One Sunday afternoon in March of 1976, I ran into Dave. I was in a beer store in Durham, North Carolina, standing at the cash register, pocketing the change from my purchase, when this guy stepped up to the counter beside me. He looked familiar.
“Are you Dave?” I said.
He gave me a wary look, like maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t.
“Dave from Ireland?”
His face lit up. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m Dave from Ireland. Hey!”
We’d met hitchhiking two years before that, in May of 1974. I was in Ireland for a long weekend with two friends. Our plan was to bum around Dublin, check out the Abbey Theatre, drink some Guinness, and hitchhike around the countryside. Three people hitchhiking seemed problematic. It was safe; we were pretty sure of that. If you were in your 20’s and in Europe at that time, you hitchhiked. But would someone stop to pick up three people? We didn’t know where we were going, where we might get dropped off, and, if we separated, how or where we would meet up again. We decided we’d better stay together.
It wasn’t a long wait. South of Dublin a guy picked up all three of us. Then, twenty minutes down the road he stopped again and picked up another guy, who was hitchhiking by himself. Dave, it turned out, wasn’t going anywhere in particular either. When the driver found out we had no plans other than wandering around, he offered us his cottage on the Irish Sea for the night. We accepted. In another half hour we were there. He let us in, showed us around the place, told us to be sure to shut the door the next morning, and drove away. Late that afternoon it rained. It was a quick cloudburst. Shortly after, when we looked out over the water, a double rainbow appeared in the sky above the sea.
You don’t forget stuff like this. The ride, the rainbow, Dave.
And then, in Durham two years later, there he was again. What were the odds?
“Dogs,” I say to my wife.
We’re out before 7:00 a.m. this morning for our coronavirus walk. We walk early because we don’t want to see people. You see someone walking, running, or biking toward you, you have to share the sidewalk or the road. That and you have to pass through a briefly shared space, breathing in briefly shared air and who knows what’s in it. By now, our move is automatic. From the sidewalk we step down onto the road; if we’re on the road, we move to one of the shoulders.
It’s a courtesy that my wife feels should be reciprocal. And usually it is. People take turns yielding. When they don’t, she complains in Italian. She could have moved over. Does he have to run down the middle of the road? I love this sotto voce griping. It reminds me of her mother, who was also given to murmuring editorial comments. Same tone, barely audible, meant for no one in particular. What really sets my wife off are the runners, when they overtake us from behind, passing us within a few feet. She’ll break into English and yell after them, “Next time let us know! We’ll move over!” When I tell her people forget, she says well then they have to be reminded.
Worst of all–for her, anyway–are the dogs. Dogs take to me. And I like some of them. Passing by, they sometimes strain against the leash in our direction. One woman with a young Great Dane we’ve seen a few times can barely keep the beast in check. My wife sees these animals and thinks about the virus, about additional miasma. To her dogs are mobile devices broadcasting the contagion.
So this morning we’re out, and there’s a guy with two dogs coming at us. We slip off the edge of the sidewalk, down onto the road.
“Two, no less,” she says.
I ask if she really thinks dogs are carriers.
“I heard a report,” she says. “They interviewed Sanjay Gupta.”
It’s a seven mile walk we do 3-4 times a week. By the fifth mile we’re starting to slow down. We’re in the fifth mile.
“I think we’ve seen the last of the snow,” I say. June is cottonwood time. This year the fallout has been heavy. It’s a long, dreadful mess.
“Don’t be too sure,” she says.
There’s a lot of non-human life out these mornings. We see herons and ducks, deer with their fawns, foxes and rabbits; also the cottonwoods, big horrible beauties in full leaf and flurry mode. Today, for some reason, we’re not seeing rabbits. I mention that, and begin to sing, sotto voce, “Where have all the rabbits gone.” My wife does not join in. She is not a fan of singalongs. I continue, solo: “Long time passing.”
We’re coming to a spot where we’re likely to see deer.
“Look at that.” I point to a sign in front of a house. It takes up the whole front yard. Last week, same house, was a sign and balloons for their graduating senior in high school. The week before that, same house, a sign and balloons for their graduating fifth grader. Today no balloons. Just a sign: “Happy 55th birthday Mark.”
I tell my wife I thought it said Narc.
“Happy 55th Birthday Narc.”
“We need a good rain,” she says. “And wind. To finish off the cotton.”
I try to remember Sanjay mentioning dogs. I thought he said don’t worry about pets.
To get to Ireland, what we did that April was take the train from Birmingham to Holyhead. I was part of a group in Stratford on Avon for a month, reading Shakespeare, seeing plays, and learning to love warm English beer. On a Friday night we took a bus to Birmingham to see George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell” at the Birmingham Repertory Theater. From there it was a three-hour train ride to Holyhead, where the three of us boarded a ferry, crossing the Irish sea at night to Dublin. The passage took six hours. This was before the Internet, before cell phones. Around 3:00 a.m. word on the ferry began to circulate: three car bombs had exploded in Dublin. There were a lot of dead.
