Letter from Washington: The Flying Circus

July 4th airshow over DC

Seeing a plane in the sky, I feared the worst.

My apartment looks south toward downtown Washington, DC. It’s a no-fly zone. When I look out my window and see a plane in this corner of the sky, it’s always a bit alarming.

The last time it happened was on June 1, the day that Trump unleashed his forces to brutalize protesters for a photo op. Paramilitaries cleared Lafayette Park so he could pose with a Bible.

And then the helicopters arrived. Through my window, I watched as Blackhawks thundered low across the city, packed with soldiers, in a deliberate attempt to intimidate this very Democratic city.

This went on all night long, my window rattling from low-flying military aircraft, like I was living in Fallujah. The next day, walls went up around the White House.

Black Hawk helicopter flies past Logan Circle apartment building

One month later, on July 4th, a plane popped up in my window, banking over the no-fly zone downtown. With my window open, I could hear the chants of demonstrators from a block away, “Black Lives Matter.”

And, in the sky, an airplane where no airplane should be. It was circling. I assumed it was there to spy on demonstrators or attack them.

This aircraft did not drop bombs. Instead, out tumbled parachutists. The Golden Knights of the U.S. Army.

230,000 dead from coronavirus but we get a man in a parachute holding an American flag drifting out of the sky.

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This was the beginning of a military air show, ordered by Donald Trump. The pageant of power scrolled across my window from right to left. I saw classic planes, like a B-29, the plane that dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Then came a B-52, roaring like a freight train. F-16 fighters rocketed overhead. A stealth bomber silently slid over the apartment buildings of my Logan Circle neighborhood.

Your perception of the US military changes after it’s used to intimidate you. Cool airshow but you wonder when the planes will be used against you again. It’s even more galling when you realize that you’re paying for the shock and awe campaign.

I’d see the planes on TV and then a couple seconds later, they’d be in my window. On the screen, Trump preened, a child delighted at this air show, the world’s oldest toddler.

In Ancient Rome, they got bread and circuses.

No bread for starving Americans who have lost their jobs in this crisis. Instead, we only get a circus, a noisy air parade from the Department of Endless War.

In Europe, they have free health care. Workers were paid to stay home during the coronavirus. Protective equipment was provided. They beat covid. Now, they celebrate the achievement.

We can only watch from afar because we are banned from visiting. Too much covid here. Trump let the virus get out of control, along with his fellow dictators in Russia and Brazil, who preferred to spend money on military parades.

We deserve more than meaningless gestures, like a flying circus on July 4th.

We deserve a government that works.

Vote blue in November.

14th Street Now and Then

murals at Barrel House

Boarded-up buildings used to be a feature of Washington life.

For much of the 1990s, I lived a block off the 14th St NW corridor. It was not the avenue of conspicuous consumption that it is today.

Instead, it was known for prostitutes. 14th St was the city’s red light district.  While most of the seedy strip joints and peep shows were gone by the 90s, the hookers remained. Coming home by cab, I’d see women in tiny skirts and high heels trolling for customers next to shuttered buildings. (An experience that helped to inspire my novel, Don’t Mess Up My Block.)

The Logan Circle area had been like this since the riots of 1968. I couldn’t imagine it ever changing.

Also, it wasn’t called Logan Circle, a neighborhood name that was synonymous with slum. My apartment at 15th and Swann was in a place called Dupont East, according to the real estate listing.

pawn shop

There were no big glass storefronts on 14th St back then. Instead, you had riot architecture. The places that were open were built to survive a disturbance.

One of my favorite dive bars, Stetson’s, embodied this style. It had a brick front with one small window that was made of smash-proof glass cinderblocks.

On 14th St, buildings were either boarded up or covered with big metal shutters that were pulled down after dark. There were a few exceptions to this, of course, like the Black Cat and the ubiquitous auto repair shops that lined the strip; they were probably chop shops.

Things changed slowly and then all at once. Theaters and clubs moved in, opening up the old auto showrooms. For a while, there was were even used bookstores and indie coffeeshops in the neighborhood.

Lee Jensen Brake Service, temporarily an art gallery

The brief period of the late 90s/early 200os was my favorite 14th St era. Still a bit cheap and seedy, and just dangerous enough to scare off the suburbanites. You could have an unbothered drink at Bar Pilar, go see a pop-up art show in a former brake shop and still afford to live in the neighborhood.

I represented this transition in my short story Apartment 101, depicting three decades in the life of one apartment. It’s largely based upon my experience of living at 15th and Swann.

