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Memoir part 3: My early teen years: A bar mitzvah, and questioning authority

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In the 1950s nobody locked their doors. In 760, every kid could go into every apartment—well, nearly every apartment—and find a home away from home. Unlike my mom, most of the housewives didn’t work, so you’d go to your friend Irwin’s apartment, or Donald’s, or Bobby’s, or Kenny’s, or Howie’s, or Ricky’s, and there’d be a mom there. “You want something to eat? A sandwich? Milk? Eat! You shouldn’t be so skinny.” The adults had their little feuds (and occasional affairs), but we kids didn’t know about that. What we knew was that we were special: part of a gigantic herd of Jews that extended beyond 760, across The Bronx and New York and America, through war-ravaged Europe down into Israel. And while we kids weren’t well-versed in the details of World War II and the Holocaust, we understood that the Jewish people had suffered terrible things, and that the only reason we were here was because our parents had survived. Our parents never talked to us about what had happened; they were notoriously reticent about anything having to do with the war. It was almost as if, by not mentioning it, it hadn’t existed.

My parents sent me to Hebrew school starting at the age of seven. I went three times a week, after regular school. Hebrew school was in our synagogue, Congregation Hope of Israel, about three blocks away. I enjoyed Hebrew School, but there was a troubling aspect that influenced my later attitude towards religious dogma. We had a young instructor from the Yeshiva, Rabbi Saperstein. He was teaching one day about the age of the earth, which he said was 5,715 years (in 1955), according to the Jewish calendar.

Of course, little Stevie the troublemaker just had to raise his hand.

“Rabbi, at the Museum of Natural History, they say the dinosaurs lived 100 million years ago. So how can the world be only 5,715 years old?”

Rabbi Saperstein had the answer. He launched into the story of Piltdown Man, one of the most infamous scientific frauds in history. Someone in the early 20th century claimed to have dug up skull fragments in northern New York State and declared that the long-dead creature was the “missing link,” the fabled connection between apes and humans. It turned out not to be true; the bones had been chemically doctored. “So,” Rabbi Saperstein triumphantly announced, “as you can see, all these so-called ‘fossils’ are fake.”

The troublemaker was having none of it. “But Rabbi, just because Piltdown Man was fake doesn’t mean that all the other fossils are fake.” Poor Rabbi Saperstein didn’t know how to deal with an obnoxious, stubborn kid who wasn’t afraid of him. He ordered me to stop asking questions, which is why, to this day, I am intolerant of religious fanatics who reject science.

A story: In 1996, I went to a wedding in Manhattan, and decided to take the subway up to 161st Street to visit the old neighborhood, which I hadn’t seen in 25 years. I’d forgotten all about the synagogue. I was walking towards 760 when I passed it. Wow, still there, I thought. I opened the creaky front door: the same dimly lit vestibule, the same musty old smell. I peered inside: empty, silent. Then, from someplace out of sight, an old man’s voice in a thick Yiddish accent.

“Who is that?”

I quickly thought to myself, “He heard me enter. The neighborhood is Puerto Rican now. He’s frightened.” I yelled, “It’s okay. I was bar mitzvah here. I came to visit.”

From the darkened stairwell slowly emerged a human being, rising like a submarine from the depths: an old head of white hair beneath a skullcap. Wizened face with glasses. A dark suit. A white tallit draped around his shoulders. The apparition gazed at me. “You were bar mitzvah?”

“Yes!”

“Here?”

“Yes!”

The apparition steps towards me, grabs my elbow with claw-like fingers, and tugs. “Come.” I let him guide me down the stairs.

Below, in a large, brightly-lit room, a crowd of perhaps thirty people, men, women, children. A table laden with Jewish food: rugelach, hamentaschen, challah. The people have gathered for Minchah, the afternoon service, but in order for it to be legal according to Torah law, they need a minyan: a quorum of ten adult men. They had only nine. “We prayed,” said the apparition, the rabbi, “and God sent you.”

