Place de la Contrescarpe, the heart of my neighborhood, is one of those quiet Left Bank niches that shuttle me almost daily across time, contentment and mortality: in San Francisco where I passed more than a decade and in Paris where after two decades I’m earning nationality. It was in the mini-park at the Café Flore (with its own French pretentions) that I watched more than a few friends dying of that era’s virus. It’s been here in front of the Café de la Contrescarpe, cold and empty, that dozens of mask-less Covid spreaders cluster together daily, gripping plastic pints of cheap brew from a nearby carry-out bar, oblivious to the millions of invisible spores they’re casting across our neighborhood. At the Café Flore I used to sit with Brandy Moore on whom I had incubated a more than mild crush before his long black body shrank and wrinkled in the grip of that other virus of the Eighties. Today’s virus is not visible at Contrescarpe any more than the even deadlier one was at the Flore although its victims are thousands and thousands of times greater.
I used to arrive at Contrescarpe both mornings and evenings as friends and neighbors have been gathering since the mid-19th Century. Relatively free of tourists, its half dozen diverse cafés and single grocery shops draw people together from 8 in the morning 'til midnight, reading silently, chattering or simply listening to the crows and pigeons chattering in the Catalpa trees that surround a central fountain. Hemingway claimed he developed his prose style here. Twenty years have passed since I stumbled upon Contrescarpe and made its largest café my morning office where I could be quiet but not alone.
So it was until Covid arrived a year ago. Now empty, notably for me the large Café de la Contrescarpe where Natalie would smile and ask only, “Comme d’habitude?” before bringing an Espresso and a hunk of bread to my usual corner table; after lunch I’d step into the stand-up Café des Arts where the Algerian proprietor set out a volcanic restraito that helped me ward off napping, his personal collection of Ellington, Elvis, Armstrong and Simone settling the background.
No longer. The Lebanese boulangerie now offers paper-cup espresso along with its croissants. Jamel stays busy selling wine, some fresh fruit, soap and toilet paper until 6 pm curfew. Contrescarpe isn’t “empty” this winter — just ghostly.
Until the sunset approaches, when the unmasked young Covid-spreaders arrive. Well-bundled for winter, well-educated and well-informed about Covid rules, they huddle close on the rim of the winter-silenced fountain or squat together on the large granite stones that form the circle’s perimeter.
I often wander over from my apartment, not to gulp the beer sold in plastic, but to buy a baguette and to watch and listen. I imagine spying closer, even asking them if they realize that they — vigorous, symptom-free thirty-somethings— have become the primary transmitters of the latest Covid-19 surge that has refilled France’s hospital wards and delivered 191 people last month to their coffins. But what should I, a gray-moustached elder who’s always worked in isolation, say to these men and women less than half my age, most of them shut up in small apartments wondering if and when “normal” life might start. What do I know about their stress and anxiety, a friend asked me recently as we shared dinner, about how it feels to enter the early prime of life and have it suddenly snatched away, where even talking together hand and hand could bring on a stiff fine and further exclusion?
And yet, these gatherings scattered throughout French and Italian cities, as well as a good bit of LA and San Francisco, are also real mobile death kettles. I’ve resisted my fascho health impulse to approach the Contrescarpers and start artificially sneezing and “accidentally” bump the beer out of their shivering hands, or simply to blurt out in my American accent, “Combiens des grand-parents avez-vous infecté aujourd’hui?” (How many of your grandparents have you infected today?)
To what effect? What would, or could, they hear?
Researchers at both Massachusetts General and London’s Imperial College of Medicine have shown that now it’s young symptom free adults who are the prime viral spreaders in the this pandemic: the very people I see almost daily at Contrescarpe and hear about in Rome, Munich and Palermo. They appear healthy. Ask them. They’ll tell you: they’re just fine — don’t worry. Likely that’s true at their age. Intensified screening and friendship tracing has left no doubt that asymptomatic adults who have suffered no more than what seemed like minor colds during the year-end holidays were the killer agents in these firsts month of 2021. 5000 dead each week in the U.S. More than 350 a week in France.
Ought we denounce these good-humored Bo-Bos outright, alongside those armed anti-maskers who assaulted Congress and marched into the Capitol of my home state for causing 50 Kentucky deaths there last month, or for spiking Covid infections and leaving seven to die in the small Kentucky county where I grew up? Are they blind to these spreaders, blind to their actions?
A friend asked me recently what I knew about one of Covid’s ubiquitous fellow travellers that neurologists call “brain fog,” which leaves Covid survivors plagued for months with fatigue, confusion, memory gaps, and a sense of being lost. Viral survivors, however are not the only people marching through fog. Worse, a collective brain fog appears to be swallowing up all of us who watch the days pass, silent and alone. Researchers at Catholic University in Milan and their English colleagues have been tracing the real effects of prolonged personal isolation in this hyper-connected phone era. “Changes in our daily lives, feelings of loneliness, job losses, financial difficulty, and grief over the death of loved ones have the potential to affect the mental health of many,” wrote lead researcher Giada Pietrabissa. In short, recurrent mental fog — provoking outbursts of anger and desperation, born of persistent isolation — has been spreading around the world. The deepening need to escape indefinite isolation propels even those bright young Contrescarpers, many of them educated in the elite schools nearby. Text embraces and flash kisses accompany us late into the night, but they are not warm and they do not giggle.
One recent January morning I marched out of my own semi-isolation to look at the frost on the Contrescarpe fountain and order a flaky croissant at the boulangerie. I sat to munch and sip my restraito on one of the cold granite blocks, which later in the day would comfort a cluster of cold Covid spreaders.
Soon a team of surveillance marshals entered the square. Unlike the squads of armed stone-faced anti-terror soldiers who pass regularly, these unarmed Covid watchers looked relaxed, chatting casually among themselves. Coffee and croissant in hand I approached them. “Bonjour. Tell me,” I asked the friendliest looking cop, “do you guys pass here in the late afternoon?”
“Of course,” he answered while eying my steamy coffee, already anticipating my next question.
“Have you noticed how packed it gets here at Happy Hour? Eyebrows rise, a near smile widens. “If it’s too crowded we move them on a bit.”
“Many come back, yes. We can’t be too aggressive. For most of them it’s just the few moments in their day when they’re not alone.” He paused, sad eyed. “We don’t want to stigmatize anybody.” He nodded politely and the three officers moved on.
Who should I condemn, and how? I walked over to the nearby Hemingway memorial plaque that asserts it was here in Contrescarpe where he learned to watch, to listen and to write.
Frank Browning © 2021
Frank Browning, a former science correspondent for NPR, is the author of nine books including The Culture of Desire, The Monk and the Skeptic and The Fate of Gender.