July 2, 2021:
Note: I’ve been away physically; at the same time, my site has been ported to a new owner, and has also been gone for a few days. In gratitude for getting it back, I’m giving you readers a little mental vacation to the Brooklyn I know and love–a small essay I named:
Barhopping in The Slope
I edge up to the subway booth again today, to check the panel of security-camera photos taped to the smeary glass in the corner opposite the attendant, who’s texting on his phone. I pause briefly to register the photos’ subjects—a teenager in a blue hoody; an old guy with a round belly, frozen in an admirable leap over the turnstile; a kid ducking under, backpack scraping the metal bar—then I slink up the stairs to Brooklyn’s 7th Avenue.
There is no purple-haired old woman. I’m not there.
Why am I so furtive? I gave up religion long ago, but Catholic guilt stalks me like the ghost of Sister Stanislaus and her knuckle-whacking ruler.
It’s been a month since the crime.
It was a Tuesday, 3:45 in the afternoon; I had descended into this station from my yoga class in Brooklyn’s hip, upscale Park Slope neighborhood. I’d stopped at the Food Co-op, so I carried my rolled yoga mat and my ecologically-correct cloth bag of organic groceries. I was tired, disheveled, eager to go home; I shifted bag and mat, and swiped my Senior Citizen Metrocard through the reader at the first turnstile.
The green words in the turnstile’s little window said: Swipe Again at this Gate.
I re-swiped, pushed the turnstile. Nothing. Swipe Again at this Gate.
I cursed, swiped again. Pushed. Nothing.
Card Already Swiped at this Gate, the little green words crowed.
The turnstile didn’t budge.
The gate’s electronic brain believed I’d successfully paid my fare, so my card wouldn’t work again—a security measure, so I can’t sneak somebody else in on my reduced-fare card.
Which would be fine, except the turnstile wouldn’t let me pass.
This had happened to me once before—same turnstile, same station—and the man in the glass booth had buzzed the barred door next to the gates open for me. He hadn’t even looked at me; this must’ve happened all the time.
I rebalanced my bag and mat, and turned to the booth.
It was empty. In my 12 years in Brooklyn, I had never seen that booth empty. But it was. The entire station, in fact, was empty—except for me, my non-functional card, and the locked turnstile.
I turned to the second gate, and swiped my card there.
Card Already Swiped…
The other two turned me down, a united Great Wall of Fuggedaboudit.
Downstairs, beyond the gates, a train ground to a stop. I had two options: I could wait for the booth attendant to come back from wherever—Starbucks? The hospital down the street? The dead?
Or I could buy a full-fare card at the machine, for twice what my Senior Metrocard swipes from my bank account, plus a dollar for the card itself.
I should give the MTA nearly three times my Senior fare because their turnstile was screwed up? Seriously—the erratic, overcrowded, under-repaired MTA? Why would anybody do that?
The train below rattled away; heels clicked on the stairs, in the Forbidden Zone beyond the gates. A woman in a designer business suit emerged from below. I waved my useless card, and called, “Could you open the door for me?” I nodded toward the barred door, which, without the attendant, could be opened only from her side. “I swiped—“
She looked me up and down. “I don’t think so.” She pushed through the turnstile and clicked past me up the stairs to the street.
I ground my teeth. More than two million people in Brooklyn, and I get the one who would actually Say Something if she Saw Something.
It was now 4 pm. Almost rush hour; I had to catch the next train, or I’d stand all the way home. The booth was still empty. The station, again, was empty.
I examined the turnstile.
I couldn’t clear the top of it; at 72, I can barely clear a Downward-Facing Dog.
Another train pulled in below; it was now or never. I shoved my bag and mat beneath the gate and ducked under the bar.
The space beneath the turnstile was limited—and, unfortunately, yoga had not rendered me über-flexible. I scrabbled under the bar on tender hands and arthritic knees, as a gang of commuters wandered up from the platform, and a gaggle of hipsters in vintage T-shirts and man-buns descended into the station from 7th Avenue.
There is no way to look nonchalant as you stagger up from under a turnstile. In Brooklyn, people don’t stare; they avert their eyes and pretend they didn’t see a bedraggled old woman with purple hair drag her illegal self under the bar. I brushed dirt off my jeans, grabbed my yoga mat and groceries, and double-timed down the stairs to catch the train.
The train was gone. The platform filled up, but I stood alone, in an empty cone of condemnation, invisible and too visible. I ached to defend myself: I wasn’t a criminal; I’d paid my damned fare—just ask the first turnstile.
But if I engaged the people who carefully avoided me, I’d no longer be the grubby old purple-haired cheater-woman. I’d be the raving purple-haired harridan who just might smack you with a yoga mat.
A train came, at last. I shoved into the rush-hour crush of bodies and stood, sweaty and unfairly ashamed, all the way home.
I pass through the Park Slope 7th Avenue station three times a week. There is always an attendant in the booth. He never looks at me. Or anybody, unless they knock on the glass after the first gate takes their money and denies them entry.
My photo is not taped to the glass of his booth. Not yet.
But my skin crawls when I check: Somewhere, someone is looking at my picture. Passing it around. Judging.
And he’s reaching for the tape.
June 13, 2021:
My sister, eight years younger than I, was sick of being in the hospital. She’d cooled her heels there—the left heel would notice cool, but not the right—twice in the past two-and-a-half months. She had come in the first time with what she thought was a stroke; it turned out to be a seizure: brain metastasis from an undiagnosed lung cancer.
She was healthy, two weeks from retirement from a tech desk job, about to graduate to do something she loved more: repairing, painting, upgrading her small house in Minnesota. Her dining room was full of tools and paints and an industrial-sized ladder.
Her first hospitalization had produced a zap of brain radiation and one infusion of immunotherapy. She was doing well when she was discharged. Her son had requisitioned a newer iPhone for her; he’d put some helpful apps for aphasia on it, because she could take in information, but when she tried to speak what she knew, her once flowing words slowed to a crawl. When he felt confident that she had regained her independence, he went back to Florida, where he lives, works, and studies.
