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To Joey

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You know her only as a black-and-white photograph in your mom’s album, an old lady from a bygone era. But Rose was my grandma, your great-great grandmother on your mother’s side, and she lives in my mind, as your own grandma will live in yours, until the end.

It is right for us elderly to remember our own elders, as life ebbs and the past assumes greater prominence than the dreary, stinking present. I think about people all the time—people now dead, in the formal roll call of the living, but whose presence is as alive in me as my own coursing blood. Grandma Rose was the first person of my babyhood who loved me, maybe the only one who truly loved me. My parents, who were not ready for me and were never sure they quite welcomed me into their lives, were unable to give love except in fragments interspersed with indifference at best, violence at its nadir. Grandma Rose had nothing but love to give, in the manner of grandparents everywhere. My earliest memory is of laying in my crib while Grandma stroked my bare back with her fingers and sang Russian lullabies. The sense of physical comfort and human warmth—of love—showed the baby what is possible, although so rare, in this life; and I have sought it ever since, mainly in vain. But it lives, nascently, immanently, in my memory.

Today is the nineteenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the T.V. just showed firemen here in San Francisco holding a memory ceremony in their firehouse out in The Avenues. A woman read the names of dead FDNY firefighters, the ones who rushed into World Trade Center Two before it collapsed on top of them. The great-great grandchildren of those fallen heroes will know them only from photographs (digital, I suppose), just as you know your great-great grandmother Rose only from a photograph.

You weren’t even alive on Sept. 11, 2001. To you, I guess, Sept. 11 is as distant in History as D-Day. Sadly, you’re living through your own incarnation of national tragedy: the pandemic. You’re a freshman at Cal, your classes are only online, you’re eating your meals in your dorm room brought in boxes by sanitized staff, there are no T.V. rooms or organized sports, they take your temperature all the time, and Berkeley is as shut down as any American city. It must be shocking and depressing for you to be experiencing your first semester in college in such a stultified way; you didn’t even have a senior prom last June. And yet, as real as these events are for you, someday in the future, for generations now unborn, the pandemic will be just a date, or an era, like the Spanish Flu in 1919, or the Plague in the 14th century.

My grandma Rose was born in a shtetl somewhere in Ukraine in the 1880s; she is said to have been a midwife before making her way, with her husband Max, to America via Ellis Island, in 1913, with their baby daughter, Ruth. Their sons Leonard and Jackie were to arrive later; Jackie was your great-grandfather, whom you never knew. You knew his wife, my mother and your great-grandmother, Gertrude, but you might not have any memories of her, because you were only two years old when she died, in 2005. But I can tell you she loved you with the same ferocity with which Grandma Rose loved me.

If you sense that you live in a nation filled with sadness, alas, it is so. The sadness predated the pandemic; it predated Sept. 11, although that catastrophe made it worse. America, I think, has always had, buried beneath the ebullience, a sadness. The Founding Fathers had a deep sense of melancholy; Jefferson was given to depressions, Adams to utter despair. Even Washington, “the father of his country,” recorded his “distress, embarrassments and perplexities,” while Lincoln’s depressions sometimes paralyzed him. Was this America’s legacy of slavery? Something built into the human condition? And yet the Founders labored to overcome their limitations to build something good and lasting. So must we all.

I pray that these years of yours now, your mid- and late teens, will bring you fun, comfort, joy and achievement, despite the profound sadness all around you, and around all of us. I pray that the resilience of youth will protect you from despair. I can picture you now, playing frisbee on the lawn by the Campanile, with new friends. Maybe your mask slips a little; maybe social distance isn’t always rigorously maintained. It’s hard when you’re playing. Play on, young Joey. You will always remember your freshman year in college. Someday, you’ll tell your own grandchildren about it. And maybe they’ll listen.


AIDS

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Exactly forty years ago this month, history records, the first victim of the pandemic—which as yet had no name—died in Copenhagen.

