Our dog Ananda gets walked twice a day, in the morning by my wife Stefani and in the afternoon by me. On a recent Saturday morning, when Stef and Ananda returned from their walk, I asked my usual question: “How’d it go?"
What the question really means is, how did Ananda behave? She’s an energetic two-and-a-half-year-old white Swiss shepherd who still has a problematic relationship with her leash. Her philosophy is, a dog oughta go where a dog wants to go, and at 75 pounds of pure muscle, she can be difficult to manage, especially for Stefani, who’s not all that much bigger than Ananda. And though Ananda’s a very sweet dog, she can also be aggressive, barking savagely and lunging at dogs she encounters for no seeming reason except she doesn’t like the way they look.
“She was great,” said Stef. “Hardly pulled at all.”
“Good. No problems with other dogs?”
“No. We only saw one other dog, and it was across the street. But there was something kind of odd.”
“The streets were deserted. We hardly saw anybody. That one guy walking his dog, a gardener working in a yard, a couple of kids riding bikes. That was it.”
“It’s a big holiday, it’s the Fourth of July. You’d think there’d be a lot of people out today.”
“Well, it’s still early.”
And then it wasn’t early anymore, and it was my turn to walk Ananda. I hitched her up to her harness, and I put on sunblock, a baseball cap, sunglasses, and a buff. (I didn’t even know what a buff was until the pandemic thing happened. It’s this stretchy fabric tube you can wear in different ways: as a cap or a headband or a neck covering or you can pull it up over your face as a mask. It’s much cooler than a medical mask, in my opinion.) I stuffed some dog treats in my pocket to bribe Ananda to behave, and then we were off.
July 4th, 2020, was warm, bright, and breezy. A beautiful day to walk your dog. We moved along at a brisk clip, Ananda walking like a perfect little princess at my side.
We live in Culver City, California, in a pleasant neighborhood south of Sony Studios called Carlson Park. When the plague descended upon the land in March and everyone was told to hide in their homes, the streets were nearly empty of cars but there were people everywhere. They were eager to escape the dire images and grim faces on cable news and breathe fresh air (even though it might be laced with coronavirus) and see trees and clouds and squirrels and others of their own kind. Nobody wore a mask then. The experts had told us not to. People were nice, they greeted strangers like friends, there was a sort of hearty we’re-all-in-this-together cheerfulness about them. And then the experts said wear a mask or you might die. And since they were mostly progressive Westside types, the people of Carlson Park dutifully donned masks, but the camaraderie was gone. It was as if the masks over their mouths stifled speech. They became silent, insular, anonymous. As they walked the streets, they cast cautious glances over their masks at the masked people they met to make sure the magic protective circle of six feet all around them remained inviolate.
Ananda and I didn’t have to go far to see that this particular Fourth of July in Carlson Park was unlike all previous Fourths. We didn’t see a living thing anywhere except a few birds and an orange butterfly gliding by. It was odd, as Stefani had said. Spooky, sort of. The neighborhood seemed abandoned as though evacuated ahead of some oncoming catastrophe, but I knew there must be people inside the houses that we walked by. I mean, where else did they have to go? The virus was everywhere.
Some of the houses had flags in front of them, big cloth flags, little plastic flags. They flapped fitfully in a breeze, seeming forlorn and sad. They made me think of the flags at Mount Rushmore. The night before, Stef and I had watched Donald Trump travel to South Dakota and give a speech beneath the giant stone faces of four American presidents carved into hills that are sacred to the Great Sioux Nation, that were stolen from them by the white people, that they still claim as their own. Trump was speaking to a crowd of several thousand proudly maskless South Dakotans. Perhaps unfairly, I saw them all as racist, gun-loving white people who had fallen hard for a cult-like leader. Trump was standing in front of a black backdrop and several American flags. He was fulminating against protestors, far-left fascism, cancel culture, angry mobs that attacked statues, “bad, evil people” who wanted to destroy America, he was all but exhorting the stalwart Americans in front of him to arise from their seats and go forth and launch a jihad against people like me and most of the people I call friends. Suddenly a wind kicked up, it began to blow quite hard, and the limp flags sprang to life. Standing in front of the stygian blackness of the backdrop and the thrashing flags, Trump seemed almost like a demonic figure invoking the powers of darkness to bend the country to his will, though the effect was undercut somewhat by his hair or whatever it is on top of his head, which the wind seemed at the point of flipping over like a pancake.
The feeble flags of Carlson Park couldn’t compete with the robust flags of Mount Rushmore. As Ananda and I continued our walk, I smelled smoke. Probably somebody barbecuing in their back yard. And then I saw a guy in a floppy hat and flip-flops come out of his house and go into his garage, and then I came across a cluster of small masked children playing in a front yard, observed by a pair of socially distancing masked parental types. So Carlson Park wasn’t a total ghost town, but still…what was up? Even yesterday it hadn’t been like this.
The best I could figure was that it was Gavin Newsom’s fault. Early on, he’d done a good job of controlling the coronavirus in California, but then, proving that the governors of blue states can be as foolish as those of red ones, he’d opened up the state too quickly. This had predictably resulted in a surge of new cases, especially in Los Angeles County, and Newsom had been forced to rollback his rollback. People had been given a taste of freedom and then had it taken away. Back to your boring abodes and your monotonous food, back to the kids running around and driving you crazy!
The Fourth of July is the most extroverted of American holidays, beer and fireworks and roasting meat and patriotic singing, and maybe the good people of Carlson Park, depressed, fed up, just didn’t feel up for that. And maybe too they were just plain scared. Just a couple of days before, the Culver City Police Department had announced that five of their officers had tested positive for the virus. Ye gods, our cops had COVID, who would protect us? We all knew doom was walking among us like the Red Death in Poe’s short story. Ananda and I came to a small green pretty park. Carlson Park, from which the neighborhood took its name. So this was where everyone was, or at least a few people. Scattered around under the trees, sitting in the shade in couples or little groups. But a library-like silence pervaded the scene. Walking with Ananda on the other side of the street, I’m not sure I heard a single sound emanating from the park. Maybe a laugh or two, off in the distance. A couple of young sunbathers were lying in a splash of sunlight on the green grass. I wanted to walk over to them and tell them that at their age I’d lain in the sun like them but I’d lived to regret my pursuit of the perfect tan, but of course they would have been totally freaked out if some old dude had wandered up to them and actually started talking like that. Besides, the concept of a distant future must seem hopelessly abstract, or naïve, or just beside the point to millennials and zoomers who are just trying to make it through the latest disaster that we baby boomers have bestowed on them.
A skinny guy without a shirt was standing by himself, tossing up a Frisbee and catching it behind his back. He was obviously waiting for his Frisbee partner. Yeah, I get it. Waiting. That’s what it’s all about.
Ananda and I reached the corner, made the turn toward home. I gave her some treats for being such a good girl. She nearly snapped my fingers off in her eagerness to eat them. Carlson Park has a million dogs, it’s Dog City, but we had not encountered one dog today.
We walked by the quiet houses. Seeing no one, hearing no one. There was an eerie, science-fictionish feel to things. There are a lot of post-apocalyptic books and movies and TV shows these days, but that’s not what this was. It was pre-apocalyptic. A neighborhood, a city, a country breathlessly waiting for what happens next.