Ars longa, vita brevis

What grinds us down most is not the presence of stress, but the absence of joy.

Even during the darkest times in human history. People survived not just on food, water, and medicine but on jokes, songs, and stories. It’s not a coincidence that in addition to our stockpiling cleaning supplies and toilet paper, the COVID-19 pandemic launched binge-watching of entertaining shows. I’m not sure I would have been as riveted by Tiger King if the insanity of private tiger parks was more cheerful than the insanity of the outside world at the time.

The present and resurgent health pandemic that has made havoc on our world, we remind ourselves that this too shall pass, and most of us will survive and be able to learn from this time to create a better tomorrow. I also must remind myself how lucky I am: I and my family are healthy, I have a job, our building has been safe from looting, arson, and teargas.

I live most of my days now in front of my work laptop at home. Even when the work-from-home life does its worst to my day, I’ll manage to feel some immense relief if I can scratch out the draft of a poem, or poorly play a few Misfits tunes on my guitar.

Creating something, even if it’s something small that no one else will see, is good for your health. The theory of cognition holds that creativity is a central aspect of human. It improves our brain function and therefore our health. So even when I’m dead tired from working all day and then move from the desk to the dinner table to putting the kids to bed; I know I can salvage what remaining time I have left before I fall asleep if I do something creative.

I’m working on getting better at playing guitar because I had the privilege of playing the six strings on stage earlier this year with Beer Drinking Fools. Now I’ve been bitten by the six-string bug and want to subject innocent eardrums to blistering crossover hardcore punk and thrash metal that will sound like S.O.D. having a blood orgy with Bad Brains and The Lunachicks.

Our current crises are beset with ignorance and villainy on all sides. History will condemn civilized societies that let their people die needlessly and found it virtuous to let their cities fall to ruin. It is difficult to feel hopeful, but even amid hopelessness, one can find solace in creativity.

A surge of creativity is not a cure-all for what ails our society. While the current politics and pandemic are new, it was a long time getting to where we are now, and it will take a long time to get to something better. But the seriousness of our times doesn’t negate the need for creative joy; it makes such creativity more necessary than ever.

During these times of pandemic, our creativity will sustain us and endure. Amid so much destruction and despair, creativity is a revolutionary act.

 

Pandemic ignorance reaches Queens

I count myself among the many fortunate souls that quit drinking before the use of camera phones became ubiquitous. I know of at least one video taken of me passed out drunk in a friend’s kitchen that existed on a friend’s mobile phone. If there are others I don’t know about them but suffice to way I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world to denounce public drunkenness or debauchery at large.

So it is extra heartbreaking to see people giving drunkenness a bad name as photos and videos surfaced of mask-less partiers crowding Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens like it was a Hellenic Bourbon Street. That may be a worthwhile aim (though that’s debatable), but in case people haven’t noticed we are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more Americans than The First World War. For much of the crisis, which is still going on, the epicenter was…Queens.

Bars are struggling to stay open and some of our finest New York drinking establishments, like Otto’s Shrunken Head, have devised clever ways to serve their customers while being safe. It’s not always easy but drinking during the pandemic is being done by more intelligent, if not more sober, heads. So there is no excuse for not getting this right.

Wearing a mask is not “virtue signaling;” it’s adulthood. If you can’t behave like an adult, you shouldn’t enjoy the spoils of public drinking and intoxicated buffoonery. If you don’t know how to get drunk without an audience, you’re a pathetic amateur. Why the hell do you need to be close to strangers to drink anyway? What kind of sad sacks are we breeding in New York that a pint of beer needs to be enjoyed with a crowd of strangers. Maybe I’ve become too much of a jaded New Yorker, but I want to stay away from most people even during good times.

Like many New Yorkers, I want our city’s nightlife to return as quickly as possible. I miss making music and going to my friends’ bands’ shows. But the longer we have people screwing up, the longer the return will elude us.

The crowds that jammed St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan weeks ago were abysmally naïve to think they were in the clear; people in Queens have even less of an excuse. If living in the part of the U.S. most affected by the biggest global plague in 100 years won’t make you behave sensibly, then what else beyond sickness and death will knock some sense into you?

New York has been doing better than most states. We didn’t have the luxury of ignorance or childish posturing. Our stores still mandate masks and have added protections that may be with us forever; so be it. We can’t afford to backslide now.

The mask refusers and science deniers will be ashamed of their ignorance if they survive.  If you join their ranks because you think the crisis is over, the results are the same.

The COVID-19 crisis is real and still happening. New Yorkers owe it to ourselves to do better.

