Decline of a Wandering Brooklynite

My friends know me as someone who can easily locate some recherche venue in a city I’ve just set foot into for the first time. Even without GPS, I can usually drive my way to where I need to be. It’s a blind instinct. The seeds for this sense of direction were planted when I was four years old. There was a large map of Santa Clara County hanging on my bedroom wall and I memorized all the streets to pass the time. I asked my mother to order more free maps from AAA and I scooped up these new geographical sectors with relish, happily adding these fresh streets to the spatial depository of my ravening mind. My mother was someone who could get easily lost. But I had traced the clover leaves and followed the construction of new freeways with my little fingers. I had calculated the shortcuts that got you to your destinations faster. At four years old. A few years later, I would sneak out of the house and spend the entire day bicycling to areas on the map that I was curious about. I once got into trouble when a neighbor ratted me out after discovering that I had high-tailed it six miles away. I’ve always felt wanderlust was something vital that binded you to a community. My heart flows with a great hunger to investigate every nook and cranny of any neighborhood I live in.

I learned yesterday that the pandemic has destroyed this essential part of me.

There was a place in Queens that I needed to be at. Anybody who lives off the 2 line in Brooklyn knows that the easiest way to get there is through one simple transfer move. In the Before Times, that free-wheeling maskless epoch now so inconsolably long ago, the switch between Hoyt and Hoyt-Schermerhorn was as easy as breathing oxygen. You’d shuttle up the stairs from the 2, walk a few blocks over, and descend into the subway system’s subterranean bowels to catch the A.

But yesterday, as I squinted into the early morning light, I found myself incapable of recognizing whether I was north or south. I didn’t seem to know where I was at. It was shocking. The stores along Fulton Street seemed as foreign to me as they were fourteen years ago, when I had first mapped Downtown Brooklyn’s bustling blocks onto my mind, pleasantly amazed that I was ambling down the same strip that Spike Lee and Ernest Dickerson had captured in beautiful black-and-white in She’s Gotta Have It.

Perhaps I was fated to feel confused because I had excavated four pairs of pants from the closet that very morning — slacks and trousers that I had not worn in a good two years and that I had replaced with more elastic jeans — and discovered that only one pair still fit me. My waistline had expanded under lockdown by a few inches. It was bad enough that the pandemic had saddled me with a burgeoning mass of neck fat that had nestled uninvitingly beneath my chin. I lost a lot of weight seven years ago and had always kept it off through exercise. But the exercise bike in my apartment, which I once used regularly with gusto, has lost any allure and now feels as tedious as taxes. My three hour constitutionals had been denied me. My long walks through New York didn’t feel fun anymore because, even with the double mask protection, my glasses still fogged up. Whenever I leave the house, my only choice to stumble blindly into a metropolis I love but can now no longer see, with everything five feet ahead of me rendered into some blur, the muddy vista of a previous city that now lurks only on the mnemonic fringes. The random social encounters and the trips to new places no longer exist. So any saunter feels tiresome. The only geography that most of us have are the cells we now call home.

Earlier this week, Ellen Cushing noted our collective decline in The Atlantic, pointing to an epidemic of people forgetting words or names and succumbing to absent-mindedness. Like Cushing, I can trace the decline of my motivation and my productivity to the grim cold of late December, in which the risk of hypothermia became the prerequisite for safe socializing. I saw my friends less. I dated less. Even when I did the math to meet someone in socially distanced real life, I would find that the date or the friend would backpedal at the last minute, disrespecting the two weeks of self-quarantine I had subjected myself to before meeting anyone (and only meeting one person at a time). Life increasingly became a relentlessly bleak calendar of entombed solitude. I would go weeks or months without smoking or drinking, only to take one or both up again. Anything to change the grim and hopeless cadences of routine. My mind and body atrophied. My progress on my audio drama and the wild novel that I had drafted in a gleeful three-month summer frenzy stalled. Without the social glue to keep me effervescent, there really wasn’t much point in doing anything. It didn’t help that looking for work was becoming increasingly demoralizing. I had always been able to land a job before with a phone call or, in a few daring cases, showing up in person, cracking jokes, and introducing myself. I was still able to play guitar. I started learning keyboard, but found that this was increasingly pointless. I obtained a ukulele at the start of this month, learned it fairly fast, and that lifted my spirits a bit. I became prolific on TikTok in an attempt to remedy some of the loneliness of living alone. I read books at a ridiculous rate, slamming back nearly a book a day during the month of February. But even that part of me surrendered to dismal pandemic perdition.

One year of this. Who knows how many more months? We weren’t built to live like this. But we have no other choice.

