A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 151

Believe me, the trunk is very full of extremely heavy stuff.

Tuesday, September 22

A second wave of COVID-19 is surely coming to America.  That second wave is already happening in Europe—which means it will be here before too long.

At least 73 countries are seeing surges in new cases. France just experienced 10,000 new cases in one 24-hour period. In Britain, the government’s chief scientific adviser says that the country could see 50,000 new cases per day unless more prevention measures are taken. Over a million people in and around Madrid are under a new lockdown. Israel, too, has imposed a second lockdown. 

Nearly one million people have died worldwide since the emergence of the novel coronavirus in late 2019.

So we’re both relieved and anxious about going back to our East Hampton house today. We’ve loaded—perhaps overloaded—our car with food, heavier clothes, and other essentials.

During the six months we were out in East Hampton before, stretching from March through August, I got used to a different rhythm of life. Part of this was due to daylight-saving time changes, and part due to the shifting of the seasons. In April, the sun would start to peak up above the Eastern horizon at around 5 a.m. This would alert the birds, who seemed in a competition to be the first to sound the alarm. Some days I would try to sleep through their cacophony. On other days, I would surrender and get up, make coffee and oatmeal, and begin reading the newspaper.

In New York City, there’s noise all night long: wild men screaming or shouting their personal grievances, which echo all along the 14th Street high-rise canyons. Honking horns, blasting sirens and fire-engine klaxons, and the ambient sound of whizzing vehicles. Sometimes you get the grinding, crunching racket of huge garbage-truck compactors. Then there’s the construction noise from workers throwing up yet another—and much needed—luxury high-rise building.

Strangely, when we first went out to East Hampton, I was more accustomed to sleeping through the urban noise. It was the sounds of nature that disrupted my snoozing.

There will be new changes, related to the coming of winter and perhaps harsh weather. The heating system in the house has its own set of sounds, as the furnace comes on and shuts off.

But it can be soothing to snuggle under a down comforter during long, cold nights in the country.  

Dinner: Thanks to Halsey’s farm stand in Water Mill, we’ll be having fresh mozzarella cheese with sliced tomato and basil and fresh corn on the cob.

Entertainment: More episodes of the always surprising Ozark and Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 150

New York City after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Photo: David Shankbone.

Sunday, September 20

Nothing says Crisis like the obviously empty apartments across New York City. Looking at One Union Square South—the much-hated building that has both a giant, spinning digital clock and a smoking hole gracing one outside wall (The New York Observer said it was “a site … where the death of aesthetics can be contemplated”)—I can see a dispiriting number of vacancies. That’s the building that also contains the mega movie theater known as Regal Union Square, and it is topped by at least 16 floors of apartments, each floor with at least a dozen units. There are empty apartments on every floor—in some cases, at least four empty units.

On another corner, the mega development known as Zeckendorf Towers also has an eye-popping number of vacancies.

But it’s always hard to know what’s happening in New York big buildings. There are likely several vacancies on our own floor. I seldom see anyone, including neighbors with whom we are friendly—such as those right next door.

I haven’t been out yet today, but it seems windy and coolish as compared with last week: Temps are now in the 60s and the 40s at night. I can see that people outside are wearing coats and heavier clothes. The weatherman says everyone should beware of dangerous rip currents and stay out of the ocean, as I intend to do.

The Times has an article on altercations over mask-wearing. There are reports of such conflicts taking place in various public places—restaurants, stores—but the most vicious ones seem to be happening on New York buses. Although “mask compliance has been generally high in most indoor settings” in the city, “dozens of drivers have been attacked after trying to enforce the rules.”

This is the anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the weatherman says.  In that year “one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history struck Long Island and Southern New England.” The peak storm surge (in Rhode Island) was 17 feet higher than normal, and a reported two billion trees and 8,900 homes were destroyed. 700 people died. Ten new inlets were formed between Fire Island and East Hampton including Shinecock Inlet. Montauk temporarily became an island.

