Saturday, January 16, 2021

COVID, Conspiracies, Crazies and Masks: a not-so-great trip downtown

Going into Vancouver is strange. I think I may stop soon. 

I had some business downtown yesterday - had to see a man about some books that I was selling. Not actually a trivial trip: I needed the money, having dug a bit of a hole for myself buying Christmas gifts (including a few for myself) on what my wife and I call "the wedding account," which once had a few thousand bucks in it, so I've had one of those "what can I sell" peers at my bookshelves. This hardcover Hubert Selby is beautiful, but will I ever read it? Do I really *need* a signed Harry Crews? Wouldn't I rather have these Patricia Highsmiths in paperback than bulky hardcovers? Do I really need two Highsmith bios, when I haven't read either one yet?

The trip was kind of fraught from the gitgo: I wore the wrong pair of shoes, an old pair of slip-ons I'd had on for the purpose of doing laundry, which cause me some pain if I actually walk around at length in them; and discovered, too late, that the suitcase-on-wheels that I'd packed my books into had a broken handle - it wouldn't extend beyond the case, so instead of wheeling the heavy case along, I had to actually carry it. Shoulders and feet both quickly growing sore, I made it to Granville Station, took care of business with the books, then made my first big mistake of the day, deciding that, instead of going back to the Skytrain station to take the train back to Main, I would walk down to Cordova and catch the #3 bus near Waterfront Station. I mean, in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday, how crowded could it be?

Answer: pretty crowded. While health authorities natter at us about not socializing with friends, they still are allowing hundreds of strangers to pile onto buses in close contact with one another, with no restrictions whatsoever on occupancy, save that we're all supposed to wear masks... except for the people who decide not to, of course, or who choose to wear their masks under their nose or cupping their fucking chins, who are still allowed to ride - some of whom, on routes like the #3, appear to be impoverished and in poor health indeed. 

I mean, the maskless are in the minority, but since the masks are more effective at stopping the virus on the way out of you than on the way in, one asymptomatic person with COVID could potentially infect a whole bus with their exhalations. You want to say something to them. You're also aware that if you do, with all the percolating resentment you feel at their flouting public health guidelines and their obvious lack of concern about others - to say nothing of the rage you feel that it apparently falls on passengers, and not drivers - to try to enforce the guidelines, it could get ugly quickly, so you sit there, cramped in, saying nothing, staring at their exposed fucking noses. 

Or at least I do.

As I endured the crowd on the bus - all seats full, people standing in the aisles - I could hear one maskless woman explaining some vaccine wisdom to a friend: "I heard that vaccines have bits of the virus in them! No way am I letting them shoot that stuff into me!" she was saying. (I couldn't actually see her, but could tell she was maskless by the quality of her voice; masked speech has a muffled quality to it, lacking here). Her male friend chimed in - "I know - I had a flu shot once, and was sick for two weeks after that" and she remembered, in turn, the time that she got a flu shot, "then had the flu three years in a row after that." 

There I sat, in cramped horror, trying to breathe as little as possible, contemplating how, despite having only a very rudimentary knowledge of how vaccines work, I could spot a couple of major areas of confusion in what she was saying. If she'd been sitting closer, I would have contemplated trying to set her straight. There's a certain kind of stupid, however, that doesn't make for a promising dance partner: if she's gotten to adulthood with so little basic knowledge of her own immune system and the nature of vaccinations, what, really, could I do to help? It would probably just turn into a fight. Say nothing. Don't make a spectacle of yourself. Let the universe correct itself - rejecting both masks and vaccines, how long can she last?

Probably long enough to make plenty of other people sick, if she catches COVID, but never mind. Besides, she didn't annoy me half as much as a tattooed brunette, maskless, telling a masked friend about some heavy metal band - didn't catch who, but they apparently sound kind of like Type-O Negative. She elected to stand, then sit, near me. She seemed perfectly healthy, but that doesn't mean a damn thing. She didn't even have a mask tucked below her chin - not even that. Maybe she could see the nasty glances some of us shot her. Maybe it made her feel more powerful, gave her some sort of pleasure? Would that make it better, or worse? 

I can understand why, given the absence of any firm, guiding authority telling people to mask up or get off the bus (or get out of the store, or what-have-you), some people are choosing to start fights with total strangers, these days. I have a friend on social media who was ejected from a Save-on-Foods for trying to educate someone who was flouting mask conventions, with security guards deciding he was the problem, not the person breaking the rules; I can imagine myself in exactly his position, very easily, and choose to sit and simmer rather than risk it. 

Simmer I do, though. Doesn't it seem that the maskless are silently saying, with their exposed, yammering mouths, that they don't care at all about the safety of others or the rules we're being asked to live by, that they feel above them - maybe even think *we're* the deficient ones for playing along...? Fuck these people! As I sit in discomfort, my nose and ears pinched by straps, trapped in with my own bad breath, I can only feel fear and resentment and hostility at their lack of concern for others. Sure, maybe you're young and healthy, but a lot of us aren't. Can't you just wear a fucking mask, please? Especially if you're going to talk?

I think briefly of Mr. Chi Pig: reality really is a ride on the bus. One of his most trenchant and enduring observations. 

