Now in our gloomy age of endless traffic congestion, retro-socialism, and retail pandemic terror — a dark night made even darker by the waxen heads manning every evening news desk in the television universe — the average citizen has some critical choices to make. To wit: shall we live in terror of Covid-19? Shall we gnash our teeth and rend our garments and join the Brothers of the Cross, flagellating ourselves in the town plaza to free the world of cold viruses and single use plastic bags, whipping our flesh to beat back the growing tide of human poop and hypodermic needles on our municipal sidewalks, to end forever the horrors of red meat and chevy suburbans, of plastic straws and emerging hemorrhagic fevers? Shall we don aluminum foil deflector beanies to block unwanted signals from the mothership? Shall we stock up on surplus Czech gas masks and boxes of steel cut oatmeal and build Faraday cages in our basements? Shall we submit our lowly petitions to Princess Alexa Who Listens and ban dodgeball in the gymnasium? Should we build Silkwood showers in the foyers of our 3 bedroom, 2 bath, zeroscaped Seabreeze model Ranch houses in the sweaty HOAs of Rancho Cucamonga?
I don’t know. Probably nobody else does either. The quietly faithful, who I nurture a great and growing admiration for, keep a higher visual horizon than most and don’t seem worried. At one of our local churches the congregants recently screened Breaker Morant for giggles and followed with a group discussion on flexible thinking.
Here on the Figure 8 we maintain a mildly survivalist posture. I try to walk a fine line on that topic because I don’t think — should the shit hit the ubiquitous fan in any meaningful way — that going internal is any kind of solution. I’m far more interested in mobility. Raid for what you need. Stay on the move. Hard to hit is hard to kill. When you create a bunker you also create a target — a supply depot begging to be sacked by marauding tweakers — and much like the Dalai Lama hisself, I don’t like parking too long on the X:
In purely practical terms we are better prepared than most for long term supply disruptions, but I don’t get militant about it. I no longer have the energy to sustain militant positions, with exceptions for gun rights and punctuality which, it turns out, I am one of the last remaining homo sapiens to believe is important. It’s true that I harbor disdain for people who can’t show up on time. This won’t ever change and I won’t entertain excuses. Because I always show up on time, and usually early. The point is: when the whistle blows and it’s time to go over the top nobody has to wonder if Rullman is in position to support the attack. He’s there. Count on it.
Yesterday, because I am not immune to effects from the rolling barrage of fear munitions fired by our nation’s media batteries, my wife and I drove down to Bend, Oregon, to the Costco, to lay in a few supplies just in case this whole virus thing has legs. Plus, if I’m being honest, I wanted to do some field work. I wanted to see how people were holding up after a solid week of saturation shelling by the networks and their slickly produced shock and awe campaign — which would not be complete without utterly bogus B‑roll splices from various laboratories full of fuming beakers, Cold War era mass casualty training events, and wire photos of a sneezing Pope framed by disturbing images of virus cells as seen under a microscope.
On any normal day it is tough to beat a Costco for field work, but make it a Saturday and throw in a modern pandemic and the potential for meaningful field study is truly incalculable.
I should probably preface this report with a brief explanation of Sherman’s Law of Maximum Convergence. Sherman’s Law is a thing known widely, if subconsciously, by America’s legions of mostly shell-shocked first responders. It’s namesake, Chris Sherman, was a Vietnam veteran, SWAT Sniper, and modern thinker, and though we were of different eras his wisdom drifted down to me through the conduit of a mutual colleague: David Hedges. Hedges, now an accomplished screenwriter, taught me all manner of constabulary arts, and we often did the unthinkable, which was to park our skunk wagons and walk the alleyways and hidey-holes of our sleeping city, swapping movie quotes and lines of heraldic poetry while looking for trouble and swinging our batons like the Night Watchmen of yore.
Once, when a relatively minor event had drawn dozens of citizens, and garbage trucks, and high school marching bands, and taxi cabs full of whistling drunkards, and an eighteen wheeler loaded to overflowing with soap bars shaped like turtles, all of them suddenly and simultaneously needing to transgress our little crime scene, I turned to Dave and asked how such a thing was even possible. How, I wondered, and why, would this quiet back street, where nothing had happened in the entire history of the city, which an hour ago registered on no human consciousness at all, suddenly become frenzied with activity in the wee-small hours? Which is when, with characteristic and veteran aplomb, Dave explained to me Sherman’s Law of Maximum Convergence. This law, truncated, says that whenever and wherever police might need to do a job, however remote, and however unlikely, mysterious forces in the earth’s mantle will transform the available space into an aggravating bottleneck of human activity — always, and in every circumstance, like moths to the proverbial flame. If you were — for instance — issuing a traffic ticket to an emperor penguin on an island in the frozen Wedell Sea, very soon a motorcade of delivery wagons, box vans full of blow up dolls, firetrucks returning to quarters, at least one batshit crazy person, a television weatherman, wandering legal observers, lost German tourists, and a fleet of natural gas powered city buses barnacled with stolen bicycles would suddenly need to get through. No matter the hour.
And such was Costco on news of a pandemic.