* * *

I took my bar mitzvah shortly after my 13th birthday, in late June, 1959. Generations of Jewish boys have had similar bar mitzvahs. First there’s the religious ceremony, with the ritual services and prayers and singing of the Haftorah, for which I practiced for months. Then all the guests go someplace for the party. It wouldn’t be a bar mitzvah without a party! In our case, this was in a rented event space under the old Jerome Avenue “el”, next to Yankee Stadium. There was an ice swan (don’t ask me how an ice swan is part of Jewish tradition), tables laden with lox, bread, cold cuts, chopped liver, tuna salad, roast beef, chocolates, cake. Tons of liquor: Jews love to drink. We had a band. People danced, drank, ate, socialized, drank, danced, ate, gossiped, drank, came over to pinch the cheek of the bar mitzvah boy and hand him an envelope containing a U.S. savings bond. When the inside pocket of my suit jacket (fitted by old man Fox) was stuffed with envelopes I went to the bathroom, sat inside a stall on the toilet, and added up my loot. Then it was time for my speech. The band stopped: I went to the microphone and thanked everyone. My cousin Rita, a former Miss Texas, was married to a very good-looking guy named Richard. Richard was drunk. He grabbed the microphone from me and gave his own speech.

“Stevie.” His words were slurred. “You think all these people are here to celebrate your bar mitzvah? Wrong!” Ears prick up among the Jews. Vas ist das? “They’re here to eat your father’s food and drink his booze!”

Mayhem. My father, Uncle Teddy and Uncle Lennie took Richard down. Teddy, all 6’4” of him, clobbered Richard with a right hook; Richard fell backwards like a chopped tree into the arms of my father and Lennie. The three of them carried him out into the lobby and threw the unconscious body onto a couch. The party went on.


Memoir Part 2: The little gay boy

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Some people think of The Bronx as a crime-ridden, dangerous and decrepit place—possibly this is the result of movies like Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) and Wolfen (1981), which portrayed the Bronx as a dystopic nightmare of werewolves living in gutted apartment buildings, slurking around at night to tear people apart.

But The Bronx was a great place when I was a kid. The Grand Concourse was an attractively wide boulevard, modeled after the Champs-Elysée, with a flower- and tree-lined median. Sidewalks were studded with deciduous trees: red maple, honey locust, red and white oak, birch, sycamore. Across the street from 760 was Franz Siegel Park, 16 acres of rolling meadows, thickets, ball fields, flowering bushes and trees, fountains and winding pathways meandering beneath stone arches. George Washington is said to have used the granite cliffs facing west to keep an eye on British troops camped by the Harlem River. To a little boy, the park was a wonderland, a place to escape the pavements, laze on the grass on hot summer days, play touch football, or pretend to be a famous archeologist or explorer. Facing the Grand Concourse were wooden benches where in the afternoon, moms and grandmas sat and gossiped, rocking baby strollers and smoking cigarettes.

And how many kids there were! It was not called a “Baby Boom” for nothing. The millions of dads who had been away at war, or who worked in war industries on the home front, reproduced like rabbits once the war was over. Unemployment was low; everybody had a job, not always a great one, but it paid the bills. Things were cheap, and there was no inflation. My middle-class parents even had a small summer bungalow in a charming little town in New Jersey called White Meadow Lake. America was at peace. The New York City public schools (my mom taught junior high school in Spanish Harlem) were the best in America. In 760 alone there must have been 20 kids my age. On the surrounding blocks were additional thousands. Friendship was easy to come by for a young Jewish kid in The Bronx in the 1950s.

Memories persist. I mentioned the Yankees. In those days baseball players were not the multi-multi millionaires they are today. Most of the Yankees lived, during the baseball season, in a hotel, the Concourse Plaza, three blocks up from 760 Grand Concourse. On any given day, you’d see them walking around, doing their thing like anybody else: Mickey Mantle waiting for the light to cross 161st Street, Whitey Ford in line at the G&R Bakery, Don Larson buying groceries at the A&P. Many of us kids were autograph hounds. I had a little album signed by all the great Yankees of the decade. My parents threw it out during my first semester away at college, a treachery for which I never quite forgave them.

