A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 245

A harsh contemporary satire–or a simple fall-from-grace story?

Friday, December 24

On a tobacco plantation in a remote corner of Italy lives a “marquessa,” her layabout son, an estate manager, and fifty or so “sharecroppers” who do all the work, unpaid. It is what might be thought of as a paternalistic, pre-capitalist setup—i.e., slavery. 

Among the workers at “Inviolata” is Lazzaro, a perhaps simpleminded, ever-agreeable youth who labors tirelessly. Lazzaro becomes friends of a sort with the layabout Tancredi and introduces him to his primitive mountain hideaway, from which Tancredi sends word to his mom that he has been kidnapped and is in need of ransom.

Thus begins the Italian film Happy as Lazzaro, or Lazzaro Felice, directed by Alice Rohrwacher and now showing on Netflix.

The marquessa, Alfonsina De Luna, is wise to her son’s schemes, but the estate manager’s daughter is taken in—and uses her cellphone to telephone the authorities. When the police arrive, they announce that sharecropping has been outlawed for years! They disband the plantation, arrest the owner, round up the workers, and transport them in a truck to a nearby city. 

The whole thing becomes fodder for a tabloid scandal—“The Great Swindle” perpetrated by the woman who becomes known as “the queen of cigarettes.” The newspapers announce that the former slaves have been relocated to more suitable accommodations. In fact, they are just set adrift to become homeless beggars and petty thieves.

Is the filmmaker a Marxist? Her fable seems to echo the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, as the capitalist police have “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound [the sharecroppers to their] ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self- interest.” The former rural proletarians now live atomized lives lacking all sentimental illusions, amid pitiless urban blight.

No one seems to notice that Lazzaro has been left behind. During the police roundup, he plunges off a cliff. But magically, he doesn’t die; seemingly years later, he awakens and wanders on his own into the city, where he finds not only a group of his former worker-comrades (now living in a large, empty propane tank) but also Tancredi.

Late in the movie, Lazzaro goes into a bank to demand that the De Luna fortune be returned to the family. He has heard that bankers took away their wealth. The bank’s workaday patrons, ignorant of Lazzaro’s history and having internalized capitalist logic, fear that—armed as he is with a primitive slingshot—he may take away their money! They set upon him and kill him. Thus is order restored.

Lazzaro Felice was among the 2018 Palme d’Or competitors at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. But despite its light touch, the satire doesn’t really leave the viewer as Happy as Lazzaro: Its view of life without sentimental illusions is as harsh as reality.

Dinner: A Christmas Eve feast of roasted turkey breast, couscous, cranberries, and a pear clafoutis.

Entertainment: On Mubi, either Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy or Jean-Luc Goddard’s Contempt.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 244

Late-day sky at Maidstone park.

December 21

We’re going back to the city again today, for more dental work. I’m hoping to make this a quickie, just in on Tuesday and back out to Long Island on Thursday. The fast-spreading Omicron variety of COVID, now very much a presence in NYC, has Emily worried, but she’s coming along to keep me company.

Last time, the dentist explained that tomorrow was the first available appointment–because the insurance wouldn’t allow one any sooner. It’s truly amazing just how much control, large and petty, these insurance companies exert over our lives.

Dinner: unknown

Entertainment: Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God on Netflix.


A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 243

Thursday, December 9

In the mid-to-late 1980s, I lived on East 26th Street in Manhattan. That’s on the edge of a neighborhood known as “Kip’s Bay,” named for the pre-Revolutionary Era landholder Jacobus Kip. His estate “covered one hundred and fifty acres” of “meadow, woodland and stream” and extended eastward to a rocky indentation of the East River known for its shape as Turtle Bay, or alternatively as Kip’s Bay.

By the 1930s, when the Federal Writers’ Project put together a guide to New York City, the writers had termed much of the district “a slum.” Most of the bay had been filled in long before, and the guide reported that “El trains of the Second and Third Avenue lines thunder by constantly,” while “an endless, noisy procession of trucks” stormed over First Avenue.

During my time there, the neighborhood was a sort of Nowhere Ville—not so different in that from the area I had previously occupied, Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. (If there is a hill there, I never found it; I guess the name-givers had to pretend that the area adjacent to Carroll Gardens had some sort of distinguishing trait.)

But back to East 26th Street: My apartment there was a one-bedroom affair at the top of a four-floor walk-up. Few friends ever visited me, for obvious reasons.

On my walk home from a doctor’s appointment today, I passed by the old building. The neighborhood hasn’t really changed much. The laundromat that used to be downstairs is now a “Brazilian” beauty parlor. Two doors down, there’s a “Tipsy Scoop Barlour” specializing in “liquor-infused ice cream.” On nearby Third Avenue, the D’Agostino’s supermarket is still in place although a bit gussied up with newish plate glass windows. And the liquor store where I once got a $10 bottle of Famous Grouse scotch (on sale as a promotion) also remains. But the bars and restaurants that line Third Avenue have all changed hands or gone out of business.

Also not very far away is Gramercy Park and the tony neighborhood that shares its name. I’m sure that Gramercy retains its share of the Beautiful People, just as it did when Mayor James Harper (one of the founders of publisher Harper & Brothers) lived there in the 1840s, or when Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish was there in the 1890s. A singular aspect of the area is the exclusive and privately owned park to which only nearby residents are allowed keys. Such a shame that the dog-walkers allow their charges to foul the surrounding sidewalks!

