A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 140

Black Lives Matter so wear your mask.

Wednesday, September 2

Things in New York City are better than I expected them to be. So far, I have driven Emily for her test to Weill-Cornell Hospital…and, for technical reasons, she had to go back on a second day via subway.

Each of us has taken the subway a few times and found it to be cleaner than usual and not crowded. Yesterday, I went to see my urologist, which meant taking the 6 train from Union Square to 34th St. And today, I went from Union Square to Grand Central via the 5 train, and—tah-dah!—I got a haircut, the first since February. My barber was quite diplomatic regarding the evidence of haircuts that Emily had given me. 

Most everyone I have seen is wearing a face mask, although some people cheat by pulling the mask down below their noses. Emily says she saw a guy on her train with a mask pulled down below his chin—then, when the train pulled into a station and he left to go outside, he pulled the mask back over his nose and mouth. Dude! Just backwards! The danger lurks in enclosed spaces like train cars, and everyone is less vulnerable outside.

I haven’t really gotten around town that much so far, but I have seen a few signs of “Black Lives Matter” protests. No, there are no burned-out police cars or gutted buildings, but there is a very nice BLM mural on the east side of Union Square park. 

The Wednesday farmers’ market at Union Square also seemed pretty much normal. The farm stands are much as I remember them but socially distanced. Patrons are advised that they must use hand sanitizer before handling any produce. Everyone has masks and many people have gloves. I got beefsteak tomatoes, peaches, Gala apples, and whole-grain health bread.

As expected, we did have an avalanche of mail waiting for us. That includes lots of already-paid bills that can be shredded. A bunch of magazines that I have already read in electronic form. Other odds and ends. And, oh: The “Economic Impact Payment Card” with its CARES Act direct economic assistance of $2,400. A letter from our President reports that “America will triumph yet again—and rise to new heights of greatness.” One must activate the card, just as you would a new credit card, and then either transfer the funds to a bank account or use the card as one would a debit card.

There were three pieces of mail concerning the payment, one from Trump, one from the Treasury Dept. saying that we may have overlooked the card. And finally and most curiously, one from “Money Network Cardholder Services” of Omaha, Nebraska, looking for all the world like some junk-mail scam that you’d just as well throw in the circular file.. THIS IS THE CARD. They couldn’t have disguised it better.

Dinner: Turkey chili and a lettuce, tomato, and radish salad.

Entertainment: episodes of Netflix’ Spanish-language mystery Alta Mare.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 116

A visitor from another planet–or just a toadstool?

Saturday, July 18

It’s supposed to be hot and dry for the next several days. Limited Internet means I can’t check e-mail or my bank balance easily, nor is it easy to pay bills, so they may have to wait. I’m bringing capitalism to its knees one unpaid bill at a time. Some 25% of New York City residents are believed to be in arrears regarding their rent.

I have now read three Julian Symons mystery novels, each quite unlike the others. I enjoyed The Detling Secret best—a country house mystery set in the late 19th century—then, The Immaterial Murder Case and The Color of Murder. The last of these is a 1950s courtroom drama with an emphasis on psychology, “one of the most acclaimed British crime novels” of that decade, according to the introduction. The penultimate title is a contemporary art-world caper with a Ten-Little-Indians-like, closed circle cast of suspects. It has five sections, each narrated by a different one of these persons. The first, narrated by “the Innocent American,” is very droll, but other sections are sometimes dry and Just the Facts, Ma’am ponderous. I suspect that’s intentional.

I keep thinking I’ll read a Dickens—perhaps Our Mutual Friend or Hard Times. But I’m put off by the length of the novels and the sheer number of characters. Or maybe Mark Twain—Innocents Abroad or Life on the Mississippi. I dunno. Not long back I reread Huckleberry Finn and enjoyed it very much, but something keeps me from these other titles.

A very large number of free e-books are available from http://www.gutenberg.org. I have downloaded and read several Henry James novels: The Lesson of the Master, The Aspern Papers, and Italian Hours. All were quite interesting and not nearly as daunting as the James I have in print, including The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove. Maybe I’ll seek out others in e-book format,  when our Internet access improves.