Then came the second seizure, a pile-on of fear; a scan that claimed nothing was amiss, even though her right leg and arm had grown numb. Her Aphasia deepened; she had to fight her brain to put out a coherent sentence.
The answer, said the docs at the hospital, was more Physical Therapy. More Occupational Therapy. More Speech Therapy. She could ramp it up by transferring to a rehab floor on the hospital for a short term—maximum two weeks, they promised—combined therapy program there.
All she needed was another imaging to make sure everything in her brain was still just fine.
We waited for her to go to Radiology, she in her bed, I in her folding guest chair. She picked up her new iphone, casually fingered in her access code. The phone’s security screen opened. “Oh!” she said, “You should…write it down…for me.” I hadn’t seen the numbers she’d touched, so I asked what she’d entered.
She closed the screen and tried to reopen it. Nothing. She could remember, with great difficulty, only four of the digits.
“Oh, dear–So…you haven’t seen your son’s Aphasia apps?”
“No. I…can’t…the code.” She grimaced. “I have…Aphasia.”
Suddenly that struck us both as hilarious; we laughed ourselves to tears.
That morning, I had decided to make my killer granola for us. I had noticed that her gas oven’s dial, unlike the range’s burner dials, didn’t have a “light” feature.
“I saw you have a gas oven,” I said to her. “Do I have to do anything special to make it work?”
“We don’t…use the…oven,” she said.
“Why not? Will it blow up the house?”
“I have to light it manually?”
She shook her head. The words were stuck.
“Your cats live in it?” I suggested. Her two elderly cats are mysterious; I’d been in the house for two days, and the only evidence I had that they existed was their disappearing food.
She rolled her eyes. “NO! Not…complicated. Just…we…” She sighed. “We. don’t. use. it.”
She was waiting for the new scan results when I went home.
I filled a bag with workout clothes to bring her for tomorrow’s rehab transfer, then assembled ingredients I’d bought at Trader Joe’s for my killer granola. If the oven wouldn’t burn the house down, didn’t need to be match-lit, and wasn’t hiding her mystery cats, I reasoned, what could go wrong?
I turned the dial to 325 to preheat.
I turned it off five minutes later. A half-hour after that, smoke still filled the house. I opened windows and doors—carefully, given the mystery cats–and flapped towels to disperse it, but the smoke alarm shrieked like a banshee. At last, I set up the industrial-sized ladder, disconnected the damned alarm, and buried it in my flapping-towel.
We don’t use the oven.
As I headed upstairs to bed, one of my sister’s two mystery cats appeared, mewling and pacing. Josie, the female. She looked desperate; she led me to my sister’s bed. She looked under it, so I did. This exercise had a Timmy’s-in-the-Well vibe–was her older male companion, Howard, in trouble? What if–oh, god!–Howard was…dead? I’ve never had cats; we had rodents when the kids were growing up. You could bury a hamster in the back yard.
But…a dead cat?
Josie led me to the closet.
How would I tell my sister??
Shaking, I went downstairs, sat on the couch. Howard leapt out from behind an overstuffed chair.
He stood still, grey and indignant, burned me with his marble-eyed stare for a moment, then sashayed off through the still-smoky living room.
I brought my sister’s clothes the next day, but she was still in her old room–she had yet to hear the scan results. I tried to leaven her anxiety with tales of burning down her house and killing her cat, but she was distracted. Ultimately, she dismissed me because I was too annoyingly helpful.
An hour later, her nurse called and asked me to come in again.
The scan had been read. Near the now-zapped and shrunk original tumor was another, larger tumor, surrounded by edema.
We cried together. I listened to her hard-fought, agonizingly slow existential questions: Why me? Why now? We were stricken that there were no answers.
She wanted to go home. Now! To her little vintage two-story house whose bedrooms and sole bathroom were upstairs, reachable only by a narrow, steep stairway with one railing that, going up, would be on her affected side.
But her docs wanted her to stay for a little more PT, a little more OT, a little more Speech T…
She wanted off her emotional-roller-coaster steroid regimen, which her Radiology doc had hoped would reduce her brain edema after her radiation during her first hospitalization. Back then, it had seemed to work, to return her to near-normal. But after that, it seemed to have done nothing; the new scan had shown that in spades.
She wanted them stopped.
Her Radiology doc, standing at a screen displaying her April brain against her June brain, told her it wasn’t wise to go off steroids cold turkey. She needed patience, he suggested gently.
He conceded that there was no proof that the steroids had worked; but would it have been worse without them?
“Bullshit,” she told me. The word was quite clear.
May 30, 2021:
I voted last week. By mail, because I will not be in Brooklyn for the June 22 primary election.
I have voted in person at the polls many, many times in my life. There, I just sign in, verify my signature, pick up a ballot, carry it to a poll booth, mark it with the pen they provide, carry it to the vote-counting machine, and slide it in.
This primary was my first mail-in vote ever, and I was surprised at how much more complicated this process was:
First, I had to read the instructions. Then I had to unfold the ballot and ink in the spaces next to the names just so, and refold it just so. Then I had to sign and date the ballot envelope just so. Then I placed the properly-marked, properly-folded ballot just so in the signed and dated ballot envelope. I then put the filled ballot envelope in the provided addressed envelope, positioned just so, so that the barcode showed through its little cutout window. Finally, I stamped it, and dropped it in my corner mailbox.
Further complicating this procedure, New York adopted “ranked choice voting” this year for the first time. There are roughly eight and a half million people in New York City. This year, four million of them are running for mayor.
So I had to not only choose my favorite candidate, but also four runners-up. And ink in each little space next to the names in the proper columns.
Don’t get me wrong; I did discover that there are some good things about voting by mail:
I could sit at my computer and Google the backgrounds, statements, and goals of the candidates before I marked my ballots. Considering the number of mayoral candidates, this cut through my confusion about who had done what nasty stuff, or said what dumb things, that led them to be publicly mocked by which other candidates.
Also—again thanks to my proximity to my computer—I actually got some substantial skinny on the judge candidates. At the polls, I’m always a deer in the headlights when I face the lists of judge candidates. Trapped in my little poll booth, poring over a slate of twelve people I’ve only met on posters taped to telephone poles by their campaign managers, I’m asked to “please choose six,” and I panic and forget everybody’s bona fides. There have been times when I’ve left the whole section blank.