Illegal fireworks are as New York as bagels

Years ago, when I lived in Inwood, I walked to the public pier at Dyckman Street on the Hudson River to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. The sightings were disappointing. Through clouds in the distance I could see the faint glow of a few shows over New Jersey and could see none of the official Macy’s fireworks happening farther downtown.

I returned to my apartment disappointed but was soon treated to shows of illegal fireworks that more than compensated. The barrage of ordnance that filled the northern Manhattan sky was a welcome sight that took me back to my childhood in Yonkers. I would emerge from our apartment in Yonkers on July 5th to a scene that resembled a war zone. The curbs and corners were filled with the spent paper from reams of firecrackers, and one time I saw a metal garbage can that had been exploded and overturned, looking like a giant metallic banana peel.

When I first returned to the city to live as an adult, I lived in Ozone Park, once the home to professional-grade illegal fireworks shows and street festivals paid for by the Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti. Gotti had been in prison several years at that point, and the authorities worked hard to prevent the return of a large-scale illegal fireworks display. Police were all over 101st Ave. and the surrounding streets, but it made little difference. Managing to get on the roof of my building, I could see the official fireworks far away in Manhattan, but the cat-and-mouse game of cops and illicit fireworks was more entertaining.

Illegal fireworks have been a New York City staple for decades. When I was in fifth grade in the New York suburbs, I went to a neighbor’s yard where a friend’s father let me light sparklers off some candles set on the ground. I felt like the greatest outlaw on Earth. Kids waved around sparklers while adults set off bottle rockets and M-80s. When we heard police sirens in the distance, adults blew the candles out and we ran to the backyard until the danger had passed.

More recently, we have enjoyed the sights of fireworks over Whitestone and College Point. Early morning jogs through Flushing Memorial Field has found launch sites of the previous evenings fireworks displays, the tubes still smelling of gunpowder in the cool dawn, like a mortar position of a recently passed battle.

The allure of illicit explosives dates to the birth of the American nation. The first battles of the American Revolution were fought over the British Army’s attempt to seize illegal weapons.

New York, which was under the yoke of British rule for the bulk of the Revolution, was no less fervent in its commitment to the cause. One of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought in Brooklyn; the Battle of Long Island almost ended the Revolution—Washington barely escaped to regroup. The first woman known to take up arms for the United States did so in Manhattan at the Battle of Fort Washington; Americans lost that battle too and Fort Tryon park still bears the name of the British governor of New York at the time.

Our founding fathers would have been hanged as traitors to the crown had we not won. No matter our heritage, Americans are proudly descended from outlaws and outcasts. People setting off fireworks today are not would-be revolutionaries, but they are tapping into the same antiauthoritarian sentiment that is alive in spades in America today.

The city has seen an increase in setting off illegal fireworks. We hear them in every neighborhood and in some cases too late (true fireworks enthusiasts know to stop between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m., July Fourth excepted). There is a need now for people to celebrate and sending exploding stars into the night sky is best done while remaining safely distant from fellow citizens. Many bars and restaurants remain closed, large parts of the city are effectively locked down by massive protests. Fireworks are a needed respite, a needed release of our energies to celebrate something, whether that be the birth pangs of a better America or a fiery exegesis of an abiding patriotism.

Illegal fireworks are a proud New York tradition, a proud American tradition. Let it never die.

 

What is still beautiful about us…

In John Carpenter’s 1984 film “Starman,” Jeff Bridges stars as an alien who is stranded on Earth, and goes on the run from U.S. government agents with the widow of a deceased housepainter, whose body he has cloned as a disguise. They have misadventures while eluding the authorities and the widow (Karen Allen) falls in love with this alien in the body of her dead husband.

In retrospect the plot summary makes this sound like a ludicrous B-film, but it works. One scene and one line from the film has stuck with me since I watched it in a movie theater as a 12-year-old.

The couple are finally cornered in a restaurant by the authorities and the federal agent who has been leading the hunt for them comes to confront them. He asks the alien about his journey and learns he is here to study Earthlings.

“You are a strange species, not like any other, and you would be surprised how many there are, intelligent but savage,” the Jeff Bridges/alien tells his pursuer. “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?”

The federal agent nods yes.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

That line has been etched in my mind for more than three decades now, and it’s a fitting mantra for the times we are in.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

It can be hard to imagine things getting worse. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has hit the U.S. harder than any other country, followed by widespread civil unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, poisonous politics in an election year and unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.

These are times that try our patience and our resolve. It is easy to want to withdraw and bunker down, to tune out the outside world and lapse into a fatalistic nihilism, a hopeless sloth of withdrawal.

The pandemic reminded us that contact with others is an essential part of life. Human contact is something we took for granted, or even came to resent in New York City, where everything is too crowded and the inconsideration of others is amplified by proximity.