Washington, DC, exploded with money and people during the Obama years. We had a good mayor in Adrian Fenty who ushered in reforms, got rid of the worst of the corruption and delivered new amenities like bike lanes and new libraries.

Meanwhile, the grungy 14th St corridor I had come to love went upscale.

Barcelona sign.

The boards were taken off and the old buildings were gutted and opened to the street. Barcelona, a Spanish-themed wine bar, was a revelation. A grimy outdoor gym was turned a sparkling stage with a huge glass window allowing people to peer into the boozy life of Washington’s professional set.

And to my surprise, there was even sidewalk dining on this street where I once dodged ranting crazy people and prostitutes. In a homage (mockery?) of the past, a bar called Red Light District opened on the street. The few people who remembered 14th St from the old days thought this was insensitive.

Red Light District

The city was now bougie. And I couldn’t imagine it ever changing.

In 2020, this unhappy year, the pandemic changed everything. In mid-March, everything closed from fear of the coronovirus. Mayor Bowser ordered the city into lockdown.

I used to be annoyed the drunk brunchgoers, the double-parked Ubers, the places like Bar Pilar that had been discovered by the masses. But it felt really creepy to be on the street without people, especially at night.

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, demonstrations came to DC which devolved into riots, window-smashing and looting. While the police were busy with Black Lives Matter protesters near the White House, organized groups drove around the city, robbing liquor and drug stores.

smashed windows at Jinya

I went out one morning to see jagged holes in the store fronts of 14th St. Rocks had been thrown through windows of restaurants.

Later that day, boards went up along the length of the 14th St corridor. All the temples of consumerism were now hidden by ugly plywood.

Then the boarded up storefronts blossomed with art, painted by local muralists. An improvement, as the city limps back to life.

Now, restaurants and bars have started to go out of business, like Ghibellina, where I once enjoyed happy hour pizza. While people will do takeout and sit outside, few want to go inside to a bar.

The advantage of the city – the people – has become has become a liability in this covid era.

Our Black Lives Matter

This is the point where I would write something optimistic, that the bad times certainly can’t endure and that things will soon be back to normal.

But I have been consistently wrong about things since 2016, the world surprising me with new terrible developments; this is a dark timeline.

So, what happens next? With people afraid of crowds and a move toward telework, do cities have a future? What will become of 14th St?

It could go from the wink-wink Red Light District to an actual red light district, rolling back progress all the way to the 1990s.

Or, maybe, it could become the bohemian paradise I loved in the early 2000s. Gritty and a little dangerous but affordable.

The truth is that 14th St is going to change, like it has continuously, adapting to the people and circumstances of the city. Urban life will endure, because people like it. 14th Street will too.

The Prisoner of Pennsylvania Avenue

crowds gather on 16th St

What the Secret Service has done to the White House is an abomination. They stole public lands – Lafayette Park and the Ellipse – to create a vast security perimeter around the White House Complex.

Trump thinks he created a fortress; in reality, it’s a prison.

Behind the wall is the Executive Residence, West Wing, East Wing, Blair House (where foreign dignitaries stay), the Renwick Gallery, the Treasury Department and, most importantly, the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB), where hundreds of senior officials and support staff work.

The administrative heart of the U.S. government is now trapped behind walls of concrete and wire.

White House under siege

Before the covid crisis, I liked to hang out at Peet’s Coffee at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. A block from the White House, it has a view of the Beaux Arts majesty of the OEOB, a building I’ve always loved.

It was a busy lively corner – uniformed Secret Service officers came in for coffee, West Wing staffers met with reporters, TV correspondents prepped for shots, foreign delegations assembled before going into the White House and an endless parade of tourists walked in looking for the bathroom.

The White House has sealed itself off from this city.

Life for the people who work in the White House Complex has now become exponentially more difficult.

How do you move food, supplies, staff, visitors and others in and out of a secure complex with limited exits and entrances?

And how do you do this while avoiding roving bands of demonstrators?

Beating and teargassing peaceful protesters just made the crowds larger. Attorney General Barr brought in every random cop and military person in America into the city to squash dissent. And failed.

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H Street, where the Secret Service and the Park Police beat protesters, now has the look of a perma-protest, with demonstrators in the street 24/7, supported by volunteers with water and snacks, and covered nonstop from the national media.

They’re not going anywhere.

Trump and Barr have pissed off the Mayor, too. The curfew is over. Muriel Bowser wants the troops out and now actively supports the demonstrators.

This morning, with the city’s help, Black Lives Matter is being painted down  several blocks of 16th St. This is where Barr walked on Monday after he unleashed the military on an American city.

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Another huge demonstration is expected Saturday.

If you work in the White House Complex, do you want to deal with this? There are lots of non-political folks there in support roles. Do you want to cross a line of demonstrators to get to work? Or are you going to find a way out the bunker?

I am personally very angry. Seeing the damage the Trump administration has done to my city enraged me like nothing else. Watching a Blackhawk helicopter fly by my window on Monday night terrified me and then gave me a steely determination to resist.

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In addition to the challenge of avoiding demonstrators in their thousands, the Trump administration now has to deal with random white men on bikes yelling at them. Like me. I think it’s unexpected.

“Tear down this wall!” I shouted at the officers supervising the construction of the security barrier around the Ellipse.

“Go home,” I told some National Guardsmen on a street corner.

“You’re not real police,” I informed the prison guards blocking 16th St.

But I think mockery works best. The entrance to the OEOB is on 17th St. I was taking a picture of the new fence when a guy in a suit came out of the building. I smiled; he smiled.

“What level security prison is this?” I asked.

“Very funny,” he said, unamused.

We, the people, remain free in this city. We can come and go. But Trump is a prisoner of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lincoln at National Harbor: This Too Will Pass

Lincoln at National Harbor

The Lincoln statue was a surprise.

I had biked to National Harbor to look at The Awakening. During this pandemic year, one invents activities to pass the time.

The Awakening is an aluminum sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth. Formerly at Hains Point, it was moved downriver a few years ago to National Harbor, the hotel/casino/shopping complex in Maryland.

The sculpture was blocked off by fences so I took the opportunity to bike around the abandoned streets of National Harbor, idly coasting by shuttered restaurants and stores until I spotted the Great Emancipator.

The rail splitter can be found on American Way, right by South Moon Under,  up the steps from Potbelly. Lincoln overlooks a video screen (“Good morning from National Harbor: Capitalize on it all!”) and a massive Ferris wheel on a pier jutting out into the Potomac.

I just finished Lincoln on the Verge, the powerful and moving story of this common man advancing toward death and destiny.

If his statue in National Harbor, little more than a prop for Instagram selfies, could come to life, what would he think of America in 2020?

I think he would be pleased that we lasted so long.

He would be delighted by people of all races enjoying a stroll along the promenade. The bright colors and carnival wheel would be charming diversions to him. But the old boatman would be most pleased to be within sight of a river.

Plague would not surprise him. Death and sickness were old friends. He often talked with the dead, believing that they existed in a spirit world that was within reach.

Leaving his home in Springfield in 1861, he did not expect to return. Just getting to Washington required providence, as he was nearly done in by overly exuberant crowds and gangs of assassins, as depicted in Lincoln on the Verge. Four years later, he returned home, in a coffin, his route retracing his earlier rail journey.

Unlike other politicians of the era (who remembers anything James Buchanan said?), Lincoln’s words live on because he spoke clearly and directly. We’d call this authentic. To the people of 1861, who had suffered decades of sophisticated oratory to protect the institution of slavery, this was electrifying.

Elites in the cities scoffed at his homespun tales. But if he was liberated from his bronze, and was free to walk around National Harbor, he’d have a comforting story for listeners:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses!

This too shall pass. Lincoln inherited a broken country and in four short years created an America worthy of its ideals. He knew he didn’t have long. But he endured and triumphed. We will too.

Can there be a Kramerbooks without Dupont Circle?

Kramerbooks closed at eight on a Sunday night

Kramerbooks may leave Dupont Circle.

In this year of loss, this news struck me hard. Kramerbooks is urban life. As a college freshman, the experience of visiting the store defined the city for me.

The RA in my dorm at American University had led a bunch of us on a tour of the monuments. On the way back, we got off at the Dupont Circle Metro. As I rose out of the earth on the escalator, I was immediately enchanted by this bohemian neighborhood of art galleries, record shops and bookstores.

Kramerbooks defined cool. More than just a bookstore, it was open late, served brunch and you could even get a drink there.

It was the height of urban sophistication. When I moved back to DC after a few years in Florida, I made sure to be within walking distance of Kramers.

On the weekends, I’d amble around the city and stop off at the bookstore. There, I’d browse through the new books and imagine myself as an author.

Joe Floods reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.
Joe Flood reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.

