A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 83

Political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.

Monday and Tuesday, June 1 and 2

The nationwide demonstrations against police killings of black youths—accompanied by wild scenes of looting and mayhem—appear to be escalating. But why…how? 

Social scientists have long attempted to figure out why some events trigger rebellion, while other, even more outrageous occurrences do not. The 18th century French population put up with years of oppression from its monarchs and aristocracy—until the dam broke in 1789. Other years notable for such explosions include 1848, a year of revolution across Europe; 1914, the year of the Russian revolution; and 1968, when Paris exploded in a wave of student/worker protest. All things considered, there weren’t very many.

None of this is to say that I imagine we’re now in a revolutionary period. But even if we are not, the level of protest is truly breathtaking. It’s not just one night—but night after day after night of marches, demonstrations, and street violence.

The press tends to quote participants who say the equivalent of “enough is enough”—as if outrage upon repeated outrage has prompted the rebellion. I don’t know: Trump lives to pile outrage on top of outrage, and he has been doing it for years without provoking anything like the current level of protest.

A conventional social-science analysis refers to crises of rising expectations: People tend to rebel, the theory says, not when the population is overwhelmed, but just as things seem to get a little bit better. The first observer to offer this analysis was probably 19th century writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his book L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution. When the weight of oppression is lightened just a bit, that is the moment when people rise up, he said. “The evil, which was suffered patiently as inevitable, seems unendurable as soon as the idea of escaping from it is conceived.” The people are able to imagine an alternative.

So what would that rising expectation be in the current moment? The possibility of Trump’s electoral ouster? The fact that an increasing number of big-city mayors and progressive-state governors are denouncing police killings? The fact that we might be seeing light at the end of the pandemic tunnel? 

Or could it be all of these things together?

These are matters to ponder as I make my weekly trip to the recycling center. 

Tonight’s dinner: Korean barbecue-style meatballs, spicy wok-charred snow peas, and rice.

Entertainment: The Belgian policier The Break.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 82

A New York police car on fire in Brooklyn on Saturday.

Sunday, May 31

It seems we’ve been missing all the action.

A set of Marella Gayla photos on The New Yorker website shows intense protests at Union Square—right outside our apartment window on 4th Avenue at 14th Street.

Where hundreds of demonstrators confronted uniformed cops on Thursday, you can see Zeckendorff Towers looming in the background. Another photographer’s work shows demonstrations a block away at 5th Avenue. In the background of photos there, you can see a telltale CVS Pharmacy.

The cause of the protests is, of course, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where there have been five nights of fierce protest. In over three dozen cities across the U.S.—from New York to Detroit, Atlanta, and San Francisco—there have been mass demonstrations, looting, and even the burning of buildings. In Brooklyn, one woman was arrested for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a police vehicle. In Washington, protests compelled police to cordon off several blocks around the White House. Curfews were imposed in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago.

I have been amazed, perplexed, and outraged for years about the police killings of black youth–and the cops’ seeming impunity.

But there’s not much I can do about it out here. So, I just had a nice walk out in the sunshine. One worry is that our new little rabbit pal is being bullied by the territorial squirrels. Oh, there is also incessant noise from the neighbor’s crew of lawn-cutters and leaf-blowers.

I’m not sorry to miss the city protests. I’m too old to run from baton-wielding police. And it’s one thing to go to demonstrations of your own volition, and another to have protests taking place right at your doorstep, with no exit. 

According to reports I’ve gotten from an NYC neighbor, the building scene is weird. At times, people wait in the lobby so they can go onto an elevator one at a time. We have a rented parking space in the lot below the building, but it’s not clear that the parking lot is even open. No one answers the phone when you call. Yet on the parking service’s website, that particular lot isn’t listed as being closed. Should I pay the bill? I am of course paying rent on our apartment upstairs, where we have not been since early March.

A modest dinner tonight: Progresso canned soup, roasted potatoes, and a salad.

Entertainment: final episodes of the Britbox video A Confession.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 81

CNN reporter Omar Jimenez is arrested in Minneapolis on May 29.

Saturday, May 30

Once again a young black man has been killed by police—and once again, the whole episode has been videoed by a bystander with a cell phone.

In Minneapolis, 46-year-old George Floyd was asphyxiated by 44-year-old Derek Chauvin, a police officer.

