America and the world changed while I was mid-air. It was a small interruption, but a telling one. After a week in Minnesota and Wisconsin, for the Super Tuesday primary, roaming the borderlands, where in 2016 Obama counties had gone Trump, I’d come back to Minneapolis-St Paul to fly to DC, around March 10. By that point, it was clear that life had been altered, but not yet that it had been decisively changed.
The national life continued: the primaries were still marching on, even though there had started to be mutterings about whether they should; sports continued, the lifeblood of American distraction. In the airports people still crowded together at security, and on the walkways; the hotels were still running breakfast buffets, diverse hands dropping English muffins into conveyer belt toasters. I planned to hit DC and use the Library of Congress manuscripts collection for a few days, on the vague hunt for an under-appreciated great Australian, John Willie, creator of the high-art pneumatic female-BDSM Bizarre magazine, and photographer of Bettie Page. By the time we lifted off from Minneapolis, the country was starting to shut down, and I was wondering if the slightly nurkkkkh feeling I had was just the usual effect of a few long days and a sudden adrenalin powerdown, or, something else. Nothing nasal or chest, no spiking fever. Just a heavying in the limbs and a sort of deep sluggishness.
By the time I hit the Baltimore airport hotel, everyday life was collapsing like the colonnades of a city coming down under bombardment: in that few hours American sports died. I watched Trump’s first fumbling, autocued, inadequate response to the gathering crisis, booked a cute little boutique hotel on DC’s Capitol Hill—my how the prices were coming down!—and woke up, feeling as if a heater had been plugged in under my skin.
The boutique hotel was eight blocks from DC’s Union Station, but when we arrived—how great that arrival is, the converging rails, the vast stone arches, the Dome of Congress in the near-distance—but as I came out into the high-roofed portico, it suddenly seemed like eight miles. The city was stretching, elongating, Daliesque, the world was. At the hotel in a classic DC Victorian terrace, I staggered up the two flights of wooden stairs, now too preoccupied to do the usual thing of wondering if President Chester A. Arthur or Garret Hobart ever trod these steps. When I switched on CNN in the room, they were quoting Trump as saying that he might quarantine California and New York, he hadn’t decided yet.
And with that it was over. The primary thing was done. What had been necessary to them, and is necessary to normal life, the distinction between foreground and background, had collapsed. The background, the assumed fabric of everyday existence, had come forward and engulfed actual events. Suddenly it felt like being in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, with the background changing wildly, or like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Jim Carrey vainly tries to hang onto the external world whose disappearance he himself has set in motion.
I left CNN burbling, cataloguing cancellations—SXSW, the full political conventions for summer, NASCAR—while I tried to get onto Qantas to bring my late March departure forward. It took minutes to get the message that ‘we are currently experiencing long delays; your current wait time is (different voice) seven hours (original voice) and (second voice) thirty three minutes. I phoned off, booked a $95 flight to LA leaving in four hours, and then booked a Lyft. My forehead was broadcasting heat like a two-bar radiator. Beads of sweat had formed across at my temples. I put it down to stress.
Historians may come to see this as the ‘second phase’ of the US’s first period of response to Coronavirus, after Trump’s national televised address, which actually recognised the virus as a threat, and before the daily press conference when it became clear, live, in real time, that the magnitude of the thing had finally hit him, but before even the first measures of effectiveness had begun at a federal level. In that time, America began to disappear.
The Democratic primary race was over, it was generally agreed, even if Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded. The minnows who had faded before Super Tuesday, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar had endorsed Biden. Elizabeth Warren hadn’t, but she had stayed in during Super Tuesday with no chance of victory, which was worse. There was now to be a slog through a series of mini-Tuesdays, of four or five states simultaneously. At this stage it was assumed they would occur in an orderly fashion, even as the country whose potential leader they were choosing was melting away around them.
Sanders and his team were in an impossible position. There was no real prospect of victory now, but to quit straightaway to Biden—to Joe Biden!—was impossible. The Michigan primary was coming up, the one Biden had won in ‘sixteen, a surprise victory, showing that the movement was more than just a boutique New England hippie hangover. Bernie was going to lose it, but it could not be ducked. The great industrial state had to be fought for, and the movement had to go down screaming in the process. Everyone was still working towards it, but the whole thing had a transparent quality to it, like we were all looking through it to the reality behind.
