Bless the Superspreaders



We were a ragtag bunch at the KyoRyuKan theatre in the year 2000, all washed up there for different reasons. One man had been a master kimono maker before his building burned down and he lost everything, including all of his precious silks. Another man arrived promptly at nine every morning to ride out the work day – he had lost his job and wasn’t ready to tell his family. The Butoh teacher was an outlier in her post-Hiroshima dance discipline. While Butoh hard-liners stripped naked and painted themselves white, pulling grotesque faces of agony, she preferred to prowl beautifully like a cat.

But the reason we were all there was Peter Golightly. Arrived in Japan a decade previously, the American had picked up polio in India but recovered unexpectedly and decided to become a dancer and generalized entertainer. What he lacked in elite training he made up in enthusiasm. The same amateur passion inspired the community he led, and this was liberating for me, who had neither experience nor aptitude for anything artistic.

I acted with Peter – badly – in a Dorothy Parker play set on a Pullman car. (He mentioned in passing that his uncle had been a porter on a Pullman car, and that all the porters had been called Bob.) I worked the stage lights – badly – for Peter’s lip-synched drag shows, one of which turned out to be the entertainment for the Christmas dinner to which I took my parents. I had a residence room at Kyoto University where I nominally studied, but I slept many nights on the floor of the KyoRyuKan.

David Quammen’s new book Spillover explains elegantly the mechanics of viral outbreaks. In every major disease threat there appear one or more ‘superspreaders’, people who transmit the virus to a disproportionate number of others. One was a Bangladeshi religious leader, surrounded on his deathbed by followers, coughing Nipah virus at them all. Typhoid Mary was an asymptomatic carrier of deadly contagion, but the real risk was brought by her career as a cook. With the exception of the notorious and misnamed Patient Zero of HIV fame, many of the superspreaders are matriarchs who care for ailing relatives and family friends.

If there’s one thing I can say for myself, I could never be a disease superspreader. I could incubate bacteria like a hot tub in a nightclub, but I would never cause an outbreak. We’re now Tuesday and the last time I spoke to someone in person was on Friday morning. I feel no worse for it – didn’t notice until I worked it out just now.

Absent quirks of the immune system, the superspreaders are, on balance, the best of us, the social linchpins who hold together the community, the ones like Peter, the saviours of introverts worldwide. As nodes of a social nexus, they spread a lot more than contact germs, and most of it is positive. I’ve known other Peter Golightlys. They’re the ones I can call up and who will simply tell me where everyone will be that night. They’re probably the reason I have friends.

What makes a good friendship superspreader is a philosophy of inclusiveness, and an ability to take the perspective of many different kinds of people, then explain them to each other. Many of my conversations with Patric Colosimo, a binder of Toronto’s art world, go something like this. Me: “I can’t believe X person did Y. What a jerk.” Patric: “Well, you see, X comes from the school of thought where A means B.” It’s such small-scale diplomacy that keeps the micro-peace within a group of friends.

The Next Big One, as epidemiologists call it, may be a sneezable form of bird flu or one of the many germs that bats seem to fly about with. Whatever it is, it will carry not just a threat to our physical health but to our social fabric – to the connections between us, the friendships and physical proximity that nurtures them. Meanwhile I’d rather stay close to the Typhoid Marys, the superspreaders of ideas, of acceptance, of human connections.

Here’s Peter Golightly (centre) in one of his frequent and varied Kyoto performances:


Photo Image: Shutterstock

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