A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 123

Number, please.

Thursday, July 30

Attending to all these humdrum matters has robbed me of any ability to write something interesting for the website. 

This morning, I spent more time on the phone waiting for a functionary to schedule a repairman—in this case for the landline phone, which is only partly operative since Optimum set up the temporary Internet connection. It’s a good thing we have the Internet connection, though. We’d be pulling our hair out without that fix however temporary it may be. 

It may rain just as Peapod’s truck arrives. Their whole shtick is mysterious. Earlier this afternoon, they sent a note revealing just which of our items will not be coming: No walnuts, no nuts of any kind. No tofu, no ice cream, and limited cookies. The actual order might be missing other things—this is just the official “out of stock” list.

As one waits, it’s hard to stay away from the kitchen—to quit raiding the small amount of junk food we have remaining. There are still some onion-and-sour-cream potato chips and some Ritz crackers. No cheese, however. Each fortnight as we near a Peapod delivery time, we go from near famine to—I won’t say feast, but a more substantial larder at least. Yes, it’s hard to stay away from the cliche of “feast or famine.”

Tonight’s dinner: a ziti salad with snow peas, grape tomatoes, roasted red peppers, scallions, Kalamata olives, and artichoke hearts. On the side, a bit of leftover coleslaw.

Entertainment: Netflix’ amnesia drama Tabula Rasa.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 122

Wednesday, July 29

Troubles with my website continue. After further conversation with another rep from the web host Media Temple, who can find nothing wrong, in the late afternoon I tried logging on again—and once again get the message that the Mac’s web browser Safari can’t find the server. Then, a brainwave! I tried getting into www.hardygreen.com using a different browser—Google Chrome. And that worked, so maybe that’s the ticket.

We have numerous problems: At the moment only one landline phone is working—the one we have plugged into the new Altice modem. Other extensions don’t get a dial tone. I suspect there’s a transition underway, and once Optimum has taken over the landline from Verizon, all will be ok again. 

Meanwhile, Emily is having problems with medical stuff: physical therapy, mammograms, etc. Rather than going back to Manhattan for these things, she wants to take care of them out here on Long Island. But every new caregiver’s office raises problems. Man (and woman) is born to trouble, as it says in the Book of Job (I think).

Finally, we’re looking ahead to another Peapod delivery tomorrow. Once they come—sometime late in the day—we’ll find out just what they are delivering and just what is “out of stock.” Will we get either fresh mozzarella or pork chops? What about an eggplant or the always essential walnuts? Nothing can be assumed.

At least, for the moment, the heat and humidity has waned. It’s a tad cooler—81 degrees with rain and thundershowers forecast for tomorrow.

Dinner: more beans and rice plus a green salad.

Entertainment: Mhz’ crime drama Murder at the Lake, followed by old episodes of Yes, Minister.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 113

The storming of the Bastille in 1789.

Tuesday, July 14

On this Bastille Day, one can make good use of lockdown time by reading historian Robert Darnton’s penetrating essay on the French Revolution, provided via The New York Review of Books. Consider these words, suddenly more apt than ever: “We take the world as it comes and cannot imagine it organized differently, unless we have experienced moments when things fall apart.” In such periods, engulfed in chaos, we face “seemingly limitless possibilities, both for good and for evil, for raising a utopia and for falling back into tyranny.”

This seems like such a moment, and we can now reimagine American society—but do we have the will and material resources to reconstruct it? Out of the chaos of Trumpian ignorance (‘shine a light in the body”) and dysfunction, a new society can be born. But first, as last night’s dreams inform me, we will have to confront a wasteland of vacant storefronts, abandoned cities, overstocked graveyards, and a disintegrating economy. Mad Max-land in living color.

Darnton also warns us of a possible danger. Along with its inspiring slogans and a will to recreate everything, including not only government and social relations but also time and space (in France, there was a reimagined calendar, new names for streets and buildings, and the sudden adoption of the more rational metric system), “the Revolution unleashed a new force, nationalism, which would mobilize millions and topple governments for the next two hundred years.”

