Talk Hole in Quarantine: Sex, Drones, and Social Distancing
Talk Hole is the bi-weekly spoken column of New York’s alt-comedy darlings Eric Schwartau and Steven Phillips-Horst, offering their oracular powers of cultural analysis on all corners of the zeitgeist (high, low, top, bottom). This time around, Talk Hole meets up over the phone, while quarantined in their separate apartments, to tackle the global coronavirus pandemic, Hamilton (six years late, but still), and why Jeff Bezos wants you to practice social distancing.
STEVEN PHILLIPS-HORST: Hi, is this Eric?
ERIC SCHWARTAU: This is Eric. And what’s your name, sir?
P-H: Hi, I’m Steven. I’m a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign. I’m just calling to see if you’re planning on voting in the primary tomorrow in Michigan?
SCHWARTAU: You know what? I was going to, but actually I’m in Berlin.
P-H: Oh, okay! Well, we actually have someone who can drive you to the polls. It says here you vote in the swinging chair at the sex club under Berghain? Is that correct?
SCHWARTAU: Yeah, actually you’re breaking up and I’m not just saying that so that I can get off the phone.
P-H: No problem. I’m just going to mark you as deceased. Thanks so much for your time.
SCHWARTAU: Wait, I actually can’t hear you. It just sounds like warbling.
P-H: That’s not really my experience.
SCHWARTAU: Well, maybe teleconferencing and social distancing isn’t as easy as everyone seems to make it out to be.
P-H: It’s funny, the telephone was invented quite a long time ago, and yet, it only seems to have gotten worse. When I was a kid, I would watch The OC on the phone with my friend on our cordless landlines. We’d sit and watch a full hour-long show. It was crystal clear communication. Now our phones are glued to our face, and yet the actual conversation part is awful. And don’t even get me started on work calls. We go into these meetings and it’s awful. The hold music, and the speakerphone isn’t working and you have to bring in the office girl, who is also the IT girl, and she’s also the front desk girl who orders Sweetgreen for people but then, like, leaves little passive aggressive messages above the sink—
SCHWARTAU: You’re literally the millennial Joe Biden right now, telling some long ass story. You’re currently distanced from me socially.
P-H: I think this phone call illustrates what Corona is really making clear, which is we’ve been socially distanced. This idea that we suddenly can’t make physical contact with each other, when we’re already 50 percent just avatars, seems a little late to the punch.
SCHWARTAU: Yeah, it’s just going to reveal more social contact that’s actually unnecessary, for example, going to work, meeting people, having friends.
P-H: I think the sober people must be really happy right now. The one activity people actually enjoy when they leave their house is drinking, and now that’s off the table.
SCHWARTAU: I don’t mean to talk about travel, I know it can upset people who are stuck in their lives—but on Super Tuesday, I was in Berlin. Sorry. I got some little flyer about how to vote for Bernie. But then I was like, is this foreign influence in elections? Are Germans here trying to convince me to vote for Bernie? Is that how that works?
P-H: Foreign people shouldn’t be able to talk to us about our election.
SCHWARTAU: I went to this place called TV Bar, where they were having a Super Tuesday party for Bernie.
P-H: Is the concept TV? That’s so interesting because here in America, TV is the primary mode of information for middle-aged people, but for lithe millennials in Berlin, it’s such a novelty that they have to make a bar out of it. You would never have seen a TV otherwise.
SCHWARTAU: Germans don’t know what TV is. I went to this bar called TV Bar and I expected, like, five screens all playing MSNBC, Fox News, CBS, ABC, CNN, and literally there was just a poetry reading and then these guys screen-printing Bernie logo tees.
P-H: Where were the TVs?
SCHWARTAU: There were no TVs. It was like Beverly’s, but you could actually walk around in it, rather than just walk to the back and get trapped.
P-H: That actually brings us to an interesting point, which is that so many bars in New York are—
SCHWARTAU: Fire hazards.
P-H: Exactly. They partake in hallway culture, if you will. Corridor culture. New York is a city of these tall, skinny, thin little buildings, skinny little apartments, long little bars. It’s all lines. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Two short rectangles make a square, right? We could have more square spaces.
