Every family is a type of corporation. There is revenue (let’s hope), decisions to be made, areas of authority, processes, goals, and so on. It would be easy to create an organizational chart for most families, with the parents listed as executives, older siblings as middle management, and the little ones as junior staff.
Because I am a parent, I am a partner in my particular family firm, but I am not, by any means, the chief executive. That would be my wife Cynthia.
I have, however, always taken pride in the kind of work that falls into my portfolio. Silly songs made up on the fly, for example. Stories about fictional characters in absurd situations and told on long car rides—that’s me. And if there is to be goofy dancing in the kitchen, I am like Debbie Allen in front, leading the class.
At Skinner Inc., I am nothing less than the creative director. The kids don’t so much as tell a fart joke without checking in with me first. Okay, that’s not accurate, but I promise you I am a very big deal in this company.
Recently, however, there was an incident that called into question my prerogatives, my very authority over the sort of pointless hijinks I have always taken to be my special area, my sphere of influence, so to speak.
This was during the Great Social Distancing of 2020. In the middle of March, I left the office, like millions of Americans, with orders to continue my other work, meaning the professional kind, from home. Editing and managing a magazine may seem perfectly suited to teleworking, but there were countless adjustments to make as our editors and designers hurriedly adapted many old-fashioned paper-bound practices to the purely digital space in which we now worked.
The most trying two weeks of our production cycle stretched to three weeks and beyond. We worked harder than ever and slower than ever. At the end of each day, I practically fell from my laptop computer, the muscles of my brain totally cramped—and thus not available for the even greater challenge ahead.
My 20th wedding anniversary was days away and I had nothing. Not only did I not have a gift, for all the stores were closed. Worse, I did not have a gag.
I was married on April Fools’ Day. Don’t get the wrong idea. It wasn’t like we sought out this particular date on the calendar, hoping to found our marriage on a bedrock of juvenile pranks. No, what happened is that all the respectable Saturdays that spring were spoken for. All the good churches and rental halls were booked so far in advance that we had to agree to get married on April Fools’ Day or postpone our wedding for months and invite our relatives to visit Washington in the summer. And we actually like our relatives, most of them, so we did not want to do that to them.
Then, so long as we were getting married on April Fools’ Day, we decided to embrace the fact. As a wedding gift I gave my feminist bride a book on housekeeping. She gave me, her bookworm husband, a guide to fixing things around the house.
Over the years the gags became more elaborate, but the best ones were relatively simple. After hearing my wife make fun of those middle-of-the-road, middle-age men who, in the warm weather, are found sporting elaborate, rebel-in-the-wild tattoos on their arms and chests, I came home one April Fools’ Day with a fake tattoo, bearing her name, on my shoulder. As I pulled off the bandages to show Cynthia this ink-stained tribute, she was so upset that tears were forming in her eyes.
After a big success like this, though, you need to go really small, maybe even take your foolery underground, act as if you have forgotten about the whole thing. I had gone too far in this direction and had no ideas at all, but maybe a good one would just come to me. They sometimes do.
By five o’clock, though, I knew I was done for. It had been another long day at the day job, tracking a thousand tiny corrections to the articles I was editing, so I left my desk and opened the front door, just to have a look outside. Because it was our anniversary, I had promised not to work late, so, I was, in fact, calling it a day as I gazed up and down our empty street, sort of wishing that any of the kids in our neighborhood were out, riding their tricycles or drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, which always makes me smile.
I liked many things about working from home, but I had been feeling a little depressed. I missed my daily routines, like riding my bicycle to work and seeing those colleagues who over the years have become my friends.
With nothing else to do at that moment, I reached over to the mailbox and removed the day’s letters. One had my name on it and no stamp. Had it been delivered by hand? Why didn’t they knock?
I put down the other stuff, bills, statements, the usual blah, and opened the letter.
It was from the office of the mayor and addressed to me personally.
I happen to know the mayor, a nice guy about my age. Being mayor is not his full-time job. He works for Amtrak, in their information systems, he told me when we found ourselves talking over plastic cups of cheap wine at a fundraiser that Cynthia had dragged me to.