Nationalism, fanatical xenophobia that seeks to rid a land of “impure blood,” remains the potentially most destructive impulse experienced by humankind. Republicans will certainly seek to stir that hornets’ nest in the coming months, in the service of MAGA man and his plutocratic backers. We’re likely to experience a scenario that not even the most imaginative of science-fiction writers would be able to conjure.

Right here and now, we’re imagining yet another Peapod delivery, scheduled for between 3 and 5 p.m. It’s like waiting for a sleigh-load brought by a forgetful or very inefficient Santa: You might get that bike you asked for, maybe even two bikes, but he could easily omit the pants you’ll need if you’re going outside. You have to do a little planning ahead before you can place an order—but once the order comes, those plans may have to be abandoned and new ones made. Yes, bread crumbs but no mushrooms; sure, here’s the pasta but no Parmesan to go with it. What dreams may come?

Dinner: spaghetti with fried eggs and coleslaw.

Entertainment: three episodes of Netflix’ Belgian courtroom drama The Twelve.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 96

Wednesday and Thursday,  June 17 and 18

Emily is suffering from her chronic back pain. On Wednesday, she was sitting in an upholstered chair with her laptop on her knee, then she went to get up and suddenly, whammo. I suspect she twisted her back as she leaned forward while gripping the laptop, in a combination of muscle exertions that isn’t good. She had trouble hobbling over to the bed where she lay with a cold pack on her spine.

But after taking some Aleve and sleeping at night, today she is a little better. She even did a few leg raises as a physical therapist once instructed.

She has had this back problem off and on for several years. Is is sciatica? Spinal stenosis?

Here is another problem with the lockdown: Sure, you’re avoiding the pandemic but what if a different medical issue arises? Emily now has an August appointment to see a specialist back in New York City. Yesterday, she spent some time online looking for alternatives out here, maybe at Southampton Hospital. Then this back trouble comes along. Should she seek out a physical therapist in East Hampton? 

We’re both doing just too much sitting. We try to take walks, and I do a little yoga. But strangely enough, Manhattan is a more physically demanding place. And now that no one wants to take the subway and even more people are biking, exercise is on the daily agenda. Furthermore, taking the stairs in lieu of an elevator means even more exertion.

Another Peapod grocery delivery is slated for today, sometime after 5 p.m. As I have noted several times before, this is a mixed blessing: good prices and no social mingling but just how much of what we have ordered will really arrive? And there are always surprise omissions.  (This time, not so bad: no Bonne Maman apricot preserves, no scallions, no vitamin D-3, no Haagen-Dazs ice cream, no mixed nuts, and no Aleve.)

I know: In the midst of an international health crisis when thousands are suffering and dying, I should be embarrassed to complain about such tiny matters. But such are the times.

Right now, Emily is watching a Lawline video on prisoners’ legal rights. The presenter has this upward rising inflection at the end of every sentence—the phenomenon that was once associated with Valley Girl teenagers. Now it’s just habitual with many people, but it once carried some kind of implied meaning. Like, “do you know what I mean?” Or maybe it was offered to express a cut-me-some-slack uncertainty: “this is what I think, I hope you agree?”

Lawyers are required to undergo this continuing education in order to renew their legal licenses. I could go into the other room so as to avoid listening—but I’m going to take a shower instead.

Oh, yes: the rabbit reappeared in our yard this morning!

Dinner: Penne with asparagus pesto and a green salad.

Entertainment: Fritz Lang’s silent classic Mabuse the Gambler; episodes of the Netflix damaged-detective series Marcella.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 84

Stefan Zweig (standing) with his brother Alfred, around 1900.

Wednesday, June 3 

Tomorrow, it’ll be 13 weeks since we left New York City for our East Hampton pandemic retreat.

Without jobs or even solid gigs, it may have been mostly habit that held us to the city. There were times when we put a bit of effort into cultural pursuits—hearing jazz or classical performances, visits to museums, jaunts to particular shops where we often just looked at stuff without buying. Other times, we just hung out, enjoying the vibe. Now, Gotham may never again be what it was. To return there may be like subjecting oneself to the memory of a lost world. 