By the time I checked in at Venice Beach, California was on the verge of lockdown. The place was a boho apartment block lovingly preserved, turned upmarket hotel, big screen, lush Scandivanian bed, steel micro-kitchinette. Outside Venice Beach was still buzzing, that mad folly, a beachside suburb built in the 1910s, with canals coming out of the sea, lovely little higgledy-piggledy houses, vines covering stucco and Spanish tile, a memory of LA when it was a Spanish country town with orange trees lining the boulevards and the sign of another spec development read ‘HOLLYWOODLAND’. By the 50s the place was a dive, beloved of the Beats, the place became the epicentre of bodybuilding, Muscle Beach, and the pre-Stonewall sly gay scene. In the twilight, thirty or forty stalls were still up of the hundreds that line the promenade every weekend, very Venice Beach shit, crates of old vinyl, Indian spirit body painters, on-site tattoos, tarot readers, like the inside of a Joni Mitchell song. Then a longer stretch of homeless, their encampment strung along the beach, using the beach-side promenade wall as a backstop to rig triangular canvases, proto-tents over oil barrels and shopping carts, old sofas and fires in braziers. That ended abruptly at the line where Santa Monica began, rows of neat apartments, deco blocks inmixed with those built nine minutes ago. In the small chi-chi bars that overlooked the homeless camp, the lights were still on, tables surrounded by the jumper-over-shoulders crowd, eating from rectangular artisanal pizzas served on a board.
I wanted to be out among this for days, to walk up and down every street, since every street in Venice Beach is different, the houses in a hundred styles, the small shops, bright murals in Spanish, faded hippie-era ones in English on the side of old warehouses, and the thousand thousand different types of people there, still there, even though the old deco blocks that once rented by the week, Bukowski territory, were now gussied up and owned by the new LA crowd. They’d been built over, most of the canals the place’s crazy developers put in—there were actual gondolas for a couple of years, to draw the punters—but there were enough remaining to give the place the character of a dream, and the people who gathered on the promenade like the people who bob up in dreams, stretched by a dream’s convex mirror world view, staring in at you, seventy-something women in aviator shades, silver lame tops and stretch pants, who might have heard Hendrix at Monterey, hung round the Whisky-A-Go-Go and wound up here, or had been only here for forty years, guzzling three-dollar gin; twenty year olds in Navaho blankets, a feather behind their ear, like some twenty-year olds had been, in 1969; black kids in riotous colours, peach, pink and sky-blue, break-dancing on sheets of cardboard, pure retrochic for the passing trade, real-life Furry Freak Brothers, springy-haired, and covered in zits, bursting out of their tie-dye T’s; and nu-Beats, dark brooding boys with short black hair in good overcoats, top of a tattered paperback sticking out the top of one pocket, girls in black skivvies and pancake white makeup. Here at the very end of the continent, on reclaimed estuary land, was all America had been, all gathered together, eras on top of each other. Like, as I may have mentioned, a dream.
But I’d taken one turn through it, channels of heat running up and down my arms and shoulders, elbows and knees aching like they were bulging comically, Popeye-style, a raspy cough now, and the sweat coming off my forehead it was dripping off the tip of my nose. I’d walked up the promenade to Small World books, a fantabulous mix of antiquariana and ephemera up the promenade, a four kilometre round-trip; I pushed the fever, cough, down on the way there; on the way back, it rebelled and got the better of me; it surged, like Iraq, and the last block back, I made by pulling myself along on fenceposts, one foot dragging behind the other. The plan for the next day, to seek out the locations of Meshes of the Afternoon and have someone photographing me ingenue-style, looking in terror at a shard-of-glass-become-a-key (or was it the other way round?) as palm trees swayed above, was abandoned, not specifically, but generally. With the mind of sickness, it became impossible to imagine not that project, but any project, the idea of a project at all. Fuck fuck fuck I thought as I flicked on CNN and subsided into the deep comfort of a rented sprung mattress and Egyptian thread sheets I could never have otherwise afforded, I’ve got the thing.