The bus bumps along, letting people on and off near Main Street Skytrain, which I now wish is where I'd elected to catch it, because it's getting noticeably less crowded. The bare-faced metal chick's disquisition irritates me even more, I notice, because it's not even valuable stuff she's saying - I mean, if you have to talk maskless in closed quarters and put other people potentially at risk, it could at least be for something more important than telling a friend about a band you dig? I peer longingly out the window to see if my stop is getting closer. I hear someone cough. I wince. 

I finally get off at Neptoon, where I have a bit of further business, dropping off some money I owe Rob; I chat briefly at the door with a fellow who got off the same bus I did - someone whose apparently physical frailty had made him seem a threat when we were on the bus, but who turns out to be merely another music lover ("Do you know if they're planning to do anything to celebrate their 40th anniversary?" he asks me as we stand in line, waiting for customers to leave so we can enter. "No, Rob said because of COVID they can't. It's too bad - they put on a good in-store!"). We chat a bit until Tim the Mute comes to the door to let the guy in, pointing out the store's hand sanitizer station. I catch Tim's attention and tell him I'm not actually there to shop but to give Rob some money; Tim obligingly takes it into the store, brings me my change, and I walk back to the bus stop to continue my journey. 

The day's mistakes aside, here's where my own choices start to get morally dodgy: while I'd had to sell the books, and had to pay Rob the money, I am now in a position of having to entertain myself until my wife gets off work, so we can go get dinner (we've eaten in all week, but now want to go get a keto-crust pizza at Blaze in North Vancouver, which sounds a pleasant change indeed from our own cooking). And I want to buy a couple of records, yet another "one last addition" to the collection while I'm downtown, before I stop buying music for good (that's the theory, anyways). 

I head a few more stops up the street, to Red Cat, where I'm picking up a UK pressing of a Butthole Surfers EP that I'd asked them to set aside. Cream Corn on vinyl, yay! I see that they've restocked their Screaming Trees section with what I am guessing are new pressings of Buzz Factory and Even If And Especially When. I covet both, but they're $40 each, and I am trying to limit my spending. Better put back this Funkadelic LP, too. One Screaming Trees, one Butthole Surfers: I can live with that. I've wanted to get to know Buzz Factory since Steve Turner of Mudhoney tapped it as a favourite when I interviewed him, but it really doesn't show up, new or used, all that often: better strike while the iron is hot.

All business positively and decisively done, I then stop at the bookstore next door, to chat with another Tim - Tim Carson - about collecting, and Philip K. Dick, and getting people to sign stuff and such. I'm really just killing time, but it does feel safe in the store. He's masked. His customers are masked. I am masked. No one is starting fights about or with the non-masked. It feels at least a little normal, to be in his store, having one of my few interactions, this week, with someone I am not married to, working with, giving money to, or helping as a tutor. 

The chat is interrupted by the second of the day's wingnuts: a female customer asks me, "Are you a writer?" After which she begins to share that she's been doing "research" - a word that nowadays should make everyone bristle with caution - into the 10,000 websites that are being censored on social media for talking about child sexual slavery. "10,000 is a significant number - I would pay attention to mentions of the 10,000, if I were you." 

She goes on to explain that if you really look closely, there are all sorts of coded messages, for example in Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side" about conspiracies and sex slaves. "If you really read the lyrics of that song closely, you realize that he's saying that we really should go to war to stop this sexual slavery, but we won't, because we've grown complacent. People have completely misunderstood what he was saying!" 

So the song, which appears to be an anti-war song, is actually the opposite - a pro-war song? 

"Exactly! It's all there, but it's in code." 

I extricate myself as quickly as I can from the conversation, with speaks of equal parts mental illness and QAnon conspiracy theory. "I'm sorry, but I really, really disagree with you." "Just read the lyrics!" "Thank you, but no. I have to, uh, go and meet my wife now..." I take leave of her and Tim, hoping I haven't wrecked her for him as a possible paying customer (my observation from past customer service jobs is that the crazies very rarely are the ones who spend money, but she did have a couple of books in her hand). Do not assault people for not wearing masks, do not try to educate the terminally stupid, and do not engage with the crazy. 

Like the t-shirt says, Never try to teach a pig to sing. 

Soon enough, I am with my wife, and we're standing in a long line at Blaze Pizza in North Van, where - we count them - five staff and seventeen customers bring us to just under the posted maximum capacity for the room (24). It's a long wait, and our guts are rumbling, as we contemplate what we want to get, once we get to the build-your-own pizza bar. In the middle of the restaurant, a couple of guys are sitting at one of the tables while they wait for their pizza to be ready. They aren't eating, or drinking, or doing anything that requires access to their mouths. 

Neither one is wearing masks. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Nothing But Butts

Well, here I am not writing, or writing about not writing... I have two big interviews waiting for me to get to them, but Xmas and NYE and so forth were distracting and I just didn't feel like buckling down over the break. And suddenly I find myself on a major Butthole Surfers kick, in advance of Paul Leary's new solo album (on Shimmy-Disc!), which I think is gonna keep me occupied for awhile. Listening to The Hole Truth... and Nothing Butt! right now. Hadn't realized Paul sang "Something!"  

Anyone craving my writing should seek out The Big Takeover #87 for my interview with Eric Bloom. Stay safe, folks - I'm out here, but sometimes life is enough without also havin' to write about it!