Thursday, March 12, 2020: With daily news of the spreading Coronavirus in my mind I picked up a two-door Toyota at Enterprise Rent-A-Car and headed north on 101 to my favorite small town in the world. Mendocino, a seaside artistic community nestled between the emerald beauty of the Pacific and miles of towering coast redwoods.
My first time behind the wheel of an auto equipped with Sirius radio. I quickly found channel 6, Oldies from the Sixties, and what tune would be playing but “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.”
I was heading there not as an escape from COVID-19, doubtful it had yet invaded such a sparsely inhabited area 135 miles north of San Francisco, but mainly to keep a meeting with the general manager of the Mendocino Hotel built in 1878.
Over the last decade I’ve visited Mendocino a dozen times often staying for a couple of weeks at a time, always at this quaint hotel. I was there over Christmas and New Years in a suite with a view of the ocean and decided to see if I could make a deal to live in that suite for two, maybe three months a year.
In addition to the clean air, the surrounding natural beauty, there was the feeling of once-upon-a time-in-pristine-America that breathes within the Victorian hotel. Could have been in New Orleans and hundreds of other hotels in America when wealth was created by muscle and materials.
The town hosts several galleries and boutiques, a facility where budding artists come to write, paint and sculpture, a bookstore the size of CityLights, three restaurants flirting with one-star approbation and gleaming sunsets of gold and purple.
The three hour drive deposited me at the parking lot for hotel guests. All was good in my suite, two logs in the fireplace, a complimentary bottle of bottle of Pino Gris from nearby Navarro Vineyards, and an umbrella in a bag covering case, rain expected tomorrow.
My meeting the next morning ended up positively with an agreed-upon price for a minimum of three months, same suite, beginning in December and through 2021.
With that behind me I decided to drive the seven miles to the next town, Fort Bragg, and visit with my friend who tends bar at a popular restaurant.
I met her there in 2017. I now visit with her every time I come to Mendocino.
Virginia is seventy, a tall thin woman with an angular face and eyes that twinkle with curiosity. Her knowledge and interest in politics, culture, and books makes her company quite appealing.
I had found the restaurant by chance after working out at a nearby fitness center. It was around 2PM and the last customer at the bar was calling for his check.
We talked until 4PM when her shift finished, sharing history, beliefs and hopes. We talked books. Novels. She liked James Salter and DeMille. She knew why and spoke analytics peppered with lyrical expressiveness. Back home I began an email relationship that has survived since.
I decided to surprise Virginia that day by appearing in early afternoon.
I had thought in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, two small towns far from crowds, there would be little awareness of the COVID-19 virus. And so I was surprised to see Virginia spraying the surface of the bar with a liquid disinfectant and swiping it clean.
She looked up and said, “I’m going to give you an elbow bump but would have preferred a big hug. But now the world has changed.”
On the tv monitor above the bar CNN was showing charts of confirmed cases and deaths.
I took a seat. She arrived with the same IPA I liked and we talked about what we knew. Never closer than six feet. She was all-spooked-in and I was getting the message.
I asked her how the restaurant’s business was affected.
“It’s slow. Fewer people at dinner and as you can see there’s no one here now but the three of us,” pointing to the chef in white toque and waitress through the kitchen window.
“Wedding reception for next weekend cancelled. The town’s most popular event, the annual Whale Run & Walk where people from all over come to watch the whales every March has been postponed because of coronavirus. It’s just the beginning, I fear.”
There was no enthusiasm for any other subject. Nothing mattered except this existential virus threat to the world, our world.
I conjured up my best smile for Virginia. She was a pal.
“Goodbye, Virginia. Be well and safe. I’ll see you in December. Email you soon.”
“Take care, Bill.”
There is another woman whose life had become a sort of fixation. Somehow I developed a compelling interest in her behavior and persona, surprising perhaps since, unlike my relationship with Virginia, this woman and I had never had a conversation.
She packs bags at Safeway. She’s small and frail. Maybe ninety pounds, possibly five feet tall. Her face, pinched and frail, void of eye shadow and lipstick, is dominated by oversized, unisex eye glasses. She wears a baseball cap with SAFEWAY lettered above the brim, only a wisp of her gray hair visible. Her attire is a checkered long sleeve shirt, forgettable trousers, and a gray apron which also bears the name of her employer.
She seldom smiles, has spoken never more than a sentence in the maybe thirty times over the three years she’s bagged my groceries.
One day maybe a year ago as she placed a bag in my cart, I said, “Thank you. You always make me smile when you pack my bags.” And it was true. I was infatuated with a woman whose name I didn’t know and who showed no interest in knowing mine.
She looked up and managed a wan smile. “Thank you.”
A thought occurred: she needed a name. I needed her to have a name. One I’d likely keep only to myself. My timidity and decorum restrained any interest I had in asking her her name.
