Thursday, April 30, 2020

Day 49 of Nat'l Emergency: Random Thoughts on COVID-19

April ends tonight, one third of 2020 is finis, but the word of the year, according to my wife Gilda, will be #socialdistancing.

While on the subject of end of year accolades, the current choice for Time magazine’s Man of the Year has to be Dr. Anthony Fauci as a representative of the scientific and healthcare communities fighting COVID-19 based on science and facts, not pseudo science and mindless hunches.

Garden Party: Gilda is a frustrated woman. Not that way—get your mind out of the gutter!

After a mild, mostly sunny March that allowed her to get a head start on her flower and vegetable garden, Gilda has been stymied by a cold, wet April. Every day she checks the weather, multiple times, looking, praying actually, for a break when she could put seedlings out overnight without fear they will wither from the chill. 

Nurseries haven’t ordered vegetable plants because of the cold. What started out as an auspiciously good spring has turned into a downer. 

Zoom Golly Golly: Like most houses of worship our synagogue has suspended in-house services during the coronavirus pandemic. Lay and clerical leadership are now discussing implementation of Zoom-enabled virtual services, normally a non-starter in Jewish circles because of the requirement for a physical presence in one place of 10 adults for several vital prayers including recitation of mourner’s kaddish. 

Our ritual committee, of which I am a member, met by Zoom Tuesday night to begin the process of initiating a virtual sabbath service. It will happen, but only after technical issues are resolved, prompting me to send a note to our current and former rabbis wondering if in addition to conferring a divinity degree to new rabbis the Jewish Theological Seminary might also need to confer a degree in computer science. 

No Sweat: Even if you’re not a sports fan you no doubt know that professional sports leagues and their college counterparts have shut down in fear that fans packed together in stands would be excessively vulnerable to virus transmission. Athletes, as well, had to be concerned their sweaty contact and close proximity to each other could be a link to infection. 

It was not the first time athletes harbored those same worries. After Magic Johnson revealed he tested positive for HIV in 1991, basketball players wondered if his sweat, and that of any other player who had not divulged their HIV+ status, could infect them. 

They needn’t fear. One of the first studies Gilda ran as the then research coordinator of the Division of Infectious Diseases at NY Medical College/Westchester County Medical Center found that HIV could not be passed by sweat. 

Johnson could continue his Hall of Fame career. He became the face of HIV and its successful treatment. 

Spitting Distance: Spittle, on the other hand, is most definitely a carrier of coronavirus. For that reason I was intrigued by a story in Wednesday’s New York Times that a small theater in Pittsfield, Mass., the Barrington Stage Company, is planning a scaled down summer program.
It will remove 70% of the 520 seats in its main theater. All ticket holders will be required to wear masks ( 

I was interested in the story because of my experience at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan almost seven years ago. 

Sitting in the first row I was shocked by one of the actors standing on the lip of the stage right before me. He was particularly energetic in his vocalizations. He projected more than just words. Had I an umbrella at hand I might have opened it up in self defense. His “reach,” so to speak, exceeded six feet. 

It’s an unfortunate byproduct of elocution for some actors. Indeed, in one scene where the sprayer and another thespian held drinks as they stood face to face, I observed the second actor place his right hand across the mouth of his glass to shield it from any more liquid enhancing his drink.

Many a time I’ve done the same—cover my glass, that is—at parties and cocktail receptions. Who knew I was in COVID-19 social protocol training all those years. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Day 47 of Nat'l Emergency: Help Save American History, The Tenement Museum

Donald Trump’s grandparents were immigrants. Melania Trump is an immigrant. So is Trump’s first wife, Ivana. Marla Maples, his second wife, is a descendant of immigrants. Stephen Miller, consigliere behind much of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, is from immigration stock, as is Steve Bannon, another of Trump’s Katie-bar-the-door claque. 

Trace the lineage of any anti-immigration exponent and you’ll find an ancestor who came to America—legally or not— from foreign soil. Regardless of what xenophobic nationalists would like America to be, we are a nation of immigrants. 

It has not succumbed to the caprice of the coronavirus, but the Tenement Museum at the corner of Orchard and Delancey Streets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is close to being on life support ( It needs everyone’s help to survive. Please join me in contributing to this worthwhile institution dedicated to our shared history. Here’s a link to donate: 

It is during times like these, when we are barred from visiting museums, that we fully appreciate how they impart the culture, history and experiences of our forbearers. Unlike almost all other museums, The Tenement Museum commemorates the lives not of the famous and gifted but rather those of the huddled masses welcomed by the Statue of Liberty. 

The Lower East Side was a haven for freshly landed immigrants. Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Eastern European, Puerto Rican, Chinese and more—in separate, sometimes contiguous, waves they and other ethnicities crammed into stifling apartments. They shared bathrooms down the hallways of five story tenement buildings. Orchard Street and the surrounding streets were not paved in gold, as many had been led to believe. For the industrious, upwardly mobile immigrant, however, they were springboards toward assimilation into the American experience.

