A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 61

The barn (c., 1721) at East Hampton’s Mulford Farm.

Friday, May 8

Did yesterday’s post focus too heavily on the designer-label shops of East Hampton, and thereby neglect the town’s very lengthy and complex past?

The area that now composes the town dates back to 1648, when it was purchased by two Connecticut governors. In exchange for the land, they gave the Montauk Indians an assortment of goods such as coats, hatchets, and knives. The New England men, in turn, resold the area for £30 to a group they called “the Inhabitants of East Hampton.” The new settlers came here by way of New England, looking for less-settled territory where they could raise crops and pasture their farm animals. Each original inhabitant got a house lot of several acres in the center of East Hampton, plus rights to use of the common fields.

Over the decades to come, some settlers would turn to whaling and fishing. Others engaged in commerce, trading the local produce and fish for goods made elsewhere.

By the second half of the 19th century, there were new intruders: members of the leisure class, traveling out to the East End via the Long Island Railroad. The exclusive Maidstone Club was founded in 1894, and its challenging golf course was redesigned in the 1920s to occupy 130 acres facing the Atlantic coast. By 1929, when Jacqueline Bouvier was born, there was a well established enclave of the wealthy in the Hamptons. And after World War II, as vacations and leisure activity became more possible for the middle and working classes, even more visitors came out to the area, bringing with them the development that has in recent decades become rampant.

Several groups have acted as an obstacle to this development: traditionalists, environmentalists, the local fishermen who are generally called Baymen, and the organization called the Ladies Village Improvement Society, formed in 1895 to ensure that the community’s “storied charms will not be disturbed by the pressures of contemporary growth and development.” The more commercial enterprises that have sought to win a foothold here in recent decades, ranging from fast-food outlets to the bookstore chain Barnes & Noble, have found their paths blocked. But legions of McMansions continue to advance across the former marshes and potato fields.

Much of this information comes from a 1990 book by Northwestern University historian T.H. Breen, Imagining the Past: East Hampton Histories. I will include more detail on the town’s history in future posts .

Today’s weather has been cloudy and, by the end of the day, rainy.

Tonight’s dinner: Avgolemono soup and a lettuce, avocado, and tomato salad.

Tonight’s entertainment: more episodes of The Valhalla Murders.

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 59


Wednesday, May 6

I slept until almost 9 a.m. this morning. I suspect a lot of people are sleeping more these days. Maybe I was tired after my big adventure yesterday, going to the dump and coffee store. Today, we can spend time worrying about tomorrow’s grocery delivery—will it be raining when they come, will we get the stuff we want or will lots be “out of stock”? Emily is able to look at our order online and she says that, so far, it looks like we’ll be getting virtually everything but ramen, Lipton soup, and whole wheat flour.

She has had a persistent cough for what seems like more than a year. Two doctors have told her that they have checked everything else, so the cough must be caused by acid reflux. And indeed, I recently discovered an old cache of Tums and they do seem to help. A few nights back she took one after dinner and she reported not only did she sleep better but she felt generally better the day after.

So another item in the Peapod order is famotidine, a.k.a. Pepcid, which one of her specialists recommended.

Right now Emily is listening to a legal podcast on the topic of employment rights during the epidemic. One talker has a particularly harsh and nasal voice, which drives me to go for a walk outside despite the imperfect weather. As is often the case hereabouts, it is cloudy and the air is cool and damp.

Before I go, a young doe wanders into our yard and peers in through the kitchen window. Everything indicates that deers’ eyesight is bad, and though I attempt to gesture her away, she pays no attention until I open and slam the side door, at which point she gallops away.

Back from an unremarkable sortie, I read a quote from the Times that “older adults as a group have a positivity bias,” or tendency to see the good side of situations, according to Gary M. Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Their pessimism and anxiety tend to abate with age. They’re no longer striving for material achievements, so what matters to them now is what’s emotionally satisfying. They’re more likely to say, I’ve been through this before.”

But what could be the good side of the pandemic? The Times also has an article asserting that we’ll all just get used to a situation in which one or two thousand people die of coronavirus every day. It’ll be an adjustment somewhat akin to the way in which we’ve simply accepted a very high level of gun deaths and mass shootings as normal.

