Riding home on the subway the other day – or the tube, as the Brits call it – I collided into one of those situations that forces you to choose between humanity and self-preservation. It happened on London’s Jubilee Line, while my daughter and I were returning from her orthodontist appointment.
We had boarded at the Canary Wharf station, and grabbed a couple nice end seats in the nearly empty car, away from everyone else, because that’s what you have to do here in London, which is on coronavirus lockdown again (and again, and again, and again). There’s a particularly bad variant of the virus going around now – deadlier and more contagious than previous strains.
The coronavirus, to put it bluntly, has been kicking the crap out of the UK, even with a recent slowdown in cases and deaths. The UK has been one of the worst countries on earth in terms of how it has handled the pandemic. This isn’t my opinion. This has been measured and quantified, using metrics such as fatality rate, government response, and access to vaccines. The U.S. is also one of the worst, by the way.
Because London has been hit so hard by the coronavirus, we tend to avoid public transit these days. You’d be hard pressed to find a better environment for the coronavirus to spread than in a bus or subway car. But sometimes you can’t avoid it. In this case, I just wanted the subway ride to be over as quickly as possible, and with as few people around us as possible.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. At the next stop, Canada Water, a man came into our car and planted himself right in front of my daughter and I. His face mask was pulled down, and he addressed the few passengers in the car. He introduced himself as a homeless man and army veteran. You see this occasionally, homeless people addressing passengers on the tube lines and asking for money.
Now, I’m usually a pretty soft touch in these situations. When I have coins, I’m pretty quick to part with them for homeless people (and bear in mind, coins over here in the UK can be the equivalent of one or two dollars in the States). But I didn’t have any coins at the moment, and anyway I didn’t want to engage with anyone. So I sat still while the man did his thing. I wasn’t happy that he picked this spot to hang out, right in front of my daughter and I, in the middle of a pandemic, the severity of which we are reminded of daily by the various news sites. But I figured he’d move along soon enough, so I just sat tight.
But he stayed there, right in front of us, maybe two feet away. This is when my coronavirus paranoia began to dissolve into frustration. I felt bad for the guy, but he was not social distancing. He was not wearing his mask properly. He was speaking in a loud voice, which meant that whatever germs were in his mouth were now traveling into an enclosed subway car. I began to worry that my daughter and I were being exposed.
I waited for the man to move on, and then waited some more. Waited and waited. He stayed right there in front of us, giving his speech. Finally, I had to weigh whether to sit tight and potentially expose us to the coronavirus, or move to another part of the car and probably offend the man.
I chose the latter. I got up and told my daughter we were moving to the other end of the car. I did so without thinking or caring anymore whether the man got offended. I just wanted my daughter and I to be out of harm’s way. I suppose I was adamant enough about it that it caught the man’s attention.
This is probably a good time to point out that I’m an older father with pre-teen kids. I graduated high school in 1977, so you do the math. Ever since the coronavirus descended on our little globe, I’ve been extra careful about not being exposed to it. Age-wise, I fall into one of the at-risk groups, even though I’m in decent physical condition with no other health risks. My reasoning was simple: I didn’t want to risk leaving my kids fatherless at a young age because I didn’t take all the proper precautions.
Anyway, by the time we moved to the other end of the subway car, the homeless man moved along with us. He repeated his speech there, glancing at me every now and then. When the train finally made our stop, he looked at me and told me it was very rude what I did, he’d served his country for seven years, he was homeless, and he doubted I would have acted that way if he wasn’t homeless. He was wrong, though. He could have been Prince Charles and I would have done the same thing. That’s how paranoid I am of the coronavirus over here.
Now that he had confronted me, I had another choice to make. Should I answer the man and expose my American accent, which would probably leave some people tsk-tsk-tsking about those rude and spoiled Americans? Or remind him that there’s a shitkicker of a pandemic going around right now, and I don’t want to catch it, and I don’t want my daughter to catch it, either?