Memories: riding our bikes to the George Washington Bridge and onto the span itself, spitting into the Hudson River far below. Stickball games, played on hard pavement, with our moms’ sawed-off broomsticks for bats, and the little orange balls we called “Spaldeens” because they were manufactured by the Spalding Company. Those balls cost 25 cents apiece. We lost a lot of them; a foul would invariably stray into the Grand Concourse, where collision with a car would send it careening. We were little criminals: it was a lot cheaper to steal a Spaldeen from Feldman’s variety store than to buy a new one. Mrs. Feldman, Mr. Feldman’s childless wife with her hawk’s eyes and hatred of us urchins, knew we stole. There was nothing she could do about it except glare.

Next to Feldman’s was Dave Buch’s butcher shop. Dave was my father’s best friend and pinochle buddy, a handsome, dark-haired man with a mustache. He and his wife, Elsie—the beauty of 760, blonde and buxom–lived next door, in apartment 6L to our 6M. They had two kids: Barry, who was my sister’s age, six years older than me, and Ellen, my age. Ellen was my best friend when we were little. We would hide behind a sofa and pretend to kiss, or drink milk sweetened with Nestlé’s Quik chocolate powder as we sprawled on the sofa watching T.V. shows like Gunsmoke or Medic. The latter, starring Richard Boone as Dr. Styner (a Jew?), was about a doctor who, every week, had to diagnose a new disease. When I began showing weekly symptoms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis and plague, my parents forbade me to watch it anymore.

Down 156th Street from Dave’s was the grocery store. Next to that was Fox’s tailor shop, a place I had no reason to frequent, except once, when old man Fox fitted my bar mitzvah suit. At the bottom of 156th Street was Sheridan Avenue, named after the Union Civil War general, Phil Sheridan. (Many Bronx streets were named after Union Civil War generals.) Across Sheridan Avenue was the vast, third-of-a-mile-wide railroad junction where all the trains came and went into and out of New York. Known today as the Oak Point Yard, it’s the second largest railroad yard in New York. Trains rumbled throughout the day and night. Having lived with that racket since birth, I didn’t even hear it anymore, but once, one of my cousins stayed the night with us and couldn’t sleep.

Our public school was about a mile away from 760. We kids would gather every morning throughout the school year and file into the yellow school buses which dutifully delivered us to P.S. 35, built in 1898 and even sixty-five years ago falling apart. But our teachers were remarkable; I still remember many of their names (Mrs. Streng, Mrs. Sabatini, Mr. Cooper with his halitosis). I got a fantastic education, and adored learning. That love of education, of acquiring knowledge and discovering new things, also is part of my Jewish heritage. I did well enough to be selected as the smartest kid in my grade level by the teachers every year through fifth grade, in an annual competition that couldn’t possibly happen nowadays, when no child is permitted to feel inferior. That halcyon period ended in sixth grade, when a new Jewish kid, Harold, moved into the neighborhood. He was a lot smarter than me, and grabbed the prize that year. I was pissed. Turns out I’m competitive.

When we weren’t in school, we thrived on sports. I mean the boys: girls didn’t do sports in the 1950s, they played with dolls. Stickball and touch football were our standbys, depending on the season. On cold winter Saturdays and Sundays, even when it snowed, I couldn’t wait to round up the guys for football in Franz Siegel Park. I’d be on the phone by 7:30 in the morning: “Hey, let’s play ball.” Those were some of the high points of my childhood. I loved my friends, loved being with them, loved playing ball with them, loved joking and laughing with them. In retrospect, I can see that this enormous affection for my male friends might have been an early expression of my sexual orientation. But, of course, in the mid-1950s, I had no way of knowing about that, nor did any of the other little queer boys of America. That didn’t start to change for another 20 years.

I mean, look: there was no such thing as homosexuality back then, not in the middle class Jewish neighborhoods of The Bronx. I guess our fathers might have known something about it, especially those who had been in the Army. But no one talked about it. If you’re a little kid, how can you know about something that doesn’t officially exist?

Still, kids do pick stuff up on the streets. I think in some inchoate way we had an inkling. There was this guy who lived on the next block. He was slightly-built, about 30, and even we kids who lived in dungarees and T-shirts could tell he was “a fancy dresser” from his long white scarf and pleated trousers. He was said (by whom, I can’t remember) to be something called “an interior decorator,” and we’d often see him, sashaying (an accurate description) down the street walking his two giant Afghan hounds—beautiful dogs, but who the hell had Afghan hounds in The Bronx? Somehow, we “knew,” without knowing, that he was different, and it had to do with “sex,” which was this mysteriously secret world the older boys inhabited and we did not. I would watch as he passed; it was like looking at a strange life form, not exactly alien, but exotic; and in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, there was recognition: I think I know what’s up with that. But that’s as far as it went.

My best friend, whom I still know albeit only through Facebook, was a kid I’ll call Jonathan. He was the supreme athlete of the neighborhood, a slugger who could hit a home run, snag a high fly ball, grab a football out of the clouds and run like a deer for the touchdown. Jonathan was wiry and cute, with red hair and tortoise-shell glasses and a taut, muscular body. I was in love with him from a very early age. I have memories of us playing on the bed, out of sight of our parents, when we were only five or six, and me getting a hard-on. (I doubt if Jonathan felt the same way; he was entirely straight.) During those same years, I’d visit Grandma Rose, and she would let me play in her bedroom. I’d rifle through her costume jewelry, trying on necklaces, brooches, tiaras. Grandma had a dowry chest, an exquisite old Russian trunk she’d brought with her from the old country, filled with the most beautiful silk bolts of every rainbow color. I loved to wrap myself in them, wearing the jewelry, imagining myself a Russian princess. How could no one have known about this odd little boy? How could no one have explained anything to me? But those were the times.


Save lives or save jobs? A tough call

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Trump has a valid point (I never thought I’d say that!) about the “cure” possibly being worse than the disease. I mean, shutting the whole country down for a long time is not sustainable. I expect we’ve all played this scenario out in our imaginations, and envisioned the same dire result: weeks or months from now, everything comes to a halt, and the country falls apart. That would be the apocalypse, and we don’t want it to happen.

On the other hand (there’s always “another hand”, isn’t there?), sheltering in place seems to be the only way to “flatten the curve,” as they say, and if we don’t flatten the curve, then we turn into Italy. It’s terrible that sheltering-in-place is ruining the economy, but what else can we do?

Well, we’re between the devil and the deep blue sea–between a rock and a hard place. What to do?

For one thing, we talk about it. We have a national conversation. We know what the two sides are: The healthcare people are telling us loud and clear to shelter in place. Isolate in your homes as much as possible. That’s what most of the Governors are telling us, too. Don’t leave your home except under specific conditions, like food shopping. I trust the healthcare experts; I’m not a Republican. Science is real, as many people’s front-yard signs say here in Oakland.

Then there are the economic people—the big businessmen whom Trump likes and listens to. Their argument is: Look, if we go out of business, you’re going to have an apocalypse anyway. Unemployment could go up to 25%, 30%. The service industry will simply evaporate. If you think store shelves are empty now, just wait. Eventually, the planes will stop flying, the Internet will shut down, your phone won’t work. So, the businessmen say, you, the American people via your politicians, have two choices: Either you relax these stay-at-home regulations and let people return to work, or you bail us out with hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars. And trust us to do the right thing with the money.

It’s hard knowing whom to listen to. Common sense tells me that both sides have a point. Is there a compromise in the middle we can agree to?

Maybe. One thing I heard that makes sense is: Keep the stay-at-home orders in place in the hardest-hit areas, while relaxing them in places that aren’t at high risk. This means, in effect, that the nation’s urban areas would remain under shelter-in-place until the curve flattens and begins to decline, while the rural areas could do business as usual. Urban vs. rural: Does that split remind you of another split in America? Sure it does: red states and blue states. Red states tend to be rural and Republican (and red districts are the most conservative of all). Blue states tend to be urban and Democratic, and blue counties and cities are the most liberal of all.

So that could be a possible compromise. Let Idaho stay open for business, if that’s what they want. And let places like the Bay Area, New York City and New Orleans (which I hear is about to explode in coronavirus cases) keep their stay-at-home orders, and enforce them rigorously if people don’t obey.

Beyond finding a compromise, we have to keep our eye on the prize, which is the upcoming election. I am seriously worried—and I think you may be, too—that Trump will find some reason to cancel it. It would be typical of him to find a plausible excuse—coronavirus—claim that we have a national health emergency, and that the election will “sadly” have to be postponed to some future date, which would mean, of course, that Trump would be “pulling a Putin” and remain in office longer than the Constitution allows a president to. At its most extreme and absurd (but I wouldn’t put it past him), Trump could try to prevent voting in blue “unsafe” areas, while allowing it in red “safe” areas. That would guarantee his re-election.