The article contains this shocker: “An internal document based on modeling by the Federal Emergency Management Agency obtained by The Times projects that the daily death toll will reach about 3,000 on June 1, a 70% increase from the May 1 number of about 1,750.”

Both the Town of East Hampton and East Hampton Village are now moving toward limiting attendance on local beaches.

I already foresee guys with Bushmasters and MAGA hats gathering en masse to protest this grotesque intrusion on their beachgoing liberties.

Dinner: Black beans and rice, with a lettuce and celery salad.

Entertainment: Two episodes of the Icelandic policier The Valhalla Murders.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 58

Signs of the times at the East Hampton Recyling Center.

Tuesday, May 5

Maybe I’ll start carving slashes in the wall to mark off the days….

You remember those movies. Humphrey Bogart or some such hardboiled type is thrown into the clink—likely on trumped up charges. In his loneliness, he makes a pet of a cockroach. Then, using a purloined spoon, each day he hews marks on the wall so he won’t lose track of how long he’s been in confinement.

Not to overdramatize or anything.

But in our confinement, one does lose track of time, and the future stretches out dauntingly. News reports say that even the mentally challenged Trump administration admits that daily fatalities may double in the next few weeks. Even the most optimistic of realists say they imagine the quarantine stretching out to the end of June. Few of my contacts would be surprised if it lasted longer, and Emily’s college-student niece, soon to be a senior, is wondering if her actual classes will ever resume. His other daughter, currently living in Colorado, has applied for a job in their home state of Massachusetts supervising “contact tracing.” I can’t imagine just what skills are needed for such a post.

I’m putting this quote from the Times here so I don’t lose track of it: “Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, published an analysis last week describing three possible pandemic wave scenarios through the end of 2021: a series of repetitive smaller waves that gradually diminish over time; a sharp rise in cases in the fall and one or more subsequent smaller waves; and a ‘slow burn’ of continuing transmission, without a clear wave pattern.”

Last night’s telephone conversation with Emily’s brother underscored just how lucky we—and other retirees—are. We have health care, thanks to Medicare and Medicare supplements. With a little bit of stress on our memories, we can arrange for all our bills to be paid. So our only hardships are frivolous—getting groceries and accepting lengthy hair that makes one appear to be in need of love beads and bell-bottom pants. Hey, let’s listen to the White Album again!

Soon, I will venture out, accoutered in my disposable, made-in-China face mask. Of the three masks Emily ordered from Etsy, only one has arrived—and given its gaudy pattern, I’m not sure I want to be seen wearing it.

Outdoors, there’s that irony that I’m getting a bit used to: Electric green trees and flowering magenta shrubs are detonating with vigorous health, amid the possible decline and fall of the human race. There are few cars on the road, although the street-repair crews and utilities linemen have been very beaverish lately, forcing drivers into patterns of intermittent yielding and lane-weaving. The recycling center is not crowded, and everyone present maintains a proper social distance, as they are instructed to do by prominent signs.

At the small shopping area called Amagansett Square, there are also plenty of signs about precautions to be taken during the pandemic. The fancy cheese store turns out to be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. The restaurant called Meeting House is likewise clearly closed, but exotic pop music resounds from an outdoor speaker. Coffee seller Jack’s, however, is busy attending to a dozen customers. One of the workers there says the store has been “crazy busy,” she doesn’t know why. Most everything else in Amagansett, except for the liquor store, is closed. Essential supplies, coffee and liquor.

Two weeks from now, we’re supposed to start getting warm weather.

I can recall some depressing summers from the past. Generally, I think I felt that way when the near future was very unknown. Inevitably, the coming summer will also be suffused in mystery about the shape of things to come.

Dinner: canned Progresso split pea soup, corn muffins, baked potatoes, and green salad.

Entertainment: I’m still into the Norwegian thriller Occupied, but its suspense doesn’t compare with the suspense we experience on a daily basis.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 57

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

Monday, May 4

Cooking does get to be a bit of a drag under the lockdown. All the same, it’s the one of the few activity options remaining beyond reading, watching videos and Twitter, or staring out the window.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would find an interesting recipe, then run out somewhere to locate a couple of unowned, exotic ingredients—lemon grass, say, or soba noodles. Under the lockdown, I tend to make the same stuff over and over: beans and rice, meatballs, balsamic chicken, lentil soup or lentil salad, Progresso soup, and baked potatoes. And since cooking now heads up the to-do list, I tend to brood about just what to make for dinner, even planning several days ahead. 

Given our large inventory of green beans, I’ve realized that I can make a Chinese-restaurant favorite, dry-fried stringbeans. Someday soon.

Two anniversaries are taking place, both suitable for contemplation while in enforced idleness: the 100th anniversary of the Constitutional amendment giving the vote to women and the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam-era shootings of protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. 

Both events took place amidst periods of serious social disruption. Ratification of the suffrage amendment followed the end of WWI and the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed 50 to 100 million globally and 675,000 Americans. The Kent State events marked a new stage in that period’s protests, one in which many young people became convinced that they were permanently cut off from the rest of U.S. society. “We’re finally on our own,” said the fatalistic but stirring Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young pop anthem, “Ohio.”

But the 1918 epidemic allowed women, who filled many health-care positions, another opportunity to demonstrate their importance to society—and facilitated an argument that such a vital group could not continue to be disenfranchised. Kent State forcefully posed the question “just what the hell are we doing here, waging war on our own population?” In each case, it took several more years to arrive at a resolution.

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born,” in the words of Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci. No doubt the current crisis will prompt more struggles over the direction of the world to come. It probably has already resolved some: If the now-forgotten Democratic presidential debates had taken place during the pandemic, surely no candidate would have taken the Pete Buttigieg position, “if you’re happy with your current healthcare, you’ll be able to keep it.” Who’s happy now? The tens of thousands who have abruptly lost their employer-provided health insurance?

A bright and sunny day has given way to clouds. Last night around 1 a.m., there was a terrific thunderstorm, with mammoth flashes of lightening followed several seconds later by lengthy thunder. Maybe it was the new world struggling to be born.

Tonight: leftover balsamic chicken and couscous, along with a green salad.

Entertainment: More of the second season of Occupied.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 56

Maybe we’ve had about enough of West Coast weirdness.

Sunday, May 3

As if there weren’t enough going on, now we have to worry about the murder hornets.

Just like COVID-19, they are another invader from the Far East. (In Japan, some people call them “yak killer hornets,” says Wikipedia.) And also like the pandemic, one of the murder hornets’ first points of attack in the U.S. was in the far Northwest. A New York Times story focuses on hornet incidents in Washington State, where one man’s beehive was decimated, possibly by the invading Asian insects, and where another man found one of the frightening two-inch long beasts on his front porch.

They ain’t pretty: “the hornet has a distinctive look, with a cartoonishly fierce face featuring teardrop eyes like Spider-Man, orange and black stripes that extend down its body like a tiger, and broad, wispy wings like a small dragonfly,” says the newspaper of record.

Hey, didn’t the Northwest used to be an alluring place offering beauty and tranquility if just the slightest bit of eccentricity? “Keep Portland Weird,” t-shirts and bumper stickers in that town urged. It has only been a few years since the television show Portlandia showed up, satirizing that city’s unique blend of sexual politics, dietary correctness, bicycle culture, and not-for-everyone rock bands. And Seattle—what other city has a space needle or a park dedicated to Pac Man? A chewing gum wall?

Then Seattle became an intense COVID-19 hotspot, and now we have these Hellspawn hornets.

Maybe it’s just as well that nobody is traveling anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Just now, while I was puttering around in the yard, our new next-door neighbors pulled in to their driveway. I finally got to say hello to them, albeit from a proper 25 feet of social distance. Someday I’ll get to ask why they leave so many lights on late at night. Perhaps they too are city people who find the darkness and quiet out here a bit unnerving.

Tonight’s dinner: Chicken breasts with mushrooms and garlic balsamic vinegar, couscous, and a green salad.

Entertainment: the final episode of Collateral and one episode from the second season of Occupied.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 55

Will drive-in movies make a comeback?

Saturday, May 2

A little while ago, I set up the bread machine to make a loaf of light whole wheat bread. The machine, a “Breadman,” is about the size of a large toaster oven. You just put in the ingredients, push a few buttons, and the machine takes care of everything. You can even set a timer to make bread overnight so it will be ready for breakfast when you wake up. 