Dinner: chicken salad with apples and walnuts, coleslaw

Entertainment: Final episodes of Netflix thriller London Spy.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 112

CCTV: The All-Seeing Eye is watching you.

Sunday, July 12

“The common man is ruled by the expert, certainly. He obeys the persuasive power of the propagandist in his eating, drinking, sanitary, and even sexual habits, in the clothes he wears and the entertainments he attends, in his attitude towards his fellow men and towards God. But at the heart of obedience there is the desire for revolt. There are few things the common man…desires more than to see the expert utterly discomfited….they applaud the expert’s occasional collapse as they are delighted when a top-hatted man slips on a banana skin.”

—Julian Symons, The Colour of Murder

So much for mask-wearing, know-it-all epidemiologists and lockdown-prone mayors! Yea for Trump and all freedom-loving true Americans!

Here, then, is the problem with the assessment that an appeal to reason can defeat MAGA man. New York Times writer Thomas Friedman recently suggested that Biden’s bumper sticker should be: “Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.” This “science,” however, is just what stands behind the blundering weather report that leaves you soaking wet on a supposedly sunny day. Then there’s the constantly shifting advice on diet—drinking alcohol is bad for you, but a bit of red wine is good for your circulation. Be sure to eat fish, which is good for your heart—unless that fish contains mercury! 

Radiation can cause cancer—so let’s have another X-ray of your teeth, your back, or maybe that sprained ankle. 

And—perhaps we should get a second opinion; the more expertise the better.

It’s no wonder that the public is skeptical of experts, whether they represent medical wisdom, computer mastery, or even military know-how. It was, after all, Colin Powell and George W. Bush’s team of “weapons of mass destruction” discoverers that sent us into a catastrophic war in Iraq—as Trump never tires of reminding us. Trump has his own teams of experts—and he frequently takes issue with them and calls them names. One minute Jeff Sessions is a fantastic pick for Attorney General, the next minute he’s a no-good coward and traitor.

Today’s Times brings a story of yet another bit of expertise that the public mistrusts. A wealthy tech executive named Chris Larsen is spending his own money to install a private network of CCTV cameras around the city of San Francisco.

These cameras are meant to deter the spate of petty crimes, especially robberies, that are taking place there. But Larsen’s CCTV isn’t under the control of government or the city police. Instead, neighborhood watch groups are in charge. “Neighbors band together and decide where to put the cameras. They are installed on private property at the discretion of the property owner, and in San Francisco many home and business owners want them. The footage is monitored by the neighborhood coalition,” says the article.

But wait a minute: Isn’t this Larsen guy representative of the wise-guy Silicon Valley types who are turning Baghdad by the Bay into a high-priced bedroom suburb peopled by snotty tech wonks? Google’s mega fleet of private shuttle buses, a soaring cost of living, and an end to many of the San Francisco quirks so beloved by long-time natives—isn’t that what he represents?

Who elected Larsen? Who elected these neighborhood watch committees?

And why is my smart phone so plagued with problems. Experts, phooey!

Dinner: barbecued pork chops, potato salad, and a lettuce and tomato salad.

Entertainment: Two episodes of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 109

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

Monday, July 6

I just returned from taking the car to the Subaru dealer. It’s due for an oil change and NY State Inspection, and I received a letter from Subaru headquarters of a parts recall: It seems the fuel pump must be replaced. 

Two sentences worthy of General Jack D. Ripper inform me that  “your vehicle may be equipped with a low-pressure fuel pump assembled with an impeller that may become deformed. Over time, the impeller may become deformed enough to interfere with the body of the fuel pump, potentially causing the low-pressure fuel pump to become inoperative.”

In other words, terminate the old fuel pump…”terminate with extreme prejudice.”

