A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 148

Our second-greatest president in Union Square.

Tuesday, September 15

Panic—mad panic—is striking the small businesspeople of America.

At least those that have not yet been driven out of business. They can see the possible end of everything and are lashing out. 

Two examples: Yesterday while I was doing the laundry in the basement of our Manhattan apartment building, I was approached by the superintendent, who demanded that I allow him to paint our apartment.

Now it happens that he is not only the super, he also runs a painting and apartment-refurbishing business. He handles these chores for our building with the knowledge and approval of the building management.

Anyway, our apartment WAS repainted—most of it in any case—only two or three years back. They didn’t do the kitchen or the small bedroom that we use as a study. Why, I couldn’t say. Now, I think, that’s what he wants to do.

We haven’t prevented his workers from doing this painting. But he seemed to think we have, and he was furious. 

I didn’t say, but—you want to do painting in the middle of a pandemic lockdown?!? You want to send a crew of painters into our apartment—even as the building elevators instruct that no more than two passengers are allowed per car!?

I put him off, but I expect I will hear more in days to come.

Next case: I received a very pointed letter from my dentist, who after all is a small businessman, with all the overhead and personnel burdens of any other small purveyor of services. (Not long ago, he told me that his office rent was $15,000 per month! Back in the 1980s, when the Union Square area was regarded as squalid and crime-ridden, he paid only a few hundred per month.)

This unhappy and angry note said that it had been over a year since my last examination and cleaning. That he had “tried to reach you both by telephone and numerous recall reminders without success,” and threatened to “remove your name and address from our active patient files.”

Huh? Wasn’t their office, like most others, closed for several months due to COVID-19? Moreover, I telephoned THEM from East Hampton only a couple of weeks ago and was told that they were booked up for the foreseeable future and could only take me if they had a cancellation. I told them that I would be back in Manhattan during the first two weeks of September—but no go, they had no openings.

Now, it seems time rests heavily on their hands.

I immediately telephoned and, ready to make an abject apology if need be, I made an appointment with the hygienist for this afternoon.

What will the atmosphere in their office be like? Will they be giving out extra doses of novocaine—or maybe extra doses of pain, a la the dentist in Marathon Man?

Dinner: Shakshuka with feta, crumpets, and a lettuce, cucumber, and tomato salad.

Entertainment: an episode from season three of Hinterland on Netflix, plus one episode of Britbox’ new sad-sack comedy Don’t Forget the Driver.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 147

Mask-wearing instructions in the subway.

Monday, September 14

After doing a load of laundry, I wandered around our East Village neighborhood a little more. Veselka, the 2nd Ave. coffee shop and home of legendary Ukranian borscht and pierogis, is still open, as is Porto Rico Importing Co. on St. Mark’s Place, where I picked up a pound of Italian espresso ground for a French press. Westside Market, improbably located on the East Side at 3rd Ave. and 12th St., is apparently thriving—and soon to become the third busiest market in the area as the Food Emporium is soon to close.

But the string of small Asian restaurants along that same stretch of Third Avenue seems doomed. They were never very bustling. Lots of other storefronts are abandoned and empty. I cannot even remember what was once there.

I went into H Mart, the Asian “convenient store,” as its sign once proclaimed. There were plenty of customers there, buying both prepared food and hard-to-find Asian ingredients.

I did the latter. The Times has an increasing number of Korean recipes, calling for Gochujang hot pepper paste among other things. I’ve never had it, so far as I know, but I will now. The 17.7 oz. container that I picked up says it contains wheat flour, corn syrup, hot pepper powder, distilled alcohol, defatted soybean powder, and more. Will it taste very different from Sriracha? More umami, perhaps? We’ll see.

I’m reading a book I’ve apparently neglected, Vertigo, by one of my favorite writers, W.G. Sebald. The cover says it was his first novel and that it concerns a trip across Europe described by an unnamed narrator. That person tells of his time in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, and a small Bavarian village. Sebald’s usual concerns—memory, the past, mystifying encounters, lethargy—are all here. Don’t those seem like appropriate preoccupations for the lockdown?

Early on, during his sojourn in Venice, Sebald displays the insight that had me nodding in understanding:

“As you enter into the heart of that city, you cannot tell what you will see next or indeed who will see you the very next moment. Scarcely has someone made an appearance than he has quit the stage again by another exit….If you walk behind someone in a deserted alleyway, you have only to quicken your step slightly to instill a little fear into the person you are following. And equally, you can feel like a quarry yourself. Confusion and ice-cold terror alternate.”