But November is still a long way off. The “curve” could very well flatten by then. There are reports that some scientists expect the coming warm season will slow it down. Flus normally run their course, and coronavirus, after all is said and done, is a form of the flu. The best we can hope for, then, is for this disease to begin slowing down and, eventually, stop, as it apparently has in China and South Korea.

If that happens, we’ll be able to have an election, and campaigning prior to it, without the burden of dealing with coronavirus. If Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, and I assume he will be, even if the Democratic National Convention is postponed, he’ll have his talking points clear: Donald Trump said in February that coronavirus was a Democrat hoax. That was a lie. Donald Trump said that the number of infected Americans would soon be down to zero. That was a lie. Can you believe anything Donald Trump says about anything?

The American people, even most Republicans, know that Trump is a pathological liar. I still think that his personality is his most vulnerable point. Forget the economy; forget foreign affairs; forget immigration and climate change. People are split right down the middle on those things, but just about everyone except for the most purblind Republican can agree on Trump’s indecency and moral unfitness. That should be the central issue of the election.


Memoir Part 1: My Early Years: The Bronx

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I come from Russian Jews–Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe, as opposed to the Sephardic Jews of Mediterranean Europe. I don’t know how my distant ancestors came to live in Russia. Historical evidence suggests that Jews like them, after being driven out of Palestine one or two thousand years ago, had migrated to Western Europe. Most likely they found life there, as the Dark ages metastasized into the witch hunts of the Inquisition, increasingly difficult. If it wasn’t Muslims or Huns trying to kill them, it was Christians. Always, somebody hated on them: somebody in power, which may be why I have issues with abusive powerful people to this day.

My four grandparents, all born in the 1880s, hailed from what is today’s Ukraine, near Odessa, although for large parts of its history it had veered between the Russian and Polish empires. I know very little of my mother’s parents. Both died well before I was born, on June 14, 1946. My maternal grandfather, Harry, co-founded the first synagogue in Oklahoma, when it was still Indian territory. I’m sure he and his wife, Reva, left Russia for the same reason millions of others did: to avoid the pogroms everyone knew were coming. But why they settled in Oklahoma (of all places) is a complete riddle.

My father’s parents, Max and Rose, moved to America in 1913. The both lived long. Grandpa Max died around 1953, when I was seven. Grandma Rose lived until 1968 or 1969. I was very close to both. They never fully lost their Russian immigrant ways. Both spoke English with thick accents. The furniture in their small apartment was old-fashioned Victorian, with doilies on the tables and anti-macassars on the chair backs. They kept kosher, but were not otherwise particularly religious. I remember walking with Grandpa to the kosher butcher, on the other side of the tracks in the South Bronx where we lived. He would select a live chicken, which the butcher would ritually slaughter, then throw into a sack, feathers and all. Grandma made wonderful chicken soup, the best I’ve ever had; she insisted the secret was to include the chicken’s feet in the broth.

I remember, too, when Grandma got very old and had dementia. She lived by herself, a sweet lady, content in her gathering darkness. I visited with her in the late 1960s. Grandma sat in a chair and I in another. Neither of us said anything for an hour. Afterwards I kissed her goodbye. It was the last time I ever saw her.

Aspects of my grandparents’ Judaism have pervaded my life and thought. While they were not observant, they were culturally Jewish; they could not escape their past—the past of the Torah, of the wanderings of the Jewish people, of centuries of shtetl life and persecution, living and working with their own kind, always with an abiding faith in the value of education and hard work. They were a people apart: and that sense of being “the other” has haunted me from birth. No matter where European Jewry scattered in the early decades of the 20th century, they maintained this self-identity, this common bond: and nowhere in America, perhaps, was the Jewish diasporic experience more apparent than in The Bronx.

The borough, connected to the U.S. mainland unlike Manhattan island, was first settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, as a kind of northern suburb. It was a leafy, country place of rolling hills, surrounded by rivers teeming with fish and forests bursting with game. Manhattanites with money built summer places there. Jonas Bronck, who had emigrated to the Dutch New Amsterdam in 1639, established his farm, across the Harlem River from upper Manhattan, around 1640. Visitors were said to have been “to the Broncks’,” whence The Bronx got its name.

