Covid Diaries: Living in overload

Covid Diaries: Living in overload

Jonathan E. Lazarus

As my wife and I head to Long Beach Island for our annual vacation, the world seems way too much with us. It’s almost comforting to think back to the not-so-distant past when just one crisis unfolded at a time. Now an interlocking grip of three profound challenges — the pandemic, an economic collapse, and a renewed push for civil rights — confronts us simultaneously. And this doesn’t even factor in the start of a school year that will be unlike any other, and right behind it, a political campaign with unpredictable, explosive contours.

My wife and I will try to focus on our tiny patch of beach (not to stick our heads in the sand) and hope that the folks in our vicinity will be wearing masks and observing social distancing. And also that the joggers I encounter in the morning will give me a wide berth, and I them. And that patrons waiting for takeout or outdoor seating at restaurants we used to patronize indoors will be patient and spaced out. I will read, perhaps write, do word puzzles with my wife, engage in online chess with a grandson, and probably put off for another year my resolve to learn how to fish properly.

But thoughts of the global crises will continue to swirl inside me and never be far removed. I will make an effort to continue engaging with the world (thank you, John “No man is an island” Donne) while somewhat shading from it. This is a strange duality, but it hasn’t prevented me from ruminating about matters weighty and whimsical, personal and public. Here are a few thoughts.

What’s in a name? Plenty!

I would like to submit a nomination for the list of statues, memorials, military bases, sports franchises, and even board games (Scrabble, by eliminating 25 racial slurs) containing names or causes deemed offensive or insensitive. These candidates for rebranding, revision, or removal need to include an additional category: U.S. Navy vessels.

Since its commissioning in 1995, I have been upset and mystified that one of our aircraft supercarriers bears the name of John C. Stennis, the arch-segregationist senator from Mississippi. My guess is that after serving a record 41 years in the upper house, where he chaired both the appropriations and armed services committees, the Pentagon’s admirals and generals felt beholden to him for funding a vast array of military hardware, despite his being the modern version of a slaver.

A tightwad on domestic and social spending, Stennis prided himself on being an implacable foe of civil rights legislation. He and his House counterpart, L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, knew no bounds when it came to catering to the military-industrial complex. It is way beyond time to remove his name and rechristen the vessel in honor of a naval hero of color or an African American of distinction. The most hidebound of the services did try to make amends recently when it decided that its newest carrier, now under construction, would pay tribute to Seaman Doris Miller, a veteran of Pearl Harbor who left his mess station (the only job open to Blacks in the Navy at the time) to man a deck gun and attend the wounded during the height of the attack. He also is the first enlisted man so honored.

But the Navy should go further. A fortuitous moment is at hand in the wake of John Lewis’s death. The service should elevate the name of one of the nation’s most courageous, trusted, and moral civil rights leaders to the prow of the USS John Stennis and jettison the current honoree. John Lewis consistently churned through troubled waters, from beatings and jailings endured in the civil rights battleground of the South during the 1960s to his last moments, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement with all the strength his emaciated body could muster.

The USS John Lewis has a nice ring to it. And so does the John Lewis Bridge. That would be the one in Selma, Alabama, presently named for Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan operative Edmund Pettus. John Lewis knew the site well. On March 7, 1965, he and other civil rights marchers were met by free-swinging, teargas- firing Alabama troopers. Lewis, always in the vanguard, was clubbed to within an inch of his life, a moment preserved in a chilling photo during what became known as Bloody Sunday. The civil rights activists, however, regrouped, persevered, and completed their trek to the state capital. What delicious irony and delayed justice it would be to see the bridge renamed for Lewis, especially after the emotional ceremony on July 26, when his flag-draped casket was borne across the span in a horse-drawn livery. The next day his body was flown to Washington to lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol; he was the first Black lawmaker accorded that honor. On July 30, John Lewis was laid to rest in his native Georgia soil after presidents and just plain folks paid tribute in heartfelt eulogy at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

And staying with the subject: I’ve always been rankled by the fact that 10 military bases still bear the monikers of Confederate generals, and that I was stationed at two of them during my stint in the Army Reserves from 1964 to 1970. After basic training, I was assigned to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for clerk’s school. I didn’t know who this Polk fella was at the time. Turns out Leonidas Polk was a Confederate general, a slaveholder, a relative of President James Polk, and an Episcopalian bishop who broke away to form his own secessionist diocese. He was killed in action in 1864 after a notably lackluster military career. Later, when my unit went to Camp Pickett, Virginia, for its annual summer training, I realized we were billeted in a place honoring the foolhardy Confederate general who led a disastrous cavalry charge at Gettysburg.

Our commander-in-chief, who never served a day in uniform (bone spurs, remember?) supports keeping the names of these “great” turncoats in place and views the Confederate flag as a vibrant symbol of free speech. He is opposed by a majority in Congress, the military chiefs, and top Pentagon service secretaries, who are ready to change the names of offending bases and already have banned display of the secessionist stars and bars.

