Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
April 10: While planning my last trip to London I was looking at an Underground map when some question popped in my mind that I cannot now remember but which caused me to Google the Underground’s history. I tend to get lost in such things if no one interrupts me so, four or five tangents later, I was into some deeply weird stuff.
Stuff like plague pits.
A plague pit is pretty much what it sounds like: a mass grave dug during a major plague outbreak. The term is most prominently associated with London’s Great Plague of 1665, when a quarter of the city’s population was killed by the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in Britain. At the time the graveyards rapidly filled up and, since London’s real estate market was, then as now, pretty damn tough, individual graves became available only to wealthy people. The solution: city authorities would dig giant trenches, have the people bring out their dead, and dump ’em.
Plague pits come up in sources about the Underground because a great many books and newspaper accounts of its construction say that the reason so many of the tube routes curve and meander is because they were routed to avoid plague pits. Or, in some more gruesome accounts, that they first attempted to dig lines through the plague pits but they were so densely packed with skeletons that they had to stop and go around.
If you take a quick look at a geographically accurate Tube map, as opposed to a schematic map, with straight lines used for the sake of clarity and easier navigation, you can see that, yep, the lines do a lot of curving:
Well, no. Because the whole “the Underground was built all curvy to avoid plague pits” thing is not true.
Nineteenth century England was a lot of things, but it was not run by the kind of people who would let dead bodies get in the way of progress. The Underground curves, for the most part, because its builders did its best to follow roads that curved so that they did not have to purchase as many houses and buildings for rights of way. Most of those roads all followed very old routes that preexisted the plague, and no one was digging plague pits in the middle of, say, the Dover Road. Whenever the builders of the Underground did encounter graveyards they simply collected the bodies, threw them in a vault next to the tracks and, sometimes, but not always, put up a little plaque noting that they had to make way.
But even if they intended to avoid plague pits it wasn’t really that big of a problem because plague pits, while a real thing, were actually, far rarer than people think. Plague victims were overwhelmingly buried in churchyard cemeteries.
“The plague is a terrible experience for Londoners, so in some ways they cling on to things that they’re used to, that give them stability and comfort,” said University of London historian Vanessa Harding in this fascinating BBC article from 2016. “And one of those things is, as far as possible, people should be buried properly.” Harding said that, because of that, there are really “only a handful” of actual plague pits.
In related news:
According to the New York Times, an average of 150 people die every day in New York City in normal times. The virus has effectively doubled that, overwhelming funeral homes, crematories, cemeteries and city morgues. The Times says that “[n]early 120 morgue workers, assisted by more than 100 soldiers from the Army, the National Guard and the Air National Guard, are working in shifts around the clock, driving rented vans all over the city to pick up bodies.” As such, Hart Island — New York City’s historic potter’s field — has been pressed into service as part of a “contingency burial plan.”
Call it what you want, but the term “plague pit” sings a bit more than “contingency burial plan” if you ask me.
I went to Costco this afternoon. I waited until I was not desperate for toilet paper and whatever bulk things people buy at Costco and, instead, just went to get the few things I do tend to get there. I can get gluten free flour and almond flour for Allison there way cheaper and in larger quantities than the grocery store. I buy the big pack of toothbrushes and the four-pack of pork roasts. Carlo drinks the lime La Croix like it’s, um, water, and Anna likes their onion bagels. Not everything works out well there financially speaking — the frozen prepared foods are not really a good deal and no one with a family smaller than the Brady Bunch can go through that much milk — but on balance I’ve optimized my relatively minimal Costco list.
Based on today’s trip, though, I know one thing: we should totally outsource the running of the country to Costco until the pandemic is over. They’ve got it down.
I had driven by last weekend and saw a giant snaking line outside and said “fuck that.” Like, I actually said it, out loud. I figured an early Friday afternoon trip would be better. And it was. You still have to wait in line, but it was generally fine.
They are VERY vigilant about only letting 125 people in the store at once. You line up, and there are lines painted or taped on the ground to mark six feet so you don’t get in people’s space:
That line, by the way, stretched all the way to the distance and then snaked back in this direction last weekend. By all means, do your best to avoid it on a Saturday.
