Hater you participate

I consider it a thing of monstrous arrogance to support a political candidate because he or she agrees with me. For starters, my judgment is compromised in dozens of ways. I take it for granted that I’m misinformed, and woefully ill-equipped to untangle the sort of knotty problems that leaders face. John McCain stands out as a political figure whose positions on things I hardly ever agreed with, but what would it mean if I did? Our frames of reference couldn’t have been more different. He was a hothead warrior who went on combat missions in Vietnam. I’m a writer, musician, and aesthete from Northern New Jersey. Instinctively, I didn’t think his disposition was very well suited to the jobs he wanted. I’m sure he would say the same thing about me, only with much greater vehemence. Maybe we’d both be right.

So I am not eager for a replica of myself to attain ultimate political power. I feel that would be a disaster for everyone. My positions on the issues, such as they are, are pretty much what you’d expect them to be given my temperament and my geopositioning. No big surprises there, and not too illuminating. Some of my friends who identify as socialists have periodically expressed frustration and disappointment with my willingness to cast votes for corporate-party candidates — they see that as an unacceptable compromise with a value system that I don’t share. I get that, and I do understand why they can’t find it in themselves to abet the rise of whichever Clinton or Clinton-like individual is asking for their support. It hurts their souls, and I don’t like to see my friends accrue soul bruises.

That said, when it comes to elections, I am 100% realist, preferring to save my flights of fancy for the recording studio or boardgames or story hour. I am not going to pretend that there aren’t but three possible outcomes to the national election in November. Either the incumbent will win himself a second administration, or Joe Biden will win himself the opportunity to set up a new one, or, because of the public health crisis and related disasters, electoral democracy will crater and there won’t be a vote at all. Honestly, I doubt that the third thing is even a possibility, and I spent some time in my last dispatch explaining why we shouldn’t want that to happen anyway. Utopia is not dawning in that direction. Trump and Biden are the only two people with a shot at winning Election 2020, and the chance to make an intervention in that binary choice passed us by months ago. It’s going to be one or the other, so you’ll either have to pick the one you believe will be a better steward, or, if you think they’re both equally bad, you might cast a vote for a protest candidate with no shot at winning, or just sit this one out.

But… if you’re taking that position in 2020, I have to admit that I don’t believe you; not entirely, anyway. American politics is not a math problem, politicians are not integers, and no two possibilities are ever equally bad. Even if we can agree that our system is no longer delivering us palatable options, the way in which those options are bad will still differ, and as citizens invested in the health of the republic, we ought to be able to discern which of the unappetizing choices we’ve been served is more digestible. It’s actually our responsibility to do just that. If the nation is poised to travel down one of two paths, it really doesn’t do us much good to insist on the merits of a path that we’re not going to take, or stand at the crossroads and throw a tantrum because neither road is lit with fairy lights.

In November 2016, I voted for Hillary Clinton. I didn’t do that because I believed we shared the same quadrant of the Nolan Chart, or even because I wanted to see history made. I did it because I didn’t think her opponent could do the job. New Jerseyans had been privy to a view of Donald Trump that other Americans weren’t; we had a good idea of his limitations and a strong sense that he lacked the crisis management skills that are mandatory for a chief executive to possess. Many of the intuitions I have about famous people, mediated as they are through publicists and prejudices, turn out to be wrong. In this case I was right, and then some. My sense is that some of those whose image of the President was formed by game shows and television appearances are waking up to his incapacity. Maybe they aren’t. Regardless, it seems that the reelection effort is determined to make an issue of Biden’s age and mental frailty, which seems awfully strange to me, given that the President is neither young nor sharp. He appears to be inviting a comparison that flatters nobody. And it occurs to me today, on the Fourth of July of the twentieth year of the twenty-first century, that that might be the exact plan: discredit the Presidency, make it all seem like a pointless joke, further depoliticize people, shake their faith in the process and get them to sideline themselves. Democracy dies by attrition. Those who don’t want you to exercise your rights will celebrate your discouragement.

Eventually, systems are judged by the results they produce. By that standard, our electoral democracy isn’t doing well. It keeps empowering people with iffy ethics, deep tribal allegiances, and very little interest in unity. But even among unappetizing options, gradations still exist, and it is always worth remembering that the name on top of the ticket isn’t all you’re voting for. You’re also voting for the many people who’ll attend to the President, and have the President’s ear, and will determine the direction of the President’s policies. Republicans didn’t vote for Stephen Miller directly, but Stephen Miller is what we got, and it’s certainly what we’ll continue to get should they return Trump to office in November.

Certain wishcasters have revived the theory that Trump will stand down. Polls haven’t been wonderful lately, and he doesn’t enjoy the grind of the Presidency, so why wouldn’t he spare himself the aggravation? I don’t doubt that the President is having a lousy time, but I do think it’s a huge stretch to imagine he’d ever let go of power voluntarily. It’s clear that he recognizes that he’s been saved from prosecution by the immunity conferred to him through his office. The moment he returns to private life, he’s going to fly straight into a spiderweb of court cases — and he’s not going to have a subservient attorney general at his disposal. But no special counsel or Congressional investigation or, God forbid, military or police coup was ever going to oust the President. The only one with the power to do that is you, and me, and everybody else with a vote. They’re going to do everything they can to make you believe that vote is irrelevant. But it is relevant. Its relevance exceeds that of any other tool we’ve got at our disposal. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t be trying as hard as they are to discourage us from using it.