Urban mushing is a thing which, once you ponder the grander environmental benefits, is difficult to wave off as an alternative mode of transportation. I’ve seen them frequently in various downtown corridors, these urban mushers. They usually present as a kind of Millennial-GenX hybrid in dreadlocks and filthy pantaloons, bedecked with cryptic tattoos, socialist paraphernalia, and Rancid patches on their backpack as they are whisked through complex traffic currents by an underfed street dog. They are occasionally smashed to bits but in general urban mushing is great exercise for the dog and a terrific solution to traffic congestion. It also looks like a great deal of fun even if the mushers are often scowling, one guesses, at the dearth of bicycle lanes, the stack of misdemeanor warrants in their NCIC portfolio, or just internally jousting at the various windmills of modern civilization. I only bring this up because there was a scowling urban musher slaloming through the Costco parking lot — where the trees have yet to bud — when we arrived and joined the parking tournament scrum.
We were consciously late for the grand “drawbridge” phenomenon, which is when the Costco door rolls up and hundreds of Americans — in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of income inequality — act like famine victims behind a UN relief truck while trying to be the first, and maybe the only, citizen in the crowd to score a bag of rice. In America that’s nonsense, of course — there is always another bag of rice — but people respond to a hint of desperation in the pheromone cloud just like ant colonies or beehives. We made our way across the parking lot in the aftermath of this phenomenon, acquired a cart from the tangled mass of cold shrapnel left behind in the cart corral, and were greeted by a nice young lady handing out disinfectant wipes at the entrance. She was clearly still in shock from the initial blitzkrieg at the ramparts, and this act of prudence was the first open nod to the invisible and, one presumes, already unstoppable reality stalking us all: Covid-19.
We began our hunt for non-perishable items with my wife out front of the cart acting as a ground guide and scout through the wilderness of consumer goods, me at the now disinfected wheel expecting gunfire to erupt from the towering canyon walls full of generators and air compressors. In my mind it would come down like an Apache ambush in a John Wayne film. Box stores are a known habitat for renegades and highwaymen and so naturally I was packing heat, but in that crush of frenzied humanity it was impossible to maintain a comfortable level of situational awareness. I had, of course, stuffed my pants with high capacity magazines before leaving home so that I had enough ammunition to end a threat should it develop anywhere between Advil Ridge, Toilet Paper Trail, or Dog Treat Canyon, where an enormous woman in a flower print mumu had escaped her wagon train and was wandering in tight circles demanding to know where the “choco-covered pretzels” were buried.
You might have noticed that most every modern pathogen seems to develop in either Africa or China, which seems like a reasonable warning to avoid eating bushmeat and bugs. We’re told that Ebola made the leap because humans were eating jungle simians and Covid-19 is quite probably the result of some food truck guy in Wuhan serving up a cold soup full of bat assholes. Don’t kill the messenger, but I’m told a bat taco has a rubbery texture and is an acquired taste — like escargot or mushrooms without butter.
We were definitely slowed in the crush, but managed to jockey our cart by a raised platform where a man was hawking pots and pans like a dodgy medicine show on the outskirts of town. He had on a headset — something like the ShamWow and Slap-Chop guy Vince, who was the undisputed champion of late night pitchmen before methamphetamines rotted his face off.
Anyway, the headset guy was plugged into a speaker which projected his voice pleasantly into the crowd — like birdsong for the digital age but instead of Uncle Remus’ “actual and satisfactual” he was whistling the virtues of a deluxe package of non-stick pans which, as I heard him explain to a skeptic, came with only one lid because it was marvelously engineered to fit several different pots.
We moved on through the crowd, working the edge of Sweatshop Meadow where a vast field of spring t‑shirts had just bloomed, when an old woman under a hoody walked by muttering something like a druidic curse. My wife looked at me and I looked at her and neither of us was certain the druid hadn’t just cast a spell on us which gave a certain impetus to our shopping deliberations.
In total we spent about an hour inside Costco and I am pleased to report that the prevailing temper was decent, with a side of aggravation. Even with the hard media hyping of a pandemic, even with a palpable sense of frenzy in the air, our push through the Costco wilderness was surprisingly uneventful. I am a cynic in many ways and some portion of me wondered what complex marketing strategy might lay behind the ceaseless pumping of paranoia and panic into the collective conscience.
It isn’t likely I’ll root out some conspiracy theory behind it all and isn’t even necessary to try. But this little dip into Costco was valuable not just for the goods we came home with, but as research into crowd psychology under stress, because in our lives of relative abundance and comfort we are not often confronted with serious, long-term shortages or the need to make hard sacrifices — at least not of the kind faced every day in many parts of the world. We know what can happen on an intellectual level, and we’ve seen it very occasionally in the US after sustained natural disasters. But while shortages, rationing, rampant illness, and human frenzy behaviors are daily realities for many, they remain rare events — though always lurking just beneath the tranquil surface — in the world’s sole remaining superpower.
Only time will reveal whether the unparalleled media hype behind this virus will prove out. That the CDC can only default to “Wash Your Hands” for any kind of prevention advice seems at once oddly pathetic and a kind of admission that they were powerless from the start. But then again maybe that is the best imaginable advice. Either way, it seems prudent to make plans to avoid being sucked into Sherman’s Law, because once you are sucked into that vortex of desperately converging humanity, it can be very, very, difficult — if not finally impossible — to escape.