Tag Archive | New York

Clawing our back to a “new normal”

Early in May, I returned to a company office to work for the first time since March 2020. The company I worked for at the time is headquartered in Times Square.

The earliest express bus that comes through my neighborhood arrived at 6 a.m. and it was at about half capacity—pre pandemic this bus would often be close to full capacity, even at that early hour.

Times Square is never empty, but the crowds did not meet the massive levels that were typical in the time before COVID-19. That will likely start to change as NYC declares a larger reopening. In the few weeks I’ve been working a few days in the office, the crowds in the streets have been getting larger.

New York’s reopening is picking up steam, there’s still a lot of damage assessment going on in real time. The go-to salad place across Broadway in Times Square I was hoping to visit shut down; luckily, the Times Deli on 44th near Broadway survived, as have several halal carts. But some places are gone and not coming back for a while, and those places that are open are in some cases struggling to find workers.   

I switched jobs in mid-June and the company I work for is smaller and not pushing people back to the office. I usually go into the new office once per week, and that’s because I have band rehearsal in midtown Manhattan. This past week, I ventured into Manhattan after hours because someone at my new job is leaving, and there was a farewell party for him at a bar. It was the first-time meeting some of the coworkers I had been working with for three weeks.

Connolly’s Pub on 47th Street near Madison Ave. was doing good business on a Wednesday night. They were short-staffed but their harried waiters were working hard to keep up. I saw few customers wearing masks. More than two decades ago, I went to Connolly’s to see Black 47 ring in the Year 2000. If the Y2K threat—a threat that seems trivial and quaint compared to the problems of today—was going to wipe out civilization as we knew it, I was going to out with a pint in my hand and rocking Irish rebel tunes ringing in my ears.

And it may be many more months before I work in an office with any regularity with my new coworkers. The “hybrid” working model of combining home and office work should become the “new normal” of the post pandemic world. Things were headed in that direction before Wuhan bat stew threw the globe into a tizzy, and the model was proven during the past year and a half of lockdowns. Especially now as people see opportunity to leave their current jobs, companies are going to compete for workers and those trying to push people back to the office will   be on the losing side when other things appear equal.

It was interesting from a corporate perspective to see how different companies handled the “back to work” question. More modern tech companies like Facebook quickly gave employees the option of working from home for as long as they wanted. It was more old-school companies like JPMorgan that have been pushing for people to come back to the office.

As before, cultural life is the vanguard of New York’s general wellbeing. If people feel safe enough to cram themselves into Broadway theater seats, we’ve entered the post-pandemic world. Broadway is reopening slowly, with different productions coming back at different times.

Free Shakespeare in the parks has returned to the Delacorte in Central Park and in Queens the Hip to Hip Theatre Company announced they have approval for in-person performances from Actors’ Equity and will be performing productions of Twelfth Night and Antony & Cleopatra. That’s good news for a city that needs it.

Live music is coming back as well. In May I went to the first live music show in nearly a year and a half at the Shillelagh Tavern in Astoria. The bands were great, and it was a catharsis to feel the blast of the music and see people I hadn’t seen in person in so long. I’m happy to report that Blackout Shoppers already have two shows booked for August. Every week it feels great to rehearse and make music. We were able to take our girls roller skating at an outdoor rink on Father’s Day at the TWA Hotel, where I actually used to go to work some days when it was still an airport terminal. One more outing in the emerging world.

There’s not going to be a sudden flip of the switch to reset our world back to normal; we’re going to have to work and scrape and put it back together ourselves. Our work is cut out for us, but it is underway.

Vaxxed to the max

We’re approaching the end of the biggest global pandemic in more than a century, and New York is ready to dive into Spring and Summer with renewed fervor.

Much of America is reopening prematurely, with some states flouting mask mandates and common sense the way they have for the past year and a half.

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio declared we would be fully reopen on July 1, which is about eight weeks from now. Not to let a deadly pandemic stand in the way of a pointless pissing contest between awful lame-duck officials, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is hoping for a full state reopening before July 1.

