Pastor Walter Mitty and his good friend Michael Rosenthal have gotten into the habit of talking on the phone every morning at 10. It’s not as pleasant as meeting at Bernie’s or Zaphne’s coffee shops, but a big part of coping with this crisis, they decided, is finding a place where they could see their emotional coffee cup as half-full.
Yesterday morning, after commenting on the weather and the trees starting to leaf out, it was Michael who got down to a more serious topic.
“Saturday afternoon I bumped into Zaphne at the grocery store and, of course, I asked her how she was doing. Walt, I thought she was going to start crying right there in the produce section.
“She told me she was really scared, that she was running out of cash for basics like rent, and if she wasn’t able to reopen her Retro Coffee Shop by the middle of the month, she might have to go out of business.”
Mitty sighed and tried to regain his composure. Both he and Michael had grown fond of the young entrepreneur and empathized with her plight.
“Damned if you do and damned if you don’t?”
“I think so, Walt. I mean I tried to imagine myself in her shoes. She’s really caught on the horns of a dilemma. Stay closed and do her part to flatten the curve and risk losing the life savings she invested in the business, or open up and risk spreading the virus.”
The two friends remained silent for a long time as each tried to imagine walking in Zaphne’s black Converse All Stars for even a day.
Mitty then brought up the owner of the Poplar Park Military and First Responder Center. “Michael, did you hear about what Sarge put up last Friday in the front window of his store? It was a big banner and in bold letters: LIBERATE POPLAR PARK and under that a Don’t Tread on Me flag.”
Michael couldn’t help laughing. “That’s Sarge for you. And Walt, did you hear about Johnny Christian?”
Now it was Mitty’s turn to laugh. He knew that Michael knew that he often tuned in to the Rev. Johnny Christian’s Holy Hour of Holy Power on Sunday evenings, and he knew Michael was referring to the mega-church’s pastor deciding to continue holding live in-person services in defiance of Gov. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.
“I did, Michael, and I listened to Rev. Johnny’s sermon two days ago. With his typical dramatic flamboyance he said if supermarkets can stay open because they provide an essential service, then he was going to keep God’s house open because he provided an essential service as well. Man does not live by bread alone.”
“That’s Rev. Johnny for you,” said Michael with a chuckle. “What the reverend doesn’t get is that you can hear God’s word on Zoom but you can’t get a loaf of bread through your computer screen.”
“At the other end of the spectrum,” said Mitty, “last week a guy from the New York Times reported that while the U.S. would have 30,000 COVID-19 cases at that time, China would have only eight. The guy acknowledged that the communist government there trampled on the civil liberties of its citizens but added that a strong, centralized approach was making a remarkable difference.”
Michael said, “Wait a minute, Walt. You know what we’ve just done? We’ve drifted away from empathizing with Zaphne and her complicated situation and spent the last 20 minutes talking about people like Sarge and Xi Jinping who are at the extreme ends of the political continuum.”
Mitty thought for a moment and said, “I guess you’re right, Michael. Maybe we tend to frame the question of when and how to reopen as if it were a debate between two opposite poles. Like it’s either I’ll do whatever I want and Big Brother can’t tell me what to do on one end or we need an executive with unlimited powers like in China at the expense of civil liberties.”
“You know, Walt, what you just said made me think of the abortion debate. I read that a significant majority of Americans polled were opposed to abortions, but a majority of those same people don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned.”
“What’s your point?”
“Well, maybe most people in this country see both sides of a lot of issues. Take abortion. On the one hand, most people see something sacred about a fetus even when it still looks more like a tadpole than a human; on the other hand, they don’t trust the government to make decisions like that, so most of us come down somewhere in between no abortions ever and it’s only up to the mother.
“Most, from what I’ve read, want to keep abortion legal but limit it to the first trimester.”
“And your point is that in the middle — between Bernie’s die-hards and Trump’s
Base — there is a great middle in America that is really not as polarized as the media makes us think?
“Maybe, my friend,” Mitty agreed, “most of us aren’t bright red or bright blue. Most of us are a kind of purple, aren’t we? You know, most of us come down somewhere in the middle.”
“And maybe,” Michael added, “that’s why most of us don’t look at the reopening of the economy from ideological points of view but as an experiment. Like we’re trying to find a middle way between the needs of business and the health of our people, understanding that there will be collateral damage no matter how we move forward.”