Every week I go to the grocery store, and every week my cashier asks me some kind of variant on the required question, “How are you doing?” Some weeks I make a joke. Okay, given the whole end of human civilization thing. Some weeks I don’t make jokes. But every week I wonder what the appropriate response to that kind of question is. Usually I say something along the lines of I’m doing alright. How are you doing? The cashier then tells me they’re doing okay too, though I can tell by the tone that they aren’t doing fine, and they’re pretty sure I’m not doing fine either.
I’m not doing fine. If I were still going to therapy, and I walked in today to be asked the question, “So how’s your week been?” I would burst out laughing for nearly a minute. Oh yeah. I’m…I’m fucking great. Sure I am. Never been better. I used to laugh a lot during therapy. As coping mechanisms go, it’s better than opiates, I guess.
This morning I washed the breakfast dishes because I am part of a family that eats breakfast every morning (as a child growing up, breakfast was, at the best of times, optional). I put on some music to keep me company, and turned to the 80’s Top 40 countdown. This week in 1988, the #40 song was Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin.
In mid-August 1988, when Bobby McFerrin had the #40 song in America (it would eventually reach #1 and win three Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year), I had just turned 16 years old. I didn’t have my license yet, or a car. Back when I was taking the required driver’s ed classes at school, my dad has asked me if I thought I was actually responsible enough to drive a car. It was one of those trick questions my dad liked to ask. Answer yes, and get yelled at about all the way in which I was irresponsible. Answer no, and experience feelings of shame & humiliation while my father gloated.
I chose a different approach, comparing myself to my friends who had driver’s licenses, and who also had cars. Given my 3.5 GPA, position on the high school basketball team, lack of drug/alcohol use, job that I had gotten on my own, celibacy, and general obedient nature, I was definitely more responsible than most 16-year-olds, including people who drove cars that I personally rode around in.
The strategy didn’t work. My dad saw the answer for what it was–a coded yes–and began a litany of all my fuck-ups (a C in English, messy room, general inability to meet his exacting standards, etc). By the end of the summer, tensions came to a head and he told me to pack up my stuff and go live my mom (there’s a longer story there, obviously, but it would take too long to go into here). So I called my mom at work, and she sighed and said she’d be by to pick me up in a couple of hours. I went into my room–about to not be my room–and began packing my stuff. I turned on the radio for a little distraction, and I shit you not this was the song that came on.
I don’t know how long I laughed, but in some ways I’ve never stopped laughing.
5 1/2 months into quarantine, it’s more dangerous outside my door now than it was back in March. More cases, more deaths, more people spreading the virus, and it looks like things are going to get worse before they get better. Beyond the wave of college students who have come to my town to attend in-person classes next week, pockets of America are now seeing their water turned off for non-payment, and the wave of evictions everybody knew was coming has finally begun. There’s a simple explanation for this sudden downturn. People’s unemployment benefits ran out July 31st, and the Republican members of the senate aren’t going to extend them unless most of the money goes to the ruling class–all of whom seem to be doing quite fine actually.
The second verse in Don’t Worry, Be Happy tells a story that is more relevant in August 2020 than it was in August 1988–another time when a celebrity turned president was destroying the working class during a pandemic.
The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don’t worry, be happy
When I go to the grocery store on Saturday, I go to two grocery stores–Publix and Aldi. The first store is a little bougie. That’s good in some ways (more masks, fewer guns), but bad in others (Wow, that’s a lot of money for groceries). So I go there to grab the stuff on sale and whatever I can’t get at Aldi, which despite its low prices–sometimes disturbingly low, as is this ham really ham if it’s only $1.99?–doesn’t always have everything we need.
One way Aldi keeps its prices low is by regulating its shopping carts. You have to put a quarter into a slot to get one, and then you get your $.25 back when you return it. That way, Aldi doesn’t have to pay someone to go outside and round up the carts. Maybe that’s why the ham is only $1.99? Anyway, back before the pandemic, the cart system also created a kind of neighborly interaction where a person about to get a cart would just hand you their quarter and you’d give them your cart. Hey look, we’re smiling at each other! Isn’t it great living in such a nice community! Sometimes, a person would give you their cart as you were walking up and tell you just to keep the quarter.
Today, there was an old lady waiting by the door as I returned my cart. It looked to me like she was just waiting for her friend who parked the cart to join her, but then as I was getting ready to lock up my cart and get my quarter she walked towards me asking if she could just have my cart. I told her fine and started walking away. “Here, let me give you a quarter!” she shouted, chasing after me. I did not want her dirty-ass covid quarter. I did not want her coming within six feet of me. And all the angst that had built up over the past hour–the people going the wrong way up the aisles, the people parking their cart in the middle of the aisle and standing there to check their phone, leaving me no choice but to just stand there behind them, waiting, as a line piled up behind me–all of that came to the surface and I mumbled, “Nah, fuck it.”
She recoiled, which was good. I thought about explaining all the reasons–one reason, really, the raging pandemic right here in our little southern college town–I didn’t want her fucking quarter, and adding in all the reasons why she shouldn’t take my cart (same reason, actually). But I didn’t. I just walked away. I’m not proud of what I said. But I know what I’m going to say next time.
Don’t worry. Be happy.