The last interlocutor at the booth stayed and talked for a long time, till the very end of the shift. She introduced herself to me, though I’m not going to use her name here. She is Black, has a shaved nape, and uses one of those combined walking/sitting things; she sat on it to talk with me. It was clear that she’d walked climate change, ecological devastation, and social disorder forward in her mind. She brought up concrete things that no one had mentioned all month: things like dental care, things like insulin.
I think of her as I put a fresh Band-Aid on my big toe, whose front skin I stubbed off because I’m spatially incompetent and insist on wearing flip-flops outdoors. This is the sixteenth or seventeenth Band-Aid I’ve put on this wound, not counting the one my friend gave me (I stubbed the toe in question on the way to her house). I don’t know how the Band-Aids got to the stores where she and I bought them. On a truck from the airport in a package brought by a van driven by a person? Packed by someone, packaged by someone. I have no idea how Band-Aids are made.
I wonder if it’s Band-Aids that two of my early interlocutors were thinking of when they said, “It’s too late for us to maintain some semblance of the comfortable life we’ve all been living.” “We won’t be able to keep up this lifestyle,” another person said. “Lifestyle” is a word I discourage my students from using because it suggests an opposition of style to substance, and that one is essential while the other is decorative. It makes adornment seem like the whole thing — like when you’re living, you’re adorning yourself, rich in choices and free of all other considerations, and that these adornments make your self, whether they’re blood diamonds or the cider vinegar you wash your hair with instead of shampoo. I thought of my last interlocutor too when I did the booth reprise at the Burnside Music Series, where I spoke with a woman from Maine whose town is “reskilling”, building a community root cellar and a community toolshed, determining who’s a seamstress and who has horses. These things have practical potential, even the horses; they also have style.
I drafted this essay with a ballpoint pen I bought, in a notebook I bought, sipping a lemonade I bought, sitting with my bandaged toe outside a business that sold me the lemonade and also sells coffee and pastries and bread. A white van with “Westbond Tennis Services” detailed on it, red with a drop-shadow, stops at a light in front of the business and me. The sun is hot and bright, thinning the crescent of shade I’m sitting in swathed in sunscreen and the sneaking suspicion that these things will last forever. If my anticipation of doom lives between my solar plexus and my pelvis, its opposite lives just under the living part of my skin, the largest organ in the human body. And if I’m going to live, I need food, right? I need water, I need shelter, I need to take care of myself.
I reread M.F.K Fisher’s essay “How Not to Be an Earthworm” in How to Cook a Wolf, the annotated edition. Of emergency rations, she wrote in 1942 and let stand in 1954, “It is often a delicate point, now, to decide when common sense ends and hoarding begins.” To have not just enough but more than enough. To have not just more than enough but more than someone else. (“We’re gonna be looking at our neighbors for fresh water, for anything we can eat,” said the woman from Maine.) That’s how we got into this mess, I am tempted to say. Fisher writes practically and kindly about sustaining not only life but pleasure in conditions of acute emergency, and her book as a whole is a guide to feeling fat in thin times. But she has little to say, except in a bracketed 1954 addendum at the beginning of the chapter, about how to survive chronic deprivation, a state of being without return or restoration.
In 1954, my father was seven in New York City, attending P.S 26. Throughout the years of his schooling, he was drilled to “duck and cover” under his desk when an alarm sounded. My father’s an artist and has made a number of works that respond to the fear and inanity of this proceeding, and what it taught people about the appropriate responses to possible doom and certain doom. He and I have talked about living under a shadow, about various disproportions between threat and response. What was this combination of fear and falsehood supposed to do for children? For the adults in whose care they rested? How can anyone prepare?
