Fault lines widen. Tribalism runs deeper. Nuances go nowhere. Patience wears thin. Middle ground recedes.
Welcome to Covid 2.0, a period of fatigue, dueling instincts, and hardening positions, whether online, by landline, or in person.
The pandemic may be many things to many people, but as we endure the third month of its numbing presence, it seems as much a separator (social distancing be damned) as it is a binder (we are all in it together). Nowhere is the divide more apparent than during my daily jog at the Livingston oval, a green expanse adjacent to the town’s high school, library, and war memorials, and featuring a track, ball fields, and soccer pitch. I showed up there after covid closed the JCC Metrowest and the South Mountain Reservation Reservoir track.
After donning a mask, I began my three-mile trek. It took only a few laps before I started forming opinions about my fellow runners, joggers, and strollers, made easier by my deliberate pace (I’m almost 78) and people-watching tendencies (too often, a rush to judgment). What I took in didn’t quite rise to the level of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, the Levis and the Cohens, the Hatfields and the McCoys, or the Capulets and the Montagues. But it did smack of an us-against-them mentality about safe distancing and face masks, and it also seemed to strike a deeper chord about a lack of civic cohesion.
When covid struck, it also managed to co-opt cultural wars already fueled by blue and red politics; trust issues with government institutions; skepticism of scientists, academicians, and so-called elites; economic inequality; and a hard-to-define contrarianism that is so much part and parcel of the American character. The pandemic only seemed to drill down harder on these many points of contention and vulnerability.
At the oval, my unscientific observations showed that about 80 percent of exercisers wore masks, leaving a gaping 20 percent as potentially asymptomatic and able to spread the virus just by breezing past me. And that was the high-water mark for compliance. During the following weeks, the number dropped steadily and leveled off at about 50 percent. Offenders spanned the spectrum from teens to seniors. Since the rules of the game seem to change daily, perhaps some were confused, some plainly obstinate, or others simply bent on making a statement. Although police cruisers patrolled the facility, no one was stopped and warned about the risk to themselves or others. This as New Jersey maintained the second highest infection rate in the nation.
Of course, a society such as ours never gets everyone to pull in lockstep, nor is total compliance necessarily always a good thing. This messy pluralistic template has allowed some states to put tattoo parlors and salon re-openings (see my haircuts entry) ahead of practicing an abundance of caution. But as a harbinger of things to come for the summer at beaches, boardwalks, and barbecues, it’s not reassuring. And if a rain-dampened Memorial Day weekend was any indication, social distancing and masking, in Jersey and nationwide, don’t seem to be gaining enough traction.
I’ve adopted a sort of W.C. Fields policy toward those who refuse to wear masks or observe safe spacing. As they run past me, or on those rare occasions when I pass them, I give out a raspy aside to the effect of “no mask, eh?” or “six feet.” So far, just some stares back. We’ll see how this policy goes and for how long I feel constrained to continue it. I expect to wear a face mask for the foreseeable future, until I can be fairly certain the pandemic has passed and won’t return for an encore.
My personal beliefs about face masks differ markedly from those held by Donald John Trump, the potential Transmitter-in-Chief, who recently toured a Ford plant in Michigan and shunned protective gear despite being implored to wear it. He responded lamely by saying he didn’t want the press to see him masked. Of course, assembly line workers were sensible enough to wear the protective gear offered by the company and have their temperatures checked. This president models irresponsible behavior wherever he goes and seems willing to let the pandemic play out as brutally as possible in the name of economic puritanism.
Mr. Trump also revisited an old canard — but reversed the spin this time — when he questioned the pandemic toll as the numbers approached 100,000. He disputed the figure as too high, without citing any source. That is the opposite of his claim about the record throng attending his inauguration, despite photographic evidence to the contrary. And continuing in a numbers vein, experts now estimate that the government’s inaction at the highest levels during December, January, and February, when the first alarms were sounded (because of the Ditherer-in-Chief) cost the country thousands of casualties.
Doctors Fauci and Bright
I invariably admire and respect the experts whom the president dislikes and distrusts. Two in particular are Doctors Tony Fauci and Rick Bright. They make the occupant of the White House extremely uneasy because of their truth-telling, and truth is not a commodity much prized these days at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Since the pandemic began, Dr. Fauci has been rock steady in his science while doing the delicate dance needed to keep within Trump’s power circle, even if at times he seems somewhat on the fringes, so he can keep dispensing sound counseling. And Dr. Bright, he of whistleblower notoriety, conducted himself superbly at a recent congressional hearing detailing the government’s repeated failure to ignore warnings about the coming wave of covid, the lack of masks and protective gear, and the time, money, and personnel spent chasing the president’s whim on hydroxychloroquine, a drug he said he took despite nearly unanimous medical counsel to the contrary. Dr. Bright also parried partisan sniping by Trump allies on the panel and proved, along with Dr. Fauci, that career government service health experts and scientists do exist who can put the public good ahead of their careers.
I’m nearly 78 and have full head of hair, a silver, luxuriant swale that is sorely in need of a shearing. I’ve treasured this genetic gift over the years as I’ve watched many of my contemporaries fall victim to thinning or baldness. I miss my Jordanian barber, Ezzat, and his countrymen at Caldwell Clips, a refuge in the center of town that’s always busy, with a soccer game perpetually playing on the screen. I began patronizing the establishment two years ago on a walk-in after my longtime tonsorial, Joe, hung up his comb and scissors. Joe was the last in a long line of barbers I’ve patronized over the years, starting with Frankie in Newark, Tony, Sam, and Pete in West Orange, and Darrell in Livingston. Frankie incurred my father’s wrath in the early ’50s when he talked me into getting a square-back cut with a DA (short-form for a certain part of a duck’s anatomy). Dad refused to let me back in the house when he saw the results and dispatched me back to Frankie with the admonition: “Tell him to use the clippers.”
A few weeks ago, my wife, Gail, offered to give it a try. While thanking her for her gamesmanship, I demurred and just kept adding to the amount of conditioner I use after shampooing. Why, letting her attempt it might have been almost as risky as allowing her to mow the lawn and destroy the “graining” effect I’ve so carefully developed.
Is a man bun my only recourse?
The airline refund
It’s not happening, at least not yet. Like most fliers in this area, I’m at the mercy of one of the major airlines at each of the three metropolitan airports. We had purchased tickets some months back for a convention in Detroit during July. The event was canceled because of the pandemic, and when we applied for a refund were told by the carrier (all right, United) that they would only issue vouchers for future travel within a certain time frame. This came only days after the federal government passed a huge aid package containing billions for the outfits. I know I share this experience with many others, but it still doesn’t lessen the sense of unfairness. By the way, this is the same carrier that has narrowed legroom and seat room, with regularity over the years, forcing my spouse and me to pay extra if we are to have any chance of emerging from the flight intact.
It took a pandemic, but my wife and I began to watch the Netflix thriller “Fauda.” Now in its third season and a global hit, the Israeli series begets binging, which seems to suggest something unhealthy. So let’s settle on habit-forming. The show is unsparing in its portrayal of violence on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian divide as it unpacks a brutal version of reality on the ground fashioned by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharof, both veterans of the IDF. The action revolves around Doron Kavillio, head of a Mista’arvim commando unit, an Israeli obsessed with mission and played superbly by Raz. But for me, the show-stealer, in a pivotal but supporting role, is Itzik Cohen as Captain Gabi Eyoli, a seductive interrogator and student of human nature. Definitely not for the squeamish, but perversely appropriate for pandemic consumption.
Jonathan E. Lazarus is a retired editor of the
Star-Ledger and a contributor and proofreader
for the Jewish Standard.