Rockin’ a Hard Place: Love in the time of coronavirus

Last weekend, as I have for the past three years, I volunteered at Musselfest in Coupeville, selling grilled hot dogs to raise money for the Island County Historical Museum. Given the times we live in, I double-washed my hands, used hand sanitizer and stretched some too-small sanitary plastic gloves over my aging, too-large hands.

Attendance was down somewhat this year at Musselfest, my favorite of all the festivals on our Rock, because people are afraid of this deadly new virus that is spreading around the globe. Who can blame us? We’re all hunkering down, storing up way too much toilet paper, avoiding handshakes with everybody and trying without much success not to touch our own faces. It’s enough to make me wish we still had nuclear fall-out shelters in our backyards.

What struck me, however, was what a great time everybody had who did come to Musselfest – even with all the fear, loathing and avoidance surrounding us. The music, the beer, the mussels, the chowder, the waterfront – who could ask for more? Not to mention all the canine visitors; dogs seemed to have at least as much fun as their human handlers. So much to smell, so little time.

To be sure, I saw very few frail elderly folks strolling around. They are the most vulnerable to this virus. But even in years past, Musselfest hasn’t been particularly popular for people on walkers, in wheelchairs or with breathing apparatus. It’s designed for the healthy and hungry among us.

There was more ethnic, age and racial diversity in Coupeville over the weekend than the little historic town ever sees normally, thanks to all the people who came from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and the rest of America. I noticed dozens of families with small children and baby strollers.

We Rock Dwellers who volunteered had to adjust to all the different ways of life on display. One example: At the hot dog stand, because we accepted only cash and not plastic, we coined a new term for many of our millennial visitors: UFNC (Under Forty, No Cash). It was interesting to see the pained expressions when young folks raised only on plastic from birth were pointed towards an ATM.

All in all, it was as mellow, friendly and fun as ever, even with all the Purell. I especially enjoyed the beaming faces of kids enjoying a hot dog after absolutely refusing their parents’ entreaties to try “just one mussel.” The typical child response when asked to eat Penn Cove’s famous mollusk was, “No way! They’re yucky!”

A few years ago, there was a movie made from a best-selling novel entitled “Love in the Time of Cholera.” It wasn’t really about cholera; it was about lovesickness. The basic idea of the film and book was that we can make ourselves sick by caring – or worrying – too much.

It reminds me that life – and fun – must go on, even in times of epidemics. When the Great Plague struck Europe, clowns and jesters enjoyed enormous popularity, running through the streets in crazy outfits and cracking jokes. Poets stood under trees and recited their works. Priests gave their sermons in the town square instead of the church. Actors abandoned theaters and took their plays outdoors to entertain people and get their minds off illness and death.

Of course, there were more than a few people at Musselfest who looked worried and kept their distance. Some complained that Coupeville should have cancelled the event rather than risk infecting people.

My experience was different. Take every precaution you can but don’t lose your sense of humor.

• Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who lives in central Whidbey