Max and Rose and their three children moved there sometime in the early 1930s. My generation of the family bitterly regrets having asked so few questions of our grandparents and parents while they lived. There is so much we don’t know, and never will. Why did Rose and Max move to The Bronx? Undoubtedly they’d begun life in America in New York, after going through Ellis Island; from there, there’s little doubt they went on to the Lower East Side, although we have no definite knowledge of that. We know that, after a while, they moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to Riverside Drive. But why they made the schlep to The Bronx is a mystery, although they weren’t alone. When I was little, it was said that The Bronx contained more Jews than the State of Israel.

They made their home in one of the thousands of six-story brick tenement buildings erected in the borough to house the enormous influx of new residents. In our case, the address was a famous one in our family: 760 Grand Concourse—“760” for short–a place known to this day by the fifth generation of my relatives who may never even have seen it. At one point, four generations of the family dwelt there; The Bronx exists in my cultural DNA as strongly as does my Jewish heritage. 760, which still stands, was a few blocks from the 161st Street subway stop of the D-Train, where Yankee Stadium was and is. The New York Yankees are also an indelible part of my childhood.

[This is Part 1 of a new memoir. I’ll publish future parts on an occasional basis.]


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Early in the 18th century, while the Spanish Inquisition still raged, the Catholic Church fathers declared an 18-year old girl guilty of heresy, and they did to her what they had done to thousands of others over the previous 200 years: They burned her at the stake.

We don’t know what heresy the girl was accused of. Possibly she was a Jew who had refused to convert to Catholicism under orders of the Inquisition. At any rate, they subjected the girl to the auto-da-féthe “act of faith” by which the flames that consumed her body also would purify her soul, so that it could enter into Heaven cleansed of sin, and sit forever at the side of Jesus.

Even as the Inquisition was expending its last energies in Europe, a new movement was arising: The Enlightenment. Led by men such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Spinoza, Hobbes and Locke, the new movement sought to overthrow what it perceived as the brutal and irrational cult of religious-Christian superstition which had dominated European thought for a millennium, and replace it with what we might today call “secular humanism”—an approach that emphasized the worth of the individual mind and conscience, stressed the importance of science over superstition, and was based upon Greek and Roman philosophical notions of freedom, truth, reason and beauty.

The 18-year old girl’s horrible murder did not go unnoticed. Just to the north of Spain, across the Pyrenees in Bordeaux, Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu, was a wealthy lawyer who had left that profession in order to devote himself to philosophical studies. (Montesquieu’s essays about man and reason became powerful influences on our American Founding Fathers, especially James Madison). How Montesquieu learned of the girl’s death, we do not know; but he wrote about it, in a work in which he assumes the guise of a Jewish man speaking to the leaders of the Inquisition.

In his remarks, Montesquieu—the consummate humanist and rationalist—is scathing concerning the Church’s “crimes.” The Roman Church, he thunders, had become “incorrigible, incapable of all enlightenment and of all instruction; and a nation [i.e. Spain] is very unhappy that gives authority to men like you.” He has a particular message for the murderers who lit the girl’s pyre: “We must warn you of one thing; it is that, if someone in the future ever dares to say that the peoples of Europe had a police in this century in which we live, you will be cited to prove that they were barbarians, and the idea one will have about you will be such that it will stigmatize your century and bring hatred on all your contemporaries.”

By “police,” Montesquieu referred, not to our modern notion of a civic police force, but to older Latin concepts of policy, or politics: the idea that a rational people will tend towards justice and reason, if governed correctly and educated in a rational, scientific way. He meant, in other words, that there apparently was no such moral force in Europe in the 18th century—at least, not in Catholic Spain. If you think about Montesquieu’s warning, it’s clear that it has come true: we look back at the Inquisition, at the psychotic Church “fathers” who burned little girls at the stake, and we indeed do stigmatize them and hate what they did and what they stood for.

A modern version of Montesquieu’s warning might well be adapted for the evangelicals and others who form the base of the modern Republican/Trump political party. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they too believe they, and only they, know the word of God, and that God has instructed them to do what has to be done in order to carry out that word, and hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they harbor no doubts about the correctness of their actions. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they too engage in heinous acts. Perhaps they no longer burn people at the stake, but they indulge in hateful actions and speech against people whom they consider their enemies, and they enable a president who, by his words and deeds, causes pain, suffering and death. And like the Inquisitors of Spain, they gaze upon that pain and suffering and death and see that it is good, because it is the will of their God.

So here is Montesquieu’s warning, recast for 21st century Republicans: “if someone in the future ever dares to say that the Christian Republicans of America had a moral imperative, you will be cited to prove that those dreadful people, the evangelicals, were barbarians. And the idea one will have about you, and about your leader Trump, will be such that it will stigmatize your century, your political party, your false version of religion, and bring hatred on all your contemporaries.”

It’s too bad that we People of the World can’t get rid of these strains of superstitious bigotry and stupidity forever, so that Reason, and Reason alone, will rule. There seems to be some metastasizing corruption that keeps spurting out of some humans, in the guise of “religion,” so that for every two steps we take forward, we’re tugged one backward. The new Inquisition has become Republican evangelical Christianity, its Grand Inquisitor Donald J. Trump. And we know exactly how history will treat it, because we’re writing that history right now, and you’re witnessing it.


Trump seems to be getting pretty good polls on coronavirus

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That’s according to a new ABC News/Ipsos poll. This baffles a lot of Democrats, so let’s break it down. We all agree that his initial handling, or mishandling, of the crisis was disastrous. He said cases would be “down to zero” soon. He lied about coronavirus being “a Democrat hoax.” For these statements alone, which have and will cost lives, he should have been thrown out of office.

But since last weekend, he’s sprung into high gear. He has his daily T.V. show, with his supporting actors beside him. He knows how to generate headline-grabbing bullet points: direct payments to every American. Closing the borders. Working closely with the Governors and even with Pelosi and Schumer. Producing tests, PPE and ventilators at a furious pace [a lie]. The “curve” should start to go down by mid-summer. We’re doing a tremendous job. And so on.

To the extent Americans see him every day on their television sets (and with so many of us sheltering in place, there’s not much else to do besides watch T.V.), this is somewhat reassuring. He’s there, apparently taking it seriously; better late than never.

So we have to start from there: his effort to rehabilitate himself is working. To tell you the truth, if a pollster called me up and asked if I approve of the job Trump is doing on coronavirus, and “yes” or “no” were my only choices, I’d have to answer “Yes.” If Obama or Biden were president, I don’t know what either would or could be doing now, besides or in addition to what Trump is doing. Maybe they’d have a different approach to the economic aspects of the crisis—more direct help to workers, less to corporations. I don’t know; the administration and the Congress are still working out the details. But Trump seems to be doing what has to be done.

Despite the positive polls, this is not necessarily good news for Trump. He’s getting overall credit for doing his job. That’s a pretty low bar. It’s actually the first time he’s done anything that a majority of the American people approve of. I don’t think he can leverage that into a general uptick in his overall approval ratings—but then, I never underestimate the gullibility of the American people.

Emotionally, I veer between despair and hope. My banker called on Friday to tell me he thinks second quarter GDP and stock market performance will be disasters, but that the third and fourth quarters of 2020 should start us on the road to recovery. Okay. At the same time, I think of industry after industry collapsing: airlines, autos, food service, travel, retail, small business—and I can’t see how to avoid a Depression. There’s a standard meme in political speeches, to the effect that “America is resilient, we can get through anything.” Yes, I suppose so. We got through the last Depression and World War II, we got through the Cold War and Sept. 11, we got through the Great Recession that started under George W. Bush; and maybe we’ll get through this too.

But how long will it last? How much suffering will ensue? And what will be the long-term impact of COVID-19? Americans were already divided; now, we’re physically afraid of each other. Hand-shaking may be dead, hugging a quaint anachronism. But I will give coronavirus credit for this: the supermarkets now let senior citizens like me get in before everybody else. As Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing!


Sheltering-in-place is now all of California

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Yesterday, it finally sank in.