The Tulsa trap

About a month after the 2016 general election, George drove me home from practice. He was, as we all were, very worried about the consequences of the decisions that the country had made and the experiment in extreme laissez-faire that was about to commence. The American governing apparatus, he believed, was a machine too powerful and too globally consequential to put in the hands of an operator who refused to read the owner’s manual. George felt that it was likely we wouldn’t live to see the end of a Trump Administration, and ticked off the ways it could all go wrong. There could be an atomic attack, or an old-fashioned nuclear accident. Social divisions could be exacerbated to the point of violent insurrection. Rollback of environmental protections meant that we stood a pretty good chance of getting poisoned in one way or another. George — and I recall this clearly — also predicted that the country would be unprepared for a pandemic.

Politicians make scary choices. Those in power are always threatening our lives, and livelihoods, in one way or another: prioritizing certain groups at the expense of others, making decisions that expand or contract different segments of the economy, stoking the engines of their future campaigns with the hot coal of public discontent. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chief executive do anything as deliberately, unforgivably, irrationally dangerous as the boneheaded thing that Donald Trump is determined to do tonight.

We don’t know everything about the coronavirus, and we’re unlikely to get a complete picture for years. But we’ve developed a workable transmission model, and that model tells us that packing thousands of unmasked chanters in an indoor arena — and keeping them there for hours! — is indefensible. That the White House feels at liberty to act in contradiction to the germ theory shouldn’t be a surprise; nevertheless, the brazenness with which they’re flaunting their defiance of basic science in the midst of a pandemic that has already affected millions of people worldwide is breathtaking in its irresponsibility. Some of the people who’ll attend tonight’s rally no doubt believe that prayer will see them through. I’ll be praying for Tulsa, too. I pray that they remember that God gave them brains, and He expects them to use them, even when the authorities refuse to use theirs. Especially when the authorities refuse to use theirs.

I try not to write about the President. This disinclination of mine isn’t hard to maintain, because the President does not tend to do interesting things, or say interesting things, or make choices that are salient to the health emergency we’re facing. Since he lacks organizational skills and intellectual discipline, I didn’t expect him to make a productive intervention in the progress of the pandemic, and boy howdy, he has not. All I ask of this administration and its enablers is that they don’t exacerbate a terrible problem. They’ve failed to clear that very low bar. Tonight, they don’t even plan to jump; they’re just going to run straight into the bar at top speed.

You may suspect that they have genocidal intentions. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, but.. that gives them too much credit. There’s no plan I can see other than the consolidation of power at all costs. They’re more than happy to throw you straight into the volcano to appease the hunger that remains their only motivation. The President’s poll numbers haven’t been good. He wants a televised rally, because television and rallies are all he understands. If he has to jeopardize or even sicken people to get what he wants, well, that’s tough luck for America.

Defenders of the administration are using a tit-for-tat argument: they feel that the recent street demonstrations have given them authorization to stage an event of their own. If you can set aside the batshit insanity of this and look at it squarely, it actually tells you a lot about the mentality of the President’s supporters. They’re not interested in scientific models and probabilities; they’re not interested in the pandemic at all. They’re certainly not interested in social justice movements. Everything in the world is filtered through a simple, elemental calculus — does the item under consideration help Donald Trump, or does it hurt him? Entrenching the President’s position becomes the foremost priority, and all else is secondary, including a global health crisis that endangers everybody on the planet. It is astonishing to me that any politician can have this sort of effect on his followers, let alone one who doesn’t seem to be able to string together a coherent sentence, but here we are. Trump has an uncanny ability to draw objects of all sizes into a dark orbit around him. Don’t get caught up.

The beat goes on

Businesses in New York City reopened yesterday. Our side of the Hudson is coming back to life, too. There was a party on the block this weekend, and I don’t think anybody really minded. A few countries have managed to knock out the virus altogether, at least for now: New Zealand, for instance, announced a temporary eradication. Some European cities that were bracing for a June spike have found that the second wave hasn’t materialized. Some lockdowns have been lifted, others have just been allowed to lapse. People are back out on the street in Jersey City, and New Jersey in general, some masked, some unmasked, many absolutely determined to have a summer as long as the pathogen cooperates.

Elsewhere, the picture isn’t as pretty. The Johns Hopkins tracker reveals that America has flattened its logarithmic curve, which means that the virus isn’t spreading exponentially anymore. But new cases, new hospitalizations, and new deaths keep right on happening. Attention has turned to the protest movement, and the coronavirus has become something of an afterthought, even as the American case count reaches the two million mark. We might be forgiven for taking our eyes off the ball: it’s been a grueling three months, and if the epidemiological models are accurate, we may face another tough period ahead once the summer is over. Nevertheless, it’s more than a little dispiriting to see American officials behave as if the mission has been accomplished.

It has not. In New York and New Jersey, the caseloads continue to decline, but they’re hovering quite a bit above zero; the plane hasn’t touched ground yet, and we all feel the lurch of every sudden updraft. Elsewhere in America, the picture isn’t too pretty. The rolling five day case average in Texas reached a new peak last week. After a May plateau, numbers are climbing in Florida again, and Florida has consistently underreported and obfuscated, so it’s a safe bet that conditions are worse than the government admits they are. North Carolina, which never completely closed, is reporting three times the number of coronavirus cases as it did in mid-April. I don’t even have the stomach to look at the Arizona graph. My hope is that none of these places will have to suffer the extreme hardship that we did: we’ve got a better transmission model in place now, and viruses don’t like June weather. But it helps nobody to pretend that the crisis is over and it’s time to move on to juicier stories.