Yes, these are the very sensations that lie beneath the surface of the Venice-based Daphne du Maurier story “Don’t Look Now,” made into a haunting movie by Nicolas Roeg.

The shade of Franz Kafka makes repeated appearances in Sebald’s account—once during an imagined trip of his from Prague to Riva, and again in the form of two twin boys who enter the narrator’s train, looking exactly like the famed writer. They have “the same dark eyes and thick brows, the same large and unequal ears, with the lobes growing into the skin of the neck.” Did Kafka really go to the movies? Might he have seen an early Tom Mix western?

The 15th is tax day, the deadline for submission of quarterly estimated IRS payments. What else? Oh, I have a dentist appointment!

Dinner: cold cucumber soup, hot dogs with sauerkraut, baked potatoes.

Entertainment: The season two finale of the Wales-based policier Hinterland on Netflix, plus another episode of Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 146

The fire this time.

Thursday, September 10

We sit on the shore and wait for the wind, in the words of an old Russian proverb.

Back here, things sputter along. I have attended my final doctor’s appointment, this time with a neurologist. Like my other doctor appointments, it was uneventful. Not even a letting of blood.

Afterwards, I again went to the Union Square greenmarket, getting onions, tomatoes, apples, peaches, and a cucumber.

Emily has made an appointment with Geek Squad, the computer fixit folks at Best Buy, to see if her Android phone has a virus. For some reason lost to the distant past, her account there is in my name, so I’ll go along and bring my credit card just in case.

Tonight’s dinner: chicken paprikash again, ziti, sour cream, and a lettuce salad.

Entertainment: An episode of the Wales-based policier Hinterland on Netflix, plus another episode of Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 145

An empty storefront on once-busy Fourth Avenue in Manhattan.

Wednesday, September 9

Seven of the many fast-casual food joints on the 4th Avenue strip between 14th St. and Astor Place appear to have closed for good. This includes some that always seemed to be doing well, drawing on the rush-hour homeward-bound foot traffic from the Union Square subway. Both the popular Poke Spot and Liquiteria are kaput. Two others—Dos Toros and Cava—still show signs of life, as do two coffee places, Think Coffee and Le Cafe.

Chains seem particularly vulnerable to the lockdown’s economic wallop. Does their vulnerability have to do with impatient Wall Street financing? With central planning that makes macro judgments affecting multiple locations at one fell swoop?

Two highly popular Asian places down near Astor Place are closed but maybe not for good. These are Dim Sum hotspot Tim Ho Wan and always-jammed Japanese ramen joint Ippudo. Maybe both will reopen—who can say? (New York State’s prohibition on indoor dining is set to end on September 30–but restaurants will be allowed to utilize only 25% of their capacity.)

This morning I took my “Economic Impact Payment Card” down to the bank and withdrew $300 from my CARES Act allotment. Almost too easy: “This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”

I also went to Trader Joe’s for some provisions. I used to go there every week, but this was the first time since we’ve been back in the city. I was worried that the store would be dangerously crowded. Instead, there was almost no one there. So I stocked up on their quality nuts, Irish oatmeal, dried fruit, and a few veggies.

Yesterday as ordered, I gave this website a PHP upgrade, which web host Media Temple says is supposed to make everything run better. Instead, the older posts became inaccessible. So I got back in touch with Media Temple to try to straighten it out. In the end, I was again left on my own. The only fix for the problem seemed to involve a redesign of the pages–a new “theme,” as WordPress calls it. So now everything looks different–a new page layout, new typeface, etc. I may change it all yet again.

Dinner: lentil soup with hotdogs and a lettuce salad with grape tomatoes, apple, and cucumber.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Danish political drama Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 142

A croissant shortage in Columbus Circle?

Friday, September 4

Today, I went to my regular doctor for an annual physical and a flu shot. My health seems to be fine.

I arrived a bit early, so I wandered around the Columbus Circle area a bit. At the vast Time Warner Center, all of the luxury Shops at Columbus Circle—H&M, Hugo Boss, Tumi, Michael Kors, etc.—remain closed, with the exception of the large Whole Foods in the basement. I thought things were reopening; guess not.

