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.
A few years ago, I was crossing Madison Avenue at 23rd Street in Manhattan and had the ‘Walk’ signal. A car made an illegal left turn from 23rd Street onto Madison, coming inches from people who had the right of way in the crosswalk, and the driver had the chutzpah to honk his horn at the pedestrians he was nearly running over. I gave his car a nice kick as he passed only a few feet away from me, and the car stopped a few yards away. I stopped to see if the driver wanted any more deserved kicks, and he drove away.
The gall of this driver, to honk his horn at those whose lives he was endangering with his blatant lawbreaking, comes to mind when we look at how a sizeable portion of the public is reacting to the global COVID-19 pandemic, especially here in New York City where the outbreak is the most intense worldwide.
New York must abide by these rules longer than elsewhere, because the infection rate here is so high and we are such a densely populated place. It is not easy staying six feet away from people, but a lot of people are not even trying.
I want the pandemic to be over but declaring victory too early can be deadly and lead to a terrible second wave that could do more damage than the first. Reopening New York is going to be difficult and we cannot jump the gun.
And here in Queens, of all places, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the known universe, many of my neighbors have shown themselves to be severely lacking in basic common sense, feeling entitled to run roughshod over public health. My wife and I took our three young daughters for a walk to a park, this past week, hoping to bring them to a field where they could have some free time outside without violating basic social distancing standards. The park was closed, but people had hopped the fence to sit on picnic tables or play handball as if this were an ordinary spring day. There was even a couple riding bicycles on the sidewalk (that by itself is dangerous, dumb, and illegal) without masks on.
This was infuriating and discouraging. If people were acting this way in Queens, New York, where the problem is most acute, will we be able to contain this virus at all?
Wearing a mask in public not virtue signaling; it is basic common decency during an extraordinary time. Being asked to wear a mask in public and keep away from others is not akin to slavery or the Holocaust (yes, people are really making those comparisons) any more than upholding basic law and order is modern day slavery or Nazism. If anyone questioned whether the American right could impotently cling to victimhood like the American left, COVID-19 erased all doubts.
My sister gave birth to a baby girl earlier this month. She went through labor wearing a mask. My father and stepmother have only visited their new granddaughter from a safe distance; they don’t know when they are going to get to hold her for the first time, it could easily be months from now. They do not like things being this way but protecting the health of others is not a tough choice for them. It shouldn’t be a tough choice for anyone.
Intelligence is not weakness; refusal to listen to informed experts is not rugged individualism. It’s not outrageous to be concerned about government power and to look skeptically at public panics, but the experts weighed in on this long ago and the danger is real. Do not follow these COVID-19 precautions out of an unthinking obedience to the government, but out of an obligation to your friends and neighbors.
Part of being all in this together means we adhere to basic community standards, and those include the supremacy of truth and obedience to the basic social contract. It means acting as if you are responsible for the well-being of a larger community, even if many in that community think their convenience is more important than their own lives or the lives of others. If you really want to defend freedom, you first must act like a responsible adult.
We are not lost when such people appear, we are lost if we acquiesce to them. Letting science deniers or “Covidiots” as they are being called, dictate the terms of our dealing with disease is like letting children run the schools.
In his novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein describes the breaking point when lawlessness and irresponsibility triggered groups of veterans to start taking the law into their own hands; their emergency measures eventually become the rule of law. If our hasty re-opening triggers a deadlier and more economically disastrous second wave, we will need to keep in mind this essential passage from Heinlein’s work: “Moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level.”
It is time for the grown-ups to step in. There may not be a swift, satisfying kick we can deliver to the “Covidiots” dotting our landscape today like we can with a car that sails through a crosswalk against the light, but it is past time to stop tolerating the intolerable. Allowing the public health to be subverted by reckless fools is not freedom, it’s suicide.
I had promised myself I wasn’t going to spend money to see the Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor fight. McGregor is a great mixed martial arts fighter and proud Irishman but a perpetual shit-talker who took the low road in promoting this fight. Floyd Mayweather is one of the best boxers the sport has ever produced but is a wife-beating jerk no sane person wants to make richer.
But some friends invited me to meet them for the fight and I enjoyed seeing Conor McGregor’s last fight with them, so I met up with them at Hooters of Farmingdale on Long Island.
There is no charming way you can tell your wife you are going to Hooters. I have disliked Hooters because I think if you want to go to a strip club you should man up and go to a strip club. Hooters wants to treat its waitresses like strippers but not pay them like strippers. But I wasn’t going to argue against a night out.
The great racial divide in America was easy to divine looking at the dining room of Hooters, which is a better place to take the pulse of the nation than The Palm Court at the Plaza. I think I saw two tables that were not racially homogenous. There was no bad blood that I saw. No one had any harsh words for anyone else, but the essential tribal nature of human life was on full display. Some of the white customers had t-shirts that read ‘Fook Mayweather,’ poking fun at McGregor’s Irish brogue while insulting the experienced boxer. When Mayweather won the fight, a black customer at a neighboring table stood on his chair to gloat.
America’s house is definitely divided, even the Hooters on Long Island. I was expecting there to be more quality fights in the parking lot than on the pay-per-view screen; likewise with the crowd at the fight in Las Vegas. It didn’t play out that way. There was no violence at the Hooters at the end of the night, just people settling their bills and going their separate ways.
We all like to think that we’re the open-minded exception to the pervasive divides of our time, but we all have an intrinsic need to draw our lines and take an accounting of our allies and enemies. You are forced to choose sides in life once fists start to fly, even if you are disgusted with the whole sham.
I certainly wanted McGregor to win. No self-respecting Irishman would root against him, no matter how obnoxious his pre-fight conduct was. But wanting him to win and expecting him to win are two different things, and the odds were such that I would happy if he lasted more than a few rounds.
After a long undercard and several helpings of wings and appetizers, it was time for the fight. McGregor went 10 rounds in his first ever professional boxing match with a fighter who is arguably one of the best ever. Mayweather came out of years of retirement to fight one of the best combat sports starts of today who is more than a decade younger. They both walked out of the ring with their heads held high, and rightfully so.
After the bout, both fighters were gracious and respectful. It was heartening to see these men be civil after spending months insulting one another. Then again, they had exploited America’s great racial divide to make millions of dollars on a fight that had no business taking place.
The crowd dispersed to either curse or celebrate the fortunes of their proxy combatants, but those fighters came away the big winners. And therein lies the more telling divide: the millionaires in that fight have more in common with each other than they do with anyone who shelled out for the pay-per-view. A foreigner who was on welfare five years ago and a black man who can barely read rode this race-baiting shit show all the way to the bank and had the last laugh on the rest of us. That’s the American way.