Mike McGrath describes the experience of the Safer at Home order during the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. Mike talks about what his neighborhood looks like at the moment, and describes what library work from home is like during this time.
Narrator Name: Mike McGrath
Interviewer Name: Danny Atwater
Date of interview: 4/24/2020
[00:00:00] - Start of interview
[00:01:40] - What have the past few weeks looked like for you
[00:06:36] - Did you vote in person or did you vote absentee for the election
[00:07:01] - How would you describe the mood during the election
[00:08:18] - What does your neighborhood look like right now
[00:09:25] - Do you continue to bike around town right now
[00:10:42] - What does working from home look like
[00:12:47] - What good things do you think will have come from all this
[00:15:11] - Thank you for your time today
Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater and I’m a library assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project: Stories From A Distance series. Today’s date is Friday, April 24th 2020, and this interview is being conducted via the video conferencing software Zoom. So, let’s begin. Please tell us your first and last name, and describe your connection to Madison for us.
Mike McGrath: I’m Micahel McGrath. I first moved to Madison, up for school, in 1992. And I soon found that I much preferred living in Madison, and the very interesting people here, to actually what was going on in the University of Wisconsin. I’ve worked a variety of jobs up here, and I’m now settled in at the Madison Public Library. I work at the Hawthorne branch, deal with the public. I am very much a fan of Madisonians, for a lot of reasons. I picked up a wife in the process of living here. And have lived here for, in the same home, for twenty-four years, I think. Love my neighborhood. It’s a beautiful little neighborhood. It’s a half hour walk from the center of town. It’s a bicycle ride from everywhere in town, about an hour bicycle ride. I’m an avid bicyclist. And I was very happy with everything until all this Corona stuff happened. So, I’m prepared to complain about that at length here.
Interviewer: Let’s get into that a little. What have the past few weeks looked like for you? Especially in the context of the coronavirus and the Safer at Home order.
Mike McGrath: Well, I am a creature of habit and, in one way, it’s been a very good experience for me. I have built habits into my life now. I had a long list. I have a long list of things to do, starting with stretches and proper treatment of my gums, and that sort of thing, as I get up in the morning, to musical practice and maintenance around the house and going to work. I’m fortunate with the library, I am allowed to work from home, from my kitchen table with a computer, and finally at work, I’ll get into that in a little bit, we are settling into routines that are very useful. But, yeah, discipling oneself, and having real purpose and intention has been really helpful getting through this. I don’t like being sequestered or, it’s not quite house arrest, but I’m not really a fan of not being able to go anywhere. I’m kind of a homebody anyway, but still, just not having the option really got on my nerves, but I’ve battled that. I can give some advice on how to do that for anyone who’s interested. And so, yeah, the first couple weeks were kind of hard for me. I started out making a point to, at times, dress up, wear a tie, which I hadn’t done in years actually, (laughs) just to prove the point that I am not surrendering to this invisible terror. There’s that. I think another thing I think that historians of this epoch will be interested in is the social viewpoint a lot of people have had. I find there’s a split, and I can’t give you any percentages or proportions, but there is a certain warmth I’ve noticed in my neighbors, that when you wave at them from, you know, six feet away or more, there’s an enjoyment all of a sudden of being able to see kids actually doing something: putting chalk on the sidewalk or playing, and that sort of thing. There’s more of a camaraderie now than I had in the past when everyone was all, you know, thinking about getting to the grocery store or whatever. At the same time, I’ve also noticed a substantial number of people who have this kind of panic and fear, which I find very disheartening. I very much dislike, as I say, surrendering to any of this. For what it’s worth, I disagree with the extent that the Stay At Home order has gone, very much. I think, it needs- I’m not going to go into the purposes of it; that would take two hours to thoughtfully go through it. But, I think a lot of people go along with these things out of, as I say, panic or fear. For myself, I had a job, a side gig, as chief election inspector for the city, and I quit the job because I could not risk passing off any viruses onto my family. So, I mean, I’m healthy. I’m as strong as a horse. I am fearless; however, my, members of my family have conditions that, it’s just not worth the risk. So I quit the job, and whether they’ll take me back in the future, whether I’ll want to go back in the future, is something I don’t know. But, I’ve always very much enjoyed working elections, and typically I would work all day: I would show up in the morning, open a polling place, go through all the routines of making sure everything’s in place, counting noses and so on, counting ballots, making sure the ballots are delivered at the end of the day after about, a usually fifteen hour day. It was exhausting, but it was exhilarating. I always had a great time with it, and it really hurt me to have to give up the April 7th election, not going, and, yeah, I was quite unhappy about that too.
Interviewer: Did you vote in person or did you vote absentee for the election?
Mike McGrath: I voted in person. I believe that going in as I did to my polling place with a mask on, and maintaining social distancing, and so on, was sufficient. I thought everyone I saw at the polling place was doing a great job. I think they always do. I’m very impressed with the city function.
Interviewer: How would you describe the mood during the election? Both the mood of the voters and the mood of the poll workers.
