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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.

 

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.

Latest subway brouhaha misses the point

Citizens voiced criticism of the police when a woman selling churros was handcuffed by NYPD officers at the Broadway Junction station in Brooklyn.

The police said the vendor had been issued several citations and had refused officers’ orders to move. Also, the vendor was not officially arrested, but briefly handcuffed and issued a citation. Whichever way you cut it, “the optics” as we say in the public relations world, were bad.

In the scale of subway scofflaws and annoyances, the Spanish-speaking women selling churros don’t register at all. The churro ladies usually stay out of the way of foot traffic and sell delicious homemade treats at a good price. They don’t loudly beg for money from strangers or drag their carts through crowded subway cars at rush hour.

Why aren’t the police clearing out the homeless who can render entire subway cars unusable? Why aren’t we seeing more photos of the brain-addled aggressive panhandlers being put in handcuffs, or the people bringing bicycles or in some cases, motorcycles onto the subways being given the heave-ho by New York’s finest?

I get why the MTA wants to crack down on subway fare beaters, but they are avoiding the bigger, harder issues that makes a bigger difference in the deteriorating level of subway service that arouses the ire of straphangers.

Subway riders are furious because the subways are terrible. There are frequent delays and overcrowding on the subways, trains and buses that never show up, and service that is sub-par even when going according to plan. Almost all of the lines have outdated signaling systems that frequently stall trains and the MTA is decades behind replacing them. People have missed job interviews, meetings with loved ones, and even their own college graduations because the MTA’s inexcusable performances.

The transit system has singled out the people who jump the turnstiles and don’t pay their fare as a major issue to be addressed. Indeed the agency reported that these freeloaders could cost the system more than $300 million this year. Its approach to fixing this problem has been typically ham-handed. It spent money on signs and stickers telling people not to use the exit-only emergency exits to leave the subway, as it enables people to run in through the open door to avoid paying. Such a campaign could only be designed by people who don’t actually ride the subway. The subways need more exit-only gates. Taking up turnstile space to leave only stalls people who are rushing to get on a train. People who leave by the exit only gates and the emergency exits while people are trying to get in are doing the right thing. All these stupid stickers and signs do is flush money down the toilet that could be used for upgrading the system.

While fare beaters certainly do account for a major shortfall in the MTA’s budget, but it is small potatoes compared to the larger underfunding issues that require a political solution. It will be a hard-fought battle between the city and state governments, and will take years to make right. It will include unpopular tax increases.

No doubt there should be cost cutting. Why does track construction cost many times more in New York than anywhere else? Why are there thousands of no-show jobs on the books every time we want to build some new track in New York? Solving these issues of construction corruption and graft will go a long way to improving our transit situation, but it still can’t entirely address the funding gap.

This central funding question is the one the MTA needs to tackle first. Without adequate funding from New York State, all the other ideas are impotent half-measures that will drive more outrage than revenue.

Early voting comes to New York City

The old adage of “vote early and often” is at least half true now in New York City, as the city has instituted early voting this year. This past Saturday the 26th was the start of an early voting period leading up to the Tuesday, Nov. 5 election day.

The last few election cycles have shown us that no corner of the country is immune from serious voting issues. The mid-term election of 2018 was the first time I saw this voting chaos first-hand in the five boroughs. I voted early in the morning, when there are usually fewer people around and voting should be smoother, and there were already difficulties handling the moderate numbers at the polling station. That only got worse as the day wore on, and reports of long line and other logistical issues were crossing the wires by midday.

The mess of the 2018 election caused a series of reforms in New York City around voting, one of them being instituting early voting.

Early voting has been a solution adopted by other states. It encourages participation as many people who work (just about every single voter) often find it hard to take time off during a busy workday to vote, and this has become increasingly difficult as larger turnouts have overloaded polling places across the country. It’s an idea that is long overdue in being implemented, and many states began making this change in the wake of the 2000 presidential election difficulties. Early voting is friendlier to working families and make it more difficult for voter suppression tactics to rule the day. It also helps reduce some of the voting chaos by alleviating some of the crowding of Election Day.

It is wise to start early voting this year. Whatever goes wrong can be corrected in time for next year, an election year that promises a very large turnout. This is not a big election year in New York – there are no Congressional seats up for a vote, a special election for one City Council seat, and only one city-wide election for public office (for Public Advocate), as well as a smattering of ballot initiatives that rarely generate significant turnout or excitement.

So far there have been two major kinks in the city’s early voting: 1. In many cases the early voting place is not in the same place as the regular polling stations, and this has not been widely explained. 2. Some early voting locations that are located in schools gave those schools very short notice that their gyms or cafeterias were going to be off limits for a few days.

Another shortcoming of the early voting so far is the notices sent to voters. Usually the city sends a document that includes a detachable card that has all the relevant voter information on it: where to vote, what district you are in etc. The card sent before early voting has none of this, but does have a scan-able bar code on one side.

