A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–Chapter 265

The coal-mining company town of Jenkins, Ky at the turn of the 20th century.

Thursday, May 19

The current issue of MIT Technology Review is focused on so-called cybercurrencies and contains a jaw-dropper of its own: Crypto millionaires have plans to build their own private cities in Central America.

In an article entitled “Cities Built by Crypto,” tech writer Laurie Clarke describes how, in a plan endorsed by El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, that country is selling $1 billion worth of debt in U.S. dollars to fund the construction of Bitcoin City and Bitcoin mining operations.

The Salvadorean project is not alone: Other crypto investors are leaning on governments from Puerto Rico to Honduras to create semi-autonomous enterprise zones that, they say, will stimulate growth and enrich the locals.

Sounds like more enterprise-zone flapdoodle, you say? 

Yes, it seems the Ayn Rand-devotee crowd intends to keep plugging its dubious no-downside, rugged-individualist social vision until there’s a real meltdown. 

There’s more to the Salvadorean plan: Bitcoin City’s economy will run on that cybercurrency, be powered by geothermal energy from Conchagua Volcano, and be largely free of taxes…if things go according to the plan.

There’s even a non-profit foundation dedicated to the proliferation of such crypto-cities around the planet, the Free Private Cities Foundation. In such places, as envisioned by foundation President Titus Gebel and former World Bank economist Paul Romer, residents pay an annual fee for such services as policing—and if the services aren’t provided, these “contract citizens” can take the supposed provider before an independent arbitration tribunal. 

To me, the author of a book about company towns, it all sounds a bit like a company town…as envisaged by a lawyer. But there’s a lot yet to be disclosed: Would the managing enterprise own all institutions—from the hospital to the newspaper to housing and the company store—as in such company towns as Kannapolis, N.C. or the original Lowell, Mass.? I mean, there’s already company “scrip,” a.k.a. Bitcoin…so why not?

And what happens when the next pandemic hits? I mean, if such towns’ citizens are all just independent free actors, just what entity will tell them there should be curfews or a lockdown? Who would tell people they must wear masks or get vaccinations? 

Oh, I see—forget about public health. In this life, you’re on your own.

Dinner: spaghetti bolognese and a green salad.

Entertainment: Another episode of season three of Scandi thriller The Bridge.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 264

Saturday, May 14

More startling developments of the past few years have come to light. Here are some that should have been on my recent list: 

*During 2020, gun deaths in the U.S. rose to the highest number ever recorded, more than 45,000. This resulted in part from a pandemic-paranoia-inspired gun-buying spree. The homicide rate was  the highest since 1994, but half of all deaths were suicides. Black men ages 15 to 34 accounted for 38% of all gun homicide victims in 2020, even though this group represented just 2% of the U.S. population.

*After a 30% increase in drug-overdose deaths during 2020, the rise continued with overdose deaths rising another 15% in 2021. A growing share of deaths involve fentanyl, a class of potent synthetic opioids that are often mixed with other drugs, and methamphetamine, a synthetic stimulant. 

*On May 12, 2022 Biden announced that the COVID death total in the U.S. had reached one million.

*The first image of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy has been exhibited by the Event Horizon Telescope, an international scientific collaboration.

In personal—and much less galactic—news, we have purchased the 2019 Subaru Outback that we have leased for the past three years. This especially makes sense as we have driven it so little over the period of the pandemic—our odometer shows a bit over 12,000 miles. Kelley Blue Book online shows similar cars selling for around $32,000. If so, ours has barely depreciated, $34,343 being the value at the time of the lease in May of 2019. And all told, we paid a lot less than either figure.

I have been reading the literary novel/high-grade science fiction work Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The central development of the book is a global pandemic that wipes out 99% of humanity. The author caught a wave, as she published the book in 2014, just ahead of the real-world pandemic. Reading the book is a weird experience: The events it describes are much more dire than those we have undergone. But you can easily imagine that things might have turned out something like they do in Station Eleven–or that an even more severe, coming pandemic could have some of the characteristics Mandel describes.