New York will never change—and it’s in a constant state of change. The builders are still throwing up new high-rise structures in the area, particularly along 23rd Street. But will anyone choose to live in the new buildings? That matter is no closer to resolution now than it was in the year 2020, when the COVID pandemic began.

Dinner: Croque-Monsieur sandwiches, red-pepper soup, and a green salad.

Entertainment: an episode of Britbox’ policier Shetland.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 242

Monday, December 6 

A dramatic storm in the early morning hours included startling lightning and thunder. It woke me, but, I’m happy to say, Emily slept through it.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of lots of wind but there must have been some: Glancing out the window now, I can see another large oak tree has split open and fallen into the front yard. Where will the destruction end?

The tree service guy—a “Certified Arborist” no less—came by a few days ago to make an estimate on how much he’d charge to remove storm-damaged trees and limbs. (Horrifying numbers.) He said that the type of wind here has changed—nowadays, we get swirling, tornado-like winds that whip trees around in ways they aren’t prepared for. And these winds are very selective: They’ll break trees apart on one property and leave the next-door lot totally undisturbed.

I went back to sleep after the storm and dreamed that I was working in a detention facility for teenage offenders. In the dream, I have some Acetone or paint thinner, which I intend to use on a project, not sure just what. One of the boys asks if he can have some, and I pour out a bit into a jar for him. It seems the stuff can be used as invisible ink—and that’s what he intends, in a letter to someone. I say, hey, that can be traced back to me! I wash the outside of my bottle, hoping to remove fingerprints, and decide that I should get rid of the bottle.

I must be watching too many streaming-video crime dramas. They seem to be infecting my dreams.

We’ll be going back to the city again tomorrow. Emily has yet another dentist appointment on Wednesday, and I have an appointment with a neurologist on Thursday. I had a seizure a few years back, and it seems I must check in with her every so often in order to keep my Rx coming. She’ll probably send me to the NYU lab to have blood taken….

The weatherman predicts more gusting wind and a bit of rain for today. On Wednesday, there’s a 60% chance of snow here, perhaps an inch, but if temps remain in the upper 30s, even that may not happen.

Dinner: an omelet, green beans, and a baked potato. All modest offerings in order to empty out the larder.

Entertainment: final episodes of Netflix’ “The Imposters.” It’s an entertaining series about a bunch of grifters, but there are a very large number of episodes. In recent times we’ve also enjoyed the intricate Martin Scorsese kids’ movie “Hugo”; the 1976 François Truffaut flick “Small Change,” which is also about kids and their mostly innocent adventures; and the mysterious, 1990 Icelandic film “The Juniper Tree,” which is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm tale and features budding star Björk.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 241


Wednesday, December 1

It’s a grim period. Most of the oak trees in our neighborhood have shed their leaves—but our yard guys haven’t yet come to blow and rake them away. So an inch-thick cover of brown coats the landscape. Meanwhile, as I have already noted, several trees in our yard were decapitated or broken during a mid-November windstorm. The gimpy near-dead still haunt our property, like wounded soldiers from a recently lost war.

And it’s cold—maybe seeming to be colder than it really is, thanks to the deep darkness that descends around 4:30 p.m.

I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s The Magician—an engaging fictional life of Thomas Mann—-then having nothing better at hand, I re-read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. The latter work is—more than I remembered—a bit like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, as it features an exposé of the grime and exploitation behind the scenes at fancy Paris restaurants, circa 1933.

“The dirt in the Hotel X…was revolting. Our cafeterie had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches….Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered—a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body. Apart from the dirt, the patron swindled the customers wholeheartedly….In spite of all this, the Hotel X was one of the dozen most expensive hotels in Paris, and the customers paid startling prices.”

In Paris, after a period of near starvation, Orwell finds a job as a plongeur, or restaurant dishwasher. Later, back in London, awaiting a gig as a tutor, Orwell falls in with the ranks of the homeless. Their rootless, exhausting lives are neither worse nor much better than the lives of Paris’ occasional laborers.

What leavens Orwell’s account are his descriptions of Paris and London characters. His Paris confrere Boris hangs out with fellow Russian expats, shares his meagre funds with Orwell, and in between periods of absolute destitution, enjoys a riotous, often-sodden bacchanalia of a life.  

Among London’s tramps, Orwell meets Paddy, who becomes a pal for a couple of weeks.  “He had two subjects of conversation, the shame and come-down of being a tramp and the best way of getting a free meal….His ignorance was limitless and appalling. He once asked me, for instance, whether Napoleon lived before Jesus Christ or after.”

Orwell reports on the relative merits of various places where tramps can get a bed for a night. Most are awful, and those who try to sleep out of doors risk being arrested by the police as “vagbonds.” But compared with other options he has described, jail may not be so bad. Near the book’s end he tells us that one chum, Bozo, had been sentenced to 14 days in Wandsworth prison for begging. “I do not suppose prison worries him very much,” says the author.

Dinner: cheese omelettes, pumpkin bread, and green beans.

Entertainment: episodes of Ashes to Ashes on Britbox and Gentefied on Netflix.