SCHWARTAU: No regrets. I don’t regret how I designed New York. Anyway, I noticed you’re hosting a fundraiser for Bernie. I think maybe because I was in Berlin and didn’t have a phone plan, I might’ve missed you trying to book me, but …
P-H: To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I had booked you. I was just like, I’m going to redirect my resources elsewhere. You weren’t the Michigan. You weren’t the do-or-die state, so I was like well, in the interest of building a big tent …
SCHWARTAU: Well, Hillary thought she didn’t need to go to Wisconsin. That’s all I’ll say. Maybe she was taking people for granted.
P-H: Well, the fundraiser’s canceled now due to corona, so I guess you are Wisconsin.
SCHWARTAU: I’m actually hosting my own fundraiser for Joe Biden at Wyckoff Heights hospital. We’re trying to get him a brain transplant, so do come by if you can. Oh my god, maybe this is where the centrist blob comes in. We can just take—
P-H: Kamala’s brain.
SCHWARTAU: I was thinking different parts of each candidate’s brain. Like, Amy’s sex drive.
P-H: Mmm, and her cooking prowess. Old Amy’s moist recipe box. Booker’s smooth forehead. Pete’s quiet top energy. Kamala’s strong jawline.
SCHWARTAU: No, Kamala’s inability to say anything authentically. Kamala thinks too much. Biden can’t think. He needs her.
P-H: This gets back to our quarantine—Bernie is the anti-quarantine because he’s all about solidarity and coming together. And the reality is, maybe people don’t want to come together. That’s the most radical thing about him: he wants us to not just be, like, me against the world. There’s actually something quite intrinsically capitalist about a quarantine. Get my Thai food and fuck everyone else. Lemme Lysol this Thai food before it crosses the threshold into my railroad apartment. It’s this incredibly isolated individualist, loveless life where all you have is your soft, pink millennial objets, launched through your window by Bezos’s delivery drones.
SCHWARTAU: Bernie is being like, “Are you willing to help someone besides yourself,” or whatever it is. I don’t have it memorized. But instead everyone is just cutting each other in line at Costco trying to get toilet paper.
P-H: I’m willing to help someone get toilet paper.
SCHWARTAU: It’s funny because we’re both sick. I don’t know if we should admit that. That’s why we’re doing this phone call instead of sitting at Honey’s, spitting into each other’s eyes as we talk.
P-H: I will say, I’m not corona sick. I’m not coughing. I don’t have a fever.
SCHWARTAU: For the record, I also am not corona sick. I also am not coughing.
P-H: I almost never cough. If I cough, it’s like, as a bit.
SCHWARTAU: I have maybe a mild fever, and I did travel from Berlin to Dublin and have been on numerous international flights in the past week. So I think that’s a series of red flags.
P-H: Classic corona victims, always on a fucking Around the World in 80 Days tour. You corona people love your vacations.
SCHWARTAU: It all makes cruising sound so awful—cruising as in taking a cruise.
P-H: I guess cruise ships and cruising have a lot in common that you get a lot of diseases doing them both, and there’s special ones for gay people and special ones for straight people.
SCHWARTAU: Straight cruising is just Love is Blind.
P-H: Can I ask you this: now that we’ve been talking for 23 minutes, are you feeling a connection?
SCHWARTAU: Yeah, but I’m getting 5’6″ vibes from you and I’ve been talking to another guy and he’s giving me 5’8″ vibes, so I’m just going to hold out for a little bit longer, if that’s okay with you.
P-H: Would it make a difference if I told you I was a regional fitness instructor?
SCHWARTAU: When you’re a district fitness manager, get back to me.
P-H: This Diamond Princess may be in another port by then.
SCHWARTAU: I imagine Trump is going to issue some psycho measure against the virus.
P-H: A tank rolling down Wyckoff preventing you from going to Happyfun [Hideaway]. I did love how whoever is in charge of the Port Authority just tested positive for coronavirus and then Cuomo was just like, “He’ll be working from home.”
SCHWARTAU: Everyone is very concerned to make sure everyone’s still working.
P-H: Productivity is absolutely paramount right now. Thank god I’m able continue writing copy for this new yogurt brand from home.
SCHWARTAU: If we suddenly get into a situation that’s so bad that we all can’t leave our houses, do we really need to still be launching yogurt?
