“You need to really rub the inside of your mouth with it. Five seconds on the left cheek. Same with the roof of your mouth, and then the right side of your cheek and then your tongue.”
Today, they were only set up for testing, but the whole place was ready for something more desperate, more extensive. Orange cones, plastic tents and emergency vehicles, relief workers in protective gear — this was the landscape of crisis.
There were two lines of cars, so I maneuvered the truck into the shorter one. A hooded Tyvek-suited man, mask up and gloves on, pointed me to the much longer line. The short line was reserved for first responders — doctors, paramedics, firefighters and cops. Made sense. Get them tested first. I drove down past half-mile of parked cars and swung around a Mercedes AMG whose 60-something driver was standing on the door well of his car, taking in the length of the line. His wife sat next to him, neither wore masks. I thumbed the one I brought with me and the rescue inhaler my doctor prescribed.
The short line evaporated over the course of a half-hour, which went quickly as I listened to Robert Caro explain how Lady Bird Johnson told him about Alice Glass, LBJ’s mistress. Every 10 minutes the cars crawled a few lengths forward. For every minute we stood still, four or five more cars grouped in behind us. A Tyvek-man walked down the line at one point, handing out masks. I rolled down the window.
“Will you have enough tests?” I asked. He nodded yes. “We’re going through the old ones first,” he said, “but a new shipment just came in.” And that was the last person I spoke to for the next hour and a half.
Then it was time to turn off the road and into the testing compound. The same Tyvek-man approached and asked for my appointment confirmation and last name. I idled in place until the administrators at a nearby table cross-checked my name and gave us the high sign.
After that, a different Tyvek-man approached. He held out a package, a large sealed plastic bag emblazoned with the grim and spiky hazmat symbol. Inside were two plastic envelopes, one contained the swab. The other had the tube that would house the swab once I was done.
“You need to really rub the inside of your mouth with it,” the Tyvek-man said, everything coming out muffled. “Five seconds on the left cheek. Same with the roof of your mouth, and then the right side of your cheek and then your tongue.”
Did he say five seconds or did he say nine? I parroted everything back to him and he gave the thumbs up. At the testing site, if you didn’t have to open your mouth, you didn’t.
“Today, they were only set up for testing, but the whole place was ready for something more desperate, more extensive. Orange cones, plastic tents and emergency vehicles, relief workers in protective gear — this was the landscape of crisis.”
Three days prior, UCLA was only able to get 40 tests done a day. There were easily 50 cars in front of me when I got into the line. A day after that, L.A. County officials said they were moving away from testing.
Still, we gathered to find out. There was some larger, persistent voice in most of our heads. We needed to know how to handle the future, yes, but as stimulus packages and unemployment designations and sick day determinations were bundled in with every bit of the future economy, part of being tested was figuring out how you were going to rebuild your bank account. That’s applicable to the rich, to the poor and to the disappearing middle class.
I drove forward and joined a much shorter line of cars where everyone was swabbing themselves. That should have been a smooth bit of self-operating simplicity. As soon as I put the truck in park, there came a rushing wavelike crash of anxious fear. The COVID pen the Tyvek-man gave me didn’t write. I grabbed at a ballpoint I keep in my sun visor. It smudged immediately. My left hand clutched the smudged envelope and the swab vial while my right hand scoured the cabin for the COVID pen.
Each time one of the cars beside me moved forward, my heartbeat increased. My temples pounded. This is what it felt like running from the cops in the French Quarter or driving to the side of the road to miss an oncoming tornado on a north Texas highway.
Once I’d gotten everything back inside the plastic envelopes and written my name in block letter handwriting on the bag, I inched toward the next group of Tyvek-men and realized that all of this was an automated ballet of compartmentalized neurosis particular to itself. You could not help coming near to tears. While I only know two people who died from COVID-19, this was the early stage, before emergency rooms were overrun. What then?
I stopped in front of the last of the Tyvek-men. One pushed a blue barrel lined with a black plastic garbage bag toward my truck. The other one motioned for me to drop my envelope inside. None of the Tyvek-brigade knew when the test results would come. But what they did know was their regimen, and they knew that the way we all know how to breathe. “Be safe,” one of them said. “Stay healthy,” I replied.
“Each time one of the cars beside me moved forward, my heartbeat increased. My temples pounded. This is what it felt like running from the cops in the French Quarter or driving to the side of the road to miss an oncoming tornado on a north Texas highway.”
Back at home, I dumped my clothes and boots into a garbage bag my wife had set aside in the back. She had put up handmade signs on the wall — “super-secret changing station” they read — adorned with stick figure drawings and fastened in place with masking tape. It was the first time I smiled that day. I changed clothes and sprayed the old ones down with disinfectant, tied the bags closed and stowed them in the truck. We weren’t going anywhere for a while.
Inside the apartment, I sat down at my computer. One message beckoned, unopened in my mailbox. My older brother’s best friend from elementary school was checking in. He’d gone into the military and later worked as a civilian with the State Department. A staunch conservative — he supported both John Kelly and Jim Mattis when they entered the Trump administration — our friendship bends around our contrasting politics. His message was kind and brotherly. He ended it with a statement that surprised me.
“I’m appalled at how poorly prepared our country is for this,” he wrote. “From now on, we need to shift billions each year from DOD to public health.”
Reading that was a bigger victory than having gotten tested.