Yesterday, I took a shower, washed and folded a load of laundry, and made beef stew.
On Saturday, I anticipated all of this activity with a sense of dread.
Oh, and also Emily and I took a 20-minute walk in Maidstone Park, and I read the Sunday Times plus a few chapters of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill.
In the normal world, I realize, that such activity wouldn’t count for much. But nowadays, when there is really nothing pressing to do, a very few activities seem all but overwhelming. Not really physically taxing, but grueling all the same.
Today, when I really have nothing to do, I slept until 8:30, then read the paper. I listened to the BBC World Service and Sirius’ jazz station. And I read a little more of On the Black Hill. I made canned soup for lunch and Emily and I discussed the electoral college. Before long, it was almost time to go to bed again.
Tomorrow, I will probably take some trash down to the dump.
Are other folks experiencing the lockdown in the same way? If so, the workforce won’t be able to do much work when so-called normal life resumes. A break-in period will be required; maybe a few weeks of half days, then 8-hour days with Fridays off perhaps?
The number of new COVID-19 cases is way up again. Biden, who may be the president-elect, has named a new pandemic task force. At least he, as opposed to some presidents and other pols, is acting like the crisis is real.
But today, not sure just why, I did. And I was surprised to find that some people stopped blogging altogether in April—just at the time that I was getting warmed up. Why?
Maybe they felt that the COVID-19 lockdown had robbed them of the experiences they needed to say something interesting. Many people report a sense that time has just stopped–or maybe that everything is just a blur now. Is today Tuesday? What did we have for dinner yesterday?
Or for some, it could be that increased family responsibilities—more cooking, more child care, etc.—meant they had less solitary time for writing.
I suppose some people found the interruption of life as they had known it left them too dispirited to do any scribbling. Between Trump’s dangerous ranting and off-the-wall behavior, the pandemic and attendant collapse of civilization across the globe, and the police killings that prompted the Black Lives Matter protests, it has seemed like the end of everything. (And suddenly, Tuesday is election day.)
My own blog began ten years back when my book publisher—Basic Books—hired a guy to walk me through the paces of social media. Posts on LinkedIn and Twitter, intended to spark interest in my book, required elaboration on a website dedicated to unadulterated self-promotion. My blog instructor said I must post something every day, even if that was just an interesting quote from somebody else.
At first I did that—generally posting something about my book tour; about the book, reviews, and comments I was getting. Then after a few months, there was less and less to say. And the little that I did have to say could easily be managed within Twitter’s 140-character space (since expanded to 280).
A lot of individual blogs have expired quietly once their authors failed to find a mass audience or simply grew weary of the process. Mine seemed headed in that direction.
Then came COVID-19. As a sometime historian, I know that accounts of everyday lives during world historical moments can be of interest to later generations.
Moreover, I keep writing because I know a handful of people, most recruited by Emily, read this blog at least occasionally.
And finally, it’s a bit like a diary: I’m writing for myself. To put my own thoughts in order, perhaps to give myself something to do. Admittedly, this blog doesn’t have the private, confessional nature of some diaries. I don’t commit things to prose that need to remain secret. Anthony Weiner I am not.
But I intend to keep writing—not posting everyday, but a few times a week. Election Day, and the inevitably rambunctious events accompanying it, should provide plenty of fodder.
Dinner: Lentil soup, Kabocha squash, and a green salad.
Entertainment: Back to episodes of Netflix’ Ozark and one aging episode of Vera on Britbox.
In short, just what workers should say if customers fight against attempts to save their lives.
I read about this and at first thought, well, what else is new? Then I thought twice—whatttt?
I guess this kind of thing has happened before in hyper-individualistic, I-know-my-rights America. Flight attendants have had to deal with passengers who refuse to return to their seats even as the plane rolls and tosses in rough weather. Drivers refuse to put their kids in lifesaving booster seats.
