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?

 

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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