But—thank you, Google!—not this time.
And, of course, I can vote at home without a mask. I can vote in my underwear—or even stark naked (although I would certainly wear my mask to the mailbox).
So now I understand why—even with the marking, folding, dating, and footing the bill for a postage stamp—a friend in Washington State actually prefers voting by mail. Not that he has a choice, since everybody there can only vote by mail.
Which brings me to those states where the legislatures are tightening up on mail-in voting because it is unsafe and fraudulent:
It seems to me that making it even harder to fill out and mail in an absentee ballot is flat-out discrimination, because it adds actual burdens to a process that is already more complicated than walking into the polls, verifying yourself, picking up, marking, and sliding a ballot into a counting machine.
It therefore discriminates against people who have to stay home.
It therefore discriminates against people who want to stay home.
It therefore discriminates against Washington State. And, for that matter, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Utah—also states where you can only vote by mail. Because all those reforms are being made because mail-in ballots are unsafe and fraudulent, right?
Therefore, the reformers are mocking Washington State, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Utah for running unsafe and fraudulent elections.
You might ask, “Sez who?” Well:
Sez The Former Guy, whose knows, because his very own write-in ballots are unsafe and fraudulent.
And sez the entertainment commentators on Fox Entertainment Channel.
And, most importantly, sez the Republican Party, which is intent on reforming all those unsafe and fraudulent mail-in systems.
Frankly, I don’t know how Utah has been allowed to stay in the Republican Party, considering they vote exclusively by mail. Seriously. If Liz Cheney got herself kicked out of power in the House because she disagreed with the new, improved Republican Party line, why doesn’t the state of Utah get disempowered for the same sin? Why doesn’t the Republican Party insist that the state of Utah be downgraded, perhaps to a territory like Puerto Rico, or a non-represented whatever, like Washington DC?
And so: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and good old Washington State all mailed in unsafe, fraudulent ballots in the 2020 election—predominantly for Democrats. Because mail-in voting is unsafe and fraudulent.
Utah mailed in unsafe, fraudulent ballots in the 2020 election—predominantly for Republicans. Because mail-in voting is unsafe and fraudulent.
So how does the Republican Party and Fox Entertainment, which clearly know their un-safety and fraudulence, let their Utah get away with that??
It’s a mystery.
May 19, 2021:
Last week, we buried Paul’s mother’s ashes in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Northampton, MA.
The box had sat on our guest-room shelf for nearly a year. I opened it once, considered scattering pinches of her ashes in some of her favorite places—Longwood Gardens, Maine’s Marginal Way; maybe even Fenway Park. But Ev tended to keep herself to herself and soldier on—her Spirit Animal, I swear, was Scarlett O’Hara (“I’ll think about that tomorrow…Tomorrow is Another Day”)—and reaching into the plastic bag for the grey dust that was once her body felt too intimate, too invasive.
I had the privilege of tending Ev in her Assisted Living apartment for over a month, after her bout with pneumonia in January, 2020. A slim, elegant woman, she grew skeletal in a Hospice hospital bed in her living room as we watched the Tennis Channel together. At 102, she still held court for staff and visitors, remembered details from their lives, chatted with them about their kids, their ski trips, the new garage they’d built.
My husband Paul, too, gathers bits of intelligence about people to spin into conversational common ground. Who knew this was hereditary?
Paul tells stories, and is known to embellish for entertainment value. Even so, his odder tales about his mother are true.
Their first story: he was her second child, born two years after his sister, and his parents were thrilled to have a boy. They named him R. Paul O’Neill. The “R” didn’t stand for anything; it was, Ev admitted, code for “Our.”
The town clerk of Northampton, where he was born, knew his father, “Sport,” whose real name was Raymond. So when he issued the birth certificate, it said “Raymond Paul O’Neill.” His parents never corrected it—probably because it would have been too embarrassing to admit they’d named their little darling “Our Paul.”
And then there was the story about how Ev hit him with a baseball bat when he was five. She was showing him how to swing the bat, she told me, and he stepped too close. He still has the lump on his skull.
You’d expect a dad called “Sport” to teach his son baseball—but it was Ev. Sport worked long days as a construction supervisor, and drank long nights. His paycheck suffered from rounds he bought for his buddies at local watering holes, and by horseracing bets that, as he put it, went for the “betterment of the breed.” They ultimately had three kids, and there wasn’t enough left to get by, even though they lived in Ev’s parents’ house and she made clothes for the kids and herself. So she took a job as a secretary—unusual, almost scandalous, in those days, for a woman whose husband earned good money.
By the time I met Paul, Ev and Sport lived apart. Sport was working his way through AA’s 12 steps, and Ev was, in the parlance of those times, the uber-competent “Girl Friday” to the CEO of her company.
When Sport tackled Step 9—make amends to those you’ve harmed—he asked his estranged wife what he could do to atone for the trouble he’d caused her. She said, “You can give me a divorce.” She had fallen in love with a man she’d met through work.
And so began her Second Chapter, which seemed charmed: as the fourth wife of the wealthy Mr. Eble (pronounced “ebbly”), she lived in a Philadelphia suburb, joined a country club, golfed, and played killer bridge. She hosted friends with grace, dressed in fine store-bought clothes.
Catholics can’t remarry after a divorce if their first spouse is still alive; they’re excommunicated for bigamy. Instead, they need an annulment—a laborious, costly slog through mountains of paperwork, at the end of which the Church rules that the first marriage never happened. Ev became a Lutheran, but you could see her heart wasn’t in it.
Once, at a family gathering, my older son asked her why, if she really wanted to stay Catholic, she had gotten a divorce rather than an annulment.
She said, “I would not make my children bastards.”
The assembled kids, spouses and grandkids laughed. Someone pointed at Paul. “Too late for one of them.”
She tried to be offended, but couldn’t resist a laugh, even at her own expense.
A story: back when Kym was three, Ev came to babysit her so we could get a weekend away. We came back to hear she’d met the mother of one of Kym’s little friends in the supermarket. “Are you bringing her to Denise’s birthday party this afternoon?” the mom had asked.