So what should a retail employee do if, despite signs instructing that you must wear a mask to enter this store, someone comes in sans mask and makes a scene about the matter? What if a mother with child confronts said nonmaskwearer and a screaming match ensues?
Counselors say to give the belligerent customer a choice: Would you like to step out of the line and speak with a manager, perhaps?
Yeah, or maybe you’d like to step outside and talk it over with Thor here.
Who’d have imagined that the local Walmart would need muscled-up bouncers?
I mean, “Sorry, Kris Kringle, we’re gonna have to let you go. We’ve had some unexpected personnel expenses this year.”
Days glide past almost seamlessly. It’s a bit like those scenes in old movies indicating the passage of time: You see the pages of a calendar ripping out, then swirling away one after another. At one moment, it’s August, then suddenly December. Here, it’s time for breakfast—then, whoops, dinner’s ready!
News reports show the pandemic worsening in places that once thought themselves exempt. In North Dakota, where locals probably regarded COVID-19 as a myth or maybe a big-city problem, the few hospitals are now full to bursting. States in the Midwest and Great Plains, from the Dakotas to Montana and Wisconsin, are now feeling the brunt of the plague. Yet North Dakota, which has only 762,000 total residents, is one of 20 states where there is no mask mandate.
Trump claims that he is fully recovered but cannot help but cough a bit whenever he jumps in front of a camera. Meanwhile, the White House seems like a setting out of a Hot Zone movie. Guys in hazmat suits spray disinfectant on the walls and furniture, and residence staff are costumed in yellow gowns, surgical masks, and disposable protective eye covers. The latest victim of COVID is the Nazi-wannabe Stephen Miller. In all, there are 14 members of the MAGA inner circle who we know to be infected. Almost the entire military Joint Chiefs of Staff are in quarantine.
Already erratic to say the least, Trump’s behavior—including canceling any further congressional negotiations over more economic stimulus—may be affected by the cocktail of drugs he is taking. One of these, the steroid dexamethasone, is said to bring on mood swings and a sense of euphoria.
The fauna out here don’t require any mood-enhancing drugs. The birds come nonstop to the feeder, while the squirrels seem engaged in some kind of Jets vs. Sharks gang fight on the roof of our house. Yesterday, a young deer raced around in our yard, cutting right then left in a seeming imitation of NFL running back maneuvers. When he/she got to the adjoining vacant lot, the sport changed to steeplechase, as the deer leaped again and again over fallen trees. Is there something in the cooler, fall weather that prompts this frenetic activity?
Contrary to advice on YouTube, I just planted some daffodil and tulip bulbs in the yard. Eight of each in four different spots, with a topping of rich bagged soil that has been sitting unused in the basement for a couple of years. The idea, I always have to remind myself, is to plant the bulbs in the mid- to late fall, then they’re supposed to cooperate by blooming in the first warm days of the spring. You’re told to wait until the fall weather is appropriately cool, so the bulbs don’t sprout early. Today is likely a bit too warm, but I just got tired of waiting.
Boy, is yard work difficult. I also dug a bit in the lawn, where there are bare spots that have resisted grass seed year after year. So, I put some of the bagged soil on several such places, hoping for better results with the grass next year. Now, I am exhausted.
Dinner: an adaptation of beef with broccoli—chicken with broccoli along with leftover eggplant with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.
Entertainment: The vice-presidential debate plus one episode of All Creatures Great and Small.
The coronavirus-infected Trump has taken a turn for the worse. He rolls over in his hospital bed, and, like the dying Citizen Kane, he whispers one mysterious word: “Covefe!” An object tumbles from his fingers and smashes on the floor.
What is that object? A clue to the meaning of the mysterious word, perhaps? OH…a coffee cup!
I, too, have had troublesome dreams. In one last night, which seems to last a long time, I am making my way home across Manhattan. I wander through a vast and abandoned warehouse, in and out of vacant lots, past burned-out cars, broken machinery, and a derelict, six-door bank of washing machines. Up and down empty staircases, beyond weedy grounds. The area—about where Alphabet City stands—seems a giant wasteland, soon to be turned into a modern development no doubt.
