I took my first post-pandemic trip recently, visiting family in Florida and Missouri, and promptly got sick. That freaked me out more than a little, although I tested negative for the coronavirus, but it also reminded me of what it was like to be sick at all.
I’ve been so isolated that I hadn’t even had a mild cold since 2019. This one was a payback, a virus that circulated through all the fun spots in my head — eyes, nose, ears, sinuses and throat — taking a swing at each. And it reminded me that travel is still a risk.
The airports I visited, especially in Tampa, were basically germ factories. Tampa was jammed to the walls with delayed travelers, many showing their machismo or superior health care knowledge by wearing chin diapers or nothing at all. The flight from Tampa to St. Louis featured an attendant reminding us over the PA not once, not twice, but three times to raise our masks — the last time noting that passengers agreed to do this as part of buying a ticket. (Interestingly, on the flight from St. Louis to DC, an attendant came on to think everyone for not having to be nagged about the face masks. She was obviously unaccustomed to this.)
Airports are just a creepy mess now. Airlines can’t handle the traffic they’re getting, but that’s not stopping them from taking everyone’s money, and that pent-up wanderlust coupled with unvaccinated kids and chosen-to-be-unvaccinated adults is a bad combo platter. I’m flying again next month and I’m already plotting the ways I can reduce the misery. I’m not optimistic.
Sometimes I feel this little electrical vibration. It’s almost like a hum or crackle, and it’s raw and I can feel it in my fingertips and toes. Honestly, I sense it a little bit everywhere — the feeling that everything has sort of gotten a lot better, but something almost indefinable is definitely still off.
And then I remember the still-ongoing pandemic. I’ve been vaccinated, as has my wife and most of my friends and pretty much everyone I know. Face masks are disappearing, we’ve hit up our favorite bars again and I’ve played a gig. My wife is back in her office after a transition of zero days because her corporate CEO is convinced of the power of all the personal interaction without any sort of transition, which is a very ivory tower thing to think. We’re going to fly to two states to see family later this month, which will mark the first time we’ve been on a plane since November 2019. I went to a ball game Friday that was 90 percent like any other ball game I’ve gone to in my life. And the whole time, I’m still wondering: What the hell just happened?
That’s usually when the crackle shows up. There’s all of this normalcy and near-normalcy while only about half of the population has been vaccinated, and it’s entirely possible we’ll be battling COVID for the rest of our lives. But it’s also as though life took a long, long breather and has now fired up where it left off. For example, I’m getting ready to go to Vegas in August with my longtime Vegas boys’ crew as though nothing has happened, and this feels like something I need to do. But there’s a nagging guilt: Is returning to Real Life an insult to those who died or got severely ill? (There’s that crackle again.)
I’ve lived a lucky life. There’s been no real long-term, sacrifice-causing war since Vietnam, and that ended when I was a kid. 9/11 was off the charts, sure, but this pandemic is the only national event that has caused truly mass death in my entire life. Still, no one close to me died during this and only a couple got sick. We kicked that ridiculous fool out of the White House. There is reason for optimism, even pure hope.
But I feel that vibration, and I suspect it will be a long time before it calms down.
Back in the days when I played only in blues bands, I wanted to be James Harman because James Harman was cool. He was an Alabama-born singer, songwriter and harp player, and unlike most of the latter people, he wasn’t all about the harp. Now, he had enormous, fantastic tone, but like a lot of my favorites, the tone supported the song instead of the other way around. And he could flat-out sing. Even when he got old, he was cool as hell as he shifted to a big ol’ beard and a fez on stage. James Harman had style.
I loved a lot of his songs and played a few in various bands, but my cover of his “If the Shoe Fits, Wear It,” was my favorite. I liked it so much that I played and sang it at my wedding, even though the lyrics were not exactly of the type a freshly minted husband should be singing. But it didn’t matter.
Coolness radiated off of James Harman. He was friends with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (among many others) and if you heard a harp cut on a ZZ album, it was problably James. Phil Alvin and Bill Bateman left one of his bands to form The Blasters, and his bands backed dozens of classic bluesmen. Through it all was his punchy voice and his punchier harp, and I’ve stolen a lot of his riffs over the years.
But Harman fell on hard times. Thieves broke into his storage space a few years back and stole thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of vintage stuff, including his brownface Fender Vibroverb amps in custom cabinets with a 1×15 speaker that helped him generate his big, deep tone. His health declined. Gigs dried up. He was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in January and he died yesterday.
There hasn’t been that Eureka Moment for me since I became fully vaccinated, and now the CDC has waived mask use in most situations for people who have had their shots. I’m trying to lean into it but the leaning doesn’t feel so great yet.
So far: Went to a ball game (not a great experience when you’re by yourself right now). Went to a restaurant (outside). Went to a dockside bar (outside). Went to Target for the first time in 15 months. Jammed with my old band. Wore a mask for most of these experiences except when I was shoving stuff in my face. Wouldn’t mind waiting a few more weeks to see what the data looks like before I drop my guard completely.
But this summer, I have trips to see family in two recalcitrant vaccination locales, go to Vegas with my Vegas crew and visit the Outer Banks. None of these are likely to involve much mask usage except when I’m on a plane, and I suspect even that won’t be mandatory once we get past July or so. I sure hope the CDC is right.
I remember the hopelessness I felt about a year ago at this time. There was a raging virus circulating that had no cure or effective treatment; it was spreading uncontrollably; our government efforts were being undermined by toadies and incompetents, led by a president who talked of injecting bleach or shining ultraviolet light into your body as treatments; and I despaired. I couldn’t believe any of it — that I was in an actual global pandemic, that my life plans were going down the dumper, that so many of the things I took for granted were now gone.
One thing I definitely did not expect was that there would be an effective vaccine — heck, a number of them — less than a year later. I’ve spent a few years editing health care news and am familiar with how long it typically takes to develop vaccines, even when everything went right and the effort was well-funded. The gap ranges from several years to never. I put my thin hopes into the development of an effective treatment instead.
Yet here I am, two weeks after receiving the second dose of the remarkably effective Pfizer vaccine, and I now am considered fully vaccinated. I doubt most of us will ever truly understand what a miracle this is, especially given the stunning first-pass effectiveness of this and a number of its alternatives. It’s unprecedented and it’s saved millions of lives already.
This pandemic is far from over, of course. Most of the world has no access to a vaccine yet, and a pretty good chunk won’t have it at this time next year, either. But its deepest, darkest dangers are probably over for me, at least for now. I lived through a pandemic.