So I left my car there for fixin’ and drove back in a loaner Subaru Forester. The replacement continues the manufacturer’s hyperactive tendency toward feature creep—this one has a push button ignition that takes some getting used to. The radio has a mind of its own. To turn it off, it’s not enough to press the on-off button. You have to open the driver’s side door.

The dealership, meanwhile, surprised me by seeming quite pandemic-ready. Everyone had face masks. I was instructed to wait outside until there were fewer customers waiting inside. There was plenty of social distancing complete with boxes marked on the floor indicating just where customers should stand. They ensured me that the loaner had been disinfected and that my car will be disinfected before they return it. I needn’t pick up my car until tomorrow—it was a one-and-a-half hour drive over to Riverhead—at which time I can return the loaner. 

But I can’t keep the loaner beyond 48 hours and must return it with the same amount of gasoline it had when I took possession. Hey, will the budget brand Coastal gas be OK? You bet.

On the way back home, I stopped at the Water Mill farm stand we have regularly visited over the years. They had plenty of everything—I got four ears of corn plus some sugar-snap peas. The weeks have coasted past so quickly that I hardly expected to see summer produce there. Again, both customers and workers had face masks. And there was lots of Plexiglas dividing cashiers from customers. The Plexiglas makers must be raking in the dough.

Tonight’s dinner: leftover chicken paprikash, pasta, and a lettuce, cucumber, and radish salad.

Entertainment: We’ve had severe troubles connecting to the Internet over the past few days, probably due to the large number of people out here, jamming up the Wi-Fi space. We finally watched the last few minutes of season three of Broadchurch on Sunday night. We’ll have to see how it goes tonight—there may be nothing doing.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 108

Spooky times.

Friday, July 3

Independent journalist I.F. Stone called them “the Haunted Fifties.” True enough, the decade at the middle of the 20th century was haunted by the bruising previous eras of The Great Depression and World War II.  The 1950s, of course, were a time when Americans longed for calm, for prosperity, and to get back to something like “normalcy.” By public acclamation, then, the ‘50s were desired to be a transitional time.

Stone saw little to be calm about. To him, the specter of nuclear annihilation loomed over everything. “How free are men who can be blown off the map at any moment without their permission?” he asked.

Ours is surely another transitional time. Call it, then, the Haunted 2020s.

If the presidential polls are to be believed, a considerable majority of Americans want to get back to calmer times—free of Trumpian name-calling and vacuity, released from the threat of death by pandemic or by police brutality. A CNN poll shows Biden leading trump by 55% to 41%.

If Trump called out to “Make America Great Again,” surely Biden’s appeal is merely to “Make America Calm Again.”

New York Times writer Thomas Friedman recently suggested that Biden’s bumper sticker should be: “Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.”

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—with a bit of Teddy Roosevelt-like nature worship and Jonas Salk-like respecting of science. If that’s not true conservatism, I don’t know what it is.

Unfortunately, neither science nor nature is likely to allow us to go backwards. We face a future of more coronaviruses, rising ethnic strife, and an unwillingness by police to loosen their grip on local budgets and/or brute power.

The haunting of the 2020s may lead to a haunting of the remainder of the 21st century.

I believe that Trump would lose an election—so therefore he’s unlikely to allow one to happen. He may at last recognize the existence of the pandemic…when it can benefit him. The Department of Homeland security is likely to say that, under the current infectious conditions, no election can take place. Besides, mail-in ballots or electronic voting only lead to election fraud. We had better put off any kind of balloting.

Meanwhile, Bill Barr might announce that his department has found the Democrats in general and Joe Biden in particular are engaged in a monstrous, dark conspiracy to rig the voting. Biden will be indicted. A show trial will proceed, followed by large-scale incarceration.

Who would stop it? The beleaguered and generally pissed-off police? Why would they? Trump is on their side.

Dinner: eggplant with tomato sauce and parmesan, potato salad, and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: Episodes from season three of Broadchurch.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 107

Wednesday, July 1

More frightening stats that have come to my attention: 

The number of new cases in the United States has shot up by 80 percent in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database.

