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We’re Worried About the Big E & We Don’t Mean Encephalitis

We’re Worried About the Big E & We Don’t Mean Encephalitis
November 01
20:32 2014

All of the fear. All of the tension. It’s ironic I started off 2014 with such a positive article about placing hope in one’s multivitamin.

We’ve got a nurse in Maine defying quarantine orders, riding her bicycle to other villages and going on about her business as if she hadn’t been treating patients affected by Ebola in West Africa.

We’ve got calls to shut down flights from the infected regions abroad. We’ve got many who claim that would be harmful to the war on Ebola by cutting off human support to Africa.

Sometimes this makes good sense, and other times it doesn’t. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, jerk upright, and realize I’d been sweating. But not because it’s hot in my room. Rather, I’d been thinking, “Shut down the goddamn airports already, seal the southern borders, and throw that wily nurse into mandatory quarantine already, won’t you?”

These are knee-jerk reactions to the possible nightmare scenario we face. In the morning it all looks different. The warm weather, the sun, the joggers toiling by on the sidewalk. The smell of coffee floating in from the apartment next door. The tall man with long hair smoking cigarettes below my window. What could go wrong on such a regular day? How could Ebola live through such a pleasant morning?

How couldn’t our germaphobe-centric medical infrastructure handle a virus that resembles stringy red meat on a grocery store shelf?

Doesn’t Everybody Have An Ebola-Story By Now?

My friend Marlin says we shouldn’t be afraid.

That says a lot because in nearly every other sector of thought, Marlin is paranoid. The last time I saw him, his lips were crusted with a nauseatingEbola_virus_particles green matter. “Wheat grass juice,” he said after I confronted him on it. He licked his lips, but still the puke green color stayed stuck in his mustache.

This was on the bus. I had hopped on three stops before him. He was going to meet me at the Vermont station. Between my location and his, a Hispanic man started sneezing and coughing. By the Vermont stop, everybody had clustered around the door.

“Easy folks,” the bus driver said, but he hadn’t heard the man in the back hacking away. I mean, we’re talking about the age of the Big E here, bucko.

When Marlin tried to enter the bus, person after person clambered off, ignoring the sound of former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa warning you to “Please, for the love of God, watch your step when exiting the bus.”

How could you blame them, then, when they nearly tripped and fell upon coming face-to-face with Marlin, with his green crusted lips and his one lone tooth still holding tight in his bottom gums like a worn boar’s tusk ready to impale anyone in its path. In a city this big, there’s nowhere to run! they must have thought. There’s no oasis in this jungle of insanity and sickness.

“There’s nothing at Vermont!” he was shouting in his yapping voice. “Get back on the bus, there’s nothing to do here.”

Most of the riders were Korean, though, and they knew their way around the city. “Tae kwon do,” Marlin started saying, hoping for some kind of verbal connection. But they rushed past him. “Sulkey Sae-oh!” he said.

He sat beside me, despite the bus being empty except for the Hispanic man and the driver. The bus lunged forward, and I told him the story, quietly, about the man in the back.

“I’ve got enough antioxidants in me to take down an entire civilization of Ebola viruses,” he said. “A shot of wheat grass juice every hour. There are natural defenses for Ebola.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” I asked. “I haven’t pumped myself up with anything that could fight that disease.”

“You’re my friend,” Marlin said, “and that’s got to count for something.”

And we don’t mean Encephalitis

My other really good friend, who happens to be a controversial cultural philosopher who had all his books burned by the US State Department in the desperate 70s, is named Hubert Humdinger. He also had a close call with Ebola. Go figure.

Hubert_HumdingerI didn’t know the old louse still traveled. I thought he stayed marooned at his undisclosed location in Northern Europe. But no. He’d been cavorting around Western Africa just as the Ebola craze began. He’d rented a bicycle in the city, and pedaled from village to village until he arrived at his destination.

Unlike the nurse in Maine, he wasn’t doing the infecting, but unknowingly risking himself with getting infected.

He went to meet a fine young woman whose father had read Humdinger’s work many decades ago. They’d somehow gotten in contact with the stubborn philosopher. And the father had offered his young daughter up for marriage, even though Humdinger is estimated to be between 90 and 150 years old. Nobody knows for sure, not even him.

“As long as I feel vigorous, who cares?” he’s said more than once to me over our shaky Skype connection. So Humdinger flew to West Africa to, as he said, “check out the goods and decide on the proposal.”

Ultimately he decided to stay the confirmed bachelor he’d always been.

“The genitals did a bucking bronco routine at the sight of such a fresh young lady,” he told me, “but after one long night of meditating on the situation, I couldn’t justify disrupting my system of self-education, physical fitness, and life of solitude to do justice to having a female partner. Plus,” he added, “my bathroom is only big enough for one.”

But what about the Ebola scare? I’d asked him. News of the plague had erupted during his stay.

Humdinger said he’d never been so scared about his well-being since his early days growing up in Ohio when, at the age of nine, little Hubert’s head was so large the family doctor thought he had encephalitis.

“I’ve never seen such an extended cranium,” the doctor sputtered.

“Lotta brains,” his father muttered.

“It’s not encephalitis, you deer tick,” the young Humdinger, already a firebrand and a so-called ‘smarty pants’ said to the family doctor. “Swelling of the brain doesn’t mean swelling of the skull. It’s not a balloon. If anything, you mean Macrocephaly.”

The doctor left after that, offended. “You can keep your son with his bulbous head,” he’d said.

Harry Who?

The worst part about the Africa trip, though, was that the father had mistaken Humdinger’s work for another author whose name was Harry. Harry Humdinger’s expertise was in the mysterious language of seahorses.

“Did you know,” the girl’s father asked, and he reached out to touch the old thinker’s knee when he said, “that the male seahorse is the only creature to have a reverse pregnancy? He carries the female’s eggs in his pouch, and he fertilizes them in his own time.”

They were sitting beneath mosquito netting, on upturned 5-gallon buckets with animal hides draped over them. The edges of the bucket were cutting into Humdinger’s ass, and he was fuming over the negligent mistake the father had made.

“Can you imagine,” he said back to the father, “why any human on earth would waste precious brain space to remember that fact?”

Hubert Humdinger flew out of Africa more than a little dismayed.

“Weren’t you worried about infecting the whole airplane?” I asked him. “Even though the chances were minimal you’d been exposed to the deadly virus. Weren’t you concerned about quarantining yourself?”

He was. Humdinger told the flight attendant when he first stepped on the plane. “I feel fine,” he said, and he straightened his smoking jacket, “and as sprightly as a seahorse, but I’ve possibly been exposed to the Big E, and I don’t mean Encephalitis.”

Maybe she took him for a crank. Or maybe she’d had enough privileged white men from Europe make confusing advances on her. Either way, she waved him on the plane. “That’s fine, sir. And it’s none of my business about your big head.”

[Ebola disinfection photo from Ethleen Lloyd, CDC, 1995]

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