We don’t know yet whether the protests will drive a surge in cases. I believe those of you who’ve argued that activists have taken prophylaxis more seriously than the government did, and those who’ve distributed sanitizer and face masks at the rallies are definitely doing the Lord’s work. Most of the protesters have been young and healthy, and even as they’ve chanted in unison, and many of them have respected distancing suggestions. Nevertheless, given what we know about asymptomatic spread, it’s virtually certain that some transmission is happening at the street actions — especially when authorities have become confrontational and tipped the marches into chaos. The action in Jersey City drew a huge crowd to City Hall this weekend: people came to say things that they were absolutely driven to say, even in the face of lethal peril.

My sense is that some of my neighbors will call that an irresponsible thing to do, and I certainly understand why. But the plan was never to stay inside forever. We were trying to buy ourselves some time to figure a few things out, break old habits and learn some new ones, and apply what we’d learned to any subsequent re-engagement with public culture. That work is incomplete at best. But we’re not Taiwan, and we’re not New Zealand. In America, we get by on a little bit of information, a little bit of prayer, and a whole hell of lot of unstoppable forward momentum.

Screwed up

Forgive me if everything I’m about to write is redundant to you: if you follow pop news, you probably know all of this already.  Yet the overlap between the music press and mainstream media is not as great as those of us who spend our mornings reading Okayplayer and The FADER often imagine it is, so it’s possible that your account of the life of George Floyd isn’t as complete as it could be. In case this is new to any of the people who occasionally read this page, I’d like to explain.

George Floyd was a genuine affiliate of the Screwed Up Click. He was a high school athlete in Houston, but he was a rhymer, too, a participant in the creation of the Screw Tapes that rechanneled the flow of hip-hop. For those who aren’t aware, the late Robert Earl Davis, better known as DJ Screw, was the facilitator of an expressive movement that gave a voice to places that most of the rest of the country, and even the rest of the city, hadn’t heard. George Floyd, or Big Floyd, was from one of those places: Third Ward, the Cuney Homes. He had a tale to tell. DJ Screw provided a platform, and a matching, marvelously illustrative sound. 

That’s what Screw did for many, many rappers, some of whom, like Lil Keke, Z-Ro, and Lil Flip, would go on to achieve some measure of national recognition. But none of the members of the Screwed Up Click, including Screw himself, achieved a fraction of the fame that Screw’s method did. DJ Screw slowed down his beats quite radically, sometimes to a poured-molasses crawl, and he favored rappers whose rhyme styles suited the pace he favored. That meant thick-voiced rappers, wary rappers, low, rumbling, cautious baritones, ones with the heaviness of hot and humid summer nights in their voices. Big Floyd had a voice like that: his was perfectly suited for the chopped and screwed treatment. While Screw was the visionary, it’s fair to say that he achieved the sound he was going for – one he developed over the course of making hundreds of tapes – in collaboration with the vocalists he recorded. Tape distortions and synth-signals pulled like taffy, or dripping on the tarmac like melted ice cream, and plaintive, soulful, aggrieved Texas vowels: from those building blocks, Screw built an aesthetic that is now embedded in the hip-hop vernacular. You can hear the echoes in Drake’s artfully-muffled production, or see reflections in Kanye’s candy-coated paranoia, or Future’s digital masks, or fellow Houstonian Travis Scott’s own fantasies at the meeting point between the steaming street and the oil-black Gulf Coast sky. It’s a provocative sound, a beautiful/disgusting sound, a disorienting and pained sound, full of suffering and longing, and unfulfilled promise, and fear, and everything else that makes hip-hop the great American art form it is. George Floyd was part of that.

Even at the time, the chopped and screwed style was associated with a specific drug: lean, that purple drank, promethazine with codeine, mixed in a Styrofoam cup with plenty of crushed ice and a jolly rancher for flavor. Some Southern rappers called it barre, or syrup, or sizzurp, and those who partook would get “throwed”; everything pleasantly, or maybe not-so-pleasantly, slowed to a near-halt and rendered irreal. The psychedelic applications of Screwed Up music is immediately apparent – it’s an altered state in progress, the mind playing tricks on you, and word was always that Screw’s music never sounded more appropriate than it did to those under the influence. In 2000, Screw overdosed on sizzurp, forever cementing the association between slowed-down Houstonian underground hip-hop and drug addiction. But if getting throwed was all there was to the Screw Tapes (there are 350 of them!), their significance to hip-hop history would not have been nearly as great as it is. Like all great drug music, from Pink Floyd to P-Funk to Lana Del Rey, the Screwed Up sound is less a celebration of hedonism than it is an exploration of a particular state of consciousness. What does it feel like to be alone and hunted, in the small hours, on a hot street in the summertime, when all you can feel is the beat of your heart and your fear that you’re in somebody’s crosshairs? What does it feel like to be observed, even as you can’t see who is looking at you?  How long do the moments stretch when you’re afraid? How hard do you tug on the second hand in an attempt to stop time when you feel like you’re slipping, inexorably, toward the edge?