More than 48,000 coronavirus cases were announced across the United States on Tuesday, the most of any day of the pandemic. Officials in eight states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas—also announced single-day highs.

New York added visiting citizens from eight states—California, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee—to a must-quarantine list that already included Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.

New Jersey and Connecticut are advising travelers from the 16 states to quarantine.

Dr. Anthony Fauci says the U.S. is now having 40,000 new cases appear each day, and that that number could go up to 100,000 per day.

He also believes that many anti-vaccine Americans could refuse to get inoculated if and when a vaccine is made available. Seven out of ten citizens, however, say that they will get inoculated if the vaccine is free and available to everyone.

If, as the maps seem to indicate, the bulk of the new cases are appearing in so-called red states, where anti-science sentiment is the most intense, there’s a temptation to think that such people deserve what they are getting. But, it’s important that everyone recognize that we’re all in this together—that like it or not, this thing has to be stamped out everywhere or it will just keep reoccurring everywhere. 

Our next Peapod delivery is scheduled for between 5:33 and 7:33. Why this exactitude? Perhaps Peapod is a subsidiary of the Pentagon. Maybe, I think, the delivery guys will show up wearing military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons. 

Instead, it’s just the usual mystifying hit-and-miss delivery. We still can’t get various items, such as charcoal, and even stuff they had before, such as fresh spinach, is now said to be out-of-stock. Go figure.

Dinner: hot dogs, sauerkraut, and American Picnic Potato Salad, courtesy of the Silver Palate Cookbook.

Entertainment: Britbox’ very odd The Seven Dials Mystery.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 106

Around Jack’s Coffee, precautions remain ongoing.

Tuesday, June 30

States that had eased off of the lockdown are reimposing restrictions. In the U.S., the pandemic appears to be reasserting itself, and this has us pondering what the months ahead hold. 

On June 29, Suffolk County reported its first 24-hour period without a COVID-19 death since June 12.

Meanwhile, there were 46 new reported cases in Manhattan on June 27, and a total of 26,707 cases in that borough during the pandemic. A pilot program has only now gotten underway, selling face masks and hand sanitizer from vending machines in subway stations. So the end is not in sight.

We figure that we’ll probably hang on in East Hampton until the fall at least. Perhaps in September, we’ll go back to the city, at least to pick up more clothing, perhaps the computer printer, and kitchen equipment and spices. Then after a few days, we could well turn around and come back here.

There’s been talk for a while of a second wave of COVID-19. No one knows anything, but that second wave might come in the fall or winter.

Deep winter months out here—and I mean January through March—can be a tad bleak. Would we really want to be here, especially if it’s a harsh winter? But there’s really no place else for us to go…

As an adult, I’ve never before lived through a crisis at all like this. It’s so open-ended, so unclear when there might be any resolution. Our national expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, still maintains that there will be a vaccine by the end of the year. But even if that’s true, just how will it be administered? Who will get first dibs? For the time being, everything is up for grabs.

I might have died in the mid-1950s polio epidemic that claimed my sister, but I didn’t. I was only a child, and had little sense of the passage of time. But in my recollection, the vaccines that appeared within a few years meant an end to the crisis…of which I was mostly unaware anyway.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Vietnam War seemed to go on and on, year after year. Always more escalation, no real resolution in sight. More and more deaths. But neither I nor anyone I knew very well was directly involved. Other political crises—Watergate for instance—came to a head after some months and then ended without violence. 

The days after 9-11 could have included more terrorist events—but they didn’t. Instead, the Bush Administration used the attacks to generate wars in other parts of the world. And those went on and on—the Afghanistan conflict is still continuing. But again, I’ve never been directly affected.

So as I am writing this, I realize that I have lived through other open-ended, slow-to-be-resolved crises—I simply wasn’t very affected personally. Yes, the periods were worrisome, frustrating, even maddening. But I never imagined that I would die as a result. 