But the need to interact with others is more important now than ever, and despite the myriad conflagrations boiling over in our society, we can still find common ground with decent people of differing ideas.

Human life is inherently tribal, and America has forged tribes along lines of culture and character in ways other societies cannot fathom. These cultures appear to be irreconcilable, but basic human decency and goodness can transcend even our deepest chasms. The past few weeks have shown the extent of our divisions but also the depth of our decency and resolve.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

It is time to be the best person you can be and play some part in making our world a better one. You may be at odds with your friends and family, you may be subjected to hatefulness from smaller minds, but the things most worth doing are often most difficult. Keep going.

We can look back at this time and be proud we were at our very best.

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.

NYC’s transit mess to spread above ground

The lives of New York City residents are filled with transit fatigue and the endless negotiation of a failing subway system. Our city subways are in such a sorry state that real lives get interrupted and sidetracked. People miss their college graduations, arrive late for job interviews, or don’t get to say a final good-bye to loved ones.

With the resignation of MTA chief Andy Byford in a dispute with Governor Andrew Cuomo, there is a sense that the situation will get much worse before it gets better.

Queens is poorly served by the New York City subway system and does not have the more comprehensive service that you find in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The subways are so Manhattan-centric that Queens lacks a basic north-south subway route. If you want to get from Ozone Park to the Queens Center Mall it can take you as little as 25 minutes by bus. It would require at least three different subways to get there and it’s only four and a half miles.

Where I live is more than a mile to the nearest subway, which would add 25 minutes to my commute were it not for buses. More recently I’ve learned to take the express bus, which is more expensive but is much better—more comfortable seats and direct service to midtown Manhattan.

The express buses are not a panacea though. Just this past week, as I stood directly next to a bus stop sign on 6th Ave. and 42nd Street, a QM20 bus drove right by as if I wasn’t there, even though I was trying to wave down the driver. So even the express bus system, which is the best experience the MTA has to offer, is still rife with problems.

But not content to serve up sub-par subway service on a good day, the MTA has proposed a plan to slash bus service throughout New York City’s largest borough, Queens. Neighborhood after neighborhood in the borough are organizing to try to stop service cuts that will do things such as: consolidate bus stops, denying service to some areas of the city already lacking for subway access; and stop service earlier in the evening, leaving people stranded in Manhattan if they go to a play or concert.

We need more bus service in the city, not less. Especially at a time when the subways are running so poorly.

Here is a goal for any and all mass transit systems. No one should ever have to wait more than 15 minutes for any bus or train at any time of day or night at any bus stop or train station.

Is that not realistic? Under our current system, yes, that’s a pipe dream, but why should we expect anything less than the best in our city. This is New York. Were it not for our transit system, we would not have experienced the tremendous growth over the last century.

Mass transit will pay for itself in a stronger economy and more productive workforce. Think about all the things you don’t do or places you don’t visit because the travel would be too difficult. Seriously, things only a few miles away are considered out of reach right now because our transit system is so underperforming and unreliable. I know I avoid going to cultural events because getting there and back in a reasonable amount of time is not possible under our current system.

A reliable transit system will have people going more places and doing more things, spending money that keeps our economy going.

Take the MTA out of the hands of political appointees and officeholders who have the power to raid its coffers. Our taxes should support an independent entity governed by a board of directors selected from a population of accomplished people who are transit users.

New York City transit is still way too far away from where it needs to be. There’s no quick fix. Creating a fully functioning transit system is going to take years of political struggle. Let’s start now.

The New York Times’ clueless narcissism reaches new depths

The New York Times announced that it would endorse a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States, the first time in its 169-year history that the newspaper would do such a thing. The Times’ editorial board interviewed nine candidates in extensive interviews at its New York headquarters in December and announced its endorsement for the Democratic nomination this past weekend.

The Times feels it’s important to get its voice into people’s deliberations now, though its coverage has laid out clearly that it does not want former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders or Mayor Pete Buttigieg to be the nominee. It will at least lay its slant bare for all to see earlier on, though it was shamelessly shilling for Hillary Clinton long before the first ballot was cast in 2016.

So, the Times invited those candidates it judged viable to come in and interview completely on the record with its pompous editorial board to be part of “The Choice,” as if it were some drama people were going to follow like “Game of Thrones.” To their credit, Michael Bloomberg, Julian Castro and Tulsi Gabbard declined to kiss the ring of the Times and sit for the chance to be the window dressing on the editorial board’s tribute to itself.

The weekend edition pullout of printed excerpts had an entire page dedicated to profile photos and titles of the editorial board, even noting with an asterisk someone special who is not normally a member but joined the board just for the important task of endorsing a Democrat before anyone even votes.

We’re supposed to be wowed at the brilliance of these professionals, who spent hours mugging for the cameras they invited into their boardroom because they think the American voters give a rat’s ass about what they think. And with all their brilliance and well-publicized rumination over this important endorsement, they couldn’t even decide on a single candidate to endorse!

They Gray Lady was too busy looking at herself in the mirror to choose only one candidate, endorsing both Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“In a break with convention, the editorial board has chosen to endorse two separate Democratic candidates for president,” the Times tells us in its blacked-out opinion page heading made somber for this special occasion.

The Times should have done the extra work and picked one of the candidates. They did do voters a service by giving Senator Klobuchar recognition; her campaign has so far failed to attract support that her accomplishments merit. And the Times is right to credit Warren with being policy-focused and experienced in multiple levels of Washington leadership.

Both Senators Klobuchar and Warren are serious candidates with real ideas and qualifications. The Times insults both with its overwrought half-endorsement that will serve to alienate them from the voters the need to reach most.

New York, like the rest of the country, is in for a long slog through a partisan election year. We can do without the self-congratulatory fluff the Times has subjected us to.

Skynet at the Stop & Shop

“Can we see the robot?” one of our daughters asked.

“Sure,” my wife answered.

We were finishing up lunch and I had mentioned I wanted to briefly visit the Stop & Shop to look for something. I had no idea this outlet near our home employed one of those grocery store robots I had seen mentioned online ubiquitously. These slim, monolith grey towers on wheels are outfitted with large googly-eyes as one would a child’s craft. I had heard they were being installed in more and more stores; friends had posted photos of them at their local supermarkets. I had yet to see one in action.

The shopping center at Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway in Flushing is a zone of cluttered chaos and the logical effluvium of the overcrowded eyesore of the streets nearby. Forgotten New York rightfully calls this part of Flushing “Queens’ Crappiest” for its lack of aesthetics, complete disrespect of historic buildings, and utter incompetence of the design of residential buildings. The shopping center was not long ago filled with crater-like potholes. It has a check cashing establishment and was for a time frequented prostitutes that served truck drivers. I try to avoid this shopping center because of the traffic alone—it’s either accessed by a busy highway service road or a two-lane street that is often busy. My kids love the McDonald’s that is there for some reason; perhaps I have already failed as a father.

The Stop & Shop there is a last refuge of desperation when we are looking for groceries that aren’t found elsewhere. Now I also wanted to see the grocery store robot. These robots are named “Marty.” Stop & Shop supermarkets have deployed them in more them in more than 200 stores to look for spills and hazards. According to Mashable, each robots costs $35,000 and weighs 140 pounds. Also, these robots don’t clean up anything, but just alert people nearby to the fact that there is a mess.

I went looking for the one item I hoped they had: a specific popular baby food pouch that serves as a healthy snack for our youngest daughter. I headed for the baby food aisle while the rest of my family made a bee line for the back of the store where they spotted the robot.

The baby food section was the same mess it was at my last visit and was without the food pouch I was looking for. I scoured again and looked behind every box and envelope to no avail. The robot had not spent enough time in this aisle.

My excited daughters came to get me to show me the robot, which was making its way across the back of the store from where they had first met it near the deli. They ran after it and my wife and I followed.

When my children ran up on the robot again, it seemed to pause to allow us all to gawk at it. Bored shoppers accustomed to the googly-eyed rolling cyborg went about their shopping.

“Hi Marty!” my children thought this thing was great. Maybe you could put googly eyes on a giant steaming people of crap and children will find it convincingly anthropomorphized into a cute friend and want to take it home. The robot slowly moved away from us, not interacting with anyone other than moving out of our way and appearing to look at us with its false, plastic, and unblinking eyes.

New York City seems like a poor choice to send Marty. Our supermarkets are too crowded, and our people in need of work is always plentiful. Also, New Yorkers are more skeptical of gimmicks like this. While little kids got a kick out of Marty the robot, most adults are put off by it.

The supermarket robot is not the coming incarnation of Skynet, the computer system that becomes self-aware and plunges the world into a nuclear holocaust in the Terminator films. It’s pretty underwhelming by itself.

The truly troubling issue with the increasing use of robots is not that technology is marching forward and machines are doing jobs people want to do. It’s that people no longer want to act like people as much anymore.

If society functioned well, customers would report a spill to an accessible employee, who would easily see to it that the spill was cleaned up, or the store would employ enough cleaning staff to make it a pleasurable experience. Instead we’ll gawk at a machine and be on our way.

We are spurning human contact in favor of technology-driven convenience because our human interactions have plunged in quality. That’s not the fault of the machines, that’s our fault.

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