These were the beats that Big Floyd – George Floyd – rhymed over. In strict adherence with H-Town tradition, he rapped about his aspirations, his skills, the pride he took in his block, and his faith that he’d have a future worth inhabiting. There’s always something liturgical about the rapping on Screw Tapes, as the rappers bring out H-Town signifier after signifier, the draped up and dripped out paint, the barre, the gold grills, the smooth conflation between the ornamental car and the decked-out human behind the steering wheel. In verse, Big Floyd knelt at every station with the peculiar combination of awe and confidence common to true believers everywhere. As he did, Screw swung around the hammer: the big, slowed-down beats that stood in for those crushing, pile-driving pressures that dented the lives of the artists he worked with. We all find the churches that suit us, and Screw’s was a wide one, a beautiful one, a brave one, and ultimately, a realistic one. George Floyd was not an atypical parishioner, and eventually the prophecy inherent in the music came true for him, just as it came for Screw himself.

I was just a kid from urban New Jersey when I first heard Screwed Up music. Three decades later, I am no kid anymore, and I’m no less pale-faced. I don’t get throwed; I don’t even take aspirin. But I hope that true Houstonians will forgive me for saying that I felt this music from the moment I heard it, and I further feel that my understanding and respect deepens with each trial I face. I felt I knew exactly why Screw slowed the beats down, and why the emcees sounded so burdened, even as they rhymed about liberation through drugs, through fast cars, through their own outsized talents. Superficially, my life experience might not share much with that of George Floyd, but I know what it is to have a story to tell, and to search for a sound that matches my own sense of destabilization, and alienation, and my worries about my place in a society that never seemed to have any use for me. I know what it’s like to be told to shut up and go away, and to go right on talking nevertheless. And I know that’s precisely where fascism starts: first, the speaker is discouraged from telling his story because of who he is, or how he speaks, or his association with an unfavored class or group. You’re told that your voice is illegitimate, that you’re unworthy, or you’re too stoned, or you’re not man enough, or you aren’t using the right kind of language. For most, that discouragement suffices. Others continue speaking, right up until the day they feel the knee on their neck. You may feel it too, right now. You might be pushing through that same shortness of breath. You march for George Floyd, you march for Third Ward, you march for DJ Screw, you march for hip-hop, you march for me. I thank you. God bless you.     

Interiors

On our trip back from the ocean, we stopped at a classic Jersey farm stand in the Monmouth County suburbs. It seemed like a decent bet. We’d been there before, and it had always been wide open and well ventilated. Very few people on the highway sidewalks (the farm stand, like so many south of the Raritan, is right on a busy highway) bothered to wear masks, and fewer still proceeded with the sort of social distancing paranoia that’s now commonplace where we live. No creative avoidance techniques while walking, no hesitation huddling at a bus stop, no panicked crossings of the street when another pedestrian approaches. Granted, all of that is much harder to do on a highway than it is on a city block. There’s often nowhere to pivot that wouldn’t put a walker face to face with a delivery truck.

The stand itself was crowded with shoppers, mostly seniors (the town is old) hustling together bundles of shoots for their gardens, bags of dirt, sea-blue paper containers of cherry tomatoes. The pace was springlike, cheerful, leisurely. If it wasn’t for the masks, dispensers of hand sanitizers, and the visible nervousness of the checkout people, it could have been mistaken for an ordinary day at a typical market in easy driving distance to the shore. It struck us that it was only the store’s policy that compelled customers to cover their faces. They knew they could not get service without a mask. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have bothered. These people were through worrying — if they were ever worried in the first place.

Cases are down. Perhaps our safety measures have made a difference, or maybe this virus, like other viruses, doesn’t care for June. We in the Garden State have managed to slow an invader that had us flat on the canvas for awhile. I reckon it was the development of a transmission model and our own behavioral adjustments that helped; that and the change of seasons. You may have a different account of things. Perhaps you credit your neighbors, or your doctors, or a merciful God. All that matters to me is that you give credit to somebody, and you don’t forget the precise dimensions of the pressure-cooker we were all trapped in. There’s already an effort underway, driven, no doubt, by leaders who don’t want us to think too hard about their performances, to fog our memories: an instant revisionist account of the crisis that suggests that the measures we took were extreme, or overblown, that it wasn’t all that bad, and we were always bound to survive it. That might play in rural Kentucky. It shouldn’t hoodwink anybody in Jersey.

A few days ago we went to a car dealership on Route 22. This was our first extended trip to an indoor space since February. Like many Jersey businesses, they were desperate to reopen. They had been trying to sell cars by phone, which had been a financial disaster, and confusing for everybody involved, too. The phone solicitor assured us that the facility was spotless, and regularly sanitized, and masks were mandatory. New car salespeople fib professionally — that’s part of the job description, and it didn’t surprise me to find that the particular car that we’d been promised to see was not present on the lot when we arrived. The interior of the dealership was open and airy, but I was suspicious of the ventilation anyway, haunted as I am by the now-famous diagram of the Chinese restaurant where virus-saturated air was re-routed from the tables of shedders to the uninfected via the pipes. The salespeople, much like the customers at the farm stand, wore their coverings like they had to: some kept their noses free throughout, as if it was a chin strap, some took their masks off to talk on the phone, and one had a mask with an opening in the front, like a coronavirus-era Lucha Libre. The main man at the dealership — a sterotypical sales hotshot — didn’t bother with the mask at all. His reasoning was written all over his bare face: I just moved ten tons of steel in February, I’m top sales rep, I’m top dog. No virus is gonna get me.

Our own saleswoman kept things as respectful as she could. She kept her mouth covered, and her nose (mostly) tucked in, and her voice down. Any time we expressed any discomfort, she tried to accommodate us rather than assuage us. Perhaps she was assigned to us because it was apparent to the dealership that we’d respond better to kindness than we would to pushiness; regardless, it was a good fit. A half an hour into the transaction, our conversation turned to the virus. She told us that she’d been as careful as she could, both at home and at work. Then she told us why: she’d lost a son. If I hadn’t had on sunglasses, and a KN95, she would have seen that I’d begun to cry. But she didn’t, so we completed the deal.

Operation shutdown

If you follow New Jersey news, you’ve probably encountered Gustavo Martínez Contreras. He’s a multimedia reporter for the Asbury Park Press, but he mostly covers Lakewood, and Lakewood is a place that regularly makes the news. There’s been more than a little virus in Lakewood, and Contreras has been on top of that story. His bilingualism has been an asset in a changing Ocean County, and he put it to excellent use in Mexico City after the 2017 earthquakes. He brought back some stunning, stomach-churning photos of the wreckage, and helped alert the world to the devastation there. On Monday night, Contreras was working closer to home: he was shooting the protests in Asbury Park, which is exactly where you’d expect a reporter to be. He was doing his job. For that, he was arrested, loaded into a police van, held by the cops overnight, and accused of failure to disperse. This charge is major b.s., and if it was ever widely enforced, would make it impossible for a reporter to get a story.

Which may be the plan. All over the country, journalists are getting arrested for photographing, or filming, or reporting, or just acting the observer in the place that their occupation requires them to be. NeimanLab records over a hundred instances of police assault on working journalists over the last four days. Something has shifted. It’s not inconceivable that there’s been a coordinated effort to target reporters, but I think it’s more likely that many rank and file cops have concluded that anybody with a camera is an enemy, and anybody with a camera and a platform needs to be silenced, or at least scared shitless.

The relationship between reporters and policemen is a complicated one. It’s not necessarily adversarial: those tales of cops and scribes drinking together and swapping notes are, in my own Jersey newsroom experience, absolutely accurate. Policemen are often sources for journalists, and sometimes, journalists are the sources for police. Beyond that, cops and reporters are tied together by their duties to the cities they’re professionally obligated to serve. There’s a common acknowledgment that both jobs are difficult, and require daily strolls through gray areas, and the strange precincts of distortion and confusion. Policemen know that if they don’t have confidence of the city — if they lose their legitimacy as arbiters — a tough role gets much tougher. That’s why they’ve always kept the lines open with news desks and cable stations. The better the cops look, the more moral authority they wield, and nothing makes the cops look good any quicker than a favorable A-1 story.

Or perhaps that only used to be true. Perhaps cops have decided that they don’t care what members of the community think of them anymore. Maybe they believe that as long as they maintain the upper hand, might will always make right, and if people don’t like it, too bad, here’s some tear gas for your face. This would be consistent with trends that have recently swept right across America, and that includes American newsrooms. If a break has happened, I don’t think there’s any way to overemphasize its significance to American democracy, or whatever is left of it. Journalists are the eyes and ears of the city. A real journalist — one who goes out, talks to people in the community, and brings back a story — is an indispensable person and a load-bearing pillar of public culture. He might make his agenda apparent, but he isn’t driven by it; he’s not a desk pundit or a professional opinion-haver. Instead, he’s going to throw himself into the middle of the fracas, try to orient himself, and hammer together something approaching objective truth. Then he’s going to sing his song back the way he heard it — no matter who it pisses off.

Beat cops ought to understand and sympathize with that. When they do their jobs right, they’re actually up to something similar. They have ideological proclivities just like the rest of us do, and that’s natural, but when they’re out on the street, they’ve got to assess everything they encounter as objectively as they can. When they put the blinders on reporters and stuff videographers into squad cars on ludicrous charges, it is a dead certainty that they’re not taking that responsibility seriously. They’re leading with prejudice, and applying authority, and sometimes lethal force, in ways that they wouldn’t if they were using their heads and behaving fairly. They’ve decided that a class of people — African-Americans, or socialists, or the destitute and homeless, or journalists — are the enemy, and they’re the good guys, the boys in blue, and entitled to treat that underclass however they see fit.

A police force that has arrived at this conclusion is worthless to a city. Nobody but anarchists like anarchy (and in practice, even anarchists rarely do), but it’s actually safer for the people if a force like that was simply disbanded. Suspicion of the growing prejudice of the police is the entire motivation behind the recent wave of protests. We’re worried that our local protectors have decided that they’re our judges, juries, and occasional executioners, and the killing of George Floyd, captured on camera in graphic detail for the whole planet to see, demonstrates for the umpteenth time that those worries aren’t paranoid delusions. We fear that a combination of militarism, surveillance and plain old American arrogance has turned the police into the advance guard of an armed force in a culture war that nobody in his right mind wants to fight. Every time they cuff a journalist, they reinforce those fears, and hasten the collapse of civil society and accelerate our descent into mindless, muscle-bound autocracy. If they want to avoid that outcome — and believe me, they used to — they’ve got to let reporters take pictures, and write stories, and, whenever necessary, hold them accountable.

