My elbows were filthy.
The outsides had been used to turn on light switches and turn off faucets, to latch bathroom stalls and open hotel doors. The insides had blunted sneezes and muffled coughs.
I had been diligent, fervent even, about scrubbing and sanitizing my hands and all surfaces, using my elbows to fend off a viral invasion.
Eventually though, the force field could not hold.
Shortly after I returned from an investigative journalism conference in New Orleans, where 1,100 people had convened in early March, I learned on Twitter that a fellow attendee had tested presumptively positive for COVID-19. That person had been in a three-hour class with a colleague from another digital media outlet. And I had chatted with that colleague for more than 10 minutes about several topics, including — wait for it — the risk of contracting COVID-19 at the conference.
I didn’t qualify for a test because I had no symptoms. But my health practitioner advised that I quarantine myself at home, with no face-to-face contact with another human, for 14 days.
When I was a child, my mother told me that there were two types of dirt: country — which, from handling toads, worms, snakes and snails, conferred eternal immunity — and city — which, from touching money, door handles, elevator buttons, was a vile vector of debilitating disease.
I’m citified now, and although I’m not much of a toucher of people, I am a toucher of objects. If I find an interesting piece of detritus in the street, like a love letter, a toy, or a hunk of metal, I’ll take it home. But since COVID-19 is now a pandemic, touching, one of the primary ways I, and all of us, interpret the world, is risky. For some people, it can be deadly.
During and since the conference, what had I touched?
The lamp switches in Room 308 at the Springhill, menus at the Marriott. The five-dollar bills I left for the maids each day. Communal laptops, pens, microphones, notebooks, business cards. A gas pump handle in Alabama. The remote control in Room 211 at a Hampton Inn in Georgia. A fork, knife, glass, napkin, chair and bar top at a nearby restaurant.
I have three cats and every day clean their litter boxes, but buffets scare me. The conference provided several group troughs, and I avoided all of them. The utensils, the fingers, the breathing — this is what my mother meant by city germs. At the hotel, breakfast was served in de facto petri dishes; I opted for coffee and a banana. This is why: Using her bare hands, a young girl in town for a cheerleading contest — more touching! — returned a muffin to the communal tray. An elderly man emerged from the restroom carrying a book. His hands might have been clean, but the book. He pulled the lever on the coffee urn marked “bold.” I chose a different urn, the medium roast.
On the way back from New Orleans, I visited NC A&T, where I spoke on a panel. Another pen. Another microphone. The button to retrieve a parking ticket. The button to pay the parking fee.
At work, a tape dispenser, a white-board marker, a co-worker’s candy jar.
So much touching.
I’m more than halfway through my quarantine, which ends March 22.
Initially I wondered if forced distancing would further deepen America’s social and political fissures. To be sure, there are narcissists and opportunists, and not just the president: pub crawlers and sanitizer hoarders and charlatans peddling fake cures. But I’ve encountered only kindness. On social media and In Real Life, people are looking out for one another. They’re trying to mend the holes in our threadbare social safety net: organizing food drives, checking in on vulnerable neighbors, ordering online from local businesses to keep them afloat. My friends have delivered groceries, books and even a Negroni in a Mason jar, and left them on my doorstep. My main hardship has been eating my own cooking, which ranges from unimaginative to dreadful. Oddly, even though I’m in quarantine, I feel connected, emotionally buoyed by the fact that most of us are pulling together to thwart a threat that’s bigger than all of us, yet microscopic — a virus.
But it’s important that I acknowledge my privilege. I belong to a union. I work a salaried job and have an ample amount of sick days, should I need them. I have no children whose schools and day cares have closed, and would need care after I’m cleared to return to the office. I’m also fortunate in that I don’t fall into any of the high-risk categories. I’m still symptom-free, but without question I’m sticking to the quarantine. My duty is to protect other people from myself, should I carry the virus. Those with battered immune systems. Those with asthma or COPD, who can’t take breathing for granted. People over 65. People with a chronic illness. I know how vulnerable they can be, the anxiety they must feel.
A little over three years ago, my husband was enduring the seventh of the 10 rounds of chemo for the advanced prostate cancer that would eventually kill him. One night he spiked a fever and chills. I felt healthy, but I wondered, What city germ had I brought home? I routinely touched him, caressing his forehead, holding his hands, turning him in his bed. What germs had my hands transmitted that seized on his depleted white blood cell count, exploited his fragility?
If the COVID-19 pandemic had occurred then, I would have retreated from the world for months in order to protect him. We would have ridden it out together. Although he’s passed on, I owe others the same.