by Robert P. Barsanti
We went to the movies for the first time in a year or so. The superheroes were on the big screen, the sound shook the seats, and no one looked back at the explosions. In front of us, a string of teenagers needled each other and glanced at their phones. We were glad to be there, glad to be maskless, and glad that they were making popcorn again.
After the final explosions, and the credits, and the after-credits, we emerged into a damp night where the last seating on Oak Street gave us applause.
We have travelled a long way through the fog. And it has broken.
Movies, cinemas, and popcorn have been an important part of my family’s lives. Before the pandemic, I would drive hours to the young man’s school, take him to some super-powered, mutant-infested, near apocalypse, buy him a bucket of popcorn the size of his prodigious head, and let the film take him away. If the movie was especially to his liking, he would bounce, he would stand, and he would chatter throughout. Without the cinema, he made microwave popcorn and watched the movies on one small screen or another, but he was without the kinetic nuclear joy that came from a trip to the movies.
I don’t know if we are fully back from the gray and wet pandemic. Like the fog, it remains perched offshore in reefs of gray and purple, waiting for a shift in the wind to task us and take back our time. Now, in the clear evening air, we have lines forming on Dave Street and Broad Street every night. The birthday parties are filling their voices with song as well as the restaurants. You can walk around the supermarket, buy toilet paper and ice cream, and then trade gossip with the cashier without talking through a mask or a plexiglass screen. At one breakfast place, one eight-person table was taken up by a large group of St. Grottlesex boys and another table with an equally handsome and large group of Miss Greenhill girls. They tried to ignore each other. So, you can fool yourself into thinking that fingers were snapped, the world was reset, and we are in the clear.
In the new normal, we eat outside. Al fresco has become a favorite side dish. For some of the small restaurants, their dining room just expanded to their parking; the financial attraction is tangible. But for the diners, the meal is a lot more pleasant under the trees and on the cobblestones than it is cooped and crammed into a a tastefully decorated, dimly lit box. The Europeans had this figured out a long time ago, the Wagyu steak and the shrimp scampi taste better with more room, more sea air, and the rustle of an elm tree.
We go to plays and movies outside as well. The Dreamland drive-in has proven itself over the last year-and-a-half. We will pile into cars and head out for an old movie in our car seats. Or, we will go to Bartlett’s for Mamma Mia, even if we spend more time basking in the sunset and stars than we do in the stage lights.
Perhaps the greatest change post pandemic doesn’t come from what is open, but from what is closed. Restaurants, bakeries, and stores close up for many evenings and many days. More than a few of the restaurants have adopted the September-Long-Weekend-Schedule, where there is food on the table Thursday through Sunday, but the chairs are upside down otherwise. And don’t show up after eight. Perhaps the stores are without cashiers or clerks, but they are also without the fierce capitalistic urge that kept the lights on deep into the evening for window shoppers and idle plutocrats waiting for the tables to clear. Instead, the bakers have gone fishing and chefs are in the deep rough, looking for a golf ball that could conceivably claim to be theirs.
I could swear and could almost believe that the New Normal will remain after we have stashed our masks in the sock drawer or repurposed them into napkins. The way we lived pre-pandemic, rushing from one frustrated customer to the other, was a short trip to the hospital and retirement. A year without family (or locked inside with it) should give us all a moment to reconsider how valuable the Tuesday Night 9 pm seating really is.
At the beach, the late afternoon has become more valuable. After the young and firm have climbed onto their bikes and gone for a brewery tour, the olds slip onto the beach. On Tuesday evening, after I woke up under a book, the Miss Porter’s Ladies Lacrosse team to my right had been replaced by a crew of six Honduran house painters, complete with work boots, towels, and pizza. On my left, a restaurant owner of renown sat on a beach chair in front of a grill, with grandchildren tumbling in the surf, children in chairs, and a pint glass filled with something pink. For those moments, he held time firmly in his hand while money slipped away. The best lesson of the pandemic might be that our only true currency is time. We pay for everything in minutes, hours, and days.