This time is pretty different in that regard: I went out this morning to buy more coffee, and I was anxious the whole time I spent in Jack’s Coffee store. Was I standing too close to others? Were they too close to me? I hate the masks—you can’t make yourself understood, nor can you breathe very well. But get used to them. We’ll probably have to wear masks for a long time to come.

Dinner: leftover spaghetti with meatballs and a lettuce salad.

Entertainment: Final episodes of Alias Grace.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 104

No elevator pitches, please.

Sunday, June 28

Life back in our Manhattan apartment building must seem right out of dystopian science fiction. Two New York Times articles today highlight the issues.

One article says that for two crucial months this past winter, scientists regularly underestimated the impact of symptomless carriers. “Models using data from Hong Kong, Singapore, and China suggest that 30 to 60 percent of spreading occurs when people have no symptoms,” says the Times.

A primary illustration involves a woman from China who traveled to Germany in January, where she attended two days of long meetings. She only began feeling sick on her flight back home, but even then attributed her headaches and chills to jet lag. Back in Munich, eight people were shortly hospitalized with the coronavirus. Ultimately, 16 infected Germans were identified and, thanks to rapid response, all survived. “Aggressive testing and flawless contact-tracing contained the spread,” says the article.

But how do you avoid infected people if they show no symptoms? The only way is to avoid all people, isn’t it?

Another Times piece examines just how elevator traffic should be managed now that many Manhattan businesses are reopening. If an appropriate social distance between individuals is six feet, how many elevators can make that possible? Not many, of course.

New York state standards require most commercial buildings to have elevators measuring at least 4 feet 3 inches by roughly 5 feet 8 inches. That leaves people standing about four feet apart.

But no talking!

Consultants advise a limit of four people per elevator. But lots of buildings and companies will simply place the onus on individuals. “We recommend using your best judgment,” says one real estate operations executive. Sure—you be the judge. Meanwhile, your boss is waiting for you in a meeting upstairs.

In our residential building, it is already common for there to be lines of people waiting in the lobby for an elevator to arrive. Some of these people have dogs with them; others have bags of groceries or stuff; several will be yakking away on their mobile phones. Then the elevator arrives and everyone jockeys to get onboard.

It’s an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm played for real. Imagine numerous aggressive and whining Larry Davids as your neighbors. Arriving at their floors, they push past you to get in or out of the elevator. And we have to make our way up to the 18th floor.

Our building has only two passenger elevators and no freight elevator. So it’s also common for one elevator to be “in service,” with movers bringing furniture in or out of the building or maybe building staff taking big bags of garbage out to the curbside. 

Just waiting around in the lobby, where it’s hard to imagine proper social distancing, will be hazardous. And New Yorkers aren’t the most patient or deferential of people. Oh, you go next—after you, after you. 

Sure.

There are stairs—two flights will get you from one floor up or down to the next. I negotiated the stairs a lot during Hurricane Sandy back in 2012. Going down ain’t great. As your legs and ankles get tired, it’s easy to stumble. Going up is truly punishing—four floors, and you’re huffing as if you’ve been in a mini-marathon.

You could just stay in your apartment, but what about food and other necessities? Will the doorman allow delivery people to bring stuff upstairs? 

There are people we could telephone to find out just how these things are being handled right now. But it feels awkward to get in touch. Oh, so you want to know exactly what, Mr. East Hampton refugee?

Dinner: chicken salad with apples, walnuts and mayo, plus a sugar snap pea stir fry with scallions and Asian seasonings.

Entertainment: A streaming video from the Film Forum, Jean-Pierre Melville’s When You Read This Letter.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 102

Born in the U.S.A.

Thursday, June 25

In Mexico during the 1980s, I encountered other travelers from a variety of places—England, New Orleans, you name it. Among them were two women who seemed a bit withdrawn, prickly, even unfriendly. They spoke English, but with an accent that I couldn’t easily place. After a while it came out: They were South African.

