“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Pittsburgh” by Michael Zimecki

sixth ave
Sixth Avenue, Pittsburgh, 1908-1909; New York Public Library

corona samMark Twain once said that he wanted to be in Pittsburgh when the world ends because nothing happens there until ten years later.  Well, I’m in Pittsburgh, and it’s happening now.  Bars and liquor stores are closed, a veritable tragedy for a place that has more drinking establishments per capita than anywhere else in the nation.

In Polish that’s koniec swaita.  Or, as the Quebecois maîtres brasseurs say, La Fin du Monde. 

Maybe we can do a better job than we did in 1918.  Pittsburgh fared horribly during the Great Influenza Epidemic.  The mortality rate was higher than in any other city in the country. During the worst days here, someone new caught the flu almost every minute and someone died in every ten.

According to historian James Higgins, several factors contributed to the deadliness of the city’s outbreak.  Chief among them, perhaps, was Pittsburgh’s horrendous air quality, the result of coke production and the burning of bituminous coal, which left the city’s residents predisposed to respiratory ailments. Wartime steel and munitions production made officials reluctant to shut down and isolate. Public schools and churches were permitted to stay open.  Bars kept selling booze.

The body count continued to mount in inverse proportion to the city’s declining adherence to the state-mandated quarantine.  Consequently, the Great Flu Epidemic lasted far longer here than it did elsewhere.

It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who believes the current lockdown is useless.

“I wonder where we go when we die,” Calvin once said to Hobbes.

“Pittsburgh,” the tiger sardonically replied.

“You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”

I really don’t want to find out.

–April 2, 2020     


Michael_Zimecki_headshot_2x3_300dpi(1)Michael Zimecki is the author of a novel, Death Sentences, published by Crime Wave Press.  He is a recipient of a Golden Fedora Poetry Prize from the international crime fiction magazine Noir Nation.  His piece, “Monumental Evil,” appeared in ACM in December.   He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, Susan.