New York City’s obituary has been written many times. The latest declarations of Gotham’s demise harp on the current crop of problems but ignore New York’s ability to survive even the worst the world has to offer.
The current issues confronting NYC are for certain no joke. Our city was the epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic and its expansive economic impact and slow recovery continues to force businesses to close. Our vibrant nightlife and renowned theater district have been shuttered for months with no recovery in the near term. On top of that, we’ve seen a resurgence of crime and “quality of life” issues that harken back to the dark times of the 1970s and 1980s, replete with threats to lay off city workers including law enforcement.
It’s gotten to the point where a group of business leaders wrote a letter to New York City’s mayor pleading with him to begin addressing the crime problem and other issues of urban decay. Mayor Bill de Blasio began his first term promising to put a progressive spin on the successes of his predecessors; he will leave office an object of ridicule and a case study in how activist mayors consistently fail New York.
But as bad as New York’s problems are, they pale in comparison to problems that we’ve seen only a few short decades ago.
I first lived in New York City when I was born, and as a baby I lived on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx near Fordham Road. Not far from where I was living with my parents, landlords were routinely setting fire to their own buildings; cashing in the insurance money was more lucrative than renting apartments and the buildings were insured for more than they would have fetched on the real estate market. A few years later, New York’s Mayor Abe Beam famously appealed to President Gerald Ford for a federal bailout, as New York City was broke. ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’ was the famous NY Daily News headline documenting his refusal to help.
A little over a century earlier, Union troops were drawn away from the battlefield of Gettysburg by the Draft Riots of 1863, which saw rampaging Irish mobs attack and murder Blacks, even setting fire to an orphanage. Even the most anarchic rioters of the current crime wave have not reached these levels of depravity.
I’ve been mugged and pickpocketed and gone through a year of unemployment to the point of having only a few dollars to my name. I have also played music on a stage that the Ramones made famous, had my family on cable television ringing the stock market’s opening bell, and seen some of the best concerts, plays and movies available to our civilization. New York is where I met my wife and where we raise our children and can show them the cultures of half the world by only traveling a few miles.
While the thought occurs to me to leave New York sometimes, the urge to stay is greater.
After the September 11 attacks, it became unpatriotic to flee the five boroughs in my opinion. It still breaks my heart that we have allowed religious lunatics to remake our skyline. But these failures of leadership do not make New York City less great, only more resilient.
The Roman Empire fell long ago, but Rome is still majestic and magical. New York was a force for the world before America became a reality. New York will survive the current malaise gripping America; it will survive until humanity dies out. New York City will be here forever.
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.
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…
It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.
We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.
There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.
From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.
My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.
When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.
I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.
If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.
While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.
A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:
“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”
New York City is such an intense and captivating force that New Yorkers must all leave their beloved Gotham from time to time for areas more peaceful and serene, places where the air is cooler and the pace of things slower. City life is an immense trade-off. We have the greatest art and culture in the world but must endure great hardships, annoyances, and inconveniences. It’s this crucible that makes our standards so high and our quest for excellence so unforgiving.
These past few days have found me on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a beautiful beach community that is best visited after Labor Day, when the summer season is considered officially over. Plenty of other people have had this idea also. So the island is not a ghost town but can look that way at times if you turn down one of the quieter streets. The restaurants are starting to board up for the fall and winter or have at least cut down their summer hours.
Long Beach Island is one long excuse to sit and marvel at the beach and ocean. It is a thin, string-bean like island that is geared towards renting to or selling to people coming here for the summer. It floods easily and the oncoming series of hurricanes that are lined up to punch the United States now are on the top of everyone’s mind.
While this end-of-summer escape is welcome, the travails of life remain. This time of year especially, the days around September 11, are times when we are reminded about the fleeting nature of our very existence and the fact that life commands us to enjoy every moment.
This awareness does not all have to come in tragic form. I formed a habit of quickly taking photos of the sand castles I help my children build, because before long one of my daughters will crush them quickly without hesitation. She is not yet four years old yet she is a destroyer of worlds. She has not yet grasped the value of leaving something behind that is beautiful in part because of its vulnerability. It is more fun for her to feel that collapse of the cool, wet sand under her feet.
Long Beach Island is a place where you will miss out if you don’t take the time to walk along the beach at night and enjoy the light of the moon reflecting on the ocean. It is where the best thing to do is to sit on the sand under an umbrella and attempt to clear your mind of everything. The beauty of the landscape belies the chaotic, violent, and tragic nature of our lives, which is why we seek to surround ourselves with beauty as much as possible. The world will hand us enough ugly all our lives.
In a few days my family will return to New York City, which has now been rebuilding for more than 16 years since the September 11 attacks. A whole new generation of New Yorkers are alive who did not know life before that day. Our responsibility, among many, is to give this generation an appreciation of all that we have given them as family and all that we have built as a people, because it could very easily not be here tomorrow.
Hauling musical gear on the back roads of the Connecticut countryside was satisfying. I followed my friend Steve past some interesting houses in the woods of Killingworth: one giant massive estate that was under construction was already completely out of place with the houses around it. Another house was built in a strange dome-shape, eccentric to the last.
