April 2021. My second “pandemic” birthday is a fact.
Two weeks ago, when the weather made an attempt to turn nice, my friend and I had an opportunity to x-perience the brutally tough Dutch lockdown. We were coming back from a run and briefly stopped at the edge of the Noorderplantsoen, a.k.a. the park that separates our neighborhoods. We were about to wrap up the uncensored rants that saved both of our sanities during the past twelve months when the smell stopped us in our tracks.
I’m talking about the smell of the takeaway BBQ sets you can buy at the supermarkets. It’s not a smell so much as a gasoline-flavored film that spreads through the air and penetrates every pair of lungs unfortunate enough to be in its vicinity. I think the idea is to just burn these tinfoil suckers using cigarette lighters until they burst open, and then eat whatever is bursting from the inside. Given enough people doing this at the same time, you get the classic Noorderplantsoen BBQ smoke dome, a.k.a. The Bell Jar of Death.
My friend took in the scenes unfolding in front of us: young people dressed in tunics, shorts, and wrapping garments, like extras in a Gladiator/sandal epic headed for more bread & games. Some of them carried bloated bags with food they intended to eat, or possibly burn up and eat, on one of the few available spaces on the lawn. Or anywhere, really. Music sounded from afar and from nearby, and someone had neatly put down their empty beer bottle next to the trash bin stuffed with cardboard coffee-to-go cups.
With a dreamy gaze that cut through the years and landed on scenes from a sweet youth before lockdowns and motherhood, my friend said, “this reminds me of Lowlands.”
“You’ve been to Lowlands?” I asked, impressed. I know the Lowlands festival denotes a Dutch rite of passage, but to me, German that I am, it’s mainly a term standing in for everything that is no longer possible right now because of the global pandemic. No longer possible, except, apparently, at both of our doorsteps.
Technically, and until April 28th, we’re still “in lockdown.” Restaurants and public buildings are closed. Shops open by appointment only. The maximum group size allowed outside is two or three people—honestly, at this point I lost track. Handwashing, handwashing, handwashing. Every café, restaurant, greengrocer and furniture shop is selling food and drinks to go, and people consume them in public spaces. Cavernous theaters and musea are empty, and the supermarkets are crowded.
People bike past us in droves. Most students prefer the traditional “steal it and see if I care” model, some ride a Swapfiets (a leased bike), and a certain segment of adults zooms past on the super-expensive electric bikes that are becoming ever more popular. Personally, I’m a purist whose pants are already a tight fit, so I stick to my calorie-burning Gazelle Esprit Urban, number of gears and batteries: zero.
We noticed the young man because he biked slower than the trim parents, wiry 60+ couples and beer-crate balancing flower children around him. He steered with one hand and looked at his phone. He was very thin, especially his wrists, and wore black shorts and a black t-shirt. His dark hair was messy, his skin pallid. As he rolled towards the sidewalk, only connected to the handlebars by the faintest and most delicate touch of his fingertips, he started to smile at whichever was unfolding on the screen of his rather large phone. He biked onto the sidewalk, rolled off it, and bumped against it. The wheel jerked to the side, the handle flew out of his hand, and he fell.
He’d been biking slowly, as I said, but it was still a bad fall, mostly because he did nothing to stop it. He lay on the ground in the fetal position, the bike on top of him. It hurt just looking at him, but as he sat up in a daze it appeared he wasn’t bleeding or seriously damaged.
A girl disengaged from a group of more girls and tried to move his bike, which wasn’t an easy task as the front wheel had turned around completely, and the bike itself was a heavy model. As she handled the bike, the young man sat on the ground, phone still in hand and smiled weakly at no one in particular.
The girl, who wore glasses and a white jumpsuit printed with flowers, managed to get the bike in an upright position. The young man, too, was back on his feet, without seeing her, it seemed. The violence of the fall had snapped the red back light from the back of the bike. It lay on the asphalt, cracked. The girl picked it up, exchanging reassuring glances with her friends who huddled to the side. When he didn’t react or indicated in any way that he wanted to take it from her, she searched for a place on him or the bike where she could put it. Eureka: an open pocket on his shorts. After a moment of hesitation, she leaned forward, stretching her arm as long as it would, as if she’d suddenly remembered the 1,5m rule, and dropped the light into the inviting gash of fabric.
The girls departed. The young man mounted his bike, or rather, he let the bike hang from his left hand so it tilted it one side, climbed across the middle so his ass was sort of in line with the saddle, dragged the bike upright again until he could sit, and, with a lazy push-off, created just enough momentum to continue his journey. He was already back on his phone.
This really happened, but I keep thinking about wrapping this up and making it mean more than it does. Is this young man all of us, as we have apparently collectively decided corona is running the end titles and we’re free to go, and if we hurry up, we can still get a scoop of that champagne ice cream at the pop-up store on the corner? Let me look up the name on the phone?
Or is he the fumbling but miraculously unharmed decision makers we have? The defective rollercoaster-ride with a thousand loose screws we call our vaccination campaign?
Is the young man dumb or sort of cool?
And who is the girl?
She’s not me. My mental state, not that anyone is obliged to care, is best described by the voice of Axl Rose when he sings Paradise City, in particular the line I MUST BE LOSING MY MIND ARE YOU BLIND.
But there’s so much energy in that.