Large cities have been mostly abandoned. Small bands of human survivors live in former suburban fast-food joints and abandoned airports. People break into a Chili’s to scavenge food; otherwise they eat deer or other slain animals. The highways are clotted with abandoned cars, some containing dead victims of the plague. There is no gasoline, no transport at all, and no electricity. Small bands of whacked-out youth, often led by Manson-like “prophets,” roam the countryside, seeking people and things to exploit. Everyone carries weapons.

It’s all horrifying—and spellbinding.

Dinner: Szechuan eggplant and fresh asparagus.

Entertainment: a re-watch of season two of the hugely popular Scandi noir, The Bridge (2012).

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 263

“Chess, anyone?”

Sunday, May 8

We seem to be in the middle of another tidal wave of disasters. The jaw-droppingly bad happenings come so thick and fast that you can’t absorb one before another hits. If you thought the Russian invasion of Ukraine was bad, just wait—here comes the U.S. Supreme Court to drop its own bunker-buster on women and the prospect of a rational society!

After a recent conversation in which I tried just to list a few events, I realized my recollection of all that has befallen us in the past two-and-a-half years was slipping: Which came first— Trump’s pro-hydroxychloroquine spiel or the killing of George Floyd?

To put it all in order, I spent some time compiling a timeline of jaw-droppers, beginning with the January, 2020 Chicago police murder of Tyree Davis and the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan—and ending with the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft reversal of the 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade. Along the way, there were some interesting juxtapositions. Consider: 

During the first eight months of 2020, U.S. police murdered 164 Black youths. Meanwhile, a pandemic emerged that racked up 2 million recorded deaths worldwide; Donald Trump was acquitted in his first (!) impeachment trial thanks to solid Republican votes; mass shootings took place in Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; a volcano erupted in Taal, Philippines that forced 225,000 people to evacuate; Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual abuse; wildfires burned millions of acres from California to Washington State; and Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, soon to be replaced by Catholic fundamentalist Amy Coney Barrett.

Might as well curse God and die, did you say?

Hold on. 

In January of 2021, as Congress was about to certify the results of the national election that made Joe Biden president, a Trump riot in the Capitol sought to gum up the electoral works. Orange Man regularly declared the election results a fraud, having tried to get several states to reverse their electoral votes. Five people died in the D.C. riot–but shortly thereafter the Senate declined to find Trump guilty of “insurrection.”

All the same, by August, 90% of seniors had received COVID vaccinations—despite rampant denialism and flagrant resistance even to mask-wearing, particularly in certain “red” states.

But it was no time for rejoicing. New COVID variants continued to appear. And shortly after the turn of the year 2022, Russia began an all-out invasion of Ukraine. Then came the Supreme Court bombshell.

War, pestilence, death, and famine—the last of these soon to be upon much of the world thanks to the Ukraine/Russia disruption of agriculture and trade. The Four Horsemen ride on.

Dinner: shakshuka with feta cheese and a green salad.

Entertainment: Jazz-lounge melodrama The Man I Love (1946) with Ida Lupino.


Jan 4, 2020 Chicago police shoot and kill 25-year-old Tyree Davis, the first of 164 Blacks to be slain by cops in the first eight months of the year.

January 8 In a random, ambush-style shooting in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, two people are killed, two wounded.

January 9 Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan China

January 12 A volcano erupts at Taal, Philippines, with a 500-meter-tall lava fountain spreading heavy ash across the landscape, 225,000 people evacuating, and Manila air traffic halted.

January 21 1st U.S. Covid case reported; Wuhan quarantine (on 23rd).

February 5 In impeachment trial, Senate acquits Trump.

February 23 Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old jogger, is pursued through suburban Georgia by three whites in pickups who surround and murder him.

February 24 Harvey Weinstein convicted of rape, sexual abuse.

February 26 Five people are shot dead by a former employee at a Molson Coors plant in Milwaukee. The gunman then commits suicide.

March 9 Stock market crashes due to pandemic.

March 13 Louisville, KY, police shoot and kill 26-year-old Breonna Taylor after entering her home “searching for illegal drugs.”

March 13 US health emergency declared by Trump; billions in funding unlocked.

March 19 California issues mandatory stay-at-home order.

April 8 Trump promotes malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as Covid cure.

May 21 U.S. and AstraZeneca to speed vaccine development.