Three years after the Copenhagen man died, in the summer of 1983, I met Jim. He was only 38, but looked twice as old. His spinal curvature made him look far shorter than his 6-foot frame, he’d lost most of his hair and what was left was white, and the skin on his face was pallid and spotted. Where once he’d weighed 165 pounds, he was now down to below 100. He moved with the slow, grunting effort of a senior citizen—when he moved at all. Most of the time, debilitated by fatigue, he just lay in bed.

I’d been referred to Jim by my manager at Shanti Project, a wonderful young woman named Randi. I’d volunteered to work at Shanti a few months earlier. They’d put me through all the training: how to listen to dying people, how not to judge but be only supportive, how to keep accurate records. Then I was ready for my first client. When Jim answered the door at his Castro District apartment, I tried not to show my shock. We gradually got to know each other, as I washed his dishes, cleaned his toilet, shopped for his food, laundered his clothes and bedding, swept and vacuumed the floor, and occasionally drove him around the city, just so he could get outside a little. We didn’t talk much. There wasn’t much to say. He was easy to be around, and I hoped I was easy for him, too.

Once, after a month or so, he asked if he could ask me a big favor.

“It’s been six months since I held someone in my arms,” he began. The words were hard for him to say, I could tell, not just because speaking was physically challenging, but because Jim was a proud man, and didn’t want to ask for something as elemental as human affection. “Can we just hold each other in bed?”

He didn’t have to reassure me it wasn’t sexual. I knew that. This was a moment I’d been dreading. Shanti, which had access to the best medical information due to their contacts with the San Francisco Health Department and the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, had reassured us that the disease could not be spread through casual contact. At least, they were pretty sure it couldn’t. But no one could guarantee it. This was in early 1983; the virus hadn’t even been identified yet.

What would you have done?

We lay there quietly, me in front, him in back, spooning. His shoulder blades were sharp as knives. Maybe twenty minutes went by. The absolute last thing I wanted to communicate to Jim, whom I’d grown quite fond of, was any fear on my part. So I monitored my body’s reactions closely. Still the beating heart. Don’t fidgit. That pain in the right shoulder—the one with the bad rotator cuff? Ignore it. Just…be.

I got the call from Randi a few months later. I was at work, on campus at San Francisco State University. Jim had died that morning. Randi went silent to let the news sink in. Then she said, “Do you think you want another client? You don’t have to. It’s okay if you don’t. This is hard on everyone.” I didn’t have to think about it at all. “Yes, I want another client.”

That’s the way it was in the early days of AIDS in San Francisco. Up against a disease nobody understood, a horrible disease that ate people up like carbolic acid, that led to appalling suffering and hideous death. Thinking back on it now, it all seems so long ago. AIDS barely kills anyone anymore in America; the new drugs work. AIDS is as manageable as, say, high blood pressure. Pop a pill or two, and forget about it.

But those of us who went through the nation’s last pandemic before COVID-19 will not forget. The Castro District, so ravaged thirty-five years ago, is once again healthy and thriving (or was, before the pandemic shut everything down). You’d never know it once looked like Auschwitz. Now there are young couples wheeling infants in designer baby carriages. It’s not just gay anymore but has re-become the family neighborhood it was 80 years ago, before it became the Gay Mecca. Gone is the storefront where the AIDS Quilt was produced. Gone is Harvey Milk’s camera shop. Gone is the Elephant Walk bar, where you could flirt with the cutest men in town. Still around, thankfully, is Cliff’s Variety, on the corner of 18th and Castro, where you can get everything from a Cuisinart to diaper pins.  Still around, too, is Shanti Project. L’chaim.


What my mother would have thought about the Democratic convention

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My mother, Gertrude, would have loved watching the Democratic national convention. She was a political junkie (it was from her I inherited the gene) and a yellow dog Democrat, having revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt and supported every Democratic nominee for President ever since. She also loathed, detested Republicans; one of my earliest memories is of Gertrude denouncing Thomas Dewey in 1948. In one of the last photos I ever took of her, she’s wearing her little Kerry-Edwards button over her heart, and she was rather forlorn when the Democrats lost, although I don’t think she was very surprised.

I’m sorry she missed seeing Barack Obama. How excited she would have been, how proud. She’d been a junior high school teacher in Harlem, in Manhattan, and I know she would have wept tears of joy as he and his beautiful family stepped onto that stage on election night, Nov. 4, 2008, at Grant Park in Chicago, and acknowledged his victory in front of that huge, ecstatic crowd.

I’m not sure whom Gertrude, who died in July, 2005, would have supported in 2008, though: Obama or Hillary Clinton. She would have been enormously glad to see a woman achieve such breathtaking political heights as had Hillary. She would have had her loyalties tested; probably, in the primaries, she would have voted for Hillary, whom she liked a great deal (Gertrude loved Bill Clinton). Gertrude had been born five years before women won the right to vote in this country; I wouldn’t call her a ‘feminist,” but Hillary’s success inspired her. But when Obama ultimately won the nomination, Gertrude surely would have volunteered for the San Mateo County Democratic Central Committee and stuffed as many envelopes as they asked her to.

I’m glad that Gertrude didn’t live long enough to see what happened to the presidency in 2016. She took her politics personally (as do I). She was not without her personal faults and foibles, but she was personally a very fine woman, with a well-developed sense of fairness, and she was enough of an American (although never a yahoo) that she would have grieved that her country had fallen to such a moral and political nadir. She watched a lot of T.V., especially MSNBC, but I bet that when Trump was on, had she lived, she would have hit the “mute” button, as she often did when George W. Bush was on the tube.

I’m sad I never asked my mother why she was a Democrat. It just never occurred to me; it was unthinkable that she could have been a Republican or even an independent. Her parents had been Democrats—in fact they helped boost the Democratic Party in Oklahoma, to which they moved in 1908 before it was even a State, and all the time I was a kid, Oklahoma remained solidly Democratic, producing such national leaders as Sen. Thomas B. Gore, U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert, and Sen. Fred Harris, who ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972 and again in 1976, at a moment when Oklahoma was undergoing a sad transformation, under the influence of evangelicals, towards becoming one of the reddest of red states. Gertrude never could understand what had happened in her native state, although she recognized it was the same thing that had happened in a great many other states as well.

Gertrude would have been glued to the T.V. tonight to watch Obama and Kamala Harris. I know exactly what would have happened had I phoned her during the show. Since she never had anything like caller I.D. on her old dumb phone, she would have answered and said, “Hello?” and I would have heard MSNBC blasting in the background (she was a little hard of hearing), and when I told her it was me, she would have said, “Wait a minute, let me turn down the sound,” and she’d be gone for a little while because she never could figure out how to work the remote. But, probably, I wouldn’t have called her during the convention itself, I would have waited until afterwards, and she would have given me her breakdown, her interpretation, her favorite moments.

I’m proud to be a Democrat. I got that from Gertrude. She had an innate sense of fair play, of decency. You might feel this way or that, about this issue or that, but in the end, it was what you did that defined you; and Gertrude felt that her Democrats could always be counted on to do the right thing: for poor people, for minorities, for the disenfranchised, for working people, for the environment, for the cause of liberal democracy. Gertrude was not a deep thinker; she didn’t read political tracts (her tastes ran to thrillers and historical fiction). Had I ever asked her to define what Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had in common, she would, I think, have said something like “They were all for the common man.” She, herself, came from that genre, a common woman, an American from the heartland who, after marriage, lived for the next 40 years in New York City but was never really an urban easterner. She always had, in her heart, the prairies of Oklahoma, the wide starry skies, a certain southern charm and dignity. I remember her absolutely loving “Miss Lillian,” Jimmy Carter’s colorful, outspoken mother, with whom she felt something in common. Here’s my favorite story about Miss Lillian:

During the 1976 campaign, a reporter came to interview her. Miss Lillian greeted her and said, “Welcome to Plains! It’s so nice to see you! Would you like some lemonade? How was your journey? Your dress is beautiful”; pouring out the Southern hospitality. And the reporter jumped right in on Miss Lillian and said, “Now Miss Lillian, your son’s running for president and said he’ll never tell a lie. Now, as a mother, are you telling me he’s never told a lie?” And she goes, “Oh, Jimmy tells white lies all the time!” The reporter said, “Tell me what you mean: what is a ‘white lie’?” And Miss Lillian said, “Remember when I said ‘Welcome to Plains and how good it is to see you’. That’s a white lie.”


Growing up in The Bronx

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One thing I’ll say for the 1950s, it was a great time to be a kid in The Bronx.

They were days of hundreds of friends, schools that actually educated us, and sports of every kind, for every season. They were safe days, when our parents didn’t have to worry about their children getting shot or molested. They were days when people stayed put where they lived—they didn’t move in and out of neighborhoods, even in rental neighborhoods like The Bronx, as they do today—so that the neighborhoods had continuity and a feeling of family, and gave us children a sense of belonging and permanence. You knew your neighbors and generally liked them; you knew the proprietors of the shops–butcher, grocery, drug, laundry; they weren’t sterile outposts of chains, but folks who lived in your building.

We kids felt safe, even though we didn’t put it that way; there was literally nothing to threaten us. We could play in the park at night, ride our bikes across town to the George Washington Bridge, take the subway, roam the streets, sing a capella on streetcorners, go to Yankees games, explore the piers and warehouses along the Harlem River, pitch pennies on the sidewalks, go to each other’s birthday parties, take the bus up to the Bronx Zoo, shop at Alexander’s for a new shirt, walk over to 161st Street for a haircut, hang out at Yankee Stadium for autographs, and never, ever feel threatened; we took security for granted, because there was no reason not to.

Which is not to say everything was hunky dory. As I’ve mentioned, my ever-increasing sense of being “gay” (which was not a word we were familiar with) was becoming more difficult for me to deal with every day. My parents, who were not the most affectionate people, either with others or with themselves, did little to help or nourish my soul, although they certainly kept my body healthy. My sister, six years older, had it in for me, and was a constant torment. My father, Jack’s, depression and anger made him an increasingly distant figure, to be avoided as much as possible. All of these things detracted from what we would nowadays call my “quality of life.”

Still, my elementary school and junior high school years—1951 through 1959—were exceptionally peaceful and happy. The phrase “the Eisenhower years” is often an epithet, but the reverse side of the coin meant an era of tranquillity and normalcy.

Now, I realize that things often look rosier in retrospect than they did at the time. The 1950s were very unequal in America. Neighborhoods were segregated, especially in The Bronx; Black and Puerto Rican people lived across the tracks, in shabby apartment buildings in what we derisively (echoing our parents) called the slums, and it was common for Jews to refer to “Negroes” as schvartzes, a derogatory Yiddish word. Puerto Ricans weren’t viewed quite as negatively, but the adults let us kids know that we were lucky they didn’t overrun our neighborhood. (I have to mention here that my mother taught at a Junior High School in Spanish Harlem, and it was fairly ordinary for her to tell me how much she liked her Puerto Rican students. “I wish you were as respectful to me as they are,” she’d say.)

As for gay people, well, they were completely invisible. I suppose the men knew about them, especially those who had served in the armed forces, but they never talked about them, and I can’t remember a single usage of “fag” or “faggot,” although my father used to say, of odd people and things, that they were “queer as a three-dollar bill.” Grandma Rose, my father’s mother, who lived in our building, was a huge fan of Liberace, and when I would watch his T.V. show with her, in her tiny, antique-filled apartment on the second floor, there was something in him I dimly recognized, or thought I did, something that thrilled me—and that I knew was in me, too. But, of course, it couldn’t be named, or even acknowledged. And when the interior decorator who lived down the block—a thin, effeminate fellow with well-tailored clothes—walked his two Afghan Hounds, I would watch as he passed, seeing or sensing something, the same something I saw in Liberace.

But rather than make me sad, these tantalizing glimpses of something made me curious, and excited, because I knew that whatever was inside of those men, which I was picking up on, was also something that lay in my future. And it lay there interestingly. It was something to look forward to. If I could have expressed that feeling in words, it might have been, “I know that that lies ahead for me. And what an interesting time that will be when it comes out.”

Meanwhile, life was just too busy to overdwell on such thoughts. I loved my public school, P.S. 35. I was a smart boy, a diligent student, and did well in my subjects, frequently winning prizes. My parents never told me they were proud of me (in retrospect, it might have been nice if they had), but I knew they had to be. I had more friends than I could count. This was the Baby Boom, mind you, and all those Bronx Jews who had come home from the war were producing children like General Motors produced cars. Amazingly, we had no cliques. There were no jocks or goths, no stoners or geeks; we didn’t separate the smart kids from the slower ones, or the good-looking ones from the homely. We were all different, of course, in our own ways, but the similarities made us more alike than not: the same age, the same religion, the same socio-economic class of our parents. We listened to the same milquetoast pop music on the radio: Sh-Boom by the Crew-Cuts, Hey There by Rosemary Clooney, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by Perez Prado, and a rolicking little number, Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley & His Comets, that got our feet tapping, a precursor of the harder-edged rock and roll that was emerging.

When I was ten, Elvis Presley made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I can remember, even now, nearly 65 years later, how exciting it was. Even my mother, who professed not to like “that kind of music” (her favorite music was Guy Lombardo), was glued to our old Admiral T.V. set, in the room we called the foyer. (My mom’s best friend next door, Elsie, who had pretensions of glamor, pronounced hers “foy-ay.” We just called ours “foy-er.)” Elvis was incredibly sexy; here was something I clearly needed to know more about. I liked the element of danger that reeked from his body, and I resented that the T.V. wouldn’t show him below the waist.

Television was the Public Commons of America, the shared space that brought us all together across the vastness of the continent. It was that period they call “T.V.’s Golden Age,” and we Baby Boomers were the first generation in history to grow up in front of it, literally. Even today, the names of my favorite programs, their stars, the way they looked, are easy for me to recall. Howdy Doody—which my cousins and I once went on, live, and sat in the Peanut Gallery…Kukla, Fran and Ollie…Andy’s Gang, hosted by the weird, hoarse-throated Andy Divine, with pervy Midnight the Cat…the Ernie Kovacs show, surely one of the strangest shows in history…Our Miss Brooks (I had a huge crush on Mr. Boynton)…and, of course, I Love Lucy. My best friend, Ellen (Elsie and Dave’s daughter) and I would watch Medic together, drinking chocolate milk made with Nestlé’s Qwik, and when I hypochondriacally began coming down with every disease of the week (including brain cancer), my parents wouldn’t let me see it anymore. I still have, somewhere, I photograph I took with our first Polaroid camera of JFK, on the Admiral T.V., addressing the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Our sports were street sports, those of our inner-city fathers, who probably learned them from their fathers. In warm, dry weather, stickball, using broomstick handles to bat those little pink Spaulding balls a mile. When the weather turned cool and cold, it was touch football, in the big meadow of Franz Siegel Park, even into December, when hoarfrost whitened the grass. My father, a big sports fan, was lead umpire in our local Little League. Despite my love for amateur sports with my friends, I detested Little League, perhaps because Jack made me do it; I didn’t get a single hit in four years, and nearly every ball hit to right field sailed over my head or through my legs.

I liked girls all right; I’ve always had girl friends with whom I was close, and still do. I’ve mentioned my neighbor, Ellen, but there many others, from the building, from the neighborhood, and from P.S. 35. And, of course, my three Heimoff cousins, Maxine, Ellen and Rona. But it was my male friends whom I adored. My idea of perfect happiness was just to be allowed to hang out with them, doing whatever, having fun, laughing, telling dirty jokes, tossing a ball around. My best friends from the building, all Jewish (and of course I had lots of friends from elsewhere in the neighborhood), were Irwin (whose father worked in a hat factory in the Garment District), Paul (an early crush; his mom was divorced), Ricky (I never did know what his father did, but he was one of my father’s gin rummy buddies), Howie (whose speech impediment didn’t matter at all to us), Donald, who was kind of slow-witted, and Stevie, from the second floor. Then there was Bobby. As soon as I realized what “fags” were, at the age of 12, I knew that Bobby was one. He was so strange, but in a lovely, sweet way. He never played sports, but one summer, he taught the rest of us how to play mah jong and canasta. We all liked him; today, I fear, he would be bullied. Last I heard of Bobby, twenty years ago, he was a school teacher, and living with his mother.

Stevie was the only friend I quarreled with. A lot. I don’t know what it was that set our teeth on edge, but we were constantly bickering. When we were nine, we wrote up “a Constitution” so that we could legislate our quarrels, instead of having screaming matches or, worse, physical altercations. (“Uh, Stevie, you’re in violation of Article 2, Section 3.” “You’re crazy.”) I think this testifies both to how much respect we had for the Law—this seems to be common among Jewish people–and how loathe we were to resort to violence. In fact, in all my youth, I had only one fight—and that was with an Italian Catholic kid from down the block. We were goaded into a brawl by the other boys. It was fifteen minutes of hard scrambling on the sidewalk, but in the end, the result was deemed a draw. At least, I hadn’t lost. When it was over, we shook hands, and never fought again.

I miss those days, I really do. I miss having a million friends, the easy camaraderie among boys. The other day, by chance, on YouTube I came across the famous scene from The Deerhunter, where all the guys are singing “You’re Just Too Good to be True” in that divey bar in Pennsylvania coal country. I put it up on Facebook, just to share, and someone wrote that it was a “homoerotic” scene. I don’t think it was. It was just a scene—beautifully written and acted, with that fantastic song—of men who loved each other, some of whom were about to go off to war. There’s nothing homo about that. But who am I to say? Was my love for my little friends the queer in me? But they loved each other, too, and they all were straight. The human soul, as I’ve been learning all my life, is a curious thing, basically incomprehensible. But love—that, we all understand.


Reading through shelter-in-place

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t long to write. At the age of four, I’d sit at my mother’s vanity table with some good books from her library—leather-bound works of Balzac or Shakespeare—and ruin their flyleafs with a pencil, making repeated curlicuing loops, as I pretended to write cursively. I must have known in my mind what the words were, although at this point, that memory is gone. But my mother certainly gave me a role model for reading. Night after night, when dinner was done and the dishes washed and dried, she’d retire to the living room, to “her” chair, a green velvet overstuffed monstrosity of the kind even then called Haut Bronx, and read the rest of the night away.

Her books were fictional mysteries and romances, so unlike my own preference for history, science and memoir. My sister, who hated my mother, criticized Gertrude’s reading habits as escapism: from an unhappy marriage, from a limited life cooped up in a drab apartment, from the resentment of her children. (I did not resent her, but my sister did, and often projected her own mental state onto others.) Maybe that is why Gertrude read, but then, books are “portable magic,” in Stephen King’s words, and Gertrude was not the first to transport herself to other places through a good book.

I myself learned to read at a very early age, and once my teachers taught me how to write, I was off to the races: poetry, mainly. By eight I’d been exposed to Amy Dickinson, Whitman, e.e. cummings and the obligatory Poe. None of my work survives from that ancient time, but I do remember a ditty composed to a goldfish that swam, limitedly, in a bowl on our kitchen counter. The fish clearly did not realize it was confined to a prison. Yet so was I (as are we all), and that was the poem’s point. It was a nice juvenile effort to place myself in the consciousness of another being, the sine qua non of good writing.

I generally read three books at a time, one in my bedroom, one in the john and one at table. My bedroom book now is Gore Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest, a little—well, a lot name-droppy (Tennessee Williams and Harry Truman on page 2, Jack Kennedy and Susan Sarandon on page 3). But few other books make me burst out laughing. The bathroom book is William D. Hassett’s (he was a sort of personal aide to the second Roosevelt) Off the Record with F.D.R., 1942-1945, a fascinating, gossipy if discrete account of Roosevelt’s private wartime hours, chiefly at Hyde Park. Almost all of his visitors, to hear Hassett tell it, were deposed or exiled European royalty, especially Crown Princess Martha of Norway. In Palimpsest Vidal implies a romantic relationship between Martha and F.D.R., although to be fair, Vidal loved that kind of insinuating tattle, and Hassett’s repeated description of Martha as always arriving with her children and royal entourage, with Eleanor fussing over them, would suggest no extra-marital intimacy. But who knows? In those days, aristocracy had its arrangements, and while reporters were just as snoopy as they are today, they were reliably reticent to write about the private lives of politicians. Besides, wartime censorship laws, of a kind that would be deemed unconstitutional today, prohibited journalists from publishing what F.D.R. aides like Hassett told them not to; and Hassett, if he knew his boss was fooling around with Martha (and if F.D.R. was, Hassett knew), certainly would have quashed it.

My dining table book is Emile Peynaud’s the Taste of Wine. All three are re-reads. Any book worth reading once is worth reading again. But also, in my dotage I find myself liking the comfortably familiar, which is why I still like, say, Magical Mystery Tour (so underrated a Beatles album). Incidentally, the American release of MMT does not contain two of the greatest Beatles songs ever, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, while the British release does. I remain dumbfounded how impactful The Beatles remain after all these decades. Beethoven, Bach…and The Beatles? I wouldn’t be surprised if musicologists of the future mention them non-ironically in the same breath, although I’d be surprised if I were still here to read it.

My book collection is not large, maybe a thousand volumes. I’ve slowly been getting rid of the ones I no longer care about. We have, in my neighborhood, a metal box, about 2’ x 2’, in which people drop off reading materials for their neighbors, a sort of lending library co-op. But with shelter-in-place, it hasn’t seen much activity lately, as people are rightfully concerned with riffling through stuff that strangers have touched. I wish there were some way to ensure that my best books—the wine collection and my World War II volumes—remain intact after my demise, and end up with people who will love them as much as I have. But then, I have to remind myself that once I’m gone, all my worldly cares will disappear. Will it really matter who gets my first edition of Notes on a Cellar-Book?

Current fear: my eyes are going. Yes, the ophthalmologist at Kaiser tells me I have cataracts, a fellow traveler to old age’s other insults. The right eye cannot read anymore; the left isn’t far behind. This is alarming for someone who loves reading and whose reading, under shelter-in-place, decidedly is more escapist these days, when there’s little else to do. The problem is that Kaiser has ended all elective surgery, and so the ophthalmologist tells me I might not be able to be treated until late summer, by which time my reading vision will be gone. I have complained mightily to Kaiser’s customer service people or, as they call themselves in bureaucratese newspeak, “Expedited Review Operations.” Cataract surgery may be elective to Kaiser, but blindness is not elective to me. The squeaky wheel might be working; now they tell me they may be able to arrange something. We’ll see, but I read an article that the surge in coronavirus cases that necessitated a halt to routine surgery will likely result in a second surge of elective surgeries this summer, which will come just in time for an expected third surge, of COVID-19 cases, this Fall. Surge gridlock! As Roseann Rosannadanna said, it’s always something.

At any rate, my heart goes out to my Governor, Gavin Newsom, who is caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea, or is it a rock and a hard place? Does he wait to re-open until the epidemiologists say it’s safe, or does he kowtow to growing public pressure to get back to normal? He’s a politician, after all, and wants to be re-elected; the last thing he needs is for growing numbers of voters, especially younger ones, to turn on him for preventing them from playing volleyball at Laguna Beach and drinking mimosas or whatever young people drink these days at the local pub. The tension is palpable, the issue authentically complicated. I want California to re-open as much as anyone. But I wish the re-open demonstrators would stick to that one issue, instead of parading around in MAGA hats and Trump2020 shirts. If they’re for him, then I’m against them.


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