The reach of “rebranding” even has touched two organizations that at first blush would seem to be above the fray. The Sierra Club recently acknowledged that the legacy of John Muir, the revered naturalist and spiritual icon of the organization, was tainted and being reassessed in light of his remarks about Native Americans and his willingness to dispossess them from ancestral lands to help create the national parks system. And Planned Parenthood of New York will remove Margaret Sanger’s name from its center because the pioneering birth control advocate apparently or unwittingly favored policies too closely identified with the discredited notion of eugenics.

Muir and Sanger are joining Woodrow Wilson, Robert E. Lee, and Christopher Columbus in the formerly exalted category. On a less lofty level, consumers soon will see the familiar images of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben disappear from supermarket packaging.

Symbols and names do count. Has the revisionist pendulum swung too far in overcorrection? Perhaps, but a reset appears necessary during this inflection point in the history and evolution of the republic.

The unfriendly skies

The charges for plane tickets, hotel reservations, convention registrations, and classical concert dates I booked before the pandemic all have been refunded. The only loose end is a carryover show from the Paper Mill Playhouse, which has been promised for whenever the theater reopens. These interactions proceeded smoothly, except for United Airlines, which relented after several phone calls and finally decided to do the right thing. Fortunately, I connected with a caring agent who went above her pay grade to get management to sign off on a refund. My relations with United have been bumpy ever since they merged with Continental as the dominant partner and now rule the roost at Newark Liberty International. Over the years, they have decreased seat widths almost in proportion to the amount they raised prices. Need extra leg room? Buy it. Over an ounce or two on luggage? You’ll pay. Gotta go? Use the onboard lavatory at your own peril. Want more than a stale pack of pretzels? Get out your credit card.

Does this sound a bit harsh? Perhaps. But I’m describing an airline that consistently scores at or near the bottom in on-time performance and in customer relations surveys. The New York Times reported recently that United has about $18 billion in cash reserves to get through these difficult times. The article did not specify if the reserves included billions the carrier received in federal aid as part of the federal pandemic package. United has threatened publicly to lay off 36,000 workers in October if the economic crisis continues. Meanwhile, according to the Times report, the carrier continues to book its flights as full as possible, flying in the face of best health practices.

Belatedly and tepidly, United announced it would require passengers to mask up in boarding and baggage areas.

Many corporations have weathered the brutal economic landscape while making donations to needy groups, disseminating public service messages, and practicing enlightened employee relations. Others have been tone deaf, and their irresponsibility is deafening.

Not in the mail

Notice your postal service deteriorating even more? We have a new postmaster general. His name is Louis DeJoy, and his qualifications to run an operation as complex and compromised as the USPS rests on his reputation as a big donor to the GOP. His boss at the White House dislikes the post office. It loses money consistently and just might be the conduit for his defeat in November during a mail-in election.

The new guy has taken to Trump’s mandate of discrediting and starving the service like glue to a stamp. He’s eliminated overtime and decreed that undelivered mail be held for the next day’s cycle. Postal workers and customers alike might want to rename him Louis DeMisery. Residents throughout North Jersey (myself among them) are complaining about not receiving deliveries for two or three days at a time because of the new policies. Whatever happened to the creed “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds?” During the pandemic, the USPS is needed more than ever. Yes, there’s Zoom, but there’s also zip, as in Zip Code. There’s email and snail mail. Both serve different needs (and generations) but complement each other. Instead of hollowing out USPS, reforms are needed to insure its stability and reliability.

Back to the barber

I approached my first haircut since March a few weeks ago with hair-splitting hesitation. After restrictions were lifted on this phase of commerce, I waited to see if covid cases would spike. When they didn’t, I called my Jordanian tonsorial, Ezzat, and made an appointment. Ever obliging, he scheduled me immediately, and I entered the redesigned world of Caldwell Cuts. Plastic sheets separated the chairs, and the place looked spic and span. Ezzat, as usual, worked expertly and rapidly, and my silvery locks soon covered the floor. The results are evident in the accompanying photos. I’m glad Caldwell Cuts is still in business and only hope countless other small enterprises in municipalities across New Jersey make the cut. Never were the livelihoods of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker more threatened.

Shalom to old friend

The New Jersey Jewish News has served my catchment area in Essex County and beyond for 70 years. I was saddened but not surprised when it published its last print edition on July 30. The paper, sold by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ to New York’s Jewish Week Media Group in 2016, may have shrunk in size over the years, but not in relevance and incisiveness. I hope plans for a digital edition materialize quickly. We all realize what a vital role the Jewish press plays in sustaining our sense of community and purveying accurate information and thoughtful opinion, a precious commodity in these times.

Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a former editor at the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard.