Day 11: Birthday

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Queen of England always manages to soothe me. I wish she were mine.

Queen Elizabeth posted an address to her nation today that was everything I realized I’ve been wanting to hear from my leaders: a calm, sober examination of the crisis we’re facing; gratitude for those working on the front lines to save the rest of us; acknowledgement of the sacrifices we’re all making simply by staying home; hope that this will end soon; and conviction that when it does, we will look back and be proud of what our time and our people achieved.

There was also a poignancy to her speech. Her son is fighting the coronavirus. Her prime minister, who might ordinarily have addressed the nation, just got admitted to the hospital with it. She never mentioned either of them. She understood that, whatever her personal challenges, they are no greater and therefore no more relevant than yours or mine.

I got out today for the first time in two and a half weeks (we made an emergency run to the vet — dog turned out to have eaten something funny, but she’s fine). As my daughter and I drove down Sepulveda Boulevard, I saw the challenges our society faces in ways that aren’t apparent walking around my residential neighborhood.

The darkened electronic billboard. Tattered pieces of paper, hanging off the edges of a different billboard stand, the fragments fluttering in the breeze. The empty Ross Dress for Less parking lot. The Zankou chicken restaurant, two customers standing in the back, all the chairs upside down on the tables at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Los Angeles, I thought, is a city waiting for its people to come back. It’s there, just on Sepulveda alone, enough buildings to house all the civilization anyone could think to request. And almost none of us are in almost any of them anymore.

You could say it’s like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie. But there were no monsters marching on the medians. The humans aren’t all dead. We’re just in our homes, terrified not of gruesome creatures, but of a tiny thing that even the keenest of human vision can’t glimpse.

But here are two things that are good. The people at the vet were kind and gentle with our labradoodle, Georgie. And across the nation, and up and down our street, people reached out to give our middle child one of the best birthdays he’s ever had.

My younger son turned 19 yesterday. He woke up to a video his older brother made, which was actually a compilation of about 40 shorter videos sent by the 19-year-old’s friends from high school, and from his buddies who go to college with him in the Midwest. One after the other, they told him how much they missed him, promised him they’d have fun together when they all got out, ordered him to stay healthy. One kid recorded on his phone as he was driving on an interstate (we got a view of the interstate, in case we had any doubts). Another played him “Happy Birthday” on the clarinet (my son’s a musician, in a music program). One of his best friends from high school, now living in Texas with his mom, teared up, wishing they could be together to celebrate.

At noon, a neighbor had Postmates deliver his favorite order from his favorite poke restaurant (shout out for Sea Salt Poke at Olympic and Sawtelle — the owner Russell gets up at 4 a.m. every day to pick the freshest fish from the fish market, and is just one of the best guys ever. Please consider supporting him with your orders.)

At 2 o’clock, his oldest buddy, a kid he’s known since preschool, came over to walk around the neighborhood, six feet apart.

And at 8 p.m., our entire family was summoned outside by the neighbors on our street, most of them in masks, all of them banging pots and pans. When our middle child emerged, they sang him “Happy Birthday” in the dark. No hand washing involved.

I looked around at my neighbors, knocking wooden spoons against frying pan lids, smiling through flimsy pieces of sky blue paper. I turned and saw my son, beaming in the porch light. It was an extraordinary moment on an ordinary night, in the middle of an extraordinary time.

I thought of my neighbors and my son while I was watching the Queen today. The Queen, who’s lived through World War II, a long string of small and large crises since, not to mention revolts from within her own family, played out on the public stage, for the world to see.

Ah, I thought. That’s what she meant. It may be some of the worst of times, but it was the best of us.