A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 221

Art is cute, but nature is flat out mysterious. Just what are the front-yard visitors in the second photo up to?

Sunday June 27

After a while, we couldn’t take any more of the city. So we came back to Long Island.

New York City is not what it was, of course, and even the transition back to “normality” is quite disconcerting. Some folks will assure you that the lockdown is over–yet mask-wearing is still mandatory on the subway. Most people who I saw were still wearing masks every place in public. But, then, I didn’t go out to any restaurants or night spots; the scenes there may have been quite different.

Back in March, I was fearful while in the city. During this trip, I was fearful…and suspicious. Every doctor/dentist who I saw seemed to want another visit or some second procedure. The dentist informed me that I need a crown on a tooth where there’s a “food trap.” Only a little while back, he offered reasons why there couldn’t be a crown. (Maybe he worried that insurance wouldn’t pay for it.) Fishy, no?

Most troubling of all was my experience at the Apple Store. My Mac Power Book has begun warning me that I must replace its battery soon. So I went over to the West 14th St. Store on Thursday and spoke to one person who said the battery replacement should take about an hour–but that I would need to make an appointment with someone at the “Genius Bar.” At my Friday appointment, after examining my laptop, a Genius Bar rep told me that the computer would have to be sent away for a period of 5 to 7 days, during which time it would get not only a new battery but also a new keyboard.

Really? If you Google “Mac Powerbook battery replacement,” you see information about how to do it yourself with a replacement battery purchased on Amazon.com.

I didn’t surrender the computer to them. Maybe I will do so when we return to NYC in August. Or maybe I will find another alternative. The fall-off in business during the lockdown freaked out a lot of people, who worried about eviction and bill-paying. Now, I’m afraid, some may be looking for ways to get financially healthy again.

Dinner: a Capriccio salad of fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, celery, and balsamic dressing, with asparagus on the side.

Entertainment: A Kind of Murder on Hulu.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 220

Wednesday, June 23

I highly recommend the Alice Neel show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was an expressionist portrait painter (1900-84)—there may be a couple of landscapes in the show—a leftist, and a bohemian mother of at least three children, all by different fathers I believe.

Like most museum shows, there is just not enough detail about Neel’s life. But the Met curator apparently found it difficult to omit all biographical particulars, especially since Neel’s portrait subjects include her children and various Communist and leftist acquaintances. Neel lived in Harlem and “Spanish Harlem,” and apparently at times had digs on the Upper West Side and on the New Jersey shore. Two of her most engaging paintings are of black children from Harlem; others include a gay couple and a nude self-portrait painted when she was around eighty. She didn’t shy away from reality.

Could this exhibit have been hung before the lockdown, without anticipating the social distancing that would be wanted? Although the Met tries to limit the number of guests, paintings are grouped pretty close together and people still crowd around just as they did in pre-pandemic times. Especially worrisome are a number of small paintings crammed into corners which at any given moment tended to draw a crowd of a half-dozen viewers. I skipped a lot of these. Everybody had masks, though, and all were well-behaved.

The Metropolitan remains frightfully expensive: $25 for adults, $17 for seniors although “the amount you pay is up to you” if you are a New York State resident. We got in for free thanks to my McGraw-Hill retiree arts card.

During these days in the city, I am finding that I remain a pandemic paranoid. I flinch when people get too close—even when other pedestrians just follow too closely behind. I am especially wary of tailgating pedestrians who speak in loud voices and who seem anxious to get around me. I have had space to myself for months, even when going out for solitary walks. Today, we’ll go on a jaunt to the Apple Store—and that should put my patience to an extreme test.

Dinner: we are reduced to hot dogs accompanied by beans and cold cucumber soup.

Entertainment: Netfix’ policer Unit 42.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 219

Socially distanced brunching on East 9th St.

Saturday, June 19

You know things are bad when the Salvation Army store is forced to close. Today, there’s not even any indication that S.A.’s Fourth Avenue emporium ever existed.

Even more shockingly, the large Food Emporium supermarket at the corner of 14th St. and Union Square East is shuttered—a victim of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, each of which has a store a stone’s throw away. But those Johnny-Come-Latelys are themselves far from crowded. The Food Emporium—once an A&P—had been at the Union Square location since 1987, when the Zeckendorf Towers building that housed it was completed.

Still, some neighborhood brunch goers seem into the cheery, post-pandemic swing of things, although many restaurants still seem focused on outdoor dining. Plenty of East Villagers are right now sipping their Saturday lattes at the makeshift tables set up along 9th Street and St. Mark’s Place. It was already getting hot by 10:30, but nice-ish weather may have encouraged them.

