Fake Plastic Tree

I soaked up this recent essay by Karen Russell — she is the only writer I know who can fit Shakespeare, parenting, the murmuration of birds and the coronavirus pandemic into the same essay. Karen is a stellar writer and has been a great supporter of the Street Books project, (she spoke at our fundraiser last September with her new baby daughter strapped to her chest). She sent me a recent picture of that girl, now something like 8 months old and it’s clear she is a bright little spark. As I admired that photo I thought, if only I could combine the essence of Karen Russell’s delicious chunk of smiling baby with the video of my 3-year-old niece singing “You Are My Sunshine” and put it in a plastic bag and huff it until the pandemic is over. There would be some relief.

The only person I ever spent time with who actually huffed glue is Mauricio, a kid I met when I lived in Cuenca, Ecuador. He slept on the banks of the Rio Tomebamba near my apartment and sometimes in the mornings I’d look down from the verandah above the river and see him there, still curled on his side in sleep. He was grimy and vague and pleasant, all of 14 or 15 years old. He told me he’d come from Guayaquil on the coast. I was still learning Spanish then but even I could tell that his coastal accent seemed to leave off the second part of most words, different than the in-land Spanish I heard in Cuenca. Mauricio appeared in my life during a time when I felt acutely lonesome. My sidekick Ben and I had worked and saved money to move to Ecuador for six months so we could write novels. But once we’d settled in the little apartment above the river, Ben hunkered down to write each morning in our bedroom and I found that after a couple of hours tapping at the borrowed typewriter (from Giovanni, the upstairs neighbor who had a German Shepherd called Lobo), a great restlessness would come over me and I would wander outside, up the stairs of the Escalinata, and into the old city. Mauricio sometimes walked with me. Once, at Parque Calderon in front of the Cathedral, he showed me how to carry my 35 mm camera cradled at my ribs instead of hanging behind me like a messenger bag. Ladrones, he warned. Another time, we sat together in the park and he looked at my mp3 player on the bench between us and said in Spanish, I want that. I said, No, por favor. We sat waiting to see what he would decide. In the end, he left it there. That mp3 player was what I used to listen to Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees on repeat. The following week I brought an extra pair of headphones for Mauricio so he could listen to his transistor radio but he told me it had been stolen.

Right now in Mauricio’s hometown of Guayquil there are bodies in the streets because the cases of covid-19 deaths have overwhelmed that system, as happened in Italy when coffins piled up faster than they could be collected. It’s ravaging the poor there the same way it is in U.S. cities like Detroit and New Orleans. I read the news, absorb the stories of the ill and dying, pictures of bodies on the steps of churches, and then my brain does a cognitive veer. Huff the picture of Karen Russell’s baby or a picture of my baby nephew with his first Easter basket, his mouth full of crackers. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Then read about the doctors in New York and their lack of protective gear. Back to the photo of my niece with her collection of stuffed animals. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Then back to articles about what our lives could look like on the other side of a pandemic, should we be among the lucky survivors of this time.

It turns out the video from my favorite Radiohead song takes place in a supermarket, of all places, with the lead singer Thom Yorke and bandmates being pushed around in a shopping carts. It’s a strangely perfect video for this time: the aisles are spooky and people hurry about, maintaining a safe distance from each other. There’s a solitary woman who sits down in a lawn chair, a brief shot of twin babies and later, a woman in a large-brimmed black hat. That’s mostly the video right there. People looking worried and moving about, apart from one another.

Underneath it all, the same lonesome song.

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