People can’t wait to do normal things again and I can’t blame them. Recently, a large free concert was held in Tompkins Square Park featuring popular New York Hardcore bands Madball and Murphy’s Law. It was a crowded and largely mask-less affair, with the usual mosh pit and stage diving and a crowd that would not have been able to socially distance within the confines of Tompkins Square Park and still see the stage. Videos of the concert were shared widely online and there was a lot of heavy criticism of the event. No way were any reasonable COVID protocols observed, and in a group of that size at this stage its unlikely that there was a 100% vaccination rate among participants.

The Parks Department gave a permit for this event, and then declared it was investigating it and pulled permits from upcoming shows. I’m not sure who the Parks Department would investigate besides itself—it gave a permit for the event and then was shocked that people actually showed up for it after a year devoid of public concerts. The most rudimentary Google search would have informed the powers that be that these are popular bands, and this was likely to have a large turnout.

And worse, the upcoming concerts that the Parks Department canceled are likely to be smaller events with greater likelihood of social distancing.

But despite this malarkey, this is a good sign. It means we’re in a transitional period and moving back to a time when having public gatherings and concerts will be commonplace again. People are aching to make music again, yearning for the New York City Spring and Summer of outdoor drinking and music and fun.

Living in Eastern Queens and having a car made things easier to schedule, and my wife used the TurboVax Twitter feed to learn of openings at SUNY Old Westbury, and she let me know. Within a few minutes of her telling me, I had my appointment, though the time slots all near hers had been filled and I had to go hour later. Still, I grabbed it.

The early days of the vaccine rollout were rough, but by early April things were running very smoothly in New York. I was seated and ready for my shot within a few short minutes of arriving at the mass vaccination site. When I returned for my second shot three weeks later, I was given the dose even faster.

 It’s been two weeks since my last shot, and I’m vaxxed to the max and ready to rock and roll. I’m still making up indoors and keeping one ready if I get close to people outdoors. And honestly, I’d like to stay six feet away from everyone else forever.

But life won’t stop and clawing our way out of the pandemic means getting vaccinated and keeping with some of the habits we developed during the past year. It’s gotten easier to do.

Get vaccinated, you filthy animals.

A death in Whitestone

A mile and a half from where I live, at the same intersection where I’ve used the ATM countless times and taken my children for numerous fast food happy meals, a man was killed outside a bar after being punched in a fight.

A 35-year-old-man punched a man 20 years his senior. The older man fell to the sidewalk, striking his head; he was pronounced dead at Flushing Memorial Hospital soon afterwards.

The local news media picked it up because the assailant who has been charged with assault in the case is a New York City firefighter. Even though the person he stuck was dead, he walked out of jail a few hours later—New York City’s revolving door of justice works its magic. He claimed to be acting in self defense.

Whitestone is a more suburban area of New York City. It has a downtown area like that of a village you would find on Long Island or in Westchester County, and most neighborhoods consist of single-family homes. The affluent Malba area of well-heeled mansions is part of Whitestone.

While it does not have the cultural cache of Manhattan or the trendy panache of Brooklyn, I take heart on knowing that the Parkside Lounge a half mile away from me puts on great punk rock shows, and that Dee Dee Ramone once lived in Whitestone. It also has nice parks, good public schools walking distance from our home, and

There are many nice features of Whitestone, Queens, but it’s also a place where you will wonder how so many wretchedly stupid people manage to live in nice houses and drive expensive trucks. There is a bogus working-class posturing on the part of upper-middle class people here, a vociferous ignorance that cannot be excused by poverty combined with a shallow cultural posturing that consists of thickly pantomiming stereotypical New York mannerisms. Because they live within the boundaries of the five boroughs of New York City, they think they need to size everyone up for a fight even when they are buying groceries.

When you love something, its faults drive you all the crazier because they blemish something you cherish. That is one of the reasons why this death outside of a bar in one of the outer boroughs is more troubling besides being literally closer to home.

Though I left the drinking life more than a decade ago, I cannot deny the good times that they have given me and the central role they still play in cultural life. It was in a dive bars that I helped form punk rock bands, got ideas for poems, traded quotes from “Repo Man” with both financial journalists and bouncers. Dive bars are the respite that people have needed from their daily grind for decades, and dive bars in the outer boroughs is where you can find the soul of New York City trying to drink off its last hangover. I don’t know if they have good punk rock shows at juice bars and I’m not going to find out.