“Thank God a young person had a camera to video it,” said Minnesota Governor Tim Walz. 

But such events have repeatedly been caught on camera: Think New York loose-cigarette seller Eric Garner saying “I can’t breathe” as he was placed in a chokehold by a policeman in 2014. Remember the 2015 case of Walter Scott who was shot in the back as he ran away from a policeman in North Charleston, S.C. And now another case of “I can’t breathe.”

Are these black kids being killed despite the episodes being caught on camera—or precisely because of the videos?

Everyone knows that Trump’s every burp and fart are filmed and broadcast for the world to see. Isn’t it likely that there are an increasing number of like-minded exhibitionists saying, “Hey, why not me? I want that same level of exposure. ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ here I come.” Isn’t it possible that some of these exhibitionists are police?

Moreover, if a much-publicized killing by police brings on demonstrations and street violence, so much the better, some may figure. The more street violence, the greater the need for police. And, the greater the need for police equipped with combat-ready equipment—gas and gas masks, Kevlar vests, assault rifles, armored troop carriers, and so forth. It’s another market for the arms dealers.

Trump understands the political advantage that’s available: After a lot of mouthing off, he has placed military police units on notice. Law and Order! Nixon redux.

I’m all in favor of reducing the level of violence in our cities, including by limiting the sales of firearms. Lets cut back on the number of police, too.

And what about licensing mobile phones—shouldn’t we be limiting their spread as well?

Tonight: leftover balsamic chicken, couscous, green salad.

Entertainment: Episodes of the Britbox video A Confession.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 80

Polish dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski

Thursday and Friday, May 28 and 29

These two days have contained little but routine: a trip to the recycling center, meal preparation, dish washing, videos. I paid a telephone bill and considered whether or not other bills were due. I thought about foodstuffs we need to order—mayonnaise, goat cheese, candy. Should I try to make a pizza on Sunday? No, I would have to get some mozzarella, so we’ll just have some Progresso soup and corn muffins.

The Netflix thrillers seem to be declining in quality. Both Retribution, a tale of a family conspiracy against a murderer, and Safe, a story of a missing teenage girl, had worthwhile moments then plodded their way to unsatisfying, operatic conclusions. Each contained red herrings involving drug use. In one, the villain turned out to be an otherwise appealing police officer. 

Better than either of these is the cold-war-era Polish whodunit The Mire, with its uneasy journo-buddy principals confronting a double murder and a possible double suicide. Appropriately, the colors are dirty greens and blotched flesh tones. One journalist is old and seedy, the other, young and Clark Kent nerdy. Everybody guzzles vodka, smokes, and indulges in extramarital sex when it’s available. Citizens stand in long lines in front of butcher shops. Prostitutes only accept U.S. currency. Newspaper stories get rewritten to the satisfaction of Stalinist officialdom; reporters are made to forsake investigations of shocking crimes and encouraged to write happy-talk articles on a new cafeteria. It all makes one long for the days of Wojciech Jaruzelski.

The Rose Tremain novel The Road Home had a disappointingly happy ending. In today’s climate, who needs Pollyanna? Give me despondency and pessimism, please. 

Dinner: Balsamic and garlic chicken with mushrooms, couscous, green salad.

Entertainment: two episodes of the wacko fantasy-thriller Ragnarok.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 78

Hurricane Sandy in 2012. New York Daily News photo

Tuesday, May 26

Two more deliveries this morning, both for me: prescription drugs and a nonstick muffin tin. 

More and more, this East Hampton cottage seems like our true residence. We can only wonder what things would be like if we were still at our Manhattan apartment. How often would we encounter neighbors? Is everybody still maintaining social distance and wearing masks? Would we risk taking a potentially crowded elevator—or walk up and down a daunting 18 flights of stairs?

We managed those stairs during the electrical outage brought on by Hurricane Sandy back eight years ago. The events of that time were particularly surreal.

We were already concerned about increasingly severe hurricane seasons, but they seemed largely to affect Florida or the Carolinas. Then came Sandy, which tracked inland until it struck New Jersey and New York City. We were in Massachusetts as the storm approached, so (insanely) we hurried back to New York and arrived just in time to experience the punishing winds and the explosion at the 14th Street Con Edison power station that led to a blackout of lower Manhattan. 