When the ferry docked the next morning, the scene was total panic. It was overcast, the start of a rainy day. We sat in a pub at the station, drank tea and ate a bite of breakfast. What did Yeats say? “A terrible beauty is born.” We watched a stricken city react to a terrorist attack. It was not beautiful. The safest thing to do, we decided, was to get out of town.
“You’re cavalier,” my wife says.
I tell her I am not cavalier.
“When you talk to people,” she says, “you get too close. You almost shook hands with Jeff yesterday. Thank God he stepped back from you.”
Jeff, a guy we know from church. When we walked past his house, he was taking the garbage out, wearing one of his crisply pressed white dress shirts, bermuda shorts, and sneakers. I hadn’t seen him in weeks. Make that months. I thought it was funny, the white shirt, and in the moment I forgot all about maintaining distance.
“I just think you take things to extremes,” I say. Adding, “I’m still in the forgetting stage.”
“You have to remember.”
“I don’t think dogs are carriers.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I don’t think the air on Echo Road is contaminated by runners running.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I think stepping off the sidewalk onto the road might expose us to greater risk than being a little distant on the sidewalk. We could turn our backs, breathe away from who’s coming.”
“It’s easier to go the road.”
“Pedestrians get hit by cars,” I say. “People are on their way to work. They’re on edge, they’re distracted. We got honked the other day.”
“We did get honked,” she says.
We walk. I hum a little more about rabbits.
“You can see a car coming,” she says. “You can’t see virus.”
Up to now, scientists and safety-minded people have not taken much interest in the risk of crossing the street. There’s not a lot of data. What are the odds of this data deficit changing? Less than one in a million, I would guess. Probably far lower.
Fortunately John Spouge, a risk assessment specialist in Great Britain, has inquired into the matter and finds that in all of Britain, 316 people were killed crossing the street in 2013. That’s a 1 in 200,000 chance, which really gives one pause. If it’s that dangerous, I should have been paying closer attention. But digging deeper into the matter, Spouge considers how many streets per day the average person crosses (3.9 in the city of Northampton) and finds the daily risk to be around 1 in 300 million.
Risk, I’ve learned, can be gauged in micromorts (not to be confused with petit morts, by which the French mean orgasm). A micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. Want to spend your day mountaineering in the Himalayas? That’s 12,000 micromorts. Giving birth? 170 micromorts. Getting out of bed at age 75? 105 micromorts. Using heroin, 30; skydiving, 10; traveling 1000 miles by air, 1 micromort; close encounter with a kangaroo, .1 micromort.
Academic physicist David Roberts has applied the micromort scale to CDC coronavirus statistics. At the height of the outbreak in Michigan in March and April, Roberts scales that risk at 11 micromorts, about equivalent to the risk of riding a motorcycle 40 miles a day. In New York, during peak outbreak the risk increased by 50 micromorts. “The average American,” Roberts writes in the New York Times, “endures about one micromort of risk per day….[Fifty micromorts] means you are roughly twice as likely to die as you would have been if you were serving in the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan throughout 2010, a particularly deadly year.”
If you get infected with coronavirus, depending on your age, you gain (if that’s the proper word) an additional 10,000 micromorts of risk.
These data make the road sound more inviting.
When I look for solutions to the cottonwood problem–that is, what to do to get rid of all that fluff–I discover a fast and easy, if risky measure. Set the stuff on fire. That’s right. Cottonwood fluff is highly combustible. You take your gas grill lighter, strike a flame next to the stuff, and it burns hot and fast. It also dies as quickly as it lights. In the videos I watch, it’s as if the cotton was never there.
“Are you going to try it?” my wife says.
I tell her I’m thinking about it. I picture the lawn going up in flames, mulch catching on fire and spreading to our conifers. Aren’t they supposed to be highly flammable? She says maybe I can just sweep the stuff up. But that’s not a simple matter. It’s like sweeping feathers.
I give in to temptation and light up a little strip along the drive. It’s like magic. I decide I better think about it.
Later, on the bad news channel, which is every channel these days, I learn that the arctic is smouldering, a Sahara dust plume has traveled 5000 miles to reach the US, and murder hornets have come ashore in the US. The CNN wags are tossing around a term I do not like: second wave. They’re debating whether we’re in a second wave of the outbreak or a resurgence of the first wave. While I watch, I sniff the air for the smell of smoke. I’m sure the fire was out. I get up, go to the front window, and look outside. I picture this headline: “Idiot burns house down lighting cottonwood fluff on fire.”
What are the odds? I’m sure there’s no micromort data on death in a blaze of cottonwood fluff. But I also know the craziest things can happen. Dave in a beer store. A guy willing to pick up four hitchhikers. A double rainbow.
You never can tell. That may be the only thing you can be sure of.