The room refrigerator had gained five…
Rikki Chan: City Buildings, Hong Kong, 2016 (Unsplash)
From the Hong Kong Review of Books:
Like the line in a Ford plant, the processing system at Terminal One was broken into minute, discrete functions executed at about a dozen stations by masked, gowned, and shielded officials. Rather than welding engine blocks to chassis and installing driver seats behind the windshield, however, these polite officials asked questions, checked passengers’ documents, and recorded data on their instruments before releasing us to the next station a short walk away. Instead of Model-Ts assembled from constituent parts and driven onto the vast American highway, we were disassembled into constituent data points before being driven to quarantine-specified hotel towers. The system was remarkably effective and efficient. It’s odd to think that in one sense, it can be described as Pre-Fordist rather than Post-Fordist: Henry Ford apparently had the idea for an automotive assembly line while observing gowned workers on a Chicago slaughterhouse line doing their own kind of disassembly.
When I arrived at my quarantine hotel, a masked-and-gowned receptionist in the hotel garage processed my reservation. She stood behind a plastic barrier. My printed reservation details – required by the Hong Kong government to even board the plane back in the U.S. – never physically crossed that barrier. After checking-in, signage pointed me through the maze I had to traverse to get from the garage to the lift and up to my room. I felt that I was the only person in the hotel. It was eerie. At the end of the maze, when I opened the door to my room, there was no actual lump of cheddar cheese as my reward. Instead, 28 water bottles, 16 small bottles of shampoo, and 16 bottles of body wash filled the shelves. Two towels and a bath mat were folded on a rack in the bathroom. Two twin beds with two pillows each were neatly made up. The windows were bolted shut. For most of the next two weeks, the only persons I saw were through those windows, down on the streets below. I took stock of the situation and thought to myself: I can manage this.
With all the disruption going on in the world, it seemed like the perfect time to reacquaint myself with the literature of The Lost Generation, that group of writers and artists who responded to the disruption of their own times by creating a new literary and artistic movement. I had gone book shopping at The Strand before I left New York and picked up a couple of Lost Generation classics. The first few days in quarantine I tore through The Sun Also Rises, which I hadn’t read in years. That novel has definitely withstood the test of time; This Side of Paradise not so much. (Author’s advice: if you do have to go to quarantine, try re-reading Fitzgerald before Hemingway. Hemingway’s first novel got better with time and is a tough act to follow, Fitzgerald’s not so much.) During the daytime, I took notes for this essay and wrote the first draft. My working title was “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Traveler,” alluding to the story and movie of a similar name. I kept a journal and sketched out ideas for other writing projects as well. The only good thing on the television came from the BBC, and soon even that became redundant.
Ten days after arriving, I had lost about five pounds but the room refrigerator had gained five. My creeping ennui and lack of appetite were the cause of both. Every day it was the same old food. I don’t mean to complain, but the thrice-daily knock-on-the-door announcing the delivery of food was no longer welcome. The other knocks on the door – to have my throat and nostrils swabbed for the coronavirus by a masked, gloved, shielded, and gowned attendant with all the gentleness of a meteor impact – were not welcomed, either. But with each food-knock, the Styrofoam food containers went directly to the room fridge. As I opened the door, I really wanted to see someone else opening their door to get their own food.