The Big Quiet / Katie Meyer

My parents have endowed me with innumerable gifts, the greatest of which, I now realize, is that I’ve never—not for one second of my existence—had to think about my survival. Not in 2007, or through the long drag of the Great Recession. Not in 2010, when I graduated and worked night shifts, scrambling for full-time work. Not while walking in the woods alone, exploring the city, or sharing my political opinions. My father told me frequently that, born and raised in Toronto, I had hit the lottery. Four weeks ago, I was concerned about when climate change could collapse the Canadian economy and how to install shelves on my concrete apartment walls to hold all my books. I walked freely at night, unafraid. And now?

Now I have twenty cans of soup. Now, I fear elevators.

The pandemic has fallen like an anvil on my other anxieties, crushing them under its weight.

The big quiet began suddenly, with plenty of warning. On Friday, March 13, my company became entirely remote overnight. I begin my new workday routine by standing on my balcony in the morning, listening for something and quickly becoming overwhelmed by the encyclical quiet. The restaurants, bars, gyms, churches, and schools are closed; the gathering places are hushed. The city around me doesn’t speak back anymore. All I hear is the wind and the whisper of a bicycle many blocks away. Swirling in self-obsessed panic, on the balcony the quiet covers and consumes.

When I catch other voices or hear my neighbor’s children running upstairs, I’m able to peer out from under it and see a unique, collective paralysis: the billions of others similarly overwhelmed. The quiet inflates and floats instead and I can see all my gifts.

I’m a 31 year old living in Toronto who’s already been through a recession that crushed her vapid plans. The current crash sounds more like a drum kit cymbal clang at the end of a joke than a crisis: there go our savings! Meme it out fam. Millions of people just now recovered from the Great Recession face economic ruin. And what of the huge majority of people who had nothing to recover, missed entirely by the upward sweep of the market? Since the big quiet came down, the greatest challenge I face each morning is getting my glasses to slide back up my nose without touching my face. A gift.

My friends and I are unusually lucky: we found stable open office jobs that now allow us to work from home. Our enormous privilege and Great Recession-earned nihilism have collided to obliterate the economic anxieties currently overtaking older and younger Canadians, making space for other worries. We trade memes about the evaporation of our RSPs and serious articles about making our own hand sanitizer. We worry about our parents and their health constantly; urging them to stay inside everyday because we can get the groceries, helicopter parenting our parents is tiring. One friend from university is a doctor at a hospital without enough small n95 masks; she’s been asked to work on the front lines of the pandemic wearing a mask too big for her face. Coronavirus is so much deadlier than the flu, she says. People show symptoms and die the next day. She could die. Thousands more will. How many?

This new, consuming anxiety has narrowed my vision to a pinhole. Like a person suffering from intense dehydration, my vision and hearing have been neatly circumscribed on my walletless walks. Today, I went out midmorning  near Wychwood Barns, an excursion that involved an elevator ride, two publicly used doors, narrow sidewalks (why are they so narrow?), lunging away from a friendly labrador retriever, and jabbing at two pedestrian crosswalk buttons with my elbows. After passing the dog, I could hear only my shoes on the concrete.

The usual suburban soundscape of my walks—a basketball bouncing to a stop on the pavement, children laughing—is replaced by the foley from Phantom Thread. Heavy footsteps under total silence: a big, expansive quiet. It feels heavy and empty at the same time and I fill it with: Is that a smoker’s cough or a coronavirus cough? Is she wearing a mask because she’s trying not to get the virus, or because she has the virus and she’s trying not to spread it? I left my wallet at home so I’m not tempted to go into a store. Is walking safe? Stay away from me, jogger. How many?

From the empty streets, my life before corona looks like a pantomime of absurd concerns and misunderstandings. It doesn’t actually matter at all what my personal website looks like. And Love Actually is not a romantic comedy, but a horror movie in which people hug each other at airports—long, pressing embraces, over and over, in slow motion. Children, the elderley. No one is safe.

In the quiet, I’m overwhelmed by the paranoid graspings of a person with plenty, introduced to scarcity for the first time. I forget the abundance of my safety. I thought I would feel safe when I had twenty cans of soup. Then, I thought I would exhale when I rented a car, so I could navigate the city in an airtight, germ-free capsule. If I order groceries instead of shopping in a store, will my mom get coronavirus from touching them? Maybe I should spray each item with rubbing alcohol as well.

Safety is a swinging rope I can’t quite catch; it’s never close enough and I never have enough. I’m never clean enough. As a person living in Toronto with an apartment, food, and no pre-existing conditions, I am secure. I have hit the lottery. But do I feel secure? Uncertainty drags all my vulnerabilities and needs—some real, many imagined—out to infinity. There’s never enough toilet paper. Skin flakes off the backs of my hands from washing. I mentally slot my supplies at home into meals and count them while I walk the alarmingly calm streets. Paranoia wages war with my common sense: I know I’m fine. But try telling me that.

We have enough; we make ourselves feel we don’t have enough until we can forget our humanity. Some sit on a small hoard of ventilators stockpiled after the SARS epidemic; Europeans and Africans die for lack of them. The loudest, shrillest, cruelest instinct has outshouted all others. I am the will to survive, the voice screams. I haven’t heard it speak before, so I let it in. It’s clear and easy to follow. Self-interest disguised as rational fear has become the rat king of my thoughts and actions.