Again, I did the latter. I told the man I was sorry about his situation, but he was right there in front of us, not two feet away, not social distancing, not wearing his mask properly, when the whole UK has been in another miserable lockdown for weeks and weeks because this coronavirus keeps spreading and spreading. I doubt he heard me, because he didn’t stop insulting me long enough to listen. Then he went his way and we went ours.
It was a tough scene – not least because my daughter was there to witness it, and I didn’t want her getting the wrong idea. After we exited the subway station I had to explain to her that I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of the homeless. I have plenty of sympathy for them, as we all should. But we’re in the middle of pandemic, and London is one of the worst hit. There’s a bad variant going around, and I was just not going to sit there and risk being exposed to it even if it meant offending the man. Sometimes you just have to take care of yourself. Period, end of story.
I think she understood. I hope so, anyway.
This is what much of the world has been reduced to – having to choose between offending someone who’s down on his luck, or avoiding a potentially deadly virus. We’re reminded of the danger daily through news about caseloads and death counts. We are told over and over to keep six feet apart, avoid public spaces, wear a mask – wear two masks, because now the virus is even stronger.
Man, it’s so exhausting. This is the third lockdown we’ve had in London in less than a year. Stores are closed, restaurants are closed, pubs are closed, businesses are going under by the hundreds, travel is restricted, kids are home schooling, anyone who can is working remotely, the NHS and the hospitals are overwhelmed, senior centers are devastated, the vaccinations are not being administered fast enough to keep up with the new variant, so you’re ordered to stay at home except in special circumstances.
One of those special circumstances is exercise, and many of us take advantage. I personally get out on my bike five or six times a week and pass by many other cyclists and joggers. I ride by businesses that have shuttered – businesses we used to frequent, owned by real people who worked real hard, only to see that hard work collapse under the weight of the pandemic and the ensuing restrictions put in place to end the pandemic, which never seem to work over here.
I ride by churches, and there are a quite a few of them in London. One thing I’ve noticed is an uptick in the number of funerals over the past few months. This is not my imagination. The Catholic church my wife and daughters attend is near our home. I ride by it almost every day. There seems to be a funeral a week there now when I’m out on my bike. That never happened before the coronavirus hit.
I ride by apartment buildings and businesses where the trash and recycling have begun to pile up because the trash collection services are short of people. I recently read where around 30 percent of trash collection workers in our borough are either sick or isolating at home. I have no idea when the next collection will be, and neither does anyone else.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to this problem. It’s a complicated one, with many moving parts. The best minds in the world can’t even get a handle on it. I keep reminding myself that we’re among the lucky ones. We can work from home without losing our income. We have enough space in our home to keep from driving each other crazy. Our kids are safe here. Better yet, they are with us, during years that go by way too fast. We have precious time with them that we would not ordinarily have.
At the same time, I wonder why the UK keeps running into the same problem, over and over again. A spike in cases, a lockdown, a slowdown in cases, an end to the lockdown, another spike in cases, another lockdown. I’m like anyone else. I want the world to return to normal. I want to go to pubs, eat out, travel. First-world problems, yes. Lots of people have it much worse. Duly noted.
But not everyone has it a lot worse. I’ve been watching the Australian Open tennis tournament the last couple of weeks, live from Melbourne (no spoilers! I’m recording it!). I’m looking at sunny, warm weather and lots of folks out there watching the tennis in that beautiful facility. Australia, along with its neighbor New Zealand, are among the countries that rank high in terms of handling the coronavirus. They came up with a plan early on and implemented it. They acted rather than reacted. I’m not sure what their secret elixir is.
But over here in the UK and the rest of Europe? It seems like perpetual lockdown, a perpetual stream of hospital overload and death. The health care workers deserve nothing but praise. The masses have largely done what they’ve been told. Those in charge of the response? I’m sure they’re doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances. Or maybe not. It might be years before we know the answer.
Anyway, I hope the homeless man on the subway got some money for his trouble. He and I would probably agree on most things. I’m sure he’s a good guy, in need of help. I know how hard it is to need help. I hope we cross paths again, in better circumstances.
Maybe I’ll slip him a ten-pound note, and tell him a story about a subway ride back when the world was off-kilter, and we were all in survival mode.