A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 45

A gentleman at his leisure

Wednesday, April 22

Amid the pandemic, everyday life with its attendant tragedies goes on. Yesterday, Emily’s best friend experienced a non-coronavirus death in her family: Ollie, her cat, died of lymphoma. He was an interesting guy—charismatic and nosy; athletic; and prone to eating the victuals that really belonged to his sister, Violet. A departure before his time. Emily’s friend and Violet are very upset.

Peapod continues to be frustrating. They delivered a great deal of stuff, but it’s hard not to focus on the things they left out. We received 52 requested items, but 28 others were “out of stock.” We got a surprising amount of chicken—more than we asked for, 10 cutlets in two packages. But we’re missing some ingredients needed to turn those cutlets into familiar dishes, including walnuts, mushrooms, lemons, canned tomatoes, scallions, and wine vinegar. Also no lettuce, napkins, or raisins—but lots more frozen green beans, which Peapod seems to regard as an acceptable substitute for a wide range of other vegetables.

We worried a lot about a predicted thunderstorm, then the delivery came just minutes before the heavens opened. Rather than wiping things down outside as the experts recommend, we brought everything just inside the front door. Then we wiped all the cans down with paper towels soaked in diluted bleach. Boxes got a dry wipe, fresh vegetables only a rinse in the sink.  Everything not needing refrigeration is condemned to remain for a couple of days in an area we can largely avoid. All of this behavior is per a doctor’s Youtube video on how to manage your deliveries.

A question for today: Can I really get myself to read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or is that classic opus just too punishing for right now? The work, and its protagonist Raskolnikov, are frequently mentioned in films and articles—and surely the people who mention them are no smarter than I am. I’ll give it a try but probably fail. 

One obscure short story collection that I can recommend: The Word of the Speechless by Julio Ramon Ribeyro (New York Review Books). A back-cover blurb from Mario Vargas Llosa calls the author “a magnificent storyteller.” One nifty example is the six-page “Doubled,” all about a man’s journey to the antipodes (yes, I had to look that up) and an experience with his doppelganger.

Tonight’s dinner: With our recently delivered eats in quarantine, we’ll have leftover black beans and rice, okra from the freezer, and coleslaw.

Entertainment: One outrageous episode of Black Mirror, two of Babylon Berlin, and one of Darkwater Fell.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 44

Once a Union Square mainstay.

Tuesday, April 21

Every day I get up, make coffee and oatmeal, and at least make a start on reading The New York Times. When in New York City—I live right on Union Square—I may go out early to Trader Joe’s or perhaps to a doctor’s appointment. Other errands may include a walk to the post office, to the Fed Ex at Astor Place where I make photocopies of this and that, and to the gym on Eighth Avenue for yoga lessons. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I generally go to the Union Square greenmarket, where farmers from New Jersey and upstate New York sell fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, cheeses, and bread.

Right now, it seems I may never perform any of these New York City errands again.

One Times story suggests that New York itself may never be the same: The article revisits a number of previous calamities to hit the city, including the September 11 terror attacks and the 1970s fiscal crisis. In the latter case, says Kathryn Wylde, president of business group The Partnership for New York City, “It took four or five years for a lot of the city to empty out,” then “it took three or four decades to bring them back.”

Empty out? Well of course, New York City is always in the process of emptying itself out and refilling. It’s not the same from one day to the next. New York’s ever-changing nature is one of the things that makes the city interesting. New restaurants and stores are always popping up. That little hole-in-the-wall place that you went to for years is likely to disappear. But then, something new, and almost as interesting, may well crop up. Tycoon Donut is long gone, but the croissants at Pain Quotidian are a pretty good if pricey replacement.

Back in the 1980s, when I first moved to New York, the Union Square area was quite dangerous. Drug deals went down regularly in the park, and the cops would go into surrounding office buildings and peer out of the windows in order to direct drug busts there. In a few years, that version of Union Square went away—taking with it such quaint and past-their-prime institutions as Luchow’s restaurant, Amalgamated Bank, and the Cedar Tavern. On the upside, replacements included such trendy if expensive hangouts as the Union Square Cafe—and, on the downside, big-box retailers including Barnes & Noble books, Kids R Us, and Staples. 

Now, facing the square, there’s little besides large retailers and mega-banks such as Chase and Citibank.

But on the side streets, there are still little shoe-repair shops, second-hand clothing places, dance studios, and an ever-expanding number of coffee joints. Within walking distance, such long-running survivors as coffee roaster Porto Rico Importing Co., Strand books, and Astor Wines & Spirits have been hanging in there. Nonetheless, in February, I began noticing a great number of vacant storefronts. Rents were to blame, I assumed—the ever-more-greedy landlords pushing the small-fry out. The landlords seem willing to suffer several months of vacancy in order to get new tenants who are able to pay market-rate prices.

