The need for strength and refusal of misplaced tolerance

A few years ago, I was crossing Madison Avenue at 23rd Street in Manhattan and had the ‘Walk’ signal. A car made an illegal left turn from 23rd Street onto Madison, coming inches from people who had the right of way in the crosswalk, and the driver had the chutzpah to honk his horn at the pedestrians he was nearly running over. I gave his car a nice kick as he passed only a few feet away from me, and the car stopped a few yards away. I stopped to see if the driver wanted any more deserved kicks, and he drove away.

The gall of this driver, to honk his horn at those whose lives he was endangering with his blatant lawbreaking, comes to mind when we look at how a sizeable portion of the public is reacting to the global COVID-19 pandemic, especially here in New York City where the outbreak is the most intense worldwide.

New York must abide by these rules longer than elsewhere, because the infection rate here is so high and we are such a densely populated place. It is not easy staying six feet away from people, but a lot of people are not even trying.

I want the pandemic to be over but declaring victory too early can be deadly and lead to a terrible second wave that could do more damage than the first. Reopening New York is going to be difficult and we cannot jump the gun.

And here in Queens, of all places, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the known universe, many of my neighbors have shown themselves to be severely lacking in basic common sense, feeling entitled to run roughshod over public health. My wife and I took our three young daughters for a walk to a park, this past week, hoping to bring them to a field where they could have some free time outside without violating basic social distancing standards. The park was closed, but people had hopped the fence to sit on picnic tables or play handball as if this were an ordinary spring day. There was even a couple riding bicycles on the sidewalk (that by itself is dangerous, dumb, and illegal) without masks on.

This was infuriating and discouraging. If people were acting this way in Queens, New York, where the problem is most acute, will we be able to contain this virus at all?

Wearing a mask in public not virtue signaling; it is basic common decency during an extraordinary time. Being asked to wear a mask in public and keep away from others is not akin to slavery or the Holocaust (yes, people are really making those comparisons) any more than upholding basic law and order is  modern day slavery or Nazism. If anyone questioned whether the American right could impotently cling to victimhood like the American left, COVID-19 erased all doubts.

My sister gave birth to a baby girl earlier this month. She went through labor wearing a mask. My father and stepmother have only visited their new granddaughter from a safe distance; they don’t know when they are going to get to hold her for the first time, it could easily be months from now. They do not like things being this way but protecting the health of others is not a tough choice for them. It shouldn’t be a tough choice for anyone.

Intelligence is not weakness; refusal to listen to informed experts is not rugged individualism. It’s not outrageous to be concerned about government power and to look skeptically at public panics, but the experts weighed in on this long ago and the danger is real. Do not follow these COVID-19 precautions out of an unthinking obedience to the government, but out of an obligation to your friends and neighbors.

Part of being all in this together means we adhere to basic community standards, and those include the supremacy of truth and obedience to the basic social contract. It means acting as if you are responsible for the well-being of a larger community, even if many in that community think their convenience is more important than their own lives or the lives of others. If you really want to defend freedom, you first must act like a responsible adult.

We are not lost when such people appear, we are lost if we acquiesce to them. Letting science deniers or “Covidiots” as they are being called, dictate the terms of our dealing with disease is like letting children run the schools.

In his novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein describes the breaking point when lawlessness and irresponsibility triggered groups of veterans to start taking the law into their own hands; their emergency measures eventually become the rule of law. If our hasty re-opening triggers a deadlier and more economically disastrous second wave, we will need to keep in mind this essential passage from Heinlein’s work: “Moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level.”

It is time for the grown-ups to step in. There may not be a swift, satisfying kick we can deliver to the “Covidiots” dotting our landscape today like we can with a car that sails through a crosswalk against the light, but it is past time to stop tolerating the intolerable. Allowing the public health to be subverted by reckless fools is not freedom, it’s suicide.

Testifying to some good news, …and fear of a second wave

Life during this pandemic has taken on a negative pattern. I wake up, I work 12+ hours at home, I have dinner, put the kids to bed, watch an hour of TV (usually Ozark now), and then go to bed. I’m too tired and demoralized to do much productive, and maybe that’s OK right now. My goal is to get through the pandemic without me or any of my family getting sick and remain gainfully employed during the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

On a weekly family Zoom call, we were going around discussing the extremely negative state of affairs in the world, when one of my cousins interjected, requesting that we share at least one piece of good news.