A man in a tattered black suit and wide-brimmed hat writhes past me, all shoulders and elbows. He seems to think I mean him harm, but I am as eager to escape him as he is to elude me. On and on, the dream goes.
The mystery writer Raymond Chandler was likely troubled with dreams too. In his novel The Lady in the Lake, fictional detective Philip Marlowe dreams that he is “far down in the depths of icy green water with a corpse under my arm. The corpse had long blond hair that kept floating around in front of my face. An enormous fish with bulging eyes and a bloated body and scales shining with putrescence swam around leering like an elderly roué. Just as I was about to burst from lack of air, the corpse came alive under my arm and got away from me and then I was fighting with the fish and the corpse was rolling over and over in the water spinning its long hair.
I woke up with a mouth full of sheet and both hands hooked on the head-frame of the bed….”
Trump in his dreams should be wrestling with the corpses of the many pandemic victims who are dead as a result of presidential denial and incompetence. But of course, he is not.
Before he co-wrote the legendary Martin Beck series of Swedish crime novels, Per Wahloo penned some futuristic dystopian books, including one that offers clues to how Trump might have played the pandemic differently, and to his advantage.
In Wahloo’s 1968 book The Steel Spring, a chief inspector of police travels away from his unnamed homeland in order to have a necessary kidney transplant. Three months later, after recovering from the operation, he attempts to go back and he’s told he cannot: all airports in his homeland are closed and all communications between it and the outside world have been cut off. A national election has been postponed due to “serious disturbances” including riots that provoked police and army intervention. Now, on top of all that, it seems likely that there’s some kind of epidemic raging, and everything has been shut down.
Doesn’t some of this sound like what we’re experiencing—or what we fear we might experience in the weeks to come?
Ministers of a government-in-exile give the policeman an assignment: sneak into their home country and find out just what the hell is going on.
This he does, and what he finds remains puzzling, at least for a while. The principal city is largely depopulated. The only authorities seem to be medical functionaries, tooling around in ambulances. He makes his way to his apartment, and later to his office, where he finds suspicious but official-seeming notices declaring that, due to the epidemic, meetings of more than three persons are not permitted. Later notices announce a “total curfew.”
When he encounters a few, self-isolating citizens, they fear him. They attempt to barricade themselves in their apartments. They seem more wary of the authorities than they do of the epidemic.
The Steel Spring is not a great book—it’s far from matching the level of excellence set by the Martin Beck series. About halfway through, the volume begins to seem padded—or maybe the plot is just overstuffed.
But the reader’s suspicion that perhaps there was no epidemic—that it was all a deception meant to cover up a political takeover—is dispelled. There really is an epidemic. AND, there has been a political takeover as well—a takeover by doctors!!
With its persistent betrayal of working-class voters in favor of big business, the social-democratic political establishment has discredited itself. About the only authority left with any credibility is the medical establishment—and boy, do they know it. Now, with their dictatorial response to the epidemic, the doctors have likewise discredited themselves.
So here, at long last, is my point: Trump should have just deferred to the medical authorities. Then, when their methods became too heavy-handed or their pursuit of a COVID-19 cure took too long, he could blame them. Hey, I let these guys—Fauci and the witch doctors—take charge, he could say. And they failed us!
As we know all too well, Trump loves blaming—and firing—other people.
But he didn’t do that. Instead, insisting that he was in command, he regularly issued wild, fantasy cures and predictions: The sickness will magically disappear. Drink bleach! Shine a light in the body. Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle cure. Very soon, there will be a vaccine.
Will Trump pay the penalty on election day? Maybe. As he often says, we’ll see what happens.