I mean, we could use another disaster. As October approaches, the traumatic memory of Hurricane Sandy returns. We were in Manhattan for the unlikely 2012 event, when a hurricane came up from the Caribbean to smash New Jersey and New York City. A nearby Con Edison power plant exploded, and lower Manhattan was without power (and consequently in our building, without water) for many days. The gas stove still worked, so we could sort-of cook whatever grub we had on hand, but we lived in the dark. Emily reminded me that, looking out into a building across the way from us, we could see a weird, inexplicable light moving around in one unit—jetting about like a tiny, aimless UFO.  It turned out that a guy was wearing a hat with a light on the top—the kind that you see some miners wearing. As he moved his head, the light zoomed around. He was the UFO.

It turned very cold as the storm moved away, and there was no heat here. So for a few nights, we moved out, staying in spaces we were able to borrow. We were afraid of what we might find at our East Hampton house, so we only went out there some days later.

We have to keep our fingers crossed, but who could be surprised if a hurricane hit during this year of gobsmacking events: a Presidential impeachment, an international pandemic that has killed over 900,000 around the planet, a severe economic recession, police killings and Black Lives Matter demonstrations/riots, hellish West Coast wildfires, the Beirut explosion, Justice Ruth Ginsberg’s death, and, very likely, a near civil war over the coming Presidential election results. Next!

Dinner: We’re emptying out the larder as we prepare to return to Long Island. Lentil soup with hotdogs and a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: The twisty and entertaining crime drama Ozark on Netflix, along with one episode of Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 149

Memphis’ black Establishment included political operator Bob Church, musician W.C. Handy, and civic leader George Lee.

Wednesday, September 16

“There’s no there there,” Gertrude Stein famously wrote about her hometown of Oakland, California. The comment turns out to be not a dismissal of a non-place but a nostalgia for the vanished landmarks of Stein’s childhood.

But if that’s what she meant, it’s a quote that could be applied to many places in the United States.

Some years back, Emily and I made a trip to Columbia, South Carolina, where my uncle Eddie lived, for a family reunion. We drove down the nightmarish I-95 to get there—and passed through a hellscape of WilliamsSonomaland. It turned out that the Eastern Seaboard had been transformed into a vast suburban wilderness—one fast-food joint after another plastic motel after another shopping mall. One memorable experience involved being stuck in a no-exit roundabout, going round and around, facing a Charlie-on-the-MTA prospect of never being able to figure out how to get into that Appleby’s parking lot and perhaps finally being kicked to the curb after running out of gas.

Hurtling down I-95, wedged between methamphetamine-wired semitrailer-truck drivers and Jack Daniel’s juiced suburban commuters, we passed heart-rending signs: Antietam Battlefield thisaway or Harper’s Ferry thataway. Nevermind. Must fly!

Oh, but I WOULD like to go to that Le Creuset outlet store…if only we could get to the exit ramp–AHHHHHHHHHH. Oh, well.

John Brown on his way to the gallows.

I think we did figure out how to go to Harper’s Ferry. I had always heard of the beautiful little place in connection with the abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid, a failed attempt to spark a slave rebellion. Much to my surprise, the town wasn’t just a storehouse of U.S. Army weapons. It was where the army manufactured its rifles. If an actual slave rising had taken place, Brown would have been in a good position to supply a large force of rebels with state-of-the-art weaponry. But it was not to be: A company of U.S. Marines under the overall command of Colonel Robert E. Lee put the kibosh on that fantasy.

Columbia, S.C., turned out to be a pretty enough little place in a pretty enough little state where the longing for Old Times in the Land of Cotton is almost palpable. An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that the War Between the States took place only a couple of decades back. White people in South Carolina commonly speak bitterly of losing the War in a way that probably no one in Japan or Germany speaks of their defeat in World War II. 

So there’s this irony: Civilwarland submerged in a plastic-fantastic present of shopaholism and automotive overkill. We remember! Sort of. “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies, Miss Scarlett!”