The loaf I like requires a mix of flours—regular white flour, whole wheat flour, and whole wheat pastry flour. It takes a little over four hours to produce a loaf, what with kneading, pausing to allow for rising, more kneading, more rising, then baking. It’s hardly perfect: The loaves produced don’t have the crusty, chewy texture that one might prefer. But in a quarantined world, they’re hard to beat.

There is, I must admit, some trick with the yeast. Sometimes a loaf will come out sort of flat, and other times, perfectly risen. Just what makes the difference, I cannot tell.

It’s Saturday, and today we may remember to listen to the NPR panel show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” But generally, we forget unless we are in the car. As everybody under lock-down knows, each day seems the same and routines are easily overlooked.

At 10:35 a.m. I have already consumed the thin Saturday Times and am ready for other stimulus. Reporters are weary of Trump’s unhinged rants—anyone for a swig of bleach?—and so they are on to examining whether or not Joe Biden really groped that woman. Some pundits say the Democrats are under no obligation to nominate Biden, their nominee-presumptive. They can just ditch him like that damaged face mask you returned to Amazon, and opt for either Klobuchar or Warren.

Of course, no responsible pundit would suggest Bernie. He’s like the restaurant in the Yogi Berra story: No one goes there, it’s too crowded. Or to paraphrase a recent Hillary Clinton comment, no one likes him—he’s too popular.

The loaf of bread did come out less than perfectly risen. They never have problems on YouTube!

This summer could see the return of drive-in movies, I read yesterday. There’s a certain logic: You’d have the feeling of being on an outing, yet you’d be ensconced in your private chamber, socially distanced from all but your intimate relations and chums. But, like in the old days, the setup would probably appeal most to a younger crowd. Adults might go once—then right back home to the Netflix.

I remember going to a drive-in screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. With its spellbinding, interplanetary visuals, lush soundtrack, and trippy, mystifying ending, it was really wrong for the drive-in. In order for the wild visuals and the spooky plot to work, you needed to be in a very dark, cavernous theater.

I also recall a Memphis drive-in with one of the most memorable and bizarre double-billings ever: The artsy Women In Love, based on the D.H. Lawrence novel, and Women In Chains, a sleazy B-movie about a female prison.

Tonight’s dinner: leftover lentil salad, saffron rice, and a green salad with cucumber and artichoke hearts.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Norwegian thriller Occupied and the third episode of Collateral. The latter is quite effective: You know just whodunit—but the motive for the killing of an immigrant pizza-delivery guy could be any number of things. The most recent episode involved local police, shady criminals, MI-5, and the military.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 54

A Philadelphia rent strike poster.

Friday, May 1

There is apparently a major fire or some similar mishap in this neighborhood. Only a little while ago, there was absolute silence—now, there’s an eruption of fire-engine sirens and horn honking, all very similar to the cacophony that is common in the Union Square area of Manhattan. I’ve wandered around on the internet, looking at the local news site Long Island Patch and elsewhere, but so far there’s no indication of what’s going on. I suspect we may never know.

For the first time since 1998, the World Bank says, global poverty rates are forecast to rise. By the end of the year, 8 percent of the world’s population, half a billion people, may be pushed into destitution, largely because of the pandemic, the United Nations estimates.

There is poverty here too, in spite of the Hamptons’ reputation as a playground for spoiled kids and their rich parents. Mansions certainly do exist, but there are also modest houses and notices of food banks at the churches, libraries, and IGA groceries. “The need for food from our pantries has tripled,” says the Clamshell Alliance, a local charity.

In our immediate area, there are plenty of shotgun-style dwellings with pickups and vans in the driveway. Many of the houses seem too small to warrant the number of vehicles parked outside: mom, pop, and grown kids still living at home, maybe? Lots of these vans and pickups bear the names of small plumbing, construction, or electrician companies. Many of our neighbors appear to be representatives of an aristocracy of labor—people who are self-employed or at least able to avoid the most exploitative and punishing forms of work.

Labor Day—or May day—was once an occasion for working class protest and solidarity. Today, it is the date for a confounding and confusing set of protests: in Michigan, hundreds of protestors, some toting weapons, have invaded the state capitol, demanding an end to the COVID-19 lock-down.  According to Politico, “Operation Gridlock,” was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a DeVos family-linked conservative group.

