A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 139

Monday, August 31

We’ll be driving back to Manhattan later today, where we each have a number of doctor appointments spread over the next two weeks. I’ll also take photos of what I imagine will be a much changed Union Square neighborhood and describe the positive, negative, and unexpected things we find. 

First we will be taking note of just how crowded or uncrowded Manhattan streets are on a Monday afternoon—and figuring out what to make of that. We’ll drive across the Williamsburg bridge to Emily’s late-day appointment at Weill-Cornell Hospital on East 61st St. Then, we will see what’s what in our building. Maybe nothing too surprising.

We’re looking forward to stopping at a Water Mill farm stand on our way, where we hope to pick up some heirloom tomatoes, Asian eggplant, and fresh mozzarella cheese. We’ll likely have the cheese for supper after we get home from Emily’s appointment.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 138

Trump “salutes” Navajo vets as the genocidal Andrew Jackson looks on. Photo: Associated Press

Sunday, August 30

Is Trump another Hitler? His psychopathic narcissism, over-the-top bombast, unending lies, racism, and scapegoating all remind one of the Führer. And it’s possible to believe that a second Trump term could mean the end of American freedoms and anything like democracy. But take a look at any account of the rise of Hitler, and dramatic differences are visible.

First more on the similarities. In Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness, the German diarist describes mob-rule murders, zombie-like obedience among much of the public, imprisonment and torture, and a climate of gradually deepening fear among those likely to be victimized.

So yes, such things seem familiar. We are experiencing daily murders of Black citizens by the American police and vigilantes. Yes, the Trump faithful exhibit a slavish subservience to and near worship of MAGA man.  

Yes, we’ve already seen imprisonment and mistreatment of Mexican-border refugees. And one can easily imagine persecution and mass incarceration of numerous groups, with Latinos and Chinese-Americans probably at the top of the list. Weirdly, Trump and his followers also seem to despise Native Americans—just look at how he treated those Navajo visitors to the White House back in 2017, posing them beneath a portrait of the genocidal Andrew Jackson.  

But mass roundups seem unlikely for the widely dispersed Latinos; for the already alienated Blacks, who would fight back; or for Jews, whose ranks include Trump’s son-in-law. 

And just how much fear of Trump and the GOP is there right now? If there were a lot, would the YouTube parodies continue?

Klemperer, a writer and professor of romance languages at Dresden Technical University, kept a daily journal for his whole life. The portion covering the Third Reich years was published in three best-selling volumes beginning in 1995, the first under the title I Will Bear Witness

Here’s a quote describing the atmosphere in Dresden in 1933: “I simply cannot believe that the mood of the masses is really still behind Hitler. Too many signs of the opposite. But everyone, literally everyone cringes with fear. No letter, no telephone conversation, no word on the street is safe anymore. Everyone fears the next person may be an informer.” People relate tales of grotesque punishments of those imprisoned for such infractions as failing to give the Nazi salute.

Klemperer’s circle included those who argued that German fascism couldn’t last. Mussolini’s regime, they said, represented a “southern” phenomenon, something like the reign of the Medici or other Renaissance tyrannies. Such things had never taken place in Germany—and so the Third Reich couldn’t hold on for long, they argued. Young men in uniform sometimes apologized to Klemperer, explaining that they had no choice but to wear swastika armbands.

But by 1940, Klemperer’s own experiences ended any illusions. He and his gentile wife had been forced from their home and rehoused in a Judenhaus with other mixed couples. He had been forced to retire from his academic job and was routinely questioned and brutalized by the Gestapo and Hitler Youth. The fall of France and slanted reports of the German army’s progress made a Nazi victory over the Allies seem inevitable. And such a notion encouraged positive domestic sentiment towards Hitler. Britain would soon surrender and the war would be over.

Then came the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R., Pearl Harbor, and war with the United States. Some say that Nazi defeat was already in the cards by 1941.

