COVID Voices: These Are the Things They Did

“For sale. Baby’s shoes. Never worn.” That’s a six-word short story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, widespread doubt notwithstanding. Hemingway’s talent was brevity of prose, his ability to tell a big story in a few words, and his style sparked a writing tradition in American fiction.

You can’t help but recall this six-word story when you read through the list of names in the New York Times May 24, 2020 edition listing people who died of COVID-19.  Okay, I confess to being a sucker for someone’s story, and I zoom in to these names and brief obits with imagination unloosed. As the Times puts it, “None were mere numbers.”

I’m channeling Mr. Greeke. “William D. Greeke, 55, Massachussetts, thought it was important to know a person’s life story.” There are just over 329 million Americans right now, but there was only one William D. Greeke.

What’s moving is that the same kind of uniqueness is true for every other victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

“June Beverly Hill, 85, Sacramento, no one made creamed potatoes or fried sweet corn the way she did.”

“Clara Louise Bennett, 91, Albany, Ga., sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school each year.”

“Cynthia Whiting, 66, La Plata, Md., determined to spoil her granddaughter.”

“Robert L. Crahen, 87, Waunakee, Wis., nicknamed ‘Boxcar Bob’ for his luck in shaking dice.”

“Harley E. Acker, 79, Troupsburg N.Y., discovered his true calling when he started driving a school bus.”

“Stanley Marvin Grossman, 83, Nanuet, N.Y., known to many for his amazing Donald Duck impersonations.”

Most of the stories I’ve cited so far are of really old people, with whom, being 72, I feel a certain consanguinity. As I’ve said before, I can’t recommend old age, since its future is somewhat limited. On the other hand, Senior Citizens is the only minority group I ever aspired to join, the alternative being arguably worse, although I’m open to discussion on that one.

But each of these people’s death notices evokes thoughts beyond the mere dates and places of their beginning and end. They plant the seeds of wonder, curiosity, and emotion that bloom in your imagination, in your heart.

Contrast the older folks with  “Skylar Herbert, 5, Detroit, Michigan’s youngest victim of the coronavirus pandemic.” With those lines, you can’t help but go back to the baby’s shoes, never used. No soccer games, no first time on a two-wheeler, no graduations. A life scarcely lived. But you can imagine the memories never had and create the same stories as you do with the others.

A few more before closing.

“James W. Landis, 57, Krocksville Pa., loved his truck, Dorney Park, Disney World, model trains, and especially California cheeseburgers.”

“Steve Dalkowski, 80, New Britain, Conn., gifted pitcher who never made the big leagues.” I hope he’s waiting in the bullpen at the Field of Dreams waiting his first major league start.

“Asela E. Dejo, 92, New Jersey, excellent cook, though she hated the task.” I wish I had her grit.

“Robert M. Shaw, 69, Beverly, Mass., loved being Grandpa to his ‘little man’ and ‘sweet pea.”

You run with that one. I’m done for right now.

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COVID-19: Waving from Across the River

“U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS, said the May 24, 2020 New York Times headline over an article that calculated the loss. It was a stunning piece of work, really. I had no intention of reading the whole thing–the headline pretty much said it all–but after reading the first name, I read the next, and the next, and so on until the end.

“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin reportedly said. I was never a big fan of Joe, but he’s sort of right in a perverse way. The Times piece, though, was no mere glorified Vital Statistics section. The names, listed by date of death, included lines from the obituaries or death notices, adding dimension to the statistic and weaving a quilt of incalculable loss.

We lived in San Francisco years ago, where people you met never asked the usual, “What do you do?” They didn’t care where you worked so much as finding out who you were, what made you tick. What makes the names in the Times story so compelling is the sense of the whole person radiating through mere words.

Each entry, each death, is a story. Some are novels. For the reader, it’s an encounter with a whole life, not just its end. I’ve selected just a few, here, which was hard, because they’re all really interesting, and I could go on for 10,000 words. This Styx thing is interesting. In any event, here’s the sampling.

“George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne, Vt., could make anything grow.” Who doesn’t know someone like George?

“Theresa Elloie, 63, New Orleans, La., renowned for her business making detailed pins and corsages.” At some point in her life, Theresa thought, “Hmm, I can make some money with this,” after creating her tenth or twelfth corsage. Or, perhaps a friend or relative said, “Theresa, these are so beautiful you ought to sell them.”