New York was never to me the near-paradise conjured by Stefan Zweig in his memoir of pre-World War I Vienna, The World of Yesterday. But the feeling of a lost world may be somewhat similar. Zweig—a highly popular writer in his time if not so well remembered today—describes that Hapsburg Empire capital as a center of music and learning, a place where he became acquainted with cultural luminaries ranging from Rainer Maria Rilke to his friend and fellow writer Romain Rolland. Then came World War I and, all too soon, the Nazis. 

Zweig, who had thought of himself less as an Austrian than as a citizen of Europe, fled to London, New York,  and ultimately to South America, where despair led to suicide. He wrote that “the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!”

In a vandalized New York, broken glass can be swept up and windows replaced. Even burned buildings can be reconstructed. What worries me more are the small institutions that could very well become casualties of the current catastrophe. And these—not Dunkin’ Donuts but the intimate Jack’s Coffee or even the very hip Think Coffee—are what make New York what it is. I was glad to hear that Small’s, the tiny West Village jazz club, was sponsoring some streaming concerts in the next days. That seemed a sign that the club, and its nearby sibling Mezzrow, sees itself as having a future life.

Food halls like Essex Market on the Lower East Side are likely to suffer. That mid-size emporium is made up of many independent vendors including sellers of Italian and Latin grub, cheese, seafood, and baked goods.

Dozens of small art galleries could well disappear. And if the citizenry is poorer and global tourism put on hold, even much larger cultural institutions could be threatened. Does the avant-garde New Museum have an endowment large enough to weather the current storm?

Optimists will say that, no matter how it changes, New York will always be New York. People and places disappear, but the essence remains. 

Another memoir of a vanished world is Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties. That author ends on a wistful note, cognizant of the many unwelcome changes that have come since he departed the city in the early 1960s. Yet he concludes with a sentimental poem about New York by the radical John Reed: “Who that has known thee but shall burn//In exile till he come again….”

On a less elevated note, Peapod made its food delivery today at around 6 p.m. Of the 43 items we ordered they delivered 29–and no receipt to tell us how much we were charged. Still no toilet paper, of course, and no mushrooms, sugar snap peas, walnuts, or garlic. Does our $20 tip seem warranted?

Dinner: Spaghetti with fried eggs, green salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Belgian policier The Break

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 74

Almost summer.

Friday, May 22

A very seasonable day, with a temperature of 71 degrees. A 60% chance of rain overnight, 70% tomorrow with temps predicted to be only in the high 50s.

Everything is green, with the grass and weeds on our lawn getting quite high despite the fact that the lawn was cut once, a few days back. I guess the lawn guys qualify as an essential service.

At some point soon, we will declare summer underway by having grilled hotdogs with sauerkraut. But that will have to wait: A few days back, when I told Emily to put sauerkraut on her Peapod list, she “thought” I said sour cream. “Already on the list,” she brusquely announced. Maybe we could just have sour cream for every meal.

We’ve already scheduled the next Peapod delivery. Previously, it was very hard to get a time slot with them, and we’ve had to stay awake until 1 a.m. to make an online arrangement. But yesterday, for some reason, we were able to do so mid-evening: Our next slot is set for the afternoon of June 3.

Who thought we’d still be out here in June?

Such a Godly man, Trump has demanded that churches and synagogues open “right now.” California pastors are ready: Some 1,200 say they will resume services in defiance of the state’s stay-at-home order. One church is suing the governor, declaring “essentiality.” Its lawyer says he expects some 3,000 churches to reopen on May 31.

We don’t feel a spiritual void, but we’re slightly missing some material things that are back in NYC. Emily is making a list of stuff that we’d pick up—should we go in to the city, then turn around and come back here. We each would bring more clothes—jeans, sweaters, shorts, her woolen robe, additional shoes. Then there are some electronics: the computer printer, a photo scanner (and old photos). From the kitchen, our relatively new nonstick skillet, an immersion blender, spices, and some hard-to-get grains like wheat berries and quinoa.