We’re back in East Hampton, experiencing a mix of emotions. Once we unloaded the huge amount of stuff from the car, it felt good to be back. But there are several unnerving aspects: How long will we be confined here? The last time, we stayed for six months. A similar period now would take us into March of 2021. Moreover, during our last stay, in spite of fear and trembling over the coronavirus, there was one reason for cheer: The days were growing longer and warmer as we experienced late winter passing into spring. Now, days are getting shorter and winter is coming on.
The city wasn’t as frightening as we expected, and, with a little trepidation, it was O.K. to go into a drugstore, the supermarket, or the greenmarket and get the few items you needed. That’s harder to do here—stores are fewer and farther away. So there must be more thought given to just what foodstuffs or other supplies are needed to cover a period of several days.
As for outings, before it gets too cold we might strap on our masks and go to a nearby park/sculpture garden such as Longhouse Reserve or Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack.
I put out birdseed yesterday, and it usually takes the birds a day or so to discover new goodies. A few have already come today.
Also, we found that our old, dilapidated twig fence has been replaced with a new cedar fence while we were away. The distressed brick walkway was also repaired. And, miracle of miracles, Optimum has finally installed the internet cable—although they’ve overcharged for doing so. Speaking about that overcharge to a customer representative was just another exercise in maddening frustration.
The bread machine is beeping, signaling a new loaf is ready—only the second that we have made in the relatively new machine. The loaves come out pretty nice, although a bit square. They’re rising better than they did with the old machine, where I think the paddle had worn out and ingredients weren’t getting mixed very well.
As the election approaches, Trump is making ever-more-threatening noises. “Get rid of the ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.” OOOO-Kayyyy. If voters aren’t sick of all this—and there will have to be a very large majority against him to keep the Supreme Court from pulling another Bush v. Gore abomination—then the U.S.A. deserves what it’ll get.
Dinner: wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts, noodles, and a green salad.
Entertainment: more episodes of Netflix’ Ozark and Borgen.
Nothing says Crisis like the obviously empty apartments across New York City. Looking at One Union Square South—the much-hated building that has both a giant, spinning digital clock and a smoking hole gracing one outside wall (The New York Observer said it was “a site … where the death of aesthetics can be contemplated”)—I can see a dispiriting number of vacancies. That’s the building that also contains the mega movie theater known as Regal Union Square, and it is topped by at least 16 floors of apartments, each floor with at least a dozen units. There are empty apartments on every floor—in some cases, at least four empty units.
On another corner, the mega development known as Zeckendorf Towers also has an eye-popping number of vacancies.
But it’s always hard to know what’s happening in New York big buildings. There are likely several vacancies on our own floor. I seldom see anyone, including neighbors with whom we are friendly—such as those right next door.
I haven’t been out yet today, but it seems windy and coolish as compared with last week: Temps are now in the 60s and the 40s at night. I can see that people outside are wearing coats and heavier clothes. The weatherman says everyone should beware of dangerous rip currents and stay out of the ocean, as I intend to do.
The Times has an article on altercations over mask-wearing. There are reports of such conflicts taking place in various public places—restaurants, stores—but the most vicious ones seem to be happening on New York buses. Although “mask compliance has been generally high in most indoor settings” in the city, “dozens of drivers have been attacked after trying to enforce the rules.”
This is the anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the weatherman says. In that year “one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history struck Long Island and Southern New England.” The peak storm surge (in Rhode Island) was 17 feet higher than normal, and a reported two billion trees and 8,900 homes were destroyed. 700 people died. Ten new inlets were formed between Fire Island and East Hampton including Shinecock Inlet. Montauk temporarily became an island.
I mean, we could use another disaster. As October approaches, the traumatic memory of Hurricane Sandy returns. We were in Manhattan for the unlikely 2012 event, when a hurricane came up from the Caribbean to smash New Jersey and New York City. A nearby Con Edison power plant exploded, and lower Manhattan was without power (and consequently in our building, without water) for many days. The gas stove still worked, so we could sort-of cook whatever grub we had on hand, but we lived in the dark. Emily reminded me that, looking out into a building across the way from us, we could see a weird, inexplicable light moving around in one unit—jetting about like a tiny, aimless UFO. It turned out that a guy was wearing a hat with a light on the top—the kind that you see some miners wearing. As he moved his head, the light zoomed around. He was the UFO.