But I’m most disturbed by the fact that I can’t find my way in a city anymore. Even one that I’m deeply familiar with. I’m terribly alarmed that something that was as vital to me as food and water seems to be permanently lost. While Cushing ends her Atlantic essay on a sanguine note, I’m not sure if my synapses or hers are as plastic as she thinks they are. Even if we somehow hit the magical goal of mass vaccination by the summer, we cannot deny the reality that our collective mental health will take years, maybe even decades, to repair. Maybe there’s a case to be made for human beings showing more kindness and understanding to each other, given that we all know that nobody has escaped this pandemic without some kind of crippling toll. But I’m not so sure. Those who have been lucky enough to be vaccinated have developed signs of what I call “vaccine privilege,” where they are boasting about how invincible they are and eagerly making plans to be social while leaving the unvaccinated sad sacks in the dust. Selfishness seems to be an ineluctable part of the grim equation, perhaps more so now than ever. And we can’t even begin to rebuild our social fabric unless we relearn how to be there for other people and to include them. But many of us can’t or won’t be able to do this. Our vital parts have been deracinated. The qualities that once made us distinct are trapped in amber. What kind of community can anyone build when our personalities are so lobotomized?

The Ghosts of Flatbush

The sun set only a few hours ago and my hood is quiet. The building across from me is dark, with only half of the windows revealing the dependable orange glow of incandescent light. In one window, I see a Christmas tree. Nobody blasts music. Nobody even washes their cars anymore. The streets are lined with metal carcasses that don’t seem to move for alternate side parking, which is rarely enforced anymore.

Nobody in the building across from me utters a peep. I wonder if some of the residents have left, unable to pay their rent. Or maybe they lie there waiting. Waiting in the dark for the pandemic to be over. Waiting for some hope that neither the city nor the state nor the nation can give them.

There are two kids I once saw on a regular basis in one of the windows. They jumped up and down on their bed sometime around ten and engaged in pillow fights. And they did this through October. When I went into my kitchen to pour a nightcap, I would watch them, feeling some hope that joy and life had not died in Flatbush. But I haven’t seen them in the last six weeks. And I worry about them. I worry that they have been forced out of their unit or that their ability to make the most of a bad situation had reached a natural end point.

Even the guys who used to hang out for hours on the corner are gone. Last year, they stood there until December, pulling hoodies over their heads and chatting and smiling through shivers on chilly days. They likewise departed the streets sometime after Halloween. The only trace that they ever existed are a few bottles left on the sidewalk from their outdoor drinking. The only sign of their conviviality. Nobody has touched the bottles. In ordinary times, I would probably dispose of the trash. But I can’t find it within me to do so. Because those bottles are the only remaining indicator that people were there. I suspect that other neighborhood neatniks, the many here who silently pine for our old ways to return, feel the same way. The empty bottles serve as a memorial. A memorial to how the hood used to be. To how it might be again.

Over Thanksgiving, there was a lot of festive music played in my building. But nobody blasts any music now. They preserve the funereal silence of waiting and not knowing and staying quiet. Of knowing that we’re at the beginning of another crest of COVID infections and who knows how many deaths. Of understanding this is just the beginning of a dark time. A repeat of what went down here in March. The ambulance sirens are more frequent. They often wake me up at 3 AM. And I always think of the person inside ushered at high speeds to an ICU. My eyes moisten as I understand that the patient will probably die, leaving further grief for the patient’s friends and family.

The fight has gone out of people. We’ve accepted this as the new normal. We’ve accepted Trump’s indefensible inaction. We’ve accepted Governor Cuomo’s present “policy” to pledge “very strong action” while not actually doing anything. While keeping indoor dining and gyms open. Sure, there’s a vaccine on the horizon, but it won’t be here for months. We’re not even halfway through this long pain. Every other developed nation has a monthly stimulus check. We have nothing. Unemployment if we’re lucky.

So we sit in our apartments like ghosts. Because to inhabit the corporeal in any form is more exhausting these days, even when we are not in motion. And we need all the energy we can get. Because it’s going to be a long time before things return to normal again.

Robert Carroll: Brooklyn’s Scumbag Scrooge

I’ve spent the last two days trying to tame a great rage I have towards an entitled millennial New York State Assemblyman named Robert Carroll — or “Bobby4Brooklyn,” as this clueless asshat likes to call himself on Twitter. (Sorry, Bobby, but styling your handle like the title of a Prince song doesn’t make you any less whiter.) But I cannot find it within my heart to stifle my indignation towards a remarkably insensitive and entitled dickhead who clearly does not recognize the struggles of people with disabilities, economically disadvantaged New Yorkers who are hanging by a thread for dear life, and the elderly, who are often barely getting by on social security and pensions. Carroll has proposed one of the cruelest and most poorly devised bills I’ve observed in some time. And this dimwitted weasel has the effrontery to call himself a Working Families Party candidate!