And rents have risen astronomically over the decades. My dentist, whose office is in a building facing the square, told me that when he first located there back in the 1980s, his rent was a few hundred dollars a month. Now, I believe he said, the rents on his office suite run $15,000 a month. It’s anybody’s guess just how he can afford it.

Will this change? Will landlords see that they have no choice but to accept lower rents—allowing small-fry enterprises to return? And just how does this work? What invisible hands tap the landlords on the shoulder, saying: “Hey, buddy, it’s time to let the rents slide a bit.”

A few years back, Emily and I traveled to Vienna, Austria, where we stayed in a small guest house in the Neubau neighborhood. The largely residential area included a number of coffee shops, bakeries, beisls (or restaurants), the Naschmarkt (produce stalls), and innumerable little purveyors of candy, meats, toys, and so forth. Everything seemed very quaint and charming, like a visit to the early 1960s in an American town. Perhaps after a period of near-death, the East Village can become such an idyll, with a flowering of small enterprises. Maybe even Tycoon Donut will return. Stranger things have happened.

Dinner tonight (presumably after the Peapod delivery!): Black beans and rice along with a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: There are five remaining episodes of Babylon Berlin—so a couple of those plus one Lovejoy and one Twilight Zone.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 43

What dreams may come?

Monday, April 20

We waited in the office lobby. When the meeting ended, Sir Andrew rushed past us dismissively, then continuing to walk toward the stairs, he indicated that Gareth should come with him. Pointing at a typed page he carried, he angrily singled out a paragraph:

You’ve got to pick up every stihch. You can’t miss even one. Every stihch. 

This must be corrected, he said.

A squeamish looking Gareth nodded. Sir, he said, in terms of the work. We’re pretty stretched at the moment. Must this be tended to immediately?

I’m telling you, said Sir Andrew. Do this first. Whether you should receive a significant posting or just a lower level one depends upon getting it fixed.

Why should I have such strange dreams at 4:30 a.m., with arrogant, aquiline-faced aristocrats and their squirming underlings? It must have to do with watching too much British TV, but there may be echoes here of Babylon Berlin as well.

We’re anxiously awaiting our Peapod delivery of groceries, scheduled for tomorrow between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Such is life under the quarantine—it’s supposedly heroic to do nothing but wait.

Emily is worried about the weather—rain is predicted, and the delivery guy has to leave our stuff outside where we can wipe off any viruses before transporting things inside. We have our rubber gloves and a spray bottle of diluted bleach, which can be used to squirt tins of stuff. Fresh veggies are supposed to require only a rinse with water, while boxes will get only a wipe-off with a paper towel. The virus is said to be able to live longer on metal and for only a few hours on cardboard.

Emily is in charge of the Peapod list, and one can make corrections or additions until 11:59 p.m. tonight. I keep thinking of stuff that may or may not be on the list—then asking her to check. Are we due to get more onions? What about canned tomatoes? And given our experience last time, there would seem to be only a 50-50 chance that any given thing will actually be delivered. What we really need are walnuts, honey, oatmeal, and any sort of meats. I figure that after Peapod comes and goes, I will likely have to go down to a nearby bodega and get several of these things.

For some time, I have had lots of dreams, probably due to a prescription drug that I take. These dreams are not often scary, and sometimes just entertaining. Over the past years, many have taken place at my childhood home, on one or two occasions featuring an intruder who’s trying to get in through the back door. Here, just to keep things lively, are a few examples:

I am spreading tomato sauce on a concrete walkway in a basement (not a familiar place). This seems odd even to me, but I had seen someone doing it and that made it seem a good idea. Still, I want to hurry in case someone sees me and asks what on earth I am doing. I use a spoon and just splash the stuff around, then spread it out evenly as you would with a pizza.

Before bed, I consider having some ice cream, but I fall asleep instead. Then, in the middle of the night after getting up to go to the bathroom, I dream that I hear Emily clanking her spoon against her bowl: It seems she got ice cream and I didn’t.

It is night, and I am at my childhood home with my mother. Distantly, I hear her say something like “I’ll be right back.” And she disappears. I search for her in the dark, calling her name out the back door, then up into the attic, then out the front door into the darkness. There is no response, but I am sure she will reappear. (In fact, she died in 2005.)