P-H: Well, when it’s non-dairy, protein-packed yogurt that packs a serious amount of flavor …
SCHWARTAU: I also was thinking, everyone’s just at a desk at work. But if we send everyone home, they’ll just be out on Grindr meeting up with a bunch of people and touching each other a lot more than they would if they were at work. Sometimes the safest place to be is at the office.
P-H: I don’t know if that’s going to be the case. At the same time, I have yet to hear about a single gay person diagnosed … wait, that’s not true. My friend told me she has two friends in Washington who are HIV-poz who tested for corona.
SCHWARTAU: Cool. You have a friend who has a gay friend. Wow, Steven. So woke.
P-H: Listen, I don’t choose who I’m friends with. But I will say this—that maybe doesn’t not disprove my point that I was about to make—which is that Prep secretly protects you from corona.
SCHWARTAU: I swear to god I told you that, but you can have that as your point. But I also think it’s completely untrue. I don’t know, I’m not afraid of getting coronavirus because I know I’m not going to die from it probably, but I feel people’s energies a lot and I don’t like this cuckoo energy that’s happening around me. It’s making me very anxious. No one’s texting me.
I took a bus to a gallery in Berlin, and this guy walked up and he was wearing gloves and he opened one of the windows on the bus and was like, “We need to have the windows open. It lets the coronavirus out.” He was very creepy and psycho. I also saw Karl Holmqvist again, the poet from TV Bar, and I was like, “Hey, I saw you at the reading.” Apparently he’s this man about town in Berlin. I was like, “Are you worried about Super Tuesday?” He was just like, “You know, it doesn’t really affect me anyways,” so that’s a way people feel about stuff. Anyway, the punchline is that he remembered my name.
P-H: It’d be hilarious to remember your name after that story.
SCHWARTAU: It wasn’t that he remembered my name. It was that I had introduced myself to him just moments before. Personally, I feel like whenever anyone says their name to me, I blackout. But he said, “Nice to meet you, Eric” at the end of our brief chat.
P-H: That actually is really cute and that makes me want to vote for Bernie.
SCHWARTAU: Right? Maybe Bernie would remember my name. Is remembering people’s names the key to success?
P-H: My friend who is a healer and life coach was once on a failed gay reality TV show called like, Make You Better, and he once had this hot tip aside: when you’re talking to someone, say their name. Instead of saying, “Hi, I hope you’re well,” say, “Hi, Eric. I hope you’re well, Eric. It was really nice to see you, Eric.” It will make them feel appreciated and more indebted to you in the future or something.
SCHWARTAU: I agree. Although, I did say my coworker’s name at the end of a call today, and then I was like, should I be #MeToo’d for that? Because it felt kind of intimate.
P-H: Right, and we’re all closet introverts, which this quarantine is enabling. I saw this clip of Prince Harry and Craig David elbow tapping at the Queen’s birthday or something, to social distance themselves, and I couldn’t help but wonder– does it make us cherish these little physical moments? Does that make us remember how important and beautiful it is to shake each of those hands, to kiss each other on the cheek á la francaise?
SCHWARTAU: I think coronavirus is this cultural reset that we’ve all been waiting for. Everyone’s been at peace for too long, and we are craving some type of global chaos and we actually all thrive and it makes us feel like human beings because we all feel vulnerable to it. So these new ways of socializing are like life in wartime.
P-H: Can I say that’s actually a genius point?
SCHWARTAU: Yes, please say it again.
P-H: That’s actually a genius point. It reminds us we’re human. In this digitized era, when we spend so much time composing captions for our “I Just Voted” selfies, our bodily experience feels less and less essential to how we conceive of ourselves. So the idea that there’s this physically threatening thing that’s completely impacted by how we move about in the world, who we talk to, interact with physically—that cannot be transferred via text message—it makes us feel literally alive in our bodies in a way nothing else can. Maybe we need this virus. Maybe we need a virus every six months.
SCHWARTAU: There’s this inevitable need for us to feel human, which often erupts in sex and violence. That’s why you have a Grindr guy over. It’s just to feel a little bit of risk, a little bit of danger, a little bit of human touch, and then you go back to your phone.
P-H: I don’t have a Grindr guy over right now if that’s what you were implying. But it does seem to be a question of chaos versus comfort. With Biden becoming the frontrunner and the whole party coalescing around him, it’s really about nostalgia. A sort of memory of Obama and this dream of a placid 1950s meets a naively hopeful 2009. It’s more comforting than the unknown of Bernie or the chaos of Trump.