Another place where there’s really no there there is my hometown of Memphis. Whenever there’s a retrospective of Civil Rights Era struggles, the city’s name arises: That’s the place where Martin Luther King was killed. The only other things anyone knows about Memphis: It was the home of The King, Elvis Presley. And they have the cutest hotel there, The Peabody, where every day there’s this parade of ducks through the lobby as they exit their central-fountain swimming hole and go back to their cages on the hotel rooftop. So precious!

The citizens of Memphis know little about the city’s history—and why would they? Founded as a real-estate boondoggle by Andrew Jackson and his cronies, it became a place where Mississippi farmers would travel to sell their annual cotton crop and then buy clothes for their wives and kids. There was little more to the city.

Oh yeah: Before the Civil War, the town was a major slave market. 

Several late-19th century epidemics—cholera, malaria, and especially yellow fever— threatened to destroy the city utterly. Anyone who could afford to depart did so. That left the town in the hands of its poorest white and, more often, black citizens. Memphis’ population fluctuated wildly: 20,000 fled the city of 40,000 in the first days of the 1878 epidemic. It had been the second-largest city in the South, just behind New Orleans. Of those who remained, 5000 died.

By 1900, the city’s population was up again, to 100,000.

Other than M.L. King and The King, two others left their mark on Memphis. These were political boss E.H. Crump, who ruled the city and much of the state of Tennessee between 1910 and 1950. A contemporary, W.C. Handy, presided over the African American enclave, Beale Street. (What’s with all the initials?) One of Handy’s popular songs, “The Memphis Blues,” was originally written as a campaign song for Crump. Weirdly, Handy’s best-known song , “St. Louis Blues,” is about another city and includes touches of Argentinian tango.

Today, Beale Street is a sanitized, Disneyland-like strip of Bud Light-selling bars. In its heyday, the short street featured dry goods stores, pawnshops, poolrooms, rowdy black saloons, movie houses, and raunchy bordellos. Handy captured the disreputable atmosphere in one song: “If Beale Street could talk, married men would have to take their beds and walk.” But the ragged edges of the place were sanded out by redlining and several rounds of urban renewal in the 1960s—during which time it almost disappeared.

And there’s little else from the past remaining in Memphis. Like the I-95 corridor, the place is now just one vast, undifferentiated suburb.

Dinner: leftover Chinese beef with broccoli, rice, and a green salad.

Entertainment: the penultimate episode from season three of Hinterland on Netflix, plus another episode of the Toby Jones comedy Don’t Forget the Driver on Britbox.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 148

Our second-greatest president in Union Square.

Tuesday, September 15

Panic—mad panic—is striking the small businesspeople of America.

At least those that have not yet been driven out of business. They can see the possible end of everything and are lashing out. 

Two examples: Yesterday while I was doing the laundry in the basement of our Manhattan apartment building, I was approached by the superintendent, who demanded that I allow him to paint our apartment.

Now it happens that he is not only the super, he also runs a painting and apartment-refurbishing business. He handles these chores for our building with the knowledge and approval of the building management.

Anyway, our apartment WAS repainted—most of it in any case—only two or three years back. They didn’t do the kitchen or the small bedroom that we use as a study. Why, I couldn’t say. Now, I think, that’s what he wants to do.

We haven’t prevented his workers from doing this painting. But he seemed to think we have, and he was furious. 

I didn’t say, but—you want to do painting in the middle of a pandemic lockdown?!? You want to send a crew of painters into our apartment—even as the building elevators instruct that no more than two passengers are allowed per car!?

I put him off, but I expect I will hear more in days to come.

Next case: I received a very pointed letter from my dentist, who after all is a small businessman, with all the overhead and personnel burdens of any other small purveyor of services. (Not long ago, he told me that his office rent was $15,000 per month! Back in the 1980s, when the Union Square area was regarded as squalid and crime-ridden, he paid only a few hundred per month.)

This unhappy and angry note said that it had been over a year since my last examination and cleaning. That he had “tried to reach you both by telephone and numerous recall reminders without success,” and threatened to “remove your name and address from our active patient files.”

