Mike Magnuson opines about the current state of affairs in Menasha, Wisconsin, where COVID numbers are peaking and the election is approaching.
One afternoon a week or so ago, a powerful wind blew over my street and separated the tree leaves from their branches forever, as if doing them each a favor, as if relieving the one from the other of an attachment they both had hated since the day it began. This had become the way of the world now, everything a reckoning, everything this way or that. This was how it would all end. Everyone knew this.
But the day was beautiful, anyway, crisp and sunny, northeastern Wisconsin in October, with the fall colors at their absolute peak and with the regional COVID-19 figures peaking, too, and new Wisconsin records posting every day: the most daily cases, the most deaths, the highest percentage of tests coming back positive, the maximum stifling anxiety and suppressed rage welling on either side of the populace. Up the numbers went, and down from the tops of maples and oaks and cottonwoods and ash trees fell the leaves, clusters of them whipped by the wind into swirling leaf-devils, tiny tornadoes of the dead that raged gently over the street until they collapsed against the fences and the shrubs and my neighborhood’s nearly endless array of walls.
I watched this blustery scene from my home office window and wondered if tree leaves occupied the same place in the celestial hierarchy as snowflakes, irreplicable gifts from God, or were tree leaves all the same, or relatively the same, with their differences only made manifest by the part of the tree from which they started their fall? Here they were now, in any event—leaves from the top of the tree, from the middle, from the lower branches—on their way to settling together on the ground, and in a day or two, after the winds had calmed, the neighborhood’s duty-bound homeowners would rake them and burn them or grind them up for mulch or bag them and set them on the curb for the city trucks to pick up and transport to the municipal dump.
I experienced, as is my nature this time of year, a wave of melancholy, a sense of losing something I will never get back. I am fifty-seven years old, and despite my occasional platitudes about God, I identify as atheist, though I am not quite as fanatical about it as I was thirty years ago, which is common among atheists; the urge to make amends grows stronger the closer we get to the end. I am afraid. I admit it. My comorbidities could generate plotlines for a Halloween Week’s worth of horror films—two total hip replacements, raging arthritis, a lifetime of celiac disease, just to mention a few—and I am not the man I used to be, I guess, not that it would matter anymore one way or the other.
Whatever the case, on this blustery day, when I stood at my window literally in the geographic epicenter of one of the most intense COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States, northeastern Wisconsin, in Winnebago County, in the city of Menasha, I felt compelled to wander into the community and observe the calamity of our times in person. So, I suited up, pumped some air into my bicycle tires, and went out for an afternoon spin.
Once I was rolling, the wind didn’t seem as severe, and the leaves lost whatever meaning I had ascribed to them from the safe space of my home office. All I knew for certain about the world was that riding my bike made me feel young again. I was not, of course, young again. Nothing possibly could be done to “Make Mike Young Again,” but just for this small moment outside, this feeling was more than enough to keep me upright and moving forward.
So, I followed my usual route on the Friendship Trail westward on the way to downtown Menasha and to the quiet countryside roads beyond that. Because the Friendship Trail, like lots of things in Wisconsin, has been gerrymandered—by which I mean the trail sometimes doesn’t follow a predictable, logical, natural path, at least during its meander through town—I freelanced my route, taking sidewalks, hopping over curbs, running absolutely every stop sign and stoplight and in general behaving like a self-absorbed, spandex-wearing menace to society. I was exactly the type of cyclist that people who hate cyclists hate the most. Although, to my credit, I was wearing a helmet. Also in my defense, I maintained a vigilant eye for cars at every intersection, and trust me, despite the horrors of the pandemic, the roads of Menasha were busy, so much so that it seemed like the whole city was out driving around, running their last urgent errands before the apocalypse, but none of these cars came close enough to force me to obey the law.
My academic friends love to use the word intersection when they’re discussing social issues—and when they’re discussing almost any issues, really. For instance, there is an intersection between commerce and politics and an intersection between wealth and healthcare and an intersection between wine and cheese and dogs and cats and baseball and apple pie, and there is an intersection between not having COVID and having COVID, which, we all agree, might occasion the intersection between birth and death. Intersections are all about correspondences, and if you look hard enough for correspondences between two ideas or two objects or two people, you will always find at least one thing that connects the dots—that’s the nature of analogy—but for cyclists, an intersection takes a considerably more concrete definition, if you will, and when it comes down to it, cyclists view intersections as an annoyance. I can’t think of one lifetime cycling enthusiast over the age of forty who hasn’t broken the law at an intersection at least ten thousand times during their lifespan riding bikes. We don’t appreciate coming to a complete stop when we’re out riding. That’s why we call it riding, not stopping.