SCHWARTAU: It’s safe, and Bernie Bros—we want bareback, you know?
P-H: And free vaccines for the things we get from the bareback.
SCHWARTAU: Do straight people use condoms? Do straight people even have sex? I don’t even understand how it works.
P-H: I think straight indie people do not use condoms, for sure. And they’re maybe getting an STD here and there, but not noticing.
SCHWARTAU: Because a girl’s Prep is like an IUD and birth control?
P-H: Yeah, they’re on birth control, maybe. However, straight people in relationships are using condoms because the girl does not want to get pregnant and she’s sick of being on birth control, so she’s making her husband use the condom, and he’s just like, “Okay.” From my limited experience of talking to straight men and fun straight women, that seems to be the breakdown. Relationships, condoms. Single, not.
SCHWARTAU: I feel like if I started doing calls for Bernie, I would end up talking to some woman about whether she uses condoms with her husband.
P-H: Hi, this is Eric from the Bernie campaign. Do you raw dog it? Sorry, do you raw cat it? Next topic: I saw Hamilton. Are you jealous?
SCHWARTAU: Oh my god. Why see Slave Play when you can see Hamilton?
P-H: We already saw his other play, so …
SCHWARTAU: That’s true. I’ve been DMing with Jeremy [O. Harris].
P-H: That’s almost like seeing a play. A play is a good conversation, but a musical, that’s something different. I have to say, I was prepared to think it was awful because it’s such an inoffensive, broadly appealing, feel-good liberal endeavor, and it was, but it was also a great musical. You know how I always say that every play is too long?
P-H: This was insanely long but it didn’t drag because it had no talking. You know how musicals are always stopping in between each song to be like, “Oh Mrs. Haversham, what a day it’s been. You’re not going to catch any flies looking like that, Dr. Willoughby!” Only then do they go into a song. But this was just like, song, song, song, song.
SCHWARTAU: #I’mStillWithHamilton. Our column doesn’t need to be about new things. There’s a lot of people out there who still haven’t seen Hamilton, myself included. Now I don’t need to.
P-H: Being in quarantine is really about nostalgia, and I kicked it off seeing a musical that’s been around for six years.
SCHWARTAU: Is that where you picked up coronavirus?
SCHWARTAU: Absolutely not. I was reading the Berliner last week. I’m so over art and artists. It feels like there’s more important things going on.
P-H: Same. Anyway, it’s about this straight white male artist who is making work that is about race or something, but it isn’t, but he’s privileged but doesn’t realize it, but maybe he does and people loved him but maybe he’s getting slowly canceled because he’s not politically sensitive enough in this way.
SCHWARTAU: I’m very over the whole cancel thing. It goes back to Biden. Kamala canceled Biden and then she’s endorsing him the next day. It really means nothing.
P-H: I mean, artists are just getting money to make a weird sculpture or a painting so some collector can be told it’s an important work that will gain value. It’s a largely arbitrary shell game. And as you say, cancellation is BS. Everyone just turns around the next second to disavow it the second it becomes financially or politically expedient to them. No one is a morally reliable actor.
SCHWARTAU: I don’t think no one is, but I don’t think anyone in the art world is super reliable. I think everyone’s just trying to make as many connections as possible to money and resources, and will join whatever team seems like the winning one.
P-H: And for us, that’s Interview Magazine.
SCHWARTAU: Yeah, and each other. Or at least I think you’re a winner. I was on a podcast in Berlin without you, and it was really fun.
P-H: Sounds great. Will anyone in this country ever hear it?
SCHWARTAU: It’s actually behind a pay wall. Full Berlin Wall vibes. I’m in the East.
P-H: The Berlin Wall was the original pay wall.
SCHWARTAU: They gave me a t-shirt and it made me feel like my Berlin trip was a business trip.
P-H: So transactional politics is not dead.
SCHWARTAU: Absolutely not. Free tee shirts, I’ll vote for you.
P-H: Like you said, there are morally reliable actors, but not in your world.
SCHWARTAU: I’m not one of them.
P-H: Feel better.
SCHWARTAU: Get well soon.