A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 42

There are no trials inside the Gates of Eden.

Sunday, April 19

This is a day largely focused on yard duties. 

I remove the burlap coverings that I put on about a dozen boxwoods as winter protection. Some of this covering can be saved and reused next year, but most goes into a trash bag that will then make it to the dump. I sweep up spilled seed and refill the bird feeder. A big plastic tarp that’s been covering the firewood pile has to be spread out and swept free of rainwater and various debris. The firewood is mostly rotten at this point and some day should be tossed into the woods to rot. The deer have used our yard as a latrine and lots of their leavings can be swept away as well.

We’ve had an Adirondack-style twig fence round our front yard for many years. Now it is seriously rotten and needs to be replaced—but just who can do such work? Maybe we’ll have to settle for some other type of wood fence…split-rail, maybe?

The afternoon is taken up with reading William Faulkner’s Knight’s Gambit, a collection of mystery tales—or at least mystifying tales. Several are hard to figure. All feature a Harvard- and Heidelberg-educated lawyer, Gavin Stevens, as Faulkner’s sleuth. This Sherlock ostentatiously sports a Phi Beta Kappa key on his watch chain, and in his youth has written letters to would-be sweethearts in both German and English. I’ve been to northern Mississippi many times, and it’s hard to see how such a person could be content living there.

Dinner: Progresso tortilla soup, baked potatoes, leftover corn pudding, and lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: The Coen brothers’ very odd movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and one episode of Babylon Berlin.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 41

The Wages of Fear: Hazardous duty.

Saturday, April 18

This morning,  I woke up thinking about the movie The Wages of Fear with Yves Montand. You remember: In that 1953 Italian-French thriller (also known as Le salaire de la peur) four unemployed guys agree to drive two loads of nitroglycerin over treacherous, primitive mountain roads. It seems there’s a fire in an oil field 300 miles away, and the explosives are needed to extinguish the flames. The isolated town of Las Piedras (in Mexico?) is dominated by the behemoth Southern Oil Co., which has a tight grip on the population. But the guys aren’t going to take on the very dangerous task—we’re told often just how unpredictable and explosion-prone nitro can be—unless they get paid handsomely. Did someone say “hazardous duty pay”?

Now, what about today’s service workers who every day risk coming into contact with dangerously infected people and places? How should their remuneration be set? Should postal workers and supermarket clerks only get what they ordinarily get—after all, they’re lucky to have jobs at all. Or shouldn’t there be something more for them? And just how much more? How should that get determined?

In the movie, the drive is considered too hazardous for the company’s unionized workers. But Montand and his mates have nothing else going on—shouldn’t they be willing to do the task for minimum wages? The company offers to pay each of them $2,000. Is that a lot or a little?  (An online calculator says that $2,000 in 1953 dollars would amount to $19,248.99 today.)

A current Democratic proposal would pay workers in COVID-19 harm’s way bonuses of $13 per hour above their normal salaries, with a cap of $25,000 for those making under $200,000. If your regular salary is higher, your bonus would be limited to $5,000.

So $25,000 to risk your life for several months? What about clerks in supermarkets or drugstores—do they currently get anything extra?

By law, federal government workers are entitled to hazardous duty pay of no more than 25% of an employee’s regular pay rate. (The Office of Personnel Management website says helpfully that “Hazardous duty pay is payable to General Schedule (GS) employees covered by chapter 51 and subchapter III of chapter 53 of title 5, United States Code.”) 

The Department of Labor’s website says that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not address the topic of hazard pay except to require that it be included as part of a federal employee’s regular rate of pay in computing overtime payments. When posted to certain specified, risky places, Department of State employees are eligible for “danger pay,” currently $225 per month.

At these rates, Montand and his buddies would seem to have done pretty well.

On Twitter, a great many tweets signal support for #HazardPayNow. But if this is just a slogan and not a proposal with Elizabeth Warren-like specifics, the campaign isn’t likely to mean very much.

Dinner tonight will be veggies galore: Southern corn pudding, green beans (formerly frozen), coleslaw, corn muffins.

Entertainment: One episode of Jeopardy, one of The Twilight Zone, two episodes of Babylon Berlin, and one episode of Lovejoy.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 40

It might as well be spring.