Dinner tonight: Roasted brussel sprouts, southern corn pudding, green salad, corn muffins.

Entertainment: several episodes of the BBC audiobook Trespass by Rose Tremain.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 73

A Peapod delivery truck.

Thursday, May 21

Today marks eleven weeks that we have been in the COVID-19 lockdown.

I spent a miserable morning trying to pay my East Hampton real estate taxes—being defeated by a bewildering online system, stupified by a non-functioning pay-by-phone thing, and finally surrendering and just mailing in checks to an office that almost certainly isn’t open. 

The East Hampton Star says that the Suffolk County executive has announced that those who are having difficulty paying may delay their tax payments. Once the governor’s office issues an executive order approving a delay, “the deadline to file taxes for those approved will be July 15,” the newspaper says. Huh? Once approved but only for those approved? 

“The plan provides for individuals who have lost 25 percent or more of their income or are awaiting unemployment benefits, and businesses with a net profit of $1 million or less that have experienced a 50 percent or greater loss of income or are waiting for P.P.P. payments would be able to apply for the relief with a form attesting to their need.” A form? Taxes are due in ten days, so that’s an awful lot of stuff that has to happen first. 

Fuggedaboudit.

Peapod sends Emily a message saying that their food-delivery truck will be coming between 4:59 p.m. and 6:59 p.m. She thinks the message suggests that the drivers are closely monitored. I think it resembles the 99¢ rule.

We’ve been watching a bit of the Netflix nature documentary Our Planet narrated by David Attenborough. Not to overdramatize, but our lives are a little bit like those of the wild animals in the documentary: They spend all their time hunting for or chasing after food—and we spend a lot of our time and effort doing the same. Meanwhile, the food-seekers are themselves being pursued by predators—and so are we! What is scarier, a jaguar or the coronavirus? At least the wildebeest can see the big cats or wild dogs that descend on them. We cannot see COVID-19.

The Peapod truck arrives almost an hour early, at 3:55. It is a fairly good haul, but there were 15 out-of-stock items, including toilet paper (of course), Kalamata olives, yeast (of course), lettuce, bok choy, carrots, avocados, apricot preserves, and Haagen Dazs vanilla bean ice cream. Lots of ramen, though, peanut butter, and Lipton chicken noodle soup.

Tonight’s dinner: Potato soup made with our newly arrived spuds, green salad, and corn muffins.

Entertainment: Two episodes of British thriller Retribution.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 66

Buddy Guy needs to read this blog post.

Thursday, May 14

The demise of clothing retailer J. Crew threatens to leave us with a cultural void: color-branding.

J. Crew, particularly in its catalog, was in the vanguard of color-branding. They were never satisfied to have a pair of shorts or a shirt in Olive or Khaki. No, instead the item would be listed as available in Basil or Sand—maybe even Mojave. (These are just fictitious examples I’ve come up with, mind you.)

So, the question arises: What would be some new color names appropriate to our fraught moment? Yesterday, I came up with one: First Responder Orange. Today, I’m thinking of others: Gilets Jaunes Yellow, for the French vest-wearing, economic-justice protest movement. And Pandemic Green, for that color that you might see in photos of microscopic slides. 

Trying to come up with an appropriate name for a blue hue, Emily hits upon another notion: Shouldn’t we have some blues songs associated with our quarantine experience? Forget “Hesitation Blues” or “Crossroads Blues.” How about “Peapod Perplexity Blues”?

Got my pencil and paper, babe,

I’m gonna jot me down a list.

Yeah, I got a pencil and paper,

I’m needin’ you to assist.

Artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes,

without such stuff, we just can’t exist.

[next verse]

Maybe green peas and Jarlsberg,

eggs and walnuts we really need.

Garlic, yeast, and lemons,

cabbage, cukes, and cheddar cheese.

But that Peapod manager

he’s always giving us more green beans.

