An Omega Man’s COVID Journal


Charlton Heston in the 1971 classic Omega Man.

OMAHA, April 20, 2020 — Who remembers the opening sequence to the 1971 science fiction thriller Omega Man?

It’s a late afternoon in downtown Los Angeles. Charlton Heston drives through the empty streets in a bright red Cadillac convertible, the wind whipping through his hair as the sun glares off his aviator shades. He pushes an 8-track into the car stereo and enjoys a soothing saxophone version of “Theme from a Summer Place,” smugly smiling as if he’s the last man on earth because, well, he sort of is. The sequence ends with Heston standing bolt up in his Caddy and shooting a submachine gun at a zombie in the upper floors of an office building.

My trip downtown last Saturday morning felt like a 2020 remake of that opening sequence, minus the submachine gun part.

I drove down an empty Cuming Street past 30th to the freeway where I took a quick hop to Capitol and then up Dodge, parking along the vacant street right outside the building. Not a soul around. It had been almost a month since I began working at home, and the company memo warned us if we didn’t used our ID cards to enter the building at least once within a 30-day span, our cards would be deactivated. I figured I might as well avoid that hassle and visit the ol’ HQ.

I sidled up to the control box outside the north entrance, leaned my card against the keyboard and heard a *beep* followed by the click of a release latch. Success! The heavy glass door pulled back with a whoosh, like opening a vault or a tomb. The place smelled different. Not stale, not clean, just… different. It was as empty as the streets outside.

Omega Man, the last man on earth!

I stepped onto the escalator, keeping my hands in my pockets, making a mental list of everything I’d touched since I left my Geo Tracker. The building’s cafeteria was dark and empty. A huge banner hung over the south entrance honoring National Women’s Month, which had ended three weeks earlier.

I quickly carded through the security gate and headed up to the 15th floor to grab a notebook from my office, the motion-detection lights flickering on as I walked down the hallway. There on my desk were all my scattered notes, my coffee cup, my water bottle, a half-empty container of Purell, all just as I’d left them a month ago. I grabbed what I came for and left, wondering when I’d ever be back.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I still have a job two months into this COVID-19 nightmare. But to be perfectly honest, these past weeks of government-suggested self-isolation really haven’t been all that bad.

Sure, I haven’t been able to see my dad, who’s practically a prisoner in an assisted living lock-down situation we all know is for his own good. And yes, I miss going to clubs to see rock bands and spending nights at movie theaters. And of course I miss dining out. While some restaurants now offer curbside take-away, it’s much less enticing to be handed a bag of Thai food by someone in a surgical mask and rubber gloves.

That said, living through COVID-19 ain’t the worst thing in the world if you’re in your 50s, married with no children, have a good work-at-home job and a nice house with unlimited Wi-Fi. While the workdays undoubtedly stretch longer working at home, it’s hard to complain with two dogs asleep at your feet and the only real inconvenience is having to get up to flip the record on the turntable.

Over the course of my 30-something-year career, this is the longest I’ve spent away from the office, and I’m wondering if it isn’t a glimpse at what I’ll go through in my retirement years (minus the traveling, of course, because we’ll all be traveling again soon).

But along with the comforts of home, there’s still plenty of COVID-based anxiety, such as watching my 401(k) continue to slide to oblivion along with the rest of the stock market. And the daily Trump briefings, which I tell myself to avoid but can’t pull away from, like watching a daily one-act play by a confederacy of dunces — The Donald droning on about the invisible enemy and his “beautiful” tests “which anyone can get” while the nebbish Dr. Fauci stands behind him looking like he just breathed in a lungful of Trump’s fart cloud.

I still don’t know anyone who’s tested positive or anyone who knows anyone who’s tested positive. It’s not that I don’t believe it’s real as much as I feel lucky to be living in Nebraska and I worry about all those musicians and friends who moved to New York City or Los Angeles over the past few years to escape our state’s mundane-ness. They’re in a much scarier predicament and likely a much more expensive one, too — musicians are getting financially clobbered by the pandemic, along with every other artist.

But the scariest fact of all: As of this writing, worldwide more than 2.5 million people have been infected; 175,000 of those have died, including 44,000 in the United States.

While some states are beginning to consider turning their economies back on, I read on one website (covid19.healthdata.org) that Nebraska won’t be ready for “social easing” until after June 29. Because although we’re “flattening the curve,” we’re also elongating it, apparently.

Or have we? Just a day after my Omega Man experience, I ventured out into the world again to get my weekly groceries and — my my — you would never know we were under a self-imposed lock-down. Traffic was as bad as ever, cars bumper-to-bumper buzzing up and down Saddle Creek. The parking lot of my neighborhood Baker’s was crush full, as were the aisles inside.

For the first time, I wore a wonky green-and-orange floral-printed homemade mask while shopping. And (good news) I wasn’t alone. About half the shoppers’ faces were hidden beneath paisley handkerchiefs, pastel scarves, one guy even wrapped what looked like a Miami Dolphins sweat sock across his nose and mouth. Unfortunately, just as many people weren’t wearing masks, and neither were most of the clerks.

There are those who think this thing is going to last forever, that we’ll never be back to the way we were just a few months ago. I guess I’m an optimist. I have no doubt we’ll be dealing with COVID this summer, but that “normal” will slowly creep back into everyday life.

Or maybe I’m wrong, in which case, where can I get my hands on a submachine gun?

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com


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