In the middle of a pandemic, as many people have been forced to stay indoors and remain socially isolated and thus order packages to get what they need, Carroll has had the audacity to propose a $3 surcharge for any delivery in New York City. The bill — specifically, A06078 — does provide an exception for “essential medical supplies, food deliveries and for those using supplemental nutrition assistance program, special supplemental nutrition for women, infants and children and any other successor program,” but this still leaves a woefully gargantuan set of essential items that will still cause the underprivileged to pay up. Got a deal on a winter coat? Pay $3. Or how about some household goods you need to keep your home in tidy shape? Pay $3. Need a specialized tool for your job that you can’t get elsewhere? Pay $3. Your landlord won’t fix the radiator and you need a heater to stay warm in the winter? Pay $3.

You may be thinking, “Well, $3. That’s not that big of a deal.” Well, how many times have you been forced to order something online when it isn’t available in the store? Or when you’ve feared braving the teeming throngs of people crowding a supermarket? Moreover, if Amazon decides to split up your delivery across multiple packages, would you have to pay $3 for each separate delivery? That would seem to be the case based on the language of the bill. You could easily pay $12 if the algorithm decided to split up a bulk purchase into four separate deliveries. And for many people struggling in New York, $12 could mean the difference between paying this month’s electricity bill or playing Russian roulette with Con Ed, hoping that they won’t shut the lights off after months of falling behind on the payments.

This bill is also a slap in the face to small businesses, who are often forced to shell out for UPS and FedEx in an effort to keep their customers happy and fend off the big online behemoths. Amazon has succeeded in undercutting small businesses by pricing down goods at a reduced profit margin. The cash-strapped New Yorker is often forced to go with the cheaper deal. But what if that $3 surcharge — theoretically on every item — is simply too much for someone looking for loose change under the couch to stay alive? Well, they may go to the retail stores. They could clog the parking lots, creating the very congestion that Carroll, in his infinite imperiousness, claims to be fighting.

Our fundamental goal here in New York is to prevent people from socially congregating as much as possible. According to the Washington Post, social gatherings are leading the COVID spread. The spread has been so disastrous that Governor Cuomo was forced to cap social gatherings at ten people. Moreover, in an age in which three dollars is the new thirty dollars, Carroll’s bill is a repugnant war on the working class. All the funds generated by this would go to bailing out the MTA — which, not to put too fine a point on it, hasn’t exactly been known for its financial scrupulousness. Disabled people — who rely on deliveries in order to survive and who cannot use the subway easily due to the fact that only 77% of stations are accessible — are now being asked to bear the financial brunt of a public transportation service that has declared itself enemy to their mobility. And what about the immunocompromised? Surely, it’s an unfair financial burden on them as well.

Carroll clearly hasn’t thought out these obvious drawbacks to his bill. The $300 million he hopes to generate annually from a bill aimed at regular people would be a drop in the bucket for Amazon, which Carroll hasn’t targeted and which made $96.1 billion in revenue during the third quarter of 2020. If you asked Amazon to pick up the $30 million tab, that would be .3% of just one quarter of revenue. For the struggling New Yorker who has only $90 to buy an $89 winter coat, that would mean a $92 bill that he could not pay.

Robert Carroll is, in short, a heartless Scrooge for even considering this punitive scheme. He has received righteous pushback on Twitter and is too much of a cowardly Jacob Frey type to man up and address the criticism and walk back the bill. Since social media opened up a glorious can of whoop-ass on Carroll and his foolish and unjust bill, Carroll has tried to mask his assault on the working class by aligning himself with a “tax the rich” campaign and hypocritically stumping against state pension dollars divested to gas an doil.

Well, it won’t work, Bobby. We now know that you’re an enemy of the people. We know that you’re a Scrooge and that you’re actively contributing to undermining public health during a pandemic.

If Carroll manages to pass this bill, here is my promise. I will put my energies into supporting any 44th District candidate who will primary him. I will knock on doors to expose this charlatan and tilt votes. I will do everything in my power to ensure that Carroll loses his seat.

Asking the people — especially disabled people who cannot use the subway — to take a tax hit for a corrupt and bloated agency that requires significant reform is an unconscionable and morally unjust act. You surrender any right to call yourself a defender of the people when this bill is your “big idea.”

So what’s it going to be, Bobby? Are you going to walk this vile bill back and admit that you did not think this thing through? As a man of Brooklyn, I will be the first person to defend you if you do so.

Or will you continue to remain smug and stubborn? Will you continue to believe that you know what’s best for the people of Brooklyn? If that’s the case, I’ll be happy to volunteer my time and energy to become a significant factor to ending your political career with a sizable turnout in the next election.

The choice, Bobby, is yours.

The Limits of Escapism

I should be laughing and shaking off the sediment. Feeling joy roiling from my rouse heart. Finding a liminal space to land. The television show I am streaming is comedic and should make me happy in theory, but it is too close to a life I once lived, one now presently impossible to live. The images are too vivid, too palpable, too recognizably amateurish, frustratingly reproducible only nine months before. I wish I could succumb to this work of art, giving myself over to it completely. I see what it is trying to do and, deep down, I commend it. In another year, I would be chortling over its clever premise and singing its praises and telling anyone who will listen to me that this is something that speaks the truth and is worth the journey. But I can’t. And I feel ashamed that I cannot give this show the attention it clearly deserves. As the ghosts of how I once lived melt across my monitor, as the images of a quotidian life that will not be possible for at least another year haunt my starved soul, I feel the tug of deep grief. And I am shocked to find myself crying.

This wasn’t the case a few months ago. Who knows how I’ll react six months from now?

These days, I can’t handle the images of New Yorkers slapping each other on the back and talking within inches of each other. The casual cigarette exchanged from one person to another just outside a bar. The hugs. All the hugs. All the physical contact. The kissing. The banter. The ability to walk into a random building and get into trouble and have an adventure. The small talk. The eccentrics and the true originals in the subway. The packed elevators. All of this is now gone. Sure, you can find bits of it here and there. There are still buskers in the Village. There are still dependable outliers shouting obscenities in the streets. There are still friends you can see if both of you take a rapid test the day before and the results are negative and you haven’t seen anyone for a week. But even then you are taking a calculated risk. You see people escaping the cold into enclosed tents with heat lamps, tempting fate as they drop their masks for a meal and the underpaid and undertipped waitstaff nervously serves them, some of them terrified out of their minds. Outdoor dining was fine when there was plenty of air and you could feel the warm sun pour onto your skin and you felt that the setup was reasonably safe for you and the servers who braved this new world. But despite many enticing invites, I can’t bring myself to take the plunge for this new “outdoor dining,” which is decidedly indoor.

We all know that existence won’t be fully restored for a while. Yet we try to live anyway, often forgetting that we are in a pandemic.

After ten minutes of watching the show, I can’t watch any more. I’ve reached my limit. Perhaps it is the documentary quality that is too real. Perhaps I recognize myself as a potential participant within the frame. What I know is that I cannot escape into a world that bears strong resemblance to what my universe used to be. If I am seeing New York from twenty years ago, it sits sufficiently enough in the past for me to enjoy it. If it is science fiction or fantasy, particularly if there are preposterous creatures, even better. But if it is true to me, if there is a strong likelihood that I could meet and know these people in my former regular life, then I find my heart pleating and retreating, tightening into a balled bundle of wistful tension. I can read books and listen to podcasts. Because I am using my imagination and using my memory on my own terms. But the stark visuals of once ubiquitous panoramas are just too much.

I am fatigued by the screens. I have grown exhausted by the Zoom meetings. If there is a potential romantic partner, I insist on voice only for that vital vetting. Because the voice is as close to human presence as we can get these days. It’s a ludicrous burden to get dressed up and tidy up everything that’s going to be within the camera’s range if you’re not even going to meet. Better to talk with a prospective paramour in your boxers. Or nothing at all if you’re spending the endless days going commando.

It goes without saying that we were never meant to live such a disembodied life. Theatre has survived for centuries because there is no better substitute for emotional intimacy other than face-to-face contact. Our best moments happen in the flesh. And that is no longer possible.

The reason so many of us have ordered so many items by mail is not merely because we need them. It is not blind consumerism. It is not merely because there’s a certain comfort in getting a new item by mail. A new item in the mail is like a present, particularly if one forgets ordering it, which is often what happens to me. If we can’t have other people, what we can have in our lives is something tangible, something we can touch. I ordered a dozen board games just so I could feel the cards and grasp the tokens and roll the dice and clomp around the splayed out board as if I had four other friends in my apartment. (I was fortunate to have a friend come by to play some of these games with me. But, for the most part, I’m carrying out imagined multiplayer scenarios on my own. This is ridiculous and possibly a little pathetic.)

Home used to be something you returned to. Now it is a place you stay. For living. For work. And no matter how comfortable or ideal your home may be, no matter how much you have, there comes a point for anyone in which escapism has its limits. How many of us will crack permanently before we have a nationally distributed vaccine?

A Sport and a Pandemic

You both dance behind digital feathers. That white ostrich plumage avatar you plucked from Instagram and placed over your best bits when you weren’t depositing the cotton mask on your visage. Something barer if both of you were feeling bold. Anything biting away at the loneliness.

These tugs at the phone are the new hugs. Inexact. Incorporeal. Immaterial. Gray matter leaving a deep imprint. Nerves reconfigured. You wonder if you’ll ever feel the frisson in the way you did before.

The preliminary call makes your first dance resemble a job interview. Tidy and inoffensive questions meant to be tendered in person, just squeaking through at this intermediary stage, this quick fix for your appetite. Hello. Heavy breathing. Portentous gasps. Disembodied voices nestling into the pink chaise longue. Because no one else had been occupying the ruffled fringes other than your grumpy cat, who has grown fatigued from your one-sided conversations and who now merely wants you to give her a tasty chicken Temptation. From him: A joke just funny enough to sustain mystique but just inoffensive enough to keep the minnow hanging on the line. From her: An answer just sexy enough to feed his ego but just opaque enough to disguise her intellect.

Neither of you know just how hard the virus rages outside. Both of you could breathe it in if you meet, gasping away in a gulf of heavy coughs, perhaps dying in a way that future scholars may consider romantic. It’s best to be delicate, which is better than being dead. To seek answers that feel anecdotal but that reveal your true commitment to public health.

There’s never an exact formula, but you both want the same thing. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. One flub on either of your part could tilt the train over.

We talked, of course. Just as Rilke instructed us to do. One should not believe too easily in a hookup that can vanish on a vagary.

The lifespan of our sordid pretext is more delicate in this epoch. So much frolicking we did in the days before. Before they closed the bars and the restaurants and even the gyms and all the places where we practiced trivialities. As we got to know each other, we both imagined the places in which we could toss our hungering and languorous forms, clambering and shaking as we shuddered tables that used to be nooks where you could sit down and take a fork and pick at a Denver omelette. Exhibitionistic thrills now as lost as time. These were some of the topics we discussed. Where to do it. How to do it. How often we could do it if we worked up the nerve to meet. Shuttered diners that we could break into if the looting happened again. Just to do it. Again and again. Thundering and thrusting on the abandoned furniture as we watched the rats scurry past our lumbering and languid bodies. Even our dirtiest thoughts glittered with a coruscating joy against the dying sun.

But before we could begin to inhabit such a hypothetical place, we shifted from our iPhones to Zoom. Her face added to the steamy whispers. She came to life with a soft burst of unreliable pixels, a Dachshund leaping from a burning building.

She was an out-of-work real estate broker, a part-time novelist who leaned heavily on similes. He was an unemployed bartender. We talked of the babies we could make. Our contribution to the forthcoming boom of unhappy couples domiciled together to burn away the depression and the solitude. We realized we could never know each other that well. We had ideas about summer. And France was too far away.

We unmatched from each other and I walked alone under an orange firmament. 120 degrees on the other side of the world. Bright fires lapping away at all that was left of the very real need we could never summon the effrontery to confirm. I’ll remember her all my life. Until the app chirps back with another match in about twenty minutes.

Coronavirus Report from Brooklyn

The panic hasn’t quite kicked in, but there is a muted and funereal despair in Brooklyn. You can now more easily spot someone who is under the age of 35 from a distance. They jaunt down the streets with the carefree pep of kids who believe they are immune to COVID. But for the rest of us, there is a slowness, a cautiousness, sometimes a sadness, in the gait. For every stranger could be a carrier. I was received with more looks of suspicion than the norm, with people not only staying physically away from me, but saying nothing in response to my cheery hellos. But for people in the neighborhood that I knew in some capacity, including a guy who works the roti stand who I have a long-running “we’re in a steamy relationship” gag with, there were jokes and friendliness and hellos. The people you know are the ones you can count on. But strangers are increasingly stranger.

The reason I was out was not because I wanted to be, but because, like many residents of Brooklyn, I do not have a washing machine in my building. And I am a big believer in changing your underwear on a daily basis. It took me two days before I worked up the nerve to bundle my dirty clothes. I was out for about 90 minutes, longer than I had been out in the last four days combined. I felt that staying inside the laundromat was akin to playing a respiratory version of Russian roulette. So I decided to go for a wander, keeping my social distance.

Some of the restaurants were shuttered. The ones that remained open — takeout only by city edict — had removed all of their chairs. I observed a long strip of yellow police tape cordoning off booths at a fast food franchise. None of them appeared to be doing any business. And this was lunch hour. But there were kids still working behind the counter. I asked a guy on the register, whose name and restaurant I will not divulge in order to protect him, how he felt about working in these risky conditions. He told me that his boss would fire him if he didn’t work his scheduled shifts and that, on top of this, he was getting some overtime. He needed the money and, like many Americans, didn’t have any savings.

The thing that kept surprising me was how quickly social distancing had turned into a habit of not saying a word to a stranger, almost as if you could catch the Coronavirus by speaking a few words. When I went out into the world to stock up on provisions a few days ago, I encountered an old woman with a sad look, stumbling forward on her walker. I stayed about eight feet away, but I said, “Be careful. And you have a very happy day!” She smiled and told me that I was the first person she had spoken with in three days and she thanked me profusely. I wanted so badly to give her a hug and to let her know that she was not alone. But of course, I couldn’t. Our world is already in the casually cruel practice of letting the old die on their own. The increased and justifiable fear of passing along the virus to someone over the age of 60 has only hardened this habit of isolating ourselves from the truth of our inevitable fate.