May 25 George Floyd, 46, killed by Minneapolis police who kneel on his neck, arresting him over a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd is filmed repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” Nationwide Black Lives Matter protests follow his death, and hundreds of buildings including the Minneapolis police station are burned. There’s a nightly curfew in New York City. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter.

May 28 US COVID-19 deaths pass 100,000.

June 10 Confirmed cases of COVID-19 at 2 million globally.

June 12 Rayshard Brooks, 27, killed by Atlanta police who find him asleep in a drive-through lane at a Wendy’s restaurant.

June Seattle police and BLM protesters in a week of standoffs.

July Portland, OR, protests escalate. Disguised federal agents participate in crackdown.

August 9 In a block-party shooting in Washington, D.C., A 17- year-old boy is killed and 21 others injured.

August 18 Democrats nominate Biden for President.

August Wildfires burn millions of acres from California to Washington State. Hurricane Henri threatens East Coast.

August 11 Trump administration reportedly agrees to pay $1.5 billion to Moderna for 100 million doses of its vaccine candidate; COVID becomes 3rd leading cause of U.S. deaths behind heart disease and cancer.

August 23 Jacob Blake, 29, shot in back by Kenosha, WI, police. Mass protests ensue, during which White militant Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with an assault rifle, kills two people.

September Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies, Trump nominates Court of Appeals judge Amy Coney Barrett as replacement; Hurricane Ida flooding in NYC

October 2 Trump (hospitalized) and wife test positive for COVID.

October 19 Global cases of coronavirus top 40 million.

October 26 Philadelphia police shoot and kill Walter Wallace, 27.

November 18 A 44,000-person trial shows that the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is 95% effective.

December First US vaccinations against Covid; Congress passes $2.3 trillion Covid-19 relief bill that includes $600 checks for all; at year’s end 2.8 million in US have been vaccinated.

January 6, 2021 Trump tries to block election certification by Congress. During riot by Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., four people die of medical emergencies; Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt fatally shot by police officer inside Capitol building

January 13 Trump impeached for second time over “incitement of insurrection.” 57 senators vote “guilty,” less than the two-thirds majority needed to convict, and 43 senators vote “not guilty,” resulting in Trump being acquitted of the impeachment charges on February 13.

March 11 President Biden signs $1.9 trillion economic relief bill.

March Delta variant of Covid arrives in US and quickly becomes dominant variant.

March 18 A gunman kills eight people at three Atlanta spas, including six Asian women.

March 22 A gunman kills 10 inside a Boulder, Colorado grocery.

April 11 Policeman shoots and kills Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, MN.

April 15 A gunman kills eight people in a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis.

August, 2021 70% of US citizens have at least one vaccination, including 90% of seniors; CDC recommends 3rd or “booster” shot for immunocompromised.

September 9 Biden announces all companies with over 100 employees must mandate COVID-19 vaccinations.

November Satellite imagery shows a buildup of Russian troops on the Ukraine border, stoking fears of a possible invasion. Over the previous six years, Russia has seized Crimea from Ukraine and pro-Russian separatist militants have taken control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

November 19 At homicide trial, Kyle Rittenhouse is found not guilty of all charges.

November 25 Omicron variant emerges in South Africa.

November 30 A shooter kills four at a suburban Detroit high school, the deadliest school shooting of the year.

December 2 First U.S. case of Omicron variant

December 14 U.S. death toll stands at around 800,000 compared with 300,000 of previous December.

January 7, 2022 Arbery killers the McMichaels and Bryan are sentenced to life imprisonment.

February 24 In the largest military operation since World War II, Russia invades Ukraine with as many as 200,000 troops. Kharkiv, Kyiv and other cities are bombed. Western nations impose major sanctions on Russia, block oil and gas exports.

April 26 The CDC lists COVID “variants of concern,” including Omicron B.1.1.529, BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2, BA.3, BA.4 and BA.5

May 3 Leak of U.S. Supreme Court draft ruling overturning abortion-rights landmark case Roe vs. Wade. A reversal, which could come in late June, would overturn a near 50- year precedent.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 262

Way out west…in another lifetime.

Monday, April 25

Hanging around this house like some aging truant has been a dog-eared copy of Wallace Stegner’s once-celebrated novel Angle of Repose. I’m reading it now. A tale of surprising people who reluctantly made their home in the wild American west, the novel won a Pulitzer in 1972—and immediately became the subject of controversy. 

