Shoppers and tennis players fight over masks, misplaced coughs during Coranivirus

Editor & Publisher

The moral dilemmas posed by Coronavirus thrive like so many weeds on our partially masked landscape.

And nowhere have I personally seen more waves of anger, fear, strength and compassion than on the tennis courts of Sarasota and Longboat Key over the past months of the pandemic.

The strangeness started on Longboat when the end-of season party for the men’s doubles tennis group was threatened to be cancelled in February due to the Coronavirus.

Everyone was still playing and Corona was still something that was spreading through Italy and France and starting in the Northeast.

But on Longboat the group continued.

Some carried on like Roman warriors — “I am not afraid. It is only a threat to the extreme elderly and those with co-morbidities. We will be fine.”

I discovered long ago on Longboat Key that age is relative. A 72-year-old will refer to an 84-year-old as an old man and a 60-year-old as a kid.

Then I go home and all of my children think of me as some ridiculous baby boomer era dinosaur — and I am 51.

They think of Nirvana as some nostalgic music from long ago and the Beatles are from the Gregorian Chant days.

I played Strawberry Fields Forever to my daughter once and she said, “It reminds me of so much patriarchal literature and so-called classical art — you are supposed to like it because it is part of a cannon that should have been long retired.”

I questioned whether paying for her undergraduate education was really working for me.

The irony of the tennis group’s year-end party decision is that the leader of the group ran around one Wednesday morning and said, “Let’s all huddle under the gazebo and decide on what to do.”

There we were — a hobbling collection of knee replacements, back braces and patella straps all clustered together like a tennis-racket-wielding think tank. And I felt the air temperature and humidity rise as all these sweaty guys breathed and weighed in on the Covid question.

I secretly wanted the event — for very selfish reasons.

I heard one member was creating his homemade Paella with seven kinds of seafood and chorizo sausage and that he lived for years in Spain. I thought it could be a wonderful last supper if nothing else.

“If we all contract Covid at least paella makes for a pretty good last supper!”

I actually said that and felt guilty as if it was simply too morbid a comment. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Then a doctor spoke — he called the risk of dinner, “Unacceptable and irresponsible.”

I knew when I heard those words that Paella was but a fading dream.

Soon all tennis stopped as all public and most private courts sealed off their access.

But for me, tennis simply went underground.


Underground Tennis

After a flurry of texts, a small pocket of players emerged. So much so that I played five times a week through the entire crisis.

We operated like we were searching the landscape for nuclear weapon sites. Using Google Map’s satellite images we searched apartment complexes, condos and resorts looking for tennis courts at the kind of venues that would have no issue with a motley group of guys in their 50s, 60s and 70s playing during a pandemic. We knew Longboaters were far too cautious and would call the authorities the second they heard a bouncing ball. We had to fan out. We found several along the Tuttle and Fruitville corridors.


The Cough

Soon differences emerged. Some showed up with cleaning and disinfectant equipment. One player had us all line up and wash our hands for 20 seconds. We used separate balls for each service game and we walked in wide arcs as if each one secretly was infected with leprosy.

The organizer of the group called it Pandemic Tennis. He assumed a cavalier tone — “You’re going to die when it’s your time,” was his dominant attitude.  He would rant about government controlling our lives and sounded a bit like angry motorcyclers in the 1970s decrying helmet laws. He would call the cautious highly insulting names and yell, “The fearful should stay at home, curl up and watch Anderson Cooper and wait to die.”

Then there was another player who was far less aggressive. He was every bit as neurotic, but on the opposite side,

“I was in Vietnam and exposed to Agent Orange and I have Chronic COPD so I worry,” he would say.

But he still wanted to play tennis.

I told him if I was 72 and had Chronic COPD and had inhaled Agent Orange I would stay home and isolate. But he played on.

In fact, he and the cavalier guy would often end up on opposing sides of the net.

Then one day it happened. It was like an uncalled-for death threat.

The Cavalier guy accidently coughed while walking past the Agent Orange worrier.

“Oh my God! I felt moisture from your cough on my face,” he yells out.

“I can’t help It. I had to cough. Are you accusing me of trying to kill you?” Said Mr. Cavalier.

“You need to acknowledge my concern and fear and stop being an inconsiderate pain in the ass!”

Then they both moved face to face to the net — these two 72-year-olds. One, a former Air Force major and pilot and the other ran an insurance organization.

They played tennis together for years and now they are seething at the net.

I selfishly wanted to continue playing and end the Covid showdown.

I had just finished the night before a Netflix documentary on the Roman Empire. “What would Julius Caesar do? Can I form a triumvirate on the court?” I wondered.

All negotiations failed.

I tried to find common territory — such as playing tennis. It failed.

Within moments the Cavalier man was saying, “I am not going to be accused of trying to kill someone or blamed for their health issues.”

The other one, Agent Orange, started to apply sanitizer to his face and talked of how disgusting it was to feel the warm cough.

The Cavalier and Agent Orange have not played together since.


Where is my mask?

Once the courts on Longboat opened up, I began playing immediately in the morning.

We have to keep a row of tennis ball cans lined up like props and we all walk in graceful arcs around each other.

A ball from a court I was playing on drifted to the neighboring court. My tennis partner barked at the neighbor guy who retrieved the ball — my partner yelled, “Use your racket; don’t touch it you idiot.”

After playing last Wednesday, I dropped a couple of bundles of newspapers in the news rack in the foyer at Publix. On my way out two close friends — a husband and wife whom I have known for 15 years — were entering. The wife recoils and backs up. She yells out, “Where is your mask?”

