Business News for the Mississippi Delta

A Different Time By John Cox

Last Saturday afternoon, I rode through downtown Cleveland. The Greenstrip was bathed in brilliant sunshine, and the temperature was unseasonably warm for mid-March. I have probably made this same drive 100,000 times in my life. Yet as familiar as my journey might have been, it was strikingly different.

There was no one there.

Ok, there were some people there. There were four or five cars in front of the Cotton House hotel. There were two cars (I counted) parked along Sharpe Avenue, and I recognized both of those cars as belonging to two downtown merchants who were parking their cars in front of their stores. But there were no customers. This single sight moved me to tears for my hometown and its future.

Welcome to the Global Pandemic, Delta-style.

A month ago, few of us had ever used terms like “social distancing” or “exponential growth” or “self-quarantine.” Few of us had ever gone shopping specifically for Lysol-wipes, and I doubt any of us had ever regarded toilet paper as the new manna from Heaven. But now these words are part of our normal lexicon, and the cleaning supplies shelves in our stores are as vacant as the scene in downtown Cleveland that I described earlier.

The great Southern writer Thomas Wolfe once wrote that “Loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man.” Thanks to COVID-19 and all that comes with it, we are all living the inevitable. It’s not just downtown Cleveland that is empty. I sat in my office yesterday afternoon and the phone rang one time. Not even the foreign telemarketers are calling right now. The silence hurts my ears. 

We live in a world where the ground is shifting under our feet. The most common answer to any question, whether it be related to health, business, school, or everyday life is “I don’t know.” Because we don’t know. It’s my first pandemic, and I damn sure didn’t take any classes to prepare me for the questions facing our world. We don’t know when we will be able to return back to our everyday life. We don’t know the effect the quarantine will have on our national, state or local economy. I would hazard a guess and say that the restaurant and entertainment industry will take a pretty good hit. We have no idea when we can hug our loved ones or shake hands with our friends again. We don’t know when professional and college sports will resume. Our high school and college graduates, many of whom have waited on their graduation day since the day they began school as precious kindergarten tots, face the very real possibility of a milestone event being ripped away from them forever. 

The only certainty in our world appears to be its uncertainty. 

By the time this column is printed, I hope that we have escaped the lockdown and self-quarantine. I hope that you are reading this column and it’s just a time capsule of a bad March. I have a very real fear that the cure for the pandemic might be worse than the illness itself. I worry that our economy will shut down and we will quarantine ourselves into an economic depression. Yet I also worry that if we don’t heed the medical warnings then we will lose millions and millions of lives. I understand a cost-benefit analysis as well as the next person, but what happens if one of my loved ones becomes the “cost” part of that equation? Can our community survive on Netflix and take-out orders alone? What happens when the consumer can no longer afford these luxuries? I don’t know.

I do know this point– the American spirit is resilient. On a personal level, the Delta spirit is resilient. I remember the prevailing wisdom after 9/11 was that life as we know it would never be the same. Yet, other than slower security lines, our lives did go back to normal. After the initial paranoia subsided, I fly the friendly skies without any worries or reservations. I recall the collective shudder after the Ice Storm of 1994 and the fear that our communities and economy would sink forever. Despite that calamity, our area came back stronger than ever. Sometimes you have to be pushed in order to reveal your true toughness. Despite all of the uncertainty, I am certain of that fact. 

My mind is spinning but I remain hopeful for our future. I wish I had the words to adequately describe why I remain an optimist but a better wordsmith than me has already beat me to it. Instead, here is William Faulkner– “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

I know that Faulkner is right. We will prevail.

John Cox is an attorney in Cleveland.