Friday, April 17

Why must it still be so cold here on April 17? Didn’t Trump promise us it would be warmer in April and that the pandemic would miraculously disappear? And there legitimately are some outdoor tasks that I could attend to, but the continuing cold, boredom, and anxiety mean that I’d rather just climb back under the covers.

I’m a bit late seeing this, but apparently Brazil bigshot Bolsinaro’s son is blaming Chinese communists for the pandemic. Meanwhile, not so far away, Nicaragua’s onetime radical Daniel Ortega says the plague is an expression of God’s wrath against U.S. militarism and “hegemony.” (Might be time for him to look again at Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks to see about the meaning of that word.) Trump blames the World Health Organization. And in Michigan’s capital, racist Proud Boys and other Trumpish yahoos gridlocked street traffic, blaming the Democratic governor for a fictitious crisis.

The Guardian’s recipe for baked orzo puttanesca calls for orzo, which we have, plus (in part) anchovies, capers, preserved lemons, kalamata olives, and basil leaves. Mate! It is still practically winter here and we’re not allowed to run over to Citarella to get preserved lemons and kalamata olives! So tonight, more lentil soup and salad. Tomorrow, who can say? Maybe an all-vegetable plate?

Tonight’s entertainment: back to Babylon Berlin, since Netflix’ nordic offerings seem pretty flawed. Also an episode of the Wales-based policier Hinterland.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 39

The current season’s hot fashion accessory.

Thursday, April 16

One possible answer to yesterday’s quiz: Pangolin paprikash.

Today, we’ll be doing two loads of laundry. This, after all, is one reason we fled the city: It’s always crowded in our apartment building’s laundry room. There can be no social distancing, and I’ll bet few are wearing N-95 masks there. 

I’ve already run the vacuum cleaner in our bedroom and both bathrooms. Showering and shaving were major accomplishments, given that almost no one is going to be seeing me.

Emily is in the dining area, searching online for face masks. Two days back, she thought she had it figured out, but then something she read made her concerned that we’d need masks with better filters. So she’s still searching.

Many, many vendors have gone into the mask-selling trade. Lots are sold without filters–you have to get them separately somehow. (Vacuum cleaner HEPA filters or coffee filters are a possibility.) And most masks are being marketed as fashion accessories. They’re available in urban-guerrilla black, camo, distressed denim, floral patterns, with the American flag, in hospital green, and in red with white polka dots. There are masks with sports team logos, some with tropical motifs, dogs, little cats, and birds.

I desperately need a haircut, even though Emily thinks my unkempt coif is cool. Maybe I will order something from Amazon’s supply of hair clippers. Then, I could draft Emily to attend to my locks. Whoa. Many clippers are out-of-stock till late May.

As has been often pointed out now, truckers and shipping clerks are among the country’s most essential workers, making it possible for the rest of us to shelter in place. In addition to the Peapod grocery delivery, we’ve received two FedEx shipments of pharmaceuticals and three post-office deliveries–contact lenses, eye drops, and powdered milk. Whatever Trump may think, the post office folks are going above and beyond the call of duty, carrying packages right up to one’s door.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos, with his 11% of Amazon stock, has seen his fortune grow by $24 billion during the COVID-19 lockdown. Soon, he’ll be able to bail out the Fed singlehandedly.

And United Healthcare has made $5 billion in profits during the past three months, mostly because they haven’t had to pay for routine doctor visits and elective surgeries, which the public has avoided during the pandemic.

Who else is happy? In many places, taking the dog out for a walk is regarded as an acceptable reason for disregarding stay-at-home orders. But a National Geographic poll finds that hasn’t made a lot of difference to under-exercised canines: 25% of people are taking their dogs out for more walks these days, but 20% are going for fewer walks. At the same time, 43% are playing with their pups more and only 4% playing less.

Dinner tonight will be the frequently made lentil soup along with corn muffins and a lettuce and spinach salad.

Entertainment: Jeopardy and two episodes of another unsatisfying Finnish series, Deadwind.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 38

That obscure object of desire, No. 3: A pangolin in Pakistan

Wednesday, April 15

Not every day can be taken up with anxiety about the pandemic. The global sickness is exhausting.  Statistics, inflated or deflated, are exhausting. (New York City has raised its death count past 10,000 by adding 3,700 more dead who were never actually tested for COVID-19.) Trump, Fauci, Cuomo, and so forth are exhausting, just as Trump, Schiff, Mueller, Pelosi, and those now-forgotten impeachment actors were once exhausting. Could Biden win an election just because people of all political stripes are beyond sick to death of that raspy, hollering, Mar-A-Lago-located larynx? Wouldn’t the MAGA types rather attend a Klan rally than bother to go to the polls?