No one in my family, to my knowledge, lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side. But my family is forever linked to Orchard Street, next to the very location where the Tenement Museum stands. My father, who came to America in January 1939 from Poland, rented second floor space for his wholesale lingerie business at 99 Orchard Street, next door to what became the museum’s 97 Orchard Street address. (Since the museum’s expansion and renovation over a decade ago the front of 97 and 99 Orchard Street has been replaced with a modern, mostly glass facade.) 

It must have been after Kopel Fuersetzer had been discharged for medical reasons from the U.S. Army in August 1943. He was in his early 30s. As I wasn’t born until 1949, and my brother and sister were too young to know about his Orchard Street store, I enlisted two of our older cousins for details of his business three-quarters of a century ago.  

“I can recall the store, up a flight of metal stairs and on the left side. There was a back room with a table, a few chairs and a toilet,” said Norman Latner. “The store itself was lined with shelves, stacked with cardboard boxes which contained ladies panties and bloomers, with the sizes clearly marked on the outside. Your father was a wholesaler who sold to retail establishments.  

“I remember sweeping the floors, dusting the shelves and making deliveries. Your mother was never in the store, at least when I was there.”

His older brother, Herb, filled in more about one of his first jobs. 

“I think I was about 10 years old, on summer vacation from school and looking for a job, which was almost impossible to find, as precious as gold.  My mom’s “rich” cousin Kopel hired me (in my family, anyone with a car and phone was rich). 

“He had a store at 99 Orchard Street, a few doors down from Delancey Street, and even within walking distance from home so I did not have to pay carfare. 

“It was a busy, crowded area, with many clothing stores, both retail and wholesale. Kopel’s store, like the three other stores, was wholesale. His store dealt with ladies’ undergarments. We did not refer to them as lingerie, but simply bloomers and panties. At first, I was a bit embarrassed in handling the merchandise, but I got used to it.

“There were two stores on the street floor of this tenement building and two others right above them, one flight up a long narrow metal stoop. We were upstairs, on the left side. Nearly all the storekeepers were Jewish at that time. It was a wholesale store, and we sold items only in dozen lots or more.

“It surprised me that all the storekeepers were so friendly to each other, in spite of the fact that they were in competition. It may have had to do with Kopel’s warm personality; his neighbors often chatted with him, asked his advice, and often deferred to his opinions. Even as a young boy I sensed he was a leader.

“I think I was paid the minimum wage of the time—65 cents an hour. I thought it was great and thrilled to be working. My job was to do whatever was needed. Watching the store when Kopel went out, sweeping up, packing and unpacking goods, getting coffee or lunch, or whatever I was asked to do. I remember doing it cheerfully.

“It was summer and hot and humid and none of those little stores then had air conditioning yet, so we smelled and sweated. I remember Kopel would often get us a refreshing cup of lemon ices or cold drink; he was very generous. I learned a lot about working and what was required, and had a good teacher.   

“Kopel worked hard and was ambitious. He’d boast about having as a customer Blumstein’s, a big department store at the time located in Harlem, then still a bit of a Jewish neighborhood. 

“Some days when he’d visit customers in his car he would take me with him, and I was thrilled to be riding in a car with him. Wow!

“Orchard Street was still solidly Jewish and most of the businesses were also Jewish. Sundays the area was mobbed with shoppers, with thousands of folks coming to shop for bargains from all over town. It was long before discount stores and computers. But we were closed since we were not retail but wholesale. 

“As I got older, Kopel hired cousin Ted Schreier and my brother Norm, who he’d jokingly call “Mr. Natan, what are you waitin,” after the name of a popular song of the day.”

The aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to erase many treasured locations within New York, be they bars and restaurants, theaters, local service establishments such as shoemakers or cleaners—all part of the tapestry that makes the city vibrant as a whole but personal in a neighborly way. 

It would be tragic if the Tenement Museum became a casualty of COVID-19. Please do your part to see that doesn’t happen. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Day 45 of Nat'l Emergency: Family Mystery Half Solved

The mystery began for me in the middle of the night. Early Friday morning.

I couldn’t fall back asleep after a nocturnal awakening. I opened Facebook on my iPhone. Laura, a cousin in France, had posted an appeal. She asked for help in translating a short note in Yiddish she had found on the first page of her deceased maternal grandfather’s prayer book, his siddur. She included a picture of the note.

I don’t speak or read Yiddish but the letters resemble Hebrew. Perhaps I could make out some words. I was thwarted in my attempt to read the note. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it until I turned the picture upside down. I remained stymied for a while until I figured out the one word third line was the family name of her grandfather.

I also deciphered the year of the note. It was written according to the Jewish calendar using letters with specific numerical values. To calibrate it I got out of bed and searched for my 1962 8th grade graduation yearbook from Yeshiva Rambam, hoping it would contain a Hebrew calendar date I could use as a reference. It did. The year of the note was 1959.

Unable to translate more text I sent the note to friends and relatives seeking help. On her side of the Atlantic Laura was similarly engaged.

About the same time, with outside help, we independently configured the puzzle. Here’s the text:

“As a testament to my appreciation to the Borensztejn family,
From Golda Meir
11 Iyar 5719” (May 19, 1959)

Laura believes he received the siddur during a trip to Israel. “He never mentioned that he had met her (Golda Meir) during this trip … If it IS her writing and signature, why ? What did my grandfather do? Or another member of the family?,” Laura wonders. “I am EXCITED but I don’t get it!”

We solved the mystery of what the note said but a larger mystery remained. What did Laura’s grandfather do to merit this personalized, handwritten note from the then Israeli foreign minister and future prime minister?

We may never know.

Foreign Affairs: This is not the first bit of international intrigue involving Laura’s maternal grandfather. Along with his wife and some extended members of their family he emigrated from Poland to Lens in northeastern France, in the 1930s. Before Nazi Germany invaded, Laura’s grandfather urged his relatives to move south. Only his immediate family went with him to Lyons. But they weren’t safe there, either. 

Warned they might be picked up in a roundup of Jews, her grandparents fled with their two daughters to the border with Switzerland. Because Bonnie, Laura’s mother, was a baby, the Swiss allowed the family to enter, but placed them in three separate refugee camps, one for the father, one for seven-year-old Miriam, and the third for Bonnie and her mother. 

For three years they remained in internment. Miriam was able to see her mother and sister from time to time but her father could not see any of his family. After the war ended the family re-united. They returned to Lyons. 

Their family in Lens was killed. The Nazis rounded up the Jews from Lens on September 11th, 1942. It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Among them were Laura’s grandmother’s elder sister, Rosalie, and her daughter Betty. They were sent to Belgium, to a place called Kazerne Dossin (now a memorial, museum and documentation center on Holocaust and Human Rights in Mechelen, Flanders). They waited there two days before being shipped out on Transport X, arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau on September 17. 

There is no archival record of how or when Rosalie died, but official papers show Betty was selected as a forced laborer. She died of unknown circumstances on October 20, 1942. Portraits of Rosalie Fursetzer and her daughter Betty Mohr are part of the memorial and the Memorial Wall at the barracks of Kazerne Dossin.

According to Kazerne Dossin, “X Transport included 1,048 deportees, including 229 children less than 15 years … The youngest was Josef Jozefowicz, aged one month and a half.”  Only 17 survived the war. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Day 40 of Nat'l Emergency: Turning Governors Into Actuaries

One of the benefits of keeping a kosher home is our immunity to product scarcity now that the new coronavirus has temporarily closed down the Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota that processes five percent of the nation’s pork products. Smithfield meat processing facilities in Missouri and Wisconsin also have been shut down. Another five percent came off line when three JBS meat and pork processing plants shuttered indefinitely because of COVID-19 infestations among workers.

Outside our home I am not strictly kosher, though I try to avoid foods that outright say they are pork or ham. I fudge the truth when it comes to wontons, sweet sausage topping for pizza and the occasional side dish of bacon. Don’t ask me to justify my choices. They cannot be rationalized.

Kosher adherents shouldn’t feel holier-than-thou to pork eaters affected by plant shutdowns. Empire Kosher Poultry closed a Pennsylvania chicken plant because workers have been infected.

One cannot confine blame to the plants, kosher or not, nor the workers. Workers commonly live in perfect breeding grounds for virus transmission—multiple beings to a residence in densely populated areas with less than optimum sanitary conditions. Workers often do not have health insurance nor do they have sufficient cash reserves to stay home from work. No matter how a plant might try to safeguard its employees it is inevitable that contamination will surface at some point, especially since workers cannot maintain safe distances from each other in many facilities.

It can be expected that similar exposures will occur in all types of workplaces across the country if governors lift shelter in place orders to regenerate economic activity, as aggressive protestors have been demanding over the last week, with support from Donald Trump. 

We will be turning governors into actuaries, weighing the number of acceptable deaths against the financial benefit of business as usual. We are pitting love of cold cash against the more-than-common cold. 

In whom shall our governors place their and our trust, in Trump-aligned corporals of industry or in teams of infectious disease epidemiologists who warn that a premature lifting of quarantine measures could boomerang into a second wave of epidemic? 

We already have examples of businesses trumping safety. Car companies and the airline industry in the past dispensed with product recalls for inexpensive individual safety fixes—but costly if done systemwide. They chose to accept some injuries and even fatalities from crashes, and pay out reparations but only if successfully sued. 

They followed what actuaries do—they weigh the financial consequences of risk. In deciding when and how much to reopen their states to commerce, governors will be forced to risk the lives of their respective citizens against the possibility of a resurgence of the pandemic. 

Let’s hope intelligent reason prevails.  

In Case You Didn’t Know: In an example of truth being stranger than fiction, guess who owns Smithfield Foods? The Chinese. Smithfield sold out back in 2013 ( JBS, by the way, is owned by a Brazilian company. 

Spoiler Alert: Lest we forget, in our obsessive-compulsive washing of hands to destroy all germs, it was bacteria that killed the alien invaders in H.G. Wells’ classic “War of the Worlds.”

Common Sense: Aside from respiratory deficiency, does the coronavirus also affect one’s intelligence, at least as it pertains to members of the Trump administration?

An example of brain lock came last week from presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway. She asserted COVID-19 was named thusly after 18 other viruses had been exposed to mankind. Her point was the prior 18 viruses didn’t trigger a pandemic and economic catastrophe so why have we locked down for this viral iteration? 

She was arguing in support of Trump’s push to speedily reopen the country’s slammed economy despite warnings from medical experts of insufficient capacity to safely monitor the spread of the disease.

You can’t fault her for trying, but you can chastise her accuracy. COVID is an acronym for COronaVIrus Disease. The 19 refers to 2019, the year when it was identified. It does not mean there were 18 prior viruses.

All of a sudden Republicans may be seeing the light. They are aghast that a hands-off-business government posture that encouraged profits at all costs including shipping manufacturing jobs overseas while failing to protect American workers was bad policy. Or so it seems if a New York Times Op-Ed from Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is any indication. Rubio advocates for “rebuilding a more productive and pro-worker economy” ( 

Rubio in the past has said quite a few progressive ideas, but when it has come down to voting he has hewn to the Trump line. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Day 39 of Nat'l Emergency: Back in the News

Have you ever talked with a reporter? I mean, for an on the record interview? Your name and all in print, or on the air?

It is among the most ego boosting of experiences, yet also among the most frightful. Will the reporter quote or paraphrase me correctly? Not just the actual words but, more importantly, the correct context in which I said them. Even if you submit written responses to questions context can be combustible. 

During my time as editor and publisher of Chain Store Age reporters often called for comment on the latest news or trends in retailing. I was happy to oblige, though wary they could easily, not purposely, misalign my input with their output (i.e., slant) they hoped to convey. Even the most perfect and beautiful publication, to use descriptors favored by Donald Trump, cannot always guard against opinions or subtle biases drifting into an article, either in the way questions are framed or in the way an answer is revealed. 

Long story short—Monday, I was quoted in by the Web site’s executive editor, Hank Gilman, in his weekly “On the Street” column ( Hank and I have a long history. He served as one of my field and associate editors in the early 1980s. From those “lofty” positions he went onto key posts at Fortune, The Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe. 

(One of my proudest achievements has been my trade magazine’s role as a springboard for journalists on prestigious business publications. Aside from Hank’s sterling resume, another alumnus, Dan Scheraga, is currently the publishing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Joanne Gordon left Chain Store Age to join Forbes. She is now an author. After serving as my executive editor, Steve Malanga served 14 years as managing editor and executive editor of Crain’s New York Business. He currently is a contributing editor of City Journal. If you watch CNN, perhaps you’ve seen pieces by its technology editor Samantha Murphy Kelly. While she was simply Samantha Murphy she was Chain Store Age’s associate editor and Web editor.)

Back to the present. For those who didn’t bother to click on the earlier link, here’s the segment Hank devoted to the future of in store retailing. To those who read it, skip down to the next paragraph:

There Will Be Stores: I love speculating about the future, even when I have little to back it up. But I have to admit the ‘how life will be post-COVID-19’ predictions are getting a little tiresome. You know, we’ll never commute to work again. And we’ll just sit at home watching Netflix, President Trump’s daily briefings and ordering Papa John’s pizza online. Then there's in-person shopping, which everyone says is doomed. For you investor/shoppers and such, don’t despair. It will take some time—and a vaccine—but people will still go back to stores and malls. For one thing, cyber-retail is great but it may not be that great. Some are reportedly struggling with distribution, largely because of the pandemic demand. That wasn't supposed to happen. (I still shop in-person at the supermarket, mask on, and get my groceries and disinfectant wipes a lot sooner than my pals who queue up to shop on PeaPod.) To get to the bottom of this, I got in touch with my pal Murray Forseter, who now writes a business/politics/life blog. Murray, in another life covered retail for a living. (He wrote about Walmart when people actually liked Walmart.) His take: The stores and malls that have great service, ambiance, and unique products will still be in demand. Second tier malls and chains, like JCPenney are doomed—just like they were doomed before the pandemic. Furthermore, do you actually think people will be looking to spend more time with computers and smartphones after all this? Says Murray: ‘To believe that anyone can predict that in-store retailing will almost vanish, is to believe in Santa Claus.’ (And, by the way, what will happen to those guys if all the cheesy malls close?)”

