I Want a House with a Crowded Table

On "reopening" Texas and the deadly illogic of individualism.

The week before it got weird to go outside, my husband and I bought a house. We started talking about hiring plumbers to run a gas line to the new kitchen, and finding a good carpenter to build new cabinets. When our friends brought Clorox wipes to the bar, I was still thinking: this is silliness. This is too much

Six weeks later, I am the woman yelling at unmasked dog-walkers. 

While epidemiologists and public health experts are cautioning everyone to continue sheltering in place because of rising deaths and limited testing and the entire absence of reliable treatment for COVID-19, the governor of Texas has encouraged restaurants and retail establishments to reopen. Business owners who are too scared or stupid to protect their people are taking Greg Abbott up on his call. Some shoppers and diners have, too.

Unlike so many ills and oppressions of the world -- and of the Trump Era in particular -- the coronavirus crisis has had a relatively simple, effective call to action with immediate, widespread benefits: stay home. No, we didn’t start staying home soon enough; and the continued incarceration of people in our racist prison system, the appalling treatment of meat industry workers, and the government’s failure to provide folks on the front lines with adequate medical and protective gear will continue to be a deadly gash on the already thoroughly marred face of this country. But for hundreds of millions of us, there is still something we can do: nothing.

Nothing as a political act. Nothing as a statement of solidarity. Nothing as critical care for our communities.

Of course, there are a lot of somethings in that nothing, and they are all hard as hell: parenting in hyperdrive, homeschooling kids while trying to hold down jobs working from couches and kitchen tables. Caregiving for our loved ones and organizing mutual aid. Missing milestones. Losing opportunities to say last goodbyes. There are things that nothing has taken from us that we will never be able to get back.

But nothing only works if everyone who can do it, does it. Which is why, when Abbott and other Texas Republicans started talking about it being time to “reopen” Texas, I felt something much more than anger. I felt incandescent with helpless rage, genuinely and deeply hurt and confused -- things are no different today than they were six weeks ago, other than the fact that we all managed to do the only thing we know definitely helps: nothing. 

It is not time to stop doing nothing. It is time to do more and more and more and more of nothing. My friend Dan Solomon explained it very well: “Ending lockdown doesn’t make it safe to go out. It increases the likelihood of future, longer, lockdowns, based on expert models. That is worse for everyone’s future, including those hurting right now. We can’t end a pandemic by wanting it to be over. I desperately wish we could.”

I am angry, but I’m not just angry at people like Austin teacher Charlene Franz, who told the Texas Tribune she believed the global pandemic is a “big farce.” She went to the mall to return some sunglasses. Another shopper wearing a Dallas Cowboys face mask told the Tribune that he feels public health experts are “exaggerating” the severity of COVID-19, adding, “but that’s just me.” The Austin-American Statesman also interviewed locals, with one diner at Cyclone Anaya’s telling the paper over margaritas that she was glad to be “being part of the community.”

I feel angry, but I also feel betrayed. Staying home is a massive, radical act of social solidarity -- an agreement that we will do whatever we can to keep each other safe. A promise that things will work out in the future if we carry the burden together now. Who rejects that promise to return a pair of sunglasses? Charlene, apparently.

It would be easy to snidely dismiss this careless, cruel behavior as just another example of the ways in which people who were already looking for any excuse feel especially empowered to embrace a Trumpian disregard for science, truth, and our collective wellbeing. But I don’t know how people who are out and about this weekend vote; I don’t even know if they do vote. I don’t think, at the local level, this even necessarily breaks down easily between left and right, even if the politicians calling for “reopening” are Republicans. I do think it’s about whether we buy into the idea that a deadly virus is cowed by rugged American -- or Texan -- individualism. 

These first six weeks have been heartbreaking, but the sheer scope of our collective dedication to doing the hard thing -- nothing -- made it all a little more tolerable. And yes, it’s about the postponed weddings, the virtual baby showers, and the missed graduation ceremonies, but it’s also about not being able to buy your buddies a round, hug a friend going through a breakup, or play a game of dominoes in the park. We said no to so many things that make our communities what they are so that our communities could one day be that again -- when we have adequate testing, reliable treatment, and, maybe a year or more from now, a vaccine.

We do not have those things yet. Until we have them, “being part of the community” -- as the Domain diner said in the newspaper -- means not treating ourselves to patio margs if patio margs put the server who drops them off at the table in danger. Because deciding that the best advice of public health experts is bullshit isn’t, as the guy in the Cowboys face mask said, about “just me.” It’s about every one of us, and the chain reactions that come from simply being a human interacting with other humans -- the car accident that means taking up another hospital bed or infecting a paramedic and her family, the only mostly-covered cough that makes its way to a stack of disposable cups, the enthusiasm of a child grasping for anything shiny.

Like the people who are going out this weekend, I don’t want to live my life in fear. But I do want to live my life, and I want the people I love to live their lives, and I know that this virus does not give one single solitary fuckaroo about anyone’s defiant attitude. And I know it is hard to relearn and reimagine what resilience looks like in a country fixated on the idea that wealth and whiteness is worth. We are accustomed to using displays of capitalistic fortitude to show our resilience as Americans -- think of the New York-themed tchotchkes for sale after 9/11 -- but that was always a charade, anyway.

But now is the time to do the hard things on top of the hard things; to build a health care infrastructure that takes care of everyone, to fund a social safety net that genuinely lifts people out of poverty, to invest in green energy that might sustain us long enough to ensure a future for our grandchildren’s children. Now is not the time to “reopen,” or to get back to normal. Normal was always bullshit. Now is time for new.

I said we bought a house, right before the world became a place where touching things at the grocery store was dangerous. In our offer letter to the sellers, my husband and I wrote about loving the house because we could see our community with us there -- around the fire pit in the backyard, singing YouTube karaoke on the covered patio, and sharing potluck meals around an honest-to-god dining table.

Then, two days before Greg Abbott “reopened” Texas, the Highwomen released a video for their song “Crowded Table.” It is a celebration of family and friendship and the joy of being together. I set two alarms so I wouldn’t miss the premiere, and as I watched the band share hugs and wine and song, I thought of my new house and the new six-seat dining table we’d ordered from the internet and put together, just the two of us, the same two of us who’ve done everything just-the-two-of-us for six weeks. 

I’ve never had room for a six-seat dining table. Right now, just the two seats are taken. But I know there will come a day when six seats won’t be enough, and we’ll be pulling up lawn chairs and stools to make room for everyone.

I will have a house with a crowded table. Right now, I will keep my table empty to make sure of it.