Yesterday on Twitter, some dissenting soul posted a satirical, Establishment-mocking bumper sticker: BIDEN/Clinton. I almost hurled my Mac Powerbook against the wall.

Did our current troubles really begin with someone eating a bat or a pangolin? Or is it politically incorrect to ask this question? According to the website dawn.com (https://www.dawn.com/news/1485298) the pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world: Many Chinese like to eat its meat, and its ground-up scales are valued for alleged aphrodisiac properties and as cures for muscular and joint pain. Just how many other animals are out there posing both dietary temptation and the potential extinction of the human race? And how does one prepare pangolin—stir-fried with garlic, ginger, and oyster sauce? Pangolin with pomegranate molasses? Pangolin marinaded in palm oil and pistachios?

The Times food writers are trying their best, but to quote the Four Tops, their best just ain’t good enough. Today’s culinary treat: “5 Fast Pastas for Long Days.” I know some folks out there have all of the needed ingredients on hand—and the writers say one should feel free to make substitutions. But…pecorino and mint? Chorizo and kale? Garlicky spinach and buttered pistachios? At this point, we’re lucky to have butter alone, and our supply of pecorino was never so very huge.

Yesterday afternoon, Emily and I discovered a silly, edge-of-the-seat thriller on Kanopy, The Night My Number Came Up featuring Michael Redgrave, Denholm Elliott, and several now-forgotten Ealing Studios veterans. A guy has a dream about a plane with eight passengers flying into trouble over Japan. He tells a couple of people about it. Then, of course, the dream begins to come true, as one detail after another falls into place. The plane is lost over sea, the radio fails, fuel runs short, it gets dark and stormy, one obnoxious passenger begins shouting, and…

…and we forgot all our troubles, being absorbed in the passengers’ phony ones.

…and then it was time for dinner!

Dinner tonight: corkscrew pasta with roasted red peppers, goat cheese, and charred walnuts, plus the inevitable green salad with cucumber and the remains of an avocado.

Entertainment: Jazz at Lincoln Center’s streaming video of a Worldwide Concert for Our Culture: musicians from across the planet perform, many from their living rooms. Then another, increasingly unsatisfying episode of Bordertown.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 37

Trump opponent John C. Calhoun

Tuesday, April 14

George Wallace and Lester Maddox couldn’t reverse the tide of ever increasing federal power. But Trump’s ineptitude and childish bullying seem to have facilitated a new assertion of states’ rights—coming, oddly enough, from the most liberal corners of the country.

Yesterday, the governors of seven Northeastern states said they would jointly explore just when would be the best moment to reopen their areas’ institutions and economies. The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington said they would likewise begin such a joint examination.

Emperor Trump waved his scepter, saying: I’ll be the one to make that decision. 

The ten governors—all Democrats but one—indicated they’d be ignoring him. 

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” asserted Mr. MAGA. New York’s Cuomo countered, saying to CNN: “You don’t become king because of a national emergency.”

The governors appear to have the edge here—after all, they were the ones to close their schools and to issue stay-at-home orders. Some weeks back, Trump himself said it was up to local authorities to figure out just how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. And in early April, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested to CNN that the federal government was remiss in failing to issue a national stay-at home order: “I don’t understand why that’s not happening,” Fauci said. “If you look at what’s going on in this country, I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that. We really should be.”

Trump has a problem: He first attempted to defer to right-wing coronavirus skeptics, including the governors of such states as Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. It’s up to you—he said. But now, that weaselly political calculation is running headlong into Trump’s Sun King impulses.  

It’s an unusual position for an alleged American conservative to be taking. One of this country’s early, and most profound, conservative voices was that of John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina and vice-president under Andrew Jackson. Historian Richard Hofstadter, in his highly regarded The American Political Tradition, described Calhoun’s faith: “The powers of sovereignty, he contended, belonged of right entirely to the several states and were only delegated, in part, to the federal government.” 