I say I am only refreshing a rack and do not feel all that vulnerable to Covid.

“But you could give it to someone and they could die. How could you live with yourself?” she says.

I drove home in silence. I wanted to yell back at her that she lives in a multimillion-dollar condo and has the resources to have people deliver groceries. Why is she and her husband toddling around Publix all frail and expecting the world to be made safe and antiseptic all the while believing the fantasy that a piece of colored cloth stops the spread of the virus.

But I felt selfish. I felt conflicted. I thought of my mother, 76, and my stepfather, who is 95 and live in Sarasota.

I thought of my son, 20, who works at a hospital and is exposed to all manner of death and dying.

I thought of my children all stripped from their classrooms and stuck in a world of virtual learning and education.

And as I drove over the bridge I thought of my friend Agent Orange. He tried so hard to isolate and stay at home and obey all the edicts of careful living. And yet he wanted to simply play tennis and have it all ways. I could see the conflict on his face. And then that face gets misted with someone’s cough.

What is a life worth? I pondered.

To what extent should we protect each other and ourselves?

Is fear more dangerous than a virus?

As our planet warms, as blacks continue to be mired in poverty and violence and an ocean of good cops are tainted through the acts of a few, we are forever struggling with ourselves and each other.

Yet, I abhor the idea of being a victim.

Do I blame the Soviets for stealing my Mother’s families’ wealth? Should my stepfather forever hate the Germans for destroying his family? Do I blame my parents for divorcing? How about my father at 17 getting shrapnel in the Battle of the Bulge? Do I get mad at God because I am not richer or smarter or better looking?

I think of the psychology of being victimized and identifying with the label. I just cannot tolerate the idea.

Still, I failed to provide enough leadership on a tennis court so my friends could keep the simple game going. I offered nothing but a moral vacuum.

But the point of this is that whether it is race relations, policing or Covid protocols, we are now in a vacuum of leadership on both ends of the political spectrum.

The center cannot hold. Media and the talking heads are monopolizing on every conflict.


Agent Orange or Mr. Cavalier?

I suppose it all comes down to how fiercely do we live?

Every second is fleeting and in its wake is death.

Tennis is a point-by-point game.

Success comes only through forgetting the last point and moving forward.

How can we love more fully and deeply even while violently disagreeing?

How can we keep friends and relatives close when they are scattered across the world and connected through apps?

I find a world of metaphor in tennis. Can I destroy the opponent? Can I support my partner? Can I win gracefully and lose with intensity?

Everything is swirling and undulating around us every day.

The sands of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, the blue light on the water, the ever-changing Sarasota skyline.

I don’t know how to end race riots; I don’t know how to win every tennis game. And I certainly don’t know how to keep my friend Agent Orange and Mr. Cavalier from fighting and arguing.

But somehow I still feel like each and every one of us are the lucky ones.  We are truly in Strawberry Fields Forever. It is just sometimes hard to notice.

Then, as I have these thoughts I hear my daughter’s voice: “Dad, you sound like some idealistic hippie — It’s kind of tragic to try to put a spin on so many intolerable situations.”

And that is why I play tennis.

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Longboat Key News

6 Responses for “Shoppers and tennis players fight over masks, misplaced coughs during Coranivirus”

  1. The Paella won in the End.

  2. Paul Kersey says:

    Good article. Few will take the time to read it, because you exceeded the alotted 140 characters, and there was no video nor special effects. I think Jerry’s middle name is Karen, and she has a bad case of TDS. Unfortunately, that has a higher mortality rate than Covid 19. Fact.

  3. Jerry says:

    First . How can you blame “ the media” when you’re IN THE media? Secondly, “ Mr Cavalier “ is what’s wrong with society. Selfishly behaving, and criticizing others while completely oblivious to the virus, which is not disappearing anytime soon . Do some research.

    I have 2 parents living in LBK. They respect others, as they would expect the same. As I would expect the same. STOP DIMINISHING the virus , wear a mask, realize the responsibility you have when you publish— and accept advertising dollars. No matter how tiny the outlet.

    The numbers in Florida are rising ( partially because the Governor is clueless). People need to be more educated and diligent, if the politicians aren’t going to to assume the lead. Wake up.


  4. Catherine says:

    First of all, 51? Hippie? Don’t your kids know you’re Gen X? I’m 52 and NOT a Boomer and NOT a Karen! lol But I also like Twenty One Pilots vs The Beatles. So…
    Living here in the Chicago burbs, I can see both sides of this. I should start by saying that Longboat Key is our retirement plan. We have a condo there and joked that we’ll be the young of the old people.
    But take age out of it, being cautious, wearing masks, and honoring how much people are distancing, is key in fighting a very real virus. Having a nurse next door who describes a scene like nothing she’s seen in all her years, hits you with visions out of a sci-fi movie. People on their stomachs, arms out (because it’s easier to breathe), hooked up to ten, yes, 10, IVS. AND this is room, after room, after room. If people saw this, I’m not sure anyone would leave their houses, and certainly not without a mask.
    It’s easy to get heated in either direction, but if you take the time to understand and respect one another, it doesn’t have to cause dissension. I hope the guys can kiss and make up…after a vaccine, of course. Cheers!

  5. 2. Leon I. Hammer, M.D. says:

    Jesus solved the above problems when he said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” [Mark or Mathew?] Simple and the most difficult piece of advice to follow and yet the only one that answers all of your conundrums.

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