A party?!? She rushed Kym off to buy a present, dressed her festively, and schlepped her to the event. “She had a great time,” Ev told us, “but I wish you’d warned me.”
I explained that Denise was a casual friend; she hadn’t invited Kym.
“I thought her mom looked surprised.” Ev laughed as heartily as we did. “Well, Kym gave her a very nice present, so I’m sure we’re forgiven.”
Story: years later, after both her husbands had long been buried and she had fallen too many times in her staircase-filled house, we took Ev around the Philly area to check out Assisted Living facilities. At one, we learned that two of her second husbands’ three ex-wives lived there. “You’d have a lot in common,” I said. “And as a bonus, the staff wouldn’t mispronounce your name”
“Thank you,” she said. “But I think I’ll pass.”
It was a tale we laughed about with her at the Maine AL where she ultimately lived, near her older daughter.
Which brings me to one more story, from that last period together: One evening, a vicious Maine thunderstorm knocked out her building’s electricity. A generator kicked in to handle the lights, but the outage also tripped her ceiling fire alarm. We stuffed cotton in our ears, but even Ev, who was nearly deaf, still suffered its banshee howl.
Paul found a maintenance man downstairs, but he was rigging lines for the kitchen freezers; he would get to Ev’s alarm when he was free.
Paul pulled a chair under the shrieking fixture and began to remove the casing.
“Leave it alone,” Ev commanded. “You’re just going to mess it up. Let the man fix it!”
He stepped down. “Yes, ma’am!” He snapped a salute.
We passed an hour together, ears muffled but still assaulted. At last, Paul said that since he couldn’t help, he might as well go back to our niece’s house, where he was staying.
Ev was outraged. “You’re going to leave us here by ourselves? Two helpless women?”
I laughed, picturing Ev and me, tied to the railroad track, train bearing down. WhoooWhooo… But she would not be jollied.
“There’s nothing I can do, Ma,” he said. “You told me yourself. I’ll find the maintenance guy on my way out and remind him about the alarm.”
He bent to kiss her cheek; she turned away. “I cannot believe you’re leaving us alone like this.”
Minutes after Paul left, the maintenance guy removed the alarm casing and disconnected a wire—an operation Paul could have performed.
We went to sleep, wrapped in silence.
In the morning, Paul arrived bearing Dunkin’ Donuts. His mother greeted him icily: “Oh, look, everybody—the HERO is back.”
So much for “Our Paul.” Who knew sarcasm, too, is hereditary?
To my relief, she was speaking to him again by noon.
Late on nights when she couldn’t sleep, Ev told me stories of her life. She sketched—in spare, reluctant strokes—pain and disappointments that had lurked beneath the gleaming skin of her Second Chapter. She touched upon her grief over her younger daughter’s estrangement. Those were restless, two-sleeping-pill nights, and they were few.
Her more numerous good nights were warmed by memories of her parents, who came here with nothing and made a life rich with love; whose care fortified her to soldier on through dark times, doggedly reaching for that Tomorrow that is Another Day.
Born on the eve of a plague, Ev ran out of Tomorrows on June 16, in the plague year of 2020. She was in her older daughter’s care then. Now, she’s back with her mother and father in Northampton.
Rest in peace, Evelyn Shebak O’Neill Eble—1917-2020.
May 1, 2021:
She came late in my shift on Monday. A tiny, wrinkled, bird-boned woman, crooked and bent, dragging a small wheeled suitcase. She showed me a paper with the note, “Medical Records.”
The journey to Medical Records in my hospital is long and tortured. I said I’d guide her.
“I KNOW where it is—it’s right HERE.” She pointed to the nearest elevator.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “How long has it been since the procedure—the one you need records for?”
“And you were told they’d be at Medical Records?”
“Yes. And Medical Records is right up HERE.”
“Trust me—I’ve led a lot of people to Medical Records. It’s kind of far, and very confusing.” I added, “There are people I took there last week who are still wandering around, looking for the exit.”
She was not amused. “Hrumph. Take this.” She pushed the handle of her wheeled suitcase at me.
We set off to a more distant elevator bank. I was surprised at her spry pace, considering her age.
“I KNOW Medical Records is not this way,” she insisted. We rode the elevator to the second floor, then stepped out to follow a long, meandering hallway. She mumbled, “How do they expect anybody to find this on their own?”
Eventually, we reached a cul-de-sac with several closed doors, and a little elevator hidden in a side wall. I pushed the button. “That first elevator put us on the second floor. Now we’re on the lobby floor,” I pointed to the L next to the door, “with no change in elevation, right? This elevator—” I motioned her inside—“takes us to the second floor. Again.” I bowed. “Magic.”
She was not amused.
“This is the lobby of the old hospital building,” I explained. “The new wing, where we were, was built on lower ground.”
The elevator door opened; I deposited her at a plexiglass window labeled “Medical Records,” and handed her the wheeled suitcase. “To get back, press the button for ‘Lobby.’ Then just follow the long hall back the way we came.”
“NO!” she demanded. “You stay right here—You can’t expect me to get back by myself.”
I let the elevator go and joined her.
She knocked on the plexiglass window, pulled down her mask, shouted, “I NEED MY RECORDS.”
The woman in the office pointed to a clipboard on our side of the window. “Fill out that form, please,” she said.
My companion did so, and held it up to the plexiglass.
“You need to sign it, and put your date of birth,” the woman said.
My companion frowned at her. “I’m NOT IN THE RIGHT PLACE.”
“When was your procedure?” the woman asked through the window.
“TWO WEEKS AGO.”
“You’re in the right place.”
“HRUMPH.” She signed, jotted a date, again held the paper to the window.
The woman inside did a double take. “That’s your date of birth? 1963?”
“THAT’S IT,” my companion said.
She was nearly twenty years younger than I.
I deposited the completed request form into a box that was too high for my companion to reach. “Now, WHERE ARE MY RECORDS?“ she asked.
“We’ll mail them to you. Five business days.”
“NO!! DON’T MAIL THEM. I DON’T TRUST THE MAIL.”
