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Why Old-School Latchkey Kids Have No Sympathy for Your Quarantine Boredom

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I got sick last week.

It wasn’t the kind of sick that under most circumstances would raise even half an eyebrow. At most, I would have probably missed two days of work. Of course, last week wasn’t anywhere near the 48 contiguous states of normal.

But I decided to call the advice line at my doctor’s office because of the COVID-19 panic we were, and are, all living under and because a lot of my symptoms, though mild, were lining up with what I’d read about in other publications. Getting anybody on the phone, however, who had any kind of medical expertise was a challenge that lasted the better part of two days.

I finally got someone on the line late Friday afternoon, only of course to find out that, because I hadn’t been overseas in the last two weeks, and because I hadn’t to my knowledge come into contact with a confirmed case, I wasn’t eligible to receive one of the 8,200 RNA isolation test kits used to diagnose coronavirus.

And how exactly would I have known if I’d been exposed to someone with the virus? When I’m not writing and reporting, I work in a community college with a student body of over 7,600. No telling. At least the nurse I spoke to seemed sincerely sympathetic, even if her hands were tied.

I was frustrated to say the least, and I still have no idea whether I have The Big Thing or not.

That was also the beginning of a self-imposed, two-week quarantine. At first it was great, sitting on my ass, watching back episodes of “Better Call Saul,” getting a little cleaning done. And when it was announced my county was one of the six across the Bay Area ordered to shelter in place, it really only added a week to my sentence.

Then I got bored.

But it wasn’t long before I began scolding myself for being bored. See, like many people my age, I had been primed since childhood for having almost nothing to do.

Gen Xers like myself were basically left in isolation for our entire young lives. Bored? You’re bored? Go shit in your hat.

Latchkey kid. Photo by Superbass/Wikimedia Commons.

This is going to sound like one of those ‘when I was your age, I had to walk 2 miles in the snow, barefoot, uphill, and backwards in both directions’ stories, but Gen Xers, unlike Boomers whose mothers mostly didn’t work, and Gen Z, who grew up in a time where such things tend to be illegal, were latchkey kids.

We had our own version of ‘self-care’ back then — we were responsible for taking care of ourselves and that applied to just about everybody I knew.

Both my parents worked in public education, so they got home earlier than most, but there was still a good hour and a half to two hours at the end of each day where we were totally unsupervised in the house. Never mind, of course, when one of us was sick. I think I started staying home by myself when I was sick in about the third grade.

I’m still not sure 911 existed before the fifth grade, or if it was just that nobody bothered to tell us about it until then.

We didn’t have cable until I was practically in middle school, and there were only about three or four local channels that came in through the fuzz.

But somehow, between the microwave, Top Ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we managed to feed ourselves. We’re lucky we didn’t burn the house down, most of the time.

I went years without knowing that you could, in fact, melt Morningstar Farms sausage links. No, not burn, melt. When I was 11 or 12, my parents left me to watch my younger siblings. One of my sisters, one half of a pair of twins and the youngest of the four of us, asked me how long she should cook two of those little meat treats in the microwave.

I told her 60 seconds, and somehow she managed to enter 60 minutes — why microwaves can cook anything that long is beyond me. She pressed go and wandered back to sit down in the room I shared with my brother and watched the two of us play Nintendo.

Lawn darts. Photo by Fredrik Klintberg/Wikimedia Commons

By the time I realized it had been way too long, the kitchen was filled with the unnatural odor of something like burnt silicone duck. And there was the sausage, pitch black and oozing over the edge of the plate, microwave still counting down from somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 minutes.

Most days weren’t that dramatic, however. Give me a lighter, a couple of sharp objects and a Dragonlance novel, and I could keep myself entertained for days.

Some of the best days were when myself and three or four friends, left to find our own ways home from school every day, took up tactical positions at various points in a vacant lot on the way home and threw dirt clods at each other until our arms felt like they were going to fall off.

Summers meant lots of bike-riding around town, sans helmets, and doing poorly performed endos, flinging ourselves headlong, over the handlebars, and onto our faces in concrete parking lots.

The highlight of my youth was the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years. We moved just down the street from a kid I’d been friends with since the second grade, and he had fireworks, BB guns, a pool and lawn darts. That was living.

The virus might mess you up, but boredom never killed anyone. Well, except for that kid with the lawn darts.

This will all be totally, mostly cool.

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Nevin Long

Nevin Long

Nevin Long is a writer-reporter, film critic, and East Bay resident since 2009. When he's not slogging it in the rain after a mass demonstration he's writing about, he enjoys spending time with his wife and son, reading contemporary fiction, or kicking back and watching a movie so obscure not even the director's mother has heard of it.