Calhoun, of course, was a slaveholder who worried that the South was losing political sway to the capitalist North—and so he searched for an argument that would help stop that erosion. His solution was “nullification,” or the supposed right of states to refuse to accept federal law within their jurisdiction. The idea was at the center of a constitutional crisis in the 1830s—a crisis that the nullifiers lost. But Calhoun’s states’ rights notions have been central to American conservatism ever since, finding echoes in the words of Barry Goldwater, every southern governor during the civil rights era, and Ronald Reagan.

Trump, of course, sees every development through the lens of his narcissism. His only political principle is self-regard.

Is it time for me to take a walk? I worry a bit that my stamina is suffering as a result of all this staying indoors. Yesterday’s wild weather is gone, and now the sun is trying to shine. But it would be so much easier just to lounge about and read a book.

Tonight’s dinner: the last of the turkey meatloaf, green beans, lettuce-and-cucumber salad.

Entertainment: Two episodes of Finnish cop show Bordertown and one episode of Wales-based Hinterland. How come so many shows now have similar, locale-oriented names?

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 36

“with gusts of wind up to 65 mph”

Monday, April 13

A sign of the times: Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel guidebook publisher, has shuttered much of its operation, including its trade and reference division, its London offices, and its Melbourne, Australia, production facility, site of the company’s original headquarters. Travel, it seems, is no longer hip.

East Hampton today hardly seems like the glitzy travel destination of myth and legend. Out of a leaden gray sky, rain is pouring down, although that hasn’t discouraged many of the birds, who are still making like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. 

By early afternoon, a furious wind—around 40 mph, maybe, with gusts up to 65, the weather service says—is howling, straining the limbs of the trees and occasionally breaking one off. There are thumps on the roof as various detritus smacks the house. This is supposed to go on into the evening. Best to crawl back under the covers. Emily is placidly having tea and perusing Twitter. Occasionally she thinks of something else to add to our Peapod grocery list. The next delivery is due to take place after noon on the 21st.

Dinner will be more meatloaf, the frozen Amy’s mac ’n’ cheese, and a green salad.

Entertainment: The last of the second season of Babylon Berlin, one episode of Bordertown.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 35

This won’t hurt, really…

Sunday, April 12

Just outside my window, a squirrel and a brilliant red cardinal are searching through the spilled birdseed below the bird feeder, attempting to find a kernel that still has some nourishment inside. 

Their lives aren’t very different from ours.  But our ability to plan ahead may be a bit better.

“I figure a roll of toilet paper lasts for about seven days,” Emily announces. She has been making a careful study of how far we can stretch our provisions. 

Our stock of evaporated milk is beginning to run low. Emily has also put in time attempting to figure out how best to acquire more—considering the offerings of various online vendors. We’re happy with the Nido Fortificada, but a lot of sellers have upped the price dramatically, looking to take advantage of the COVID-19 quarantine. Amazon’s comments section is laden with complaints from irritated customers. 

Meanwhile, back in the city, the hell continues for health-care workers. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has posted a tweet with an attached “Now This Media” video of a nurse describing her “worst shift yet.”  “There’s only so much anyone can take,” says D’nell Schmall: “You just walk into a room and there’s a dead body in there. I’m tired of calling families and telling them that news.” Sobbing, she continues, saying “I cried the whole way home in the Uber tonight…I don’t think people understand how stressful this job is.”

Researchers are hard at work on vaccines, says The Guardian: “On Friday, the journal Nature reported that 78 vaccine projects had been launched round the globe – with a further 37 in development,” the newspaper notes, and some vaccine developers plan to begin human testing this year. The Guardian article also asserts that COVID-19 almost certainly came from bats, which have a fierce immune response system—prompting the coronovirus’ equally fierce attack. Humans who have been infected are developing immunity—but scientists say it might last for only a couple of years.

Another calamity: The U.S. Postal Service is set to run out of cash in September without federal aid. Mail volume has plunged thanks to COVID-19. And a 2006 law required that the P.O. pre-fund decades of pension costs—a GOP measure supposed to encourage privatization. Trump is opposed to any bailout—some say because he hates the much-discussed idea of voting by mail which he believes will favor Democrats. No postal service means no mail ballots. But Vox suggests that Mr. MAGA’s hostility to the P.O. has to do with his nutty and obsessive hatred for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. Trump wants the Postal Service to double what it charges Amazon for parcel delivery.

