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.     

Tumbling polyhedrons

Technically, I never stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons. My regular game with my childhood friends went on ice when my obsession with music swallowed all my other interests, but you could still find me on my Commodore 64 at night, bathing in the pixels of Telengard, or Bard’s Tale, or whatever other fantasy titles the studios brought to my home computer. Besides baseball simulations and Katamari Damacy, there aren’t too many videogames I’ve committed myself to that weren’t based on Dungeons & Dragons; Shadows Of Amn, and Icewind Dale, the original concept of Dragon Age, the ground-shaking thunderclap that was Planescape: Torment, and even Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, which was just Dungeons & Dragons in outer space. Then there were the many ways that D&D became my frame of reference for non-fantasy reality, like my observance of alignment protocol, my constant desire to level up and gain new skills, and my ongoing, well-chronicled attraction to the elfin. My early interest in Leiber and Lovecraft came straight from the D&D sourcebooks that referenced them reverentially when they weren’t ripping them off, and vocabulary is still straight from the Monster Manual and the Player’s Handbook. Gygax and Arneson forged my consciousness as surely as any teachers did, and that’s because they were teachers, too, only their subject matter was unbeatable, wasn’t it?

So it wasn’t my interests that changed — it was my social world and my interpersonal priorities. At fourteen, I went from making music on my own and playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends to making music with friends and playing Dungeons & Dragons on my own. And so it went for decades until the quarantine. I haven’t raised my voice in a practice space with others in months. Not so coincidentally, one of my bandmates told me on the phone that he had a hankering to play D&D over Zoom, and he volunteered me to be the game-master. I’m not in a position to turn down a request like that. I set to work on a milieu: encounters, non-player characters, a mythological system, maps and dice and all of it.

We’ve tried a couple of sessions. How have I done? Not too well, by my own estimation. As a young person, I was never the Dungeon Master: I was always a player, and I was deeply invested in the survival and progress of my tween-age creations. Attempting to run a game over a videoconference is a tricky proposition, but I don’t blame the software or the distance. I just think I haven’t managed to instill that sense of consequence or intrigue that good Dungeons & Dragons campaigns always had. My own fumbling attempts to get the milieu off the ground and make my play-world compelling have given me new respect for the older kids who ran the superb game I participated in when I was young. Granted, it’s easier to enchant eleven-year-olds than jaded grown-ups, but that’s really no excuse. Either the spell holds or the spell fails; there’s not a lot of in-between.

Regardless of my limited talents, re-engagement with Dungeons & Dragons has been rewarding. I returned to my First Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (a book that, as a player, I wasn’t supposed to look at) and enjoyed Gary Gygax’s wonderfully pompous purple prose all over again. Via mail order, Hilary gifted me with a vintage copy of TSR modules D1 and D2 — brutal, grotesque higher-level adventures that sure tested my characters and my stomach when I was in sixth grade. Those were fun to re-read, and they made me want to play; they also made me want to hunt down the mesmerizing sequel The Vault Of The Drow. Beyond that, much as I try hard to contrive some, there just aren’t that many occasions to roll a dodecahedron in ordinary life. Computer-generated random numbers are fine as a direction, but there’s really no substitute for throwing a natural 20. It’s not accurate to call it a nostalgic thrill, because D&D has never been far from me. Shaking hands with Gygax again, forcefully, has provided some comfort during a time when I can’t shake hands with anybody else.

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.

Falling behind

I had a great cinderblock of business to contend with this morning and afternoon, and there wasn’t any way to get it rolling last night. No matter what I’m writing, I tend to lose myself in the struggle to string together the right words. That’s better than hours spent wondering if I’ve contracted the coronavirus. But a day of wall-to-wall work also caused me to neglect this space, which is something I haven’t done since March. I’ve got more to do after dinner, and I don’t want to slap something hurried together just for the sake of doing it. That feels disrespectful, even if I couldn’t tell you who, or what, I’m disrespecting. Maybe you?

This webpage has kept me marginally sane over the past ten weeks. I owe it more than I can express. It’s prompted me to think, hard, every morning about where I’m at — what’s eating at me, to use a slightly gross euphemism, especially during a pandemic — and get it down as truthfully as I can. Honesty isn’t generally my compositional policy: I like to create characters, channel voices, argue funny angles and try on silly hats, and pretend to be someone other than who I am. That’s not what I’ve done here. I’ve put it all down straight, for better and for worse, and I haven’t gone back to re-read. I figure that’s something to do if I can make it to the other side of the crisis. If not, it can live on the Internet Wayback Machine for future seventh graders to unearth. I don’t mind contributing to a database of personal stories. I know you’ve got some of your own.

