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About the only thing Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Kinsey Millhone, and Philip Marlowe ever agreed on is that there are no coincidences. Yet they keep happening. I found myself meditating on this as I perused the infinity of empty shelves at the De la Vina Street Trader Joe’s staring bleakly back at me last Sunday night. As I would learn later, Sunday sales surpassed all previous shop records. Customers now merely in the foothills of panic bought every can of anything they could get their mitts on. And, of course, the toilet paper all but flew out the windows at velocities not achieved since the late, great Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Moral of the story? The coronavirus trumps the Super Bowl, the Oscars, and any Thanksgiving ever in terms of frenzied shopping.
This very same week, Joe Coulombe, the entrepreneurial genius who “invented” Trader Joe’s, would happen to kick the proverbial bucket. He was 89. Aside from his cultlike fixation with goofy nautical themes, Coulombe proved light years ahead of his time when he decided to target customers who were “overeducated and underpaid.” When Coulombe started, this business plan seemed violently out of touch with America’s economic reality. In 1967, a prosperous middle class had yet to be relegated to the rearview mirror of our collective imagination. For all of us downwardly mobile pseudo-intellectuals out there — roughly 43.6 percent of Santa Barbara’s adult population — Trader Joe’s has emerged as a safe haven. It’s not just where underemployed PhDs can stock up on their booze; it’s where they can aspire to one day get a job. The pay may not be especially great, but they offer health benefits. And you can ask customers what they plan to do with their weekends all day long.
Rage over this reality is at the heart of Bernie Sanders’s intense, and otherwise inexplicable, popularity. This fury must be tapped in the efforts to evict the current occupant of the White House. But as Sanders’s limitations demonstrate, he’s not always the right answer to every question. The empty shelves at Trader Joe’s prove that point. American voters may be uncommonly tolerant when it comes to liars, cheats, buffoons, baboons, and sociopaths, but when it comes to disasters — natural or otherwise — incompetence is unforgivable.
That’s the reason Bill Clinton, then a congenial punk-ass from Arkansas, could beat the hell out of George H.W. Bush despite his impressive military victories against Iraq. Bush screwed up big-time on hurricanes Andrew and Hugo, not to mention California’s Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. By contrast, Clinton was an absolute freak when it came to disaster relief, response, and preparedness. Likewise, Bush’s son — 43 — would disgrace himself by the criminal ineptitude displayed in response to Hurricane Katrina.
It’s premature to really start freaking out about the coronavirus. But people will anyway. Who, after all, wants to drown as their lungs slowly fill up with mucous and other bodily fluids? Republicans are, of course, 100 percent correct when they argue disasters should not be pimped for cheap political points. But perhaps the president could have found someone else to function as his “coronavirus czar” than Vice President Mike Pence, who really did argue that smoking did not kill. Yes, we all said and did stupid things 20 years ago, but even at my stupid worst I never suggested, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. … Nine out of 10 smokers do not contract lung cancer.” The answer to Pence, then as now, is that smokers are 15-30 times more likely to come down with a dose of lung cancer than nonsmokers.
I’d be inclined to let such bygones be bygones if the commander in cheap had not just proposed a budget that would cut $25 million from the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response and another $18 million from the Hospital Preparedness Program. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) program to control the outbreak of global diseases was cut by 80 percent. Yes, 80 percent. Back then, it operated in 49 countries; today it’s down to 10. Last I checked, COVID-19 is now in 65 countries. As for the global health security functions of the National Security Council, they’ve been eliminated completely. No replacements have been made. As Trump has explained, it makes little sense to keep a bunch of doctors on the payroll when there’s no emergency. Maybe that logic explains the many screw-ups experienced by the CDC in providing hospitals and clinics with the necessary test kits.
It is true that some proposed cuts never happened, and that Congress was able to restore some funding. Even so, we in the media — no doubt bitter over our downward economic mobility — feel it’s important to highlight such proposals. Budgets are where the rubber of values and aspirations meet the road. This is one instance where everyone gets run down.
In the meantime, we’ll find ourselves jumping at our own shadows and furiously scrubbing our hands. Every sniffle will become a death sentence. The doom-’n’-gloomers will come out of hibernation, as will the tinfoil hat crowd. Already, Santa Barbara’s city council is being pressed to do something about the 12 cruise ships now lined up to disembark in the harbor over the next three months. But if you start there, what’s next? Banning flights at the airport?
One other big thing about Trader Joe’s: It’s the last best place you’re likely to run into people. But with the new preventative regime of “social distancing,” such happy accidents will be sadly curtailed. The other big thing about Trader Joe’s? Cheap booze. Probably a good place to stockpile one’s liquid anesthetics. Because I’ve got news for you: Their toilet paper’s no good.