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Why Writing is Like Cooking a Turkey

 I was listening to The NY Times Daily podcast about the stress we all feel when we decide to host Thanksgiving, when someone mentioned slathering the turkey with mayonnaise before putting it in the oven at a slow-cook 325 degrees.  So, that's what I did this Thanksgiving, to my credit, I have decided. Isn't it always risky to try something new in the kitchen for a person who does not consider herself a cook, or like to cook? I thought it was brave to prepare the Big Bird off-grid, so to speak, and to trust that the NY Times cooking team knows of what they speak. My husband argued for the trusty foil tent, but I dissuaded him. "Just mayonnaise," I said.

 

Because turkeys are an impossible Big Bird to get absolutely right—dark meat, light meat—it's best to surrender to imperfection, apparently. Well, I'd never heard this before, but I liked it very much; it took the pressure off. Usually, polite, grateful guests ooh and aah at the absolute perfection of the turkey. "The turkey's perfect," they say, which is only sometimes true and everyone knows it. I think guests are grateful that someone else is hosting the Thanksgiving extravaganza and/or they don't want to insult the host and/or they love the host very much.

 

8 a.m., the mayonnaise jar on the counter, and I was painting the skin of the 13-pounder with a basting brush. It was wonderfully relaxing. After shifting the turkey into the oven, I did not look at it again until more than three-hours later. I picked up my Canadian cousin up from the station and we sat and chatted over cups of tea until the other guests arrived. All the last-minute brouhaha was yet to come, the stress of getting everything onto the table at once, but I pushed that anticipatory anxiety aside.

 

Full disclosure, I'm old enough to remember writing on a typewriter, and fortunate enough not to be intimidated by the blank page, nor am I a perfectionist by nature. But I know many professional writers who are, and before computers wastepaper baskets in newsrooms across the world, and writing dens across the world, were filled with crumpled up discarded pages. My husband could never get started until he worked his way past the first paragraph into the body of the article. When the computer arrived, it was a blessing, he said. Who knows anymore when a first draft ends and revision begins? But he still labors more than I do, worrying every word and sentence. And, no surprise, he follows recipes meticulously without improvisation.

 

Perhaps it's a matter of temperament or personality. The turkey we cook will turn out okay, or not okay, and the end result is not what is important, not entirely anyway. I've done my best, worked hard, made an offering to family and friends. They will forgive a bit of white meat dryness. What's done is done or over-done, unlike writing, which we can play with and revise ad infinitum.

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 97

Time Can Be Wiser Than Our Own Intentions

 

He wasn't sure what to do. If he left the rock, it would only take a few minutes of desert air to dry his pool, and then all that would remain of him would be a small crucible of brown powder, a powder the wind would find and scatter.

 

-Scott Anderson, "Triage"

 

 

Ten days and my husband is out of isolation, testing negative, and I am out of quarantine, still testing negative. Three friends in my hood have been sick, and are better. Forget contact tracing, no point. And though the news about the boosters is not good, it is not bad either: I escaped this round entirely—having had Covid last January—and we are not in the hospital, and we are not dead, and neither are most of my family or friends. Yet, lest I forget, the partner of a friend died. A dear friend of my daughter and son-in-law died. Is that a good score?  Are we keeping score to make ourselves feel better as we crawl out of our foxholes?  Are we afflicted with foxhole syndrome: the guy in the foxhole is dead, shot through the head, but I'm okay, I'm alive.

 

Plus, let's be thankful for Paxlovid. My husband thanks you, certainly. And though the vaccines and boosters we have so far are working well enough, let us hope that the new Congress will not be so hopelessly gridlocked that they refuse to release money to develop a different preventive vaccine and/or nasal sprays. Note: Biden's visit to China. Make a list of what you imagine they talked about other than Taiwan and Ukraine. On the top of mine would be: continuing economic cooperation.

 

But what I want to return to today visa vie this Virus Without Borders document is not the US v. China; it's triage. Triage is a wall I hit every time I talk to someone about Covid protocols before a social interaction. So, what are your Covid protocols? I ask before such an interaction. The answers are varied: There are those who clearly state their intention of extra care and testing before Turkey Day, for example, and others who state categorically that they are moving around unmasked  and if they get Covid, it will surely be mild, more like a cold, therefore no protocols.

 

Answers have become predictable: they divide demographically. The vulnerable elders in the population are cautious, the youngsters, not just casual, but fatalistic without much concern for exposing those who are more vulnerable. This has been true for a while, I know, and I'm not sure what it ultimately signifies or portends. All I am sure of is that it seems an apt metaphor for America's entitled disregard of its aging and vulnerable populations.

 

I have no solution and I have no words of Thanksgiving, either, other than I hope yours is a healthy and joyous one, free of Covid. I'll sing Hallelujah when I can take down the His and Hers mask hooks by the door, and when a new vaccine is developed.

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International Education

International Students @ SUNY New Paltz with two of their ESL instructors, Aiko Pletch, on the right, and James Phillips, kneeling. Beth Vargas, the Executive Director of the program, is third from right in the back row. Photo ©copyright Carol Bergman 2022

 

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

 

- Mark Twain, "The Innocents Abroad" 

 

 

You must be the change you want to see in the world.

 

-Mahatma Gandhi

 

 

 

 

Beth Vargas, the Executive Director of the Center for International Programs at SUNY New Paltz, was on her way to JFK to pick up some of the 80 new international students arriving from all over the world for the fall semester when she answered her cell phone. Like all the other directors of international programs at the Mid-Hudson Valley colleges I talked to for this blog post—Bard, Vassar, Marist and SUNY—she was excited, more than excited, she was thrilled. Her happiness exploded out of her phone. Overseas students are returning, if not in record numbers, at least they are returning. And American students are studying abroad again also. As a child of refugees, a journalist, and an educator who lived and worked abroad for a decade, I am thrilled, too. I know what it means to have the opportunity to see our own countries from afar, to assess its glories and fault lines with humility, and to engage in conversation and form friendships with people from all over the world.