My idea to visit several doctors over a concentrated period—and cross them off of the to-do list—has run up against cruel reality. The dentist wants to see me two more times, spread out over a period of several weeks. My GP wants me to get an ultrasound—but West Side Radiology has no time slots available for weeks. Since we fully intend to go back to Long Island shortly, these appointments may simply not happen. And I will have to try to arrange physical therapy in Sag Harbor. 

Baseball is totally back. The Mets game is currently in progress at Nationals Park in Washington, which has been allowed to accommodate full-capacity crowds since June 11. 

By my standards, there’s not much at the major museums. Both MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum are open but lacking in exciting exhibits other than that of American painter Alice Neel at the Met. The listings section of The New Yorker seems to acknowledge this by concentrating on small galleries. 

Yesterday, we had a very pleasant visit with our 25-year-old niece Montana, who now lives in the city. Other than conversations with plumbers and carpenters, it was the first visit we’ve had with anyone since the lockdown began. And admittedly, it was a bit strange to be merely having an extended conversation; my mouth had trouble forming words. Strangers in a strange land.

Dinner: Another Chinese dish, Ma Po Tofu, white rice, and avocado.

Entertainment: Episodes of the German mystery Allmen on Mhz.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 218

Thursday, June 17

We are back in the city for at least a week, seeing dentists and doctors and haircut artists. 

Yesterday, I went to the dentist at 8:30 a.m., the only time they could take me. It was OK, I’m no longer a late riser—the pandemic disruption has cured me of that. And out in the country, the songbirds get busy at 6 a.m., announcing the rising of the sun and time to get up and about.

 The hygienist wore a blue, disposable mask but told me that there would be no temperature taking or other precautions. The era of COVID restrictions was at an end, she announced. But she also said she expected another wave to hit in the fall.

Today, I’m seeing my GP, whose office is in one of those increasingly common NYC buildings with a mystifying address: 5 Columbus Circle.

There was a time when city addresses gave you a precise idea of location—1790 Broadway was once the building’s descriptive address. Broadway and 58th St. Now, the real estate industry glamorizers have taken over; 5 Columbus Circle sounds more hotsy-totsy, even if it leaves the poor pedestrian frantically Googling to discover the location.

The city. seems quite surreal—like an episode of the Twilight Zone or Life on Mars. It’s all in my mind, but it seems like a place from another time.

Dinner: sheet pan ratatouille with an avocado, lettuce, and grape tomato salad.

Entertainment: final episodes of pan-Euro thriller The Team on Mhz.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 217


Friday, June 11

I’m thinking about just how the pandemic and lockdown changed our cooking and eating habits. And since this blog is meant to be a personal record of this strange time, I’m recording my thoughts here.

In daily life as we used to know it, we regularly adopted various new foods and recipes. First, we’d try that tuna and cannellini bean salad to see if we liked it—and before long, we might find that it had become a dinnertime staple. Recipe sources would keep referring to something not in the pantry—so you’d go get some gochujang or miso and, since the stuff was suddenly there, you’d keep making a dish that used it whether you totally loved the ingredient or not.

Moreover, in the ordinary course of life, I have made certain dishes over and over. I’d repeat a dish every couple of weeks, or have it in my head as a fall-back recipe for quick and unplanned weeknight fare. 

And of course, we’d occasionally eat out at a restaurant.

The lockdown and difficulty of getting foodstuffs altered this way of living. Suddenly, no matter what the online or TV chefs recommended, it was scarcity that began defining choices. You couldn’t just run out to H Mart or another Asian store to pick up an otherwise exotic ingredient. Jicama? Lemongrass? Nope.

The supermarket Stop and Shop, from which we began getting deliveries in March of 2020, was full of surprises. One week, a completely ordinary comestible like raisins or Gala apples would be out-of-stock, but they would have Kikkoman soy sauce, sugar snap peas, Crosse & Blackwell capers, and Uruguayan organic honey. 

Certain of my onetime go-to dishes are now mostly forgotten: cold sesame noodles; Szechwan eggplant with ground pork; Ma Po tofu; pasta bolognese; and prepared items from Trader Joe’s including chicken pot pies and frozen ravioli.

We have no wok here on Long Island and no easy access to such things as Szechwan hot bean paste. Those changes account for much of a decline in my Asian cooking. Also, of course, there’s no Trader Joe’s store.