I suppose Trump could get us into a war, most likely with China. But it’s a bit hard to imagine. What then would the sentiment be among the Proud Boys or the MAGA crowd? What would Rupert Murdoch say?

Sorry to wax optimistic—it’s not my natural inclination. But once again, that famous quote from Karl Marx seems appropriate: History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. And however worrisome and incendiary, the Trump antics are largely farcical.

Dinner: drop meatballs and spaghetti, broccolini, and sliced cucumber.

Entertainment: Netflix’ Freud, in which the young Viennese neurologist employs hypnotism to get to the bottom of a heinous crime. It’s better than it sounds.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 137

GOP Convention delegate Kim Jong-un.

Wednesday, August 26

Perfect weather for our Peapod delivery today—a high of 75F and a predicted low tonight of 61. From the preliminary list they sent out, it seems Peapod may actually deliver everything we’ve ordered. On top of that, this morning I received an electronic prompt that enabled me to make an appointment with my regular doctor for the end of next week—something his office has refused to arrange for almost a month, saying that they hadn’t yet “posted” anyone’s schedule for September. (A suggested slogan for that office: “All the bureaucratic drawbacks of the U.K.’s national health care and none of the advantages!”)

Between us, we have scheduled eight appointments with doctors and others, beginning on August 31 and running through September 11. Even if all of these appointments take place with no unexpected negative consequences, we’re wondering if we should stay in the city beyond two weeks—allowing ourselves some time there in self-imposed quarantine. If either of us contracts COVID while there, it might be better to stay in close range of NYC doctors. So maybe we will be there for three weeks; it all requires some pondering.

We’ll carry some foodstuffs back with us, but that won’t last us long. So, having come to accept the Peapod-plus-Damark food supply, we’ll have to discover another provider, as I said in the previous post. 

Trump must be finding his virtual GOP convention very frustrating. It’s getting even lower TV ratings than did the Dems. The performances apparently vary wildly—I’m amazed that anyone can stand to watch. There are the expected over-the-top paroxysms (Kimberly Guilfoyle), the likely illegal bits (Mike Pompeo’s appearance from Israel, MAGA man’s use of the pardon as a political prop), and the cringe-making skits worthy of TV sitcoms (anything involving Melania or Tiffany). They need something to juice up the proceedings: maybe surprise guest appearances from a bare-breasted Vlad Putin or from Kim Jong-un? Or Trump could just fire somebody on camera.

Dinner: ziti with roasted red peppers and feta cheese, lettuce and tomato salad.

Entertainment:  Britbox’ Wild Bill.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 136

English Breakfast tea in the afternoon.

Sunday, August 23

It’s amazing how much time we spend planning. Currently, we have to ponder three matters: things we want to have delivered on Wednesday for a few days’ meals here, foodstuffs we can take back to NYC with us on Monday the 31st, and what stuff to bring back to East Hampton when we return from the city. 

Of course they have groceries in the city, but it may take a couple of days to figure out non-risky ways to acquire it: venturing down the elevator across the street to the Food Emporium and back home vs. getting Instacart deliveries? It seems a bit preposterous to give so much thought to matters that I once performed routinely. But we’ve been very careful during the lockdown weeks since early March, and we’re likely to continue our cautious approach back in NYC.

Our current plan is to drive back to the city on the day of Emily’s mammogram appointment, then after I drop her off at Weill-Cornell Hospital, I’ll somehow park and wait in the car for her. That way, when she’s done she won’t have to get a taxi or face the daunting task of taking a subway down from East 61st St. to Union Square. Unhappily, this also means we will be returning around 7:30 or 8 p.m. to an apartment that has been uninhabited since March 5. What will we find there? Dust…desolation…withered plants? Hot and airless rooms? Rotting food in a smelly refrigerator?

I think I have been extra dutiful in paying bills for stuff we’re not using there, such as electricity or cable TV. So nothing should have been shut off—but there will likely be something unexpected.

Back here, we got a new bread machine, which I am now taking for a maiden voyage. Several inadequate loaves made with the old machine persuaded me that we ought to just get a new one. So this is an “Amazon Basics” machine, delivered on Friday. It seems like a VW Beetle of a machine, basics indeed.

As an anniversary present, Emily got us two hand-thrown pottery mugs for afternoon tea. Pretty nice, as you can see above.

Dinner tonight: an onion-and-cheese frittata, wok-charred snow peas and scallions, and bread-machine bread.

Entertainment: the concluding episodes of Netflix’ Alta Mare, season one.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 135

“Security Breach # 2” (2002) in New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum, Taipei

Friday, August 21

It’s Emily’s birthday!

I seem to have tired of writing. So while I am recharging my batteries, allow me to introduce you to an artist whose apartment is down the hall from ours in Manhattan. Steve Montgomery has been dutifully watering our plants during time that he should have devoted to receiving some fancy genius prizes. You can take a look at his sculpture at his website: https://stevenmontgomery.com

Many of the pieces displayed look to have come from some large-machine graveyard. Items that appear like rusted-out or busted metal are in fact ceramic. They may put you in mind of stuff seen in such dystopian movies as Blade Runner or Mad Max. His very large nuts and bolts remind me (perhaps oddly, I admit) of the work of pop sculptor Claes Oldenberg, whose monumental everyday things include colossus-like teddy bears and clothespins. There’s a slightly askew sense of humor at play in Montgomery’s things, along with a notion that corroded and toxic surfaces have their own kind of allure—like that neglected geranium blooming in a coffee can or the waitress at a small-town diner.

Steve’s work has been exhibited around the world—in Japan, China, and Italy, among other places. His pieces are included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the de Young museum in San Francisco. But rather than lounging on his Cote d’ Azur-anchored yacht during the current lockdown, Steve has been stuck in Manhattan, frequently biking out to his studio in Williamsburg. Such are the dues required of genius.

Dinner: the Latin meat-and-fruit concoction picadillo, rice, and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: the comedy video Trevor Noah, Son of Patricia on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 134

An end of summer must: ratatouille

Monday, August 17

At 3:30 p.m. on a mid-August afternoon, with dappled sunlight streaming through the trees, it feels like early fall. This wouldn’t be the first time for summer to depart prematurely from the East End. But is there more heat yet to come?

We’re largely being deprived of farm-fresh produce, since the sizable farm stands are some distance away and the best one nearby requires that you order several days ahead via the Internet. I guess that’s COVID protection for their workers and other customers, but it means you cannot simply show up and make a selection of the fruits and veggies that look best to you. So we’ll probably not be having much of the zucchini + squash+ eggplant+ tomato+ onion concoction known as ratatouille, nor are we likely to get our usual share of corn on the cob. Ironically, our best bet for farm-to-table veggies may come after our return to New York City and the Union Square Greenmarket. Even there, I gather, there’s regimentation and social distancing: Patrons must wait in line, single file, just to enter the market. You tell the vendors what you want—three corn and four zucchini, for example—and they hand you the stuff rather than allowing you to make your own selection from what’s displayed on a table.

There’s one large stand on Montauk Highway near Southampton where, during a typical October, drivers stop and whole families go in to select pumpkins. The same place has a playground usually crowded with kids. The stand is so popular that it regularly causes traffic jams. What will that scene be like this year? And what about the Water Mill pick-your-own apples stands? No picking without a mask this year, I suspect.

Today at lunchtime Emily and I split a mango, imported from Mexico. Local fruit in the coming season includes beach plums and Italian plums, both of which make very nice preserves and other sweet treats. So we can look forward to those. Also to pumpkin bread, which is super easy and always reminds me of New Mexico, where the B&Bs feature lots of it made with the local pignola nuts.