I tested a number of possibilities speaking each out loud in the mirror before heading off to Safeway. I decided she needed both a first and last name. Get the first one right and then the next will come. I tested a few. None worked. Then one early morning as I awakened it hit me. Betty. When I was very young I had a spinster aunt named named Betty, a mysterious woman who lived in a cottage with overflowing book shelves near the river. My mother said she was an intellectual.
Betty it would be. Last name? I tried a few but settled on Bagger. Betty Bagger. I liked the alliterative ring of the two B’s. And I once did business with a man whose last name was Packer, Kerry Packer. A Packer and a Bagger. The latter worked perfectly when preceded by Betty. And that’s what she was, the best supermarket bagger I’d ever seen.
Three weeks ago at Safeway I stacked my cart with enough items that Betty would need three bags. I was fascinated how she could always pack every bag to the top with no item visibly protruding or any bag bulging. She was a pro and I was her best fan though she probably didn’t know that.
As the cashier began swiping my twenty-plus SKUs and placing them on the conveyor belt to Betty Bagger I pushed the cart up to where she stood and handed her the three bags I had brought from home, ones she had packed for me before.
“Hello, I’ve brought some bags to reuse. Good for the environment, don’t you think?”
She nodded while focusing on her art of packing.
I was now ready to make my bold move. I placed a twenty dollar bill on the packing surface by her hand.
She looked up at me. Squarely in the eyes. “I can’t take that. It’s against policy.” Spoken in a rising voice, bigger than I imagined she could possibly have. Not the response I had hoped for.
The cashier, who was beginning to check the items of the customer behind me in line, looked over at us. Focusing first on Betty to make sure she understood what was happening and then on me.
“Sir, you can not do that. Safeway has a rule. No employee can take money or any gift from a customer.” Her eyes told me she meant it.
There was an instant of silence as I worked on my response. I was angry and embarrassed.
“This woman makes my visits here happier. She makes me smile as I watch her do her job. Tell Safeway that.”
I turned without a look at Betty and with a kick in my step pushed the cart with my bags out the door.
Wednesday, March 8, with the numbers of confirmed cases doubling every day I returned to Safeway mainly to see whether Betty Bagger would react, or not react, to my presence. The irrelevant thought of the prescience the founders had to name this supermarket Safeway. Safe Way. Followed by followed by another thought: Corona beer.
Covid-19 was daily gaining mind share.
Pushing my cart through the aisles I glanced at the checkout counters but didn’t see Betty. Maybe she was on break. I knew she worked on Wednesday, the day I most often shopped.
What I found in the aisles was sobering. No toilet paper or paper towels. The section with pasta: spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni, and linguine completely empty. When I reached the refrigerated area where milk is located, always row after row of cartoned milk, I took the last two cartons.
There were at least 15 shoppers in front of me in each of the four checkout lines. Every customer cart was overflowing with food and household items. Shoppers shocked, stocking up for the long run. Two young men were doing the bag packing, moving quickly between the four counters.
Twenty minutes later I reached the cashier and said, “How are you holding up?” She said, “OK. Thanks for asking.”
With a blithe look and casual voice, I said, “I haven’t seen that nice lady who usually packs my bags.”
The cashier looked at me for a long second and said, “I haven’t either.”
Can any good come from this pandemic?
First, given the reality that the world population is living longer and that the cost to younger citizens to financially support the social entitlements of their parents and grandparents increases, it might be good if many more elderly who are seriously ill be left to die now. Ignoring, for the sake of making this point, that the financial impact from COVID-19 is serious and would seemingly worsen as more people die, the future for the non-old if millions of already seriously ill die from the virus, the world for our young and society might be more secure.
The second good thing might be (particularly given the US increasing decline in education scores) the elimination of live sporting events from TV would free up for millions enough time to read a book, take an online course in some field of learning, explore a new meaningful hobby, and/or stop for a moment and think about life, what’s important, what to learn more about anything.
Third and related to college education: finally the creeping pace to more distance learning, more online study might get a boost now that schools everywhere are closed and more students of all ages are learning to learn this way.
Concomitant with this reality is that colleges are already facing declining enrollments and/or reductions in tuition. Why? The value of a four year college education is declining because the cost is rising much faster than inflation which means liberal arts, or “soft” degrees are not generating salaries relative to other major degrees they once did. Colleges have brought this on themselves by presidents and trustees unable to manage costs—-mostly the rising pay of professors and excessive staff that does not improve the product.
So ironically, many colleges may be saved by having to seriously create online classes and to finally streamline the inflation of their operating expenses.
Third, though likely a short term good from the virus, is an improvement in air quality which reduces the CO2 and other noxious particulates that are polluting the atmosphere, and therefore the planet. So many fewer vehicles and airlines operating today.
Finally, no mass shootings and virtually no crimes. That’s real good.