Paul Wilborn is the Executive Director of The Palladium theater in downtown St. Petersburg. The Palladium, like all public gathering spaces in Florida, closed its doors temporarily last week until we get through the coronavirus outbreak. The transition to working at home, many are finding, is an opportunity to re-set, re-prioritize, re-visit unfinished business at the office and projects around our homes. Here is a day in Wilborn's new normal while sheltering at home.
Saturday morning I tell my wife, as horrific international disasters go, this one at least fits my personality. I’ve always wanted an excuse to stay home and putter around. To linger over the morning paper (on-line), play a few songs on the piano, whisk some leaves out of the pool, do some actual work at my job, settle down with a good book, take a major nap in the afternoon.
Now the government and my boss, the President of St. Petersburg College, have told me I MUST do just that.
Plus, puttering takes my mind off the reality of the situation. As a performing arts center director in St. Petersburg, I’ve just written off six-figures worth of business during what is normally the peak of my season. I worry about my friends in New York, my family members in San Francisco and Los Angeles and my 92-year-old mother, who despite her good health and deep wells of energy, is suddenly at risk of something I can’t control.
So I putter.
Here’s an hour by hour look at my Saturday:
8 a.m. -- My wife’s I-phone alarm wakes me. I’ve decided not to set an alarm during this forced layoff. That’s a luxury I can indulge in. My wife has other ideas.
8:15 a.m. -- My wife is wide-awake and standing beside the bed holding a toothbrush. But she is not brushing her teeth. She is running down a list of the things the two of us will accomplish today. She has made a list.
“Breakfast and coffee first, please?” I ask. She nods and starts brushing. She knows I can’t go anywhere. She’s got me.
8:20 a.m.-9 a.m. -- Check my work email over breakfast of homemade bread and sliced cheese. In the performing arts business, this is unexplored territory. We’re all figuring it out as we go. The Palladium was a very busy theater until suddenly it wasn’t. Fortunately, there’s nothing that needs serious attention this morning so it’s on to some serious puttering.
9:15 a.m. -- I must call my mother to tell her the bad news. My brother, housebound and paranoid in San Francisco, talked urgently with my wife and me for an hour last night and the result is we can’t go to Tampa for dinner with Mom tonight. Our visit, I’m told, is pretty much guaranteed to kill her. Mom and her cooking are now off-limits.
9:30 a.m.-10:10 a.m. -- More puttering.
10:15 a.m. -- My wife is on her knees on the back porch with a paint tray and a roller. The re-staining of the back deck will be done today. It’s a one-person job, so I must seem equally busy doing something else. Our old house has a one-story concrete shed in back where the washing machine lives along with lots of odds and ends that keep falling off the shelves onto the concrete floor. I will spend the next hour trying to bring order to the chaos. This involves moving a lot of stuff around and whenever my wife looks up from the porch, she sees me hefting something from one spot to another. It looks like I’m working. She likes this.
Noon -- Isn’t it time for lunch? No!
1 p.m. -- My wife is tall and thin with no fat reserves to burn, so eventually, she has to stop working and eat something or her hands start to shake and her headaches. “OK. Lunch.” She announces. This signals, for me, the end of the hard labor portion of the day. While my wife has a drill instructor side, she also has a southern belle side that loves to make bread and New Orleans gumbo and homemade marinara from my mother’s recipe.
Since the crisis started she’s launched a tiny victory garden on the kitchen window, rooting bits of cabbage, celery, and potato. By 2022, we should be eating some of these items. She’s also got a pot of red sauce on the stove that’s been cooking for two days. If we can’t go to mom’s house, at least I’ll enjoy a taste of her cooking, she explains.
It’s difficult to get in a grocery store these days, but our fridge looks like normal – crammed full of vegetables and leafy greens, Pyrex containers of homemade hummus, cubes of soy, two kinds of milk, three cartons of eggs, packages of trout and salmon filets. I slice some homemade bread, pull out the turkey breast, dice up a kosher dill and sit down at our kitchen table for a long lunch.
2 p.m. -- I check emails from work again to make sure things are still calm. It’s hard for things not to be calm since we’ve canceled all our shows into mid-April and beyond. But folks are calling about refunds and shows that can move need to find a home somewhere on the calendar for the fall or winter. And in the midst of this, I have an idea.
During a stop at the Palladium, I noticed we had five banners hanging from the front of my building advertising nothing. I called my creative director at home. If I come up with five words - one for each banner – can she put them on a series of patches for the banners? I will see the result today.
2:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. -- Last April I published a book of short stories about Ybor City in the 1980s. Since then, I’ve been stealing time to write a novel, this one set in South Florida, where I started my first career as a journalist. Now, the book is ready to go to the editor, but with my sudden extra free time, I decided to do one more draft.
Normally I write in coffee houses, but today I’m on the front porch, with a view of Tampa Bay in the distance. As I sit down at my Mac Air I’m down to the last few pages of the new draft. For the next two hours, I disappear into another time and place, where there is no killer flu and the world is more in my control. I’d like to stay in that world but the editor is waiting. I finish the draft and email the 68,000-word document to Buenos Aires, where my editor spends part of each year.
4:40 p.m. -- The banner patches are up and my creative director has sent a picture of the front of the Palladium. “Stay Safe! We’ll Be Back!” is the message, one word per banner. It’s perfect! I post the picture on Facebook and Instagram.
4:45 p.m.-to 6 p.m. -- THE NAP! OK, I start each nap out reading a few pages from the book on my bedside table. Right now, I’m reading a great book, perfect for this extended spring break. It’s “1Q84” a very thick, somewhat dystopian novel, by Haruki Murakami, set in Japan in 1984. The book is so thick I had put off reading it but now there is no excuse. The book is so thick I have to drape a pillow across my chest to support it while I read. I lose myself in this imaginary world that has lots of comedy and tragedy, but no killer viruses. I manage to get through one entire chapter before the words begin to drift around, my eyelids sag, and the book drops to the bed.
6:15 p.m. -- Time for some exercise but first I have to respond to a text from my nephew in Los Angeles. He’s single and almost 30, and needs to figure out how you date a woman in this new six-foot apart, no touching reality. I tell him that marriage does occasionally have some advantages that he should consider.
6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. -- We live in the Old Southeast, a quiet, funky section of St. Pete that borders the bay. Lassing Park is full of walkers, dog owners, families with kids, fishermen and a few guys lounging on the park benches who might not be sure where they will sleep tonight. I need to get 5,000 more steps to make my goal.
I wave to neighbors sitting with glasses of wine on front porches. We joke about keeping our distance and how alcohol kills germs. But I stay on the sidewalk and then, I cross into the park.
It’s a beautiful Florida sunset, cool, dry air carried by a soft breeze, the scattering of clouds on the horizon going purple and pink in the fading light, while dozens of egrets, terns, pelicans, and two very stately blue herons go about their life in the shallow water off the park as if nothing was wrong. They mingle. They gather close together in social groups. They fly off wing-to-wing in orderly caravans undulating across the darkening sky.
8:30 p.m. -- My wife has tried a new recipe, a mushroom cream sauce over linguini. Heavenly. I don’t deserve a wife this talented, but I have learned to live with that.
9 p.m. -- We eat in front of Netflix, watching a series where hidden Nazis are trying to start the Fourth Reich. Only Al Pacino, doing an Eastern European accent, and a handful of killer Jews can stop them. The show is oddly diverting. The Nazis may be in hiding, but you can see them. You can do some research and, like the heroes in this series, actually hunt them down and save the world. It’s the kind of threat I can understand.
11 p.m. -- Another day of sheltering in place is almost over. The book rests on the pillow across my chest. I’m deep in Japan in 1984 where a secret society may or may not be abusing children. And where, for inexplicable reasons, a second moon has appeared in the sky. I like being in Japan 36 years ago, far from this odd new reality, where I don’t have to set an alarm, but I can’t really leave my house or visit my mother. So I read and eventually the words begin to drift around, my eyelids sag and the big book drops to the bed.
Paul Wilborn is the Executive Director of The Palladium theater in downtown St. Petersburg. Visit The Palladium website for the latest developments and more information. Wilborn's collection of short stories, Cigar City: Tales From a 1980s Creative Ghetto just was awarded a gold medal for fiction in the 2019 Florida Book Awards. Read an excerpt here. He lives with his wife, the actor Eugenie Bondurant, in St. Petersburg: A Q&A with Bondurant. Here's a link for more information about St. Petersburg College.
And, just so you know, 83 Degrees asked Wilborn to share a diary of his day because we suspected it would be interesting and might help others cope similarly at home. If you would like to share yours or want to recommend a story idea for coping in the time of coronavirus in the Tampa Bay Area, reach out to 83 Degrees via email. We too are sheltering in place at home but doing our best to carry on by producing and sharing stories that you may find helpful -- even if it's just to lift your spirits -- in these surreal times.