My friend’s husband came down to talk to me at the booth. They share a six-year-old and a ten-month-old. He spoke to me first about “social unrest and collapse because of food and water shortages” as we burn through our reserves. “They’re saying corn is going to be a luxury. Especially with kids, it’s very concerning.” My beautiful dad, who has taught me to love words and to look deeper, and who through his searching practice of art and healing teaches me daily that it is possible to change the way one moves in and is moved by the world, is 67, around the age of many people who stand in offices and make the decisions that will draw more and more toward themselves, more and more away from other people. Do they remember cowering under their desks? Are they lining the shelves of the bunkers in their minds? If feelings matter to how they spur actions, what makes the difference in the kind of action–what makes one person respond to fear by gathering, as my last interlocutor did, “enough food for the entire neighborhood,” city, state, planet, world?
“Have you heard of this thing called prepping?” asked my early interlocutor. “They’re stockpiling food, they’re stockpiling ammunition … and when they’re calculating what they need to feel as if they’re prepared, the unit of preparation is a family. ‘I got a husband, two kids and a dog, and we’re gonna need this much for the dog.'” She was, I think, talking about the TV show Doomsday Preppers, which I haven’t seen. The National Geographic channel, where it airs, says it “explores the lives of otherwise ordinary Americans who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it. Unique in their beliefs, motivations, and strategies, preppers will go to whatever lengths they can to make sure they are prepared for any of life’s uncertainties.” (Wikipedia adds blandly, “Dräger Equipment, Wise Food Storage Company and the United States Gold Bureau are sponsors of the show.”) The description itself is silly: they don’t mean “any of life’s uncertainties”, they mean “things they don’t want to happen”.
Idle speculation, philosophizing, catastrophizing, all style and no substance: these too are the skills our grandparents had, and the ones they passed on. Who cares why? What we need to do, and soon, is to make it harder for the aforementioned decision-makers — the head hoarders in charge — to make abusive decisions, as a former colleague pointed out somewhat sharply: ” It shouldn’t be about individuals sharing what they have, it should be about changing structures so that nobody has to rely on somebody else’s goodwill.”
“I think what skills I have that would be useful,” said another friend, talking with me at the booth while her downy-headed baby slept in his stroller. “We make beer and wine, we could trade those with people, and I’m not a big gardener but I can grow things.” I thought of her too when the woman from Maine, who might have been in her 50s or 60s, told me earnestly of her town’s efforts to “relearn the skills our grandparents had.” The skill of nursing children dying of lockjaw, typhoid and “summer complaint”? The skill of shitting in a privy, of fighting off bullies or rapists at a public bathhouse, of sitting still while someone pulls your tooth with pliers and without anesthetic? In fact, many people do or undergo these things now (including people who are grandparents and great-grandparents), because they lack access to plumbing or disinfectant or the specialized skills of others; nor do I want to downplay the genuinely useful things my great-grandparents could do that I can’t, which may have had their roots in pleasure as well as in endurance. My point is that if it’s a question of style, you can pick and choose.
The skills my baby’s grandparents will have, if I have a baby, will include emotional risk-taking, cooking, glaze-mixing, sewing, making people laugh; they will include ducking and covering and attempting to reconcile impossibilities. I asked people, often, at the booth, “How do you imagine helping other people in this hard future?” Some said, explicitly, that they would not: “I think when it’s in complete survival mode, it gets to be every man for himself.”
“So you don’t think people depend on each other?” I asked.
“No, I do think people depend on each other,” he said. He was from Federal Hill, “back when it was all Italian. From ’53 to ’70, the late ’60s, those were very tough times and it was a very poor neighborhood. But I had a great childhood. Big family, everyone knew each other. It was very tough, we were very poor, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.”
If I have a baby, is it more true than it once was that she might not live to grow up? Or less? When life was more fragile, with more gangrene and less reliable food sources (and seamstresses and horses), people still lived between always and never — some stored grain, some built elaborate tombs. People who have kids often mentioned them at the booth: Will he have clean water to drink? What kind of world will they face? And my friend’s husband spoke of his children as somehow tying him to the world: “If I were alone I wouldn’t mind so much, I could just jump in the river with rocks in my pockets.” I discouraged this, pointing out that the river is so shallow and full of runoff that you’d have better luck lying in it until it poisoned you than you would drowning. People say all the time that you can’t prepare for parenthood.