Yesterday I met an elderly man in the supermarket parking lot. He was loading his car, I was loading mine. He wore a surgical mask. So did I.
Beneath his mask all I could see were his bushy, white eyebrows, with stray hairs that grew 8 feet long and curled sideways like little corkscrews from hell.
Do me a favor. When I get old, if my eyebrows look like this, tie me down and take the horse clippers to me.
Anyway, my new elderly friend was very nice. He was telling me about his childhood during the 1940s. The Great Depression had just ended in the U.S. But not entirely. You don’t just snap your fingers and say, “Depression’s over!”
His family lived in mountains of North Alabama. They were poor. They used outhouses. He and his brother hauled drinking water from the creek because they couldn’ t pay their water bill. And life kept getting worse.
His mother got sick. His baby brother died. His father left for California to find work and never came back. These were not hard times. These were horrible times.
“Listen,” the old man said, “after growing up the way I did, I figured out the trick to finding happiness. Care to guess what it is?”
No. I didn’t. Because my carton of ice cream was about to melt.
He went on, “The only way to be happy is to be unhappy.”
I had to rub my chin for a second before making a profound and thoughtful remark: “Do what?”
The old man told me that the Great Depression made him a happy man. Not at first. But when it was over, it was pure euphoria. Good jobs were suddenly available, money was better, the War had finally ended. Everyone kissed the ground and thanked the sky.
“You can’t appreciate spaghetti and meatballs until you’ve had to live on ketchup soup,” he said.
I nodded and pretended like I understood him, but I didn’t. Alas, I am not the sharpest spork in the drawer.
We bid each other goodbye, he wished me a happy Fourth of July and crawled into a ratty car with bald tires. His son was driving. After they puttered away I was left standing in a cloud of blue exhaust.
Ever since then I’ve been thinking about what he said. And I wonder if he’s right. Maybe I’ve been looking at this whole coronavirus thing wrong.
So I did a little research. Here is what I found:
In the last four months, bicycle sales have been sky high. The highest in fifty years. Bikes are selling like hotcakes. There are bicycle shortages all over the nation.
I called a big bike shop in a big city. I talked to a guy over the phone.
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s been a crazy good year for us. We get a lotta young people who wanna get out into the real world, and nature, and quit playing on their phones so much.”
Ah, yes. Cellphones.
You’d think with everyone being trapped inside that phone usage would be up. And according to cellphone company records, usage is up. But not like you think. People are making more phone calls to Mom and Dad.
So then I interviewed several parents about their kids’ cellphone usage. One woman said this:
“Normally in our neighborhood, kids are always glued to their screens, but not this summer. We’ve had neighborhood baseball and football. Lately, my son forgets to take his phone with him. It’s a miracle, really.”
Here are a few other ways that the pandemic has changed people’s routines:
Erin, in New Jersey, says she has cooked supper in her own kitchen for 133 days, consecutively. She admits, “We have saved a LOT of money just by not eating out.”
Sue, in West Virginia, said that since the quarantine, her family has been eating dinner each night together around the table.
What a novel idea.
My friend in Oklahoma City said he lost his job when the lockdown started. Unemployment depressed him at first, but after a few months, something weird happened. His blood pressure went down.
Pretty soon, the doctor took him off his medication. He’s working part-time from home now.
“I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said.
Kyle, in Virginia Beach, has lost 30 pounds since the quarantine began. Ashley, in Chicago, has taken up jogging.
My friend Allen gave up drinking. And if you knew Allen, this would shock you. Especially if you once saw Allen drink gin out of his own shoe on New Year’s Eve.
Almost everyone I interviewed admits that they have grown closer to their immediate families.
Some of the other things I’ve heard:
“I have more time to go on walks.”
“I hang out with my kids a lot more.”
“I’ve been reading books non-stop.”
Reading books might sound like a small thing, but I can relate to this one. Four months ago, I was too busy working to read through “Cat in the Hat.” But during these last months I actually read a few books. It’s the most fun I’ve had in years.
So I don’t know. Even though this has been a hard year for me; even though I’ve been bored; even though I’ve been downhearted and in need of electro-shock therapy; even though it has seemed like this entire world was falling apart at the hinges; something inside me says that an elderly man I once met was telling the truth.
Still, I hope my eyebrows never look like his.