It turned very cold as the storm moved away, and there was no heat here. So for a few nights, we moved out, staying in spaces we were able to borrow. We were afraid of what we might find at our East Hampton house, so we only went out there some days later.
We have to keep our fingers crossed, but who could be surprised if a hurricane hit during this year of gobsmacking events: a Presidential impeachment, an international pandemic that has killed over 900,000 around the planet, a severe economic recession, police killings and Black Lives Matter demonstrations/riots, hellish West Coast wildfires, the Beirut explosion, Justice Ruth Ginsberg’s death, and, very likely, a near civil war over the coming Presidential election results. Next!
Dinner: We’re emptying out the larder as we prepare to return to Long Island. Lentil soup with hotdogs and a lettuce and cucumber salad.
Entertainment: The twisty and entertaining crime drama Ozark on Netflix, along with one episode of Borgen.
“There’s no there there,” Gertrude Stein famously wrote about her hometown of Oakland, California. The comment turns out to be not a dismissal of a non-place but a nostalgia for the vanished landmarks of Stein’s childhood.
But if that’s what she meant, it’s a quote that could be applied to many places in the United States.
Some years back, Emily and I made a trip to Columbia, South Carolina, where my uncle Eddie lived, for a family reunion. We drove down the nightmarish I-95 to get there—and passed through a hellscape of WilliamsSonomaland. It turned out that the Eastern Seaboard had been transformed into a vast suburban wilderness—one fast-food joint after another plastic motel after another shopping mall. One memorable experience involved being stuck in a no-exit roundabout, going round and around, facing a Charlie-on-the-MTA prospect of never being able to figure out how to get into that Appleby’s parking lot and perhaps finally being kicked to the curb after running out of gas.
Hurtling down I-95, wedged between methamphetamine-wired semitrailer-truck drivers and Jack Daniel’s juiced suburban commuters, we passed heart-rending signs: Antietam Battlefield thisaway or Harper’s Ferry thataway. Nevermind. Must fly!
Oh, but I WOULD like to go to that Le Creuset outlet store…if only we could get to the exit ramp–AHHHHHHHHHH. Oh, well.
I think we did figure out how to go to Harper’s Ferry. I had always heard of the beautiful little place in connection with the abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid, a failed attempt to spark a slave rebellion. Much to my surprise, the town wasn’t just a storehouse of U.S. Army weapons. It was where the army manufactured its rifles. If an actual slave rising had taken place, Brown would have been in a good position to supply a large force of rebels with state-of-the-art weaponry. But it was not to be: A company of U.S. Marines under the overall command of Colonel Robert E. Lee put the kibosh on that fantasy.
Columbia, S.C., turned out to be a pretty enough little place in a pretty enough little state where the longing for Old Times in the Land of Cotton is almost palpable. An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that the War Between the States took place only a couple of decades back. White people in South Carolina commonly speak bitterly of losing the War in a way that probably no one in Japan or Germany speaks of their defeat in World War II.
So there’s this irony: Civilwarland submerged in a plastic-fantastic present of shopaholism and automotive overkill. We remember! Sort of. “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies, Miss Scarlett!”
Another place where there’s really no there there is my hometown of Memphis. Whenever there’s a retrospective of Civil Rights Era struggles, the city’s name arises: That’s the place where Martin Luther King was killed. The only other things anyone knows about Memphis: It was the home of The King, Elvis Presley. And they have the cutest hotel there, The Peabody, where every day there’s this parade of ducks through the lobby as they exit their central-fountain swimming hole and go back to their cages on the hotel rooftop. So precious!