“Romi Cohn, 91, New York City, saved 56 Jewish families from the Gestapo.” Generations and friends of generations didn’t just know the rabbi and what he had done, but many owed their existence to him..

“Fred Walter Gray, 75, Benton County, Wa., liked his bacon and hash browns crispy.” With that, Mr. Gray came to life. You can hear him barking at the server in the diner to make sure the bacon and hash browns were crispy. You can see his wife and kids cringe just before he does it, because they know it’s coming. Of such things are memories made.

“Helen Kafkis, 91, Chicago, known for her Greek chicken and stuffed peppers.” You can smell Ms. Kafkis’s kitchen. You can see her bent over the range, stirring and tasting with the steam rising on both sides of her tiny gray head. You can see her stir with one hand and grab for the hot pad with the other and open the oven.

“Angelo Piro, 87, New York City, known for serenading friends with Tony Bennett songs.” Can’t you hear his friends? “Angelo, Christ Almighty, stop it with ‘The Good Life’ already and do ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’, wouldja?”

“Ronald Willencamp, 75, Wisconsin, proud to have logged over five million miles behind the wheel.” Like anyone else, Mr. Willencamp no doubt had a few regrets over choices not made, over opportunities squandered, whatever. But goddamit, he logged five million miles and you didn’t.

“Susan Great Hopp Crofoot, 97, Westwood, N.J., took great joy in writing little ditties under her pen name, Penelope Penwiper.” Most of these names brought me to the brink of tears, but this one put me over it. I imagined her getting the idea of writing her ditties for posterity. I imagined her deciding she needed a pen name when her real name kind of sounds like one. And I imagined the person who put this into the obit and the affection he or she had for Ms. Crofoot.

“Tommie Brown, 82, Gary, Ind., who died the same day as his wife. Doris Brown, 79, wife who died the same day as her husband.” Think about that one for awhile.

“Edward Cooper, Jr., 83, Louisiana, he loved his wife and said, ‘Yes, dear’ a lot.” This entry, as with all the others, stunned me in saying so much more than the mere words.

Okay, a couple more before I stop.

“Jerzy Glowczewski, 97, New York City, last of the WWII Polish fighter pilots.” Wow. I didn’t even know there were WWII Polish fighter pilots, which, I guess, is dumb on my part, but did you? His name made Memorial Day all the more special for me.

“Muriel M. Going, 92, Cedarburg, Wis., taught her girls sheepshead and canasta.” Sheepshead (I had to Google it) is a German card game. With that, you can see a history or a persona and a family, and even share, if vicariously, the love people had for Ms. Going as well as the way she had to have affected so many.

Quite a few names of famous people appear, but it’s the ordinary folk who grab you by the heart and shake it. What you realize is that a neighborhood, a city, a county, a state, a country, a world, when it’s all said and done and the historians are outlining their essays, is that it isn’t the great ones, the billionaires and the star athletes and the presidents and the generals who make society work, it’s all of us. Each one of us is a tiny speck of life that forms into sand and then into mortar and then into bricks and then into buildings, and that’s what makes a society, a culture what it is. And who’s to say which morsel is the most valuable?

 

Ruminations on the Road to the River Styx

When you’re young, you view your life as a series of options, but when you’re old, you see choices. Once you get within spitting distance of your date with Charon, you inevitably try to put it all in some kind of order.

One of the first things you learn in an entry level J-school course is that the most popular sections of the newspaper are the Letters to the Editor and the Obituaries. True, that was in the olden days when lots of newspapers existed and people actually subscribed to and read them. But still.

The custom now is for the newspaper to peddle space to the bereaved to place obits for the deceased. These tend to be florid and abstract, quite lacking in the neat conciseness and paucity of words that used to be requisite. Real journalists knew how to make them newsworthy, realizing obits are for the public, not the deceased.

On one hand, I don’t want a boring obituary. On the other hand, I’ll be dead and won’t give a damn. Threading together those extremes requires me to write my own obituary and stick it in with all the other stuff for the heirs–the will, the key to the safety deposit box, the list of website passwords, and that sort of thing. No one will have to argue over who gets to–has to–write the damned thing. All someone has to do is fill in the blanks.