The result was a divided city: Above 42nd Street, everything operated normally, but in lower Manhattan there were no lights, no nothing. One lasting memory is looking out from our 18th floor window at an apartment in Zeckendorff Towers across the way, where a tenant was wearing a miner’s hat with a light attached to the front. After dark, you would no longer see the person, just this ghostly light moving around in his space.

An 18-floor climb can be brutal, particularly if you are carrying food or other stuff. We did manage the stairs a few times, even slogging buckets of water up several flights since the lack of electricity meant our apartment had no water either.

The city ran its buses without charge. On a couple of occasions, we took a crowded bus up to 42nd Street and went to a branch of my gym there in order to take hot showers. Other people must have been doing that too: The gym ran out of bath soap, so I once washed off my body with shampoo.

Finally, as it began turning cold in late October, the lack of heat made us move out of the building altogether.

Here and now, there are many unreal aspects to existence as well. I don’t think in pre-lockdown life that my days were quite so centered on making dinner. Today, I’ve already begun cutting up vegetables and chicken for tonight’s chicken soup. And I even have begun thawing ground beef as I contemplate making hamburgers for tomorrow night. Weather forecasts play a role: Tomorrow afternoon is supposed to be partly sunny, so a cookout should be possible. Thursday is supposed to bring more rain.

Shortly, I am going out to the small Damark store to get stuff that Peapod failed to deliver: lettuce, carrots, yeast, rice, and the ever-desired, increasingly expensive toilet paper. While there, I will attempt to get more chicken stock and walnuts.

So, for dinner: avgolemono soup and salad.

Entertainment: the last episodes of Safe.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 77

The D-Day landing.

Monday, May 25

It’s Memorial Day, dedicated to the memory of U.S. veterans. 

My father fought in World War II, the last American war that wasn’t an ill-conceived fiasco. He was part of the D-Day landing in France, amid the first wave on Omaha Beach, as my mother was always quick to point out. How anyone survived that, I cannot guess. 

Anyway, he was a captain at the time, having enlisted in the army in 1941 when, as a high school dropout who wasn’t much interested in work, his job prospects must have seemed minimal. By the time he was demobilized in 1945, he’d risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel. But he still wasn’t interested in work: He tried a small cabinetmaking business, but that failed. He spent the rest of his life employed as a salesman at a lumber yard. That gave him access to what he really liked: wood that he could use in making everything from candlesticks to furniture. He died of a heart attack in 1962, at age 54.

Both he and my mother lived through some rotten times. Her life in particular was crap: She was born in 1914 and came of age just in time for the Great Depression. Her mother died when my mom was a teenager. Soon her father remarried, and she was required to help raise a set of step-siblings. After high school, she went to work as a sales clerk in a men’s clothing store, where she met my father. They delayed their marriage for several years, as they had to help their families through the Depression, finally marrying in 1942.

While he was off fighting the war, my sister was born, in 1944. Twelve years later, she died of polio.

As you can see, my mother’s wasn’t exactly a life of ease and privilege. Nevertheless, she was an optimistic, can-do sort who, after my father’s death, quickly went out and got a job in the public school system, where she worked as an elementary school secretary. She kept plugging away until she couldn’t take it anymore, retiring sometime in her 70s. Even then, she took on little gigs, working in a daycare center. She lived to age 91.

With all the hardships she encountered, I’m sure she could never have imagined the string of surreal horrors we’ve experienced in the 21st century: the terror attack on the World Trade Center, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the 2008 banking collapse and Great Recession, the election of the mentally ill television personality Trump as president, and now a global pandemic that has killed 100,000 Americans.

As climate change continues to worsen, I suspect we will experience ever more dramatic and fatal catastrophes in the years to come. 

Happy days! as Samuel Beckett’s characters were wont to exclaim.

Here’s a joke to lighten the mood. Why did the little moron throw the clock out of the window? Answer: He wanted to see time fly.

Now, let’s look forward to dinner: spaghetti with goat cheese, roasted red peppers, and toasted walnuts plus a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Netflix production Safe.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 76

Yet another visitor.

Sunday, May 24

Now, we have a rabbit visitor. Twice he’s come to hang out and nibble weeds in our side yard.