The woman explained that it took time to find and copy the records.
“I WANT THEM NOW.” My companion gave me a withering look. “I TOLD you this wasn’t the right place.”
I asked the clerk if my companion could pick them up in person when they were ready.
“Certainly, she can do that.”
My companion hrumphed. “CALL ME WHEN THEY’RE READY.”
“We don’t call you—you call us. Next week, call and make sure they’re completed.” The woman jotted a number on a slip of paper.
“I DON’T HAVE YOUR NUMBER.”
The woman sighed. “I just wrote it down for you.” She pushed the paper through the space below the window.
I grabbed the wheeled suitcase and we took the little elevator down to “lobby.”
She halted and pulled a flip-phone from her skirt pocket. “The car company said they’d wait for me. I bet they didn’t.” She jabbed a number, and immediately lambasted someone on the other end: “My driver SAID he’d WAIT; is he there? He BETTER be.” She snapped the phone shut—I swear it hrumphed—and walked on.
“You really do have to pull your mask up onto your face,” I reminded her.
She stopped and gave me a knowing look. “These masks are KILLING us.”
I told her Covid was killing us, not the masks.
“No, really,” I said. “I had it. Bad; I thought I’d die.”
“You SAY you had Covid.” She shook her head. “You had a bad immune system.”
“My immune system is fine.”
“Oh? You checked your Vitamin C, D, Iron, Potassium—“
“My doctor keeps close tabs. My immune system is not a problem. Look, you really don’t want Covid. Do you plan to get vaccinated?”
She folded her arms in front of her crooked, bird-boned chest. “I pray to God every day. He protects me.”
“You’ve heard that joke?” I said. “Guy gets sick, he says to God, ‘God, I’m so sick–you said you’d protect me from this!’ And God says, ‘I tried. Why wouldn’t you take my vaccine I made for you?’”
She was not amused.
When we reached the entrance, she pulled up her mask, but not over her nose. “You took me to the wrong place. Let me go where I had the test; they’ll give me those records now and I won’t have to come back.”
“The Medical Records clerk said you were in the right place. She would know.”
She hrumphed once more, and stalked off with her wheeled suitcase to find her driver.
He BETTER be there, I thought.
April 23, 2021:
I didn’t know the number, but the caller ID said Hoagland, Indiana, where I have family, so I picked up the phone.
“Hello?” An older woman’s voice. “I’m calling from Consolidated Research—“
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Agh!! Please don’t hang up!” the voice rough, New Yawk-tinged, panicked. “It’s just a survey. I gotta get somebody to answer or they’ll close me down! Please! It’s quick, I promise. You may not even have to answer; it’ll kick you off if it doesn’t like your zip code.”
“A survey. On behalf of whom?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. I just read ‘em. You ask me, this is the stupidest survey I ever gave. Questions about Coney Island. You know Coney Island?”
I sighed. “Okay.” I sat down, phone cradled to my ear. “Ask me.”
What was my zip code? “Oh, that’s great—you qualify.” Did I work in…a long list of employment categories?
“None of the above,” I said.
Did I have kids under 18 living with me?
“Do you speak Spanish in the home?”
“If I did, nobody’d understand me. My Spanish sucks.”
“So…did you grow up speaking Spanish? Are you Hispanic? Or are you Caucasian?”
“Ah. Okay.” Did I have a driver’s license? “Great—it would kick you off if you didn’t.” A car?? “Great! So can I ask you the survey questions?”
“Go for it.”
“‘Do you ever go to Coney Island?’”
“Sure–I live in Brooklyn; it’s close. But I don’t go to the amusement park.”
“It doesn’t ask me that—like I said, it’s really a stupid survey.” A pause. “Oh gawd. My computer—Agh, I clicked something—Please, don’t hang up. You still there?”
“Yep. I’m here.”
“You have no idea how hard this job is—nobody wants to talk to me. So…Coney Island is close to Brooklyn?”
“It’s in Brooklyn.”
“In the city? I didn’t know that. I was a kid, I grew up down in Wantagh. Never much got off Long Island till we moved away. I never been to Coney Island. Never, that whole time.” Pause. “Okay! Whew! My computer’s back. So. ‘How do you go to Coney Island? By car, by bus—‘“
“Subway. It’s faster than driving.”
“Subway. Okay. Now. You ever heard of ‘New York Surrey Service?’”
“Have you seen ads about ‘It’s safer to drive alone’?”
“How about…um… ‘Ride Share.’”
“Don’t know it.”
She read a long list of transportation options; the only one I recognized was MTA’s Select Bus Service.
“Okay. So…the subway. ‘Do you have fears about using the subway?’”
“I did at the beginning of Covid. But now that I’m vaccinated, I use it a lot.”
“You been vaccinated?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Have you?”
“I’m in Florida—it’s not so easy, you know? My mom just got hers—Johnson and Johnson. I’ve heard some bad things; I’m thinking maybe I might not get it.”
I explained about the rare blood condition found in the J&J case, and about how it mostly seemed to affect women between 18 and 48. “I assume your mom’s probably okay.”
“Ah. That’s good to hear. What kind did you get?”
“That’s two shots, right? Was it bad?”
“I had some side effects,” I said. “They were worse than a lot of people’s, but that’s because I had the disease.”
“Wow. You had it?”
“Yeah, a year ago.”
“Oh, wow! How’d you get it?”
“We got it on a plane back from California. It was when everything was closing down, and this guy who sat behind my husband on the plane was coughing all night.”
“So that was what, back in March? Geez. I bet the guy gave it to the whole plane. Was it bad?”
I gave her the quick sketch: three weeks fighting for breath, the ground-rocks cough, aching joints, exhaustion, rolling bouts of chills, nausea, dizziness, and one baffling day with no sense of smell.
She tsked. “Well, God bless—you managed to survive.” Survoive. “Your husband had it too?”
“Yeah. We both pretty much lost the month of April 2020.”
“Well, thank God you survoived. Friend of mine and his son, they come down from North Carolina two weeks ago? We went out on a boat together. They had the test, you know? right before they came down, and everything was fine, right? They go back, and the guy,” she lowered her voice, “He. Has. Covid. He’s sick now. His son didn’t get it, and he was sitting right next to me on the boat.” She paused. “So I think I’m okay, but I’m thinking maybe I should get the test?”