The man who ran the laundromat had reduced his hours and placed many signs warning people about the virus. He wore a facemask. I noticed that his family wasn’t there, as they often were. It was just him, doing his best to keep his small business running. When I took out my laundry, I was sized up by a few nervous people who also didn’t want to sit there. Aggressive glares. Don’t come near me. It was quieter than usual, as most of the city now is, with only the television blaring warbling news from the wall. But it was the beginning of a new way of life. Don’t trust strangers. You don’t know what they have. The devil you know is better than the angel you don’t. In this new and unprecedented time of staying inside and self-quarantine, how many people will suffer not from a deadly flu but from loneliness?

Facebook Censorship: “Violating Community Standards”

I have received multiple reports tonight of Facebook stifling the rights of regular citizens to report on developments related to the Coronavirus, claiming that any user who shares helpful and objectively inoffensive information is somehow “violating community standards.”

This is, in short, an obscene violation of the First Amendment — especially because the “offensive” content being shared is often reasonable. Here are some examples of how Facebook is going out of its way to prevent people from having useful discussions:

I’m personally offended by this. As a dedicated rabble-rouser who often goes out of his way to write about the ineffable and the offensive, I have somehow not been hit by this weirdass algorithm — even though I went well out of my way to publicly declare on Facebook, “Mark Zuckerberg should have his virgin tight rectum violated by a flock of lambs jacked up on Viagra. Mark Zuckerberg will never know how to find and stimulate the clitoris – even with his many billions of dollars.”

Where the hell is my violation of community standards, Mark? I feel that I’ve been left out of your censorship party!

But in all seriousness, this draconian assault on basic information sharing is a calumny against free expression and the abundant need to be honest about the place we’re now heading in. If Zuckerberg has decided to withhold information — especially information that was put together by bona-fide journalists who perform their work with objective standards — then this is, in fact, disastrous to discourse and catastrophic to understanding how the terrible flu is spreading. At the present time, it is essential for us to have the floodgates open. And since 2.5 billion people are now on Facebook trying to make sense of a terrible pandemic, then it seems condign to let them vent in any way they need to.

This patently illustrates that Facebook is very much committed to muzzling free speech and destroying our right to disseminate genuinely useful information that will help people survive rather than die. And right now, it is far more important to have people delineating what they are experiencing rather than having Facebook capitulate to the business-as-usual approach to contemporary life. This is not a time for dishonesty. It is a time for truth.

When the world returns to normal, I hope that people will remember how Zuckerberg’s smug crew gleefully silenced us when we needed to talk. I hope that everyone will remember that Facebook went out of its way to be a dance partner with fascism and to pretend that a pandemic that could kill as many as 1.7 million Americans wasn’t just some fly-by-night trend.

We Need A Guaranteed Income for All Americans During the Pandemic

Nearly every working-class American is one or two paychecks from being out on the streets. And the shuttering of bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues in Los Angeles and New York City — all necessary, but all committed with cruel and thoughtless consideration for the American worker — is going to take a significant and life-altering hit on the vast majority of Americans who aren’t cushioned by savings or a 401k plan that they can cash out to survive during this unprecedented time. According to data, 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. And 45% of those Americans have no savings at all. It is unconscionable and morally unacceptable to leave these Americans without a financial safeguard. Yes, evictions are frozen in New York City. But there isn’t a rent freeze. And when the housing courts reopen, the restaurant workers — who are undoubtedly struggling to find last-minute funds to make rent in the next two weeks — will be left vulnerable to greedy landlords who have been looking for an opportunity to evict their tenants, do a retrofit, raise the rent, and make more money.

Moreover, with businesses circling the wagons right now just to survive, anyone unemployed right now is also left in the lurch. The emergency Coronavirus bill now being worked out by Congress allows for sick leave, but leaves about 59 million Americans uncovered. If you work for a business with more than 500 employees — say a restaurant franchise like McDonald’s — or the government, you’re not going to qualify for paid leave. Some companies, such as Target and Walmart, have stated that they would allow for two weeks of sick leave should any employee contract COVID-19. But this still doesn’t account for the likelihood that, as quarantine measures continue and more venues and establishments close down, the employees who work for these places will not have an alternative income.

The only mechanism that would alleviate this unfair burden upon the unemployed, the working poor, and the middle class would be a guaranteed income granted to all Americans during the next two months. This must be accompanied by a rent freeze, a freeze on credit card interest and late fees, and numerous other pieces of financial legislation to rectify a situation that we could not foresee happening.

This isn’t about radicalism. It’s about democratic humanism. It’s about an empathy for all that should never be a partisan issue.

Because this isn’t just about workers meeting their basic needs. For the estimated 30 million Americans who are presently uninsured — and for the working class population using a healthplan with a high deductible — are going to face significant costs just to get checked out for the Coronavirus — such as the teacher hit with a $10,000 emergency room bill who got checked out after she returned from Italy. (The irony is that the teacher merely visited the ER and didn’t get tested.)

It’s one thing for Governor Andrew Cuomo to end the seven day waiting period on unemployment. But these benefits must be issued at an amount that is realistic to survive on. Is it fair for the bartenders and waiters now out of work to have to use their two weeks of paid sick leave to survive what may be two months of quarantine? It is not. It is, in fact, deeply inhumane.

