Looking for the music in the middle of a vaccination for COVID-19.Photo by Jesse Sendejas
You can hear music anywhere, if you listen for it. That’s not just the plotline to Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist, it’s also a personal credo and has been the premise of music articles I’ve written here before, and the fun of the exercise is finding music in challenging places, sites where you might not expect its soothing grace or inspirational powers to come through. Once, it was listening for it in downtown Houston, during the broad daylight and in any place but its bars and music venues.
It was found in the forms of marching bands on MLK Day and sax players busking for lunching businesspeople and in song lyrics literally etched into the city streets. Another time, I could hear music, loudly at first and then fading into quiet as I drifted to sleep to the surgeon’s iTunes playlist during a colonoscopy, a medical procedure that’s so important but so foreign to many.
Getting the COVID-19 vaccine seemed like the momentous sort of occasion which begged for a soundtrack. I figured if I listened for it, I’d hear it, as has happened so many times in the past. But, I was wrong. I took the first dose of the vaccine Wednesday afternoon and there was no orchestra to score my thoughts or emotions. When I walked through the double doors leading into the massive space of makeshift booths where shots and shot-givers awaited, in my head I heard that sports anthem that shouts “Y’all ready for this?” Then, just like Zoe, I imagined a chorus of healthcare workers and patients doing a wildly choreographed dance, like cheerleaders at a halftime show.
But, in the world outside of my head, I learned that getting a COVID vaccination, a medical procedure that’s so important but still so foreign to many, was a music-less experience.
The last strains of music I heard during the two-plus hours it took me to get shot number one was heard in my car. I parked on the fourth level of the medical establishment’s parking garage and made my way to a line of hundreds of people on its lowest level. My name was checked from a list, ensuring I was indeed allowed o be there, since various signs assured us all that the vaccine was being given by appointment only, no walk-ups allowed. A sticker, just a small yellow dot from a peel pad, the sort you can buy at any crafts store, was pressed onto my chest to prove I was not a walk-up. My temperature was taken. In my head, I went all Zoe, hearing the nurse coo Peggy Lee’s “Fever” in my direction. But, redirecting into reality, I observed there was no music being played at all.
My time in line was a good hint that maybe I wasn’t going to hear much music. The woman behind me muttered “At least I’ll get my steps in today” loud enough for the fellow in front of me to respond and then suddenly I was drawn into three-way conversation. We were all masked but keeping a safe, six-foot cushion was impractical with the hundreds of people around us. I learned that the woman was a teacher and she’d seen many of her peers and their students absent from classes over the last year. She knew an elderly woman who’d had a COVID-related stroke.
The man ahead of us said he’d had the coronavirus. He was symptom-less and only learned he’d contracted the virus when he was donating blood at a blood center. He said his doctor told him his lungs showed signs of scarring, but he reported to us that, so far, he felt fine otherwise. I trained my ears for some music, any music, during this conversation. Surely someone in one of the cars entering the garage would be bumping some Fat Pat or UGK. I mean, this is H-town. Or, at least that LMFAO song with Lil Jon screaming about shots for errybody. Woulda been perfect and a perfect distraction. But no.
Here, on the doorstep of safety, the vaccination just yards away, I was engaged in a conversation with total strangers, the exact thing I’d avoided for months. Despite the signs encouraging social distancing, these folks wanted or needed to talk, and not just the two who’d sandwiched me, but plenty of others nearby. And, you can’t really do that if you’re listening to music.
For my part, I tried to quell any nerves they may have been suppressing with their chit-chat by sharing my wife had also gotten the vaccination, just an hour earlier at a facility across town and that she had the breaking news that the serpentine line would slither quickly. She was right. By the time we entered the building, the only actual sign of music I’d encountered was the AC/DC tour T-shirt the man ahead of me in line was wearing. It featured the cannon from the band’s “For Those About to Rock” tour.
Inside the building, the line continued and so did the dearth of music. I’d fully anticipated at least some elevator music but all I could hear was some guy delivering terrible sports out loud, like how Deshaun Watson is probably going to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers (he won’t) or that Patrick “De La Homes” is raking in $89 million a season (it’s about half that and his name is "Mahomes", sports fans).
Finally, I reached booth 9, where a nice young man named Francis was ready to deliver my vaccination. He went through the scripted patter, explaining I’d be receiving the Pfizer vaccine and that I’d be sent to a holding area for 20 minutes with all these other folks to ensure I had no adverse reactions. He went through the questions about allergies that you’re routinely asked when you’re getting any other ol’ shot and not one which might potentially end a global pandemic. But the only thing I could think about was “Where is the music?!” and I couldn’t help myself from asking.
“Hey Francis, where is the music? Shouldn’t there be some jams pumping us up for the big moment?”
He just smiled through his clear plastic face visor and said, “Well, there are a lot of people giving instructions and it would be hard to hear any music over all those instructions.” He had a very good point, I had to admit. And then, he delivered the vaccine into my left arm. I thanked him, sat in the music-free waiting area examining my fresh new vaccination record and returned to my car, never having heard a single strain of music the entire time.
Depending on who you are and what you allow into your purview, you might have some concern about taking the vaccine. It’s been 12 hours and I haven’t gotten ill, devoted my life to Satan or displayed my current location (breakfast nook in humble home) to government agents tracking my newly-installed nanotechnology (at least, I don’t believe I have). My main concern for you is that you’re going into an important and foreign experience with no music. Pack your earbuds and dial up one of the many actual Spotify playlists already built for the moment, collections with titles like “COVID 19 Vaccine Day” and “COVID Vaccination Bops and Bangers.” They each feature good vibe tracks like Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Or, be like Zoe and dream up your own playlist, with that jock jam “Get Ready for This” by 2 Unlimited and some fearless H-town rap or Thomas Dolby’s song that exclaims “Science!” and maybe Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast,” just for goofs. And of course, you’ll want that one AC/DC song, the one my vaccination mate was representing on his t-shirt, that one that goes “For those about to rock, we salute you.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.