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 down 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 plainly 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 — an already 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. Our 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.

The mayor and the governor

Columbia University came down hard on Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio on Wednesday night. I only wonder what took them so long. Their report reveals that the Governor and the Mayor dithered in the face of the crisis, and suggests that if they’d acted sooner, they could have saved more than fifteen thousand lives. I was right here in the New York metro in early March, and I can confirm: dithering happened. I believe that Cuomo and DeBlasio feel worse about this than the President does about his own inaction. Right now, though, I’m not too concerned about anybody’s feelings. It’s all the same to me. They can take it up with their psychotherapists if they’d like to.

The Governor and Mayor have excuses at their disposal that the President doesn’t, and they’ve been availing themselves of them. Nothing they’re saying in their own defenses is inaccurate. The state of New York has no central intelligence agency (although I wouldn’t be surprised if one was getting put together right now) and no access to the sort of classified analysis that comes across the desk of the chief executive in Washington each morning. We don’t expect Albany to keep spies in Wuhan. New York received no guidance from the federal government until it was far too late, and even then, the official response was confused and flailing at best. A national crisis plan never came.

None of that gets Cuomo or DeBlasio off the hook. Risk assessment is the chief executive’s primary responsibility. He’s there to cushion the shocks and smooth the path so that the rest of society can function. That’s his main role as a public servant; everything else is secondary. Neither the governor nor the mayor anticipated or managed risks well, and yes, the incoherence of the administration in Washington was, and is, absolutely one of those risks. The governor of New York has had three years to study the Trump White House. He could not have seriously thought that help would be coming in a crisis. The moment he heard about a breakout in China — December 2019, surely — he needed to swing into action. That goes double for DeBlasio, because there are few places on earth as vulnerable to pandemics as the five boroughs. He had to make sure that New York City was supplied and ready.

When the mayor and the governor attempt to reassign blame to the President, they don’t sound all that different than the President does when he tries to reassign blame to the Chinese Communist Party. They’re looking to distract you from the gamble they made — a gamble that has blown up spectacularly in their faces. They knew that a lockdown would damage their popularity, and for a modern public figure, popularity is everything. We already know that the President is willing to chuck everything into the fire in order to ensure his re-election; that’s been established dozens of times over, and only a sucker or a cultist would have expected responsible behavior during a global health crisis. Cuomo and DeBlasio play the statesman better than Trump ever could, but neither passed the guts test. It would have been brutally difficult to put the squeeze on New York in February. We would have hated them for it. But that’s what we elected them for: they’re there to absorb that hate. They’re there to do the right thing, at all times, including times when the right thing is hard to do.

New York is the world’s capital of commerce, and those chosen to lead the city are representatives of the commercial sector as surely as they’re representatives of ordinary residents. I get it, and I understand that neither Cuomo nor DeBlasio wanted to piss off the captains of industry in Manhattan who were, and are, determined to stay open for business. But regardless of whether we measure the bottom line in dollars or human lives, inaction is going to prove much more costly than a heavy hand would have. Cuomo has been discouraging hindsight, as you might imagine he would, and as a chief executive in a time of crisis who is not actively encouraging his constituents to drink Clorox, he’s kept his approval rating high. Nevertheless, just as America leads the world in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, New York leads the nation. Those are rude facts, and they aren’t budging. Eventually, there’s going to have to be a reckoning.

INXS

There are people in America who fear that a coronavirus vaccine will be spiked with silicon tracking devices that will record every step they take. Yet they already carry objects in their pockets which do exactly that. Technically, they could leave their phones behind when they go out, but do they ever? A few manage to disable or scramble the homing signal, and if you’re one of them, my hat is off to you for your ideological consistency. I get it; I really do. In the midst of a pandemic, I can’t say I sympathize, but I know where you’re coming from. The rest of you: I don’t get it.

Whether the government keeps a file on you is debatable. We know they’ve got the technology, but can they acquire the inclination? If they outputted your data from the corporate mainframes where it’s stored, would they even know what to do with it? I’ve always felt that if those in power really wanted to screw with me, they wouldn’t bother to assemble a dossier: they’d just do it, and they’d worry about justification later on. That’s the way that the authorities operate, I’ve noticed — they go ahead and do what they want to do, and send in the clean-up teams later if they have to. Generally they don’t have to. There we are, flat on the macadam with the bulldozer treads in our backsides, and in no position to lead the resistance. KRS-ONE explained all of this to us in the late ’80s, and in rhyming verse, no less. Thirty years on, I’ve seen no indication that anything he told us was inaccurate.

No, data, like everything else, is only the authority’s friend when it can be marshaled to support what the authority is up to. When it can’t, it’s just drowned out. Executive regimes, I notice, are hanging on to the massive power they’ve accrued by their fingertips, and with gritted teeth, and public relations is an indispensable ingredient in the binding agent that keeps the governed stuck to the governors. For instance, it’s almost certainly true that the State House in Tallahassee has suppressed the number of Floridians who’ve died from coronavirus complications. The chief medical examiner even said so earlier this month. Now we learn that they’ve canned the woman who operates the dashboard of their virus website. She wouldn’t cook the books for them. She’ll be replaced by someone who will.

The minimizers — and they’re legion — accuse New York and New Jersey of inflating our death counts. We’re electorally insignificant, so they don’t mind kicking us while we’re down. We who live here don’t need to be told anything about the severity of the crisis. But it certainly seems possible that our governors are ginning up the numbers in one direction or another. How can we know for sure that they aren’t?

It turns out there’s a pretty easy way to check. The severity of medical conditions may be disputed and caseloads can be fudged by clinics, but death is tough to misinterpret, and bodies, as every Raymond Chandler fan knows, are hard to hide. Deaths can be safely predicted — there are entire industries that are predicated on expected fatality rates — because they tend to be consistent from year to year. If many more people died in April 2020 than they did in prior Aprils, in the absence of another variable, it’s a cinch that the spike can be attributed to the coronavirus. Epidemiologists even have a name for this. They call it excess mortality, and it’s one of the simplest and clearest ways to measure what’s going on and where it’s happening.

Alas, it is very hard to find excess mortality counts. Governments don’t want you to see them, and why would they?, people are scared enough as it is. It’s up to journalists to gather this data from available public sources. There’s only one newspaper I know that’s been putting in the work and collating what they’ve found; luckily for us, it’s the very best periodical in the English language. I could go on for awhile about why The Economist is so much better than any other magazine, and I may do just that in a future dispatch. For today, I hope it suffices for me to assure you that my faith in The Economist has little to do with its editorial outlook, which I broadly disagree with, and everything to do with the diligence with which the editors put the publication together. When you get a page of facts from The Economist, you know it hasn’t been pulled from a think tank or copied from a PR office or thrown onto the Internet in the chase for clicks. That’s not how they operate. They’re the real deal — maybe the last real deal around.

The Economist‘s tracker is consistent, and what it reveals isn’t pretty. Excess deaths are up, all around the globe, in numbers that will make your stomach turn. In places like New York City, the number of reported fatalities tracks pretty well with the mortality spike; even here, we appear to be underreporting, but not by all that much. In other parts of the world where testing is sporadic and medical services are hard to come by, the variance is startling. Jakarta has only attributed 14% of its excess deaths to the coronavirus. That’s the big city in Indonesia; further into the country, they don’t have much capability to confirm cases. They just have the coffins.

New York City has attributed more than fourteen thousand deaths to the coronavirus. The city is running about sixteen thousand fatalities above the expected baseline, which, to my non-trained eye, looks like it’s within the bounds of acceptable error (the statistics, I mean; there’s nothing acceptable about the deaths). What this means — and it means it conclusively — is that we aren’t exaggerating, and those who accuse us of exploiting the crisis are every bit the heartless jerks that it seems like they are. That doesn’t tell us why the case fatality rate in New York City has been so high, or how it spread so fast and with such lethal consequences. Nobody is off the hook. Once we get to the other side, whenever that may be, there’ll have to be a reckoning. But we aren’t lying outright about the body count. That’s more than the authorities in some other parts of the country can say.

The old folks

A close friend just got the message we’ve long feared he’d get. His father has tested positive for the virus. He hadn’t been sick: he was tested as a precaution, along with the other residents of the nursing home where he lives. Neither my friend nor his siblings have been able to see him. Instead, he’s going to be transported to a different nursing home within the same system — one outfitted to handle cases of coronavirus. I imagine he’ll be isolated and watched closely. Life in a nursing home is difficult enough as it is. Life in a nursing home during a pandemic has got to be terrifying, and lonely, especially for those who’ve been infected.

Testing positive without symptoms is better than testing positive with a cough and a fever. It’s possible that my friend’s father will never get sick: some people in every group won’t, and that includes elderly people with scary underlying conditions. We don’t know when or how he caught the virus, and we’ll probably never know. There’ve been other cases in the same nursing home, and my friend has been getting automated alerts by text from the care center: 3 people infected with the virus, 0 precious lives lost. Those aren’t illuminating; mostly, they’re just creepy.

In New Jersey, the coronavirus has killed ten thousand people. More than half of those — 5,376, and counting — were residents of long-term care facilities. Over 500 homes have reported infections. The scale of this disaster is breathtaking, but it wasn’t unanticipated. We always knew that senior housing was full of kindling for the blaze. In the middle of February, our friend Amy ventured into the online wilderness to warn whoever she could reach about the need to contain the coronavirus before it reached nursing homes. She blew the whistle until she was red in the face. She was right to sound the alarm. I wish we’d listened better.