Once inside the cart area it snaked a bit more, kind of like when you get to the covered part of the line for a big roller coaster where you can actually see the trains coming in and people getting on and you start to get a little excited. When you get to the front there are people working click-counters and manning a velvet, er, polyester rope to let people in, 25 at a time, after 25 people have left. As you can see, I was person number 26. Or person number 1 for the next batch:
Once you get inside it’s like shopping in a ghost town Costco. It was pretty empty, a few cul-de-sacs notwithstanding. It got modestly crowded when you got back by the meat and fresh foods, and they had another guy working a rope for the little refrigerated room with the fruits and vegetables, where they’d let people in one at a time to get their stuff and get out. Otherwise it was almost . . . pleasant?
As for supplies: they didn’t have toilet paper (well, they had the industrial single-ply stuff) but we’re good on that at the moment. They also didn’t have chicken at all apart from the famous cooked rotisserie chickens. I figure people would riot if they didn’t have those. Everything else was about as normal as usual.
Checking out was like a military operation. There was one person directing you to the optimal line, keeping people from jockeying for position. There was one person taking things out of your cart, one person running the register, and one person putting the stuff back in your cart. The usual Costco protocol might have two people there, but sometimes just one. Never three or four. They have the plexiglass partitions the other stores I’ve been to have too. The guy who checks your receipt at the door is behind a partition as well. Rather than him taking your receipt, checking your cart, making small talk and then marking it with a yellow highlighter, however, you just hold up your receipt to the plexiglass. That part was kind of sad. The very friendly old guy who is most often at the door at my Costco seemed kind of bummed not to be pressing the flesh like he usually does. I suppose we’re all dealing with change.
It was as efficient as all get-out, even with the standing in line, and the standing in line is made up for by the fact that I actually felt safe in there. Contrast that with the grocery store where, though the stores themselves are following the rules and though the workers are doing a great job, the smaller spaces just make it harder to distance and the customers seem to be more all over the place.
Anna’s mother dropped her off at my house at 4:30. I picked up Carlo from work at the pizza place at 7. The line for the drive-thru — the only means of picking up pizza there — wrapped all the way around the back of the building, back out into the parking lot and spilled into the parking lot of the Walgreen’s next door. Carlo tells me Friday is always their busiest evening but I’ve never seen anything like that. I suspect that, like me, everyone’s getting a little fatigued with meal planning, shopping, and cooking.
My fatigue led us to having breakfast for dinner. Which, to be fair, is pretty awesome even in normal times. We made bacon, eggs, and potatoes, and I cracked an English ale in honor of those thrown in the plague pits. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
After dinner Allison brought out a 1,000 piece puzzle she bought a week or two ago. She specifically got one that big so it had to be done on the dining room table rather than up in Carlo’s room, where he does 500-piece puzzles all the time by himself. She wanted us to do something together as a family. She always thinks about that kind of stuff in ways that I wish I did but simply don’t, probably because I spend so much time in my own head or writing or online or whatever.
Carlo loves puzzles, and he’s really damn good at them, so he eagerly came down and started in on it with Allison. Anna is not really a puzzle person — and she, like me, is way more likely to crawl into her head and shut herself off if she’s allowed to — but she, quite surprisingly, came down too. I am really not a puzzle person. I am bad at them. My brain just doesn’t seem to connect with them at all. But I wanted to sit at the table with my family too, so I mixed myself a Manhattan and watched everyone else work on it, offering mostly unhelpful advice and finding pieces which I thought might help the three of them, only to me looked at like I was a moron. “That owl’s eye has a ring around it. The eye I am working on does not have a ring,” I was told in a voice juuuust this side of impatience.
As the puzzle slowly came together, the conversation turned to music.
I’ve tried to not be that dad who forces his musical tastes on his kids so, though they obviously hear what I like when we’re in the car or whatever, I don’t spend too much time telling them what I think they should listen to. I’ve been super surprised, then, to find just how much 1990s and early 2000s stuff Carlo likes. Radiohead is a particular favorite of his. He likes Gorillaz and that has led him to Blur to some extent.
Of course there are a ton of artists and albums he likes that I know absolutely nothing about. At one point, in response to nothing in particular, he said “so there’s this Belarusian post-punk band I’ve been listening to. . . ” Which is as it should be. If you’re 14 and you find yourself liking too many of the things your 46 year-old dad likes, you probably should reexamine your priorities.
Anna says that Carlo tries too hard to “show that he’s not like all the other girls” via his musical tastes and, as such, she’s less demonstrative about what she’s into. She likes Harry Styles. Carlo says she likes The 1975. Beyond that I’m really not sure. I was a bit surprised, though, when Allison switched the music we had playing to The Mountain Goats and Anna sang along, word-for-word, with “This Year.”
It’s OK to not know things about your kids. In fact, it can be amazingly fun.