A true introvert, I find certain aspects of pandemic life appealing, even if I rationally understand how these minor pleasures are mere surface, and that what lies beneath is a crawl of confusion and uncertainty.
Take coffee shops.
I’ve always liked writing in cafes. I often write these letters in cafes. There’s something about the perfect coffee shop that creates a suitable environment for wordsmithing. There, you are distracted enough by arriving customers and the occasional eavesdropped conversation to feel alert, but don’t have to worry about many impulses common to the home. You can’t suddenly decide it’s time to take a shower or make soup. The doorbell never rings. You don’t have to fight the urge to do yoga or push-ups. You are stuck right where you are, alone in a room of people.
Or, lately, simply alone. These days, I sometimes find myself the only customer inside my favorite coffee shops. This hasn’t hurt my productivity. Fewer distractions. Masked, disinfected, in a far corner, I’m free to stroke my beard thoughtfully and wonder where the sentences will take me.
Just now, I’m sitting in such a coffee shop transfixed by a song that came over the stereo. Anyone who read my letter from the last issue may recall I went through a period in late 2020 when I couldn’t tolerate listening to anything but early and baroque music. What I didn’t have space to explain in that letter is that such music isn’t typical of my tastes. With the new calendar came a correction, and I was again listening for sounds new and old, and only occasionally baroque.
The song in question is from 1984: “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths. It has magnetized me since I first heard it, by means of a late-night alternative MTV program. The lyrics display a peculiar mix of achy longing and desperate defiance: the sort of stuff that would appeal to an alienated teen. They took on added resonance years later, after this teen woke up one day having been mysteriously colonized by gray hairs and sore knees. But with the first instantly recognizable strum of the guitar, the song erases decades. I’m catapulted back into to the midnight TV glow of my mother’s cold basement.
The song seems to take on layers of meaning given present circumstances. The lyrics detail a last attempt to salvage a thwarted love affair, and still offer the possibility of escape, to nightclubs (remember those?), to some place where the narrator would meet a stranger who would fall in love with him. Everything — the words, the singer’s lament, even the icy wash of guitar chords — is drenched with a feeling of isolation and expectancy:
When you say it’s going to happen now
When exactly do you mean
See I’ve already waited too long.
And there it was. Or is. I pick up my pen.