Blanks? Date of death, cause of death, that sort of thing you don’t know until it’s too late. The memorial service, if any, which will be for the survivors’ benefit and not mine. Obits need to have that sort of basic information. Business is business, and one of the things I can do by writing my own is to cut the fluff and to the chase. When you’re dead, you’re dead, and three weeks later, nobody will think about you anymore, my father said. Not counting your creditors. But you will have something of an adoring public for part of those three weeks, so take advantage of it.

I’ll be sure to say I died. Not “passed,” “passed away,” “left this world to be with Jesus,” or any of that kind of crap. I’ll enliven it a bit by saying, “croaked,” “bought the farm,” “bit the dust,” or somesuch, but what happened will be unambiguous. The date of death will be noted. This is basic journalism–who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Ah, the why. Obituary habitues want to know why you checked out. Car accident? Got drunk and fell out of a window? COVID-19? Cancer, stroke, heart attack? Some long illness? Suicide? It needs to be there. If you leave the obit writing to others, they may feel a need to mask the cause of death for one reason or another. Don’t let them. Unfortunately, you’ll be dead and won’t be able to do much about it, but you can do what you can.

Parenthetically, I can skip platitudes with illness, such as “ended his long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis” or whatever.  You don’t battle ALS, you suffer from and endure it. “Battle” implies that you could have won through pluck or effort, and had you tried harder and not been the slacker you were, you might have lived.

At your memorial service, assuming anyone shows up, people will ask, “Was he old” or “Was he ill” or “Did he ever smoke” or whatever. Those questions will really piss off your surviving relatives, since the answer means either (a) your time had come anyway, so your demise is no biggie, or (b) you asked for it. To them, you’re dead and that’s (presumably) sad, so what difference does it make why you croaked? They’re entitled to their moment of grief, so just get it out there in the obit and forestall the issue.

The hard part comes with the dash, that little nugget of punctuation that’s a trope of your existence between the date of your birth and the date of your demise. The events of a life, such as birth, marriage, parenthood, and so on. The feats you accomplished. The mountains you climbed. The selflessness you exhibited. The way you made the world a better place.

But whoa! What if you didn’t do anything to make the world a better place? What if you weren’t, say, a teacher, or public safety worker, or nonprofit world-saver, or philanthropic gazillionaire, and you lived a life that was comparatively uneventful? “You need to do something to put in your obituary,” my father said. Well. No outsider can put lipstick on the pig of your mortal journey. But you can.

Just come up with a bit of wisdom and run with it. It’s your obit, after all, and you’re paying for it, so it can say what you want. W.C. Field’s tombstone said, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Not an obituary exactly, but it’s in that same vein. There’s also inspiration in last words:

  • Humphrey Bogart: “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.”
  • Oscar Wilde: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
  • Groucho Marx: “This is no way to live!”
  • Marie Antoinette: “Pardon me, I didn’t do it on purpose.”
  • Auntie Mame: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” (Okay, I took liberties with that one)

But you get the point. Use your imagination and go from there. For example, if you have more than one child, you can say, “Beatrice was right–Arthur was always the favorite.” Or showcase your regrets: “I should never have dumped the sugar into the vice principal’s gas tank.” In my obituary, I intend to recommend against old age, as there’s very little future in it.

There’s the old story of the funeral where the preacher ended his litany and asked the assembled if anyone would like to say a word about the deceased. A long silence followed, until a voice from the rear said, “His brother was worse.” Writing your own obituary gets you and your bereaved out in front of these types of annoying inconveniences.

Or, to put it all another way, what happens if the Grim Reaper is knocking at your door and you’re not ready to open it just yet? I don’t think anyone’s ever ready to answer the knock until the very end, but as rhyme and meter make an epiphany into a poem, so might tinkering with your final panegyric offer some perspective.

Just a thought.

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Celebrities: Freeze, Flee, or Chat?

If you saw a famous person, not like a local mayor or whatever, but a really really famous one–say, a George Clooney or a Michelle Obama–what would you do? Prance over and introduce yourself, wave, maybe, or just look on?

Have you ever encountered someone pretty famous? If so, what did you do?

