Howl Ode to a pandemic ritual

“The whole pack, on haunches, with noses pointed skyward, was howling its hunger cry.” From White Fang by Jack London, Illustrator Charles Livingston Bull | Wikimedia Commons

By Julie Reynolds Martínez

“ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time”

—Howl, by Alan Ginsberg

Every night at 8 p.m., in select pockets around the Central Coast, it starts. It starts at 8 p.m. sharp, because everyone is synced to Greenwich Mean Time on their cell phones these days.

Ow-ooooh, like cartoon coyotes under the moon.

I’ll hear one or two at first, then more voices, sorrowful cries that wail like saxophones, others barking and baying, voices both human and canine. Then the banging of pans, conch shell horns blaring, wind chimes clattering. Frogs and blue jays join in. It builds to a crescendo of joyous cacophony that can last as long as five minutes.

Friday nights bring out the best, while Sundays are the most demure. On quieter evenings, a dozen or so voices check in with each other across canyons and streets. But rain or shine, every night the voices are there.

It’s what we’ve all come to call The Howl. Or in my Spanglish-speaking household, The Grito, named for a famous shout that launched the fight for Mexican independence.

In one evening’s Howl, a voice called out, “How is everyone doing?” but no one answered, not in words anyway. They just kept crooning and baying, with one soul — me, actually — meowing to keep things balanced. Which I suppose was an answer.

The Howl has come to mean so much, a lifeline to all of us who have had very little human contact during the stay-at-home times. I look forward to it every day, for many reasons.

It’s a chance to shout out all the frustration, fear and anxiety of the corona-times, to just let it rip.

It’s a neighborly check-in, a way to let folks know that we (most of whom don’t know each other) are still alive. We can hear that we’re not alone, that we’re now a collective, drawn together by the same forces of natural and human history.

It’s a moment to step outside, breathe cool air and say hi to a world that’s hanging in there after all.

Most of all, it’s our acknowledgement of a deep, mammalian connection, a sign of our primordial need for community that brings a smile to my face and, once in a while, tears.

This thing isn’t endemic to California. It apparently started as the 7 p.m. salute to medical workers in New York City, and in California or Colorado or somewhere out west it morphed into an 8 p.m. ritual that, while honoring those on the front lines, also invites people to express “this sucks!” in a creative way.

The Colorado governor is encouraging howlers to let loose. There’s a HowlAt8 Facebook group with an actual wolf from the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center joining in by video, and people with COVID-19 posting from hospital beds.

I always judge each night’s performance, the way my country-raised parents critiqued the dinner table corn every summer night of my childhood. Today’s Howl was a little thin, I think, I didn’t hear that horn player guy. I wonder if he’s okay.

The next night The Howl is robust, almost orchestral in its harmonic layers, the horn guy is back, and it goes on for four full minutes of call-and-response, howl-and-yelp, clang-and-bang.

To me, The Howl marks the end of the workday and the beginning of gratitude. Yes, I work late, fortunate to have employment.

If I have any, I pour a glass of wine. I start cooking, pet the cat and let myself relax. I think of how good I have it compared to the many who are suffering. I think about how this stay-at-home sacrifice is the first time, despite all our fractures, I’ve seen our society mostly agree on doing something colossal and unheard of for the common good.

Yet this is a moment that’s terribly painful for so many — and I’m not talking about the screaming protestors here. But okay, let’s talk about them for a second. My more compassionate self says maybe that’s their way of howling, albeit with signs, flags and guns. To those disgruntled masses, however, my inner trial lawyer argues: So… the law has always required you to wear clothes in public, right? Do you protest that as an affront to your freedom? Living in a society means not always doing every single thing you’d like to do. So wear a freaking mask. Stay home as much as you can. It’s no more of an infringement on your freedom than putting on a shirt and shorts in public, for crying out loud. As for calls to open the economy right now, well, you can build it, but I’m pretty sure they will not come. Not until it’s safe.

No, when I say this is painful for many, I’m talking about the pain of those who are sick and afraid, those who’ve lost loved ones, who’ve lost their livelihoods and still have to feed hungry kids. I’m talking about those who work in grocery stores and fields, the health workers and the janitors, the students struggling with no computers or broadband. People trapped in nursing homes, jails and prisons, stuck waiting for the virus to call their name.

The Howl is a moment for those of us not in their shoes to acknowledge the suffering and sacrifices of others, to consider what we can do to help today and tomorrow. To appreciate the rising “us” that has sprung from this.

I love our Howl, and I hope, when we wake up to whatever future we’re barreling toward, we never stop howling.

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Julie Reynolds Martínez

About Julie Reynolds Martínez

Julie Reynolds Martínez is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, NPR, PBS, the NewsGuild and other outlets. She is a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay.