Week Ten

A dispatch from the front lines of NYC in a public health crisis.

It’s Friday, fucking finally.  I’m not sure there was anything objectively worse about the past seven days than the seven days before that, but it felt exceptionally long and hard.  

It’s a holiday weekend, too, a weekend that in any other year would feature a brief trip, an AirBnB with friends or, at the very least, a barbecue or a beach trip.  Memorial Day is every summer’s early triumph, and we don’t get one this year.  It’s a bitter pill. 

It’s also an extraordinarily long period of time to be home, choosing between pleasant but anxious mass video chats with other people, or the continued solitude of various screens of entertainment. Eating one of the few variety of meals you can make with the things on hand, without having to venture out in this mess.  

I’m taking it seriously, the virus.  My ZIP code is on every list of worst hit places in the world, per capita, and this thing is nasty.  I don’t want it.  So I’m following the regulations, and then some.  Double-thick, homemade cloth mask with two straps, a fitted nosepiece, and even a coffee filter stuck in between the fabric layers.  Six feet, on all sides, at all times.  Don’t touch things with your hands, don’t touch your face at all, try not to touch, well, anything.  

Try to make eye contact, and nod to folks.  To be kind to neighbors, while keeping them distant.  

I had been out of my apartment building a total of five times in ten weeks.

So, this Friday, I had an unexpectedly heavy and productive day of remote work, and when it hit late afternoon, I needed to mail a letter; it was a work thing.  I had the envelope, I had the stamps, all I needed was to drop it in the blue box for sending.  I thought, in the words of a dear friend, “fuck it, it’s Friday” and left the house a bit before closing time, hoping to catch a lull in whatever muted foot traffic was taking place on Junction Boulevard. 

It was the last thing I had to do before the holiday weekend, whatever that will look like this year. 

I geared up, stepped out the front door, and immediately smelled weed.  It was that pleasant olfactory memory thing, where I immediately associated it with every other summer day I’ve smelled that, walking past the same group of guys who hang out in front of our neighbor’s building, talking and smoking weed.  

They were out there now. One had no mask on at all, and one had a mask that was strapped behind his head but pulled down below his chin, technically rendering it an item of jewelry.  The other had a paper mask that was on correctly.  I gave them a wide berth but we exchanged nods of recognition as I stepped into the street to pass them.  

Junction Boulevard is a vibrant artery of Queens.  It is a hub for families from Corona and Jackson Heights, and serves as their border.  My favorite deli is there, my drug store, grocery, bodega, and train stop.  

It’s ordinarily very crowded.  

And as I expected, it wasn’t crowded, not in any traditional sense of the word.  I didn’t make physical contact with any people, which on ordinary days is well-nigh impossible.  Six feet, though, was out of the question.  It would be literally impossible to navigate my neighborhood in such a manner.  There are simply too many of us.  

Those three neighbor stoners proved to be an apt microcosm.  About a third of the people were wearing no masks at all.  There was nobody giving them trouble, no police presence to speak of, and I observed at least fifty people without masks, in close proximity to passersby, in the ten minutes I was outside.  Another third of people had masks of various quality and material, and were wearing them on their faces. 

I wish that I could have left off the end of that last sentence.  

A full third of the people I observed were in obvious, physical possession of a mask, but were not wearing it, or not wearing it correctly, or wearing it as the aforementioned jewelry.  They weren’t using it, but they had it on-hand.  

I get why they are doing that.  They need the mask in case they want to go into a store, or if the local precinct happens by. But they otherwise don’t, can’t, and/or won’t wear their mask the way we are supposed to.  I’m tempted to scold people, but remember my own privilege, and that I don’t really know people’s reasons or motives.  I should just steer clear, and do what I can to protect my own health. 

Honestly, it was scary.  I was so aware that somewhere out there, in public, is this damned virus that has turned the world upside-down.  It’s real, it’s deadly, and I see its reflection in every stranger I pass on the street, silently calculating my odds and measuring my distance and even my breathing as I pass them.  We are all each other’s potential enemies. 

I got the letter mailed, and navigated home at a slower, more deliberate pace.  I thought about whether we are coming through to the end of the pandemic, or if a resurgence will be the next thing. I fear it will be the latter. Not enough people are still taking this seriously.  The last time I was out, about a month ago, there were far fewer people out, and nearly everyone had masks.  There were lines back then for the grocery store and Rite Aid. 

Today, there was a line for the healthcare clinic.  The line spanned two full blocks.  

-AG

Published in: on May 22, 2020 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Free is my Favorite Price

A hat tip to some incredibly effective pizza marketing. 

As we continue riding out this quarantine- me, from the epicenter of the pandemic in Queens, and you, most likely somewhere safer but no less boring- I want to share a light story about how a seriously mediocre pizza chain managed to get my business twice in a single week.

For context, I am not ordering very much delivery these days.  There isn’t a single reason for that, but a few complementary reasons: it places the delivery driver, and to a lesser extent me, at risk of infection; it costs money, at a time when money is tighter than usual; and delivery food is quite unhealthy*, which doesn’t pair well with the more sedentary mores of quarantine.

So our story begins last Thursday.  I was at my desk, on my work and personal email.  Like many people, my inbox is my work flow these days, so it’s Always Open, even if I’m doing something else.  A promotional email came through, one of those that eluded my various filters and unsubscribes.

It was from Dominoes.

They were emailing to remind me that I had accrued enough loyalty points for a free pizza.  Now, I’m not a huge fan of Dominoes, as their pizza is both unremarkable, and remarkably expensive.  Still, every four months or so, I forget that I’m “meh” on Dominoes and place an order.  Usually, it’s the thought of those lava cakes that gets me.  Then I eat their pizza, feel mildly unwell, and resolve not to do that again, a resolution I keep for approximately four months.