There are no signs of serious devastation in this area. No evidence of looting or gutted buildings. Everything looks pretty spic ’n’ span—just deserted.

Not long back there were several busy upscale patisseries—Maison Kayser and the like—along Broadway as you approached Columbus Circle. These are now shuttered, providing shelter only for the homeless.

My GP refused to speculate about when a Covid-19 vaccine might be available. He told me that his office was closed for several months and only recently reopened. In the interim, he put in some time doing pandemic duty at a hospital, which sounded pretty awful. Now, he comes into the office three days a week, with another day spent at a separate office.

Looking at my fellow passengers on the Q train and at pedestrians on the street, I would guess that at least 30% had their masks pulled down below their noses. That’s not effective, but I guess people are tired of being responsible.

Once again, the subway trains seem quite clean, uncrowded, and very speedy.

Dinner: chilled cucumber soup, grilled hot dogs, and baked potatoes with sour cream.

Entertainment: Netflix’ Young Wallander, a Swedish crime drama.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 137

GOP Convention delegate Kim Jong-un.

Wednesday, August 26

Perfect weather for our Peapod delivery today—a high of 75F and a predicted low tonight of 61. From the preliminary list they sent out, it seems Peapod may actually deliver everything we’ve ordered. On top of that, this morning I received an electronic prompt that enabled me to make an appointment with my regular doctor for the end of next week—something his office has refused to arrange for almost a month, saying that they hadn’t yet “posted” anyone’s schedule for September. (A suggested slogan for that office: “All the bureaucratic drawbacks of the U.K.’s national health care and none of the advantages!”)

Between us, we have scheduled eight appointments with doctors and others, beginning on August 31 and running through September 11. Even if all of these appointments take place with no unexpected negative consequences, we’re wondering if we should stay in the city beyond two weeks—allowing ourselves some time there in self-imposed quarantine. If either of us contracts COVID while there, it might be better to stay in close range of NYC doctors. So maybe we will be there for three weeks; it all requires some pondering.

We’ll carry some foodstuffs back with us, but that won’t last us long. So, having come to accept the Peapod-plus-Damark food supply, we’ll have to discover another provider, as I said in the previous post. 

Trump must be finding his virtual GOP convention very frustrating. It’s getting even lower TV ratings than did the Dems. The performances apparently vary wildly—I’m amazed that anyone can stand to watch. There are the expected over-the-top paroxysms (Kimberly Guilfoyle), the likely illegal bits (Mike Pompeo’s appearance from Israel, MAGA man’s use of the pardon as a political prop), and the cringe-making skits worthy of TV sitcoms (anything involving Melania or Tiffany). They need something to juice up the proceedings: maybe surprise guest appearances from a bare-breasted Vlad Putin or from Kim Jong-un? Or Trump could just fire somebody on camera.

Dinner: ziti with roasted red peppers and feta cheese, lettuce and tomato salad.

Entertainment:  Britbox’ Wild Bill.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 129

Monday, August 10

Yesterday, my birthday, had its ups and downs. On the positive side, Emily gave me another haircut, so my bangs wouldn’t keep falling into my eyes. I cut my toenails. And we had a nice outing to the pond across from the Springs General Store, an area that was off-limits for some months but now seems to have reopened. There’s a wooden footbridge across the pond—it’s really more like a little stream at some points—where you can sit and watch the wild ducks frolic in the water.

The downside was plenty no-good: Emily placed an online food order to an Italian sandwich place, Villa’s. She ordered the Italian cold-cut sandwich that’s known as a Villa Combo, a pear salad, and two cannoli, all to be ready at 5:30 p.m. We received three—three!—e-mail confirmations of our order. But when we went to the place, the one person working at the counter said there was no such order. He kept showing me his tablet computer, inviting me to find my name and my order on it—otherwise, there was no order. Maybe we placed it at some other restaurant.

I gave up for a while and went outside to fume. Then I went back in and told him that we’d had three confirmations of the order. Again, he produced this tablet…and while I stood there, his lone coworker quietly slipped a tinfoil-wrapped submarine sandwich in front of him. The attached receipt showed our entire order. He got the salad and invited me to go to the refrigerated case across the store and get my own cannoli. 

Under non-COVID conditions, this would be just another minor headache. But it’s a smallish store, increasingly filled with other customers and there’s no social distancing. Placing the order on the internet and paying in advance was intended to avoid just this sort of situation.