After lunch, we telephoned the doorman at our NYC apartment house, told him of our plans to return there in late August, and asked if there was anything we needed to know. We learned that everyone must wear a mask, that they prefer that there be only two people to an elevator, and that outsiders must have their temperature taken. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be much we need to know. We’re looking ahead with trepidation.

Dinner: two salads—more fresh mozzarella, Kalamata olives, celery, cucumber, and tomatoes with balsamic dressing; and penne with roasted red peppers, pea pods, red onion, and capers.

Entertainment: a little of the very canned Democratic convention…then nothing. We kept hoping to hear Bernie’s speech–but instead they kept showing one unwatchable, “real person” speech after another.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 133

Sunday, August 16

On Friday, Emily’s eagerly anticipated Zoom chat with her primary care doctor was another near-miss. At first, she attempted to connect using her Zoom-ready laptop—but that didn’t work at all. Then, she tried to connect using her Android phone, and she and the doctor could each see one another but there was no audio. So the doctor sent her a message saying they should just have an old-fashioned phone conversation.

That seemed to work fine. Emily had many questions ranging from prescription dosage to records of old back X-rays. And she told the doc about her plans to have an early-September mammogram and to see an oncologist and a dermatologist. None of this really required video. The Zoom phenomenon remains shrouded in mystery so far as we’re concerned.

Dinner: canned Campbell beef barley soup and a mozzarella cheese, tomato, and basil salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

Entertainment: final episodes of the Netflix series The Trial.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 132

Walgreens is always waiting.

Thursday, August 13

By 7 a.m., I could already feel the humidity building up. Some recent days have been uncomfortably hot, but over night it was cool enough to allow sleep.

In the mid-afternoon, Emily takes an inventory of her remaining prescription pills. This is preparation for her chat with her regular doctor, scheduled for Friday afternoon. Emily has received one e-mail alerting her to an upcoming Zoom video chat; another, alerting her to an in-person visit; and a third, of a phone visit. Which will it be?

Emily thinks maybe the video—unnecessary in most doctor chats, hardly a substitute for an in-person pulse-taking or body fondle—has to do with insurance. Maybe doctors need proof that they have truly had a patient visit, and Zoom provides that proof.

I tried to reschedule a phone chat with my NYU neurologist. I got past the reception desk and left a voice-mail message with the doctor’s assistant, requesting that she telephone me. No soap. I may never hear from them again. If they don’t make contact, I can try again in a few months. All I really need is a prescription refill.

Tonight’s dinner: a Greek salad with Kalamata olives, grape tomatoes, red onion and feta cheese, plus Chinese cold noodles with sesame sauce. An international smorgasbord to be sure.

Entertainment: two episodes of Netflix’ Italian series The Trial.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 131

Wednesday, August 12

The telephone visit with the NYU neurologist failed. I waited by our phone for an hour—no call. I telephoned the NYU switchboard via a cell phone—so as not to tie up the landline—and gave someone the East Hampton phone number that the neurologist should be using, just in case there was any confusion. That operator seemed to be taking the phone number down very carefully, asking about it more than once. 

No-go. Later I checked with our Manhattan voice mail and found that the doctor had called me there three times. 

Why? I can only guess that this is another software-induced screw-up. No matter what I told the switchboard or the doctor’s assistant, the doctor relied on the “personal information” in the NYU computer system, which has our Manhattan phone number as primary. It’s probably set up so that she only has to push one button and that number is dialed.

Did the switchboard pass on my frantic messages? We’ll never know. 

The Netflix program Wasp Network is interesting on many fronts. It is an account of Cuban spies in the 1990s, posing as refugees and attempting to infiltrate anti-Castro Cuban-expat groups in Florida. One object of their infiltration was the group “Brothers to the Rescue,” which with its fleet of private planes, sometimes helped rafters attempting to escape Cuba. But the Brothers group also enjoyed prankster flyovers of Havana, rubbing Fidel’s nose in it, as it were. According to the movie, Brothers was also closely tied to the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation, to terrorist outfits that planted bombs in Havana hotels, and to Cuban-expat groups that ran drugs into the U.S. from Central America.