When I was a boy in the early 1960s, my family often decamped to San Francisco, where famous people loved to gather. because no one pestered them, In North Beach, particularly at places like Enrico’s with outdoor seating for people-watching, you were likely to see celebrities anytime, and we did. In the 1990s, my daughter and I saw Julia Child in the San Francisco Airport.

But that was just seeing, not encountering.

I went to New York City in 1975 for the first time as a buyer for a Reno, Nevada, specialty store. I was both excited and nervous, a small-town kid trying to act as though the frenetic Manhattan bustle was normal and to not come off as a total rube. And failing, in hindsight. 

The buyers and merchandise manager were to meet in the hotel lobby around 7:30 a.m. before heading to the buying office. They all stared at me when I arrived, late. I realized I’d left my briefcase in my room and they all rolled their eyes and glanced at their watches before looking away and glowering. I slinked back to my room to fetch the briefcase and waited for what seemed like the entire Pleistocene Era for the return elevator.

On board, I was too agitated to pay much attention to the only other person in the elevator, except that he was tall and wearing an elegant dark suit and his face was riddled with pockmarks. To this day, I can still see his facial skin. At the time, though, I was mostly looking back and forth at my watch and it didn’t dawn on me until we arrived at the lobby that my fellow passenger was Muhammed Ali. I snapped back and stared at him like the idiot that I was. He looked back at me with a half smile, and nodded. Even if I’d have been able to talk, I doubt I’d have said anything. What do you say to Muhammed Ali in an elevator? 

New York in those days was practically a foreign city to a small-town Westerner. The Garment District was absolute bedlam with the clothing carts snaking through the honking traffic along with the shouting, the clanking, and the general chaos. Despite the apparent pandemonium, conversation was in pre-recorded messages and manners were high context, with many strictures on what one did and didn’t do. It was all quite formal. You didn’t talk with someone higher up the food chain than you without first being introduced. You didn’t crack jokes. Social distancing was understood. I was a nervous wreck, a year later, when we entered the GM Building on Fifth Avenue to see if the Estee Lauder company would deign to allow their cosmetics to be sold in our store. 

The product was in such high demand that Estee Lauder didn’t sell to you, you sold yourselves to them. Bud Goldstone, our General Manager, knew Leonard Lauder and he hoped that connection would count for something. We met in their offices for a time with everyone but me having something to talk about–someone at Bonwit Teller doing whatever, and the same for Lord & Taylor, or Neiman Marcus’s or I.Magnin’s figures off a bit, all formal, all abstract, all hinting politely and circuitously as to why Estee Lauder cosmetics would never, ever, appear on our shelves and fixtures.

Leonard Lauder and staff left with us. The elevator stopped unexpectedly two floors down and the door opened to a diminutive, dark-haired woman in an understated classic navy blue suit. A sound like the hush in a theater when the lights go off and the curtain goes up swept through. “It’s Estee,” someone whispered, as she nodded at everyone and took her place alongside…me. And smiled and introduced herself.

I told her my name and she broke into a bright smile and her eyes sparkled. Her maiden name was the same as mine, she said, and was I also Hungarian? [Editor’s note: Her maiden name was actually Mentzer, but hey, close enough]. She proceeded to ignore everyone else and just chat away about her family, her roots, how dumb the mayor was, and some plays I should see. It all became a low din, because I could not get over being in the GM Building on Fifth Avenue in New York conversing with this woman about being a Hungarian when two months ago, I don’t think I knew there really was an Estee Lauder.

It was kind of cool, though.

Okay, one more and I’ll stop. When we moved to San Francisco in 1987, it turned out that Robin Williams’ son attended the same school as my sons. It was not long after Williams’ fame went viral following the release of “Good Morning Vietnam,” though we’d become groupies following “Popeye” years earlier. The school had some kind of parents event at a local park, and I saw Williams and his wife pushing their new baby in a stroller. What the hell, I thought, and knowing that even if I forced myself to say something, I’d freeze up. Nonetheless, I went with a small group of other parents to say hello.

The parents exchanged pleasantries. I looked in at the baby and said, “Oh my god, that baby is networking to get into the school.” In a flash, Williams morphed into comedian mode and began ad libbing a four-year-old taking an oral entrance exam, providing both sides of the conversation between kid and administration official. I laughed so hard I choked. It lasted all of about three minutes.