The letter, however, was not friendly.
“Dear Mr. Skinner,” it started. “It has come to our attention from community and concerned neighbors’ reporting that you have been observed riding a bicycle in public spaces closer than the requisite six feet social distancing requirements. According to Commonwealth Order issued just yesterday, this activity is in violation.”
With this unfortunate revelation, my thoughts began to stir. I grew up reading about life behind the Iron Curtain and more than once had wondered what it would take for Americans to turn on their neighbors and rat them out to the police for mild infractions. Would it take a war of survival or could it happen during a less grave crisis? Possibly I had the answer in my hands.
But was it really possible that one or more of my neighbors had reported me to the local government for riding my bicycle? A bitter taste came into my mouth as I wished to know and, simultaneously, wished not to know if someone had reported me for riding my bike, which, indeed, I had done two or three times since being directed to work from home.
The letter went on: “As you have been observed doing so on multiple occasions, we have no choice but to confiscate your bicycle until June 10 or when restrictions have been lifted on Virginia residents. At that time, you will be able to retrieve your possessions from City Hall, in the Office of the Clerk.”
It had to be a joke, but the timing was uncanny. The governor had just given a press conference announcing restrictions on what you are not allowed to do in public. And I had certainly encountered a large spectrum of opinion on how much time people should spend outdoors and what kind of activities were compatible with public safety. Still, this letter was absurd.
Or maybe it was a mistake, a kind of momentary overreach that would correct itself in a day or two. I tried to count the number of mental errors involved.
One, a neighbor of the vigilante type had to become convinced that to protect the community he or she should complain to the city government about every person they see going outdoors. The language of our situation—quarantine, lockdown—practically guaranteed that neighborhood busybodies were already calling the cops for this or that infraction against “stay at home” orders.
Two, the city government, a small town administration led by a part-time mayor, had to agree with this too-strident interpretation of the social distancing doctrine and begin sending out crazy letters, promising to confiscate bicycles and such. This was much more surprising, unlikely even, but not impossible. All the time, every single day of our lives, things happen that are not likely to happen, some of them far more consequential: Donald Trump becoming president, a viral illness in Asia causing a global pandemic.
In any case, the letter seemed to result from only two mental errors: one likely, one unlikely. And for these two compounding mistakes to occur, only a handful of people had to become just a little too alarmist during what is inarguably a significant public health crisis.
I read and reread the letter, looking for something that would reveal it as an April Fools’ joke. The letterhead was real, the stationery was real. It was signed halfheartedly by the mayor as if he had been signing a pile of these letters all at once.
“This may seem like a harsh measure. However, given the gravity of circumstances stemming from the current situation, it is for the best of our residents, our neighborhoods, and our City.”
I was particularly spooked by the capital letter C on the word city. It’s a perfect example of a type of bureaucratic thinking about language that, as an editor, I have come to loathe: specifically the belief that the rules of grammar and orthography exist to flatter the local powers that be. It was a stupid, pompous, simpleminded capital C and possibly the most authentic thing about this Creepy letter.
The only evidence I could find that that the letter was not serious was the date, April 1, 2020. When newspapers print an April Fools’ issue full of local in-jokes, the date is the only real thing about it.
But I am sure there are many, many official letters that happen to go out on April 1 with no joke intended. And I could say for certain that this letter from the mayor’s office was genuinely humorless.
The only other thing about the letter that I found suspicious was that it contained no clear information about how my bicycle would be confiscated.
I showed the letter to Cynthia, saying it had to be a joke. That or someone in our neighborhood was an evil little miscreant who, if I learned their identities, would never again know the pleasure of my conversation.
Despite myself, I was becoming irate, speaking aloud with more energy than I had had in days. “What is the city going to do? Break down the door of our garage and take my bike? And what about my other bike? And what about the four other bikes in our garage?