Unless our legislators relish the destruction of working-class lives — and there is good reason to believe that Republicans and Democrats alike simply do not care — we must issue a guaranteed income at the federal level during the next two months that kicks in immediately. Creating such a financial cushion for everyone will alleviate stress and encourage people to self-quarantine. For how many of these workers are now looking for alternative income streams that are likely unsafe for them and unsafe for the population?

The Way We Live Now

@grayareapod

I just bought 19 cans of soup. Getting ready for the ##apocalypse. ##Coronavirus ##soup ##stockpile ##pandemic ##quarantine ##food

♬ (Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult

This morning, I bought nineteen cans of soup just to be on the safe side. Tomorrow, I will purchase a great deal more, along with numerous rolls of toilet paper, which is now in high demand. Regular people are now snapping at each other in once civilized venues. Personally, I’d rather come out of this with a modest sense of dignity. But that requires a great deal of prep. I’m seeing supermarket shelves in my neighborhood turn into barren cavities of emptiness. As for the soup, I’m watching the grocery circulars like a hawk for good deals. I’ve never purchased this much soup at one time in my life. But strange times require strange measures. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching far too many apocalyptic movies, it’s this: you can’t trust a government to provide for the people. Especially when you have a sociopathic nincompoop out of his depth running things from the top. Weeks will pass. And while the rest of you may be contemplating cannibalism or eating a dead mouse for lunch, I’ll be living it large with Creamy Chicken Noodle. I make it a personal habit to not eat human flesh. And I’m certainly not going to let any damned virus disrupt my culinary sensibilities.

That my life — and yours — could become so easily uprooted is a testament to just how swiftly the Coronavirus has altered the nature of regular life. Sure, you can still ride the subway. But who wants to be on a crowded car? Last night, I decided to grab a beer at a watering hole and wait it out rather than risk some unwanted tango with respiratory particulates. I had touched a subway pole while standing. And this seemed especially foolhardy. So I hit the bar’s bathroom and washed my hands while reciting thirty lines from Hamlet.

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson contracted the Coronavirus, with their shirtless son Chet insisting, “They’re not tripping.” And that offensive news pretty much kickstarted events as we now live them. Sports organizations have suspended seasons. Broadway has gone dark. Even Disneyland is now closed. Depending on where you live, there are bans on social gatherings with more than 250 or 500 people. The stock market had its worst Dow Jones drop in history. Personally I lost $500. And I’m usually a somewhat savvy investor.

All this went down just in the last 24 hours. If you’re not sitting on a 401k that you can cash out or some savings that will crest you along in the next few months, your life is pretty much fucked if you don’t have a traditional nine-to-five job. And that’s the conversation nobody wants to have right now. You can’t really meet people. but you can have hilarious phone conversations. You can’t perform or be out in public. You can’t date. If you’re a business that relies on social interaction to survive, then your quotidian way of getting by has been heinously compromised. This is, in short, a disaster.

On the other hand, maybe we needed this. We operate in a world in which life flits by at a pace that people could not imagine a century ago. And maybe a pause from this regular onslaught might cause us to reflect on what the presently ignoble corporate covenant with the American worker truly is. Why do we share so much? Why must we be constantly on call to show how essential we are? Looking at this from the other end of the telescope, we do know that the stock market was eventually going to take a snooze with the bears. And when it recovers in about six months, it won’t be nearly as bad as it could have been, had it collapsed in “more natural” conditions. More importantly, the Coronavirus will undoubtedly expose just how Third World America is in relation to healthcare. The terrible Faustian bargain of working for the Man just so you and your family can get a shitty deductible. Well, that’s pure evil. By every objective standard. Here in America, we’re going to see a terrible uptick in Coronavirus cases in the next few weeks. We’re going to see people die. Just as they did in Italy, which is four weeks ahead of us and better equipped for this pandemic than we are. But Americans will die nonetheless. And this is something that never needed to happen. And it would not have happened, had we been committed to universal healthcare and gentle honesty.

The way we live now needs to be one of increasing isolation if we want to stand any chance of stopping this — a slam dunk for introverts, but a tough sell for the rest of us. We have been living on borrowed time for a few decades. And it took a crazy virus to reveal the terrible truth of how we don’t look out for each other. That it should take a pandemic hitting at the human race out of the blue to reveal our skewered priorities says much, I think, about how much harder we need to give a damn about other people and enact policies that will allow them to thrive. For thrive we must. Against the Coronavirus. Against all the forces that vitiate our possibilities. Against anything that gets in the way of people living their best possible lives.

We’re All Going to Die: A Special Guest Column

[Reluctant Habits recently reached out to Horace Flipperbottom, a former Department of the Interior official and author of the memoir, Twelve Years in a Bunker: How I Had Fun While Living as a Recluse, to get some thoughts about what to expect about the Coronavirus strain now sweeping the world.]