Huh? Wasn’t their office, like most others, closed for several months due to COVID-19? Moreover, I telephoned THEM from East Hampton only a couple of weeks ago and was told that they were booked up for the foreseeable future and could only take me if they had a cancellation. I told them that I would be back in Manhattan during the first two weeks of September—but no go, they had no openings.

Now, it seems time rests heavily on their hands.

I immediately telephoned and, ready to make an abject apology if need be, I made an appointment with the hygienist for this afternoon.

What will the atmosphere in their office be like? Will they be giving out extra doses of novocaine—or maybe extra doses of pain, a la the dentist in Marathon Man?

Dinner: Shakshuka with feta, crumpets, and a lettuce, cucumber, and tomato salad.

Entertainment: an episode from season three of Hinterland on Netflix, plus one episode of Britbox’ new sad-sack comedy Don’t Forget the Driver.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 147

Mask-wearing instructions in the subway.

Monday, September 14

After doing a load of laundry, I wandered around our East Village neighborhood a little more. Veselka, the 2nd Ave. coffee shop and home of legendary Ukranian borscht and pierogis, is still open, as is Porto Rico Importing Co. on St. Mark’s Place, where I picked up a pound of Italian espresso ground for a French press. Westside Market, improbably located on the East Side at 3rd Ave. and 12th St., is apparently thriving—and soon to become the third busiest market in the area as the Food Emporium is soon to close.

But the string of small Asian restaurants along that same stretch of Third Avenue seems doomed. They were never very bustling. Lots of other storefronts are abandoned and empty. I cannot even remember what was once there.

I went into H Mart, the Asian “convenient store,” as its sign once proclaimed. There were plenty of customers there, buying both prepared food and hard-to-find Asian ingredients.

I did the latter. The Times has an increasing number of Korean recipes, calling for Gochujang hot pepper paste among other things. I’ve never had it, so far as I know, but I will now. The 17.7 oz. container that I picked up says it contains wheat flour, corn syrup, hot pepper powder, distilled alcohol, defatted soybean powder, and more. Will it taste very different from Sriracha? More umami, perhaps? We’ll see.

I’m reading a book I’ve apparently neglected, Vertigo, by one of my favorite writers, W.G. Sebald. The cover says it was his first novel and that it concerns a trip across Europe described by an unnamed narrator. That person tells of his time in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, and a small Bavarian village. Sebald’s usual concerns—memory, the past, mystifying encounters, lethargy—are all here. Don’t those seem like appropriate preoccupations for the lockdown?

Early on, during his sojourn in Venice, Sebald displays the insight that had me nodding in understanding:

“As you enter into the heart of that city, you cannot tell what you will see next or indeed who will see you the very next moment. Scarcely has someone made an appearance than he has quit the stage again by another exit….If you walk behind someone in a deserted alleyway, you have only to quicken your step slightly to instill a little fear into the person you are following. And equally, you can feel like a quarry yourself. Confusion and ice-cold terror alternate.”

Yes, these are the very sensations that lie beneath the surface of the Venice-based Daphne du Maurier story “Don’t Look Now,” made into a haunting movie by Nicolas Roeg.

The shade of Franz Kafka makes repeated appearances in Sebald’s account—once during an imagined trip of his from Prague to Riva, and again in the form of two twin boys who enter the narrator’s train, looking exactly like the famed writer. They have “the same dark eyes and thick brows, the same large and unequal ears, with the lobes growing into the skin of the neck.” Did Kafka really go to the movies? Might he have seen an early Tom Mix western?

The 15th is tax day, the deadline for submission of quarterly estimated IRS payments. What else? Oh, I have a dentist appointment!

Dinner: cold cucumber soup, hot dogs with sauerkraut, baked potatoes.

Entertainment: The season two finale of the Wales-based policier Hinterland on Netflix, plus another episode of Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 146

The fire this time.

Thursday, September 10

We sit on the shore and wait for the wind, in the words of an old Russian proverb.

Back here, things sputter along. I have attended my final doctor’s appointment, this time with a neurologist. Like my other doctor appointments, it was uneventful. Not even a letting of blood.