However, “free” is my favorite price, so after an ad-hoc meeting of the household executive committee, roasted veggies and beef stew were placed on the back burner (literally, and then put into tupperware for the weekend) and a pizza order was commenced.

With pizza, not unlike with sushi, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach.  The first pizza was free.  The other three items in my order were not.  The food lasted for two days.

Within thirty minutes after the delivery, another ping in my inbox: it was Dominoes, thanking me for ordering, saying that they had missed me, and giving me a special gift: a coupon for a free pizza, only good for seven days.

I muttered an expletive aloud as soon as I saw it.  My stomach was full of cheese, my mouth full of salt, and my mind full of a resolve that I would let that coupon go unused.

I really almost made it.

Then, today, the last day of the offer, I weighed the potential benefit of a free pizza against the more uncertain outcome of cooking frozen burger patties, and the free pizza won out.  Another order was placed.

While I have been writing this, the pizza arrived, accompanied by several other less-free menu items.  My fingers are leaving melted chocolate on my keyboard from the lava cakes.  This is one of those rare liminal moments of joy, between the first taste of sugary, fatty food and the inevitable carb crash to come.  It is a happy time, a wholesome time.

It won’t last for much longer, so I’ll enjoy it while I can.

So well done, Dominoes.  See you again in four months or so.

-AG

*”But Andrew,” I can hear you thinking, “there are lots of great options for healthy delivery!”  Yeah, but I don’t order from those.  Neither do you: don’t lie.

Published in: on April 30, 2020 at 5:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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From the Belly of the Beast

My neighborhood is right in the middle of the NYC outbreak; here’s how we are coping. 

With Jackson Heights, Queens being featured so prominently in national media stories about the pandemic, I want to share what life has been like for me over the past month.  

Kelsey and I live in a two-bedroom apartment about a ten minute walk from the Junction Boulevard 7 train stop in Jackson Heights, right on the border with Corona.  Junction Boulevard is our main thoroughfare, and contains most of the stores where we ordinarily do our shopping.  

For the past month, we have been social distancing champions.  Most days, we don’t leave the apartment at all. I know many people leave to take brief walks, but the folks in our densely-populated neighborhood don’t seem to understand social distancing, and the few times we have been outside, we have had to “walk defensively” to create space between us and other humans.  For that reason, we are trying as much as possible to stay inside. 

This would be much easier if grocery delivery was still a thing, but it really isn’t.  Amazon Fresh lets us build an order, but won’t permit us to schedule a delivery. Same for Fresh Direct and Instacart.  For dry goods, I was able to make an Amazon Pantry purchase, but it took almost a month to be delivered. Oddly, alcohol delivery services are still running quickly and efficiently.  I can’t get a gallon of milk, but I can get pinot noir from multiple vendors, usually within two hours.  

I have been very fortunate to be able to work remotely, logging on to my work computer from home.  Work has been quite slow, as the courts are closed to all but the most urgent matters. My firm is taking a serious financial hit from the pandemic, and my salary has been temporarily decreased, though I have been promised I will get the deferred portion back when things stabilize.  I value job security very highly, so the disruption has been causing me some stress.  

On weekdays, I wake up a few minutes before 9, and log on to my computer, ready for the day.  I usually shower and change clothes mid-day. When I have work to do, the hours pass quickly. More frequently, things drag, and I alternate responding to work emails, throwing darts, reading, and browsing the internet.  COVID-19 news is everywhere, it is hard to escape.  

I have not been able to write as much as I would like.  There is something stifling about being cooped up all day.  I have, however, had a chance to improve my guitar-playing and my darts game.  I painted two acrylic canvases, despite my utter lack of artistic ability. I am reading steadily, which has been a challenge, since my ordinary routine is to read while I am commuting, a part of my life that is gone, and that I do not miss. 

A few days ago, I had to make a grocery trip, because we were out of everything.  The nearest grocery store is right across the street. They are metering people at the entrance, and only allowing a limited number in at one time.  I waited about forty minutes in a socially-distanced queue to enter, but then shopping went relatively quickly. Essentials are back in stock, and the lack of people in the store made it easy to maintain a safe distance.  Even for that brief excursion, I donned gloves and a face mask. We aren’t taking any chances. 

In the evenings, my routine has been to participate in video calls with people.  I have played virtual darts with someone else who has a board, and watched movies through an add-on app called Netflix Party, which syncs the playback and allows for chat.  Zoom has been a wonderful platform for remote socializing, and I hosted a seder for Passover with friends and family. I even managed to play a virtual talent show, singing and playing guitar.  

Fin, my 18 year old cat, is getting more attention and enrichment than he has had in years.  He seems happy about it, though I am certain this has disrupted his 16-hours-per-day sleep schedule.  

Every day at 7pm, we lean out the window to hoot, holler, and cheer for our first responders.  Unlike other parts of the city, not many people here participate, but a few do. It is nice to have camaraderie with strangers.  

I don’t know how much longer this pandemic will last, or how long it will be until we can resume our normal lives.  My best guess is that things will start opening up mid-May, but I intend to listen to public health guidance and do what I need to do in order to stay healthy.  My family had a COVID scare, which fortunately abated without harm. Some of my friends have lost people to the illness. It is a scary time.  

When this is over, I hope we will make some changes to the way we structure our lives.  The fact that so many of us can do our jobs remotely should cause us to question the need to spend hours each day commuting.  I have become even more committed to fighting for national health care, after seeing the debacle wrought by private health care companies that must prioritize profitability over preparedness.  

If we can emerge stronger, that will be a silver lining from this time of crisis.  I hope we get there soon. 

-AG

Published in: on April 14, 2020 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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What Will Come After?

Some initial thoughts on what we are learning from COVID-19

As New York enters the second week of our surreal pandemic dystopia, I want to take a few minutes to think about what will happen when the crisis is over.

In the early days, there was a sense among my colleagues and friends that this would cause a major disruption for a few weeks, and then everything would return more-or-less to normal.  I no longer think either part of that is accurate.  This will not be over for months, and it seems increasingly likely that we will lift our stay-home orders only until a new wave comes, and then rinse, repeat*.

I also do not think things will- or should- return to the way they were before the pandemic.  This crisis, and our response to it, have laid bare some weaknesses and inefficiencies that we should address as we look to rebuild our economic and social lives.  These are just observational, and my views on them might change as time goes by, but I want to share them now because they’re on my mind.

The first, as alluded to in my previous post, relates to working remotely.  I spend over two hours each work day commuting to the office.  Last week, I was more productive than in any week this calendar year.  I think that a broad swath of industries should be looking into why they require in-person attendance at a physical office, when the work can be done just as efficiently from home.  While client meetings and collaboration with colleagues is made easier in a shared physical space, I do not see the need for that to be the everyday expectation.  I intend to speak with my employers about arranging a regular work-from-home schedule, to reduce the amount of time wasted in transit.

Another truth that has been laid bare is the role of essential employees.  While many industries are shut down, and many jobs are being performed from home, some service industries simply cannot.  Health care providers, particularly nurses and doctors, are being rightfully honored for their sacrifices and dedication.  During times like these, they literally save lives through their efforts.

At the same time, we need to recognize the tremendous sacrifices being made by our grocery store workers, our delivery personnel, our restaurant cooks, and other essential workers who have been long-derided as “low skilled.”  By showing up to work in public places during a pandemic, they are exposing themselves and their families to a major, life-threatening virus.

I think the time has come for those who fight against giving them a $15 minimum wage to sit down and shut up.

The extraordinary changes being made to health care by our government highlight major failings in our system, failings that have always been present and are only now getting attention due to the severity of the crisis.  My health is directly affected by my neighbor’s health.  If they can’t get tested or treated, that puts me at risk.  Health care is a communal problem, not an individual one.  Universal, single-payer health care needs to happen, now.

Crises also test leaders, and there has been a major contrast between two of our leaders: President Trump and Governor Cuomo.  Full disclosure: I did not previously support either one of these guys, but the contrast between how they are handling COVID-19 couldn’t be more stark.

The president initially called this a hoax, and promised that we would be down to zero cases in no time.  He blamed the media for making a big deal out of it, and refused to accept testing kits from the WHO, saying that we would simply make our own “beautiful” tests.  By the time he started to take it seriously, the virus was already spreading beyond containment.  He continues to say things that just aren’t true: every American who wants a test can get it (nope), a Navy hospital ship will be arriving in New York harbor by next week (three to four weeks, minimum), and his handling of the situation has been perfect (not by any objective standard).

Governor Cuomo has been consistently saying hard truths, explaining the steps he is taking and his reasons for doing so, and focusing on facts and logistics.  I couldn’t believe it when he ruled out a shelter-in-place order for NYC, but after hearing his reasoning, it made sense to me.  He told us how many hospital beds we have, how many we need, and what he’s doing about it.  He has been candid about the challenges he is facing, including competing with other states for supplies since the federal government is impotent.

He told us that the buck stops with him, and he is responsible for upsetting people with the hard decisions he is making.  That is what leadership looks like, and when the dust settles after all this, I will be re-evaluating my political opposition to him.

I’ll end with a few observations on my home confinement.  I have been outside once in the last four days, a brief walk to a local wine shop to pick up a bottle or three and to chat with the gloved, masked owners.  Spring has come, finally, not that any of us can really appreciate it.

Over the past few days, I learned to use Zoom, and have enjoyed video conferencing with friends and loved ones.  It has been hard to keep conversations going, because the pandemic is all that is on anyone’s mind.  I did a brave thing, and posted a video of myself singing and playing guitar on social media, which I counted as a big achievement.

I’m throwing a lot of darts, and am so glad I thought to put up a board just a few weeks ago.  Fin, my 18 year old cat, seems to resent the frequent interruptions to his stringent sleep schedule, though he is appreciating the extra attention and treats.

Of course, I want this to end as soon as possible, but I am mentally getting settled in for at least a month of living and working from these few rooms of my home.

I hope you are all doing well, staying safe, and keeping in touch with your loved ones.

-AG

*I am unabashedly self-satisfied at finding a hand-washing metaphor to employ there.

Published in: on March 22, 2020 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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Social Distancing

A surprisingly productive day at the home office

Today was my first day of remote working.  As an attorney, my standard work day finds me be-suited, and either in my law office or attending one of the various courts in which I practice.  Working barefoot in a t-shirt and sweatpants has never been an option. 

Of course, with the public health crisis in full swing and society shutting down all non-essential services, things have changed.  I am writing this post to give you some insight into how this pandemic is affecting me and the clients with whom I interact. 

Last week, as things began to get serious in New York, our firm began making preparations for this scenario.  On Thursday, we installed software to access our work computers remotely. On Friday, new guidance came from the court system, shutting down some non-essential functions and streamlining the process for asking for cases to be adjourned.  

As the week closed, our plan was to keep the office staffed, and to modify our individual schedules to make sure at least one attorney and one staff member was present at all times, while minimizing our transit and conducting meetings only by phone.  

Then, over the weekend, New York City announced school closures. 

This announcement, more than anything else, changed our office’s approach to COVID-19.  Our two partners are working moms with eight children between them, almost all of whom are in public schools.  Suddenly, they were re-cast as caregivers, at a time when daycare options are diminished or unavailable.  Keeping the office fully-staffed was no longer an option. A memo went out over both their signatures, directing us to use our best judgment.  

After speaking with them, I decided to work from home today, and to take things one day at a time.  I am not in an at-risk category, but I interact with people who are, and I want to take my role in mitigating the public health crisis seriously.  So, just before 9am, I booted up my home computer, logged in remotely, and prepared for what I anticipated would be an easy day.  

That anticipation missed the mark. 

My first several calls were all logistical.  The courts announced a more broad closure, but despite their insistent designation as “the unified court system,” there was nothing unified about their handling of actual cases.  Each judge has their own way of handling the directives. Some adjourned entire calendars for months. Others require stipulations signed by all parties. Still others require that requests be dropped off in their courtrooms, completely undermining the purpose of the adjournments.  So, I exchanged emails and a half dozen phone calls clearing my court schedule for the week.  

Then, one of my business clients called: he is temporarily closing his retail store, since people are staying in, and he needed help getting a rent abatement.  Even for those businesses that “can” remain open, the pandemic poses an existential threat.  His employees were all laid off today. 

Another call came: a client who operates a social daycare for the elderly needed guidance on what to do in the fact of contradictory instructions from various health care intermediaries.  While gyms, restaurants, and bars have all been given clear directives, these businesses on the front lines are left guessing, risking the lives of their at-risk patients.  

The balance of my day was spent putting out fires, drafting letters, negotiating settlements, and brow-beating stubborn opposing attorneys, all from the relative comfort of my home.  I took a brief break for lunch, but today was, minute for minute, among the most productive I have had in this job.  

It was also, surprisingly, one of the easiest.  A lot of that had to do with the lack of a commute.  It made me wonder why we don’t work from home more often, and whether this health crisis will cause businesses to reevaluate the merit of making employees spend more than two hours of their days in transit.  

I want to encourage everyone who can to try working from home.  While some jobs, particularly in the service sector, cannot be done remotely, some can, and my experience today demonstrated that it need not come with a sacrifice in productivity.  Minimizing your contact with the public and maximizing social distance can help us mitigate this pandemic. 

Stay safe out there, everyone. 

-AG

Published in: on March 16, 2020 at 2:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On the Merits of Spoiler Avoidance

Sometimes the things you don’t know about a book make the reading even more powerful.

Last month, for the first time in a life full of reading, a book made me cry. It served as a powerful argument for the merits of avoiding spoilers.  Side note: if you haven’t read Roots, consider whether you might want to skip this post.  

For many years if not decades, I have heard about the book, movie, and miniseries called Roots. The extent of my knowledge, prior to reading the book, was as follows: (1) it was written by Alex Haley, the same guy who wrote the autobiography of Malcolm X; (2) it has to do with slavery in America; (3) it’s a classic; and (4) Oprah is in one of the film adaptations. 

Of these, #3 was the most immediately relevant to me. When a book is considered a classic, I feel a strong compulsion to read it, so, having acquired it at a used bookstore, I cracked the cover a few weeks ago. 

Roots starts with the story of Kunta Kinte, a young man in a Gambian village, in a year uncertain. From context clues, it was plain that these were the days of slavery, which tracked with my elementary understanding of what I was getting into. 

The details of Kinte’s life, and the village where he lived, were told in a very compelling and engaging way. Even though I knew it was coming, I was tremendously upset when he was seized by slavers. The tale of his journey across the ocean was harrowing. 

After narrating his life on two different plantations- our African protagonist had a habit of running away, even against impossible odds- he married and had a daughter. 

The most jarring part of the story happened when his daughter, caught assisting a runaway, was sold south. At that point, the eye of the narrator abandoned Kinte and followed the daughter. She was raped by her new master, and gave birth to his son, who was not acknowledged until the end of the masters life. 

For seven generations, the story continues. Gossip among the slaves marked the independence of America, the slavery debate, and ultimately, the Civil War. There is a particularly thoughtful scene where the master gathered the slaves and explained that they were now free, and could leave if they wanted to. They did. 

Throughout each new generation, a story is told and retold about the African named Kunta Kinte, a few words of his native tongue, and how he crossed the ocean in a slave ship bound for America.  

Despite their freedom, the family confronted profound racism and struggled to make their way. Working against intimidating obstacles, some family members excelled in their fields, one as a cockfighting trainer, another as a blacksmith, a third as a scholar. 

The moment that overcame me was about thirty pages from the end, when the last progeny of the line was born: Alex Haley, the author. 

It turned out, the entire story was true. The final pages recount Haley’s efforts to track down his family’s story from the few details that had been passed down, about the great-great-great-grandfather, an African named Kinte. It tells of Haley traveling to Gambia, to his family’s village, and learning the stories. He confirmed the name of the ship his ancestor boarded as a slave, bound for America. 

Roots is not just a classic, it is an epic achievement in literature. Haley, through fortune and hard work, was able to tell a story about his family that is inaccessible for most. I was truly moved.

-AG

Published in: on February 20, 2020 at 2:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Caucus

Wherein I spend a weekend ruining my shoes, knocking on doors, and witnessing a debacle.

To briefly summarize a prior entry on these pages, my sister is working for the Pete Buttigieg campaign, and based on her strong support and my own analysis, I am strongly supporting his candidacy.

Last month, my sister, who works policy but was also helping out in Iowa, asked if I would join her to knock on doors, turn out likely caucus-goers, and serve as an observer at one of the caucus sites.  I booked myself for a long weekend, and flew to Des Moines.

As you might imagine, in the days before the caucuses, Iowa is drowning in political ads.  Every billboard, every commercial break, and every residential street features flashy ads for the half-dozen or so viable candidates.  I use the word viability on purpose: it has special significance in the caucus system.

My first impression of the campaign was that it was obsessively well-organized.  From headquarters to the staging areas, from office fronts to volunteers’ homes, the Pete for America team was more than ready to compete.  I received my training alongside Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, who gave me pointers on how to engage effectively with voters.