The citizens of Memphis know little about the city’s history—and why would they? Founded as a real-estate boondoggle by Andrew Jackson and his cronies, it became a place where Mississippi farmers would travel to sell their annual cotton crop and then buy clothes for their wives and kids. There was little more to the city.
Oh yeah: Before the Civil War, the town was a major slave market.
Several late-19th century epidemics—cholera, malaria, and especially yellow fever— threatened to destroy the city utterly. Anyone who could afford to depart did so. That left the town in the hands of its poorest white and, more often, black citizens. Memphis’ population fluctuated wildly: 20,000 fled the city of 40,000 in the first days of the 1878 epidemic. It had been the second-largest city in the South, just behind New Orleans. Of those who remained, 5000 died.
By 1900, the city’s population was up again, to 100,000.
Other than M.L. King and The King, two others left their mark on Memphis. These were political boss E.H. Crump, who ruled the city and much of the state of Tennessee between 1910 and 1950. A contemporary, W.C. Handy, presided over the African American enclave, Beale Street. (What’s with all the initials?) One of Handy’s popular songs, “The Memphis Blues,” was originally written as a campaign song for Crump. Weirdly, Handy’s best-known song , “St. Louis Blues,” is about another city and includes touches of Argentinian tango.
Today, Beale Street is a sanitized, Disneyland-like strip of Bud Light-selling bars. In its heyday, the short street featured dry goods stores, pawnshops, poolrooms, rowdy black saloons, movie houses, and raunchy bordellos. Handy captured the disreputable atmosphere in one song: “If Beale Street could talk, married men would have to take their beds and walk.” But the ragged edges of the place were sanded out by redlining and several rounds of urban renewal in the 1960s—during which time it almost disappeared.
And there’s little else from the past remaining in Memphis. Like the I-95 corridor, the place is now just one vast, undifferentiated suburb.
Panic—mad panic—is striking the small businesspeople of America.
At least those that have not yet been driven out of business. They can see the possible end of everything and are lashing out.
Two examples: Yesterday while I was doing the laundry in the basement of our Manhattan apartment building, I was approached by the superintendent, who demanded that I allow him to paint our apartment.
Now it happens that he is not only the super, he also runs a painting and apartment-refurbishing business. He handles these chores for our building with the knowledge and approval of the building management.
Anyway, our apartment WAS repainted—most of it in any case—only two or three years back. They didn’t do the kitchen or the small bedroom that we use as a study. Why, I couldn’t say. Now, I think, that’s what he wants to do.
We haven’t prevented his workers from doing this painting. But he seemed to think we have, and he was furious.
I didn’t say, but—you want to do painting in the middle of a pandemic lockdown?!? You want to send a crew of painters into our apartment—even as the building elevators instruct that no more than two passengers are allowed per car!?
I put him off, but I expect I will hear more in days to come.
Next case: I received a very pointed letter from my dentist, who after all is a small businessman, with all the overhead and personnel burdens of any other small purveyor of services. (Not long ago, he told me that his office rent was $15,000 per month! Back in the 1980s, when the Union Square area was regarded as squalid and crime-ridden, he paid only a few hundred per month.)
This unhappy and angry note said that it had been over a year since my last examination and cleaning. That he had “tried to reach you both by telephone and numerous recall reminders without success,” and threatened to “remove your name and address from our active patient files.”
Huh? Wasn’t their office, like most others, closed for several months due to COVID-19? Moreover, I telephoned THEM from East Hampton only a couple of weeks ago and was told that they were booked up for the foreseeable future and could only take me if they had a cancellation. I told them that I would be back in Manhattan during the first two weeks of September—but no go, they had no openings.
Now, it seems time rests heavily on their hands.
I immediately telephoned and, ready to make an abject apology if need be, I made an appointment with the hygienist for this afternoon.
What will the atmosphere in their office be like? Will they be giving out extra doses of novocaine—or maybe extra doses of pain, a la the dentist in Marathon Man?