It’s rather a wonder that such a film, openly sympathetic to the pro-Castro Cubans, could even be made or shown in America. It’s hardly a low-budget job: directed by Olivier Assayas, the film features such box-office draws as Penelope Cruz and Gael Garcia Bernal. Perhaps the success of the cable-TV show The Americans, which features Soviet spies as its central and sympathetic characters, encouraged Netflix to stream Wasp Network. And like any good spy thriller, the film has a considerable measure of drama, suspense, and human interest. It’s just not anti-Communist. How is that possible?

Our end-of-the-day Peapod grocery delivery went well. There were few “out-of-stock” omissions, and surprisingly we got a large supply of Bounty paper towels. 

Dinner: leftover pork chops, corn on the cob, and a lettuce salad.

Entertainment: Scandinavian film Out Stealing Horses with Stellan Skarsgard.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 130

Don’t drink me.

Tuesday, August 11

I’ve been reading some extremely literate mysteries by the English writer Julian Symons. So far, I have read The Belting Inheritance, The Detling Secret, The Immaterial Murder Case, The Color of Murder, The End of Solomon Grundy, and now The Blackheath Poisonings. The Detling Secret and The Blackheath Poisonings are set among the wealthy in late 19th century England—and so, in the country-house-mystery territory beloved by fans of Agatha Christie and scorned by such American masters as Raymond Chandler. But Symons is much more than a “cozy” mystery writer: His characters are complex, his prose is finely wrought, and his plots only give away their secrets on the final pages.

The Blackheath Poisonings contains a typically memorable exchange between two doctors. Considering the death of the head of the Vandervent family, the elder Dr. Porterfield counsels against an inquest and a post-mortem. The cause of death was just ordinary gastric distress, he says, and any suggestion to the contrary would merely cause embarrassment to the influential family. His younger colleague, Dr. Hassall, notes that established medical ethics insist that no death certificate should be signed if there is any uncertainty about cause of death. “A post-mortem is scandalous in itself,” says the older man. “If it should prove that the death was natural, then the doctor who had been so disobliging…could expect to lose a large part of his practice. Half at least…and it would be the better half that went—the carriage trade, as vulgar people call it.” In the end such cynicism wins out, and there is no post-mortem—which would have discovered poison in the dead man’s system.

Poison is out of favor today. When was the last time you read about anyone being poisoned, other than as a result of corporate malfeasance? No, knives or other sharp instruments are still allowed, but, other than COVID-19, the favored instruments of death today are firearms or explosives. I mean, guns are just so accessible, and you practically need a prescription to get any poison other than weed killer.

And speaking of digestive worry, Emily recently informed me that she wanted to take onions off of our shopping list. It seems the ever-informative Times is spreading the news about a salmonella outbreak in the current onion crop. Why some 500 people in the U.S. have been infected!

Seems like we have better things to worry about. Any onions we use are likely to be well cooked, and we always wash our knives and cutting board with Dawn dish soap and water. Meanwhile, if salmonella is your concern, 1,000 cases this year have been linked to the eating of poultry. 

Back to Victorian times. “One of the main reasons why poisoning became such a common means of murder in the Victorian era was, quite simply, ease of access,” notes a British Library blog. “Cyanide was everywhere, in everything from paints to daguerreotypes to wallpapers.” But the poison of choice was arsenic, which was both tasteless and odorless. “Readily available in a staggering array of forms from flypaper to cosmetics, it was comparatively difficult to detect,” says the blog.

So there you have it: more crimes of opportunity. 

Dinner: grilled pork chops, corn on the cob, and a lettuce and tomato salad.

Entertainment: Netflix’ Cuban spy drama Wasp Network.