Good news is:

I have a job. I know too many people out of work to complain about my job. I’m gainfully employed, and layoffs are not on the horizon for me any time soon. And sometimes you must remember that any night you can go to bed with a roof over your head and food in your stomach, you are ahead of the game.

My family is healthy. Every sniffle and sneeze make me fearful that we may be stricken with the Coronavirus, and right now one of my daughters has a fever and I am terrified, but we’ve been doing everything right. We have been disinfecting, washing our hands, and staying inside.

There is still plenty of food. While the lack of cleaning products in the stores is alarming, there is still plenty of food despite panic-buying that has set in. Food distribution is being disrupted by the outbreak, and that is getting worse in some cases, but there is no reason for anyone in the U.S. to go hungry, there never is.

This causes us to think. I was on a call with people at work and one of the participants mentioned that he had had dinner with his family every night for three weeks and remarked at how rare and unusual this is. He didn’t seem to realize how seriously wrong this painted the previous status-quo. The Coronavirus pandemic has pulled back the curtain on just how unacceptable “normal” had become.

This will end. We’ll look back on this time and be glad we got through it. This won’t be forever, though hopefully some lessons from it will be.

Fear of a second wave

We are better off staying indoors on lockdown weeks longer than we need rather than risk opening up too early. There is a quest to “go back to normal” because of the economic and psychological impact of this isolation. But reopening things too early without enough available tests and before we’ve gotten through the pandemic means risking a dangerous second wave of the pandemic, which would make things worse.

The closest historical guide we have to what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is the Spanish Flu of more than 100 years ago. The deadliest time of that flu was the second wave of the pandemic in the fall of 1918.

Small protests to reopen in the midst of this crisis earned rightful derision, especially as some protests appeared to circle and block hospitals. The image of medical professionals counter-protesting in traffic in Denver will be a lasting one to remind us that even as much of the world has come together, there were a small minority of pandemic flat-Earthers who pathetically strutted around with weapons and exposed themselves and others to disease.

Too many people are not taking this crisis seriously. The Spanish Flu of 1918 had its naysayers as well, and they felt morally justified in endangering public health. History consistently condemns people who think they know better than the leading scientists of their day; you can’t eliminate these people because hubris and stupidity cannot be killed.

I plan to live long enough to remind my grandchildren how we had such fools in these times too, and how we survived and thrived.

 

 

Priorities in the time of pandemic

In New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., life is slowly adjusting to a new, temporary normal that is at once both dreadful and mundane.

What is cruelest about this epidemic is that it keeps us from one another in times of great need and hardship, when the embrace of a loved one is needed most. This past week our family lost a cousin, Greg O’Rourke, to cancer. His brothers and sisters had to take turns visiting him, as visitors are restricted due to this outbreak. One sibling had to wait outside the hospital while the other went in to spend time with him; he passed away during one of these transitions. They will have to take turns visiting his graveside at his burial, and the family will hold a mass and visitation sometime later this year.

Today my wife went to a virtual Shiva using Zoom. Her friend’s husband quickly succumbed to COVID-19; he was hospitalized on Sunday and died Thursday. Doctors were so busy treating his illness it took them a while to notice he had broken his hip when he collapsed at home.

As a family we have not been outside for nearly a month, and I am going out only late at night to buy groceries when we need them. I spoke with a friend of mine who is a history professor. He has spent his career studying biological warfare and pandemics. He said I was doing the right thing, that one can’t be too careful or too paranoid at a time like this. I take some comfort in this, also in that if we had left the city, we may have been going from the frying pan to the fire.

The way to prevent illness is very basic: Stay home, only leave home if you need to, stay six feet away from people when you do, wash your hands, and don’t touch your face.

We’ve all become painfully aware of how often we touch our faces. It’s an awareness that will stay with us when this is over.

This pandemic is of an historic magnitude on par with the Great Depression—some experts predict unemployment could rise as high as 20%, levels not seen since that time. Also, the Depression ushered in a new alignment of a more active government. The U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak runs the gamut from bumbled and patchwork to murderously incompetent. There needs to be a reckoning for this, both here and abroad.

And this crisis comes with a reordering of priorities. We’re talking to friends more, staying in touch with family over the phone or through online chat services because we don’t know when we’ll get the chance to meet again in person. We want to check in with people to make sure they are not forgotten, if there is a way to help. People are getting together to hold benefits, help friends in need; it’s what is most important now.

