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Oak Parked: Days 2-4 in Quarantine With Peter Sagal

The first weekend of sheltering in place brings an awkward group run, a soirée of one, and a rethink of radio.

The author, at left, keeps a six-foot radius during a group run in Oak Park.   Photo: Courtesy of the author

On Saturday, I got up and met three of the Oak Parkers (all middle-aged parents, like me) that I’ve been regularly running with for 15 years. The Starbucks we usually meet in was closed, so I found them standing in front of it on the sidewalk, their breath visible in the frustratingly cold air — look, I know we now we live in a blasted hellscape, but can we at least have spring? As I approached, I noticed all three of them take a step away, like I was a magnet with the same polarity.

“I figure we’ve been running with each other so long, spitting, sweating and farting,” I said, “that we must have herd immunity.”

“THERE IS NO IMMUNITY,” said Chris, which I would discount as unreasoned panic were he not a MD/PhD pathologist at the University of Chicago’s medical school. And so we started off down a deserted Lake Street, keeping a safe distance the whole way.

Paul, as it turns out, had the same experience with his parents in Brookfield as I did with my mother in law in Skokie the day prior: after buying them supplies and take-out food from their favorite restaurant, he had to hand it to them as if through an airlock: opening the door to the apartment foyer, placing the bags, retreating and sealing the door before his parents would open and enter from the interior. Paula (no relation) mentioned that the crisis had occasioned the first call between her husband and his estranged sister in years. They didn’t discuss whatever had driven them apart, they just wanted to see how each other were doing. Small gains in a time of loss. We talked kids and boredom and the avoidance of both, and in our 10 miles saw few people, little traffic and only two busy parking lots, both in front of grocery stores. It was my last in-person social interaction for the day, and I felt lucky to have it. Jesse Eisenberg’s character in Zombieland was right: cardio training is essential in the apocalypse.

Sunday: Started the day with another long run with my spaced-out gang, eight miles through Oak Park and River Forest. Normally, I take a day off after a long run, but I’m painfully aware this is the only chance I have to get out of the house and see another human being, so I run along, painfully. About five miles in, Paula, running to the rear, calls a halt. We all stop and wonder what’s wrong. “I can see your breath in the cold,” she says to me and Chris. (It’s a different Chris. We have lots of Chrises. Basically, assume everybody’s name is Chris.) “And I can see the vapor clouds intermingling. You’re too close.” Second Chris and I look at each other, separate to opposite sides of the street, and try to continue the conversation we were having about increasing one’s V2OMax by shouting. (You can’t increase your V2O Max by shouting. I mean we were shouting about the topic.) We finish our run by conversing about our plans for the day, such as they are, from a distance of 20 feet. Paula’s warning apparently stuck with us.

And what is that plan for the day? Well, I might put on pants. The local news is that Oak Park is now letting its own Shelter in Place order be superseded by Governor Pritzker’s state-wide order. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between the two orders, so life will continue much as it did, or didn’t, with one essential difference: we Oak Parkers will no longer feel quite as special. For us, it’s a heavy blow, but we’ll muddle through.

Monday: I wake up to find the wreckage of last night’s party, a single empty martini glass. Must have been a blowout. The dogs are running back and forth, nervous, and after a week of this, they’ve probably gone from happiness that we’re around so much to a growing sense of unease. Why won’t we leave and let them eat the garbage in peace? I heard one of them quietly quoting Kahlil Gibran: “Let there be space in our togetherness…”

Last week Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! did its first show in a studio in 15 years, and it was a success, meaning it got onto the air and people liked it, but it was a very strange regression. After 15 years of performing in front of audiences ranging from 400 people at our home theater to 20,000 in Millennium Park, we’ve gotten used to the constant feedback loop an audience creates. It’s not just how much they laugh or at what; it’s everything. We can sense their interest, boredom, irritation, depression, excitement. Without that, all of us found ourselves flailing a bit, as we launched jokes into the silent void. “Maybe they’ll like this!” Years ago, Ira Glass gave me a classic bit of radio advice: “Don’t try to speak to the entire audience. Just think of one person, and speak to that person alone.”

It’s excellent advice, premised on how most people listen to the radio: They’re alone in their car or kitchen or bathroom. From their perspective, they are the entire audience. But I’ve never been able to do it: I’m too insecure. I can’t figure what the hypothetical person is feeling: Is she laughing, bored, unhappy, thinking about turning the station? That’s why it was such a relief to me to get in front of an audience at last, and why, I think, our show was able to succeed.

But Radio in the Time of Coronavirus, sadly, has no audience. So I and my friends who perform on the show will have to learn to do something different: to talk to, and listen to, each other. I’ve often said that our show is a party that we invite everybody to come to. Now it’s going to be a conversation, but the invite is still open. At 1 p.m. today, the show’s producers and I will talk over what lies ahead of us for this week: Will we still have access to radio studios here at WBEZ Chicago and at NPR bureaus around the country? If not, can we do it via other means? I’m lucky; I have a job that actually brings some comfort to people in this stressful time. The only question is how, and if, we’ll be able to continue doing it.

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