Therefore, all you MAGA cyclists out there with your four-thousand-dollar gravel bikes, and your “Law and Order” signs in your front yards, and your MAGA signs and flags, and your “Support the Police” signs, you need to come clean with your soul. Stop signs have meant nothing to you since you were in third grade. And now you’re beating your chests about Law and Order?
Actually, you could argue that the Friendship Trail, like friendship itself, isn’t gerrymandered at all, once you get used to a couple of quirky detours past the Menasha municipal dump and through the apartment complex next to the railroad tracks, once you recognize that the trail disappears for a block or two here and there but always resumes. You’ll always find it again. You have to accept the Friendship Trail for what it is and be grateful for it. Trouble is, I don’t always feel like accepting it. Lots of people feel that way these days.
Despite the horrors of the pandemic, the roads of Menasha were busy, so much so that it seemed like the whole city was out driving around, running their last urgent errands before the apocalypse.
I rolled past a pole-barn-looking bar and grill called The Redliner, which, at one o’clock in the afternoon, had fifteen weather-beaten vehicles parked in its crumbled asphalt lot. A few maskless white guys with camo feed caps and flannel shirts stood smoking cigarettes behind a fenced enclosure outside the bar, and in the old days—say, one year ago today—I would not have begrudged these fellows spending a weekday at the bar. They were probably third-shift workers, milking the last bit of their morning jag before going home to crash until ten p.m. and get back up and make a lunch and return to the mill for another long night. And who was I? Some jackass in spandex, riding a carbon-fiber bicycle in the middle of the day?
Alas, those were the amicable days of yore, only a year ago, when we gave people benefit of the doubt. But now, when I see these guys without masks, smoking behind that fence, the three of them standing shoulder to shoulder—again, without masks!—I’m revolted and angered and overwhelmed with the belief that humanity is doomed. These guys were MAGA people. They had to be, even though they weren’t wearing their red party hats. Only MAGA people are hanging out at the bars these days, when the cases in our area are shattering records every single day of the week, and MAGA people hate masks, especially when they’re relaxing, because MAGA people have the God-given right to get back to their normal lives and to drink cheap beer at the bar in the middle of the day.
An artist friend of mine told me recently that I should never hate my enemies, and he was correct, on both a moral and a tactical plane, but he’s a better person than me. I think about what it means to have an enemy, and I can’t avoid thinking that hate is intrinsic to the idea of enemy. MAGA people hate me, by definition, because even though I’m disguised today as a middle-aged cycling enthusiast, I’m part of the radical left mob that apparently has been burning down entire cities all over our great nation over the last few months, and I hate MAGA people, by definition, because they think I’m burning down cities in my spare time. The situation is way more complicated than this, for sure, but on my bike, when I saw those maskless men looking bored and confined in their fenced-in smoking enclosure, they looked to me like specimens in one of the many MAGA Exhibits at the Menasha Zoo.
My God, I was so ashamed to be thinking this way: reducing gainfully employed human beings to orangutans in flannel shirts. How did life come to this?
Worse yet, I wasn’t wearing a mask, either. I didn’t even have one tucked in my jersey pocket. I had a set of Fix-it Sticks in my pocket, in case I had a mechanical problem. I had a spare inner tube and a CO2 cartridge in case I had a flat tire along the way. I even had a dollar bill with me, too, in case I tore out a tire’s sidewall and had to patch it, which is something I’ve done more than a few times over the years. But for all that, I didn’t have a mask in case I might have to talk face-to-face with another person on my ride, which would be a definite possibility, say, if I tore out a sidewall and had to patch it with a dollar bill in front of a house with a “Gun Owners for Trump” sign on the lawn.
But on my ride through the neighborhoods, my hypocrisy didn’t stand in the way of my judgment: a life strategy I had learned and perfected on social media, I guess.
A “Trump 2020, No More Bullshit” flag hanging outside a house: These people are horrible!
A “Flush the Turd November Third” sign in the yard: These people are wonderful!
Tavern after tavern with full complements of cars in the lot (there were quite a few like this along the way): Selfish bastards trying to kill us all!