Years later, my dreams came true. My short story, Victory Party, won the City Paper Fiction Competition. I did a reading at Kramerbooks. Staff pushed back the stacks, chairs were set up and there I was in the window of Kramers, sharing my creation with an audience.

And perhaps inspiring another writer, like I once was by the Kramerbooks experience.

Location, Location, Location

DC is all about real estate – Kramers is no exception. Behind the fantasy of a clean and well-lit place for literature is the brutal reality of dollars and cents. Dealing with three landlords, as Kramers does, is complicated.

And Dupont Circle is no longer fashionable; it has become old and tired. The record stores and dive bars that were its peers are long since gone. Storefronts are empty and tents for the homeless have sprung up on the sidewalks.

All the energy of the city has gone east. Why stay in a cramped building on Connecticut Avenue when you could move to a larger space in a shiny new neighborhood like H St or Yards Park?

Kramerbooks is Dupont Circle and Dupont Circle is Kramerbooks. Their brands are married in a bohemian embrace. It’s hard to imagine Kramers anywhere else.

But cities change. That’s what makes them so interesting.

The bookstore I fell in love with as college freshman. The piles of novels I dreamily browsed there on Sunday afternoons. The experience of reading Victory Party before a crowd.

If the Coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it’s to cherish those precious and unrecoverable moments. Kramers may change but the experiences it created will endure.

Lincoln on the Verge – Book Review

Lincoln weeps for the nation

I’m reading the wonderful Lincoln on the Verge, which beautifully captures Old Abe’s rail journey to Washington after his election.

There were two countries in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected. A free and prosperous North and an aristocratic South where wealth was built by slavery.

Despite having a smaller population, the South had elected most of the presidents during the nation’s history. Congress was run for its benefit. The Supreme Court was stacked in favor of slave-masters.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, the long tentacles of Slave Power had spread north as federal marshals hunted escaped slaves in states like Ohio. It was all perfectly legal. And obscene.

Washington was a swamp, literally and figuratively. Filled with half-completed monuments and stinking canals, it was a city controlled by powerful men in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. A new term was developed for them: lobbyists.

The Republican Party was formed in response to this corruption and the endless compromises that kept the slavers in power.

Lincoln was a fresh voice who spoke in simple terms that any person could understand. He said:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Plots were hatched to prevent his inauguration.

Parliamentary schemes were proposed of the type that would be familiar to Mitch McConnell. There was talk that Congress, still controlled by the South, would refuse to certify the election.

Conspiracies formed in Baltimore to assassinate the President-Elect.

Armed militias drilled in towns like Alexandria to oppose the federal government.

Lincoln on the Verge depicts how Abraham Lincoln made it to Washington, protected by a nation that wished to reclaim the true American ideals of equality.

More than a century later, the institutions of government are controlled by lobbyists once again. The canals of Washington are long gone but the city is still a swamp. Corporations have been bailed out while ordinary people line up for food banks. The stock market is juiced by a Federal Reserve devoted to printing money, which props up asset-owners while leaving the poor with less.

Once again, as in 1860, we have two nations.

An America of the grift, controlled by the Trump crime family, where favored industries are bailed out and insiders are tipped to dump their stocks before catastrophe.

An America of a precarious working class, one paycheck away from starvation.

Which nation shall prevail? As in 1860, we face a fight.

As told in Lincoln on the Verge, the United States found its champion at exactly the right moment in history. During the long journey to Washington, the people propelled Lincoln forward. They made him as much as he made them.

That is our task now. To fight for our country.

Coronavirus Chronicles: The Science March

Nevertheless Science Persisted

An algorithm reminded me that it’s been three years since the March for Science.

This was one of several huge protests that occurred after Trump’s inauguration by a people desperate to show their resistance to the cruelty and stupidity of the new regime.

It was a rainy afternoon and I went to take photos. I looked for people I knew in the march – I’d spent years working in science communications for NOAA and The Nature Conservancy.

On that Earth Day in 2017, I thought that the attack on science was a tragedy.Hurricane forecasts would be less precise, cancer treatments would be delayed, basic research would get defunded.

The know-nothingism would harm the country, of course, but would not impact me personally.

Now, I live in an abandoned city. My only contact with other humans is through webcam. I scrounge grocery stores for toilet paper among mask-wearing shoppers terrified of catching disease.

I just finished watching The Plot Against America. The HBO series is based upon Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, depicting an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh becomes president, persecutes the Jews and allies with Hitler. Yet, the forces of democracy resist.

The series ends with a beautiful montage expressing the hope and horror that is America. Sinatra croons as people of all races, creeds and beliefs line up to vote. Then the screen dissolves to ballot boxes being burned. The Levin family anxiously listens in to their radio for election results.

Unlike the novel, the ending is ambiguous. You can decide for yourself whether the country chose fascism or FDR.

Last week, I was on a Zoom call with friends. After an hour of gloom-and-doom talk, I had to drop out. I could not take any more Coronavirus news and speculation.

Back in 2017, around the time of the Science March, I thought I had problems. Compared to today, these were not problems.

The Obstacle is the Way was an enormous comfort to me. The book popularizes age-old Stoic ideas with examples drawn from history. Rather than bemoaning your fate (plague was common in the Roman world of the Stoics), you should do what you can with what you have available. Action is the way to overcome anxiety. In other words:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
– FDR

I do not have control over the pandemic or the government’s fumbling response to it.

But I can act.

I have set up monthly donations to Joe Biden and the Florida Democratic Party. We have to win Florida to rid ourselves of Trump.

Together, we can wrench this country back to the right timeline.

Dreams of El Dorado: Taking Apart the Myth of the West

Dreams of El Dorado

History gives you perspective: things could always be worse. Rather than sitting at home with Netflix and DoorDash during a pandemic, you could be:

A fur trapper, stripped nude and forced to run for your life for the entertainment of Native American warriors.

A family on the Oregon Trail, bamboozled by your guides, and left for dead in the mountains.

A San Francisco resident during the Gold Rush watching the city burn down for the second time in a week.

The settling of the West, as told in Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands, is the story that we’re all familiar with – human endurance in the face of hardship – but it also takes apart a host of comforting American myths.

Rugged individualists did not last long in the West. In an inhospitable landscape full of deadly people and things, you needed to work with others to survive.

For example, the wagon trains that set out for Oregon were cities on wheels, with experienced leaders, rules and a daily schedule. Fur trading was a multinational affair, with trappers from different countries working in teams and then partying at the end of the season as they exchanged their goods. The lone gold miner might find a nugget or two but the real money was earned by companies who organized workers and sluices to shift whole mountainsides.

And none of this success would’ve been possible without the tribes of the West. The Sioux, the Crow and other Native peoples were allies and competitors until they were exterminated or forced into reservations by the American invaders.

The story of the West is also the story of the federal government. Everything west of the Mississippi started out as federal land, when Jefferson purchased it from Napoleon. California and other territories were taken from Mexico. While Texas won its independence, the Lone Star State would not have survived without annexation by the U.S.

The West, unlike the settled states of the East, is a creation of the American government. Through the Homestead Act and other laws, Washington controlled who got land and (more importantly) water in region, unlike anywhere else in the country.

Yet, we cling to our myths of the open frontier, for they express the American ideal of endless reinvention.

Dreams of El Dorado describes how, for a few short and brutal years, freedom could be found in the West, often at a terrible cost, before it became just another region of America, a dry landscape that you glimpse from a window seat as you fly over the country.

The Coronavirus Chronicles: We Are All Soviets Now

the end of days at the Lincoln Memorial

Before, one of the highlights of my month was the Third Thursday #BikeDC Happy Hour. People who bike in the greater DC area would get together for beers. We just restarted the happy hour at Glen’s Garden Market in February; now it’s on hold, like everything else.

The need for companionship is still there, however, so we did the happy hour virtually on Google Hangouts. I showed up wearing a helmet. You can never be too safe, even in your own home.

Primarily, we talked about food. What grocery stores were open. Where to find fresh produce. Has anyone been able to find pasta or toilet paper?

When I bike the deserted streets of Washington, DC, I carry a bag with me, just in case I spot a store with consumer goods.

In the old Soviet Union, they called this an avoska, a luck bag. People would carry one around in the hopes that they would get lucky and find some meat or butter in the shops.

Somehow, we defeated the Soviet Union and become them. We are all Soviets now.

The shortages even extend to books. The Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood used to be overflowing with them. Now, these little book boxes have been picked clean by a desperate population eager for entertainment in a city without bars, restaurants or nightclubs.

Maybe this is a good problem. It’s forced me to read all the books that I have at home.

Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy explains the economically-fucked state we’re in, where millions face unemployment, shorn off by a heartless corporate state that treats employees like serfs.

Why do they have power and you don’t? After the 1929 market crash, New Dealers curbed the power of banks and corporations, binding them with laws and regulations. The worst of the malefactors, like tax-cheat Andrew Mellon, were prosecuted while big monopolies like Alcoa (which controlled aluminum) were broken up. This was done to curb speculation and strengthen democracy.

Over time, however, the financiers were let out of their box. Free to devise new ways of fleecing the public, they engineered the 2008 credit crunch. This should’ve lead to populist reform. Instead, the banks got bailed out while the rest of us still had to pay our bills.

A couple weeks of coronavirus shutdown and the airlines are running to the government for help. Marriott just laid off most of its staff. The cruise lines demand a slice of the pie, too.

The fact that American-style capitalism can’t survive a short spell of economic turmoil without federal relief demonstrates that it’s not a sustainable system that should be preserved.

What we call capitalism in this country is a financial scheme run by the connected (like Senators with insider information) designed to benefit themselves with no obligation to anyone else. And when it fails, they walk away, leaving the rest of us to foot the bill.

We were taught that capitalism is a fair competition. The company with the best product wins. But as Matt Stoll highlights in Goliath, monopolies like Facebook, Conagra and Boeing rig the system through legal strategies and corporate lobbying to squash smaller rivals and keep consumers powerless.

Against these giants, the ordinary person – the person with the avoska looking for meat – doesn’t have a chance.

In 2008, we missed the opportunity to reform American-style capitalism to make it fairer and more equitable. Let’s not make that mistake again.

Letter from Washington: Coronavirus Edition

Dupont Circle during coronavirus

With the approach of coronavirus, Washington is rapidly emptying of people. Meetings, conventions and parades have been cancelled. The Smithsonian has shut down. Everyone who can has switched to telework.

The city feels like a ghost town, absent the daily influx of tourists and commuters. It happened quickly last week, the cancellation of the NBA season triggering the shutdown of everything else. What seemed like a joke became a terror.

Socially Distant

Social distancing is recommended.  I’ve been practicing it for years. You’d think it would be difficult in a big city to avoid people but the opposite is true.

I walk or bike places, naturally keeping a six-foot distance from others. If I go to a coffee place and there’s too many people, I go somewhere else.

And I’ve been teleworking most of the time for the past year so I’m not trapped in the recycled air of modern offices. I interact with people, but not in large groups. On some days, the only person I talk to is a barista.

Friday was strange. 14th Street is usually jammed with crazed Maryland car commuters heading downtown but they had all disappeared, as if a neutron bomb went off. Street parking was even available!

I had to go the Apple Store to get a case for my new iPhone. On the way, I stopped for coffee at the Starbucks in the Marriott Marquis, the big convention center hotel. They have a beautiful lobby designed to fit hundreds of people. And I was the only one in it. So quiet that I could hear myself typing.

At the Apple Store, I got my case. A twinge of concern for myself and the Apple employee as we both handled her iPhone to swipe my debit card and enter my PIN. Apple stores are now closed until April.

Online Shaming

On social media, people have been shaming Washingtonians for going out during the crisis, posting photos of folks in bars and restaurants.

I went to Glen’s Garden Market last week because I like that place and want it to survive. Saturday morning, I played soccer as usual (with jokes about social distancing). Afterwards, I biked to the DC Library West End branch to pick up a book on hold before the library system shut down.

I’m not going to judge other people. What seems frivolous to me may be essential to you.

Going to Whole Foods this morning was probably the riskiest thing I did all week. The grocery store appeared as if it had been looted overnight but I needed a couple of things. After waiting in line with a dozen people, all inches apart, I watched as a cashier handled my food with wet gloves and placed it in a bag.

Chernobyl, 2020

More than one person has suggested that I use this quarantine time to write another book. Shakespeare was at his most productive during the plague, as was Isaac Newton.

Instead, I obsess over the news and social media. The difference between then and now is that plague was common in the 17th Century. But in 2020 America, death shouldn’t sweep in a wave across the continent.

Shouldn’t our government protect us? We’re a superpower. Anne Applebaum has an excellent essay in The Atlantic about how the coronavirus crisis exposes the rot of American society.

We brag about being the best in the world but every major American institution, from the phone company to the dunce in the White House, is broken. Why don’t we make real shit anymore? In America, things only work if you have money or connections, like late-stage USSR. Coronavirus is our Chernobyl, ripping away the facade of an exhausted empire slumping toward collapse.

Maybe some good things will come out of this, like a greater acceptance of telework and the need for universal healthcare.

Americans will remember panic shopping for toilet paper. The fear of death will stay with them long past Election Day. Now they know the consequences of electing a corrupt, evil and incompetent leader.

Change is coming. May we use this crisis to build a better country that works for all its citizens.