Writing Through the Pandemic: Novelist Thomas Mallon’s Diary

Someone's used gloves, birds in the street, and echoes of Pompeii.

Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

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We asked Washington writers to share stories, poems, drafts, musings, and other things they’ve been working on during quarantine. Thomas Mallon is writing a new novel—“set forty years in the past, thank God”—but offered excerpts from the daily diary he’s been keeping since the 1970s. “I suspect that when I look back on this period,” he says, “it’ll feel like the work that was most worth doing.” Mallon, who lives in Kalorama, is the author of several novels set in Washington, including Fellow Travelers, Finale, and Landfall.


Saturday, March 14, 2020: We went out to dinner for what may be the last time for a very long while—or maybe ever. La Tomate was mostly empty—same for all the other restaurants we passed on Connecticut—and the waiter who served our delicious meal wore latex gloves. On the walk home, passing Walgreens, I insisted to Billy that we not pass up an opportunity to provision ourselves with something. We came home with a frozen pizza . . . .

Thursday, March 19, 2020: The way we live now: I went to the ATM today and realized I’d left my hand-sanitizing wipes at home. Felt mildly panicky and then noticed what appeared to be a dispenser of latex gloves near the machine. How thoughtful! So I reached to pull out a pair. The “dispenser” turned out to be a little trash receptacle into which someone had tossed his own personal pair of dirty gloves—which I was now touching with bare hands. I went into the bank and requested hand-sanitizer. The teller, wearing gloves, told me to slide my hand under the old-fashioned metal bars of her little cage. I did, and she squirted some on me.

Friday, March 20, 2020: [My physician-writer friend Perri Klass has] just done a piece for the Times on the Salk vaccine. After the trials confirmed its efficacy and they began to administer it, Eisenhower invited Salk to the White House for congratulations. People on his staff said it was the only time they saw the President cry. What would our current President do? Ask Dr. Salk how much money he expected to make off the vaccine? Ask him whether he was banging his lab assistant?

Tuesday, March 25, 2020: The Dresden’s little gym is now shut, so my exercise was a walk to Gelman [Library on H St.] and back. It too is shut, but I was able to return a book through the drop slot. The poor soul who’s stood outside the library talking to himself for years—with a very intelligent vocabulary that gets scrambled into nonsense—was the only person in Kogan Plaza. He seemed to know that something was wrong—his gesticulations were much more agitated than usual.

Monday, March 30, 2020: Did my three-mile walk, but there was no pleasure in it. Moving purposefully through the ghosts towns of Dupont Circle, GW, the West End. More often than not you can cross all six lanes of Pennsylvania Ave. against the light without even having to pick up your pace.

Sunday, April 5, 2020: the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market is still open, with clusters of people boxed into its perimeter. When I questioned one of the operators about this, he replied—like a Title IX bureaucrat—by telling me what social-distancing rules have been imposed, and he informed me that the market is “an essential business.” Really? I think the residents of this neighborhood can do without artisanal jellies and exotic houseplants for a couple of months.

Monday, April 6, 2020: You see the birds in the middle of the street now. They have no cars to dodge—but they’re hunting in the street because there are fewer pedestrian crumbs to be found on the sidewalk.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020: Trump has decided that his name must appear on all the stimulus checks going into the mail—and I’m trying to get up the nerve to write “Fuck Trump” on the memo line of the quarterly estimated-tax payment that I have due this week.

Monday, April 20, 2020: Sat on a bench outside Gelman and read the paper: the sky was dark; the air was very cool; everything was green as can be; and the birdsong seemed gloriously loud. I felt as if I were in a world where humanity had been defeated, its brief era over—only some of its buildings, soon to crumble, here as a reminder of its time.

Saturday, May 2, 2020: My lowest day yet. Awoke before 8:00 to jackhammering. Yes, the mayor has decided that these elective street repairs are suddenly so urgent that the crews must work even on Saturdays. The building shook for part of the day; the audible idiotic warning signals on the trucks backing up sounded hundreds of times. I protested in an e-mail to the head of the District’s department of transportation, asking him to consider “the mental-health toll the work is taking on people who are trapped in their apartments day and night, unable to go to their offices, libraries, to retail stores and theatres—in short, anywhere . . . By continuing this work, relentlessly, even on the weekends, are your department and the mayor willing to see citizens who are forcibly confined experience nervous breakdowns?”

Thursday, May 7, 2020: I got my walk over early. A pretty day, but there’s no enjoyment to it. I was, however, pleased by the results of trying sunglasses with the mask: less fogging up than with my regular specs . . . . [P]assing the windows of District Commons, one of our dining mainstays when we lived in Foggy Bottom—the tables all set, the napkins in their holders just as they were the day before [the restaurant] had to close. It felt like looking at Pompeii.

Friday, May 8, 2020: A long grocery run to the Giant over in Virginia. The grimness of the people pushing their carts down the now one-way aisles. People stay behind their masks, never so much as cocking an eyebrow, just putting one defeated but resolute foot in front of the other.