Some of us are working from home but would rather be doing something that really helps the world; and business as usual, while paying the bills, seems ludicrously clueless and shallow right now.

It’s absurd to get stressed out about work at a time when people are dying of disease outside your door, but I manage to do it somehow. I find myself getting angry over stupid stuff at work. I’ll judge myself harshly for that later.

My family now has a regularly scheduled Zoom conference call on Saturday night, and I use my corporate Zoom account. Will I get fired for that? I don’t care.

New York’s death toll is down, but we’re still in the thick of infection.  We’ll keep making plans of all the things we’ll get to do again once this passes. In the meantime, we put our heads down and forge ahead, getting through another day, another week…

Stay healthy.

 

Notes from a much-needed lockdown

New York and surrounding states are under orders to stay at home unless performing essential tasks, such as grocery shopping or seeking medical attention, and while things are crowded in our apartment, we are happy to comply.

America is late to these measures, but most people in New York City are adhering to them. Normally bustling and crowded streets and sidewalks were mostly empty. Buses still roll by our building on Union Street in Flushing, Queens, but they are mostly empty. Even the Q44 bus, which is normally packed with commuters at all hours of the day and night, is deserted.

Our youngest daughter agreed to go for a walk through the woods in Cunningham Park with me a few weeks ago, and we stayed beyond the standard six-foot “social distancing” distance from everyone we saw. As the virus is expected to peak in New York over the next two weeks, I’m planning to stay locked down and not leave our apartment at all unless we absolutely must.

I ventured out to do food shopping this past Thursday, waiting until later at night to go. There were few people about, but it was encouraging to see there was plenty of food—they even had toilet paper—and people were mostly good about keeping their distance. When I got home my wife wiped everything down with bleach water. I sprayed myself with disinfectant and then put all the clothes I was wearing in the laundry before washing my hands like I was scrubbing down to perform surgery.

I am extremely fortunate that I have a job that enables me to work from home. I have friends and family who depend on the real human world for their livelihood, and many of them do not know what they are going to do. The aid being offered by the government is late and promises to be inefficient. People are looking for light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not there yet; as a nation we’re still debating measures we should have all taken months ago.

My family is extremely lucky that my wife is talented and resourceful enough to sew our own medical masks. Hospitals are running in such short supply that they are releasing patterns to the general public and asking people to make their own and donate some if they are able. My wife made some for friends who are nurses and who are being told they must reuse their disposable mask and are not allowed to leave the hospital with it. Such shortages of basic medical supplies are inexcusable in a first-world country.

Americans and New Yorkers are adapting to the coronavirus in amazing ways, but there are still too many unknowns for a comfortable confidence to take root. There are shortages of medical supplies and doctors fear that hospitals may be overwhelmed with virus patients in the coming weeks and months.

One night this week, after reading some of the news stories about how this is unfolding in our city, I was unable to sleep. What if one of my kids gets stick and there are no beds in the hospitals, no medicine or medical supplies to treat them? Have I failed my family by not getting them out of the city?

Keeping up with people on social media, we’re seeing the toll of those infected rise in the city. A friend of a friend has passed away, another friend is waiting in the ER. A married couple we’re friends with both had bad fevers a few weeks back that got bad enough they wanted to be tested for the coronavirus; they recovered and still haven’t gotten a call back.

I’m confident that my immediate family and I will survive, and that people will be sick and tired enough to make real changes we need in our society. I’m going to celebrate with picnics, music, a new tattoo or two, and feasts and parties with friends.

Stay safe and stay inside unless you absolutely must go out. Keep away from people. Be the cold, distant New Yorker you were always meant to be. Lives depend on it.

 

Lockdowns, line cutters and other viral lunacy

This is a drastic time we’re in right now, and things may get worse before they get better. Living in New York City means a densely populated area where disease and panic can spread quickly, but it also means being near more hospitals, doctors, and in our case, family and friends.

Drastic measures aren’t a panic when it’s warranted, and the COVID-19 virus warrants it. It spread extremely fast globally and has killed thousands. New York State has three confirmed deaths but there are 3,000 people known to be infected in the United States now and that number will likely go up significantly.

China was able to lock down millions of people at a moment’s notice because it’s a totalitarian state. The government of mainland China values its economic power above any other concerns and sees it as tantamount to its grip on power, so when it was willing to cut off global supply chains of goods, that was a sign that this was a very serious public health problem that warranted similar extreme measures. Of course, they did this after first ignoring and suppressing dire warnings from their own doctors. The extreme measures China put in place worked.