I remember being alone and living in New York City on my own for the first time and meeting a friend from work at the Wee Pub in Ozone Park one Saturday night and it was a rambling joy that made me feel like I was home. Years later, I met up with friends and toured all the dive bars we could fine in Hell’s Kitchen. I’ve spent countless hours in some of the seediest drinking holes in the city and regret not a minute of it. 

So, if we’re ruining dive bars, we are ruining life. Our civilization will not function if people don’t decent, affordable places to drink.

New York City will survive and thrive again. If anything be sacred, let it be our dive bars.   

2021 New Yorker’s To Do List

Happy New Year from New York City, where neither the Coronavirus, incompetent leadership, nor burgeoning crime can kill us. We have been through a lot over the past year and will go through much more before our current pandemic is over. Things may never return to pre-pandemic “normal” again and that’s not all bad.

We will not let the stressful state of our world stop us from listing some priorities for the New Year. Here are what I see as our guiding principles for 2021:

Stay frosty. I am fortunate that I live in a region where facemasks and social distancing are both the law and the social norm. That is fragile even here and even more difficult in areas where anti-maskers/science deniers have a greater dominance. There is no such thing as being too careful about your health when there is a once-in-a-century pandemic happening. Seriously, no matter your political proclivities, do you really feel the urge to be closer to your fellow man right now? I hope not. Keep your distance and wash your hands. Here is your chance to mouth a hearty “fuck you” to half the people you meet behind your fashionable mask. Stick to it because this is not over yet.

Read more poetry. This oft-ignored form of literature is much more diverse than it gets its due. We need poetry and the madness of literary dreamers now more than ever. You could do worse than perusing Impolite Literature or Outlaw Poetry.

Pursue the things you miss most. This pandemic has left us hungry for things that we miss. It’s has shone a big spotlight on things we love and hate. Remember the things you miss the most and chase them with dedicated abandon. I plan on spending more time making music than I have in recent years. I could never tear myself away but having played only two shows in 2020 has left me with a fever for being back playing shows, no matter how small the stage or the crowd. Some people need to be loud. Maybe you rediscovered a passion for painting pumpkins or making weird videos or trying to grow ghost peppers in your garden. Go for it all.

Chasing normal for normal’s sake won’t work. I miss the benefits of the non-pandemic life but working 12-hour days without seeing your family is bullshit, no matter how much money you make. Just because it bears that pre-pandemic shine does not mean it’s Shinola. Some of the stuff that COVID kicked to the curb belongs there. Leave it.

Don’t wait for the pandemic to be over to reach out to family and friends. You do not have to do a Zoom call or a Skype call for everything. Use your telephone the old-fashioned way and call people. You will find it be a refreshing exercise. Convert the tiresome Zoom calls into regular visits; we can build better rituals in the flesh when that becomes possible again.

Order as much takeout as you can eat without becoming obese. Our favorite local diner cannot let us sit inside, so I brought my girls there this morning and we ordered takeout and had a car picnic in our mini van before driving to an aquarium. Those restaurants that are able to stay open are hanging on for dear life. If you can afford to give them your business, please do, and tip generously.

Time is getting shorter for everyone; and we have put enough of our lives on ice. Grab the New Year by the lapels and make it dance with you.

Dispatches from the Secret Playground

Thanksgiving came and went with still much to be thankful for in New York, at least for my family. While a second or third Coronavirus raged through the city, our immediate family remains healthy and those in our larger family circle that have been ill have recovered.

Everyone in our family has food in their stomach and a roof over their head. Even before COVID-19 rampaged through the world there were billions of people who could not say that much, and that’s getting worse now. I am gainfully employed and have not been sick and have more than enough food; I am thankful.

New York perseveres, but suffers a crisis of confidence. While we were the first place in the U.S. to see widespread COVID infection and death, we were the first to “flatten the curve” with social distancing and masks. Now we’re having a critical relapse with a spike of infections. Schools closed, now are reopening again in a swift reversal of policy. Crime continues to surge.