Those of us who live in New Jersey are painfully aware that the coronavirus doesn’t skip over younger people. We all know people in the primes of their lives who’ve become seriously sick. But almost eighty per cent of those who’ve died from the virus are over the age of 65 — and getting a public health message to our elders can be a challenge. Many of our friends are up against the steely recalcitrance of parents, and aunts, and uncles, and older friends, some of whom are determined to get their news from dodgy sources. The father of someone close to me recently forwarded her a scare article, straight from a clickbait mill, about the neurological hazards of wearing masks. She wrote back a kind and measured response. She hasn’t heard anything from him since.

I consider myself lucky that my parents have taken this crisis seriously. They live in Chester, a small town on the periphery of the metro, which is a good thing: they’re out of the way of most of the state’s major transportation corridors. They don’t have to go anywhere if they don’t want to. That said, their house is part of a development reserved for those aged 55 and older. Nearly half of the township is over 45. That doesn’t put them in the line of fire, necessarily: part of what people are paying for when they move to places like Morris County is permanent social distance. But when there’s so much virus — and so much misinformation — flying around the Eastern seaboard, it’s hard not to worry. It’s a small relief to know that Hilary’s mother is ensconced in the mountains of Vermont. It becomes less comforting when I think about what she does all day: she’s a nurse in a prison. It’s a tough job that somebody has to do, and I’m grateful that she’s doing it. So far, they haven’t reported any cases there. Keep your fingers crossed.

Time bomb

In my late twenties, I broke a tooth. Second molar from the back on the upper left side— an important one, I’d learn. It’s hard to chew without it. My then-dentist recommended a root canal. About ten years later, my current dentist declared that root canal inexpertly done, and re-did it. By then, I’d sunk a lot of money into that twenty millimeter area of my face.

After the second root canal, I figured that was that: the tooth was dead, sealed, and stuffed with inorganic material. I didn’t realize that the tooth could still be a problem. My last visit to the dentist was an utter disaster — he found problems all over my mouth, once that he felt had been exacerbated by the elevated stress I’d been living with for the prior eighteen months. Right in that same troublesome molar, he found an infection brewing, a black spot on the x-ray where all had been pleasantly white in the days before Hilary’s diagnosis. This, he told me, was a matter of some urgency. He recommended extraction and a dental implant.

Implants are expensive. They also take a long time to finish. First, there’s an extraction, and then a post needs to be cemented in place, and only after you’ve healed from that does the dentist begin to build the new tooth. Hilary has been through it, and so has my mother; if you haven’t had one, I recommend you take preventative measures to avoid getting one. After the dentist caught the infection, I’d resigned myself to joining the club. But for insurance reasons, I didn’t want to do it immediately. I thought that if I held off for a little while, I could time things so that the dental visits could be minimally distracting from the rest of my life. We threw the dice.

Sometimes after an errant roll, the dice are easily retrieved; sometimes they bounce under the washing machine and can’t be picked back up without tearing the house down. Once I was ready to schedule the extraction, I couldn’t. All non-emergency dental procedures were scratched from the planner by the coronavirus. If I’d wanted to push it, I’m sure I could have convinced my dentist to squeeze me in before he ceased daily operations, but then I’d be sitting here in the middle of a pandemic with a hole in my mouth. My desire to undergo lengthy dental procedures — mouth open and throat receptive — during an outbreak of a contagious respiratory illness is about what you’d think it would be. I’d like to avoid getting into that chair for as long as I can, and I suspect my dentist feels the same way. He doesn’t want to trade breaths any more than I do.

It has now been exactly six months since I was told I needed a dental implant. My tooth didn’t hurt on the day I got that x-ray, and it doesn’t hurt now. If it wasn’t for the imaging tools at the dentist’s office, I’d have no idea there was even a problem. Since I haven’t developed any pain or inflammation, I’ve tried to convince myself that I’ve kept the infection in check by brushing and flossing, even though I know there’s no way that it works like that. It’s kind of like how I’ll reflexively wash my hands to protect myself from a virus that may well have already infected me. I don’t think that’s likely, but I didn’t think there was a problem with my root canal tooth, either.

Just writing this post feels like a jinx. But I’ve made it this far without a return trip to the dentist’s chair, and there’s a part of me that’d like to see how much longer I can hold the symptoms of the infection at bay. Semi-consciously, I’ll bet that the bacteria in my jaw is a figure for the virus at large, and if I can suppress the former, that means I’m fit enough to dodge the latter. That’s absurd, and stupidly magical, but so many of my woolier thoughts are. My anxieties, though, are real. Every night since March, I go to bed wondering if I’ll wake up with a fever from the coronavirus, or an abscess in my face that needs an emergency treatment. Every morning, I’ve been reasonably okay. I’ll keep praying for you if you keep praying for me.