Pandemic speed date

We’re on our Woodland Valley walk in early June when we pass a man standing beside a hatchback parked near a particularly idyllic section of the Esopus Creek. Lush maples and birches hang over the water, birdsong heralds the coming evening. Traffic is light, and as usual we’ve passed no one.

The guy is wearing fisherman’s waders and gathering a rod and tackle from the car. It looks like he’s getting ready to fish, but surely that can’t be. It’s late afternoon, just before the golden hour, which will soon melt into a soft Catskills dusk. This is when we usually see fisherfolk packing it all in after casting their lines all day. Not just getting started.

Of course it doesn’t matter. Because we are friendly, just as in pre-Covid days, we wave, congenial-like.

Advertisement

“How’re you guys doing?” the guy says affably, and steps towards us. Then he stops, keeping at least ten feet of distance. We are unmasked, as is he. Unless we walk with neighbors, we keep our masks in our pockets.

For an instant, I think we know him. He seems so familiar. Does Holly know him? I look at her and immediately realize she does not. I don’t, either. But my red-flag sensors, which kept me from getting mugged during my 16-year tenure as a Manhattanite, are not going off. I’m not sensing danger.

As he begins to speak, I know immediately why the sense of familiarity. Here is yet another person who, like us, is starved for real-time contact with fellow humans, spilling over the brim, likely not realizing in the moment how effusive they’re being. We share the same hunger, but because we’re all in “crisis mode” we don’t consciously realize what we’ve been missing until we have it again. Something – pheromones, facial tells, body language – communicates this need without words. We just start talking. He goes first.

“I’m gonna get some fishing done before the sun goes down, I know it’s crazy to drive all the way here from New Rochelle, but I been working 60-hour weeks at the distillery and I need some time to decompress, and the drive is actually really pleasant, and I’ve fished here for years, even before this job, which is an engineering gig, but we’ve retrofitted the factory now to make PPP gear for frontline workers.”

“That’s so cool,” I say. “Thanks. You think you’ll catch anything?”

“I don’t care, really,” the guy laughs. “I just need to be here for awhile. What do you guys do?”

“We’re both writers and teachers,” I say. “I teach music lessons on Zoom, which is okay but not ideal, and Holly teaches in the English department at SUNY New Paltz, but she’s been doing it on Zoom, too, and we moved here from New York in 2002 to raise our son, who’s a filmmaker, and he’s taking this much better than I would at age 22, that’s for sure, but he’s still bummed, because it sucks in so many ways. He actually graduated on Zoom.”

It’s like a speed date for pandemic friends. How many times in 18 years have we stopped on Woodland Valley to chat with total strangers? None. (It will happen again more than once in ensuing weeks, as people venture out, test the waters, and explode with talking.)

The chat continues, much, much longer than it would have in pre-Covid days. We gradually walk away, but still talk while walking, a long info-rich goodbye in the waning light of the day.

Will it turn out that this guy drove from New Rochelle primarily to shoot the breeze with two strangers? Perhaps. If so, it’s clear, without verbal acknowledgment, that this will be considered time well spent on an activity none of us will ever take for granted again.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.