They could have had any number of reasons for staying a bit apart. But I believed that they were embarrassed by their country’s policy of racial oppression, apartheid. Maybe they were secret supporters of the liberation struggle. Maybe Nelson Mandela was a family friend. Who knows? But I think they felt that non-South Africans would regard them as something like neo-Nazis. They probably felt themselves to be pariahs—people who others would shun once their nationality became known.

This could be the fate facing Americans if we ever travel again. 

The European Union is preparing to ban American travelers when it reopens its borders on July 1, lumping the U.S. in with Russia and Brazil in terms of countries that have failed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. First, the U.S. banned EU tourists in mid-March, angering political leaders. Now, Europe has largely contained COVID-19, while new cases in the U.S. are increasing in number. Sweet revenge will prevail, as John Prine once sang.

The EU is considering two draft lists of permissible travelers, and U.S. tourists are included on neither, according to The New York Times.

Moreover, Trump’s disgraceful behavior, and that of his yobbish fans, is sufficient reason for non-Americans to regard us warily. Oh, they may well think: You are the type of people who automatically regard Mexicans as rapists and Central Americans as diseased. Maybe you too hate Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau while admiring Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

We were in Scotland a few years ago, and we rushed to make it clear to our B&B hosts and others that we were non-fans of the Orange man. I think they accepted what we said, and quickly changed the subject to an explanation of Scottish ways and a discussion of places we might like to visit. Oh, are you golfers? We had to make it clear that we weren’t—another reason to find us objectionable.

So, compatriots, steel yourselves for Ugly American status.  Maybe you could wear a Black Lives Matter T-shirt or attach a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker onto your rental car. Or maybe COVID-19 will prevent you from ever again traveling abroad.

Tonight’s dinner: Black beans and rice, lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: Concluding episodes of season two of Broadchurch.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 101

“Chinatown dance rock” group “The Slants.”

Wednesday, June 24

Emily has been taking online Continuing Legal Education courses. (All lawyers must accumulate 24 CLE credits per year, and she now has 14.) Most of these are dull, little videoed lectures delivered by lawyers who should, in many cases, avoid all microphones. I ask her if she chooses the lectures based on their potential for humor. No, she says, you generally cannot tell what the tone will be.

A case in point is the course she just took. “Government Regulation of Hate Speech” turns out to be a discussion of cases involving outrageous branding and trademark law. Could a San Francisco girl-biker group trademark its name, “Dykes On Bikes”? What about an Asian rock band, “The Slants”? Are these names invidious and thus undeserving of intellectual-property protection? What protection does trademark afford such groups, anyway?

This course was a bit like a George Carlin routine. There is something inherently funny about discussing an outrageous subject from a bureaucratic or legalistic perspective. That was the nature of Carlin’s classic monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The monologue gave him an excuse for saying the words—shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits—again and again, on television.

Carlin was arrested in 1972 for delivering the monologue. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether a radio broadcast of Carlin’s monologue merited an F.C.C. complaint that could have resulted in penalties against the station. 

According to The Atlantic, “The majority decision stated that the FCC was justified in deciding what’s ‘indecent,’ saying the Carlin act was ‘indecent but not obscene.’ The Court ruled that because Carlin’s routine was broadcast on the radio, during the day, it did not have as much First Amendment protection.”

Years later, you still couldn’t say the forbidden words on broadcast TV. But the rise of anything-goes cable TV along with the Internet has made the ruling pretty much moot.

Hate speech is another matter. Defamatory words are not allowed in trademarks, but violations of the First Amendment aren’t allowed either. In the case known as Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, ruled the Trademark Act’s clause regarding disparaging language was a violation of the First Amendment. Thus the group could register the racist slur “The Slants” as its name. (FYI, the group has a well-regarded album “Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts.”)

I’m looking forward to seeing a YouTube video of these musical folks. Dykes On Bikes is inherently funny too. I said to Emily that of course they are based in San Francisco—had they been from Des Moines, they’d have felt compelled to move to the Bay Area.

Dinner: leftover balsamic chicken with mushrooms, couscous, and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: Episodes from season two of Broadchurch.