The reality of the shelter-in-place, I mean. The order was only given in Northern California on Monday: four days ago, but it seems like months. And we don’t know how long it will last.

The boredom, lack of stimulation, the same four walls. The biggest thing is going stir-crazy. What to do all day long? I have three books I’m reading, one in the bedroom, one in the living room and one in the bathroom. The San Francisco Chronicle keeps me busy for a while. Walking Gus gets me out of the house. And T.V….as much as I love watching it, it’s getting tiresome.

I was out of laundry detergent so I went shopping yesterday morning. The first two supermarkets I went to were out. Finally found some at Target. But lots of empty shelves. I mean, lots! Which makes me wonder…

I haven’t been hoarding, yet, the way so many others are. But maybe it’s time. All those empty shelves are stark reminders, not just of hoarding, but of the fragility of the supply chain. Everything on a store shelf has to be transported there by truck from someplace else. And it has to be manufactured or produced someplace else. A can of soup…a bag of almonds…ramen…a six-pack of toilet paper…a box of laundry detergent…hamburger meat…Clorox…yogurt…eggs…these are things we expect to be there on the shelf when we want them. When they’re not there today, will they be there tomorrow? The next day? When they are there, do I buy just what I need—or do I load up, because who knows how long it will be before they’re back on the shelf again?

This is what we’re starting to wonder, I think. How far can this go before…before what? There was a story on the evening news a few days ago about how a local gun store, just south of San Francisco, was mobbed with customers. They interviewed some of them: they weren’t NRA ammosexual wackos, but ordinary people, parents concerned about their families. They’re doing the same mental arithmetic as I am: If things get really bad, there could be roving bands of brigands, banging on doors, demanding…toilet paper! Soup! Canned beans! Bread! Beer!

“Brigand” … an old word, Middle-English in origin, related to the word “bandit.” “One of a roving band,” says my Webster’s. Related also to the word “brigade” : “a large unit of soldiers; a group of people organized to function as a unit to do some work, as a fire brigade.” The word we’re really concerned with, though, is brigandage: “the practice of highway robbery and plunder.” My bathroom book is, by coincidence, “Wanderings,” Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. In it he describes the overrunning of Roman Europe by bands of Visigoths, Vandals and other “pagans” and “barbarians” who swept in from the East and North and tended to steal, rape, pillage and murder along the way. They were brigands practicing brigandage. They brought on the Dark Ages, which lasted for centuries.

Are we…could we be…No, of course not. This is America. This is the 21st century, not tenth century Gaul. It couldn’t happen here. We have the American military to protect us, police forces, sheriffs’ departments, the National Guard. Don’t we? Surely our men and women in uniform would be in our hometowns and on our streets if there were the threat or actual instances of brigandage? We can rest easy at night knowing that nothing bad will happen.

Right?

There’s been a lot of reporting about how people are not taking the shelter-in-place seriously. They’re continuing to gather in crowds, walk closely, etc. And it’s not just young people: I saw a bunch of old people clustering together yesterday at the entrance of the Oakland Senior Center. A friend of mine yesterday (Thursday) afternoon told me she has a friend who was just fined $400 here in Oakland for not staying six feet away from somebody. That was an eye-opener. Really? But it seems to be true. Here’s a link to Santa Clara County’s shelter-in-place ordinance, which is the same as all the other Bay Area counties’: It explicitly states, “Please read this Order carefully. Violation of or failure to comply with this Order is a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. (California Health and Safety Code § 120295, et seq.).”

Now, this isn’t as draconian as in China, where the police literally grab pedestrians off the street in quarantine areas and haul them off to jail (which is why China is containing spread of COVID-19). China is autocratic; we’re not. You won’t get grabbed off the street for walking next to your spouse.

But you might be fined!

Things are getting spooky. That’s what I mean by “It finally sank in.” And yesterday, Gov. Newsom made shelter-in-place mandatory for all of California. This is real; it’s happening; it’s not going away. Trump doesn’t know what to do. Governors don’t know what to do. Like us, they’re watching this unfold in real time, throwing spaghetti at the wall, and keeping their fingers crossed it won’t get too bad. I really, really hope it doesn’t. For you, for me, for the poor workers who are getting laid off in droves, for the kids who can’t play with their friends, for us all.


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