On other fronts, I’m still spending hours on the phone attempting to get Optimum/Altice to restore our Internet connection. We enjoyed it for all of a week—then suddenly, it went kerflooey. I called the company yesterday and a know-nothing rep said there were outages on “our block, New Jersey, and the Bronx.” As if these places were right next to one another. Today’s rep—the second one of the day, I should add, as I was cut off by the first one—seems more together, but he still has to stick to the program. He had me reboot the modem and then, in response to my insistent demands, he offered to send someone out to look at our connection on Wednesday, August 19. (Today is the 10th.) 

I insisted that, as a new customer who has had a terrible experience so far, they should really send someone today. I just think they have never established a good cable connection and show few signs of doing so. There’s supposed to be a cable running from our house, then underground and under the street, over to where it connects to some device on the other side of Sycamore Drive. Instead, we have an above-ground cable, tacked up to a tree and running over the street at higher-than-truck level, then down another tree and finally connecting to their box. 

Back to the phone rep. As he was “looking for an alternative” time for a rep to come, he cut me off again. In all, he cut me off three times.

That’s where it stands at 9:30 a.m. I first telephoned them at 7:50.

Trying to put together an overall analysis of what’s going on, I’m tempted to say it’s just all my fault. But I think there’s an element of these companies attempting to use technology to lessen the need for actual human labor—and time and again, that doesn’t work out. The low-wage folks who must fill the sandwich orders or make appointments for Internet techies are overwhelmed. 

Tomorrow morning I have a scheduled video conference with an NYU neurologist. Absent an internet connection, of course, that won’t work. So I called NYU to say that a mere, old-fashioned telephone conference would, I’m sure, be fine. I explained my no-tech situation. And the appointment clerk immediately asked, “do you have a WI-FI connection?” 

You can’t win. She was probably multitasking—or on TikTok.

Dinner: leftover Villa’ Combo sandwich, potato salad, and a green salad.

Entertainment: If the Verizon mobile hot-spot will work, we might view the final episodes of Netflix’ Belgian thriller The Break.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 128

Nap time? Midday rest periods may be natural.

Friday, August 7

My father always took a post-lunch nap. This seemed peculiar, even quaint to me—something old people did, though he was hardly old. Or maybe it was a holdover from a more-rural society. I didn’t know. 

He would come home from work for a quick and simple lunch, then a half-hour nap. I couldn’t do it. I asked him: How do you fall asleep? He said I should just lie really, really still and I’d drift off. But I couldn’t—even in early grades at school, when you were told to bring in a little mat from home and nap time was a regular part of the school day.

Now, the pandemic lockdown with its erasure of all meaningful tasks is encouraging me to reconsider. A post-lunch nap now seems eminently sensible—and what else is there to do anyway?

A little online research suggests that our current sleep patterns are very much a product of history. The ancients apparently practiced “biphasic sleep”—two periods of sleep with a spell of alertness in between. During the middle-of-the-night period of wakefulness, the ancients attended prayers, had sex, maybe did a few chores, and so forth. But, of course, the absence of much light placed a limit on activity.

The advent of the industrial revolution required workers to keep to a regular and often grueling schedule. Up with the 5 a.m. factory bells, labor for a 12-hour day, then off to home and early bed so you’d be ready for another day. 

Better lighting of streets and residences made longer periods of wakefulness possible. By the end of the 1600s, fifty of Europe’s major cities had candle or oil street lighting, and electric street lighting came to many cities in the late 1800s. (Manhattan had electrical “arc” lighting on its streets by the 1870s, and electrical systems in private houses appeared there in the 1880s, first in the domicile of banker J.P. Morgan.) By the 1920s, doctors were discouraging a biphasic sleep schedule, instead favoring a single eight-hour period of rest. But in Latin America and parts of Europe, biphasic schedules with a built-in post-lunch siesta, are still common.

Apparently, if people aren’t compelled to do otherwise, they gravitate to the two-period sleep pattern.

According to the BBC, in the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr subjected a group of subjects to a daily 14-hour dose of darkness. By the fourth week of the experiment, a distinct sleeping pattern emerged, during which the subjects would doze for four hours, then wake for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep period.