And all the while, we see thousands of our fellow New Yorkers not taking their own lives seriously. A Hasidic group worked secretly to arrange a large indoor wedding, sans facemasks, and was given a slap-on-the-wrist fine. I go food shopping and see people who can’t wear a facemask properly going about their business in blissful, entitled ignorance.

Yes, we’re not supposed to be judgmental during these difficult times, but this pandemic has revealed just how many of our fellow human beings are unfit to breath the same air.   

Having children in a city apartment can be trying during good times; it has been especially trying during this extended pandemic. What we have though is a place we call the secret playground. It’s not really a secret playground, but a little-used playground in a neighboring co-op that we’re not really supposed to use. The old fogeys that run the board where we live did away with the playground for our building years ago, so to use a local playground is to be an automatic scofflaw.

But I take my girls to the secret playground as often as I can. There are rarely other children playing there, so I can let my kids take down their facemasks, if our family is alone. Usually a few residents will walk through on their way to and from their homes, and we’ll put our masks back up as they come through; they are still almost always more than six feet away. It is an oasis that the unseasonably warmer November weather has given us access to and I don’t want to let a single good weather day go to waste as we endure another lockdown.

Sometime next year, we will hopefully begin adapting to a post-COVID world, and some things we will want to stay the same. I’m not alone in hoping that the world remains one where we’re given more personal space and take extra steps to reduce indoor crowds and make spaces safer, with better ventilation and more protections. These are good ideas outside of pandemics.

And therein lies the appeal of the secret playground: it is a respite from the current world and a model for how to best rebuild when we emerge from our currently dismal state. We cannot live in a bubble world, but we can look at our better adaptations of today to keep our joy and our priorities in line with where we need to be.

New York schools are still suffering from COVID

There are signs hanging in my apartment building that have been there since March. They read: ’15 Days to Flatten the Curve’ and they are a cruel reminder of our country’s failures in the months since. It’s not clear if COVID-19 will be under control at the 15-month mark from this past March. Broadway shows announced they will be closed through May 2021.

New York City was the center of the Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Our country’s most vibrant and the cultural capital of the planet, its shutdown has been an albatross around the neck of America. If our greatest city can’t get its shit together, what hope has the rest of the U.S.? Whereas New York has proudly led the country in decades past, we are instead forecasting its tragic bungling of a global pandemic.

Evidence of that tragedy has extended to our own family’s approach to public schools.

The New York City public schools have had no bigger advocate than my wife Emily. Raised in Queens and a product of New York’s public school system, she often mentions our good local schools as a major selling point when we discuss the future as parents. She believes whole-heartedly in public education and the ability of public schools to make a difference in people’s lives. This school year she is home schooling our kids.

My wife’s belief in the power of good public schools has not changed. New York City public schools had a ham-handed approach to school reopening that left us unconvinced that our kids would be returning to a safe environment or in a way that was manageable.

When the COVID-19 lockdown started in March, few if anyone thought that we would still be struggling with it by the start of the next school year. So the kind of planning for a socially distant learning scenario didn’t get started on time. The schools in New York provide a lot of vital social services, which is why city officials were slow to close them in March and which motivated them to put too much emphasis on making in-person learning part of the reopening plans.

The plans that the city came up with were haphazard and half-assed. It was a convoluted combination of in-person and remote learning, neither part of which the city was adequately prepared for.  Kids were supposed to report to school for three days and then do remote learning from home two days, alternating days by weeks. People like us with multiple children in the same school faced the prospect of juggling different childcare schedules in addition to navigating multiple remote learning systems. Days before scheduled schools were set to reopen, teachers asked the city to delay; the promised safety equipment and extra hand-sanitizing stations that were supposed to be in place were not.

Seeing this chaos in the wake of the poorly and dangerously executed school closings from earlier this year and the worsening situation in the reopening, our family chose to home school for a year. So far it’s not perfect but it is going well. My wife keeps the girls busy every day with some kind of learning, much of it hands-on in parks or nature centers. We can supplement the home learning with limited classes offered by local institutions; my wife is finding a way to get it done.

The city’s approach hasn’t worked, up to 150 public schools have had to close since reopening due to staff and students testing positive for COVID-19. The schools have not handled the increased numbers of homeschooling well either. My wife gave the school adequate notice that we were homeschooling this year, but weeks into the school year we got a call from the school asking why our children were not logged on remotely.

