Thursday March 26: where there’s smoke there’s fire…or virus
Pandemics have a way of changing what is normal/natural. Take the witching hour, a mythy time when supernatural spirits roam freely doing mischief. Over the course of human history different times of night have held the designation: midnight usually, but some hold it is the hour just after midnight. In European tradition, the hour between 3 and 4 a.m. was considered a period of peak supernatural activity due to the absence of prayers in the canonical hours.
The day before yesterday it rained and was cold and gray in San Francisco; our mouse-in-residence made his appearance, which only happens when the garden is wet. So yesterday when it cleared up and the sky was blue with big puffy inviting white clouds and a freshening breeze that rang the neighbor’s wind chimes, I made an on-the-spot decision to go for a run. I was between tasks and needed to install software updates and restart my computer anyway. I can now report that the witching hour – in San Francisco anyway – is definitely 5p, a time when all the folks newly working from home emerge from their home office lairs to get in a little exercise and nonsocial distancing mischief while they can still catch the light.
My daily run route is a four mile loop. My predilection for hills makes social distancing easy at the start, which begins with a long, steep hill that is usually devoid of foot traffic because long and steep. But halfway up, I noticed that the crosswalk at the top of the hill was busier than usual with people taking pictures of the view. This particular intersection is at the top of one of the highest of many high hills in San Francisco, and features views of the Palace of Fine Arts (pictured) and Alcatraz looking north, a eucalyptus forest under a great expanse of western sky looking west. Looking east, you can even see a sliver of the pretty new Bay Bridge.
To the irritation of local commuters, it is not uncommon to see a tourist stop their car right in the middle of the intersection, get out and stand there taking panoramic pictures, forgetting the rules of the road still apply to them, that unexpected beauty doesn’t give them a special dispensation. Yesterday on my run when I reached the intersection at the top of the hill there were at least a dozen people, about as surprising (and alarming) as coming home and finding a dozen neighbors just sitting in your living room with virus-y smiles. There were two guys doing wind sprints, a couple of dogs with owners on leash, a mom with a stroller, and several couples.
A quick assessment with my eyes reported there was more or less five feet of distance between each person; a quick assessment of my central nervous system reported that five feet is not enough in such a burgeoning crowd. If the rumor that police are ticketing noncompliant social distancers a minimum of $400 is true, this intersection was a potential hot bed of criminals. I quickly hooked a left and ran down the middle of the street, eschewing the sidewalks which were dotted with walkers.
At this point I should have probably run home, because for the rest of the run, sidewalk crowding was an everpresent concern requiring quick action. I hurdled hedges and leapt into bike lanes and crossed the street rather than pass another runner on particularly narrow stretches of sidewalk; for one quarter mile stretch, I crossed the street three times, once even scampering up someone’s front steps to give other walkers and runners their space. Things were going pretty well until I spotted a pair of women with a toddler in a stroller about fifty feet in front of me. Before I had a chance to cross the street, they turned into the crosswalk, crossing before me. Twenty feet away, the sound of the toddler’s voice wafted to me on the breeze…along with the unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke.
That was all it took to cut the run short and head back to the house. Was I being paranoid? I don’t know if coronavirus travels as easily through the air as secondhand smoke, but I was getting increasingly uncomfortable with the number of people I was seeing. Cyclists whizzed past and I wondered about the sweat flying off in their slipstream. Sooner or later I would not be able to serpentine away from a close encounter.
A quarter mile from home, I headed up the final short steep hill from the Presidio park to the street. At the halfway point, I saw two women enter the head of the path, one pushing a stroller. This section of sidewalk had barricades; to avoid the women, I’d have to climb a fence. Damn, I would have to pass within two feet of them. It wasn’t too late to turn around and take the path back down to the street and go the long way. But just as I turned, I heard a human exhalation: “Whoof!”
I gave a little shriek and jumped as a runner – a guy in his 30s, perspiring freely, big drops rolling down his face – huffed past me up the hill, no more than six inches between us. I gazed directly into the whites of his eyes, bulging with effort, as he passed. No longer seeing the point in going the long way, I headed up the path, watching as the ladies with the stroller shrank away from runner, giving him angry side-eyes. I averted my head as I meekly scurried past.
At the top of the hill, our hero stood with his hands on his knees, huffing and puffing in his recovery. Although he’d just passed me and was aware that the path would dump me onto the same sidewalk, he showed no awareness that I was drawing closer and closer, not even when he straightened from hands-on-knees posture to a hands-on-hips posture. With no bike lane and the road busy with traffic, I had no choice but to run right past him, with only a foot between us. I held my breath and sprinted past him, up the block, crossing the street two times to avoid walkers. It was a relief to run up my front staircase and I found that I was still holding my breath as I opened my front door, a phantom smell of cigarette smoke still in my nose. Stay well, friends.
Good things: after a two day absence Dr. Fauci returned to the podium during the daily White House coronavirus briefing
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