For most of the day, I felt fine, except for the hours I was sure I was sick. Midway through my work, my nose inches from a glowing screen, I asked myself if I was having trouble breathing. Were my fingers tingling? What would that indicate, anyway? Hilary was in the other room on a Zoom call with her colleagues at the University, and I didn’t want to disturb her. I rode it out and soon felt reasonably hale, or maybe I just forgot about the symptoms. Today was the first really warm day of the year, and the windows were closed, because when I’m writing, I don’t tend to get up and make adjustments to my environment. A fever overcame me, but it was only the sunlight. After a boardgame with Hilary, my knees got weak. My imagination is presently casting around for other symptoms to simulate; I can feel the projection machinery clicking and grinding away up there. I’m going to take a deep breath, get balanced, and shake off the hypochondria. There’ll be something worth reading up here tomorrow afternoon. Unless there isn’t.

The river

As has been pointed out to me by friend and foe alike, I’ve got a big nose. At this time of the year, it’s an itchy one. That makes the KN95 mask problematic for me. I find that no matter how I wiggle the little metal bar, it presses down hard on the bridge. I’ve got another mask I wear regularly — it’s blue, it’s got a flower pattern on it, and it looks very much like something stitched by a well-meaning girl on Etsy, which is exactly what it is. The fit is rather loose, if I’m being honest: it’s not quite a veil, but it’s nothing a surgeon would operate in.

I am glad I brought the tighter mask to the river. I expected there to be a crowd out under the sun, but I was unprepared for the overwhelming number of runners on the footpath. Liberty State Park was nothing compared to what I encountered on the East River: people getting their exercise quite aggressively, breathing heavily, some masked and some bare-faced, all absolutely determined to stay in rhythm, nervous pedestrians be damned. That seems to me to be a natural outcome of running, which does reward focus and insularity, but it’s a little disquieting to those of us who are moving slower and entertaining broader concerns. I’m convinced by those scientists who argue that it’s unlikely that I’ll catch the coronavirus from a passing jogger, but what about ten joggers? What about fifty? There’s only so much air the sun can blast and the wind can cleanse and disperse. Before the breeze took it out to the water to be refreshed, the air on the path had been cycled through the lungs of hundreds of runners.

An estimated twenty per cent of New York City has developed antibodies, which suggests that community spread is still happening at a terrifying pace. It’s not realistic to think that all of the runners on that path were negative for the pathogen. I am certain that I met some live virus by the river. My red zip-up jacket, my pants, the front of my mask, the lenses of my sunglasses: everything became a suspicious surface to me. When I got home, I rinsed myself as well as I could, but I can’t say I trust my decontamination techniques. Normally, I’m casual about what I touch, and what I don’t, where I tread, and who is exhaling in my vicinity; I don’t mind crowds, and I don’t tend to get annoyed by human activity. During chemotherapy, I had to cultivate some avoidance strategies. I’m going to have to figure out how to apply them to modern city living, because this shit is dangerous.

It was the first we’d seen of Manhattan since early March, so we might be forgiven a little euphoria. There was the city, just as we’d left it, only totally transformed. Many of the businesses downtown were closed, but lots weren’t; some restaurants, doing what they could do to stay afloat, kept their doors open and encouraged takeout. Most everybody we passed on the street had a mask on their person, but not every mouth was covered. We saw all sorts of medical fashions in action: the mask tucked under the nose for better respiration, the mask loosely slung around the neck for quick donning if the wearer had to enter a business, the mask that looked like it never came off, the full-face, Deadpool-style shroud, the re-purposed, this-is-a-stickup bandana, the gag masks meant to signify mild disapproval of the injunction toward caution. I never felt the genial, tacit denialism that I’ve encountered further away from Times Square: that sense I’ve gotten from some country folk that the cute city mice were making an adorably bigger deal out of the crisis than circumstances warranted. If you’re a New Yorker, you know.

Knowledge is not always prescriptive. It is in the nature of city people to gather, even when congregation is fraught. We saw many side streets on the Lower East Side that were essentially deserted, and where the viral load in the air couldn’t have been much to worry about. But it wouldn’t be New York if people didn’t go where the action was — in hazmat suits if they have to. And for the umpteenth time, it struck me that a society, and economy, organized around the fear of missing out is frightfully easy pickings for a fatal communicable disease. It’s a beautiful day; we all worry about skipping it. Others will get the Instagram likes, and the muscle mass, that should rightfully accrue to us. Staying indoors seems like a sin: wasteful, entitled, unproductive. Should we survive this, we have so, so much to unlearn.

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.