“Are they going after joggers as well? Are they planning to confiscate the running sneakers of every known jogger in town? They can scan the registry of the Turkey Trot to learn the names and addresses of thousands of runners who live in this area. Then they can go door to door, demanding their Nikes.
“And what about skateboards and scooters?”
I repurposed that notorious gun-owners’ line, saying “When bicycles are outlawed, only outlaws will ride bicycles.”
Yeah, you can have my bicycle, I thought, when you pull it from my frozen dead hands, you tyrants.
Cynthia suggested I call the mayor’s office or send him an email. It was after five, though, so no one answered at the phone number included in the letter. I dug out an email address for the mayor and sent him a photo of the letter, asking simply, “Is this for real?”
Even if it was a joke, it was making me a little paranoid. And I had things to do. April Fools’ Day also happened to be the birthday of a friend of ours and some neighbors were organizing a parade of cars to drive by her house and shout happy birthday wishes. That and, of course, it was my own anniversary. I had reserved takeout from the fancy restaurant where Cynthia and I had originally planned to celebrate.
After the car parade, I drove into the city to pick up our food. It was around 7:00 PM, but there were so few people out it reminded me of the middle of the night. I felt badly that I had no anniversary gift or April Fools’ joke for Cynthia. We were celebrating 20 years of marriage and all I had done in the last three weeks was work like a dog, taking for granted all that we had accomplished as a couple.
Because there were more cases of COVID in the city than in Alexandria, I opted to cover my face when I went to the restaurant. Lacking a surgical mask, I wore a blue bandanna, which covered my nose and mouth. As I walked down the sidewalk toward the restaurant a young man looked at me in my bandanna and laughed. Whatever, I thought.
I do take public health seriously, yet somehow the city of Alexandria was possibly, maybe, targeting me and my bicycle for violations of social distancing.
When I arrived home with the food, there was a business card sticking out of our mailbox. It belonged to the sheriff of Alexandria. There was a little note written on the back saying he had come by and that I should give him a call to arrange for him to come pick up my bicycle.
Now, I was really impressed. If this was a joke, the joker had gotten not only to the mayor’s office but they had gotten to the sheriff as well. Hats off, I thought.
Actually, I was falling in love with this joke. It had made my mind race for a good three hours and now it was making me laugh. I walked around my house, my head back, unable to concentrate, just laughing.
If it was a joke, Cynthia asked, who would do such a thing? I thought of possible candidates. The most likely was our friend Pete who lives a few blocks away. He is always undertaking elaborate schemes, but his brand of humor is more adolescent: shocking costumes on Halloween, that kind of thing.
This joke, however, was a plot. It was a story. It must have come from a person with writing skills, someone who reads mysteries, but that was all I could say because nothing about the letter sounded like anyone I knew. In fact, it sounded exactly like what it was pretending to be, a stupid bureaucratic assault on my rights.
Cynthia had set the table on our back porch for our anniversary dinner. After washing my hands, I removed the food from the to-go containers and carefully plated the first course. Then I washed my hands again. We broke open a bottle of champagne and began our celebration.
Cynthia looked at me and said, “April Fools’, babe.”
Then she explained, step by step, how the whole thing was pulled off, starting with her going to see the mayor, whom she knows from local school politics. It turns out he was instantly agreeable to this prank. And so was his aide, who added a few sentences to the letter which Cynthia had drafted for them. “It was the only fun thing we have gotten to work on all month,” the aide told her. Even the city clerk, apparently, had promised to keep the gag going if I called.
The sheriff’s business card was an add-on, an idea that came to a friend of Cynthia’s who happens to live next door to the sheriff and volunteered to ask him to actually come to the house and confiscate my bike. The sheriff was busy, however, with legitimate business. Still he gave Cynthia’s friend Kim a business card so it could be made to look as if he had come to my house to confiscate the bicycle.
Others were involved. Our friend Pete had, in fact, been consulted and helped Cynthia come up with the plan, but everything else was Cynthia’s doing.
My God, I thought, I have met my match in the April Fools’ department, and she is the woman I married 20 years ago.
Best anniversary gift yet.