Across sudden fissures of social distance, how do we speak to each other?
Last weekend my wife mentioned that our old Highlander was within 500 miles of needing an oil change. What with all the businesses shutting down for the duration, I decided to nip out to Grease Monkey, along with the other not-actually-panicking, not-quite-hoarding errands on my list.
I pulled up to the service bays and sat in the shade of a bright winter morning, watching the three guys work on two cars ahead of me. Two were hooded and zipped against the chill, their hands in plastic gloves. But one dude wore jeans, a cutoff-sleeve muscle shirt and bandana headband — a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Sly Stallone. He perched on the running board of an F-250, leaning in to wipe the inside of its windshield with a rag extended from his bare fingers, one leg extending straight back, almost yoga-like, for balance. His head craned back to inspect the upper corner, breath fogging the cold glass. A weekend ago I’d have thought, “artful attention to detail.” This weekend I thought, “contagion.”
One of the other guys walked over. “Oil change today?”
“Yeah. But you can skip the interior cleaning. Just the engine service is fine.”
He shrugged. “OK.”
I got out of the car and went into the waiting room, using a paper towel I’d brought for the purpose to open the door. Nobody was in there, so I found myself guiltily spying on Bruce through the countertop window, making sure he’d gotten the memo about no interior cleaning.
He came through the back door. “They told me you don’t want any cleaning or vacuuming?” I nodded. “Suit yourself.” I could tell he was pissed. I thought, he’s probably one of those folks on the other side of the NPR poll I just read about, who doesn’t think this is serious, who thinks we are all overreacting. And on top of that, there’s this social taint: that I’m a rich guy, treating him and his business as unclean.
I decided I would not leave these things unsaid.
A few minutes later he walked back in to ring me up. His affect flat, he went through the checklist of services performed: oil, filter, coolant, washer fluid — oops, there it was, no windshield or vacuum, “per customer request” — he read it out, as ironic as the leash of customer relations would allow.
I stopped him. “Yeah, sorry for the paranoia about that. This coronavirus thing is making us all crazy, huh? Are you getting a lot of that?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, they’re telling us we’ve got to be super careful.”
His mask dropped. “The whole thing just pisses me off. I’m not afraid to travel. I’m not afraid of any of this. But I can’t go see my dad, and he’s in a nursing home. I can’t go see my dad.”
“God, I’m so sorry. Where is he?”
“He’s in New Jersey. I just want to go see him, you know?”
“I’m really, really sorry about your dad.” I paid, using my bare fingers on the pinpad of his card reader, making a mental note to use the wipes I have stashed in the car. He stapled my receipt.
“Well. Thanks for coming in. Have a nice day.” Still a hint of go-fuck-yourself. But maybe not so much.
Last week I’d have considered myself batshit crazy to act that way at a Grease Monkey. Now I worry the Governor will shut the place down. That guy won’t be seeing his dad anytime soon — to be honest, maybe ever. Whatever worries I’m juggling right now don’t compare with that. So maybe giving him a pass for being hostile is part of my job right now. But as I replay the scene, I’m still not going to let him wipe my windows.