Dispatches from the dystopia, Vol. 1

Photo by Tamin Arafat via Upsplash

The time is 12:34 a.m. Memorial Day. A much too chipper song by David Bowie plays in my eardrums. A mugginess hangs in the apartment despite the air conditioner set at 62 degrees and me down to my skivvies hunched over this elegant laptop.

So, we’re opening up. It may not make good medicine, but it’s good business. And if our healthcare system teaches us anything, business and medicine mix a poor potion that may be profitable but hardly the tonic for wellness.

The doctors and scientists seem wary. The pandemic continues. They urge caution. The politicians and businesses say let’s get back to normal. People need to get back to work. The economy must restart or there will be more suffering than even the pandemic promises.

I see both sides of it. I really do. I don’t want anybody to get infected or die for the sake of profit. But I’m also unemployed. I need the economy to restart so people will start hiring again.

Otherwise, in a couple months I’ll be shaking a ceramic mug somewhere along an Interstate 235 offramp with a sign saying “Homeless journalist. Will tell stories for food.”

Grim? Yes. But consider unemployment in the pandemic feels like Wes Craven’s version of “Groundhog Day.” Instead of reliving the same day and becoming a slightly better person who woos Andie MacDowell, I relive the same day of sadness, anxiety, terror and boredom.

The sadness is grief from the loss of my job. The confusion of self-worth and employment is an ugly side-effect on psychology in capitalism. We are what we do.

We aren’t, of course. We’re much more than that. But it sure feels like if you’re not making money, you’re a bum gumming up the works for the pull-themselves-up-by-the-bootstraps crowd.

I live with general anxiety disorder. That means I’m scared, sometimes terrified, even when there is no reason to be edgy. But, oh buddy, you give me a reason to be edgy — and unemployment is absolutely that — look out.

I turn negative self-talk in to an art form. Give me 5 minutes in front of a mirror and I slice myself to pieces with self-loathing. Those nagging whispers that tell me how rotten I am — You’re not good enough. You were never good enough. — become almost screams in the silence of a weekday when it feels like all your friends are at work in a Microsoft Teams meeting and you’re left refreshing Indeed.com every 2 seconds.

That’s when the terror grabs hold of my throat. What if I don’t find a job? What if I get evicted? What if I have to move all this shit? A comic book collection is wicked cool when you don’t have to haul scores of volumes out to a rented truck. My Funko Pops bring me all kinds of joy until I have to wrap them individually and haul them away to charity.

A friend asked me if I could move back into my parents’ house. This was three days into my unemployment. I nearly threw up. I’m almost 45 years old. There is no going home at 45. I’ve got to figure this out. I’ve got to make it work.

And the voice whispers: What if you don’t?

Finally, boredom. The intensity of unemployment is matched only by how much it tries my patience. I can only look for a job for so many hours a day. I can only call contacts so long. And, as mean as this sounds, I can only accept so many “you got this” aphorisms.

My poor friend Yvonne endures a Facetime call from me most days. When I rant about this abominable cluster of rage and anguish, she’s taken to just staring at me sadly and saying nothing. She’s not being cruel. She just realizes there’s nothing to be said.

This sucks. And the only thing you can do is endure and attempt to overcome.

Time both stops and sprints in the same moment. It stops as I plow through month-old job listings hoping to trip the automated human resources software with the right bullshit buzzwords to earn a chance to talk to a real human being about what I can do for them.

Early evening and night are the worst in the pandemic. The city starts to shut down around 7 p.m. The window for me to talk to friends with jobs closes quickly after 8 p.m. By 9 p.m., my skin crawls anxious to do something, but know there is nothing to do and no one to talk to.

As midnight approaches, I think about taking my medication and going to sleep, yet I hesitate, because when I open my eyes, it will be yet another goddamn day I am unemployed, cut off from the news business and no direction forward.

The clock sprints when day turns to night and no progress is made. The severance checks dwindle. The deadline for the CARES Act expanded unemployment approaches.

The House talks more stimulus. The Senate tells them it won’t fly. They smash into one another like drunken rams on a mountaintop while people’s lives — including mine — tumble down the mountainside like gravel.

I cut a deal with all my friends and family. I promised them I would tell them if I got a job — hell, if I got an interview — I would tell them if, in return, they would do me the kindness of not asking me how the job search is going. The answer remains the same: shitty.