“Oh, I’d get tested. You can pass the virus around if you do have it—even if you don’t have symptoms.”
“Yeah. I’d definitely get the test, if I were you.”
“Huh. Maybe I should. What do you do—you retired up there in Brooklyn?”
“Somewhat. I’m an editor. I work part-time, mostly with freelance writers.”
“Oooh—that sounds like fun. I’d love to do that.”
“Yeah, I enjoy it. Are there any other survey questions? Anything else?”
“Naw. Except there’s… ‘How much money your household makes a year.’ You don’t have to answer, but it goes, ‘0 to $5000—’”
“I’ll pass. But before you sign off, why does the phone ID come up ‘Hoagland, Indiana’?”
“Beats me. Maybe that’s where the guy wrote the survey lives? They have all kinds of numbers depending on what the survey is. They don’t tell us why. We just read.”
She thanked me—heartily, many times—for taking the survey, for not hanging up, for qualifying to answer the questions. For not getting kicked off. “This was fun,” she said. “You’re the only one I had today who stayed for the questions.”
I laughed. “I enjoyed talking with you.”
“God bless you–you have a good day!”
I hung up, wondering if this call was recorded for quality assurance.
April 16, 2021:
I posted that I had finished my Covid vaccination on a Twitter Vaccination Facts site the other day. A fellow tweeter congratulated me: “Enjoy your microchip! Bill Gates is thrilled to have you!!”
I was confused. Why would Bill Gates want me? I’m 73, lame, cranky, and much too opinionated.
And why a microchip?
I Googled “microchip,” and found an FAQ about pet microchips. There it was in black and white: “The procedure…is similar to administering a vaccine.”
What is the purpose of my microchip?
The site told me: “They are radio-frequency identification (RFID) implants that provide permanent ID…that cannot fall off, be removed or become impossible to read.”
Microchipping a pet costs about $45, the site added.
Chips are not, the site warned, tracking devices like a GPS. Unlike my iPhone, my microchip will not tell people where I am.
This was a little disappointing. What if I go for a walk and leave my iPhone at home? If I get abducted, my microchip will not tell anybody where I am. But people will know who I am if some savvy investigator thinks to run a chip-scanner over my cold dead body.
Or…will they know? The site says they’ll only find my microchip ID number, not my owner’s name and address, unless I register for a National Pet Recovery Database.
Bill Gates, being my owner now, must run a National People Recovery Database. I found it rather touching, that he would spend $45 to identify my cold dead body, busy as he is. Should I be afraid of that?
I returned to Twitter for the answer. On #BillGatesMicrochip, one tweeter tweeted to Bill himself: “You can cut me off from buying and selling, but you can NOT ever make me go against my LORD Jesus.”
My microchip will keep me out of church? Make me disobey my husband? Make me think that old white guys in the state and national legislatures are not the bosses of me and my body? Make me curse and swear and drink wine and beer and even rum and refuse to buy my yarn at Hobby Lobby?
Bill is doing that to me with a microchip that will identify my cold dead body?
For further clarification, I switched to Instagram.
There, a man wrote: “hows does b.gates, patented the ‘VIRUS’,..look it up.” This intriguing declaration was followed by an argument about how my vaccine is not a vaccine, but “a experimental shot (syringe emoji),” and how another Instagrammer who challenged this idea “did absolutely no research on this shot. You just mad becuz you got chipped and probably believe you cant get covid now.”
The discussion frayed into mask issues. One man said: “haven’t worn a mask since this started in New York and this was the worst hit city supposedly in the world besides wuhan. I’m fine I only got sick for a week and it wasn’t crazy. My immune system did that for me. If it did that what do I need the vaccine for.”
I’m pretty sure I met this guy on the subway. I was suffering from Covid brainfog at the time, so I probably forgot to thank him for enriching my immune system.
Somebody else wrote, “You know when Bill involved it’s all about population control.”
Which brought me back to Gates’ microchip. It’s…free birth control?
No, someone else wrote. Mind control.
Aha. That explains why, after I shopped for plant pots on line, I was flooded with un-asked-for ads about plant pots. And how, just now, right after I paid my ATT bill, I got a call on my phone from an electronic voice saying ATT had cancelled my phone (Press “1” to reply).
Bill. You bastard.
I paged farther down the discussion. A “Mystic and Yogi” referred me to a site—the Hal Turner Radio Show—where a man informed me, with a omniscient nod of his bald head, that he’s a scientist who studied thousands of positive samples of Covid and determined they were all “influenza A or B.” There is no Covid. He was very sure of himself.
I Googled his name and found another, hairier, scientist on YouTube who said the bald man’s scientific methods were faulty. The hairy scientist said the bald scientist was very likely lying.
My head hurt from all the deep thinking I was forced to do.
Or…maybe it was the microchip.
I went back to Instagram, to the “Mystic and Yogi” who referred me to the Hal Turner Radio show and the bald man. They had written: “This pandemic is a fraud and fake. Materialism rules over spirituality.”
Then they added something that astonished me because it so perfectly illuminated the whole argument:
“Anyone who takes this vaccine will die. Some quickly, others in time.”
April 9, 2021:
My driver’s license had to be renewed in October, so I did it from home because the DMV was closed for Covid. It was on-line, except for my eye test; I paid a pharmacist ten dollars to watch me read a chart on his wall.
The next month, our DMV announced limited openings. I wanted to upgrade to an “enhanced” license—which you must do in person—so I could travel in the US without a passport. I took the next available appointment, two months away.
I read the DMV checklist. Proof of residence: I gathered bills and statements–check. My present license; my passport: check. Proof of my social security number—
I couldn’t find my SSN card in my paper files. But the checklist said a tax form 1040 would work, so I blocked out the financial information and copied the top, with my name, address, and SSN.
I downloaded and completed my DMV forms. Check!
Two months later, I stood before a DMV clerk with my folder of forms, IDs, and proofs. All went swimmingly until she saw the copy of my 1040. “What’s this?”