Mike McGrath: The poll workers were professional, funny, I know a lot of them, and even though I didn’t work the places I, the place I voted, the ward. And I was happy to see my neighbors, but I wasn’t there long enough to, to really get a sense of how the voters felt going into the polling place. There was a lot of curbside service. I did see one neighbor I hadn’t seen in a long time, and we had a nice chat, but it was about this and that, it wasn’t, it wasn’t about, Oh I’m going to die, you know. The neighbor I did speak to, she was elderly and certainly needed the curbside service. No, the city’s, the city’s functioning quite well, I think. And all the different services that I do see, whether it’s trash collection or whatever, out there, they’re doing a great job. And, I wish the library would reopen in some sense, curbside service or something, instead of having us do paperwork at home.
Interviewer: I want to talk about the library and work, but you’ve mentioned your neighborhood several times. It sounds like you feel very connected to your neighborhood. When you look out your window, or when you are outside, what does the neighborhood look like right now?
Mike McGrath: Somewhat deserted. Early on, the first couple weeks, which did really help my mood was we had, I forget the Italian word for it, but the Italians were, the ones who were really sequestered, would open their windows and sing songs at 6 p.m. So everyone in our neighborhood went around and would stroll and wave across the street from each other, you know. And some of our friends would wave from us from the window. One lady, down the block, had a bingo, you know: so am I going to see Mike? Am I going to see the UPS man? am I going to see, and so on. And she would win everyday, win her bingo. You know, the signs of life out in the street. But mostly it’s, it’s disturbingly quiet.
Interviewer: Do you continue to bike around town right now?
Mike McGrath: Oh yeah, yes. Not as much as my neighbor who sometimes, out of frustration, disappears for hours, I’m told. But I hop on a bike and I do where I’m- After, after awhile- We’ve been doing a lot of things around the house, so I actually didn’t quite get into it, but now biking is, I think, part of my life. As I say, I’m a creature of habit and attaining habits is quite hard. When we first started, when we realized this would go on for a little bit, little bit, this stay Safer at Home thing, we put in a shed in the backyard. I cleaned every inch of the basement, that kind of thing; very OCD-like thoroughness. But now I want to settle into a routine. And, yeah, the bicycling is great; going around the neighborhood in the daytime. I have— this is my impression— is that if I see across the street, going the other way, a mom pushing a stroller, she’ll look scared if I wave. I don’t know. That’s just something I think is happening.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about work a little bit, since you’ve mentioned it. What does working from home look like when you are a library worker?
Mike McGrath: Well, at first it was flailing about, doing personal and professional development things. They have these videos kind of dumped out. And a lot of it was actually very good. My favorite thing was that there was an excellent course, a multi-hour course, on how to deal with homelessness dealt by a man who ran a homeless shelter. I can’t remember the name, but I got a certificate and everything going through the course. And I’ve dealt with people on the edges over the course of my life, in various capacities. The library really doesn’t have, at least the Hawthorne branch where I work, no longer deals with such people. I think Madison has done an excellent job dealing with making sure people are taken care of. But, anyway, so yeah, there was a course which had a lot of good things in it. But, yeah, I had to force myself to get up and keep going and not be distracted and not saying “I don’t like sitting here.” When I work at the library I’m always on my feet. I can put aside, and often have to put aside, different projects to assist people. I love that kind of thing. I love the ebb and flow of the library work. I like dealing with the public. And, what can I say? Oh, and now I’ve settled into several projects, and collecting information for several people in the system, and that has been very rewarding. I’ve learned a great deal about, just the holdings at Hawthorne, which is always fascinating and a good time.
Interviewer: Thank you for sharing some of that. When all this is said and done, what good things do you think will have come from all this?
Mike McGrath: Well, firstly, for myself and my family, it’s sharpened boundaries and given purpose; you had to rethink things. So I know how I should live according to my purposes much better than I did before, instead of just going headlong through life as catch as one can, you know. I appreciate most of my neighbors much more than I did, rather than just seeing them part of the scenery. And, I suspect, from the people I’ve spoken to, they’ve all gone through this kind of thing before, it is, overall, it’s an economic catastrophe, the policies put in. And I’m quite scared of what’s going to come about. I just saw the other day that the UN is projecting millions of third worlders starving as a result of this; that can’t be good. So, yeah, actually when I said that I wasn’t dealing with it well,I think a lot of it was fear and anticipation of the wider economic fallout from all this. And that actually kept me up one night I remember, you know. And, of course, it was the frustration of not knowing information. The information you couldn’t really, could you really trust it? Is it, you know, contradictory things hitting you, and how do you evaluate it; always an issue anyway, for anybody, trying to stay informed and so on. To be sober about it all, it’s very hard. And so, yeah, it’s actually, learning to be sober is probably a good thing. I hate liquor. I’ve never liked liquor at all, so I don’t know what it’s like for people who want to sit at home and just numb themselves. Yeah, it’s a challenge and challenges can be good if you’re awake to them.
Interviewer: Well Mike, I want to thank you for your time today and for sharing your story.
Mike McGrath: All right! Thank you. I had a good time here.
[END OF RECORDING]