerable, or use long term sick leave after our state was locked down. They did, eventually, reduce our hours to reflect our basic service and limit the length of our interactions. We are providing only bare essential services, limiting the number of people in the store and cut off access to devices that could not meet social distancing requirements or that would be in contact for extended periods of time. We are offering on-line submission and pick-up for orders, so people only need to be in the store for a minute. Also, we are only working 3 days a week, with out crews alternating, so they have 4 days away from the public. The company is compensating our hours so we are getting paid for 35 hours, instead of the 24 that we are working. They were slow to get there; but, they made it that far. They have worked diligently to get us disinfectant supplies and sanitary cleansers, and what protective gear than can acquire. We are constantly disinfecting anything the public touches. My hands are constantly covered in disinfectant and hand sanitizer, when I’m not washing them.

    My hope is that this is the tipping point for the public to demand universal healthcare, better pay, and dump the politicians who looked after their buddies and left their constituents out to dry. I hope that people finally realize that their world isn’t the ground under their feet, but the entire planet and start acting to preserve it and every living thing on it, regardless of income, race, or geographic location. However, I have been through emergencies. It brings out the true character in people; but, once things return to a semblance of normalcy, people go back to their insular lives and forget the lessons of community. We have a bad habit of failing Santayana.

  3. Eric van Schaik

    Man, am I glad that I’m living in Holland.
    Not everything is perfect here, far from it, but I have a feeling our politicians have a solid plan they stick to, and don’t change there stories if it makes them lees popular. The idea our government has is building group immunity. And the numbers show that it seems to be working. Of course it took a while but most people understand the “sacrifices” we have to make. People are still dying but the numbers are beginning to flatten. After april 28 we will hear what is going to happen next.

    I’m sad how your system works. That people have to work even when there is a big change that they will get sick, otherwise they will be homeless. I don’t understand why certain politicians don’t want Obamacare of whatever it’s called now. Here almost everybody has a health insurance. Your free to choose if you want to pay more or less for dentist or psychiatrist.

    I don’t care if your columns are always about comics, books or tv stuff. This is also interesting.
    Keep it coming Greg! 😉

  4. jccalhoun

    All this talk about the rich donating paltry amounts just pisses me off. Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are both worth over 100 billion dollars. That means they could donate 99% of their wealth and still be billionaires. The system is broken.

    1. One argument I’ve encountered on why we can entrust billionaires to guide our country is that they’ve got so much money, they have no need to base decisions on self-interest; we can trust them.
      But as one business book put it, people who think “a billion dollars is enough” don’t get a billion dollars. Even though they couldn’t possibly run out, they guard their wealth like Smaug. Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelstein is 86, worth 31 billion but he’s still obsessed with stopping Internet gambling’s threat to his wealth.
      As to the post: grim stuff, well said. I hope things go well for y’all.

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