This virus is still wreaking havoc on the country and people want to blithely act like it is not happening. The city, like much of the country, is still struggling with lockdowns and virus containment. We had all hoped to be getting “back to normal” months ago; whatever version of normal returns looks to be well into 2021.

In the meantime, we’ll be teaching our kids at home.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

The courage to chase dreams

A high school friend of mine worked as a successful lawyer for roughly the past two decades. He won a great ROTC scholarship in high school. While in the U.S. Army, he went to law school. After serving in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, he worked as an attorney for the Department of Defense before going into private practice law.

But change has come. My friend gave up the life of an attorney to chase his dream of being a radio D.J.

“Because terrestrial radio is such a big thing now,” he joked.

Today commercial radio is a ghost of its former self while music streaming services dominate music landscape. But people still do make a living as radio D.J.s, why shouldn’t he? He took classes at a local broadcasting school and has managed to cobble together an income from various sources—a few nights hosting a lotto drawing here, running a bar trivia night there, he’s not homeless or starving.

Another friend also took a similar plunge, working in comedy and going for broke. Show business is a brutal and heart-rendering business that leaves some its most earnest and talented people out in the cold. My buddies have no illusions they face an uphill battle, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.

I yearn for the courage that my friends have shown.

I moved back to New York for several reasons, but one of them was to seek fame and fortune and become a great American writer. We writers are a hopeless romantic lot, even those of us that like to paint ourselves as curmudgeons. Even the most anti-social hermit scribbling away in obscurity harbors dreams of being the stuff of book covers and bookstore postcards someday. Any writer that tells you they do not dream of somehow writing themselves into immortality is a liar. Like all artists, we hope our work will live after us and testify to the improbable infinity that we lived.

One of the problems with creative people is that many of us spend more time dreaming and pondering than working at our craft in a way that is productive. We have overly romanticized notions of what our craft is, that it somehow exists in a sphere outside of the normal marketplaces and human conditions. Crash landing into the realities of business and the arts is a hard thing, but the worthwhile things are always hard.

I am in the same boat with so many hopeful others. My dreams have tempered a bit. I will settle for not being the next Jack Kerouac or William Faulkner, but I still hope to make a living creatively, by doing work that is creative, artistic in nature or at least taps into my talents to write about things that I find legitimately interesting.

I am very lucky in the life that I have. I have a great family and group of friends; my health is good; I can say with confidence I will go to bed tonight with food in my stomach and a roof over my head. And yet, there is the dream I must still chase. I’m not low on ambition, but on direction and focus.

Despite all the reasons to be jaded and negative, I live with the confidence in my own creativity and the ability of New York to feed our greatest ambitions. Wish me luck and hard work.

 

Trump to New York: Drop Dead

Among the political headlines that screamed from the shameless ramparts of social media over the past few weeks, one news story that added to the four-year hate on Donald Trump was his switching his address to Florida from New York. It was a minor note that was lost in the partisan volleys regarding impeachment, with Trump complaining via Twitter that he has been treated unfairly by New York City and State leaders.

Donald Trump became a household name in the U.S. with his television show, “The Apprentice.” But New York has been familiar with Donald Trump much longer than the rest of America. For most of my adult life he’s been a tabloid figure, a willing mouthpiece for morning radio and other fodder for the endless chatter and ego jousting that hangs thick in the atmosphere of the city.

New York politicians were happy to take jabs at Trump’s repudiation of his home state. “Good riddance,’ said Governor Andrew Cuomo.

There are three reasons driving the move and Trump’s timing of it.

Distracts from the latest circus. Trump made the move during the week when several career, nonpartisan government officials were telling Congress about Trump’s conduct related to the Ukraine, the impetus for the current impeachment effort. Trump found an alternative instance to claim that Democrats were treating him unfairly, helping him construct the conspiratorial framework he’s hanging his entire anti-impeachment platform on: that the system is corrupt and everything is being driven by political machinations on the part of Democrats.

Helps with reelection in Florida. Trump did not win New York State and has little hope of doing so, but Florida is up for grabs and is a much needed piece of his reelection puzzle. His move aligns himself with the large population of transplants who fled to Florida from the Northeast.

