April 12, 2020
Patrick has been working from home for almost a month now. I’ve gotten used to waking up to the smell of coffee already brewing, the lights in the house already turned on, music or a podcast playing from the dining room. Patrick has set up his workspace in there: a laptop, a wireless mouse and keyboard, and a monitor he took home from the office. He didn’t bring his office plant home, since his boss told him not to make a big deal out of the work-from-home. Maybe it would only last a week. Maybe most people would still come into the office.
Now, a few weeks in, it’s obvious that hasn’t come true. So Patrick messages a co-worker who also has an office plant and, more importantly, makes occasional stops at the office for tasks that can’t be done from home. She promises to water his Christmas cactus the next time she’s there.
. . .
One morning, as I sit in the dining room drinking coffee, Patrick has his weekly conference call. “It’s starting,” he says, shutting his music off.
“Should I leave?” I ask.
“You don’t have to. I’m gonna be muted.”
“Oh, sweet. So they can’t hear us?”
“No. But I do need to, like, pay attention.”
“Ok.” I lean back in the rocking chair and continue sipping while the call begins.
People call in one by one, each with a beep that sounds like a walkie-talkie. Most of the voices are male, older, and somewhat gruff—unless that’s just another walkie-talkie effect.
One says, “I had trouble calling in this time. It had to call me like five times before I went through.”
Another: “The system. I think it’s overloaded. It takes forever sometimes.”
The voices identify themselves by name and location.
“Wait, that’s Tim, not Jim, right?”
“Wait, I heard another beep. Who just joined?”
Patrick sits in sweatpants and a T-shirt from high school that says Nosotros hablamos Español. ¿Y Tu? He glances from his phone, where the call is taking place, to his laptop, to his monitor screen and its wide display of endless spreadsheet columns and rows.
“Some of ‘em are moving their numbers around,” says a voice from the call. “They’ll make it up in May, June, July…”
“We all lived through 2008, 2009. But this just has a different feel to it.”
“The bottom just dropped out.”
Someone says, “We do have a lot of customers that are running hot and heavy.”
“I wanna be locked and loaded. I want everything rolled up as tight as we can.”
They call interns and employees bodies or heads. As in, “we need less bodies” and “how many heads can we cut?” They say “correct” instead of “right” or “yeah”. Patrick takes notes on a legal pad, bouncing his knee as he listens. Sometimes he highlights a spreadsheet column.
A voice crackles through. “Looks like they’re short another million dollars. I mean, somebody jump in here.”
. . .
We did live through 2008 and 2009. I was only a teenager then, at the mercy of larger, mostly inscrutable forces—banks and my parents. I remember those years in hazy pieces. Watching a leak in the corner of our dining room ceiling form and grow, the rain funneled through a black trash bag to dribble into a bucket. Wondering when we’d get the foreclosure notice. Saving babysitting money in an envelope, counting all of it out every time I added more. Getting the foreclosure notice. Burning decades’ worth of random papers in a fire Dad built in the metal tub from our old washing machine. Packing up all our stuff. Throwing stuff away. Mom had us drag big items to the curb at night, as if the foreclosure was a secret.
My parents eventually found a house to rent, and we moved our stuff there. During the week of the move, I had one last babysitting gig at a house on our now-former street. The parents came home around two in the morning. I walked across the street to our old house, where my dad was waiting to pick me up.
The city had cut down most of the big trees on our block a few years earlier, and all the streetlights seemed stark and bright. I walked up our driveway, past the mound of trash bags and random old shit on our curb, and unlocked the side door.
The house was almost completely dark. “Dad?” I called, and crept toward the living room. One light in the kitchen was on, casting pale yellowy light that made shadows look as tangible as dirty bathwater. I found my dad half asleep on the sagging floral couch, the only piece of furniture left in the room.
He woke up and we left. But a heavy feeling followed me from that last look at the house. It was spooky, like an old mansion left to ruin—except it had happened so quickly, and it wasn’t a mansion. It was just a little bungalow in Cleveland.
. . .
On a group chat with Patrick and me, Jake texts: The economy is collapsing and I have never been more busy.
The next day, he sends a gif with flashing block letters that say BORED.
Jake: It hasn’t even been a month yet. Feels like an eternity.
Patrick: Life is just an endless string of days with the only difference being whether or not I have to sit at my computer and work most of the day.
Jake: I miss being able to go to a different building to look at the work screen.
The conversation quickly turns to people we know who have been laid off or furloughed. Patrick’s salary has been cut, but not too badly. We won’t have to move; we have groceries and all the other necessary things; we’re still healthy. We try not to worry.
In those years of waiting for foreclosure, I used to dump my change jar and count it obsessively. Since then, I’ve done the same when I’ve been sleepless, wired, frustrated, at the frayed edge of anxiety. Late nights have found me on the floor, sorting coins into dollar piles. The chink of quarters to pennies is tangible. As if thirty dollars in change will stave off financial ruin, the jar’s total is always both meager and soothing.
I haven’t done this during the pandemic, though. It feels like whatever is coming will come, and it won’t be something we can save up for.