And if you see Gustavo Martínez Contreras, give that poor guy a pat on the back. Sorry you had to go through that, man. Failure to disperse, sheesh.

Uprising

History suggests that pandemics are followed by civil unrest. I still didn’t think that the upheaval would arrive quite so soon, or quite as forcefully, as it has. Well before the first wave has passed, protesters, some masked and some extremely unmasked, are out in large numbers, shoulder to shoulder, shouting, engaging in activities that are guaranteed to spread around the pathogen. Given the transmission model we’re working with — one that seems pretty accurate — I can’t envision any way they could have mounted a real street action without also advancing the march of the coronavirus. A global crisis that’s already out of control is likely to be worsened by an American political crisis that also demands a response. And America was already sick and reeling.

Public outcry operates on no particular timetable, not even one established by an alien invader. No matter how violent this insurrection gets, it’s important to remember that it began in response to an act that was utterly unconscionable. Many people — African-Americans in particular — are terrified of the police, and we saw exactly why. We further recognize that when authorities exert extreme and prejudicial force, they need to be challenged. Otherwise, the problem worsens: cops already prone toward civil and human rights violations feel emboldened. Policemen can’t be allowed to kneel on the necks of American citizens, or stand by whistling Dixie while one of their crew carries out a brutal public execution. George Floyd’s murder can’t be waved away without a reprisal. The die was cast the moment he suffocated under the officer’s knee. There were going to be protests, they were going to be out on the street, and they were going to get ugly. In the midst of a pandemic, police cannot exacerbate problems we’re already struggling with, or throw more kerosene on a fire that nobody has been able to put out.

I would very much like to see protesters maintain social distance, and behave in ways that won’t spread a communicable disease. I’d like many other wildly unrealistic things, too. Efforts to contain the epidemiological damage that’s going to be done by the protests are, I’m afraid, on the shoulders of the cops, who need to understand that the pain is real, and warranted, and worthy of expression. The police need to operate with a light touch, and avoid tipping marches into chaos and fear. A mass of people marching and shouting in unison is fortuitous enough for the coronavirus; a mass of people running, screaming, and shoving is about as fertile a ground as any pathogen could ever want. In the much-maligned Jersey cities of Newark and Camden, there wasn’t any violence or chaos, and that’s because police marched alongside the protesters. Those officers didn’t pledge their allegiance to a badge and uniform in defiance of common morality. They did what all representatives of the law should. They saw criminal behavior — the cold-blooded killing of a man on the street — and they stood against it. That’s really all we ever ask of them.

For personal reasons, I had to take a four-day break from posting to this space. I hope very much that I won’t need to take another. I don’t want to go too far into it, but I do appreciate your well-wishes. At the time the protests first broke out, I wasn’t even aware that they were happening. I wouldn’t have been any help anyway: I’m not a street fighter, or even a behind-the-screen ideological warrior. I’m a Carly Rae Jepsen fan from North Jersey, and a hazardously gentle person. But I know that street fighters are slugging it out for me, and for people like me, just as I know that Nazi-punchers are, absolutely, punching people who’d like to see me dead. I am proud of you for fighting; me, I’ll keep on writing. It’s obviously what I was put on earth to do, because it’s the only thing I’m any good at.


Shore leave

A half block from the beach, the fog began. From the south side of Stockton Lake in Manasquan, the leading edge was visible, streaming through the branches of the shade trees and the low roofs of the buildings of the National Guard station in Sea Girt. Manasquan is renowned for its surf break, and beachgoers with boards tucked under their arms pressed undeterred into the mist. Others hung on 1st Street, near businesses arranging street-side pickup, and businesses that were simply open to the public, as they would be during a typical May. No one wore a mask.

I had mine. I would advance along the boardwalk with the lower part of my face shrouded, and big silver sunglasses over my eyes. That was the plan, anyway; a fulfillment of my long-standing inclination never to go to the Jersey Shore without a suitable disguise. We parked the car by the wooded crescent in Sea Girt and headed to the ocean. But when we got to the boardwalk, we found that it was closed. All points of entry were fenced off. Only access to the beach was available.

We tried Spring Lake instead. There, the fog was even thicker — California thick and cotton-blanket heavy, a frothy intersection between earth, air, and water, a message from the mermaids that summer isn’t here yet. Not so fast, pal, you’ve got some weeks to wait. Only a few blocks away, on the less picturesque side of Route 71, the sun was shining. By the Wreck Pond Inlet, it was nearly a whiteout. We mounted the steps to the boardwalk, only to find that the Spring Lake boardwalk, too, was fenced off. Clambering through the dunes has always been discouraged, and after Sandy, I’m pretty sure it’s been made illegal. There was nowhere to go but the ocean, so to the ocean we went.

It was not a happy sea. At the Jersey shore, it rarely is: even on placid July days, these mean Atlantic waves will rough you up. Little kids learn about riptides fast, sometimes through hard experience. Two years ago, my nephew was caught in one, and had to be rescued by my sister. I felt for him, because I, too, once found the beach so dull that I was perpetually on the brink of drowning myself. As a young person, I didn’t like day trips to the ocean — I felt that the environment muted my few marks of distinction. There was no way for me to compete with the surfers or the sunbathers or the volleyball players. So I waited it out under the all-exposing sun until I could remove myself to the nearest shadowy area. But Hilary loves the beach, and if I was ever half as pretty as she is on her very worst day, I’d probably feel the same way. After seeing it from her perspective, I changed my tune, and began to shake hands enthusiastically with some of the Monmouth County shore towns she’d fallen for: Ocean Grove, Avon-By-The-Sea, and especially Spring Lake, with its broad and winsome avenues, its green lawns and its rock jetties, its bakeries and its austere boardwalk.