Saves him money on taxes. This is probably the most important factor driving Trump to the Sunshine State. He’ll save significant money on taxes. New York State has a much higher tax rate than Florida, and if you can pick an official residence between the two, New York will lose out every time on tax considerations.

New Yorkers who don’t like Trump would like to disown him, and act as if he is some rare aberration who does not reflect at all on the five boroughs, but we can’t.

We can’t act like we’re the trendsetter and the capital of the world and then pretend that the leader of the free world, a native of our city, is somehow not a part of us. Yes, New York is more diverse and the focal point of a lot of worldly art and culture, but human nature doesn’t change, and New York is every bit as tribal and parochial as the rest of America. The partisan divide that creates ugly scenes across the country is present here also.

Landlords like Trump are slightly less revered than rats and muggers in New York. Trump’s rise in presidential politics is an indication of the complete dysfunction and utter detestability of our political class, not from any sheer genius on his part.

Atop of all the other controversies surrounding the Trump administration at the time, his moving his official residence to Florida is small potatoes. It was in the media for a day or two and wasn’t even the lead story those days; then it was gone. There are more important stories to chase during this absolutely bonkers administration, and political griping and standard tax dodging would just don’t fit the bill in these strange times.

No one can honestly say Trump is not a New Yorker. He’s one of us, and we can’t brush him off like yesterday’s news. The city helped create him; it was our tabloids that made him a celebrity and grew his name recognition for decades. It was our political leaders that constantly sought his donations and took their picture with him.

President Trump is thoroughly ‘Florida Man’ now, but he’ll always come stamped with the “Made in New York” label.

 

The gritty oasis of Liberty Place

The Financial District in New York is known for large office towers of glass and marble facades of old buildings. It is considered the epicenter of the financial world.

Many of the large banking institutions that comprise the symbolic “Wall Street” are located in midtown now. And very little actual stock trading happens on Wall Street itself. Most actual stock trading happens on giant data servers in New Jersey. But the name is going to stay and new banks will move in to replace the old ones.

There is a charm to lower Manhattan that is missing from midtown and other parts of the island. The streets retain the narrow dimensions of the early Dutch settlers, and now they are lined with tall buildings instead of brick homes. The chaos of the streets is part of what makes it different. You have to know where you are going, and the logical numerical grid of midtown is choked off for good farther uptown at Houston Street. South of there, you have to know where you are going.

Lower Manhattan retains some of the old world charm of the early settlers, even though Manhattan today looks nothing like it did when it was New Amsterdam. You can still see remnants of Revolutionary War history and the days of our nation’s founding. If you are close enough to Battery Park, you can wander away from some of the tourists to the Korean War Memorial or one of the gardens that are quieter, or see working bee hives.

An additional charm to lower Manhattan generally and the Financial District in particular is the scattered network of small alleyways. When I first started working downtown, I had more time to take walks on my lunch hour and whenever I came across a small alley I had not experienced before, I had to walk down that alley. It still seems a sin not to.

Near where I work now is one such alleyway: Liberty Place. It’s among the alleys that populate lower Manhattan and serve as secluded getaways that are enticing for midday walks.

Forgotten NY points out that Liberty Place used to be called Little Green Street and dates to the era of the early Dutch settlers. People who walk or drive on the extremely narrow, one-way street are traveling where there once was a graveyard and Quaker meeting house.

I make a point to walk down Liberty Place whenever I can. It’s an oasis of old New York City grit in a scrubbed land of tourists and high finances. I often smell skunk weed and see people taking a break from work. The people who linger there are sharing a joint, drinking discreetly, or making a phone call away from the usual noise and bustle of the New York workday.

And even though I don’t drink or smoke weed I walk down this alleyway feeling I am among my people. I also would rather loaf and feel at ease and spend my days enjoying the random beautiful madness of our city streets rather than sit at a desk and answer emails for hours. I too should have stayed a rambling, impoverished poet looking for eternity in the eyes of strangers.

Liberty Place is just that, a place we can seek a breath of liberty even within a shadowy alleyway. I try to make it part of my daily routine, another way to get through the everyday and be a tourist in your own city.

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