Madrid Quarantine

Once a week I shop. This is the only time I leave the building during the coronavirus quarantine in Madrid, practically the only time I leave my apartment. If I have to tote trash and recycling to the bins by the stairs I hold my breath until I’m back in the apartment with the door closed. Then I walk to the bathroom without touching anything and wash my hands. One tenant on my floor had a cough about a week ago. It lasted a day. I could hear him. I listened.

For the shopping trip I always wear a mask. I write a careful list on paper so I won’t have to take the cell, won’t have to disinfect it after the trip, and check myself in the bathroom mirror as I put the mask on, tuck the bottom flap under my chin and press the aluminum clips snug to either side of my nose. I do it last, so I won’t have to touch anything in the apartment after I’ve handled it.

Only a few pedestrians dot Calle Princesa now, on sidewalks that once swarmed with hundreds. I walk quickly with the reusable shopping bags tucked under the arm facing the street, so the police can see that I have a reason to be outdoors. If I pass a storefront window, I might glance at my own reflection: an alien, unfamiliar figure in the muzzle-like mask, with expressionless eyes; remote, inscrutable, even to me.

I shop at the Corte Inglés at Argüelles. Five to ten shoppers already may have queued at the entrance ahead of me, spread social distancing meters apart along the side of the building. At 10:00 sharp a masked, uniformed security guard steps onto the sidewalk to call up seniors. Then the rest wait turns to enter, one by one, shuffling forward as the guard surveys the interior before admitting each additional customer.

Inside almost everyone is masked, all of the staff and most of the customers. I fit fingers into sheer disposable gloves fetched from a wall dispenser, thank the masked staffer who rubs a last swab of disinfectant onto the handle of the cart she offers. A well-run market, I think; they had all the procedures in place from the first day of the quarantine. Others have told me of half-hour waits to enter some markets, of empty shelves.

But the mood feels harried. Not among the staff. They must have acclimated to working life in the quarantine, or resigned themselves to it; they move from aisle to aisle with clipboards or boxes on carts, checking stock, speaking through the masks to coworkers, occasionally even chuckling. Harried among customers. A silent tension, of stiffly hunched shoulders, eyes trained resolutely only on goods on shelves; one wants to buy what one needs here and not linger, not in the pandemic, no, buy what you need and get out, away from exposure. I sense the impatience of a shopper waiting a meter behind another who dawdles in front of condiment shelves: a forced courtesy.  Make up your mind! What difference does it make what kind of ketchup you buy in a pandemic? Other shoppers hold paper shopping lists like mine. Maybe you wouldn’t have bothered before with a list, but if you miss something essential now and realize later that you need it …

I usually ride the metro home. Spain eased the tightest quarantine restrictions on April 13. Some passengers have returned since then, but my stretch of the 3 line is much quieter than it was before, with perhaps four to six passengers in a car that might have carried a few dozen in February. In March, during the tightest restrictions, I waited once for a train with only a single fellow rider on the platform.

After one shopping trip in March I hoisted my bags onto a row of empty metro seats and then glanced into the next car forward. A panhandler was coming. A brawny young guy, un hombretón, with addled eyes, stuporous lips, reciting his pitch as he worked the aisle to a fraction of the usual audience, perhaps forced by slim quarantine pickings into a miserable sobriety.

Unmasked. A swift mental image formed, of being cornered while he weaved dazedly above me, stubbornly insistent, spraying flecks of spit.

I hoisted the bags again and fled, without any genteel effort to conceal my purpose, so that he must have seen that I fled specifically from him. The bags swung heavily in the crook of my arms as I strode quickly through the cars, panting through the respirator. I could have been fleeing a rattlesnake.


I talk on the phone, or in video calls, in Spanish, English or both. Sometimes I call or am called on the fly; sometimes we set a time in advance. Some conversations last hours. We may talk about language issues, travels past, cultural differences between places lived … but always, inevitably, with the fidelity of a homing pigeon, the chat returns to the pandemic, anxiously, obsessively, with a figurative wringing of hands. So how long do you think the quarantine will last? Now they’re saying May 9. But they’ve already voted a couple of two week extensions. Did you see the news about remdesvir?

Back and forth, tirelessly, circularly, our questions, concerns and preoccupations likely differing little from those expressed simultaneously perhaps-even-as-you-read-these-words in billions of voice and video chats worldwide, so that a freak network glitch that suddenly patched my line into a conversation in New York or Mexico City might not much break the flow: I would simply tell the strangers in New York or Mexico City what I had been about to say to my friend in Madrid, and they would do the same for me.

I try to maintain good habits. I often didn’t in my now-distant youth, learned the hard way that some disciplines are important, at least for me. I can’t run or go to the gym anymore, but exercise three times a week in my living room. Squats, push-ups, sit-ups. One-arm rows: my beefy AcuPwr voltage transformers weigh almost ten kilos apiece. I added one to a strong bag with the tools from my hobbyist auto mechanic days, turned the bag into a makeshift dumbbell. I stopped shaving for a few days, but felt less like I was growing a beard than like I was letting myself go. So now I shave every morning again: pointlessly, I admit, only so I can look at a groomed reflection in the mirror and feel reassured by what I see. I’m not falling apart.

I monitor my health: vigilantly, a near hypochondriac. I stop, survey myself if I should happen to cough twice, or hear a rasp in my voice, or think that on a given afternoon I feel more tired than I should, or don’t immediately smell the sauce in a rice dish. The virus scares me less than the necessity of checking into a hospital — any hospital, anywhere in the world — during a pandemic. Exhausted, stressed, overworked staff make mistakes.


On March 15 the Community of Madrid opened a registry for volunteers willing to assist during the pandemic. The announcement promised that candidates would be protected, but I didn’t see how inexpert volunteers could work with Covid-19 patients without brooking some risk. I wondered if they’d get many takers.

They did. Five days later, a deputy with the Madrid Assembly sent an email announcing the registry’s closure. The reason: over seven thousand people had already signed up.

Every night Madrileños applaud the health workers. The custom started in mid-March, after the prime minister announced quarantine measures. I don’t know who came up with the idea or how it spread, but at 20:00 still in the pearly pink shades of early evening people open windows or step onto balconies to applaud. A friend told me that the applause has ebbed in her neighborhood after six weeks, but in mine it still goes strong. Only a minority participate, true, but the minority is enough.

I watch windows and balcony doors open, recognize faces above the clapping hands. A wonderful dog that is angelically quiet at all other hours sometimes barks lustily along with the applause. “Bravo!” shouts one man. “Bravo!” Repeatedly, in the same bright, buoyant, triumphant tone every evening, as if we had never been quarantined and the virus had never killed anyone, as if applauding a rendition of Nessun dorma at the Paris Opéra. I marvel as I listen, feel amazed. I have heard my share of ovations for celebrities, politicians. I can’t remember any other time in my life when I have heard a public applaud a group that so fully deserves our gratitude.

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