It was the first time I have knocked on doors for a candidate since 2004.

In an interesting coincidence, one of my cohorts from those days of campaigning in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004 is now serving high up in the Pete for America organization, and he provided training for the caucus observers.  There were easily a hundred people in my training session, one of several.  Once again, the campaign showed its ability to organize its volunteers and deploy them where they were needed.

Knocking on doors in Iowa was a revelation.  Almost everyone who answered the door was friendly, politically-aware, and willing to engage, even if they were inclined to support a different candidate.  A surprising number were still undecided, but not out of apathy: they were more knowledgeable about the issues than most people I have encountered, and were balancing several factors that would determine their preference.

Because of the way the caucuses work, even a non-supporter could help us out if they would consider Pete as their second choice.  A corollary of this: it’s a bad idea to bad-mouth the other campaigns, because we might need their supporters on caucus night, and beyond.

My canvassing took place in Huxley, Story City, and Ames.  While all these locations are within Story County, a liberal bastion where the university vote tends towards the most progressive candidates, they were very distinct.  Huxley was a moderate district, about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.  Story City appeared quite conservative, with only every fifth or sixth house registered for the Democratic Party.  Ames was full of students, a large number of whom were not planning to caucus.

On the caucus night, I went to my assigned location, an auditorium on the ISU campus.  The major campaigns each had precinct captains, who are locals in charge of mustering their supporters and persuading undecideds.  My role was to ensure that the rules were being followed, the playing field even, and to provide any support I could for the precinct captain.

Within minutes of my arrival, I was called upon to act.  One of the campaigns had begun putting up dozens of yard signs around the caucus location.  I spoke to the precinct chair, the person in charge of running the proceedings, to see if that was allowed.  If it were, I would drive to headquarters and pick up some of our own signs to post.  The chair decided it was not, and asked the other campaign to take down the signs.

I did my best to support our captain, fetching supplies from his car and lugging palettes of bottled water into the auditorium.  When the actual caucusing started, all observers had to retreat to the orchestra pit, which was my vantage point for most of the process.

Here’s how the caucus worked in my location: since it was an auditorium, certain rows were reserved for the various campaigns.  Caucus-goers registered, and then gathered with their preferred candidate’s supporters.  Undecided voters walked up and down the aisles, asking questions, as the various campaigns tried to win their support.  Once all attendees had been registered, each campaign was given one minute to speak, giving an elevator pitch for their candidate.  Then, everyone was told to go to their preferred area for alignment.

In the first alignment, a head count was taken of the total attendees, and the number caucusing with each candidate.  The goal was viability: for any candidate with more than 15% of the total attendees, those votes were locked in.  Groups of less than 15% were considered non-viable, and their voters could change their minds and go to their second choice, either joining a viable candidate or creating a new viable group.

My precinct was deeply liberal.  The two most liberal candidates took a great majority of the vote.  At the first alignment, the Buttigieg supporters were between ten and fifteen percent, just shy of viability.  Most shocking, the Biden support was under 5%, plainly not viable.

During the realignment process, I watched from the orchestra pit as the Yang and Buttigieg camps discussed possible alliance.  I learned later that the Yang folks had been instructed not to join any other campaign, and to continue caucusing with Yang even if he was not viable, in order to register their support, even if it wouldn’t result in any delegates.  Most of the Biden folks, deflated, just left after the first count.

In the end, my caucus did not produce any delegates for the Buttigieg campaign.  I left dejected, feeling like we had blown it, and that our high hopes of winning in Iowa were doomed.  I did not know it at the time, but my caucus was an outlier: all across the state, Mayor Pete was winning delegates and pushing his campaign to the front of the pack.

I drove from Ames to Des Moines for the victory party.  It was in a small gymnasium, crowded with volunteers and precinct captains.  Everyone compared notes, and I learned that our results had been very positive in other caucuses.  A large television streaming CNN announced that there was some unknown delay in posting results; it soon became clear that we would not receive any actual numbers until the following day.

I pushed my way towards the podium, and was about fifteen feet away from Mayor Pete when he came out to speak.  It was the first time I had seen him in person.  I tried to take a few pictures and record him speaking, but soon had to stop.  He is an electrifying speaker, and his speech was so well-received and so optimistic, I listened transfixed.  I left feeling good, not just about the campaign, but about our country.  It was a feeling I haven’t had in several years.

I flew back to New York in the wee hours of Tuesday, without sleep.  Over the next three days, results trickled in, showing that we had, in fact, won the most delegates in a nail-biter with the Sanders campaign.  It was a stunning result for a political upstart.  The establishment candidates got trounced.

After the debacle of releasing the results, there has been a lot of talk about whether Iowa’s caucuses should remain first-in-the-nation.  While I was extremely impressed by how knowledgeable the voters are about the issues and candidates, I can’t defend the caucus system.  Many people I spoke to while I was canvassing didn’t feel up to attending because of their health, or inability to be out for several hours just to vote.  The accessibility issue is a big deal, and disenfranchises people who really need their voices heard.  I spoke to a fire fighter who would be on shift during the caucus; his vote would not be considered.

If Iowa switched to a primary election instead of a caucus, I think they could make a case for retaining their early slot in the process.  They really do provide a good chance for campaigns to showcase their organizational efforts, though I have major concerns about the lack of diversity, and the out-sized role it gives their voters.  Until they abandon or majorly reform the caucus system, though, I must register my opposition to their primacy in the primary elections.

Overall, attending the caucuses was a positive experience, delayed results notwithstanding.   The degree of organization by the Pete for America campaign was just incredible.  I came back to New York with a fire in my belly for the long election, that is just now underway in earnest.

-AG

Published in: on February 7, 2020 at 10:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Numbering the Folks

Recounting my brief term as a federal employee. 

On my way to work this morning, I saw an advertisement for this year’s census; they’re up-staffing for the decennial production.  It immediately called to mind one of my very first jobs, twenty years ago this spring, working on the 2000 census.  

I was in high school, and I saw an ad, not that dissimilar to the one I saw today.  I think they even had a website back then, too. The pay was amazing- I lived in Kentucky, so our wages were probably much lower than those of people in the bigger states.  These were federal wages: I would be making nearly twice my pay at whichever fast food establishment employed me at the time. 

I filled out an application, sent it in, and got an interview.  When they confirmed that I was a reasonably personable kid they hired me.  It was part-time, after school and on weekends. I started in late spring. 

My job was a “non response follow-up representative,” or some such nonsense.  What I did was: you know those forms you get in the mail, the really official ones that come every ten years?  If you don’t, wait a few months. Anyway, you were supposed to fill it out and send it in, and if you didn’t, someone like me knocked on your door and filled it out for you, by asking about a dozen questions.  

That was for most cases: one in every however-many households got a longer form.  They did this for surveying purposes. A few of my follow-ups were on those forms, and they could take awhile, like fifteen or twenty minutes.  

I went through training.  They very slowly explained to literate adults how to fill out a painfully simple form.  I was, at least technically, one of those adults. They told us that if we encountered resistance, we should very calmly and patiently explain that responding to the census is federal law, and they had to comply.  

Surely eager to show myself an “a” student among my fellow federal wage-earners, I asked what we should do if they threaten to call the police.  The trainer, who was also my supervisor, said that we should tell them to go ahead, and that the police will tell them they have to answer the census questions. 

I was assigned a route not too far from my high school, off Richmond Road in Lexington.  One of my follow-up visits was to the school’s drama teacher, who had recently directed me in a musical.  We laughed at each other as he filled out his form. The job was pleasant enough; most people were cooperative, if a bit wary.  Nearly everyone was polite, even if they were inclined to refuse.  

After about three weeks on the job, I had a short form follow-up at a little suburban house in the neighborhood.  The woman who answered the door was simply not having it. I politely insisted, and she started airing conspiracy theories about the government.  I told her I didn’t know about any of that- I was a political science nut and knew it was garbage, but wasn’t going down that road with her- but that my job was to get her to answer these dozen questions, and then I would be on my way.  

She threatened to call the police, except saying it that way makes it sound angry.  She wasn’t angry. She informed me, quite calmly, that if I didn’t leave her doorstep, she would have no choice but to call the police.  

I told her, with equal calm and resignation, that I would wait on the porch until they arrived, and that they would tell her to answer my questions.  

She tested the theory.  

I learned a few very interesting things that afternoon, and in the days and weeks that followed.  I learned that people do not, in fact, have to answer census questions. They can answer or ignore you as they please.  I also learned that police officers, as a rule, do not appreciate having the law or their jobs explained to them by eighteen year old political science nuts, particularly if said eighteen year old political science nut happens to be wrong.  

Another lesson: don’t trust everything you learn in training.  Managers are fallible too, and mine had trained me wrong.  

The final lesson, and it was a doozy: being a federal wage earner is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  

I was fired that day, kind of.  So was my boss. It happened in dramatic fashion.  I waited around with the policeman and the homeowner, and then my boss showed up in her car.  I had given the officer her number. We had scarcely begun apprising her of the situation when another car pulled up, and a stranger got out: it was my supervisor’s supervisor.  

After all the facts came to light, it was resolved that I was to go home, and not report to work again until they told me to.  Same for my boss, who to her great credit, fessed up to having trained me to let them call the police. The homeowner was free to go back to her life unmolested by the US Census.  

While I was at first dejected- it was one of my first jobs and I had just lost it for following directions- things quickly turned around.  The next week, I got my paycheck. My full paycheck. And the one after that. And then the next. The federal government, perhaps since they had not actually fired me, but just told me to go home, continued to pay me for a further five months, after only three weeks of actual work. 

In the twenty ensuing years, I have never had an employer pay me not to come to work, not counting vacation or sick days.  It’s a great gig. If you’re looking for an opportunity and see one of those little advertisements, I’d highly recommend it.  If I were looking for work, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. Except I’m probably on a list somewhere, exiled from the bureaucratic corps because of Lisa’s shitty job training.  

-AG

Published in: on January 23, 2020 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wishing a Merry Christmas

On my evolution vis-a-vis the holidays. 

I have mixed feelings about the holiday season.

Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, I was part of a Jewish community that- while not as small as most people assume- was tiny compared to the seemingly endless cadres of miscellaneous Christian congregations.  Lexington contains hundreds of churches; there are three in a row on one of the main streets of my childhood, Tates Creek.

By comparison, there is one synagogue, and one temple.  Even the small Jewish community was divided, seemingly evenly, between the conservative Jews and the reform Jews.  My family was a part of the former, and we attended Ohavay Zion Synagogue, near my parents’ home.

During my early educational years, I attended a private Montessori school.  While I have overwhelmingly positive impressions of the quality of the education I received there, one downside of a private school was that they were not bothered by pesky separation of church and state issues, and as the holidays approached, Christmas celebrations abounded.

My clearest memory of those holidays at Community Montessori School is the singing.  All the students would sit in a big circle (it was more of a rectangle, actually, but we called it a circle) and sing Christmas carols.  I learned from my parents which ones were kosher- Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, etc.- and which crossed the line, like Silent Night.  My parents seemingly had a ratings system, disqualifying certain tunes based on overt references to Jesus or Mary.

The three kings got a pass, probably because of my mom’s fascination with Amal and the Night Visitors.

As a sop to the Jewish students- in my class, that just meant me- we would always include a single Hanukkah song, selected for this purpose on the singular qualification that it was the only song the gentiles knew: the dreidel song.  As my classmates sang that song, I was aware that everyone was looking at me: this was my moment.  I was being explicitly included.

It backfired.  Not only did I feel ostracized by the whole holiday song exercise, I grew to despise the dreidel song, and to resent that it was the only nod towards my culture that made it into the sacred circle of holiday singing.  I developed an irrational anger towards that innocuous tune, one that I later transferred to a song much more worthy of my ire, but one that did not exist during my early childhood: Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.

The holidays- heck, the whole month of December- was really hard for the only Jewish kid in the class.  Classmates talked about their Christmas plans, the gifts they were expecting, the holiday parties.  Some tried to evangelize at me.  One kid gave me a tin full of homemade cookies, which came with an invitation to his church.  My parents exchanged a look and warned me to keep him at a distance, though they let me keep the cookies.

Hanukkah became a bigger deal in our household than it is for most Jews, probably as a reaction to Christmas.  It became the holiday of big gifts, of big celebrations, of decorations.  I only learned many years later that it’s a relatively minor holiday, and that the bonanza celebrations are a purely American, strictly competitive phenomenon.

In short, my experience of the holiday season was defined by my role as a religious outsider.  It was a cogent reminder that I was not like these other kids, who regardless of race, class, or neighborhood, could all come together around the concept of Christmas.

As a foreseeable reaction to this experience, I used to hate Christmas.  I fought tooth-and-nail against a girlfriend who wanted us to acquire a small Christmas tree for our apartment.  I opted out of Christmas parties, and kept uncharacteristically quiet when confronted by holiday cheer.

In recent years, I have adjusted my perspective, in part through the realization that Christmas is, at its core, not a Christian holiday.  Its historical roots notwithstanding- it was basically imported wholesale from paganism- the way we celebrate the holiday season has precious little to do with religion.  It is a holiday of commercialism (our popular Christmas image of Santa Clause originated in the 19th century and was popularized by Coca-Cola), or less cynically, it is a holiday of American camaraderie.

It is a chance to take time away from our professions, to celebrate with our peers and with our families.  It is a time for the three universal elements of wintertime celebrations: light, green, and plenty.

My conversion, for lack of a better term, from holiday cynic to celebrant started on the margins and moved inward.  I like egg nog.  I love days off work.  An excuse to call my Christian relatives is a nice occurrence, and sharing family moments with my closest friends and partners is rewarding.  I have been welcomed into families during the holiday, and have been treated to abundant good food, plentiful strong drinks, and the occasional brightly-wrapped gift.

In retrospect, I see that my feelings of exclusion had less to do with the external factors of my Christian classmates and teachers, and more to do with my own decision to remain apart from those celebrations.  The Christians tried, they really did.  Heck, they even sang that dreidel song for me.  I made a decision to hold myself apart from the celebratory mood, perhaps as a prophylactic against any attempts to convert me.

This holiday season, as I prepare to embark on a series of holiday parties and celebrations, I feel like a celebrant, not a cynic.  I can see and appreciate the efforts of others to make me feel like a part of the holiday, and I am doing my best to add to the celebration and be a creator of the warmth and plenty.  I’m making my grandma’s cheesecake recipe for one party; the host is putting out a menorah and gelt as part of the decor.

I am heartened to move beyond old childhood prejudices and make the holiday season my own.  We have this incredible power to redefine things that bother us, and reconcile with painful experiences from our past.  I am trying to do that, with regards to the holiday season, in the service of my overall happiness.

Except with regards to that Adam Sandler song: may it be blotted from our collective history.

-AG

 

Published in: on December 12, 2019 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Death Camp

Recounting my experience at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

On Thursday, September 19th, 2019, I visited the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp outside Krakow, Poland.  The experience defied my expectations, and has been sitting in my head like an onion, waiting for me to pull back each layer and examine its flavors. I think that I am ready to begin. 

My identity and history shaped my experience of Auschwitz, as I’m sure they do for all of the millions of visitors.  The first and most important facet is that I am a descendant of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the United States in 1912.  Had they stayed, they would have likely been victims of the holocaust. I would, in all likelihood, never have been born. 

Beyond that, I have had an academic fascination with World War II since as long as I can remember.  I know great volumes of information about the rise of the Nazis, the progress of the war, the decisions that led to the holocaust, and the impact on the many victims.  My appetite for the history of that time is insatiable, and I am always reading and learning more.  

When I realized, earlier this year, that my travels would bring me within visiting distance of Auschwitz, I resolved to go.  I believe that we have a duty to go there and witness the most infamous of the death camps, to see what remains of the most horrible atrocities of modern history.  

I thought that if I turned off my phone and brought my notebook, I would be able to sit and reflect, to be present, and to let the raw experiences of that presence inform my writing.  I was confident that when the time came, I would know what thoughts I needed to record.  

In fact, the visit had the opposite effect.  The few notes I took down were too raw, too abstract, too out of place and time.  The import of having seen Auschwitz has stifled my expression, such that even now, weeks later, sitting in an air-conditioned office with limitless time to compose, I find myself at a loss for words.  

So, I’ll start with something basic, an aspect of the experience that I was not expecting, and that relates to the way the Polish government has set up Auschwitz as a historical site.  All visitors are assigned to a tour guide in their particular language, a guide who works with the facility, and all tours are guided; there is no opportunity to wander, to be by oneself, to sit and reflect.  

The guides, who are well-versed in the camps’ history, lead each group through the carefully curated confines of what was once Auschwitz I, the original camp, and through the wasteland of former structures known as Auschwitz II, or Birkenau.  Throughout, they present a running narrative of facts and stories about the camp, and they keep a brisk pace, as interest in visiting Auschwitz runs quite high: our guide told us that last year, they had over two million visitors.  