A “Black Lives Matter” flag (there was only one): There you go! Social Justice! I love it!
And so on.
Menasha is an old mill town, and the houses have a ramshackle look to them, most of them constructed a couple of generations ago or even farther back, the neighborhoods aren’t entries in the American Encyclopedia of White Trash, even though it’s not uncommon for people from Appleton, the wealthier city just to the north, to refer to Menasha as Metrasha. People have jobs here—good-paying factory jobs—they just aren’t rich. The yards, political signs and flags notwithstanding, are neatly appointed; the cars in the driveways are not crumbling with rust. People wave and say hello to strangers. There’s an air of sturdy respectability about the place. I like it here, or I used to like it, before the COVID times. I’m not from Menasha, and I suppose I could pack up and move somewhere else in the country where everyone thinks the same way as me and the COVID numbers are not raging at nation-leading rates, but I doubt if such a place exists anymore. If I live through this, I keep telling myself, I’ll take a look at my options. I wonder if that’s the new version of the American Dream?
About a half an hour into my ride, I crossed the four lanes of Highway CE and departed the Friendship Trail, and I headed north toward the stoplights at West American Drive, where I would take a left and indeed head west. Traffic in the near lanes on the highway came toward me. If I were to follow this bike path according to its grand design, I would cross West American, at which time I would be on another bike path and on my merry way westward, on the right side of the road. Instead, when I reached the intersection, I booked west on a sidewalk, on the left side of the road, the idea being that when I reached the next intersection, where there’s almost never any traffic, I would cross over to the bike path there. I had performed this maneuver dozens of times.
Again, this next intersection was to a short road that terminated at the new Community First Credit Union Complex, and there were stoplights at the intersection and a turn lane. Cars and trucks were around today, more than usual, so when I reached the intersection, I did a little turn and came to a stop in the turn lane and put my foot down and waited for the turn light to flash green. For once in my life, I was exactly where I was supposed to be, according to the law, and this filled my spirit with a righteous glow. The sunshine felt comfortable. I felt relaxed. What a nice day, I thought. Wouldn’t it be nice if all my days were like this?
Then, from my right, a pickup truck approached, at a fair rate of speed, aiming directly at the turn lane I was being such a responsible citizen waiting patiently for the light. On reflex, I held, palms toward the truck, the universal gesture for Stop!
The truck did not stop but it slowed and veered around me, and inside the cab I could see teeth and a tongue and a mouth screaming and the window rolling down, and then the noise emerged: “You fucking idiot! Watch where you’re going! Get the hell off the road!”
He had a fundamentalist haircut and was wearing yellow-tinted aviator glasses with an NRA aspect to them: shooting glasses. He wore a crisp-looking white button-down shirt.
He drove past and yelled, “Learn the goddam rules of the road,” and he kept yelling and driving away until finally I couldn’t hear him anymore.
I watched him for a moment, a pleasant glint of the sun off his roof, a newer truck, a fine vehicle, and the only bumper sticker on it was a blue and yellow baseball glove logo of the Milwaukee Brewers. What side was he on? What side did he think I was on?
In the old days, I might have chased this guy down and confronted him in the Community First Credit Union parking lot and puffed out my chest and told him, “Look, man. It was your fault, okay? I was in the turn lane. I have a legal right to be in the turn lane. So, knock it off with the bullshit.”
But the fundamentalist hair, the shooting glasses, the COVID-19: the best option was to leave well enough alone.
Eventually, I was way out in the countryside on Shady Lane, past the political signs and the people and the houses and the cars. There’s a huge marshy Public Hunting grounds out here, a wide-open space, with not a building in sight, which is rare in this region. Northeastern Wisconsin is a populous area, more than half on Trump’s side, the rest on Biden’s side, or they don’t give a shit one way or the other. One in twenty-five of them have COVID-19.
I rode to the middle of this wonderful place on this wonderful road and hopped off my bike and set it down in the shoulder and stood in the middle of the road, trying to take in what good was left of the world. Nearby, the cattails jostled against each other in the breeze. Redwing blackbirds darted in and out of the reeds. I heard a train somewhere way out there.
I dropped to my knees and prayed: “Dearest God,” I said. “Please make this nightmare come to end!”
I had never believed in God. I had never prayed and meant it.
And right then and there, I knew nothing would change.