There have been numerous reports of usually wary animals suddenly entering spaces that humans created but now are avoiding. Wild goats in the streets of Welsh towns. Sheep in California burgs. So, maybe this is our version—mice in the kitchen, rabbits in the yard.

Are you finding that, under lockdown, the days seem to spin pass quickly? It’s already Sunday again—even though last Sunday seems like it was only yesterday. A BBC article offers an interesting idea about why this may be the case.

“When you get to the end of the week and look back…you have made fewer new memories than usual, and time seems to have disappeared,” says Claudia Hammond, who writes about time perception. 

In other words, there are few markers in time—like when you met up with a friend for dinner or spoke with a doctor—causing many past days to seem to merge into one.

These blog entries might serve as markers for me. It’s incredible that I have written 75 prior to this one. But many of them seem like vague memories—often differentiated in my mind only by the photos I used to accompany individual posts. There was that one with the photo of people lining up at 8 a.m. to get into the Amagansett supermarket. And that one of the moon shining through the very early morning light. And the one with the image of 19th century states-rights philosopher John C. Calhoun.

There’s always a little anxiety about just what subject I can focus on next. Maybe I should skip a day or two, I think, since there’s little new to report.

This afternoon, for example, we’re doing a load of laundry. That’s not very exciting—but it’s one of the very practical incentives we had for leaving the congested city: Here you don’t have to stand shoulder to shoulder with a stranger in the apartment building’s laundry room. 

The BBC audiobook reading of Rose Tremain’s Trespass has led me to begin reading another of that author’s books, The Road Home. Several of her works seem to focus on people who are forced to cross national boundaries either in hopes of maintaining a way of life that seems to be slipping away, or of finding a new, more tenable life when old ways have been destroyed. What was it, I wonder, that prompted her to think about these subjects? And more than once, she has touched on the matter of incest. Does she think that’s more common than we imagine?

Dinner: leftover chicken with artichokes, couscous, and a side dish of snow peas with mushrooms, scallions, and teriyaki sauce.

Entertainment: two final episodes of British thriller Retribution

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 75

A kitchen visitor.

Saturday, May 23

Three of the world’s smallest mice showed up in the middle of the kitchen floor this morning. 

They’re so tiny they must be newborns, which I suspect means that more will arrive. They moved very slowly at first, then as I attempted to sweep each one into a dustpan, they became more energetic. I was able to get each one outside onto the brick patio, where they scampered around attacking small weeds that towered above them like redwoods.

Where do these guys come from? Are they inside this old house’s walls? Up from the basement through the heating vents? Why wouldn’t they want to be outside where there is more stuff to eat?

Back to the issue of our food. Emily says that meal prep here is like one of those television cooking shows where would-be chefs are presented with a bunch of incongruous ingredients and told to use them all in making a meal. Maybe calf brains, rainbow chard, a grapefruit, and Israeli couscous. And, unlike here, the cooks always come up with surprising and delectable results.

Here it’s easy to get into a rut and just repeat the same dishes over and over. The challenge: What will go with leftover southern corn pudding and a salad? Then I realized I could combine some of our many chicken breasts with canned artichokes and cooking wine to make a chicken and artichoke stew.

Emily and Peapod also surprised me by delivering a bunch of snow peas and two packs of mushrooms. So tomorrow I’ll probably combine some of each in a stir-fry that also involves walnuts and scallions with either hoisin sauce and sriracha or a sauce composed of soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine vinegar.

It’s almost time for Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Some time back we were discussing this very funny NPR panel show with friends, and one of them complained that he wasn’t allowed to talk while the show was on. You might miss something.

Out to the recycling center. It’s raining, but there are nevertheless lots of cars on the road. Due to Memorial Day weekend, maybe? Or is it simply a further result of people fleeing from the city due to the pandemic/lockdown?

That BBC audiobook that we listened to last night, Trespass, has led me to investigate the author, Rose Tremain, a bit further. Turns out she was nominated for a Booker Prize back in the ‘80s. She lost out to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. I’m going to see if I can download one of her novels in e-book form via the East Hampton library.

As I have said, tonight’s dinner: chicken with artichokes, corn pudding, and salad.

Entertainment: Two episodes of British thriller Retribution.

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. 


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.