Was the novel mediocre as some charged or, worst of all, middlebrow—unworthy of high honors? Some of its characters are renamed and fictionalized versions of true-life people. Did Stegner’s use of the real person’s actual words—Wikipedia says “the novel is directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West”—represent plagiarism…or an infringement on History?

Food for thought…maybe. In fact, lots of novels have trod on similar ground. Two that randomly come to mind are Don DeLillo’s 1988 Libra, which unhesitatingly dug around in the life of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; and Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America, which offered an alternative past in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindberg ran against and defeated President Franklin Roosevelt. Did these novels not commit unpardonable sins—and pander to the kind of people who find actual history books boring?

(Roth attached a “true chronology of major figures” as a postscript to his alternate history lest any reader get carried away into fantasyland. QAnon is far from the only evidence that many citizens of our age are drawn toward Pizzagate delusions.)

However, rather than distorting the past in the manner of many cowboy movies or openly mythologizing it as in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Stegner’s tale often works as a corrective to wide-eyed, heroic cowboys-vs.-Indians stories. The West, he tells us, was exploited and “developed” by the same sort of people who are today destroying the Amazon rain forest and leaning on workers from the corner Starbucks to sweatshops in Southeast Asia. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but many people would prefer a different version of the Old West.

One of Stegner’s main characters, Oliver Ward, works as a mining engineer in an 1870s California mining camp, where his wife Susan joins him. For a time, his life seems pleasant and productive. Then Susan realizes that he has been concealing from her the true sentiment among the camp’s workers. “The whole place is wormy with fear and hate,” he at last reveals, adding that the manager’s “way of handling that is to fire anybody who opens his mouth or gets the slightest out of line,” including one 14-year veteran discharged for breaking the rule that all purchases must be made at the company store. The man is fired and blacklisted—as are any others who would stand up for him.

Such company-town life was all too common in the U.S.A.—in fact, it IS common in the contemporary United States. You can say or do whatever you like—just not on company time. Just wait until self-described “free-speech absolutist” Elon Musk takes over Twitter. The Trumpist berserkers will have a field day, but truly interesting commentators on such subjects as Russian aggression in Ukraine, or on Musk himself, will find little place for expression.

Dinner: stuffed bell peppers, made in an instant via our new Instant Pot.

Entertainment: Having just watched the fascinating Kurosawa revenge flick The Bad Sleep Well, we will likely see another Japanese flick, Stray Dog.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 261

Words of local wisdom.

Tuesday, April 12

Just over two years ago, I amped up this blog so that it became a journal of daily life and current events under the then-new Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. 

At that point, then-President Trump was denying the seriousness of the infection, there were a mere 2,100 deaths across the U.S. and 124,000 infected, with one-third of the deaths happening in New York City. 

The Times had begun a special obits section devoted to Covid victims, it was difficult to get face masks and toilet paper, and it would be almost a year before any vaccinations took place.

As of today, 984,000 Americans have died.

And nowadays, many people are tentatively welcoming the return of “normal,” as the daily average number of new cases hovers around 30,000.  And yet…coronavirus cases are ticking back up. One month after lifting an indoor mask mandate, Philadelphia has reinstated it.  In New York City, masks are not required in schools—but they are mandatory on mass transit and in hospitals.

I got my second booster shot—in other words, four total vaccination shots—on Friday (April 8). Unlike the panicky crush of two years back, this was no trouble: I made an online appointment at CVS pharmacy, reported on time, and was injected and on my way within 20 minutes.

I even got us a resupply of toilet paper while there. 

TP, plus two bars of health-giving Ghiradelli “intense dark” sea salt and almond chocolate. And three, free N-95 masks, which, I was surprised to note, seem a bit like the things you see construction workers wearing.

It was warm-ish last Friday, with temps around 60 degrees. Right now, the skies have cleared and it’s 54 degrees in East Hampton.

Dinner fixin’s.

Dinner: garlicky Cuban pork, marinated with orange juice, lime, olive oil, brown sugar, and oregano and cooked in the Instant Pot.

Entertainment: more movies by Hong Kong phenom Wong Kar Wai? In recent days we’ve seen the puzzling Chungking Express, the goofy-violent As Tears Go By, and the magnificent In the Mood for Love. There’s a prequel to the last of these,  Days of Being Wild, so we may watch that—or maybe it’s time to move on to other stuff.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 260

Friday, April 1

Two days ago, there was snow. Last night, pelting rain and frightening, moaning wind. This morning, April Fool’s Day, I was awakened by bright sunshine—but by noon, that’s all gone with clouds covering the sky. Still, the weatherman says it’s a bit warmer, at 51 degrees. It’s supposed to stay in the upper 40s to low 50s for a few days.

The news from Ukraine is still depressing, and the direction the war is taking is unclear. The Russians say they are now focusing on the eastern part of the country—but there are reports of continued conflict near Kyiv. The New Yorker correspondent Masha Gessen says not to believe anything Putin says, while a supposedly believable Russian poll suggests that the Fearless Leader is widely believed in his own country. Putin has seldom been more popular among the Russian people.

We worry about the war and about gerrymandering. The tales of Polish people taking Ukrainian refugees into their homes are inspiring–but could I stand to be so generous? I recently dreamed that I was staying at someone’s house. I was sooo grateful that they’d taken me in. Then I was told that I should be out of the house by 10 a.m.

Otherwise, we’re still focused on food. A new Instant Pot allowed me to make ropa vieja in under an hour and the ordinarily long-cooking wheat berries in around 25 minutes. I plan to make some grain bowls, using the wheat berries, wild rice, quinoa, and a variety of nuts and raw veggies. But tonight, we will have an Amy’s pizza as well.

Entertainment: after binging on Patricia Highsmith (The Cry of the Owl, The Two Faces of January, and more) I have turned to Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place. Sad to say, it’s similar but an inadequate substitute. We’re still viewing a lot of streaming video from The Criterion Channel: Last night, we saw the Alfred Hitchcock silent The Lodger (with Ivor Novello) and David Lean’s 1950 courtroom drama Madeleine. Tonight, perhaps, Marcel Carne’s Hotel du Nord.

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.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 256

Too hip to last.

Sunday, February 27

On a metal fence that runs along the Bowery between 4th and 5th Streets, there is a sign reading “The Hippest Place on Earth.” Nothing looks very hip: the fence borders a nondescript, even ugly, urban-renewal-era apartment building. But the reference is to the Five Spot Jazz Club, which stood there between 1956 and 1962.

This was the place where pathbreaking composer and pianist Thelonious Monk played two extended bookings in 1957 and 1958. The following year, the legendary free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman appeared with his group that included Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden. (One member of the fascinated crowd: Leonard Bernstein.)

Also not far away on Bowery: the site of the Tin Palace, a jazz club where many top-flight musicians (David Murray, James Blood Ulmer) of the 1970s appeared; and CBGB, a punk-rock club famous for its exceptional grime and as a venue for the likes of Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Blondie.

All over lower Manhattan there are ghosts of once-vital music venues. On 14th Street near Third Avenue today stands a New York University dormitory called Palladium. That’s on the spot where there was once a large music hall of the same name. Before that, the building was known as The Academy of Music, which became an important hot-spot for Latin jazz and dance bands.

Across 14th was Max’s Kansas City, located first on Park Avenue South and, in a later incarnation, on Third Avenue. The first of these was a hangout for the Andy Warhol crowd, while the second was, like CBGBs, a punk-rock venue where Debbie Harry once worked as a waitress.

And on East 11th Street there’s Webster Hall, which was briefly known as The Ritz during the 1980s. Built in 1886, it was at one point a meeting place for leftist and anarchist gatherings before becoming, in the 1910s, a locus for bohemian masquerade balls that drew the likes of Marcel Duchamp and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Today, it’s a large rock music club.

I look forward to going to hear live music again…someday.

I wandered past several of these places on Tuesday as I strolled down to the sporty clothing store REI, which is located in the Puck Building south of Houston. They didn’t have the socks I wanted but at least I got a chance to survey and photo a lot of previously unseen murals now gracing the walls of downtown buildings.

Dinner: beef stew and a green salad.

Entertainment: Harold Lloyd silent shorts and episodes of the Scandi thriller Conspiracy of Silence from streaming service Topic.