I know some people have no problem prancing up to some celeb’s table and asking for an autograph. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that. A lot of celebrities, though, seem pretty interesting, and I wonder what makes them tick and what they think about and what they’re like. But despite imagining myself being clever and erudite with celebrities, I just shut down. 

What do other people do? What stories do you have?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coronavirus Shines a Light

Though no longer a baseball aficionado, I’m a big fan of newspaper sportswriters. The best of them don’t lack for point of view, attitude, and craft, as though they’re the noirish ghosts of another time–cynical, crusty, yet perennially hopeful despite themselves. One is Mark Kizla of the Denver Post, whose May 13, 2020 column is entitled, “Can MLB Survive Greedy Players, Owners?”

The coronavirus is shining a light on us all, not just professional sports. Painfully out there for all to see are society’s crunch points. Its fault lines. Our hierarchy of values. Through it all, Major League Baseball (MLB) owners and players, and even a few fans say the show must go on, epidemiological inconveniences notwithstanding. In that argument, MLB is a metaphor of America writ large.

“Whether we see baseball in these strange times will be as much about the Benjamins as safety concerns regarding COVID-19,” Kizla writes. I loved that line. As it does in a poem, a good line says so much. “Wouldn’t it be just like America if what kills the baseball season is the same dysfunction we’ve seen COVID-19 bring out in the rest of us? While the death count mounts, so does finger-pointing and name calling about the value of money and freedom versus health safety…,” he continues, noting that MLB gets 40 percent of its revenues from ticket sales, concessions, and related gate income.

That dough comes from us–the hoi polloi. Inside the pre-game ballpark, hot dog concessionaires and beer vendors and  maintenance people scurry into action. Outside, excited fans are shoulder-to-shoulder in the clanky bars and cafes staffed with harried servers. With the coronavirus stepping up to the plate, though, strike three. Fans and service people go on the DL, many of them filing for unemployment benefits.

National unemployment could hit 25-30 percent, but some middle-reliever or backup infielder you never heard of will collect his $5 million or so salary.

Unlike Kizla, I don’t blame the players and owners and call out their greed. Maybe they are greedy–what do I know? I doubt they’re much different than the rest of us. They’ve placed themselves into the professional sports machinery society created, and they do what they do. Maybe they’re holding a better hand than most, but it’s the one they were dealt.

According to the website marketwatch.com, the average MLB player salary is a shade under $4.1 million. The highest paid, pitcher Mike Trout, bagged $396 million in 2019. It’s more than a teacher makes. It’s more than a cop or a nurse makes. And it’s way more than a service worker makes. A worker–any worker–performs labor whose worth society collectively ascribes to that job, but when it’s all laid bare, what is a worker’s value? Does the worth we’ve ascribed to MLB players reflect their value to society?

What happens when the season is ready to get underway and nobody comes? Nichts. Nada. When the taken-for-granted fans and the low- to medium-paid don’t show up, the whole creaky engine grinds to a halt. The unimaginable media payouts, the gargantuan salaries, the engorged team balance sheets, and the ESPN froth all stop faster than a kid in socks hitting a patch of spilled honey while gliding across a hardwood floor.

Pro baseball needs more than the highest paid–athletes and owners–to function. Similarly, America has belatedly realized the value of grocery store and health care and delivery workers and how their worth does not at all correlate with the value we’ve given them. The term “income inequality” had been something of an abstract concept, but with the klieg lights of COVID-19 illuminating the 99 percent, everyone gets it.

For some time, corporate America has referred to low-level employees as “team members,” a transparent attempt to spit shine their image while refusing to pay them more. When the threat of COVID-19 lessens, perhaps our society will appreciate which team members provide the greatest value and which ones don’t, and adjust their compensation accordingly.

Never let a crisis go to waste, right?

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Still Vertical

I haven’t posted in a really long time.

I’ve started dozens of posts. Maybe more. But when I get into it a couple of paragraphs, the topic just doesn’t interest me anymore, so I stop.

Actually, not being interested anymore has become a problem. I don’t know why I’m not interested in anything. Old age? Maybe. Its definitely not something I can recommend. There’s not much future in it. I suppose I should at least write something so there’s something to put in my obituary, and maybe that will be a motivator too get going.

But that’s not really it. I don’t know what is. Whatever “it” is.

But I will get going, and soon.

Watch this space, as they say.

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