Some may view the Department of the Interior as the government’s answer to an unwanted cable channel that is part of a promising television bundle. Sure, you’re never going to watch our shows or even know the type of television we produce. But you can’t deny the fact that we are here. Anyway, I served for sixteen years in the Department of the Interior. Sure, nobody noticed me when I rolled in late to work and, on Fridays, my coworkers never asked what type of wild weekend plans were ahead of me. But I did serve as a government official nonetheless. And this has to count for something! So when The Atlantic came calling, asking me to express some thoughts alongside my DHS colleague Juliette Kayyem, I was more than happy to tell them to stick their invite where the sun don’t shine and take up Mr. Champion’s more enticing offer to speak my mind here. (Mr. Champion, knowing of my great passion for mini golf, was kind enough to offer me a $25 Scandia Fun Center voucher for my thoughts, even though I cannot use it during these tough antisocial times.) Sure, they laughed at me not long after the Y2K virus hit and I holed up for a dozen years in a bunker with thousands of cans. But, dammit, I’m alive! And because I am alive, this makes me very well qualified to speak about what to expect with the disease known as COVID-19. Because staying alive when you know there’s a minor chance that a lot of people could die sooner rather than later is, as my job recruiter has informed me, a skill that you want to highlight on your resume.

I’ve been urging people, in as calm a tone as I can muster, to listen to the experts, advising people about the benefits of never talking to another soul for twelve years. Advice like mine is meant to be empowering, but now I fear it may also be misleading. Because avoiding people just isn’t going to cut it. You need to view anyone other than yourself as a potential COVID-19 carrier. Other human beings are your enemy. If America believes that life is going to continue as normal, they may be wrong. They could also be right. But when you look at any probability figure, the important thing to remember in this grand game is that your only guarantee of living during a pandemic is to exist with the odds stacked in your favor. And if that means living a joyless life without people and firmly committed to paranoia, so be it. The facts are these: You could catch the Coronavirus from anyone. You should probably be sitting on a gigantic stockpile of toilet paper and alcoholic hand sanitizer, even if you have to rob a Costco warehouse and take out a few people during the heist. You should learn how to fire guns in the event that someone catches onto the fact that you have more toilet paper and hand sanitizer than anybody else. It’s a simple Darwinian formula. Survival of the fittest. Those who know how to keep a fresh roll of soft Charmin near the bunker toilet for twelve years are going to come out of this just fine. Plus, you’ll be able to touch your face without feeling self-conscious.

Disruptions are almost certain to multiply in the weeks to come. You will have more reason to reconsider some stranger on the subway scratching his ass as a diabolical threat to your health. They’re canceling conferences and gatherings not out of panic, but because, even if we didn’t have the Coronavirus to contend with, the human race was long overdue to test out a protracted period of not socializing with each other, perhaps bonding over endearing videos uploaded to YouTube featuring cats attempting to live out their luxurious lives while wearing face masks.

Aggressive steps are essential to protecting the public from a virus that could be deadly or that could be a temporary footnote in our culture, perhaps momentarily popular like Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” or La Roux’s “Bulletproof.” Yes, people will still perform these one hit wonders at karaoke years later and wonder what all the fuss was all about. But for those of us in know, we will be able to say to the COVID-19 virus, “You may have been temporary and inexplicably popular, thanks in part to the willingness of media to cover you in ways that caused these songs to infect the minds of most people who were surfing the Internet while bored at work. But we took you seriously when you endured! And we will never forget you!”

I live in suburban Massachusetts. When I emerged from the bunker, I built a frighteningly enormous home with aggressive air purifiers, one protected by towering walls filigreed with painful barbed wire. I vote by absentee ballot and my vote is often Republican. I don’t leave my home. I don’t take any chances. I stopped taking chances when I realized that leaving my fortified compound involved minute but nevertheless undeniable risk. I am insulated by vast wealth. My neighbors are white and male and libertarian. Many of them have gone through divorces, but they still live lonely yet meaningful lives. My neighbors and I communicate by telegraph. We’re doing what we can to keep Morse code alive. My neighbors and I will never again set foot in the real world. We’ve been waiting for something like the Coronavirus to happen for a long time. Some may say that being part of a rich and sheltered elite is a bad place to be as you’re speculating about what may happen to the American people. But the way I see it, you have two choices. You can leave the house and risk the possibility that you can die. Or you can die on your own antiseptic terms.

The fact remains that we’re all going to die. It’s just a question of whether or not we want to risk the low probability of dropping dead in the real world or kicking the bucket on our own terms. As I write this, twenty-two people have died in the United States from COVID-19. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration informs us that 102 people die from auto accidents each day. A death is a death is a death — as I believe the poet Gertrude Stein once wrote. I will never drive a car. I will never leave my home. I will live by taking no risks. Please join me in my noble quest.