Signs in Sea Girt advised visitors to the beach to wear a mask. Nobody did, but the official encouragement suggested to me that we hadn’t left Hudson County so far behind. Spring Lake passed along no particular advice. I stayed masked all the way down to the surf, and even as we turned north and walked parallel to the ocean, I kept it on. I was the only one. There was no question about social distancing on the beach, since few people bothered to brave the fog, and those who did were camped out pretty far from each other. Those who made the morning trip were treated to a rare sight. The view was blurred in both directions. Sunlight filtered through the fog and reflected off the waves and the sand. All along the indefinite, permeable line between white sky and yellow beach, everything resolved to mist. Waves seemed to tumble directly out of the clouds. Elements were scrambled; laws of physics didn’t apply; we walked together into a tidal dream. I thought of a much-mocked line from one of my favorite songs by my very favorite band — the one where the mountains come out of the sky and stand there. Nature is its own psychedelic trip, especially by the shore, where intense visual effects come in with the current.

Alas, we are not fairies of surf and sky. We’re flesh and blood, and as such, we’ve got to do all-too-human things. It’s hard to use public restrooms without freaking out — even under normal conditions, they’re never entirely sanitary, and in the midst of a pandemic, they’re no place to be caught without a comprehensive exit strategy. I wasn’t going to chance it. Instead, I courted Lyme disease by venturing deep into a thicket by the Wreck Pond, far out of sight to everybody but the birds and the bugs . In the most 2020 act I can imagine performing, I peed in the woods with a mask on my face and copious amounts of sanitizer in my pocket. Public urination is always frowned upon, especially in a place as orderly as Spring Lake. I apologize. I hope they’ll understand the extenuating circumstances. Otherwise, they can send me a ticket.

Spring cleaning

Hilary woke up and began to put the flat back together. She swept and washed the floors, cleaned the inside of the stove, applied a coat of polish to our table. She gently encouraged me to think about things that I hadn’t thought about in awhile; for instance, why has there been a big stack of compact discs on the floor near the compact disc collection for months? I suppose I’d been waiting for the day when it was clear to bring them to Tunes in Hoboken. Now, I’m just hoping that Tunes sees fit to re-open.

Together we tackled my closet. With nowhere in particular to go, I haven’t dug too deeply into my piles of t-shirts or pants; I’ve felt like whatever is on top is crisp enough to meet the moment. I’ve been wearing the same stuff in a seven-day rotation since late February. It was nice to re-engage with the clothing I’ve got, and remember that the clothes at the bottom of the closet have just as much right to be put on as the ones at the top. We said goodbye to a few shirts that I’d worn out, including some that have been lurking in the shadows since the 1990s. It’s very difficult for me to part with anything made of cotton. Each article of clothing feels like an unambivalent expression of love. Presents given to me by Hilary — shirts, bathing suits, pajamas — need to be torn in half before I’ll give up on them. There are things completely beyond repair that are still on hangers because they’re comforting to see in my little closet. Before I place an article of clothing in the rag basket, I like to clip out a square of fabric and place it in a small wooden box. I call this the Shirt Museum, but there’s more than the ghosts of buttoned-down shirts in there: we’ve got a swatch from Hilary’s old plaid robe, a skirt she wore to class, a bit of a floral-patterned umbrella, the “J” decal from a Loud Family concert tee, a hieroglyph from an Egyptian-themed towel that was the first one we ever shared, many years ago.

Straightening up is a hopeful thing to do. In it is the faith that the next day we have together, and the day after that, will be beautifully ordinary: we’ll sit in our usual chairs, play a game on the table, open the windows, make a salad, enjoy the prettiness of our place, without fear of alarm, or sudden misfortune, or any other sharp turn of fate that will demand all of our attention. It’s possible to be clean and disordered, which, to us, isn’t much more comforting than orderly cleanliness. There is a tonal difference, we’ve learned, between the panicked disinfecting of surfaces that might have been touched by the coronavirus and the leisurely resetting of parts of the house that have gotten scrambled up by circumstances. When you really love your home, every spatula has its special place, and restoring them to where they belong is an act of grace.

Personal grooming is another thing altogether. For my own sanity, I try to avoid my reflection, because I never like what I see, but in recent weeks, it’s been downright horrifying. It’s a relief, in a way, to go outside masked, because it means I don’t have to confront my neighbors with my terribly unsatisfactory face. Public demand for haircuts has been a leitmotif of the last month or so — it’s been given by the unscrupulous as a reason for breaking quarantine and premature reopening. I don’t get it. Haircuts are going to do nothing for our haunted expressions. Beauty comes from peace, alacrity, and self-possession, all of which are in short supply at the moment. Our intention today is to pay our first social call since a party we went to in early March: it’s Steven’s birthday, and we’re planning to meet him by the East River. I’ll be masked, but I’ll still want to be vaguely presentable — I’ll find a shirt that’s pressed, and a pair of pants with some definition, and shoes suitable for a walk. Maybe I’ll put a flower in my hair. That’s better than a cut, anyway. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a suitable blossom. It’s May, after all.