Afterwards, I again went to the Union Square greenmarket, getting onions, tomatoes, apples, peaches, and a cucumber.

Emily has made an appointment with Geek Squad, the computer fixit folks at Best Buy, to see if her Android phone has a virus. For some reason lost to the distant past, her account there is in my name, so I’ll go along and bring my credit card just in case.

Tonight’s dinner: chicken paprikash again, ziti, sour cream, and a lettuce salad.

Entertainment: An episode of the Wales-based policier Hinterland on Netflix, plus another episode of Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 145

An empty storefront on once-busy Fourth Avenue in Manhattan.

Wednesday, September 9

Seven of the many fast-casual food joints on the 4th Avenue strip between 14th St. and Astor Place appear to have closed for good. This includes some that always seemed to be doing well, drawing on the rush-hour homeward-bound foot traffic from the Union Square subway. Both the popular Poke Spot and Liquiteria are kaput. Two others—Dos Toros and Cava—still show signs of life, as do two coffee places, Think Coffee and Le Cafe.

Chains seem particularly vulnerable to the lockdown’s economic wallop. Does their vulnerability have to do with impatient Wall Street financing? With central planning that makes macro judgments affecting multiple locations at one fell swoop?

Two highly popular Asian places down near Astor Place are closed but maybe not for good. These are Dim Sum hotspot Tim Ho Wan and always-jammed Japanese ramen joint Ippudo. Maybe both will reopen—who can say? (New York State’s prohibition on indoor dining is set to end on September 30–but restaurants will be allowed to utilize only 25% of their capacity.)

This morning I took my “Economic Impact Payment Card” down to the bank and withdrew $300 from my CARES Act allotment. Almost too easy: “This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”

I also went to Trader Joe’s for some provisions. I used to go there every week, but this was the first time since we’ve been back in the city. I was worried that the store would be dangerously crowded. Instead, there was almost no one there. So I stocked up on their quality nuts, Irish oatmeal, dried fruit, and a few veggies.

Yesterday as ordered, I gave this website a PHP upgrade, which web host Media Temple says is supposed to make everything run better. Instead, the older posts became inaccessible. So I got back in touch with Media Temple to try to straighten it out. In the end, I was again left on my own. The only fix for the problem seemed to involve a redesign of the pages–a new “theme,” as WordPress calls it. So now everything looks different–a new page layout, new typeface, etc. I may change it all yet again.

Dinner: lentil soup with hotdogs and a lettuce salad with grape tomatoes, apple, and cucumber.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Danish political drama Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 144


The Wertheim Department Store, Leipziger Platz, Berlin.

Tuesday, September 8

Donald Trump seems to hate amazon.com and its owner, Jeff Bezos. Adolf Hitler hated the big-retail phenomena of his time: chain stores and department stores. But the similarity is only superficial. And the different motivation tells a lot about the two authoritarians.

Trump’s dislike of Bezos has MAGA man ready to destroy the U.S. Postal Service, which he believes unfairly allows Amazon favorable postal rates. The USPS should be charging Amazon “four or five times” the current rates, Trump said recently.

 Why? Because Amazon’s command of the consumer market is damaging mom-and-pop stores, maybe?

Well, that was the thinking of the Nazi Party in the 1930s. One of the Nazis’ constituent groups was small business, the Mittelstand. Germany’s 1933 Law for the Protection of Retail Trade prohibited the expansion of chain stores, and, over the next few years, more and more restrictions were placed on department stores. Early on, public authorities were forbidden to have public contracts with such stores, according to David Schoenbaum’s Hitler’s Social Revolution.

But while Trump might be able to make hay with the defenders of Main Street by railing against Amazon, he hasn’t really sought to do that. One gets the feeling that he hates Bezos only because Amazon’s owner is richer than Trump is. 

Recently, Forbes magazine published its richest guys list, with Bezos at the top for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, Trump’s net worth has dropped to No. 352 this year. “His net worth fell to $2.5 billion from $3.1 billion, as office buildings, hotels and resorts, have suffered during the pandemic,” according to news service Reuters.