I should temper my complaint. People have overwhelmed me with well wishes and good tidings. They’ve generously supported this fledgling website’s effort to continue my newspaper column in the virtual space paid for by donations. (Thanks to everyone and keep them coming. Desperation sinks in quickly.)

Anyway, we’re opening up.

I’ve tried it.

Last Wednesday, I went to the comic store for the first time since mid-March. They handed me a heavy stack of books. I walked the aisles. I started to sweat immediately. My back ached. I leaned on a glass counter and sweat. I flipped through my stack.

The pain came from two sources. First, I suffered through pneumonia in February and March, right before the pandemic. The treatment, particularly the steroids, left my legs weak. And, of course, I ate poorly during quarantine. Sometimes pasta, breads and sweets feel like the only thing in the world that can make me feel human.

Of course that leads to weight gain and makes puts my blood sugar on a rocket to Mars. And the immobility only adds to the anxiety and sadness. I’ve convinced myself I’m dying no less than 731 times in the last month.

People say, “Take walks.” I can barely walk 100 paces before my legs feel as if I’ve run a mile. The weight is a part of it, maybe the biggest part. The truth is I’m afraid to walk too far away from my apartment or car for fear I won’t be able to get back.

Pathetic? You bet. My opinion of myself hovers somewhere slightly above whale dung. This immobility is crushing what remains of my self-esteem like a cigarette in an ashtray.

I was supposed to go to aquatic therapy in March to help rehab my legs. I’ve done it once before and it was transformative. I got strong enough to go back to the gym. But then the pandemic came. The pool closed. And I endured.

The second reason for the sweats: I couldn’t afford the books in my stack. Oh, I could have bought them and I would have still made rent. But I’m unemployed. The idea that I spent any money on comic books is ridiculous.

I felt terrible. Comic stores are small businesses that operate on narrow margins. Being closed forced a lot of people I love out of work. And they remain out of work until the economy restarts.

I wanted to support my friends, but I had to think about my own survival. I damn near cried right there in the store. I wish I had, but I just don’t cry anymore. I get six to eight tears and then I just dry up. The well of sadness drills much deeper, but my physical ability to let it go is limited.

I profusely apologized to the owner. He understood. He assured me the customers had been loyal and generous. I wished I could join them, but now is not the time.

Even with my personal discomfort, the store was off somehow. The owners wore masks. Everyone stood 6 feet apart. It was open, but only just and it felt like looking through a cracked mirror.

The same was true at the barbeque joint I frequent in the neighborhood. I grabbed a seat at the bar, one of about six. My favorite spot — over to the right of the cash register by the takeout lane — isn’t a spot right now. Bar seats, and the tables, are spaced out 6 feet. Some servers wore masks. Some didn’t. Parties were limited to six people.

The food tasted the same — delicious. But instead of using a squeezable mustard dispenser, pandemic practice calls for individual servings. So I spent a part of my meal trying to tear open those miserable little packets of mustard to put on my ham sandwich.

I drank diet pop without a straw. I could request one, but to hell with it. It’s just another damn thing. I sipped too big a gulp and coughed. A woman who waited in line for take out snapped her head around to look at me.

Do I have it? Am I going to infect her? Is this the beginning of the zombie apocalypse?

I empathize. A guy talked the the bartender about his bill. He coughed a few times while he waited. I know him to be a smoker, but that niggling worry. Am I risking too much just for a taste of freedom?

It seems like the whole world is just an uncomfortable mess right now. I suppose it isn’t as apocalyptic as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet, nothing feels quite the way it’s supposed to.

It feels like an old transistor radio can’t get the local station despite even the gentlest of fingers on the tuner. There’s a rasp that throws off the treble of every tune. It’s better than no music, but only just.

Look, I don’t have any words of wisdom here. The only thing I know how to do is keep twisting that dial until something comes in tune. But I’m an impatient man who suffers from a severely disquieted soul.

I’d like to hear a good song any time now.

Daniel P. Finney, Independent journalist

Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life in the places we live.

ParagraphStacker.com is reader-supported media. Please consider donating at paypal.me/paragraphstacker.


  1. gazeboy96 says:

    Hang in there! I am still doing the MyFitnessPal app, staying healthy. 1780 days of keeping a food journal. You helped me so much.


    1. That’s great to here, Gerry!


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