Tonight’s dinner: turkey meatloaf, green beans (formerly frozen), lettuce and spinach salad.

Tonight’s entertainment: One episode of Bordertown (increasingly hard to penetrate), two episodes of Babylon Berlin, and one episode of Yes, Minister.

Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 34

At the Shinnecock pow-wow, held each Labor Day.

Saturday, April 11

The Shinnecock Indian nation—a group once regarded as too marginal to receive official recognition as a “tribe”—is complaining about “selfish” outsiders coming out to the East End in order to avoid COVID-19 infection. “They are taking advantage of our enclave,” says tribal leader Bryan Polite, adding “it feels like we have been invaded.” The Shinnecocks have asked New York’s governor to place restrictions on travel to the area.

But the group has a history of taking contradictory positions on outside invaders: Drivers on Sunrise Highway who cross through Shinnecock territory just west of Southhampton necessarily pass by a huge, LED-illuminated billboard erected last May that feels like it must be draining electricity from as far away as Baltimore. According to the Shinnecocks’ website: “Tribal leaders said the 61-foot twin billboards on tribal land along Sunrise Highway will bring significant revenue from advertising—reportedly in the millions each year.” The Indians were “intent on cashing in on the tourist trade,” reported New York television station WCBS. Construction of the advertising tower was temporarily halted last spring by a New York State Department of Transportation lawsuit, which cited safety considerations and a ban on advertising along state roads.

The Shinnecocks say they can do whatever they like on their land. Previously, the Indians have sought to build a casino in the area that was also blocked by the state. And on a different road running through the group’s 980-acre reservation, small Indian-owned bodegas sell tax-free cigarettes and other goods.

The group’s annual Labor Day weekend pow-wow is another tourist magnet, drawing hundreds to its displays of crafts, food, and dancing. One has to hope that by Labor Day, the selfish invaders will no longer be carriers of COVID-19.

Dinner: leftover black beans and rice, leftover coleslaw, asparagus with fried eggs, baked potato.

Entertainment: Jeopardy, Babylon Berlin, and one episode of Bordertown.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 33

New York City jobless in 1932.

Friday, April 10

It’s a very windy but bright and beautiful day, with a high temp of 48F predicted. But it’s hard to think of anything but the crisis—and just what we’re going to eat next.

This morning I drove over to Amagansett to get more coffee beans at Jack’s. Normally, this is a place where people sit around in groups and enjoy cappuccinos and maybe a croissant. Now, it’s take-out only. There are perhaps five workers here, all behind a plexiglas shield but none are wearing masks. I have on my construction-dust mask, which is the only protection that I’ve been able to come up with.

After Jack’s, I go to a nearby, small but fancy cheese store, Cavaniola’s. The cheese we got from Peapod was substandard, so now I am getting some Jarlsberg-like Berggenuss and some five-year old Gouda. Price for a total of a half-pound: $28. Here, there is only one worker. It’s very alien to come into a store like this and not be able to peruse the various stuff on display (vinegars, fancy mustard) or be able to sample tastes of the cheese. I shout out what I want, muffled by my mask. I stick my credit card into the reader, tell the clerk to sign for me, and flee.

The economic news is, of course, terrible. With the unemployment rate hovering around 15%, a quarter of U.S. restaurants could close for good. That would mean more job losses for a group of already underpaid workers, who likely have little in the way of savings and perhaps only a tenuous hold on their housing.

Our lives here are, of course, placid compared with the hell depicted in accounts of immigrant communities in New York City. There, the Times reports, people live in terror of contracting COVID-19 and also of becoming homeless. It is common for residents to have lost their jobs and to have only one meal per day. An unnatural silence hovers over normally bustling Roosevelt Avenue.

“A group of adjoining [Queens] neighborhoods — Corona, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights — have emerged as the epicenter of New York’s raging outbreak,” says the Times article. The neighborhoods, with a combined population of about 600,000 representing a wide range of nationalities, have recorded more than 7,260 coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, the article continues.

COVID-19 has become the deadliest disease in the U.S., causing more deaths per day than cancer or heart disease. Only last week, it was in third place.

Dinner tonight: more black beans and rice, coleslaw, and a very ripe avocado.

Evening entertainment: three episodes of Scandi thriller Bordertown.