I can’t find anything to fault in that tidbit, but to give you a fuller view of the thoughts I provided Hank, here’s what I emailed him: 

“To believe that anyone can predict what will happen to retailing, especially that in store retailing will almost vanish, is to believe in Santa Claus. Or in unicorns, Or that everything Donald Trump says is true (sorry, couldn’t resist that political jab).

I would suspect that anyone who predicts the demise of in store retailing has an urban orientation. More specifically, an upper middle class to upper class orientation. They also are more focused on apparel and home furnishings than on hardware, convenience store products, drug stores, and other stores that cater to people who need products right away and don’t want to wait for a delivery. Food stores, as well, from bodegas to Aldi-type discounters, to Trader Joe’s to full-fledged supermarkets will still be important though there may be some erosion, again focusing on the affluent shopper. 

Perhaps most important to the discussion on what will happen to retailing after the pandemic is over or at least controlled is that stores that cannot differentiate themselves from their competitors will fall. They need to differentiate based on price not so much but rather on service, product assortment and selection, location, in stock position (nice way of saying logistics/distribution), staffing, store ambiance—in general what makes a retailer a place you would want to spend some time in, whether it be for a grab and go purchase or a lengthy buying session. 

By the way, foodservice is another part of retailing. No way home delivery food tastes as good as the in restaurant experience. Of course, in restaurants and other retail formats there will be changes including at times limiting the number of customers/diners in an establishment and retaining shields at cash registers to protect cashiers, and eliminating salad bars and food tastings (much to the regret of Costco customers). 

There will be lots, lots of empty storefronts, but that was going to happen even before the new coronavirus struck. And lots of empty malls. Consumers will gravitate toward regional shopping centers, leaving B and C malls to go dark. Again, that was already happening. As a country we need to find secondary uses for these centers. I’ve always advocated turning them into senior housing, or low risk penal institutions, or, if high rise apartments can be built above them, mixed use housing complexes with the former mall turned into stores that sell convenience services like hair/nail salons, gyms, doctors’ offices, local theaters. 

There is much more I could say but this already is pretty long. Keep in mind when you talk about the amount of internet buying that it includes airline ticket purchases which have mostly replaced buying through an agent. Same thing for hotel and car rentals, and cruises if they manage to rebound. Actual old fashioned retailing, if I am still correct, is still 80-85% transacted in stores.”

Friday, April 17, 2020

Day 36 of Nat'l Emergency: What Will Be Its Legacy?

The yarhzeit memorial candles flickered throughout Wednesday night and Thursday for Gilda’s and my parents. Her father died in 1958. Her mother in 2005. My mother in 1996. My father in 1998.

Born between 1901 and 1924, their generation has been dubbed the Greatest, a designation earned mostly for their contributions during World War II. But they experienced and endured so much more in crafting a legacy for their children and grandchildren.

It is not too presumptuous to ask, what type of America will we bequeath to our offspring? Will we match up to the Greatest Generation’s legacy? Consider what transpired during their formative years through 1971, the year the first of them reached 70, the biblical assignment of what constituted a full life. 

As they entered their teenage years the world exploded into war. Even before the United States aided in ending the The Great War (World War I), the Spanish Flu ravaged America and societies around the globe. A decade later the stock market crashed, the Depression began, the Dust Bowl exhausted America’s breadbasket. Lucky ones, like my mother and father and Gilda’s father, managed to emigrate from Europe (Gilda’s mother was born in New York). 

The Greatest Generation defeated Nazi Germany, Italian fascism and imperial Japan.  

Prior to World War II the United States had tilted toward isolationism. But with victory came the assumption of several mantles—liberator and peacemaker, supporter of progressive democracy and enlightened capitalism, developer and exporter of ideas in medicine, science and technology.

Despite the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Cold War with its capacity for nuclear annihilation, political assassinations and the Viet Nam war, the Greatest Generation soldiered on through the post-war economic boom, the civil rights movement, the space program and cultural transformation perhaps best exemplified by the move to suburbia, rock and roll and the sexual revolution.

The Greatest Generation left a global legacy that included the conquering of many diseases, the genesis of the computer age, the rebuilding of war-ravaged regions, the formation of global pacts for defense, health, trade and care of refugees.

All that and more are threatened by a pandemic that descended during a time of retraction from the belief that the United States has a role, an obligation, to lead the world through partnerships, not through isolated example.

Daily we are advised our future will be different from our present, be it by social distancing measures in restaurants, theaters and sports arenas, or through greater reliance on virtual shopping and workplace employment. Almost all aspects of life will be affected.

Truly transformative changes—legacies—require bold action. Will COVID-19 prompt America to finally adopt universal health care and increase the availability of trained medical personnel in rural areas? With Internet access seen as vital for education and employment, will we finally eliminate Web connectivity deserts in our cities and rural areas? With so many unemployed and the need for infrastructure upgrading of our roads, bridges, airports, dams, harbors and tunnels, will we create a Works Progress Administration à la the Depression era New Deal program that employed millions to build up America? With the Internet forcing faster consolidation in the retail industry, will we find new uses for shuttered shopping centers including affordable housing and low risk penal institutions? With the increased realization of the importance of healthcare workers and educators, as well as public servants who provide police, fire, ambulance, correction services, transportation and waste management, will we more appropriately compensate these contributors critical to our collective existence? Will we take steps necessary to flatten the curve of disparity between the incomes of the wealthiest and the remaining 90% of society?

Will any or all of this happen? There is a streak of individualism in the country that shares the same genes with isolationism and averseness to big government. After 80 years of Social Security there remain diehards who oppose it. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities we all live with. We will never be able to guarantee a new virus strain will not emerge some day, somewhere. But we would be able to smooth out any impact it might have if we have in place a more equal society.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Day 29 of Nat’l Emergency: Daily Trump Show Is Best PR for Biden

Did you watch Thursday night’s “Jeopardy”? Specifically, did you marvel at Beni Keown’s orange-fro? Now that was some head of hair atop the Northwestern University freshman. It has even garnered its own Twitter feed.

For my part, it is now 13 weeks since my last haircut. My record is 15 weeks which I am sure to beat given the shelter-in-place command from Governor Cuomo. In case you’re wondering, no way will I allow Gilda to trim my locks. Last time I let an unlicensed female play with my hair I was about three years old. My five-year-old sister promised she wouldn’t hurt me but ever since then, I swear, my once straight hair has been curly. 

The Weather Channel app cautioned Friday’s forecast included gale warnings. It wasn’t kidding. There were whitecaps on the water of our birdbath on the patio.

Speaking of the great outdoors, Gilda says her flowers and vegetables will be among the most educated anywhere. Seems her planting preparations include placing copies of The New York Times in the covered beddings to ward off weeds by blocking sunlight from reaching them. When the newspaper breaks down it becomes good compost. 

I don’t know about you but I am fighting anxiety and depression by largely ignoring the detailed reporting on the new coronavirus. Call it avoidance therapy. If I don’t obsess over every last detail of our collective predicament it won’t go away, I know that, but at least I will not be imprisoned by it. Gilda, on the other hand, reads far more about the pandemic. Perhaps it’s because of her medical background as a nurse practitioner and her decades-ago experience as research coordinator of infectious diseases at New York Medical College.

We are lucky to have each other for company. I cannot fathom how single people are able to stay sane inside their residences. Gilda and I can detach for hours at a time, she in the garden or in searching the Internet for recipes or by sewing; I by writing blogs. But most of the time we have the reassurance of partnership.

We take daily walks, usually at least three miles. Six rotations of our housing development equals three miles. Or we drive to different neighborhoods. Last weekend we walked around Manor Park in Larchmont, a picturesque promontory along Long Island Sound surrounded by breathtaking turn of the 20th century mansions. We couldn’t believe that in 42 years of living in Westchester we had never previously discovered Manor  Park. 

From such simple discoveries sanity sustains itself.

We restrict our viewing to the evening news (NBC or CBS) and “Antiques Roadshow” during dinner. “Jeopardy” and either a movie or an episode of a drama like “Better Call Saul” or “My Brilliant Friend” in our refurnished den, made all the more cozy by our propane gas-powered freestanding stove still fired up on chilly evenings, complete the day. 

We rarely watch television or a movie during the daytime, though we might make an exception today. It’s too depressing to see “The Plot Against America” before we go to bed. 

The HBO adaption of Philip Roth’s book is a portrayal of what might have transpired in America had Nazi-loving, America First-cheering Charles Lindbergh defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. For those who shiver at the prospect of an autocratic presidency that exults in racial superiority and the diminution of rights thought to be enshrined in- and protected by the Constitution, the series is traumatizing for its relevance to the politics of today.

Under the cover of emergency powers declared to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump and his gang are tightening their grip on the nation. While most of the public is consumed consuming news on the virus, environmental protections are being shelved, asylum seekers are being deported without hearings, government watchdogs are being canned. The ability to vote is being suppressed.

Daily Trump media briefings have drawn criticism for their obvious politicization of the crisis and the seeming indifference Trump has to facts, medical advice and his administration’s culpability in failing to respond early and effectively. The central complaint is bewilderment that the media is providing a platform for his prevarications and mendacity. 

I take a contrary view. Trump on the stump is one of the best agents of change available to Democrats, Independents and thoughtful Republicans who want to see a change of leadership. By denying responsibility, by denigrating anyone who criticizes federal actions, by withholding supplies from states whose governors have spoken out, by showing his almost complete ignorance of the subject, by displaying almost zero compassion for those affected by the illness or unemployment, by caring only about big business and his television ratings, by pushing for an unproven treatment using a drug he is reported to have a financial interest in, Trump reinforces the reasons he needs to be replaced. 

“Democracy dies in darkness,” is the official slogan of The Washington Post. Trump is doing us a favor exposing himself every day. Rather than being lulled into a sense of security by Drs. Fauci and Birx explaining the evolution of the crisis and its treatment, Trump reminds us how nasty, how self-centered, how vindictive he is. 

Joe Biden has no means of securing equal air time to cement his claim to the presidency. His vision will not come into focus until closer to the election. Meanwhile, though Trump’s core supporters have not wavered, the “wartime” president has not been able to sustain new backers as his ineptitude becomes apparent. How fortunate that he is not getting a wartime bump but rather is being shown to be a wartime chump.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Day 25 of Nat'l Emergency: Living in Epoch Times

Perhaps your postman, as mine did, brought to your mailbox an unexpected publication—The Epoch Times. From its front page it was obvious the special edition of this 20-year-old newspaper was devoted to China bashing, specifically attacking the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its malevolent actions, particularly as they now relate to the spread of the pandemic COVID-19. 

A quick check of Wikipedia revealed the paper is printed in eight languages. It was founded by John Tang and a group of Chinese Americans “associated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement” that China has attacked. It is a staunch supporter of Donald Trump and other far-right politicians. Indeed, Wikipedia says a 2019 report found that only the Trump campaign funded more pro-Trump Facebook advertising. The Epoch Media Group also is big into conspiracy theories, being among the disseminators of stories on QAnon and anti-vaccination propaganda. 

Well, we can’t expect every publication to be The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or The Washington Post. That said, I was intrigued by one particular representation that might be a more accurate count of the dead in China from the coronavirus, or what The Epoch Times calls the “CCP virus” (it prefers to tag the China Communist Party with the identification rather than place any stigma on the innocent people of China or Wuhan where the virus originated). 

Instead of the absurdly hard to believe statistic supplied by the CCP that only a little more than 3,000 deaths occurred in China from the virus, The Epoch Times says many more perished as seven cremation centers in Wuhan were operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, open air pits in some villages burned bodies and 40 mobile furnaces were shipped to Wuhan. Such descriptions are reminiscent of Nazi Holocaust measures. 

The Epoch Times says its sources suggest CCP virus deaths have exceeded one million. But then the paper teases the total could be catastrophically greater. As everyone in China by law must have a cell phone, records released by China’s three cellphone carriers reveal that over the last three months the number of cellphone users dropped by 21 million!

Now that I’ve possibly shocked the bejeezus out of you, some provisos: First, I have no way of validating or corroborating anything in The Epoch Times. Second, even the newspaper hedges its bet by stating that since China allows each person to have up to five cellphone accounts, many of the dropped users could be workers who were laid off and chose to disconnect one or more of their lines to save money. 

There’s a world of difference between 3,000 and 1,000,000 and 21,000,000. Based on our country’s  experience, the actual mortality in China probably is higher than the government figure. But then, even our government cannot supply a true figure as it has been reported that many deaths during the time of the pandemic, at home or in nursing homes, have not been attributed to coronavirus because authorities lacked the manpower or facility to autopsy them all to determine if the deceased were infected (

One of the more troubling aspects of the national spread of the plague has been some of the comments coming from our elected politicians. I won’t bore you with repeating Trump’s blindness to the pending disaster. He has the excuse, however flimsy it be, that his initial reluctance to believe in the intensity of the danger was because he wanted to give confidence to the public and it was still not clear how bad it would be. What’s more, he hailed his decision to close travel with China. Yet, according to The NY Times, 40,000 entered the U.S. from China in the two months after Trump imposed the ban, including thousands who flew directly from Wuhan ( 

More troubling, perhaps, are the comments from governors and mayors late in commanding shelter-in-place directives for their jurisdictions. The mayor of New Orleans said Mardi Gras was allowed to go on unfettered because the city never received any warnings from the federal government. Georgia’s governor claimed he didn’t know until a few days ago the widely distributed news that people without symptoms could spread the pandemic. Florida’s governor waited until pressure from the Trump administration forced him to act. In each of those cases officials put the health of their area’s tourism economy ahead of the public’s health. Ain’t capitalism grand?

The U.S. Surgeon General has compared the pandemic to the attacks on Pearl Harbor and on September 11, but with higher casualties. He’s right, but probably not for the reasons he wants us to acknowledge. Pearl Harbor and September 11 were thought to be surprise attacks. But warnings were known before they occurred. Known and ignored, or at least downplayed. 

The same is true for the new coronavirus invasion. The Trump administration ignored advice on how to deal with a pandemic and how critical supplies needed to be stockpiled. It also at first refused to believe how vulnerable we were. 

Unlike Pearl Harbor and September 11 we do not have a physical enemy on which to launch a counterattack. Our “wartime” president has nobody to blame but himself and his cronies for how unprepared we have been for this deadly assault. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Day 22 of Nat'l Emergency: Seven Samurai Memories

To commemorate the 100th birthday of the late Toshiro Mifune, the lead actor in many of Japanese director Akiro Kurosawa’s films, including “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon,” Turner Classic Movies broadcast the flicks Wednesday. I recorded them.

“The Magnificent Seven” with Yul Brynner and a host of other soon to be well-known actors including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach and James Coburn, was adapted from “Seven Samurai.” Not that it really matters. This blog post is not really concerned with “Seven Samurai.” Rather the focus is on the person with whom I saw the film for the first time, Steve Kreinberg.

In September 1971 I attended an evening orientation program for graduate students enrolled at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. I knew no one among the roughly 80 attendees, but by some karma found myself drawn to a straight-haired, mustachioed, willowy fellow with a slight Southern twang from growing up in Gainesville, Fla. We immediately bonded, not because we turned out to be perhaps the only Jewish students but more probably because, as we acknowledged to each other later that evening, we both reconnoitered the venue prior to the meeting time to ascertain where the bathroom was located. 

Steve was two years older than my 22 years. He was married to Nancy, a nurse, who I met when we returned to his basement apartment. I was surprised to learn Nancy was headed back to their residence in San Francisco for the duration of Steve’s stay in Syracuse. 

Steve and I became almost inseparable that year despite the fact that we shared very few classes. Evenings and weekends were our bonding times. We ate pizza at the Varsity, an off-campus hangout. We drove out to the closest Lum’s in DeWitt to savor hot dogs steamed in beer, or my preferred meal, a fried shrimp basket with fries, washed down with beer served in frosted glasses. 

We went to movies. It was with Steve (and Gilda during one of her visits) that I saw “A Clockwork Orange.” We especially enjoyed Woody Allen’s “Bananas” and “Play It Again, Sam.” Steve became such a devotee of Allen that he wangled an interview with him while serving as the movie critic of the Syracuse New Times, a two-year-old alternative newspaper. Though Allen was in the middle of editing “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask,” he agreed to meet Steve at his Manhattan studio.

After Steve returned to Syracuse he was uncharacteristically quiet. When the next edition of his paper did not run his interview I demanded an explanation. Sheepishly he admitted he lost all professional composure in the presence of Allen. He just kept gushing, “You’re Woody Allen. I love your work.” There’s only so many times he could say that before Woody determined the interview was going nowhere and he dismissed Steve.

We also bonded over our shiksa (Gentile woman) fantasy, a real life blonde in our class named Donna Doherty. We barely spoke a word to her that year but hardly a day went by that her name and image did not crop up in our conversations. (As an aside, she lived in Branford, Conn., outside New Haven. I owe my first reporting job to my fascination with her. When looking for a job in 1972 I came to a fork in the road in Ansonia. The right fork led to Bridgeport, the left to New Haven. I chose New Haven because it was closer to where she lived. I got a job at The New Haven Register. Two years later Donna joined the paper as a sports writer. She eventually became editor of Tennis magazine.)  

Back to Steve: After we earned our master’s degree in newspaper journalism in the spring of 1972 Steve went back to San Francisco despite his constant fretting that reporting jobs would be hard to land. While I started work on The Register, Steve wound up working for a public relations firm. His marriage ended. He decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. 

Steve became one of the five question writers for the old “Hollywood Squares” show (the one that featured Paul Lynde in the center square). He was expected to write 50 acceptable questions per day, and yes, celebrities were counseled before each show on topics they would be asked. After “Hollywood Squares” Steve and his writing partner Andy became staff writers for “Archie Bunker’s Place” (Carroll O’Connor’s successor show to “All in the Family”) as well as for “Herman’s Head,” “Saved by the Bell,” “Head of the Class,” “Nine to Five” and “Mork & Mindy.”

He had married Robin Baskin, like Nancy a nurse. They had a son, Oliver. As with Nancy, they divorced. Robin, Oliver and Steve moved to Asheville, NC, because, as Steve related to Gilda and me during one of our visits to his California apartment, Los Angeles was no place to raise a child and besides, he had accumulated enough money to leave the Hollywood rat race. We visited him in Asheville. He came to New York with Oliver. We took them to a New York Yankees game. But our get-togethers ended almost 30 years ago. 

One of these days I will do two things. One, I will watch “Seven Samurai.” All I remember from the first time was it was almost impossible to read the English subtitles, partly because we were watching the film on Steve’s small portable television but more importantly because the white outfits of the samurai obscured many of the words superimposed in white. 

Second, I will contact him. As I had done in the past I googled Steve, Robin and Oliver as I was writing this blog post. This time I came up with information I could use to contact him. If we are successful in reconnecting I will owe it all to time spent sheltering-in-place and TCM’s broadcast of “Seven Samurai.”