After nearly two months in lockdown from the Coronavirus pandemic, I chose to welcome the economy’s gradual reopening with a celebration of normalcy: beer and a burger with a friend. I checked the local pub to confirm it was open, then called my friend Ed. He accepted the invitation with an enthusiasm equal to my own.
We arrived at the pub at 11:30 and found it nearly empty. Although this was probably because we were early, I briefly wondered if it didn’t reflect some lingering concern over the pandemic. Our waitress escorted us to a socially-distanced table where we ordered two drafts of ale and, being socially-conscious, two veggie burgers. We lowered our masks as she returned with two pints, glazed with condensation, and we drank deeply. I’m not sure if it was the freshness of draft ale or the intoxication of escaping my confinement, but I seemed to taste the familiar brand for the first time. It was contraband from an undiscovered country, rich with danger, promise, and mystery. I relaxed and watched the lunch crowd flow into the pub.
I saw an elderly couple enter the bar, wearing masks, the man leaning on a cane. They walked slowly to an unoccupied table at the far end of the room, away from other people. A couple in their twenties came in close behind them. She wore a mask; he did not. Groups of two, three, and four followed, most of them wearing masks, most of them taking tables outside on the patio. Like Ed and me, they seemed to relax gradually, guardedly into lunch and conversation.
Perhaps weeks of non-stop news about the pandemic still saturated my mind, but I found myself contemplating the odds that my fellow diners might carry or contract the virus. There is a joke I’ve often repeated: “90% of all statistics are made up—including this one.” But, the probabilities that followed these people into the bar are different. They are not the decontextualized numbers the cable news outlets feed us—abstract, lost among the concrete realities of chores, family, money, work, and home. These numbers come from doctors, nurses, and other professionals who risked everything to gather them. They are distilled from the tragedies that have touched so many. For a moment, the statistics that had filled my mind for the last few months seemed to follow people through the bar, hovering above them like shadowy annotations in an augmented reality only I could see.
Our waitress brought our food, and I gave myself over to the sensations of warm burger, bread, and fried onion rings washed down with cold beer. Ed and I settled into one of the bright conversations about house projects, movies, politics, and all the other comforting, ordinary topics that fill our lunches. I took a swallow of beer, glanced at our waitress, and smiled. Although she was still masked, I imagined she smiled back at me from beneath the cloth.
I returned to my beer and burger, to our conversation. Like fog on a sunny morning, the shadows of risk and uncertainty briefly seemed to clear.