I had my first officially normal weekend last weekend. I took a trip to New York, on my own. I stayed in a hotel for the first time in 15 months. I walked the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn without a mask on. On Friday, the day after the CDC cried out “F—K IT” and gave its blessing to the fully vaccinated among us, myself included, to freely roam about the American cabin without masks, distancing or pants, I’d say the masked/unmasked split in town was roughly 50/50. Everyone was cool with everyone about it. No one gave me any death stares, and I didn’t judge every mask wearer as some kind of ultra-woke hygiene theater addict. I ate inside a restaurant. I saw old friends and hugged them. I went inside one friend’s apartment, maskless, and everyone was totally comfortable. Rejoicing in a sense of earned relief. Earned happiness.
I know that not every other state has immediately conformed to that CDC mandate (California among them), but the die has been cast. If life isn’t back to normal yet where you are, it will be soon. In my case, this was the normal that I had been dreaming about for a long-ass time. So if you’re also fully vaccinated like me, that means congratulations are in order for you as well. You made it to The After, which begs the surprising question
What the f—k do you do now?
All throughout the pandemic, I heard about how this sudden plague gave America a rare opportunity to re-evaluate how it goes about its business. America didn’t need to have a spiritually dead imbecile as president. Sick Americans didn’t need to get stuck with outrageous hospital tabs. Cities didn’t need to spend 98.7% of their operating budgets on violent, lazy police forces. And no one should have had to waste two hours of their day listening to bad podcasts while stuck in traffic on their way to a job that barely covers the rent. All of those trials were standard operating procedure in pre-pandemic America, and all of them sucked donkey balls. The pandemic, and the election staged within it, served as a morbidly serendipitous occasion for the country to correct all that.
Has it? LOL f—k no. While Joe Biden won the presidency and has already far surpassed the admittedly low expectations I had for him, many of the people running our government and many of the people running our industries — two groups whose Venn diagram looks like a cramped Mastercard logo — are still super horny to get you back to all of the good old bad times.
Your boss wants you back in the office or else you’re fired. And if you’re unemployed? Well then you better be grateful for any business’s generous offer of two bucks an hour, and don’t expect a humane unemployment check to come your way if you turn that offer down. We’re even getting a good old-fashioned crisis in the Middle East.
Americans are already balking at this regression, and with good reason. The vaccinated among us are coming to the collective realization that they’re being invited back to a life that, before the pandemic, wasn’t all that great. The trauma of the pandemic will last for generations, but the past year also forced American businesses and institutions to operate the way they should have started operating YEARS ago. It’s not like they invented Zoom because of the pandemic. It was already there. We’ve always had the technology to work remotely: to spend less time going to and from a windowless bullpen and more time actually living.
Because Americans don’t have to be so close together. The Trump years clearly proved that we all need some time away from each other. And guess what? We can get that time apart. Americans don’t have to wedge themselves into cities and onto highways and constantly battle for space in a country that has a LOT of it. Americans don’t have to establish geologically firm school districts that help preserve a soft form of segregation in perpetuity. The suburbs and points beyond don’t have to be cultural wastelands and, in fact, are already well on their way to having valuable, diverse scenes of their own. And Americans don’t have to work for s—t pay when they know, to the dollar, how much area billionaires profited from all the pandemic suffering. Those luxe parasites can afford to pay people $25 an hour, if not more, and simply don’t want to. Don’t think the masses toiling below them haven’t noticed.
And don’t think that powerful folks, such as America’s foremost whitesploitation artist J.D. Vance, haven’t noticed all the little people acting with fresh compassion for both themselves and others, and declared it to be the end of America’s collective sanity. PEOPLE ARE STILL WEARING MASKS AND NOT GOING TO THE OFFICE! WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THIS PLACE?! They would like all their inequality back right now, thank you very much. Anything else would be uncivilized. Crazy, even!
But I have a pretty firm grasp on what’s actually deranged now, and so do many of my fellow Americans. For example, I know that I was a happy anomaly in The Before. Before the pandemic, I already had the work/life balance that other Americans only got a sample of after the whirlwind came knocking. I’ve worked from home since 2012 and don’t have a boss bitching at me to come back to an office so that he can make sure I’m not taking unauthorized piss breaks. I’m paid well. I don’t have to commute, and my wife and I have all the digital resources in place at home to make e-school go relatively smoothly for our kids (when we were given the choice to send the kids back to in-person school two months ago, we declined; we’ll send them back in person in September.
So the normal I’m returning to is a normal that many other people did not, and will not, get to have. I have a relaxing life, although I didn’t achieve that state of professional and personal bliss without first enduring the miseries of commuting, being paid crappy junior level salaries, and nervously jumping from one freelance gig to the next; miseries that plagued Americans before 2020 and await them once more in 2021. I had to pay my dues, so to speak. Paying your dues is one of the main unofficial tenets of the American labor experience.
But who says paying your dues NEEDS to be baked into this life? There was always gonna be an acclimatization process to The After, but many people I know have had enough time and distance to prioritize what they should reacclimate to and what they should leave behind for good. I had more than one colleague at Defector up and move out of New York during the pandemic, and a few more on top of that are ready to do likewise. They’re hardly alone. Ten percent of Americans moved last year, either out of circumstance or because they realized that literal greener pastures awaited them.
Because who wants to deal with a country where you pay your dues only to get handed more of them? There are Americans who, for all their sweat and tears, and for all the unfathomable losses they’ve suffered at the hands of the pandemic, NEVER get to rise above all of the tedious bulls—t that comes with entering the workforce. These people deserve better, and they KNOW it now. They know that there’s a quieter, roomier life available to everyone. A better life. One that isn’t so goddamn exhausting at every turn, and one that this country can factually afford. So don’t be shocked when the normal that you and I get back to looks a little different from the normal you’re used to.