Auschwitz I was much smaller than I expected.  Its buildings are intact, and it housed the prisoners who worked in the factories.  It contained the site of the infamous Mengele experiments, the death wall where prisoners were executed, and the original “Kanada,” a building that housed the belongings stolen from the newly-arrived.  Two or three of the buildings have been converted into what is essentially a museum space, with photographs, artifacts, and informational displays.  

The most moving of these exhibitions, at least for me, was the large collection of hair, shoes, and luggage.  The hair, which was removed from each prisoner upon arrival, filled a space larger than I could have imagined.  Some was still braided. It was discovered in large boxes and sacks by the liberators, a tell-tale relic of the great swaths of humanity who passed through and perished there.  

In between the buildings of Auschwitz I was a guard hut, which was used during the tortuous roll calls that took place twice each day.  I wanted to sit on the curb, to be by myself, to imagine what it must have been like for those desperate people, at the mercy of the guards and sick with exhaustion and hunger.  I wanted to try to bring all those stories I have heard for years, and put them in their physical place, to feel how they resonated in my mind.  

But we were on a schedule, and the tour moved quickly on. 

Just outside the walls, a single gallows stands near what was once the home of the camp commander, Rudolph Hoss.  After the war, he was hanged on that site. Next to it, there had been a gas chamber and crematorium; thought it had been destroyed prior to liberation, it was reconstructed, and we were given an opportunity to walk through the macabre facsimile.  

From there, our tour suspended, and we were told to meet at Birkenau, several miles away, where we reconvened with the same group, and the same guide, for the second half of the tour.  Cafes outside Birkenau offered pizza, hot dogs, and coffee. There was a gift shop, facetiously styled as a book store, peddling postcards, literature, magnets, bags, and other souvenirs.  

While Auschwitz was small and full of stories, Birkenau was massive and full of unfathomable numbers.  The barracks that once housed hundreds of thousands of people have been almost entirely dismantled; their raw materials furnishing nearby residents with what they needed in order to rebuild after the war.  The main surviving feature is a train track that runs directly into the camp, between the barracks, and stopping just a hundred yards short of the twin gas chambers.  

Our guide pointed out the place at the tracks where the selection took place.  For most of the war, the selections took place outside the camp, at what was known as the Jewish platform; it no longer exists.  This last, later platform was primarily used for Hungarian Jews, who were brought here near the end of the war. Popular media gives the impression that only the weak, sick, very young, or very old were sent directly to the gas chamber, but that is incorrect: of these later arrivals, 80% were sent directly to their deaths, and only 20% were sent to be used as slave labor.  

The gas chambers, which were destroyed but whose ruins still remain, flank either side of the extreme edge of the train track, and the camp.  They were once combined facilities, both designed to kill, and to cremate.  

Imagine the experience of stepping off those train cars, and seeing large plumes of smoke on either side.  By then, it was late in the war, and information about the extermination camps had already spread within the Jewish population of occupied Europe.  After an excruciating journey in cattle cars without food or water, prisoners would be forced to line up, abused by armed guards, and made to run past a doctor, who would with a wave of the arm determine whether they would live or die.  Most died. 

The extreme edge of the camp, between the two fossilized gas chambers, houses a memorial, in which words of commemoration are written in many languages.  It is large but simple. It does not, nor can it, do justice to the atrocities it seeks to memorialize. 

The final stop on the tour was a barracks, one of the first constructed and one of the only buildings still standing.  I saw the small spaces in which bodies were overcrowded for sleep. It is hard to imagine that human beings lived there for years, on starvation rations and subjected to hard labor, abuse, and disease.  It is a wonder any of them survived to liberation.  

As the tour ended, our guide- a non-Jewish Pole- said something important.  She said that while it is tempting to only think of the victims, we have a duty to think of the perpetrators: they were not aliens, they were people, and if they were capable of doing these things, so, too, are we.  That is why, she added, it is important that people come to this place, and see what happened here.  

Elsewhere on my travels, I learned the extent of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe before the war.  Jewish cities, town, and villages dotted Polish and Ukrainian maps by the thousands. Wooden synagogues sprung up all over the country.  In Warsaw, the Jewish population topped out at 40% of the city’s inhabitants.  

The systematic persecution, the ghettos, and the forced deportations thinned that population out, and concentrated it, cutting it off from the rest of the populace.  Had the Nazis stopped there, the Jewish population would have been severely reduced and disrupted over the 5-6 years of Nazi control.  

Instead, their decision to conduct mass extermination wiped out all but a small fraction of the Jews living in Eastern Europe before the war.  Auschwitz/Birkenau was the crown jewel in that effort. More than any other place, Auschwitz exemplifies the genocide of the Nazis, and the complicicy of the Poles.  After seeing the camp, I cannot believe any accounts from the locals that they did not know what was happening there; the scale was too large, the surrounding villages too close.  I believe they turned a blind eye, motivated by self-preservation.  

In Warsaw, before the war, the Jewish community was thriving.  They wrote music, published Yiddish newspapers, and had a burgeoning culture that reminds me of America’s own roaring 20s.  The destruction wrought by the Nazis ended that community, and it has never recovered.  

The major takeaway I feel is anger.  Anger at the people who did it, and those who allowed it to happen.  The excuses of the camp guards- who were just following orders- ring hollow.  There is a great wrong that took place at Auschwitz, and it has never been rectified.  I’m not sure that it ever can be.  

I still believe that everyone who can, should visit Auschwitz once in their life.  I think it is important to pay witness, and to be moved beyond articulation. I certainly have been. 

-AG

 

 

Published in: on October 1, 2019 at 9:34 am  Comments (3)  
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