A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 259

Kapuscinski as a young reporter.

Friday, March 25

The Congo, Honduras, Uzbekistan, Iran—peripatetic Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski traveled to all of them and beyond. Working for the Polish Press Agency beginning in the late 1950s, he covered 27 revolutions and coups. On top of that, he wrote over 30 books and countless articles on far-flung places, always applying his particular sensibility and often startling wordsmithy to the subjects at hand.

Some questioned the veracity of his outlandish revelations. Writing about the Portuguese flight from the Angolan revolution in 1975, he described a panicked rush of former colonizers, intent on taking their stuff away with them. In Luanda, “everybody was busy building crates,” he wrote in his book Another Day of Life. “Crates belonging to millionaires were impressive: beamed and lined with sailcloth, they had solid, elegant walls made of the most expensive grades of tropical wood…Into these crates went whole salons and bedrooms, sofas, tables, wardrobes, kitchens and refrigerators, commodes and armchairs, pictures, carpets, chandeliers, porcelain, bedclothes and linen, clothing, tapestries and vases, even artificial flowers…all the monstrous and inexhaustible junk that clutters every middle-class home…all we leave behind are the bare floors, the naked walls.”

Other books focused on a number of absolute dictators, from Ethiopian Haile Selassie to the Shah of Iran to Stalin. And in revisiting what is likely his magnum opus, Imperium, on the disintegration of the Soviet Union, I discovered some very insightful Kapuscinski passages about Ukraine.

Writing in 1991 after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the establishment of an independent Ukraine, the author gauges just how culturally distinct the people really are. “Half of the fifty-two million inhabitants of the Ukraine do not speak Ukrainian, or they speak it poorly. Three hundred and fifty years of Russification have inevitably produced such a result…As early as 1876, Alexander II ordered that instruction in Ukrainian schools take place only in Russian….”

Eastern Ukraine, he says, is home to 13 million native Russians. Russification here was intense and brutal, with Stalin murdering almost the entire intelligentsia and allowing several million Ukrainian peasants to starve to death in the Great Famine.  “Only those who fled abroad were saved. Ukrainian culture was better preserved in Toronto and Vancouver than in Donetsk or Kharkov.”

Yet, he continues, “simplifying greatly, one can say that there are two Ukraines: the western and the eastern. [In the western part] inhabitants speak Ukrainian, feel themselves to be one-hundred percent Ukrainian, and are proud of this. It is here that the soul of the nation survived, its personality, its culture.”

Which does not bode well for Putin and his war. If Russia has not yet subdued eastern Ukraine, how will it fare in the west? Would Putin truly employ a scorched earth approach there, destroying modern cities and infrastructure—and to what end? Does he imagine resettling the entire land with Russians, much as Hitler imagined resettling it with his master race?

Perhaps Putin feels that he has no choice. For as Polish historian J. Waswicz, quoted by Kapuscinski, wrote back in the 1930s: “Without the Ukraine, Moscow is relegated to a northern wilderness.”

Dinner: smoky sweet potatoes with eggs and almonds and a side of Brussels sprouts.

Entertainment: the Ukrainian sitcom Servant of the People with Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 258

The shape of things to come.

Tuesday, March 15

I’m putting the snow shovel away in the basement. Along with it goes the ice-melting rock salt.

We’re back on Long Island, and while we have no crocuses or other blossoms in our yard yet, some early daffodils are showing up in other sunny places. The birds and squirrels are very amped up, sensing that something is afoot.

Two sure signs of spring: The appearance of little frogs, which many call “peepers,” in nearby marshes; and the return of the ospreys—large fish hawks that winter in South America. Neither one is here yet, but both should show up late this week or next week.

A platform for an osprey nest at Three Mile Harbor.

Each year, the ospreys, who nest on the tall platforms that humans have erected for them near the beaches, teach their young how to fly. The little guys (who, with their 70-inch wingspan, aren’t so little) pick up the skill pretty quickly. Mom and/or dad can be seen lazing around the nest as junior makes big circles in the sky above…all the while peeping in an unexpectedly high voice.

