An anthem of my student days — the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” — has blasted back into my consciousness, making me long for “same as it ever was.”
I’m a reporter at the Houston Chronicle. On March 3 — a lifetime ago — I published my first COVID-19 story: A Q&A with Peter Hotez, a Houston-based vaccine researcher with a gift for explaining science in plain English. “The bow tie guy,” my editors call him.
Hotez warned that the situation was fluid, that everything he said could seem out of touch in five or 10 days. Judging from what he’d seen thus far in Seattle and Wuhan, China, he said we should think about precautions to protect health care workers and elderly people in skilled nursing facilities.
But with no evidence that the virus was in the Houston area, he recommended that Houstonians continue going about their daily activities — maybe stock up their pantries as they would for a hurricane. His wife, Ann, had put a couple of extra Trader Joe’s tikka masalas in their freezer, he said, but otherwise, his own life was normal. He and Ann were still going out for sushi. After that story came out, a co-worker told me he thought Hotez was an alarmist. It was a more innocent time. Forever ago.
Now, I write a COVID-19 column for the Chronicle. It’s a temporary gig with no end in sight.
In these weird, weightless days, my brain keeps playing the Talking Heads. Searching my note-
book for a pandemic expert’s quote: “And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?” Waiting for the next Zoom meeting to start: “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down.” Setting up my “podcast studio” — the bedroom closet — to interview a Rice professor about voting in the age of COVID-19: “Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground.”
I imprinted on “Once in a Lifetime” in the mid-1980s when I was an undergrad and the Talking Heads seemed to be the unofficial band of Rice. In my memory, “Once in a Lifetime” was always blasting from some balcony at Sid Rich, echoing off Will Rice: dance music that questioned the nature of reality.
We quoted the song constantly — more than Shakespeare, more than Monty Python. “This is not my beautiful house! … This is not my beautiful wife!” summed up our feelings about entering the responsible adult world. As soon as those “Once in a Lifetime” college years were over, we knew the underground flow of life would hold us down, carry us away. Sure enough, the days went by. Alumni Classnotes indicate that we turned out fine, mostly: jobs and families, houses and vacations.
I’m married, with grown kids and a ranch house. Until March, it all seemed real enough. But now, on my mental auto play, “Once in a Lifetime” is as inescapable as it was at Rice. Wondering what I’d do if I lost my job: “Into the blue again after the money’s gone.” As my son and I discuss the potential danger of entering a grocery store: “Am I right? Am I wrong?” As I wonder whether it’s Saturday or Tuesday: “Time isn’t holding up. Time isn’t after us.”
At Rice, I dreaded letting the days go by, entering that underground flow. Now it’s that day-to-day normalcy that I miss. I want the world to be the “same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”
The Tuesday after publishing the Hotez interview, I went into the office at 7:30 a.m. That early, I wasn’t surprised that nobody was there. I walked past a reporter’s desk wrapped in yellow police tape. A prank, I figured. Maybe it was her birthday; maybe one of the cop reporters had scavenged a roll. I rubbed on hand sanitizer, then booted up my laptop.
An all-staff email from the Chronicle’s editor-in-chief bore a subject line in nothing-to-see-here lowercase letters: “coronavirus update: work at home.” The week before, he wrote, four of our reporters had attended a New Orleans conference. Another attendee had just been diagnosed. None of our reporters remembered having been near that person — but it was possible that they had, so they’d been asked to self-quarantine. For safety’s sake, he was closing the office to all but a handful of people. Hardly anyone else in Houston had sent workers home at that time. I considered what I needed to take home for the duration, folded up my laptop and headed back to my car.
I work mostly at my dining room table now, alone but not alone. I’m on the phone, Facebook, Slack, Zoom, email, Twitter. It’s intense. I’ve talked to people who’ve lost their jobs. To people who’ve been furloughed. To a primary care doctor collecting masks for other doctors. To the guy who had to scold a food delivery volunteer for allowing a grateful, lonely old woman to hug him.
A hyperorganized single mother of three told me how she’s home schooling while continuing to work. Her 3 year old keeps asking whether the “bad germs” are gone yet.
An Alcoholics Anonymous member, separated and maybe headed for divorce, told me how depressed he is.
A man told me about a conversation with his dad, an avid Houston Chronicle reader. They were idly discussing the news of the day, wondering whether this “coronavirus thing” would blow over. Two weeks later, his dad died alone in an isolation unit dedicated to COVID-19.
Recently, I asked an infectious disease expert how we should prepare to go back into the world now that Texas is beginning to reopen. She said the things we’ve heard a hundred times before, the things that now seem like eternal truths: Stay home if you can. If you must go out, wear a mask. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.
I stay home. I wash my hands. The song in my head is not “Happy Birthday” — “Water dissolving and water removing,” David Byrne yelps — but 20 seconds pass anyway. Then 20 minutes. Then 20 days.
Texas’ reopening hasn’t changed my family’s housebound lives. As much as I miss restaurants and the beach, the experts have made me leery. But occasionally, in fits and starts, time seems to be moving again. We’re establishing a household rhythm, my back-to-the-nest adult kids, my husband and I. My son has online classes. My daughter has set herself a strict schedule: a certain time for exercise, a certain time for job hunting. I take weekends off now. Every two weeks, there’s an Instacart grocery delivery. And every day there’s happy hour, dinner and watering the garden.
It’s a long way from the “same as it ever was, same as it ever was.” But I’ve stopped waiting for the old daily routines to carry me away. The new world is establishing itself. The days go by.
Lisa Gray ’88 is a reporter and columnist for the Houston Chronicle, and like everyone else on the planet, she’s working on a podcast. Listen to her Fridays on Coronavirus Chronicle.