Suddenly, security seems finite; I forget that it’s an intricate latticework of laws and social contracts, and instead start counting it in cans of soup and rolls of toilet paper. Like the latter could be a substitute for the collapse of the former. Like I can survive alone. What’s the difference between me fortifying myself against the onslaught with my supplies and a Trump-supporting doomsday prepper? I let the elevator doors in my apartment building close as my neighbours sprint toward them: for their health, and mine. To say “I love you”, you must first be able to say “I.”

This is good, we say; this is rational, this is safe. “If you’re spiraling: Do some push-ups,” writes The Cut. Self-improve to safety. Let your self-interest cannibalize your fear as fuel; let it help you better compete, better produce, better survive. This is our pattern, our history: we grow, we overpopulate, we collapse, always driving, driving to more—so rationally, so absolutely—until we have nothing. More is possible! Resources are infinite, self-interest whispers; no, they’re not, the pandemic replies. A billionaire donates masks to a country without them, and like a magician, he vanishes the limits that we caught a glimpse of in the fall. See? This is all working perfectly.

Coronavirus and neoliberalism are sister plagues. COVID-19 exposes our vulnerabilities and tears open new ones, while using victims to attack their community. Neoliberalism is the fear of your own worst instincts, and those instincts in others. It’s the ultimate social distancing weapon, shredding the collective mentality and resultant action necessary to save ourselves and each other. Neoliberalism is self-loathing.

The WHO issues recommendations that would save us all; we ignore them to save ourselves. Coronavirus attacks the lungs; shutting borders, while hoarding toilet paper and ventilators undermines our ability to survive as a species. The ideology’s lesions are also permanent—even if we recover, we could lose a significant portion of our capacity to cope with future catastrophes that require global cooperation, like the acceleration of climate change. Lives are at stake: all measures are justified, and short-term self-interest is disguised as common good. We are all trying to survive, but I need to survive. We are all afraid, but I am alone. I have 24 rolls of toilet paper stuffed into my kitchen cabinets. When I bought them, I told myself that I could share them with the elderly residents in my building who can’t get to a store; I put up a sign by the elevator with my phone number. But no one has called, so I guess they’re all for me.

It works, for now. What will I do next month? The influx of cash from foreign buyers into the housing market has already turned my salary into Monopoly money. This flood of debt has transformed it again, from Monopoly money into Easy Money money, a Monopoly knock-off created by Winning Moves Games USA. What will we all do next month? Drop and give me a trillion. 

The pandemic has shown that the global economy’s survival is dependent on the rampant consumerism that is ending our species. Which one will we choose this time? During the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal seized the reins of the economy and built the social infrastructure for the collective action that would be necessary to win World War II. Can we do it again?

When I pause in the middle of Benson Avenue on my daily walks to look up and down the street for other people, I can hear my own breathing. The background noise that was thick and soft and dense has become thin and invisible. The street is a residential throughway with new speedbumps, lined with three bedroom rowhouses that sell for $2 million; emptiness is not uncommon. But it’s not just empty: the big quiet has made the street strange. The anvil comes down again. Silence in the city means space, money—and sprawl, more, a system that can’t sustain itself. Being alone like this is terrifying. Surviving alone seems impossible, all of a sudden: a very deep part of my brain whispers, alone isn’t safe. I call my mom. I make a mental note to sanitize my phone again. Do I have enough rubbing alcohol at home? Where is everyone?

Someone with a scarf around their face ambles down the sidewalk before me and slows: who will swerve? I step between the parked cars and walk beside them, passing the stranger. We smile while still far enough apart; we can’t turn our heads in passing, lest our faces catch across from one another, and we breathe on each other. The stranger’s footsteps fade. It doesn’t seem temporary; outside, the silence is long and deep. Inside, headlines ring between my ears like a car alarm. The MIT Technology Review predicts social distancing measures for more than a year. Justin Trudeau predicts it’ll last until a vaccine is made. I stand on the asphalt and think: more than a year, more than a year, more than a year. Can we last? Which way will we go after?

Here’s a list of the words I had never thought, which I’ve spoken aloud in the last ten days:

– I want a lockdown
– Call in the army
– Close the borders
– I love you more than anything

Things I hadn’t considered buying, which I now own:

– A Disney+ subscription
– A Tylenol knockoff from Amazon labelled Cold and Flu, Extra Strength Plus
– A pocket knife

I’m not sure what I thought I was going to do with the pocket knife (I’ll ask the rat king.)

My friends call me on Facetime; we listen to each other and laugh. We sign petitions to let the cruise industry implode, which we believe would cost hundreds of jobs and save thousands of lives in the long-term. I write a positive review for Enterprise Rent-a-Car and its proprietor Ron, who stayed past six to secure a car for a shaking mess in the shape of a human before his business was shut down. I sit in front of my laptop: The Globe and Mail tells me that cases are up, social isolation is mandatory, and Justin Trudeau is allowing refugees into the country. Links fly on Instagram messenger; we email our MPPs and ask for rent to be suspended, and for taxes to be raised on property owners to pay for more hospital beds. I don’t even care, a friend who owns a house writes after sending the link.

When I come back from my walk, I throw my gloves in the washing machine, wash my hands, and open my cupboards. I put twelve toilet paper rolls in a box and leave them in my building’s mail room, damp from the rubbing alcohol I’ve sprayed all over them.

Katie Meyer is a writer and designer based in Toronto. She’s interested in research-driven, human-centred design and public policy. Her work has appeared in Politico, The Huffington Post, and local literary journals. Her creative writing is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. 

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