“Proof of my social security number.”
“It’s blocked out.”
“The number is there,” I pointed. “With my address and full name.”
“It has to be the original,” she said.
“Seriously? I should give the DMV my full financial information for a license?”
“That, or your social security card.”
“I couldn’t find my card. I have my passport—it lets me travel all over the world. And a license you guys gave me. All of which, at some stage, probably involved my SSN—“
“Then use your passport to travel.”
I left without my Enhanced license.
The next day, I tried to get a copy of my social security card. On line; the SS office was closed for Covid.
The site had me download my license and passport photos, then take a current picture with my computer for an electronic match. My passport is six years old; my license photo, older still. The facial recognition software didn’t feel I’d aged gracefully, so I flunked.
A further complication: my SSN was issued in my birth name, Kramer. O’Neill is my married name. I sometimes regret taking Paul’s name because so many computers hate the apostrophe. And now…this.
I returned to my files to search for my ancient SSN card. Et voilà—it was stuck to the bottom of the drawer. I made a new DMV appointment—two months away—and assembled IDs and proofs. I added my original Wedding Certificate to show that the name on my SSN, though now different, was still mine.
My Wedding Certificate folds out from a white padded satin cover, and contains my wedding date, signatures of two witnesses and a priest, my birth name, Paul’s name, a declaration that its information comes from my city clerk’s records, and the impressive gold seal of the Catholic Church.
Two months later, I stood before another DMV clerk. All went swimmingly until she questioned my residence. I showed her an insurance letter, a VA medical bill, and a statement from Verizon about my WiFi service.
“You need a utility bill.”
“I pay utility bills on line.”
She frowned, and handed me a form to swear I live in Brooklyn.
Then she saw my Wedding Certificate. “This isn’t a Marriage Certificate. This seal is from the Catholic Church, not the city clerk.”
“See this?” I pointed. “‘…authorized by a license issued by the clerk of the circuit court of Allen County and State of Indiana, dated the 11th day of August, 1970.’ It’s 50 years old, original, and it backs this up—“ I pointed to my social security card—“so you can see that my birth name ‘Kramer’ is now ‘O’Neill.’” I pointed to the name ‘Kramer’ on the Wedding Certificate, then the card—“so it belongs to me in spite of my marriage. I have no Marriage Certificate; this is all I got when I got married. Besides my husband.”
“We only accept a city clerk’s seal, not a church seal.” She asked, not unkindly, “Why do you want the enhanced driver’s license? You have a passport; you can travel anywhere.”
I left without my Enhanced license.
On line, I ordered a Marriage Certificate from the city clerk of Fort Wayne.
I also emailed the “complaints” address on the DMV website. I asked, “Is this upgrade supposed to show I am who I am and I live where I live? Or is it really an exercise to see if I can obey the exact letter of some law that could accomplish the same thing everything I brought does, BUT only with material I, at 73, can’t easily access in the modern world?”
The state DMV sent me a number. I called and explained my complaint to three semi-sympathetic voices. At last, a fourth voice—the three earlier voices’ supervisor—scolded me. “THE. STATE. OF. NEW. YORK. DOES. NOT. ACCEPT. CHURCH. CERTIFICATION!”
My Marriage Certificate came three weeks later—a smeary copy of a microfiche copy of the 50-year-old original. The print was tiny; the names unreadable. On back it bore an unimpressive impressed seal from the city clerk’s office. I secured a DMV appointment two months off, gathered new proofs of residency, including a copy of our gas bill (slightly truncated; the bill was not meant to print), paper-clipped my SSN card to the Marriage Certificate, downloaded and completed the forms.
Last week, I stood before another DMV clerk. She okayed my residency, then pulled out the Marriage Certificate. “And you brought this…why?”
“My social security card is in my birth name.”
She squinted. “It looks like one of those old-timey records.”
I laughed. “Have you ever heard of microfiche?”
“I think I heard the term in my college library.” She turned the paper over and tapped the faint raised seal. “This is really the only thing that we look at.”
“So I hear.”
I left with a paper that says “Interim License, Enhanced,” which represents the license, which will come in the mail.
On it—unlike on my present license and passport—the name “O’Neill” has no apostrophe.
I wonder if I should be concerned.
March 31, 2021:
I got three copies of my apartment key today.
When Paul and I bought this apartment 13 years ago, we were given four ordinary-looking keys and this little plastic card. It said “Medeco” on it–the name of the company that had manufactured the keys. I was told to keep the card in a safe place; our keys were “secure” Medeco keys, and we could not copy them without it. So I climbed on a stool and put it on a high shelf in the utility closet.
I gave one key to our daughter Kym, who lives nearby. Paul and I each have one. The fourth became our guest key.
For three years, we never needed to use the little plastic Medeco card. Then our younger son and his wife came to visit, and he lost the guest key.
Now I needed a new guest key. So I climbed on a stool to retrieve the little plastic Medeco card from the high shelf in our utility closet.
It wasn’t there.
Had I mis-remembered where I’d put it? Had I hidden it somewhere else? Somewhere more secure? Somewhere so secure that even I would never find it?
I tore the apartment apart, pulled out drawers full of beads. Drawers full of paper clips, staplers, and rulers. Even the dreaded kitchen junk drawer, where I pawed through loose batteries, screw drivers, twist-ties, rubber bands—so many rubber bands—and rusty padlocks.
I asked Paul if he’d seen it. “What’s it look like?”
“It’s a little plastic card that says ‘Medeco.’”
“I don’t even know what that is,” he said.
Perhaps we didn’t really need it.
I went to our local Ace Hardware. The man shrugged. “I can’t copy this without a Medeco card.”
I checked a hardware-and-locksmith shop two streets away. It was a tiny, dusty storefront hung with rolls of wire and tape, shelves full of wrenches and pipe fittings. A slight, stooped ghost in grizzled beard, yarmulke, and wispy grey payos, sat behind a counter covered with papers, old coffee cups, an ancient cash register, and a dented bowl where female customers could place their money and get their change, so he wouldn’t accidentally touch a woman who was not his wife.
The old man would not look at me. “Pfft. Medeco. You got a card?”