Chloroquine revisited

It is hard to overestimate how wonderful it would be if hydroxychloroquine worked. The long search for a pharmaceutical intervention in the progress of the coronavirus would come to an end, not with a new compound that’s difficult to manufacture, but through the re-purposing of a fairly simple one that’s already in wide use. It would be an epidemiologist’s dream come true: a cheat code to the pandemic, a plot twist at the end of a feel-good movie. We already know what the drug does, we know its risks, and we know it’s pretty well tolerated. Hydroxychloroquine can be dangerous, but it’s not the sort of pharmaceutical that turns the patient inside out in order to cure her. It’s cheap, and, like all treatments administered by pill, it’s quick and easy to administer. There’s not a doctor alive who wouldn’t be delighted to share the good news with her patients.

Unfortunately, there’s still no evidence that it does any of the things that its proponents say it does, and there’s mounting evidence that it doesn’t. The latest medical publication to cast doubt on the usefulness of hydroxychloroquine is the Lancet, which just published a large observational study about the drug. The doctors who ran the study looked at hydroxychloroquine taken in isolation, and hydroxychloroquine taken with azithromycin, an antibiotic that has also been anecdotally linked to the alleviation of coronavirus symptoms. The bottom line: neither approach worked. Patients given hydroxychloroquine, in any combination, had significantly poorer outcomes than those who weren’t.

Hydroxychloroquine enthusiasts responded as they always do: angrily, and with absolute conviction that they know how to run medical studies better than those trained to do just that. The study was too big, or it wasn’t wide enough, or the timing was all wrong, or they didn’t give the proper combination of supplementary drugs in the proper sequence, or the results are automatically disqualified because the Lancet is in the pocket of a pharmaceutical industry looking to push vaccines instead. The theory among those who take a ride-or-die view of hydroxychloroquine is that the drug creates conditions under which other drugs — zinc, in particular — can interfere with the replication of the coronavirus, but if that process is started too late, the progress of the pathogen becomes irreversible and no amount of medicine can help. A study that focuses on people who’ve already been hospitalized isn’t useful. They’re too far gone. The hydroxychloroquine needs to be given during the first stages of illness, or even prophylactically, in order for it to do any good.

For researchers who want to take hydroxychloroquine seriously, this creates a methodological problem. Early-stage or asymptomatic studies aren’t easy to conduct. The coronavirus is a very dangerous pathogen, and case fatality rates and hospitalization rates continue to be scarily high, but most of the people who get sick aren’t going to die, and they aren’t going to be hospitalized, either. Most of them are going to recover on their own. Patients who never get seriously ill may attribute their recoveries to hydroxychloroquine; they might just as well put it down to prayer, or fresh air, or a lucky rabbit’s foot. This puts those who are committed to touting hydroxychloroquine in an unassailable position. If a patient takes the drug and dies, well, too bad, that meant he started too late. Only those who take it and survive are worthy to be counted, and when they’re counted, their recovery is attributed to the drug.

Logic like that might be gratifying to entertain, but it’s medically useless. It generates the sort of tautology that I associate with the Catholic Church at its worst. If a patient recovers, that proves faith in the drug is properly placed, and if she doesn’t, she must have done the drug wrong. Humans are faulty; only the drug is unquestionable. Those doctors and researchers who doubt the power of hydroxychloroquine aren’t just incorrect, they’re downright evil: they’re participants in a grand global scheme to suppress a cure.

Is this possible? Sure it is; the history of the world is full of examples of large groups of people doing pernicious things. But I do wish that the many who commit acts of casual calumny against the Lancet, and other publications like it, would understand the breadth of the accusation they’re making. They’re not merely accusing doctors, researchers, and drug companies of conspiring to kill millions. They’re suggesting that people who are actively involved in the treatment and attenuation of the pandemic would be unwilling to take a simple measure to check its spread, thereby putting themselves at greater risk of catching the coronavirus and dying horribly. I am a paranoid cuss, but that’s a bridge too far for me.

I don’t believe the burden of proof always falls on the skeptics. I just think that if you’re going to make a world-shattering claim in the face of good evidence to the contrary, gathered by professional evidence-collectors, you ought to have the common courtesy to back it up with something substantial. Anecdotal accounts from country doctors aren’t going to cut it. We’re all frightened, and we’ve got good reason to be; we’re going to be rummaging through the ammunition drawer for magic bullets. Alas, viruses are rarely defeated outright by a pharmaceutical. Even vaccines are only partially effective. The way we beat this thing is by putting in the work — wearing masks, and keeping our distance and behaving responsibly, reconfiguring workspaces and redefining the idea of work, improving ventilation, and making sacrifices to drive the reproductive rate of the coronavirus down to zero. None of that has been fun, and the things we’re going to have to do in immediate future won’t be fun, either. But it’s all necessary. And I can’t help but notice that some of the loudest advocates for hydroxychloroquine have been people who don’t like to put in work — lazy people, ones who’ve made careers out of cutting corners and chasing easy solutions for complicated problems. I don’t expect them to back off any of their claims, because that would require them to think, and act, and those are two things they’re always reluctant to do. Just remember when you hear them talk: if they were right about the game-changing powers of hydroxychloroquine, the pandemic would be over by now.