Meanwhile, in New York, Pennsylvania, and California, thousands are protesting against the payment of rent during the pandemic. “The protest is expected to represent the largest coordinated rent strike in America in decades,” says The Guardian.

Ray Brescia, a law professor at Albany Law School, penned a rent-strike how-to that appeared in this morning’s New York Daily News. His bottom line: tenants must withhold rent, get landlords to negotiate with them as a group, and go to court together, taking advantage of a backlog of cases that could last for years, giving tenants even more leverage. But what could they get?  The author, who claims to have run rent strikes for 14 years as a New York City legal aid attorney, should give us a little more information about possible outcomes that are more than just wishful thinking.

Dinner: leftover meatballs and pasta, a lentil salad with roasted red peppers and pecans, and another salad of lettuce and avocado.

Entertainment: More episodes of Norwegian thriller Occupied, and the second episode of Brit police procedural Collateral.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 53

A gray catbird: Pavarotti of the backyard.

Thursday, April 30

Last night brought torrential rain, some of the hardest I can remember. Plus the cathedral ceilings in this bedroom and in the front room amplify the sound. Rural life remains a bit unnerving: All night long there was a non-melodic, metronomic cry from one bird—coming every two or three seconds. He seems to have the night shift, while a gray catbird talks constantly during the day. We hear no sirens—although a couple of times while we have been here, ambulances have paid visits to houses on this block. One could only cringe and wonder what was going on…a heart attack or a wife-beating? A case of COVID-19?

Right now, I can hear the catbird—tweet, tweet, tWeet, tweet…..Other than the muffling whoosh of the furnace coming on, there are no other sounds to compete with him.

Suffolk County, which includes the East End, is close to reaching the limits that would allow a “reopening,” according to County Executive Steve Bellone. Since April 20, hospitalizations have been declining, and The East Hampton Star says, the county is approaching the limit of 70% capacity in both regular hospital and intensive care unit beds. (I guess that means 30% of beds are unoccupied.) These are the markers set by New York State. Testing must also be readily accessible—and that’s still just a goal, Bellone admitted.

Our Westchester-based friend fears that she has got it. She has to make an appointment for a test, then with luck, go to a drive-through facility to get tested. At last report, her blood oxygen level was OK but her pulse was elevated. Little wonder.

The BBC reports that, strangely enough, many U.S. medical workers are idle at home and drawing no salaries during this frantic period. That’s largely because elective surgeries have been canceled—sometimes since potential patients are afraid to go into hospitals.

“American healthcare companies are looking to cut costs as they struggle to generate revenue during the coronavirus crisis,” the report asserts. “As some parts of the US are talking of desperate shortages in nursing staff, elsewhere in the country many nurses are being told to stay at home without pay.”

Here, a momentary break in the rain may be followed by more pelting rainfall and thunderstorms tonight. Emily announces that online, many people are invoking the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day to describe their weirdly repetitive and predictable day-after-day lives; she thinks it’s more like The Twilight Zone, “because it seems so surreal and dystopian.”

Nordic noir writer Maj Sjowall, a co-author of the classic Martin Beck series of Stockholm-based policiers, has died after a long illness, aged 84. The series remains one of my all-time favorites, and I read the books again and again, each time finding something new, surprising, weirdly humorous, and upsetting.

“They went beyond crime fiction, breaking new ground by carrying out a forensic examination of the failings of Swedish society,” says The Guardian, as they tackled such themes as  pedophilia, serial killings, the sex industry, and suicide.

I would say the duo seemed to regard the sex crime—depicted in such books as Roseanna—as the defining misdeed of our time. Quite in contrast to the socially benevolent sleuths of British classics, the Maj Sjowall-Per Wahloo police squad is marked by both cleverness and stupidity, brutality and revulsion at their own social role. It’s not unusual for them to solve crimes quite by accident.

Dinner: leftover pasta and meatballs, green salad.

Entertainment: episodes five and six of Occupied, the highly topical and expensively produced political thriller that ran for three seasons in Norway. Themes: climate change, corporate power, the political clash between traditionalists and environmentalists, and ethical compromises excused as accommodations to necessity.