Trump can’t stop himself. All he cares about is his own image—even when a bit of posturing against a capitalist behemoth could help him politically. All that matters to Trump is Trump! And shouldn’t that be enough for his rowdy MAGA backers?

For more comparison of Trump and Hitler see: chapter 138 and chapter 141 of this blog.

Dinner: Wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts, couscous, and a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: Nomad, a streaming video on writer Bruce Chatwin by director Werner Herzog. 

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 143

Sunday, September 6

I can report that there are plenty of vacated storefront spaces along once-busy Broadway near 23rd St. and also along Park Avenue South.  Many of these are former “fast casual” food outlets—three spaces in a row along Park Avenue South near 23rd St.

It’s easy to see how you could let your COVID-19 guard down in the city. There seem to be many fewer people around—although since it’s Labor Day weekend, maybe that’s to be expected. Many people are wearing masks—although there were plenty of maskless folks enjoying the late summer sun today in Madison Square Park. 

And why should we arrange to have food delivered given that there’s a well-stocked supermarket right across the street from our apartment? Yesterday I went to the greenmarket and got Italian prune plums for a dessert, then into the Food Emporium for milk, chicken, scallions, and Pecan Sandies.

I’ve been having a lot of trouble sleeping—not sure just why.  Free-floating anxiety…dislocation? There is more noise here than out in East Hampton, but I was waking early out there, too. Yesterday I got up at around 6 a.m., went out shopping early, then felt crummy for the rest of the day, unable to nap. It’s possible that the body aches and disorientation I experienced were a delayed reaction to the flu shot that I got on Friday. Today I did much better, waking at 7 a.m., but then going back to sleep until nearly 9 a.m. I had one dream that placed a cast of former BusinessWeek characters at a Bridgehampton antique store (one was painting a self-portrait), and another dream involving a dangerously careening, model airplane-size drone. How could any of this be wish fulfillment, Mr. Freud? Am I wishing to be reunited with my former BW colleagues—at a Hampton’s antique store?

More likely it is the “reverse learning” designed to remove batches of “neural garbage” from the brain, as Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison suggested in a classic Nature magazine article.

While I am rattling on about our comfy diet, many Americans are really suffering as an article in today’s Times Magazine illustrates. It has a short overview of hunger in America since the 1930s, making it clear that any “emergency” shortages are in fact permanent, often-overlooked problems.

Dinner: broiled eggplant slices with tomato sauce and grated parmesan cheese, cold noodles with sesame sauce, and a plum and graham cracker crumble for dessert.

Entertainment: more of Netflix’ Young Wallander.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 142

A croissant shortage in Columbus Circle?

Friday, September 4

Today, I went to my regular doctor for an annual physical and a flu shot. My health seems to be fine.

I arrived a bit early, so I wandered around the Columbus Circle area a bit. At the vast Time Warner Center, all of the luxury Shops at Columbus Circle—H&M, Hugo Boss, Tumi, Michael Kors, etc.—remain closed, with the exception of the large Whole Foods in the basement. I thought things were reopening; guess not.

There are no signs of serious devastation in this area. No evidence of looting or gutted buildings. Everything looks pretty spic ’n’ span—just deserted.

Not long back there were several busy upscale patisseries—Maison Kayser and the like—along Broadway as you approached Columbus Circle. These are now shuttered, providing shelter only for the homeless.

My GP refused to speculate about when a Covid-19 vaccine might be available. He told me that his office was closed for several months and only recently reopened. In the interim, he put in some time doing pandemic duty at a hospital, which sounded pretty awful. Now, he comes into the office three days a week, with another day spent at a separate office.

Looking at my fellow passengers on the Q train and at pedestrians on the street, I would guess that at least 30% had their masks pulled down below their noses. That’s not effective, but I guess people are tired of being responsible.

Once again, the subway trains seem quite clean, uncrowded, and very speedy.

Dinner: chilled cucumber soup, grilled hot dogs, and baked potatoes with sour cream.

Entertainment: Netflix’ Young Wallander, a Swedish crime drama.