In a democracy, voting is a serious obligation for people who wish to remain free. The ballot box is our first defense against tyranny, our first step in making change, and the ultimate check and balance for people in power to be held accountable. By giving us more time to do it, this important duty is easier to execute. Whatever the faults of the city’s first attempt, it is a noble attempt and deserves our support.

Vote early.

A journey through the MTA’s lost and found

Earlier this summer, I arrived home late on a Friday night—late these days meaning after 8 p.m.—and was taking things out of my pockets after a long day. When I reached into my right front picket, I came to the realization that I did not have my wallet. My stomach tied in knots and I cried out in frustrated desperation. I knew it had been in my pocket; there would be no deus ex machina miracle of finding it in my bag or in another pair of shorts.

I knew that it most likely fell out of my pocket on my commute home. I had just gotten off the express bus—this bus was still on the road and someone could radio the driver! I immediately picked up my smart phone and dialed 311 for citywide information. The 311 operator would be able to connect me to the right person. The 311 operator transferred me to 511, which is the information number for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

After a few more transfers, I spoke with someone I was told could help me. I gave them all the information I had. I was on a QM20 bus and was picked up from 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan at approximately 8:40 p.m. and was dropped off at Union Street and 26th Avenue in Flushing, Queens at approximately 9:30 p.m. This driver was probably still on their route and with the information I had given them someone should be able to get in touch with the driver ASAP!

But no such luck. The person on the other end of the line said they could not do anything unless I had the bus number. Without the bus number, they could not contact the driver. Seems a bit ridiculous. If this had been a more serious situation and people’s lives depended on finding the bus, there would have been a catastrophe.

I was asked to call back the next day after the bus had gone back to the depot and the driver may have turned in the wallet. It was a small wallet, one that held only cards. I was not out any cash, unless someone was going to town with my debit card.

I started to call credit card companies and my bank to have holds put on cards.

The next day I called the depot. Nothing.

I called back the next day, and called back later in the day again. Nothing still.

I went through with canceling and replacing my credit cards and ATM card and replacing my driver’s license.

By Monday, there was no funny business on my cards and new ones were on the way. I printed out a temporary driver’s license and ordered a new card wallet that came with a money clip. My card wallet needed replacing anyway, and this was a chance to pare down the stuff I carried with me everywhere.

A few weeks later, the same day my new driver’s license arrived in the mail, a notice from the MTA Lost & Found arrived in the mail.

“An article which contains your name and/or contact information was found and turned in to the MTA NYC Transit Lost Property Unit,” the notice began. It instructed me to report to the unit’s office at the 34th Street subway station at 8th Avenue in Manhattan. If I did not claim my property by Nov. 3, “it will be deemed to have been abandoned and you will have forfeited your right to claim it.”

The next day I brought that notice and my newly replaced driver’s license to a hidden-in-plan-sight pocket of the 34th Street subway station in Manhattan. It took some searching and asking to find the lost and found office, which is beneath the tracks of the A, C, E subway lines and without any signs leading you there except in the immediate vicinity. It’s within the subway system, so if you arrive by some other means or exit the subway before you find it, you’ll have to spend another subway fare to reach it or get a helpful MTA worker to let you in.

A small sign points the way to a set of double doors painted in celebration of the many objects found in our transit system. The office is open odd hours—and completely closed weekends and holidays, a travesty in a system that runs 24 hours—but luckily is open until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursdays.

Inside is a small room with a very low ceiling. I’m five feet eleven inches with my shoes on, and if I had extended my arm fully above my head I would have punched a hole in the drop-down ceiling. There is a metal bench to sit on, a small counter to stand and fill out paperwork on, two old-looking computer terminals, and a thick window above a pass-through door through which one may conduct business with the MTA workers on duty.

I arrived as a worker emerged from another set of doors to hand someone some paperwork, and she took my notice and ID and disappeared in to the bowels of the lost and found. The woman who was there spoke to someone at the window and was told to check back about her property later. She left and another woman arrived to ask if a book she lost on the subway was found. She was told no and to check back later; she left. Another man arrived and looked through his paperwork to check on a claim, and while he was speaking with someone another woman arrived to check on some property she had reported missing.

A worker arrived at the thick window with my wallet. It was a different worker than I had given my notice to; it was a rotating staff of workers answering questions and handling forms. He told me to sign my name on another form and write my address the same way it appeared on the notice in the mail. He opened the door to the silver box under the window and placed a clip board inside, and when he closed his door I opened mine and filled out the form.

A minute later, the same exchange reunited me with my wallet. It looked a little worse for wear, but nothing was missing. Everything was there: my license, my ATM card, my MTA MetroCard, even the coupon for a t-shirt at the zoo. I excitedly took an inventory of my wallet while my fellow transit visitors looked on amazed.

“You give me hope,” said the young woman sitting on the bench, hoping her property would be returned.

I thanked the worker and wished the other people in the office good luck, and went back out into the bustling station. For me, lost and found had worked out well.

Thank you to the Good Samaritan on the bus who turned in my wallet, and the series of honest MTA workers that made it possible for me to get my property back. For me the stars aligned this time.

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