(and we’ve got three packs already!)

[bridge]

Haagen-Dazs and Keebler Sandies,

wheat flour and bread crumbs too.

Chicken broth and shiitakes,

and some of that Tahini goo.

[final verse]

Yes, I got my pencil and paper, baby

I’m ready to make us a list…

Hmmm, maybe Buddy Guy could use this.

Other ditties could include”Dr. Fauci’s Lament” or maybe “Damark Disappointment Blues,” named for the small store that I go to when Peapod fails. Damark also has been known to fall short, notably when it comes to ramen. But they do just fine when it comes to fresh vegetables, walnuts, and napkins.

Ramen? They say no man,

this store ain’t where that’s at.

You want that Asian foodstuff

better go back to Man-hat [tan]

I got my pencil and paper, baby

but a list ain’t all we lack.

Takes more than hopin’ and wishin’

to end this here virus attack.

O.K., enough of this now. The blues ain’t nothin’ but COVID-19 on your mind.

Tonight’s dinner: stuffed green peppers, roasted brussel sprouts, and salad

Entertainment: Two episodes of Austrialian journalism-politico thriller, Secret City, plus one episode of Twilight Zone.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 60

Along East Hampton’s Main Street.

Thursday, May 7

I am back at BusinessWeek, working on the copydesk. I have at least three stories to turn around, some handed down to me by one slacker colleague who has finagled some way of leaving early. I am laboring at a very antique, manual machine, which seems unlikely to have any way of being part of the magazine’s electronic network. When I try to utilize the system’s query mechanism, which is supposed to let you track a story’s progress from writer to various editors, of course that doesn’t work. Another grueling shift looms.

Time to cast aside such sweaty dreams and wake up!

Just what will the Hamptons’ economy be like once things reopen? Typically, it is a very peculiar scene: On East Hampton’s main street, beginning at the Hampton Jitney stop and running up to Newtown Lane, real estate offices and designer-label stores predominate, an ever-changing cast of toffee-nosed boulevardiers.

Whether Polo Ralph Lauren or Eileen Fisher, these are not so much like genuine stores as they are luxe advertisements—the kind you see on the opening pages of Vogue or Vanity Fair. Their presence allows the companies to post “Paris * New York * East Hampton” on their plus-size shopping bags. Will such outfits return—or will many of the storefronts be vacant? 

Is there any chance that genuinely useful stores will appear instead? The pandemic and economic collapse has meant, at least theoretically, the possibility of remaking the local scene. Why not an interesting art gallery or an affordable, ethnic eatery? Most of the restaurants out here are just variations on one theme: mid- to high-priced Italian cuisine, grilled branzino or braised veal osso buco. What about some lower-priced Asian fusion or Vietnamese grub? What about a store selling clothing that working people might actually wear? Or a performance space for edgy theater or dance? Maybe some of these storefronts should revert to residences, as many of them once likely were.

Many of the local full-time residents probably like things as they are. They’ve come to depend on the seasonal tourist trade and business from the wealthy who own vacation homes here. If not for the resort-town economy, East Hampton would probably resemble seedier and less-developed North Fork burgs such as Mattituck or Flanders. Moreover, the true locals have their own mostly separate institutions, including the volunteer fire department, the VFW post, the community Presbyterian church, and less-posh restaurants such as Springs Tavern.

It’s a beautiful if still cool, sunny day. As I have said Peapod is due to make an afternoon delivery—they typically send a text message a short while before they expect to arrive. Beforehand, we’ll have to set up a socially distanced table outside for them to leave stuff on, then make a space to put groceries on inside the house. Anything that doesn’t need refrigeration will be left unhandled in its own quarantine for three days.

And sure enough, the Peapod delivery arrived around 3:50 p.m. We got many of the things we ordered, but 18 were missing, including scallions, cabbage, boy choy, walnuts, cucumbers, napkins, and Pepcid.

Dinner: leftover black beans and rice, Asian green beans, green salad

Entertainment: Two episodes of The Valhalla Murders.

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.