Two other factors have figured in our dietary changes: the fact that Emily is now the executive chef in charge of food-ordering; and the shift away from spontaneity to weekly planning of menus.

Old reliable dishes that I still make after decades include lentil soup, chicken paprikash, turkey chili and turkey picadillo, avgolemono soup, beef stew, omelettes and frittatas, and turkey meatloaf.

New dishes that now appear with some regularity: the Latin beef dish ropa vieja; black beans and rice; cornbread tamale pie; penne with asparagus pesto; pasta with roasted red peppers and goat cheese; grilled pork chops and hamburgers; baked chicken breasts with artichokes; spaghetti with drop meatballs; American picnic potato salad; the spicy egg dish shakshuka; and (after a couple of failed attempts to make my own pizza from scratch) Amy’s frozen pizza.

So summing up, it seems there has been a decline in Asian food-making and a surge in Latin and All-American eats. I also think we are consuming less meat and more largely vegetable entrees. 

Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

Dinner: spaghetti with meatballs and a green salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Life on Mars, season two.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 216

Glam rock 1970s guitar hero Marc Bolan of T. Rex.

Wednesday, June 9

We’ve become regular watchers of an old British television crime series, Life on Mars. (First shown in the U.S. on BBC America, it’s now available on streaming service BritBox.) This would be a no-more-than average crime show but for the possibilities allowed by its premise: Liverpool policeman Sam Tyler is struck by a car in 2006 and somehow when he awakens he finds himself still a cop but mysteriously transported back to 1973.

Yes, it’s a bit Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Groundhog Day, Peggy Sue Got Married, and countless other time-travel and stuck-in-time flicks. All the same, the time-warp gimmick allows the show some subtleties that otherwise wouldn’t show up in a BBC policier. Repeatedly, for example, Sam is seen busting a perp and reflexively delivering what Americans call a Miranda warning: “You have the right to remain silent” etc. Only in this case, the perps regularly interrupt him—“hey, that’s not how it goes,” they’ll say. Sam will be reciting the 2006 version, which offers greater information about the arrested person’s rights–for example acknowledging that anything they say can be taken down and used against them in court. The 1973 statement said little more than “you have the right to remain silent.”

So in small ways, Life on Mars offers views of how things have improved over the recent past.

Yes, there are bell-bottomed trousers, gas-guzzler muscle cars, wonderful late ‘60s rock (and some repellent Brit-pop schmaltz, too),  and a general lack of enlightenment about the rights and respect that should be afforded to women and gays. More subtlely, there are cultural touchstones that we now take for granted and which are unknown to most of the characters: Sam at one point refers to boxer Mike Tyson—already a near has-been in 2006 but unknown in 1973. He also meets a young and unknown Marc Bolan, who attained a fleeting measure of notoriety in the mid-1970s as the guitar hero of glam-rock group T. Rex but who died in a car crash in 1977. So in this instance, the star-struck Sam is simultaneously ahead-of-the-times and living in the past.

Sam desperately wants to get back to the way things used to be—which would ordinarily mean going back to the past but in this case means soaring ahead to the future of 2006.  

But just what were things like in 2006? Adding to the viewers’ possible confusion is the fact that actor John Simm who plays Sam Tyler has subsequently appeared in at least two other police-procedural shows. There’s Prey from 2014, in which he plays a hotly pursued detective wrongly suspected of committing a murder. And there’s the 2021 mini-series Grace, in which he plays a senior detective caught up in a deceptively complex missing-persons case. Are all these cop characters somehow linked or even the same person, a viewer may briefly wonder?

Then there’s the “who is that?” game which Emily and I play repeatedly: An actor will wander onto the screen and we nudge each other in silent recognition. Life on Mars is absolutely stuffed with such walk-ons. Of course, there is co-lead Philip Glenister (familiar from State of Play) playing cop Gene Hunt, “an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding” in Sam’s words. And, playing Sam’s youthful mom is Joanne Froggatt, familiar as lady’s maid Anna Bates from Downton Abbey. Then there’s Paul Copley, the British character actor who has over 100 appearances to his credit including roles in Coronation Street and Last Tango in Halifax. He shows up here as an angry hostage-taker. 

Does today’s blog post make you think that maybe, just maybe, Hardy watches too much TV? Never mind. We’ve decided to go back to New York City next Tuesday for a few doctor’s appointments and other things. Perhaps there will be other distractions in Gotham.

Dinner: spaghetti with drop meatballs and an avocado and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: predictably, more episodes of Life on Mars.