Whatever I had turned out to be not without its uses, as over the next 72 hours, the TV burbled on, while I slept and woke up, face wet as if from rain, t-shirt soaked, a tightness in the chest that resisted breathing exercises, and a feeling of being hit, if not by a truck, at least by a van. The sudden onset of this had been accompanied by about two hours of pure terror. I was sick, in the middle of a pandemic and I had two, three, no, jesus four comorbidites and I was in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and travel insurance didn’t cover pandemics; trouble breathing was sapping my will and power to be resolute, which I’d learned from experience was the most important thing in being taken ill abroad, get to the doctor, don’t worry about the language gap, don’t care about looking foolish or weak, get to the emergency room. An ER would take me if I turned up there; anything short of that would run into thousands up front, with no guarantee they would even let a non-insured, non-citizen pas their door. My heart was knocking in my chest like it was trying to get out, bababading bababading like an old crooner cracking jokes, his drummer doing rim shots. Babading babading. Still, that might have been the dope.
Oh, did I not mention the dope? Recreational marijuana is now legal in California, and on the way from the airport I’d stopped at the Green Acres dispensary (‘Green Acres is the place for me/something something for the famillee….’) and bought two twenty-five dollar blocks of THC infused chocolate, on the grounds that, well, I’d thought something was coming. This was strong stuff, and even three squares of the cookies-and-cream bar—THC-infused cookies-and-cream chocolate is all you need to know to diagnose a civilisation in decline—was giving me weird time loops. So, heh, that might have been what was doing the fibrillating. As I smoothed it down to one square every six hours, the stuff started to do its work, taking the edge off panic, allowing me to think clearly. There was no real prospect of getting through to Qantas; booking a new flight would cost towards two grand; it was only another five days, so I should just grit my teeth, and gather the mental energy that would be required if I had to make the call for an ambulance.
Prelude to an epilogue, either it was corona but a mild version, or something else entirely, in the midst of flu season. It never got better, until about 12 hours before my flight, when I suddnely felt exuberant, better than well, and bounded around LA on a last-chance visit. But in the meantime three days of fever, sweet dope and TV made it feel like I was watching a soap opera called America which had just been cancelled, and was tying up all its plot threads in one last episode. Trump had started his daily press conferences and yeah I know we all know what they’re like now, but remember what it was like seeing the first ones? Watching wide-eyed as this shonky businessman turned reality TV star paced the press room stage before a half-dozen experts, stood to attention, wasting hours of their valuable time, burbling on about how it’ll go away ‘like a miracle’, that ‘I did not know flu killed people’ that ‘this virus is smart it’s so smart that antibiotics don’t work against it anymore’, that ‘I think we should open America on Easter, it’s an important day…because of something else…but…’, and above all his politics-first direction of all attention at his early ban on travel from China. This sort of performance, more redolent of the Latin American generalissimos that the US spent decades installing in South America was where it had all come to, two-and-a-third centuries after the office of the Presidency had been created; that it made it necessary for the nation’s greatest experts on matters of national life-or-death stand attendance on a man who ruminated like a mouthy cab driver or discount furniture warehouse owner with ‘pinions, sucking up and vomiting out half-digested scraps of knowledge.
This was less a nightmare, than the nation’s fever dream, and, watched while in the grip of fever, it made perfect sense, absolutely perfect sense. In high fever was the only way to go through these first weeks of Trump’s response, before that press conference where he looked like he’d hit a truck, and was semi-muttering about how many people were going to die. Someone must have finally got through to him what it was going to look like, really look like without some action and his stunned brooding carried all the way into the conference. But that was later. National fever and individual fever coincided and I saw what people saw in Trump, the blithe confidence, the magical belief that language can determine reality, the imperative to be upbeat at all costs, but it took an endocrinological derangement of my limbic system to achieve what many people get by putting on a red hat.
Though I had the energy to change channels on the TV, I lacked sufficient of it—existential, anyway—to actually switch it off, and so the whole cable perpetua of US culture washed through, streams of sitcoms, police procedurals, prison reality shows, news talking head opinion roundtables, and that staple of American TV culture, their whimsical, witty thirty-second ads, the junk DNA of a culture caught in the act of amusing itself to death.
So much of it was doubly distant now, back before the locking down, and then back before the towers came down. Friends ran perpetually, a portal into a world of people whose involvement in their own foreground was total, the world-background utterly dissolved, a perfect reverse of what we were going through, Monica never speaking of the other Monica, the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing going unremarked upon, Phoebe having no thoughts on Rwanda. And it was so bright! All those colours! Like a Disney Nickleodeon show! It was a good thing Friends didn’t reference the 90s, because it was the 90s, Rachel and Ross about equal in import to a decade of war and genocide in the former Yugoslavia. Seinfeld, the comedy Friends had back engineered—Seinfeld is about four friends who don’t like each other—seemed closer to something out of the 50s than to ourselves, a colourised, ironised Honeymooners. And the first series of Law and Order SVU, with their ancient dour green office settings redolent not of actual police stations, but of the setting of NYPD Blue, Barney Miller, Dragnet and their sophomoric attempts to shock us with omigod raped kiddies, plotlines that are today’s (ok yesterday’s) front pages….all of it was hurtling back into the past, to a time when not only did our lives pursue individual paths, but where something like a nationwide lockdown could not be imagined, or a collapse of basic state competence so severe it essentially left the largest country in the world unled, its governing put together by shifting, rotating ensembles of people working around its President—and with no tradition of an Opposition leader, and the opponent presumptive displaying every possibility that he might be suffering from not-so-early-onset dementia.
But that was the great thing about fever in this predicament. OK, dope and fever. No matter how outlandish, how grotesque what was unrolling out there, the fever could match it, accept it. Fever was not merely a viable way of negotiating disappearing America, it was the only way in which it made sense. The dreams it provoked were even more lurid, taking the raw material of cable-memory America and my personal memory and fantasy of it. While I slept, the cast of Friends formed into a sort of Scooby-Doo investigation squad, tracking down old leads from the 1970s Senate Church committee on political assassinations, but why was Leif Garrett among them? The opening titles—the dreams had opening titles—looked like those of Moonlighting, the first postmodern TV show. The colour pallette was all 80s, salmon pink, lime green, lemon yellow and gun-metal grey. Kenny Rogers rose from the dead to organise a Hands Across America II, but this time, non-touching, with appropriate social distancing, and when it was assembled Christo was going to wrap it in pink plastic, to emphasise the continuity between AIDS and now. The material tailed out at some point in the 90s, where my pop cultural immersion had ceased. On waking it all seemed perfectly logical, in a way that, when we wake from this, if we do, our present predicament won’t.
When the fever broke. I ventured out into lockdown LA. By then, I’d transferred to a place on the Sunset Strip, which I’d booked weeks earlier, when LA hotels were as expensive as they usually are. I barely remember the cab ride across; I had the distinct image of bearing myself out on a stretcher. I should emphasise that this is not an ‘I had Covid’ piece, because I was stoned out of my gourd the whole time, and without that regime—metformin, basal insulin, two squares of THC super-chocolate morning and evening—I might have negotiated it in a far more clear-eyed, yet vastly less illuminating fashion. In the blear-eyed dawn of a subsided fever, LA looked doubly apocalyptic. Sunset Boulevard has faded in a manner suggested by, well, Sunset Boulevard. The hot end of it was a tourist trap; at the other, at Thaitown and Little Armenia, it was shabby strips of shops, cheap restaurants, 7-11s and offbrand coffee joints. You never, in LA, really get used to how far the reality falls from the fantasy nurtured in you by decades of popular culture; even at its buzziest LA has the feel (albeit updated) of Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in America (a great one hour movie with ninety minutes of schlock tacked to the end of it), the city’s endless iteration of the same: convenience store, carpark, closed niteclub, drab home fitting store, faded Spanish mission apartment block, over and over like the chains of repeated ACGT rungs of DNA, curled tightly into an endless city.
Now, the only register that seemed not merely appropriate but prescient were the zombie and thrill killer b-movies of the 60s and 70s, shot by the last of the poverty row studios, using the streets outside as cheap location on quiet Sunday mornings. The world is always empty in these films, where ski-masked machete-wielding killers cleave girls’ heads from behind outside a closed car dealership, or greyish zombie young men in unironed shirts stagger out of stucco apartment blocs called Casa Rosalita or somesuch. In the city of TV and the movies, a city made of movies, that swallowed the whole country into the maw of it, so that it and we dream in sequences of montage and tracking, in technicolour and NTSC-TV colour systems, it seemed utterly natural that there should only be a few people queuing up for Starbucks or Taco Bill, as if the Soviets had finally dropped one of them neutron bombs that, we were told in the 80s, kill people but leave buildings standing, and the radiation had cleared, and everyone had just got on with it, with a fiftieth of the population.
One couldn’t help but see that as some sort of prelude to the next future. The only people continuously on the street were the homeless. And not merely the homeless-lite, the couch surfers and sometimes rough sleepers. No, the city was now the preserve of the sewer people, the under-the-bridge guys, years without a shower or a change of clothes, smeared in dirt from head to foot, in ragged jeans and an overcoat without a shirt, covered in brown filth from head to foot, wild hair and matted beard rigid with dirt, their eyes unnaturally bright blinking out of their dark forms. Often they wheel shopping carts—for that full B-movie 70s new-left left cultural criticism touch—filled with equally filthy objects, useful and inexplicable, a dirty blanket, a supersize publicity mock-up of a BIC lighter, a Rubik’s cube with squares missing. Usually, the cops chase them off the streets, but the cops were social distancing like fuck now, and so they had come out from the freeway overpasses and flood surge drain pipes where they usually hang out, and gathering at the doors of 7-11s and in the carparks. They were the very seriously mentally ill and the ex-base/crack/meth/ice heads. Ex because they could not only no longer afford it, they could no longer even ask for it. They were encrusted with years of dirt not because they had no opportunity to wash, but because they had simply stopped washing. They had simply asocialised. They were not so much zombies wandering the streets (though they were that) as a species of the wild animals who were starting to return to the West’s cities.
In normal times, the occasional appearance of a mole man/bridge man/sewer person was a source of frank horror in LA, not merely out of fear of the poor benighted man or woman themselves, but because of what they represented as a possibility, not merely a fall from social comfort or privilege, but near out of the species itself. Mulholland Drive has as the keeper of the mysterious blue key that the entire plot centres around (which is the key to the movie’s genesis, as a re-imagining of Meshes of the Afternoon, not to mention John Willie and Bettie Page) a sewer man living among the garbage bins at the back of a fast food restaurant, and who causes a heart attack in one of the characters when he bursts out on him.
Now they had burst out onto the whole city. In the late winter sun the landmarks of LA—the mammoth Scientology church, the old deco Farmers Market, the Universal Studios gates, the vast columns of the downtown Egyptian theatre, the crumbling freeways lifting over the pebbledash bungalows of South Central, the Gehry Guggenheim—shimmered in the emptiness.The Uber driver had agreed to take me on a tour only because he was wearing a full service crop-dusting gas mask and had tacked thick clear plastic sheeting between the front and back seats. It was cool as, the most apocalyptic and enjoyable moment of my last ten days there.
When I arrived at LAX that evening for the last Qantas flight back, America felt not like a dream, but like a childhood memory of a loved moment consulted so often that it has worn smooth, lost its colour, disappeared into mere outline. Just about every Australian I knew in New York or LA was there. All of them head been here because they had the same dream of America, which is the dream of radical possibility. Now we were getting out as it disappeared behind us, and would thus follow us all the way across the Pacific. The fever I noted, as I slipped into my seat, and switched on the screen to watch Succession for the third time, had entirely passed. I was free. Until the day after arrival, when, amidst self-isolation, I woke up slicked from head to foot and realised it—whatever ‘it’ is—the dream, the nightmare had come back with me, with us all.