The measures the U.S. is taking now should have been done a month ago and under federal authority. When we first had cases on both coasts, that was a dire warning to public health officials to kick our plans into high gear. Somewhere we have good plans for this, but we don’t have effective leadership that can put the plans we need in place in short order.

I see people online boasting about not panicking and taking part in public gatherings and while many of these are good people who want to act boldly in times of trouble. There is often a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and a global pandemic is no time to play Russian roulette with your health. Yes, you can save lives by staying at home. It’s OK not to see your friend’s band—see your friend’s band a few months from now. This is especially hard on bartenders and people that work with the public; we understand. Unemployment and poverty are terrible; I’ve been there—but you can come back from that, you can’t come back from death.

The scene at grocery stores and wholesale clubs was ugly. People had to wait in the parking lot as shoppers emptied their carts so they could have one to go shopping with. Inside, whole sections sat empty; carts sat abandoned full of groceries as some people gave up waiting on lines that stretched to backs of even the largest stores. Experts tell us that there is plenty of food and U.S. supply chains are strong but people have been panic-buying everything, especially toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

You can still count the worst among us to not change their stripes in times of stress. I went grocery shopping at my local BJ’s Wholesale Club and a rude man cut in front of me and about 100 other people. I called him out on it—I can’t not do that anymore—and he sneered at everyone and hid behind his wife. New lines opened and because I had 15 items or less, I could use the express self-checkout and the line cutter was still waiting on line when I left the store. It’s a bad sign that people are still so smug and entitled during these times but a good sign that this person was not set upon by an angry mob. We’re still holding together as law-abiding.

But just as the virus is on us wreaking havoc with our routines and spreading fear, New Yorkers are adapting. Friends are throwing virtual cocktail parties online. Everyone who can is working from home. My wife is planning to give lessons to the kinds while we wait for the NYC public schools to put online learning in place; we’re taking them outside to places where there are not crowds – our building courtyard; not a populated playground. People are getting by.

Bands that have had their concerts canceled live streamed from more remote locations. Chesty Malone & The Slice ‘Em Ups and the Cro-Mags were among those doing virtual, “quarantine concerts” from rehearsal spaces or closed venues for their fans online. The music doesn’t have to stop. Life will go on – we just need to live the hermetic life for a while as best we can.

New Yorkers have been through worse; the 1918 Influenza epidemic killed 30,000 people in New York City alone and 50 million people worldwide, more than were killed in World War I.

The next few weeks and months won’t be fun, but New York and the U.S. will emerge stronger and more determined than ever.

 

Meeting New York’s First Guardian Angel

Traveling to Washington, D.C. for work means taking the Amtrak Accela train from Penn Station. Penn Station was once a gleaming monument to New York’s greatness, but decades ago it was leveled, reduced to a subterranean maze of misery by the powers of commerce without conscience and New York’s Philistine tradition of tearing down some of its most beautiful historical landmarks in the name of progress.

Getting ready for the three-hour train ride to Washington meant stopping by one of the independent delis that still survive there amid the chain concessions. As I approached I saw a man in a red Guardian Angels jacket and red beret, and thought it was probably Curtis Sliwa. It was.

Curtis Sliwa was a night manager at a McDonald’s on Fordham Road in the Bronx when he decided to do something about New York’s Crime problem. He founded the Guardian Angels, an unarmed, unformed crime fighting group that started patrolling New York’s dangerous subways and streets. He didn’t ask permission or get political approval for what he was doing, he just did it. This was at a time when landlords were burning down their old buildings because the insurance money was worth more than the property was valued. The 1970s saw crime explode in every borough as a bankrupt New York City appealed to the federal government for help that never came and was forced to lay off police officers.

The Guardian Angels were the vanguard of resistance to the hopelessness that gripped New York. They didn’t have police approval and politicians dubbed them “vigilantes;” they didn’t care. The unarmed volunteers in their trademark red berets were a sign that people still cared about the city and were willing to put their lives on the line to make a difference.

It was not all straight shooting, though. Sliwa admitted that some of the early stories he told about Guardian Angel heroism were fabrications. Still, Sliwa was an anti-crime crusader before it was cool, a strong voice that cut through the blather of polite talk and gave the criminal class the harsh language it deserved. Even as New York started to turn around, Sliwa’s crime-fighting ways led to an attempt to kill him by the Gambino Crime Family.

