A couple of minutes ago my best friend, a New Yorker currently working from my deck, received a News Alert on her phone informing her that the state of New York had issued a quarantine order on anyone coming into New York (and New Jersey and Connecticut) from a handful of states with raging COVID numbers including my own (North Carolina), as well as Florida, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Arkansas.
“They didn’t include California,” I said, which feels like an oversight, but I’m ornery and maybe not following the numbers as closely as I should. I didn’t say, this feels like another excuse to pile on the south, to justifiably mock the dumb rednecks who’d rather cook hot dogs in the flame of their burning surgical mask than, like, wear one.
Of course, New York state is not wrong to do this, especially given how many of those states issued quarantine orders for New Yorkers eight weeks ago. The south is self-evidently awash in disease and stupidity and misinformed, heavily armed a-holes who believe patronizing a Myrtle Beach Wet Willies maskless counts as some kind of patriotic act of political courage. Also teenagers and barely more than, vast quantities of teenagers who are filling bars and throwing parties and acting like COVID is another thing they can Ferris Bueller their way through without breaking a sweat. I want to tell you that as a nineteen year old, in the time of plague, I’d avoid crowded bars and beach parties and whatever half-illicit gathering is popping up just past the peripheral of the older and wiser and worried about getting sick. I can’t promise you that would have been the case. After all, I have been nineteen. I survived it, but barely.
It rankles though. It rankles a lot. It rankles so hard that I crawled off the chair and rolled around on the deck rug sniffling like a big fat baby because I want North Carolina to be better than that.
To be clear, this is not the first time I’ve been ashamed of/for my home state. In fact, it’s hard for me to recall a time in which I didn’t partially blush when I had to tell people where I was from. Sometimes they seem nice about it, but often times you get the exact same reaction you do when you’re forced to admit to smart strangers with advanced degrees that you have a questionable BA from a mediocre state university. Best case they flatter with a “well, that’s surprising! You seem so _______(synonym for clever)! And you don’t even have an accent!” Worst case, they look at you with pity and you can see them recalibrating their opinion of you and waiting to see if they can catch you fulfilling some stereotype.
It’s so exhausting I built a large portion of my youthful identity in the fertile ground of hating the south (in general) and North Carolina (in specific) because devising lengthy monologues to catalog all of the reasons why was easier than waiting for someone from California or Connecticut to tell me why I should. This was pretty easy. I wasn’t proud of my heritage; I was horrified by my history. I didn’t like bluegrass or, for most of my life, barbecue. I didn’t give enough of a shit about sports to even follow basketball. The bands were pretty good, but I mean, Jesse Helms. Remember him?
I thought I was pretty tough, but the whole deal was transparent as all hell. Hating the south is the privilege of anyone forced to grow up in it, but it’s also kind of like “hating” your Mom. Like, I’m allowed to talk whatever shit I want about her, but god help the non-sibling that attempts to follow suit. I may agree what with what they said. It may be objectively true. I may have even just said it myself. But when it came from someone else. Especially someone else from somewhere else, someone who didn’t have skin in the game?
I believe the phrase, in the local tongue, is something like “them’s fightin’ words.”
But look, it’s hard to fight back when the writing is on the wall. I’ve spent a whole lot of my life, since it’s looked like my life will indefinitely center around North Carolina, trying to drum up reasons for Why This State Is Different . Those reasons are not too hard to come up with. North Carolina is . . . kind of awesome? Even now? We don’t have some wingnut anti-science governor running the show (although we still have most of a wingnut anti-science legislative branch attempting to undermine every statement he makes). We have communities—plenty of them (including mine) passing mask ordinances and coming up with their own shutdown protocols and social distancing guidelines. You’re not here, so I’d probably have a hard time convincing you of this, but whatever Lake of the Ozarks style picture you have in your head to accompany whatever “Re-Opened Too Early South, Spiking Cases” headline looks nothing like my daily life or those of my friends, or, for that matter, anyone I know in this town or county.
I haven’t seen a maskless person in a store since March. I haven’t seen crowded bars overflowing with people. I know they’re there. I know the people I love in the communities I love are doing the very best they can and making all the sacrifices necessary to get through this safely. It pisses me off that we can’t seem to get this under control. It pisses me off that we have become an example of What Not To Do and Who Not To Be again and again and again. I hate living in a cautionary tale. I feel like I’ve been living in one my whole life, for decades before COVID, and that is just one more inflection point.
We need to do better. We must do better. And I can sit here all day and tell you I will, but ultimately nothing that I do can do a damn thing.
Picture today is of me fretting on the rug a couple of hours ago. As of this writing, 5,105,721 people have died from COVID-19.
Updated to reflect that our awesome governor just made masks a statewide requirement and paused reopening and 100% did the right thing.