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IN FUTILE PURSUIT OF PANDENTERTAINMENT

Last weekend, my girlfriend, Paula, and I hit the Oregon coast for her first-ever visit to the Pacific Ocean. We hit Newport’s main drag Sunday afternoon, only to behold civilizations of naked-faced goons parading the street, entering restaurants and stores like time-traveling tourists from the distant future oblivious to the pandemic that’s plagued this nation since March. We instinctively rolled up our windows lest their nuclear wickedness trickle inside, rotting us to our seats before we reached the beach. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum was still cordoned off, for crying out loud. If even freakish exhibits are off-limits, then perhaps something’s viciously, terribly wrong. Apparently, we missed the announcement that the country had cured the coronavirus earlier that day with salty sea breezes, sunshine, and repeated exposure to ivory-hued Oregonian flesh in flip-flops.

Happy ending, though: We made it to the beach and saw only minimal displays of disregard for emergency statutes. Paula set foot on gloriously giving West Coast sand and gazed into the rushing waves, commenting on how it marked a turning point in her life, that she never expected to witness its majesty in person. She expressed this soliloquy through a protective mask and I understood every word, nodding behind my own layer of colorful fabric. This was my first pandemic-era beach trip, and while it was strange to see the usual activity — kite-flying, sandcastle-digging, and animals hooting madly toward the water — through the prism of a national health crisis, it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the day’s symbolic significance or the area’s natural beauty. ‘Twas a lovely time.

Contending with the coronavirus hasn’t always been easy. I miss the hell out of concerts, and live Facebook simulcasts ain’t no substitute for responding to guitar assaults as a collective mass of humanity in the same room as the musicians. I miss the communal experience of sitting in the dark with strangers who don’t mind the noise and colors of a first-run movie. My mouth misses daylight. I sure don’t like having to turn around and go home for a mask to walk into Safeway or sit outside an empty restaurant waiting for an employee to pass me my dinner in a plastic bag like way too much cocaine so I can eat it at home. Despite being primarily antisocial, I so wanna interact with other people that I find myself chatting up strangers just to have some kind of connection. But I feel these minor short-term sacrifices are necessary in order to exist -- they're hardly an imposition or violation of my rights as a citizen and lifelong dick-swinger -- and if I need to wear a mask or seal all my windows shut, then c'est la vie.

What follows is a mini-diary of my public exposures over the last two weeks.

Albany Transit System: Last Monday I figured, What the hell. I hadn’t used public transit in a few years; how was bus-riding during the pandemic? Free in town, as it turns out, but on a limited schedule. Also, masked passengers board through the side door. Certain seats are blocked, and we all sit at the usual 6-foot distance. This means fewer people and a largely quiet and muffled jaunt through town. I wasn’t sure why we had to circle the area around Wal-Mart and Costco twice, but they’re popular destinations, and who knows? Perhaps you’ll succumb to a sudden hankering for salmon in bulk or bins of $5 DVDs and pull the stop cord before the bus’ second revolution. Me, I took it to …

Heritage Mall: Anchor stores are their own islands now, separated from the mall heart proper. They're like purposely blocked arteries. The Target drops its entrance wall like a shield every morning and it does not move. It almost feels like 1988, before the store was completed. All customers are required to wear masks here, and an employee stands near the automatic doors to ensure that the store never gorges with pestilence-conveyers in jorts and sandals. Masked cashiers are stationed behind protective sneeze guards. Otherwise, shop as usual.  All I’ve done at the mall itself was eat my first non-home-microwaved meal in the form of a 6-inch sub at Big Town Hero while sitting in an unusually empty food court with maybe 11 tables total as company.

Fred Meyer: Fred Meyer is Fred Meyer, same as it ever was. Harried, vanished music department (remember the pre-streaming days, when it carried the best and most varied selection in the mid-Willamette Valley? Two years ago, it stocked seven copies of a new Jackyl album no one bought, and that was it), but one of the only joints in town that stocks Atlantic magazine, so at least it has that going for it. They also deliver groceries to your front door. Most of them, anyway.

Pix Theatre: Three of us caught The Empire Strikes Back during the Pix’s second week back as an active moviehouse. (Most of the others remain closed.) Every other row of seats has been removed, and we had to purchase our tickets in advance and, for the first time, pre-select our seats, making sure we were separated by three full seats, which meant our group pretty much devoured an entire row. The movie was better than I’d remembered as an 8-year-old in 1980, when its running time seemed interminable. However, the rhythms were just perfect at 47. Must have been the repeated exposure to those 7-hour Avengers films over the last decade. Like Darth Vader himself, we wore our masks and saved the carbon-freeze for when we got home.

Albany Antique Mall: My favorite place in town for jazz and alternative vinyl and, uh, old post-Paul Rodgers, post-Brian Howe Bad Company CDs. When it reopened in late June, I popped in every afternoon to fondle dust and sport my fashionable mask. Hand sanitizer in bottles awaits up- and downstairs wanderers, but that’s OK. I want my hands to smell nice while handling artifacts of the dead. If you enter with a bare puss, better bring a dollar, because you won’t make it past the register without someone wrapping cloth across your kisser, you ingrate.

Amazon and Grubhub ‘til normalcy.

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