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Oak Parked: Peter Sagal’s Quarantine Diary

The host of NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! will be regularly blogging for us as he shelters in place. Day 1: Legos, Ahnold, and wave-averse neighbors.

Sagal poses with diorama-Sagal.   Photos: Courtesy of the author

One of my prized possessions is a detailed Lego diorama of my own living room, made by my friend, the brick artist Dave Kaleta. It depicts my wife and I and our dogs in our traditional places, two matched armchairs and two matched dog beds, along with the books, plants, tchotchkes, etc., on the walls and shelves. There’s even a translucent red plastic fire in the fireplace.  I love it because it shows us at our happiest. Now I worry it’s showing us the rest of our lives.

This morning, on the first day of required sheltering in place (SIP) in our town of Oak Park, we were are sitting quietly in our armchairs and dog beds respectively, with the dogs staring at us and us staring at our devices when my wife burst out: “I’ve already read the entire internet. My eyes are going cross-eyed.”  This was only 20 minutes after she had enthusiastically engaged in a Zapruder film-level exegesis of the video Arnold Schwarzenegger posted of himself at home with his miniature donkeys. “Look, he’s holding the carrot in his left hand, and gesturing with it, and the donkey on the right is trying to get it, but he doesn’t notice. Now, here, the donkey gives up and turns away, just at the moment that Arnold tries to feed it to her … and seeing that, gives it to the other donkey!" 

I am a naturally lazy person, and love nothing more than to ignore my work and stare at the internet. Now I am locked at home with nothing to do but stare at the internet. It’s like that famous Twilight Zone episode where the criminal dies and ends up in paradise, where everything comes easy to him. He gets excruciatingly bored, and tells his spirit guide, “I want to go to the other place.”

“Oh,” says the guide. “This is the other place!”

The real sad thing about SIP is that Oak Park was finally becoming friendly.  It has always been Friendly™, a Diverse and Welcoming Community™, so much so that in the non–Oak Park parts of the world people might say to each other, “I’m an Oak Parker, too” as a signifier of fellowship, the way a Jew might say to a stranger with a vivid nose, “Landsman?” Perhaps people from Niles or Schaumburg or Oak Forest greet each other the same way, but when they do, are they implying that they have the same mindset as each other, the same commitment to political and social views so various and specified that “Oak Parkness” could almost qualify as a religion? Say you live in Oak Park, and people will know a lot about you. Say you live in Palos Hills, and people know you have a long drive to work. 

And one of those values, or Values™, is Welcoming the Stranger. Right after the 2016 election, signs sprouted all over town saying Refugees/Minorities/Etc. are Welcome Here. But still, walking down the pleasant streets, you don’t see many strangers. And those that do appear, well, where exactly are they from? Oak Park is an island of affluence and security, with Chicago to the east and north, Berwyn and Cicero to the south, and Maywood to the west, all of them less well-kept, less comfortable than our preserve, and you just never know. We all read the police blotters in the Wednesday Journal, and we note that the home address of the apprehended burglars, robbers, and other criminals is almost always Elsewhere. So in the many years I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed a certain reserve when strangers see me running on the street. “Yes, you are here,” they seem to be thinking. “But do you … belong here?”

During the first week of Corona-time, however, I noticed a much more friendly demeanor on everyone I saw on my daily runs around town. People waved, smiled, said hello in a way they hadn’t before. I waved back, and felt what they must be feeling: that we are all experiencing something entirely new together, and thus we are all, for once, in the same capacious boat, and we shall support each other, from the safe distance of six feet.

But today, as I ran five miles with my dogs across Oak Park and into River Forest and back, things were different. Of course, in the first day of SIP, there were even fewer people on the street. The only humans I saw were with dogs or children, other than construction workers and landscapers, who are critical workers because curb appeal must be preserved. And this time, these people did not wave, for the most part, even if I waved to them. It’s as if being outside itself is such a transgression that even a Pope-like wrist wave might be the thing that brings down the patrols. 

Today, we’re leaving our house to shop for supplies for our mother-in-law, who is over 60 and doesn’t want to risk going out. We’ll be traveling through the wastelands, formerly known as Six Corners and Sauganash, trying to reach the freehold of Skokie. I’ve read World War Z and have been playing The Last of Us video game. I’m ready. 

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