Sliwa’s career as a broadcaster has almost always paired him with someone left-of-center to discuss and debate the issues of the day. His pairing with Ron Kuby on MSNBC was a highlight of the network’s earlier days before all of cable television spun into hyper-partisan outposts; they later reunited on AM radio.

I said hello and Curtis Sliwa shook my hand and give me his business card, asking me where I was from. I gave him my business card and told him I was from where I worked.

“No, where are you from? Born and raised?”

“I’m from the city originally and grew up mostly in Yonkers.” I didn’t want to give him my last two decades of history being a city resident, as we were waiting in line at the deli. Our wait was shortly over, and he bid me farewell.

The politicians who once spurned the Guardian Angels later embraced them, and they now operate in more than 130 cities in 13 countries. And Sliwa remains an outspoken personality in New York politics. He’s even vowed to run for New York City mayor next year.

Similar to Ed Koch, Curtis Sliwa is a personification of New York City and will always remain one of the defining personalities of our chaotic metropolis. My encounter with a legit New York City celebrity was brief, but it brightened my day.

Shakedown at the warehouse club

There was shopping to do and we had to get the kids out of the house.

If you have a car in New York City you are one of a privileged few. You can blaze a trail of adventure and wanderlust across the land. Or, you can simply drive someplace where it is a little less crowded to do your shopping, avoiding the hordes that clog your local stores for the slightly less overstuffed shopping experiences of the suburbs.

Pro tip for current and future parents: IKEA stores have a free indoor play area called “Småland” where they will babysit your kids for free if you are in their store.

This past Sunday we headed to Hicksville for the chance to look again at a couch we may want to buy from IKEA and to do our bulk shopping where it was slightly less aggravating.

The drive had put our children to sleep and my wife and I enjoyed listening to Joan Jett’s greatest hits and catching up on adult conversation while our three blessed hellions slumped in their child seats. We decided to get some of our shopping done while they napped. I headed to BJs.

BJ’s is not as fun as it sounds. It’s not an emporium of fellatio but rather a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club. Showing your BJ’s card only wins you the pleasure of buying in bulk.

The BJs in Westbury, Long Island, was a lot less crowded than the one we usually visit in College Point, Queens. I found the things I needed easily. I got in line at one of the self-checkout lanes as going to one of the other lines means an incredibly long wait behind people whose shopping carts are filled to the brim with bulk items.

The woman is taking too long looking over everyone’s cart and there is a line forming just to get out of the store.

The only question I’ve ever had facing this security check in the past is if one of my daughters asks me if this person is going to draw a Mickey Mouse on our receipt.

The woman looks at my cart for what seems like an extended period and then circles the number of items on my receipt. She says there is a problem, something about me having too many items in my cart. Her English is poor, and I ask what is the item that wasn’t scanned. She points to the checkout area, and I think she wants me to go back there but I want to understand this problem and solve it quickly. I’m not going to scan every item again or stand on another line if the store is bringing up the issue. I keep asking what the problem is and what’s not right, and I get no answer. The woman leaves me there and starts checking other customers’ receipts. A chubby woman mumbles something under her breath at me as she walks by, but not loud enough to hear.

The receipt women with broken English calls someone else over. He checks my receipt. He counts the items in my cart. He checks the receipt again; he counts the items in my cart again. People keep passing by and looking at me. I stay stoic.

The young man now checks the UPC numbers on every item against my receipt. He’s moving more things around in the cart and checking off each item on the receipt.

“The tomato sauce,” he says before scurrying off. “The tomato sauce.”

The receipt checking lady has forgotten about me. Her backup left me standing there with my marked-up receipt and no recommendations. I don’t bother to check his work; I just want out of there. I put the tomato sauce aside and walk out the door. No one stops me. I’m free but without the tomato sauce we wanted to buy and with precious time wasted.

Westbury BJ’s: 1, Polite New Yorker: 0.

I had traded the aggravation of weaving your way through crowds of clueless shoppers to being shaken down by store security and singled out as a potential shoplifter. While this was annoying it could have been so much worse. People who forget to scan the groceries on the bottom shelf of their shopping cart have been accused of shoplifting and had their careers ruined. The store employees could have called the police.

I made it back to my van without further delay. The children were awake. We moved on to our next adventure.

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