The seasonal variation of sunlight surely has a lot to do with sleep patterns as well. And then there is noise: There’s really no cessation of noise in New York City, with garbage trucks, sirens, and pneumatic drillers liable to punch holes in any sleeper’s schedule. So when we go back to the city in September, we’ll have to revise our sleep patterns all over again. 

Dinner: chicken paprikash, noodles, and a green salad with avocado.

Entertainment: Netflix’ offbeat Belgian crime drama The Break (La Treve)

A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 127

Sweet potato pie.

Tuesday, August 4

A spate of newspaper downsizings and closings has prompted lamentations from that bit of the press that is still standing.

The pandemic’s hit to newspaper ad sales, media giants’ takeovers, and industry consolidation have definitely led to a diminution of information about what’s going on in small-town and rural America. These may even represent a threat to democracy.

But not to get too carried away, the focus of many now-defunct newspapers was often not very profound. The Memphis Press-Scimitar, the afternoon paper that I have been writing about, was frequently viewed as a “scandal sheet” that gave exaggerated emphasis to the gaudy and sensational. Commercial pressures, a lack of resources, and the prevailing conventional wisdom stood in the way of better journalism.

Still, it was a journalism that some observers of American folkways would likely have found intriguing. It responded to the everyday concerns of the citizenry—especially when these concerns weren’t particularly weighty.

It was not unusual for a few of these citizens to show up each day at the entranceway to the Press-Scimitar’s large, open-space newsroom. And often, they’d come with stuff to show and tell—particularly, oddly shaped fruits and vegetables.

This was the oddball focus of one columnist in particular. It was a rare week that didn’t see a column by this writer accompanied by a photo of a weird veggie: a summer squash that happened to resemble Abraham Lincoln, say, or maybe a tomato that bore some resemblance to a mallard duck. The photo and profile of the vegetable would, of course, allow the writer to elaborate a bit about the life and times of the people who’d sired the veggie. What did they think of this and that? 

Other inevitable fodder for stories included society fetes at the antebellum mansions of one or another grande dame; whatever-happened-to profiles of schoolboy athletes of years gone by; and reports on the current doings of famous Memphians including golf pro Carey Middlecoff and Metropolitan Opera diva Marguerite Piazza.

Memphis was just an overgrown country town, many of its citizens said proudly. Why, it was a town that had more churches than gas stations!

For a while Memphis aspired to rival big-city Atlanta. But when financial pressures prompted the Memphis government to consider shutting down its bus lines, you’d start to hear: Well, Birmingham, Alabama did that and got along just fine. So which was Memphis to be: Mid-America’s big new city—or a nowhere-ville that envied a place where Black churches got bombed by the KKK?

The Press-Scimitar closed in the 1980s—a decade that was hard on such late-in-the-day publications.

Between the growth of the suburbs, where delivery was more difficult, and the rising popularity of television news, there seemed to be little future for an afternoon newspaper in the view of The Press-Scimitar’s parent company, Scripps-Howard. The paper’s best decades had been the 1930s and ‘40s, when it sided with the uprising against Memphis’ political boss E.H. Crump and helped get Estes Kefauver elected to the U.S. Senate.

By the 1980s, though, both Crump and the newspaper’s crusading history were very distant memories.

Dinner: Pasta with asparagus pesto and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: concluding episodes of Britbox’ policier River.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 124

Life amid the ruins. Photo: Artnet.com

Friday, July 31

It’s beginning to feel like autumn already.

Emily is scheduling medical appointments back in the city for the end of August and the second week of September. I don’t want her to face it all on her own, so I’ll go along. Maybe I should make medical appointments for that time period as well, maybe even get a haircut. It’ll be weird to be back in Gotham, to see the ruins of civilization as it were. I’ll certainly take my camera and get lots of photos.

Once those missions have been accomplished, should we turn around and come back to East Hampton? We could collect a bunch of stuff we have missed—from clothes to kitchen implements, spices, and music CDs. Are we imagining spending the winter out here? Down coats? Winter boots?

Suddenly, those news stories about New York City under the pandemic are much more compelling. 

As that time approaches, we’ll have to do some investigation. What’s it like in our building? Is our apartment habitable?

Dinner: hot dogs with sauerkraut and leftover pasta salad.

Entertainment: the amnesia drama Tabula Rasa on Netflix and one episode of Britbox’ River. Both shows have emotionally damaged protagonists, and both are superior to much of the stuff we have been watching.