According to the Department of the Interior, the osprey is piscivorous, with fish making up 99% of its diet. But in a pinch, I suspect that they would eat Lay’s Potato Chips, just like any other self-respecting seabird. Once at the beach, we observed two other humans messing around with a kayak down at the water’s edge.   On their beach blanket lay an open bag of cheese puffs. A seagull wandered over, shook some goodies out of the bag, and began munching away—prompting one of the humans to shout “Hey, get away!” The seagull was undeterred: Last seen, he was winging across Three Mile Harbor with the entire bag clutched in his maw.

It’s difficult to stop eating those things once you start. 

Dinner: turkey meatloaf, southern corn pudding, and a green salad.

Entertainment: We listen a lot to BBC radio to hear the latest horrors from the war in Ukraine. The arms manufacturers must be loving it—while the rest of us are powerless to stop the conflict. Like in 1914, the big shots of all nations are delighted to have a war—it distracts the public from more troublesome matters like COVID, climate change, and racial injustice. As for our distraction, we will turn this evening to some more classic stuff from the streaming Criterion Channel—maybe Wim Wenders’ 1974 road flick Alice in the Cities.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 257

Grubhub deliverymen in Manhattan.

Thursday, March 3

The food-delivery guys on bicycles are a menace to cars, pedestrians…and other bikers. No doubt at least some of their recklessness reflects the pressure they are under from their employers.

All have electric-powered bikes, which are regarded as essential equipment by the restaurants. They zip along, not going all that fast (a preferred bike. the Arrow, apparently tops out at 28 mph) but often going against the auto traffic, the wrong way down one-way bike lanes, driving on sidewalks, running red lights, and yielding to no one. And they seem to travel in packs, often bunched three or more together. Uber Eats, Grubhub, Door Dash, MaxDelivery, Caviar, Chow Now…who can keep up with all of them?

It’s another sign of the decline of Western civilization. If there is so much demand for delivered food, it has to mean that people aren’t cooking…just depending instead on fast-casual outlets.

According to a September, 2021 report issued by the Workers Justice Project, which is affiliated with Cornell University, the average city food-delivery worker earns only around $8 per hour. Two-thirds of respondents said they regularly work six days a week, and 85% said this was their main and only job. Nor do the food-delivery services seem to experience any labor shortage despite the fact that a plethora of stores and restaurants have window signs advertising job openings.

Sixteen of the food-delivery guys died on the job in the year previous to the publication of the Workers Justice Project report. About half of all the workers said they had been involved in a crash or accident during delivery–and the way they drive, who could wonder? “A gamelike system of rewards and penalties keeps them moving: high scores for being on time, low scores and fewer orders for tardiness, and so on,” writes online zine The Verge. As “independent contractors,” they get paid only when they complete a delivery. None of this would be possible without mobile phones and the apps that receive orders and direct the army of deliverers.

At Astor Place.

They also face violent attacks from those who want to steal their bikes. The Workers Justice Project’s survey found that 54 percent of delivery workers have had bikes stolen.

There are signs of incipient collective action–Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups that focus on the thefts and exploitative working conditions; and a collective fighting for labor rights, Los Deliveristas Unidos. (Their No. 1 demand: the right to use restaurants’ bathrooms.)

In the wider world, there’s another global outrage: This time, it’s the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Beginning with the COVID plague, it seems that there have been an unending string of shocking, you-wouldn’t-believe-it developments, including police shootings in several U.S. cities, street fighting between fascists and progressives, Hurricanes Henri and Ida, the January 6th Washington riot and Capitol invasion by pro-Trumpers, the truck caravans in Canada…and I’m sure that I am forgetting some.

Emily just got her fourth COVID vaccination. This one was the biggest hassle of all. Walgreen’s phone robot said she had a 4 p.m. appointment—then at the drugstore, they had no record of it. So, lots of waiting.

Dinner: stir-fried eggplant with yu-xiang sauce and cold noodles with sesame sauce.

Entertainment: concluding episodes of Conspiracy of Silence on Topic.