Letter from Washington: Celebration Time

The happiest day of 2020

With the blast of a boat horn, I found out that Joe Biden had been elected President on November 7th.

I was outside at The Wharf, the luxury development at the old fish market. I heard a horn. And then again, insistent blasts echoing off the blue waters of the Washington Channel.

I checked my phone: CNN and then the rest of the networks had declared that Biden had won.

For a few minutes, I seemed to be the only one aware of the news. I stood up on a bench and screamed, “YES!” No one paid any attention to me.

We Are the Champions

And then, rounding the pier, a boat motored into view, the one that had been blasting its horn. Decorated with Biden and gay pride flags, they were celebrating with song.

“We are the champions, my friends…” drifted across the water. Everyone now had the happy news. A cheer went up from an outdoor spin class on another pier.

It was Saturday afternoon and the city was in happy chaos. I was wearing a Biden-Harris mask, prompting  yells of celebrations as people passed me.

Hopping on bikeshare, I could only make it as far as Constitution Avenue before the crowds got too thick. The police hastily blocked off 17th Street as the people took over the streets. Behind their fence, the Secret Service watched as a man paraded back and forth with a baby Trump balloon.

By the time I got to Black Lives Matter Plaza, it was celebration time as crowds poured in from all directions.

toasting Biden Harris

People drank champagne on the spot where Trump, just a few months ago, had people beaten for a photo-op. Now the people were toasting their victory over him.

It was over. This city of Washington, where I had witnessed the Women’s March, the first stirrings of protest, the closure of Lafayette Park, an invasion of paramilitaries, helicopters flying by my window, the pandemic shutdown and far too much history in one year to absorb without breaking – and it was over.

“It’s over,” I shouted.

I met my friends Carlo and Flo. We took photos of ourselves with the cheering crowds on Black Lives Matter Plaza. A man stood on a bus shelter waving his shirt around and threw it to the crowd. A home-made sign read: Victory for America. A huge roar rose up from the street, the sound of thousands celebrating as one.

We went in search of a drink. At Farragut North, there was a parade of vehicles, a happy gridlock, cheers echoing through the glass canyon of office buildings on Connecticut Avenue.

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There’s one tiny liquor store nearby. I had never seen anyone in it but that day it was mobbed with people. All the champagne was sold out.

I bought myself a giant can of Fosters and walked down the sidewalk with it, swigging from the beer can. We saw a guy with a parrot on his shoulder. A man with a portable speaker leading a line of dancing people. Cars waving Biden-Harris flags.

We walked to Zorba’s by Dupont Circle. That block of 20th Street is closed to traffic for a streatery, with outdoor tables for several restaurants. Every time a group of people walked by with a Biden flag, a huge cheer rang out from people sitting outside, an entire block standing up and applauding.

It’s the happiest I’ve seen DC in years.

16th St

And it was the kind of day you didn’t want to let go. After Carlos and Flo left, I walked back to my apartment. Stopping at Scott Circle, I could see vast crowds down 16th Street, stretching all the way to the White House. Cars, bikes and scooters navigated the circle, horns and bells ringing everywhere.

The horns went on all night. I didn’t mind. We won.

 

Letter from Washington: High Anxiety Edition

looking down 22nd St NW from the Spanish Steps

How can I be bored and anxious?

2020, hell year, manages to deliver two contradictory emotions at the same time.

I’m bored because I’ve lost my social life. All the meetups, happy hours and coffee with friends that I assumed would go on forever because why wouldn’t they? Trump couldn’t fuck things up so badly to impact my life, right?

Oh…

I live in a city because I like being busy. I like having things to do and see. A typical week might see me be social at:

  • WordPressDC: I’d always learn something new at this monthly meetup (this blog runs WordPress) and there was free beer and pizza.
  • Friday Coffee Club: Sometimes I’d drag myself out of bed on a Friday morning to wake up at Friday Coffee Club, a biking meetup at Swing’s. Scores of bikes would park out front at this shop near the White House.
  • #BikeDC Happy Hour: If I missed FCC, I could go to this monthly happy hour for cyclists. Some of my fondest memories come from sitting inside with bike friends at Velo Cafe, a combination bike shop/cafe (which is sadly no more).
  • Post-Soccer Coffee: I used to play soccer with people on Saturday mornings. Afterward, we’d stop at Fresh Baguette in Georgetown for croissants and to talk politics. Over coffee, my foreign friends would warn me that dictatorship could happen here too. I didn’t believe them.
  • Bars: I was teleworking long before covid-19 forced America to adopt the work from home lifestyle. At the end of a day in front of a computer, I want to go out. I want to see and hear people (which is great research if you write books), even if it’s just having an Old Fashioned at McCllellan’s Retreat.

All of the above is gone or, at the very least, curtailed.

And, thanks to the internet, there’s a vast network of computers, fiber, and satellites to bring you anxiety-inducing news with just the press of a button.

My anxieties include:

  • Covid, Covid, Covid: I worry about friends and family. I fret over the state of the country and what the pandemic is doing to the less fortunate. Since Trump has throttled the CDC, we’re left on our own to determine if ordinary activities are safe. If I go into this Starbucks, will I get covid?
  • The Election: I doomscroll before dawn, my phone alight in the darkness, scrolling through Twitter, trying to figure out what the election result will be. The nation cannot afford another catastrophe like 2016.
  • Post-Election: If the result is close, will there be riots in the streets? Will Trump send in his little green men and take power? If the unthinkable occurs, what do I do? Leave the country?

I count the days to the election. I savor the little moments, like having a beer with a friends, socially distant and outside. I run to my happy place in the woods of Rock Creek Park. I read books, like the excellent Station Eleven, and buy them locally from Kramers. I take action, like voting early and donating to the Democratic Party.

Boredom and anxiety. It’s a helluva combination. But when confronted with a problem like 2020, mere survival is enough.

Strippers and Gyros: Cities Will Endure

Gyro Grill Kitchen

The last bar I went to before the covid shutdown in Washington, DC, was McClellan’s Retreat.

It’s a favorite of mine – I even put in my book LIKES – because it’s a cozy little space with good cocktails and no TVs. I was a regular, being a fan of their happy hour Old Fashioneds.

On the Saturday night before the world ended in March, the bar was packed. I was there with friends and we had to wait for a table before we all squeezed together to share food and drinks.

Five months later, I was back with a couple of the same friends. None of us were courageous enough to sit inside. Instead, we sat outside at a table carefully spaced apart. In March, I was shoulder to shoulder with my friends; now I had my own bubble of space.

The bartender recognized me, despite my mask. “It’s in the eyes,” he said. I signed the register with my name and phone number, a covid requirement in DC.

McCllellan’s Retreat is at the busy intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues north of Dupont Circle. The sidewalk is narrow and cars rush by just feet away. It’s not a spot I would choose to sit outside at, pre-covid.

But in this covid era, I was delighted to have a drink with Carlos and Flo. It made me happier than anything has in months.

People need social experiences. They need to sit across the table from another person and share stories. We are storytelling animals; that is how we built civilization.

And we do it in cities.

Jerry Seinfeld published an article on how New York is not dead. In it, he writes:

Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines.

We cram together in impossible places like a narrow island off the East Coast (or a Mid-Atlantic swamp) because the presence of so many people creates a bubbling stew of possibility that is irresistible to social creatures such as ourselves. We long to see human faces, to hear their voices and enjoy the novelty that they bring to our lives.

I ordered a second beer. A Raised by Wolves by the local brewery Right Proper Brewing.

And then a gyro truck pulled to the curb in front of McClellan’s Retreat. Carlos got up to order some food. The driver explained that he wasn’t supposed to park there but would cook something up if Carlos didn’t mind going around the corner.

My friend followed the truck down the block, disappearing into the distance, leaving me there with Flo.

The bartender explained that the gyro truck is for Assets, the strip joint across the street. The city has a covid requirement that bars must serve food. Even strip bars. The gyro truck (run by a couple of Pakistani guys) makes a loop around the neighborhood and parks in front of Assets.

I wondered how you operate a strip joint during social distancing. The bartender explained that the strippers perform outside on the patio and do not get naked (technically). This explained the parade of women in short-shorts I had seen across the street. All evening, I had watched ladies emerge from Assets and walk around the corner to the patio in feather boas and glow sticks.

This kind of energy only exists in cities. Nothing pleases our curious primate minds more than learning something new.

A Zoom call is a pale substitute for the real thing, the real experience of being sweaty and drinking beer outside as you listen to a bartender tell an amusing story about strippers after one of your friends has walked off in search of a gyro.

This is why cities will endure, for they provide happy combinations such as strippers and gyros, novel experiences that you can only get by being there.

LIKES: The Stories Behind the Stories

LIKES front cover

My new book LIKES is a collection of short stories about social media. Dark and funny, they cover everything from Instagram husbands to the dangers of going viral.

Where did I get my ideas from? What was my inspiration? What’s real and what I did I invent?

These are stories behind the stories of LIKES.

Avocado Toast: Be careful if you’re friends with a writer. This first story in LIKES was inspired by a friend who I play soccer with. I would gently tease him about his love of avocado toast. He would talk eloquently of good bread. The first half of the story is largely true, the second half is invented. Sometimes your paranoia is justified.

King of the Mountain: While I love Strava, the fitness tracking app, the competitive nature of it rubs me the wrong way – perhaps because I’m so slow on laps around Hains Point.

Hotel Mondo: I have been an Instagram influencer and have received free trips, in exchange for social media promotion. I’ve been glad to do so but wonder about what’s being exchanged.

The Chicken Salesman: I served on a mock jury for a case that was very similar to this one. While I was outraged at the treatment the defendant had received, he was undeniably guilty. It was all on paper. I had sympathy for this man who had been kidnapped and held in a US jail so far from home.

AnimalFarm: The idea of people spending their time building a virtual farm always struck me as absurd. Also absurd is the reality of poorly paid coders working for millionaires in electronic sweatshops.

The Influencers: Social media is about vanity. Everyone wants to be popular – even Mexican revolutionaries. I set the story in Tulum, a place I had a chance to visit years ago.

Typhoid Margie: Trump voters were not duped. They are complicit.

Twitter Famous: This is my favorite story in LIKES, because it’s set in Florida (where my family lives) and sums up all my conflicted attitudes toward social media fame. I had a photo go viral, an overwhelming and not entirely pleasant experience. That moment and stories about online public humiliation were the genesis of this tale.

The Dark Web: A relative told me that it was useful to have a gun in Phoenix.  That got me wondering: why would you need a gun in Phoenix?

Instagram Husband: I just wanted a story called Instagram Husband because I thought the title was hilarious. And I may have been reading too much Isabel Allende (her new book is great).

Applicant Tracking System: As anyone who has looked for a job in the last decade can attest, the HR system is broken. There was also a twitter storm in DC about a guy who scheduled dates back to back like in this story. And it’s set in one of my favorite bars, McCllellan’s Retreat.

The Source Code: Wouldn’t it be ironic if the one person who understood the dark power of social media was considered crazy?

Likes: For my final tale, I wanted to go back to the beginning of this online trap, which was constructed by computer scientists with the best of intentions.

Write what you know. Or read about it. Or see. If you’re a writer, any moment can be inspiration.

These are the stories behind the stories of LIKES.

 

Rediscovering E. L. Doctorow

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

It was the day before the world ended.

March 24.

Non-essential businesses were to be shutdown in a desperate attempt to stop COVID-19 in the nation’s capital. Washington, DC, was going into lockdown and I was at Kramerbooks searching for something to read.

The bookstore looked pillaged. Deliveries hadn’t come in for days and book-readers had snapped up as much as they could, desperate for something to read for what was announced as a 30-day shutdown.

Gloves and hand sanitizer was available but not masks. That requirement was in the future. Masks were for medical personnel, only.

I wanted to get in and get out. I figured two big books would be enough to last me for the month. The first was a massive tome, The British Are Coming, a serviceable work of history about the opening days of the American Revolution.

But it was the second book that imprinted itself on my memory, providing consolation during these chaotic, disastrous days.

Ragtime

That book was Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. It’s one of those books that I’m sure my parents read. They have bookcases full of novels. Maybe I picked it up at some point when I was kid and paged through it.

I saw it on a ravaged shelf at Kramer’s and took it.

There’s a magic that only a good novel can perform. It’s a spell cast by an author that envelopes you completely, taking you out of your world and placing you in another one that seems just as real as your own.

Doctorow conjures America in 1906, all the heady optimism and crushing tragedy, with an operatic scope that touches upon lives large and small. We meet historical figures, like Harry Houdini and Henry Ford, and the ordinary folks of New Rochelle, NY.

Ragtime unfolds as if in a dream, a story told by an omniscient, God-like presence that zips back and forth in time, sweeping across the entire American continent. The stories pile up upon each other, a kaleidoscope view of a country in constant motion, powered by new technologies such as automobiles and electricity, a people finding their power on the world stage.

I read the book as the shutdown lasted well beyond 30 days. I read the book as the news grew dire. I read the book on park benches, the city as quiet as a tomb, no cars on the roads, no planes in the sky, with just dog walkers and runners outside.

On June 22, non-essential businesses like Kramerbooks were allowed to reopen. I think bookstores and libraries are essential; I was glad to see them open again.

I returned to Kramer’s. I masked up and picked up the only E.L. Doctorow novel on the shelf.

The March

The March is about Sherman’s path of destruction through the South during the Civil War. It’s a tragedy but is also about finding little bits of hope among the ruins. Like Ragtime, it features real characters. We go into the mind of Sherman himself, full of darkness and doubt, yet determined to prosecute this war to the bitter end. And we meet colorful characters like General “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick, whose roguish adventures were so unbelievable that I had to look them up on Wikipedia. They’re all real.

While the country has reopened, the coronavirus news is even worse. 138,000 dead, a total more than most of our wars. I read The March at home, sheltering from other people and the stultifying heat. And I finished it by the pool, on the first day it reopened, my neighbors and I carefully spaced apart on the rooftop, everyone a bit nervous.

Like you probably do, I spend too much time doomscrolling. Looking at Twitter and reading articles about contemporary disasters.

Reading fiction breaks that habit. A good novel does more than just transport you to another time and place; it heals your brain. The hours go by as you silently read, whether it’s on a park bench or poolside. The nervousness dissipates as you enter the dream world of the novel.

Put down your iPhone and take up a book instead.

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.

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.

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.