And finally, a quote from Oliver Sacks’ “The Landscape of His Dreams”: “One may be born with the potential for a prodigious memory, but one is not born with a disposition to recollect; this comes only with changes and separations in life—separations from people, from places, from events and situations.…All of us, finally, are exiles from the past.”

Tonight’s dinner: Linguini with asparagus pesto and a lettuce salad with cucumber. Lots of cookies.

Tonight’s entertainment: one Twilight Zone and two episodes of Babylon Berlin.

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 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 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 25

Next up: a plague of frogs?

Thursday, April 2

Magical thinking is upon us. Is the current epidemic a sign from above, many are asking? Just look! There’s more than one indication that the final days have arrived: a devastating tornado in Arkansas, vast swarms of locusts in Africa, out-of-control wildfires—and floods—in Australia, an earthquake in Utah. Passover arrives next week, with its reminder of the ten plagues that God sent to beset sinful ancient Egypt. (I for one would welcome a few frogs.) The Pew Research Center says some 40% of U.S. voters believe Jesus is likely to return, as was foretold in the New Testament, by the year 2050. Why not now, I ask, before the election?

“God is Brazilian,” asserts the whacko Bolsonaro, who says the deity, not a quarantine, will protect his country. Anyone who’s afflicted should simply guzzle a certain anti-malaria nostrum, it seems. Bolsonaro has launched an official campaign, #BrazilCannotStop, encouraging people to carry on with life as usual. In contrast, the criminal gang that controls the frightening City of God favela says it will enforce a strict curfew and punish violators. It’s up to such “lawless” elements and certain responsible state governors to bring order out of the madness.

Meanwhile, the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club has canceled the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Heretofore, the midsummer classic was canceled only for the two world wars.

The Democratic National Convention, scheduled for July, has been pushed on to mid-August. But a federal judge has refused to postpone Wisconsin’s presidential primary scheduled for April 7.

And Trump will shortly instruct all Americans that they must wear cloth masks when in public. I’ve got mine on right now.

Dinner: more lentil soup and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: Jeopardy, The Crown, Berlin Babylon, and Detectorists.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 23

The jackboots arrive.

Tuesday, March 31

What’s that? A mailed fist pounding on the door just before dawn? Uniformed men out front, ready to take us away?

There are now 5,791 cases of the coronavirus in Suffolk County, and there have been 44 deaths.  A drive-through testing site has opened in Riverhead, the first such facility on the East End of Long Island. How did COVID-19 get way out here…from New York City, which is 100 miles away?

When Rhode Island authorities recently announced they would be conducting door-to-door searches for refugees from hot-spot New York City, telling these undesirables to go back to from whence they came, it seemed maybe all of the city’s exiles had become pariahs. Perhaps we would be forced to wear some kind of Gothamist insignia on our garments. Stranger things have happened.

Governments across the globe—from Hungary to Britain, Israel, and Chile—are using the crisis to seize new Big Brother powers: canceling elections, ruling by decree, employing the military against protesters, tracking people via their cellphone data, closing down courts, and even detaining citizens indefinitely. Never waste a good crisis, as Reagan hatchet man David Stockman once instructed.

And in the U.S., three out of every four residents are under some form of lockdown and must expect at least another month of it. The U.S. has surpassed Italy as the country with the highest number of coronavirus cases, more than 163,000. Some 245 million are at their homes, and millions of these have lost their jobs.

With little else occupying one’s mind, paranoia is always lurking. 

The disease itself is frightening enough, and accounts of the hell that health-care workers face daily are grueling just to read. https://nyti.ms/2JqAYr2

But the sun is out, here, for the first time in a while. The saws are busy—I think workers on the still-uncompleted house next door are putting in some bathroom tiles. We go to the town dump to get rid of a week’s refuse, and I’ve never seen it so busy. Then at a small grocery, we are able to get several vitally needed things, including lettuce, garlic, a cucumber, an apple, and dishwasher detergent. What could be better?

Back near our city apartment, the Union Square greenmarket is open, a group called GrowNYC reminds everyone in its blog. https://www.grownyc.org/blog/greenmarkets-are-open  But, the posting says, the following rules will apply: 

• Only Producers and their staff may handle products. Customers must not touch any produce or products until after they have purchased

• Market staff will separate farm stand spaces with at least 2 feet of distance between the tents, more where possible

• There is no sampling of products at markets until further notice

• There is no selling of apple cider by the cup

There is no joy in Mudville, it goes without saying.

Tonight’s dinner: more meatballs and spaghetti, with a salad of lettuce, avocado, and celery.

Tonight’s entertainment: dare I admit it? More of The Crown, then an episode of the new German thriller Berlin Babylon.