And so it went, intermittently, for ten long years. If I passed a hardware store, I checked. Always no; always the card. I handed the key to locksmiths in Manhattan, without comment. “Medeco?” they inevitably asked. I checked on line, but I needed the little plastic Medeco card’s number for an order. I even tried to copy it at a “Copy Any Key!” kiosk in a Walgreens. It spat my “secure” Medeco key on the floor.
Last week, my husband’s wallet slipped out onto our sofa cushion. Some of its contents dropped into that side crease that is the sofa-equivalent of a dryer’s sock Purgatory.
He dug into the crease. Two expired museum cards and— “What’s this for?” He handed me our little plastic Medeco card. He had no idea how, when, or why he had acquired it.
I took it immediately it to Ace Hardware.
The man said they copied Medeco keys, but–he was sorry–not “secure” Medeco keys. No, not even with my little plastic Medeco card. He recommended that I go to that hardware-and-locksmith shop two streets away.
So today, that’s where I went. It had been ten years; the old man was gone, but the place was still tiny and dusty. The shelves sagged under gallon jugs of roach killer, bedbug spray, rat poison, and ant bait.
A skeletal middle-aged man blinked at me from behind a plastic sheet hung over a plank frame. He was gray–his shirt, his pants, and his face. He wore no yarmulke, nor a mask. The counter before him held the ancient cash register, papers, a coffee cup, plus a credit card machine, and an unopened bag of cheery yellow candy peeps.
I gave him my little plastic Medeco card and my key. He ignored the card and ground three keys for me.
I tapped the card. “Don’t you need this?”
“Pfft.” His voice was as thin as he was. “Four percent charge for credit.” I sighed and gave him my Visa card; he slotted it into his machine.
He dropped the keys on my little plastic Medeco card and whispered that I should sign the receipt. As I did, he ripped open the bag of peeps and stuffed one into his mouth.
At home, I told Paul I’d copied our key.
“What, maybe ten bucks?” he asked.
“Sixty-seven dollars for three.”
“You mean the electronic key for downstairs.”
“No, our apartment door.”
“What?? They’re just keys.”
“They’re ‘secure’ Medeco keys.”
“WHAT??? That’s ridiculous. Why didn’t you just go someplace reasonable, like Ace Hardware?”
March 23, 2021:
Today I received an email from Microsoft telling me that I had to update my mailbox. It instructed me to click Update Mailbox.
I clicked Update Mailbox, and opened a page where I had to give my email address and my password.
I quickly closed the page and went back to re-examine the email. It told me I had exactly one day to act: “Notice: Ignoring this message would lead to the termination of your Mailbox without permission.” The email looked quite official, from its Sent address ending in msn.com to its microscopic signoff: “Thank you for using Microsoft 2021.”
So I googled “Microsoft mailbox closing” and I found a site that said its purpose was to Answer all Microsoft-related questions. It looked quite official, from the genuine Microsoft logo to the chat feature at the bottom.
I clicked open the chat feature and told it my problem: was this email I had received from Microsoft real, or was it a quite official-looking phishing scam?
If I ignore it, will I indeed have no email box tomorrow?
I need my email box. Time is short. Please, help me.
The Chat bot listened carefully, then instructed me to click Continue, where I could fill out a form with my name and email address, and for a one-dollar (fully refundable) fee, I would gain access to the Answer service. There, a real support person would analyze what I asked and tell me if the Microsoft email was authentic.
I clicked Continue, and opened a page where I had to give my name and email, and add my Visa number, expiration date, code, and address to launch my (fully refundable) one-dollar Answer service.
I stared at the page and I felt myself sweat.
I closed down my computer and curled up on my couch and, for the first time in more than 70 years, I found myself sucking my thumb.
March 16, 2021:
Every Monday I work a shift as a volunteer screener at a local hospital.
I put on a uniform, an N95 mask, and a pair of safety goggles. I take my place behind a movable barrier and zap visitors with an instant thermometer that, when held near-but-not-touching one’s forehead, reads one’s body temperature.
A year ago, when I suffered three hacking, nauseating, exhausting weeks of Covid19, I never really had a fever. Still, when I began this gig, I thought temperature-screening made sense: fever could be a symptom of Covid, right? I might catch somebody with a fever, and save the lives of people who might otherwise interact with them.
I’ve been doing this for several months now. I’ve never gotten a temperature above 98.2—the norm being 98.6. Usually, if I get a reasonable human body temperature, it hovers around 97.
If I get a reasonable human body temperature. Which might happen once in five to ten attempts.
In actual fact, according to our thermometers, the average visitor to our hospital is officially Walking Dead. So I often lie about my findings.
Still, I make the effort to measure, maybe because I used to be an RN. Or maybe because I grew up Catholic.
I work with two to four paid staff members; they become annoyed with me because I take too long. Most of them just wave the thermometer in the direction of the visitor, and then they lie. Same result; less effort.
Yesterday I worked with a new young paid staff member who was supposed to jot down the temperatures I told her on those papers we give visitors to show they’ve been screened. No matter what I told her, true or false, she wrote “96.5,” which seemed to confuse some of the visitors who heard me announce their readings. In her defense, the new young paid staff member probably didn’t hear me through the earbuds plugged to her phone.
You might say the problem is the thermometer. That’s true. But since I started this gig, I’ve become interested in the efforts of screeners in other places. When they try three or four times with a hand-held thermometer, then write something down, I tell them I do the same thing, and it’s never right.
They always smile and nod.
There is more advanced technology out there. Two nights ago, we went to a restaurant where we had to face a smartphone on a flexible arm. It couldn’t get a reasonable human body temperature on either of us.
Last month, when we went to the VA for our vaccines, we were directed to a free-standing electronic pillar where you line up your face just so, and it clicks and spits out a ticket with the reading. Both of our readouts were Walking Dead.
I suppose this temperature-taking is a way to avoid getting sued for negligence. We tried, it says.
These days, at my volunteer hospital assignment, I spend as much of my shift as possible guiding people who don’t know where they’re supposed to go. It’s good exercise for me, and actually seems helpful.
It makes the paid staff happier, too, because the screening goes much more smoothly.