We were done loading the gear for my friend’s big July 4th party. I invited Steve to join me for some pizza, but he couldn’t. He had to make a phone call to a friend’s mother. The friend was in Texas and had committed suicide. It was an online gaming friend; they had never met in person, but the loss was hard to fathom. The guy was young and had a lot to live for if he had only been able to see that. Now it was up to my friend Steve to try to console his friend’s mother. Steve has a lot of friends and cares deeply about people despite his cynical and jaded exterior. He’s a person people are drawn to and for good reason, but this also means he spends a lot of time facing life’s tragedies. He’s seen more than his fair share.
The day after July 4 my father flew into town and rented a car at LaGuardia airport. He came to our apartment in Queens and visited briefly with me and my wife and our two little girls. My Dad lives in Georgia and doesn’t get to see his granddaughters much.
Then we headed to Poughkeepsie for a wake.
Mickey Murphy was my father’s best friend. They had been friends since they were 13-year-old freshman at All Hallows High School in The Bronx.
Mickey and his wife Denise are my godparents and were a very good influence. They were adults that spared me the drama of regular hectoring and criticism required of parents. There are times in every person’s life when they hate their parents; but I could never think a bad thought about the Murphys Mickey was always a friendly face, a calm voice even amid the sturm and drang of adolescence. His wife Denise is the liveliest and friendliest person of every place she goes.
Mickey had diabetes and had not had an easy time of it. He had experienced heart surgery, kidney dialysis and a lot of other non-fun things. He’d be permitted a measure of self-pity about it but that was unthinkable. He was a constant doer of good and could keep his head up even through very bad times.
My father and I drove to Poughkeepsie talking about things to keep our minds off of our destination. We gabbed about the sorry state of politics, the health and well-being of our own family, how his granddaughters are growing and his difficult travel schedule.
At the wake the significance of the loss was evident. Whether people knew Mickey for 15 years or 50, they considered him their best friend.
I owe Mickey a lot, because he was always giving my father interesting books to read and helped shape him as a voracious reader in high school. Not too many 16-year-olds can tackle Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness but Mickey Murphy and my Dad did.
My father was asked to say a few words and he came with prepared remarks prepared. As per usual he made me very proud to be his son.
Here is what he said:
“I met Mickey in freshman year high school now more than 50 years ago. In the past few days many of our classmates have been exchanging reminiscences and nearly all of them recall his amazing abilities. One of us wrote that, given what Mickey could do on the basketball court as well as in the classroom, he was a kind of superhero to the rest of us. And that was true. I remember describing Mickey to someone once who said, ‘Really, a guy who can do everything really well, sounds pretty hateful.’ But in Mickey it wasn’t. He was a gracious man and there wasn’t an ounce of swagger in him anytime, ever. In fact, if there was a flaw to point to at all, it was that he seldom paused long enough to even take in the great thing he had just done before he went on to the next.
“Mick had a successful career at IBM before illness cut it short. He had a series of important positions in our Human Resources function and ended up as Director of HR for the company’s corporate headquarters division where he had responsibility for the global headquarters site in Armonk. When I asked him about his executive responsibilities he said, ‘It’s simple, it’s just the stuff you already know. ’ Mickey had a welcome sign placed at the desk in the headquarters lobby. So yes, that’s simple and it was certainly something that Mickey knew to do, but no one had thought to do that before. He carried a reflexive graciousness with him throughout his life and applied it everywhere.
“Thirteen years ago Mickey and I visited Ireland. The trip was a Christmas present from our wives. Neither of us had ever been and it was a pilgrimage of sorts. We visited our mothers’ birthplaces. Mickey’s mom’s in Charleville and my mother’s hometown of Roscrea. We also hit all the sites that would draw any self-respecting brooding romantic Irishman. We went to Kilmainham prison and saw the yard where the leaders of the 1916 uprising had been executed. We traced the bullet holes in the walls of the post office on O’Connell Street in Dublin. I remember joking that if we had to have all of the darkness of this heritage couldn’t we at least have some of the light? I get the brooding intensity and sense of injustice unpunished and all that but what about the mirth and the magic? Isn’t there supposed to be a pot of gold here someplace, Murphy? So I got him to go to the Art Museum. It’s really convenient being right here next to the prison. I insisted we go to the Abbey Theater in Dublin to see a play. True, it was a brooding tragedy about a dying young man, but it was the theater.
“This struggle between the darkness and the light – not letting one overtake the other – is something all of us of Irish descent inherit. We don’t always achieve a manageable balance and it can be a life’s work. There is one thing this week that gives me comfort. Today Mickey is with Our Lord of whom Scripture says, “In Him there is no darkness only light.” So we know that for Mick a perfect balance is now achieved and all the physical challenges he bore so graciously throughout his life are resolved. Because we understand the truth of the Resurrection, we know that Mickey is restored to the fullness of his abilities and all the great gifts God gave him just as he was when I first met him. This is a promise made to all of us and in the sadness we feel at having to say goodbye to our great friend, this gives us legitimate cause to celebrate.”