 

According to Pew Research Center, the national Covid  2020-2021 academic year fall-off of overseas students was about 15%. Many were stuck here, unable to return home during the worst of the pandemic. The directors, without exception, continuously monitor conflicts, natural disasters, and opportunities for humanitarian assistance to their students and their families once they are here. Pandemic lockdown was no exception. The college becomes in loco parentis, deeply engaged in the well-being and future of their students. "We're a collegial bunch," says Jennifer Murray,  Dean of International Studies at Bard College. "We talk to each other all the time, and help each other if there is, for example, an immigration problem with a particular student." Beth Vargas at SUNY New Paltz contacted one of the school's donors, a retired teacher, who agreed to use some  scholarship funding to sustain the stranded students. Without any domestic students on campus, those that  had part-time jobs had no income.

 

In 2021, a third of international students in the US were from China. Whether their presence in such numbers will continue uninterrupted is questionable, given the tensions between China and the US, but SUNY New Paltz still has a double diploma bilingual program going with a teacher training university in Chong Qing. It began when China ended its one-child policy and the government realized they'd need more teachers. There are now about 30 Chinese students on the New Paltz campus, most of them living in dorms, and doing well. 

 

Bard College is hosting 37 displaced Afghan undergraduates this term, all evacuated from Kabul, and has committed to providing a full package to each student, including tuition (which is being waived) room & board, books, and a stipend. Thirty-seven more will arrive from the American University in Iraq where they have been studying since their evacuation from Kabul. The Afghans have the benefit of a P1 visa intended for students whose families worked or were associated with the American government. That enables them to work and eases them into permanent residency, if they wish it. Sixty students from Ukraine will also be arriving soon on the Bard campus, all on full scholarship.

 

Despite the transnational world we live in, a globalized economy, too many war zones, and a climate-struggling planet, borders are still difficult, if not impossible, to cross. Getting to the US for the average overseas student, not on humanitarian parole like the Afghan or  Ukrainian students, can be challenging. Requirements include: an interview at a local consulate, proof of ties to the home country, and proof of funds for support and tuition. And though questions must be answered under oath, there has been some fraud, though it is rare, which puts the student at risk of deportation.

 

Students on the more common F1 visa can only work on campus in low-paying jobs, and often don't have enough funds to sustain themselves. This story began when I recently discovered an overseas student living out of her car, which all the directors found shocking. All wanted to know who the student was, where s/he was going to school, and if they could help. Like American students, self-support while studying is difficult even with some available funding from home.

 

It is possible, however, to apply for "special situation" permission to work off campus with an F1 visa during the first two semesters, but the overseas student has to ask for it, which might cause personal and/or cultural discomfort.

 

After graduation, international students can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to work in their field of study for one year or longer, if they are in a STEM field.  (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)

 

When asked why it is important to have a student abroad program, and overseas students studying here, the directors' answers were almost identical: cross-cultural enrichment, international understanding, and world peace. 

 

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And Where Did the Slaves Live?

The memorial bench by Craig Shankles on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. Like other towns and cities in the United States, New Paltz continues to deepen a discussion of its history and its monuments. A Black Cultural Center was recently inaugurated. 

 

Making life as hard as possible for free African Americans, impairing their movement and economic prospects—even if that meant the state would forgo the economic benefits of talented people who wanted to work—was designed to prove that Blacks could not operate outside of slavery.

 

― Annette Gordon-Reed, "On Juneteenth"

 

 

I was walking with a friend on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY when we came across a "For Sale" sign on the front lawn of one of the 18th century stone houses.

 

"How'd you like to live here?"  someone said behind the stone wall that divides the property from the street.

 

It was a guy wearing a baseball cap eager to get into conversation. My friend used to be a docent on this historic street and, as it happens, is married to a descendant of one of the thirteen French Huguenot families who settled here, displacing the Munsee Lenape natives, enslaving them, sickening them, or fighting with them. Like the Dutch and English before them, the French Huguenots enslaved Black labor to work in their houses and on the land. An African American burial ground, probably no more than a pit, sits nearby the house for sale, owned by the Huguenot Hasbrouck family. It went up for sale last June for more than a $1,000,000. In  an Albany Times Union article announcing the sale, there is no mention of slavery.

 

I stood back, curious how the conversation would unfold. I did not want to insert my opinions into the conversation. It was a Sunday, we were on a leisurely walk, trying to relax, and my friend is married to a Huguenot descendant, so it's tricky, though it shouldn't be.

 

The guy selling the house said he'd lived there for fifty-five years and he loved history so he was eager to find a buyer who also loved history. That got me to thinking about ethical obligations. What would I do if I'd lived in this house for fifty-five years, was a descendant of the enslaving settler family, and wanted or needed to sell it? Would I be concerned that if I mentioned the slave cellar, now a rec room, the value of the house would decrease? How would I proceed? 

 

A week or so later I went to an event sponsored by the local library's "inclusivity and diversity" committee. The library—the Elting Memorial Library—was built by a slave-owning Huguenot family. After the Civil War, Peter Elting had loaned money to a small Black community living on Pencil Hill Road. Emancipated, entrepreneurial, in search of work, they had built homes and also wanted their own church as the United Methodist Church in town was  segregated. Unable to repay the Elting loan, which was never forgiven, the community eventually disbanded and left New Paltz for Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Kingston, and points unknown. Their departure, probably by the turn of the 20th century at the latest, only begins to answer the question: Why are there no descendants of the slaves left in New Paltz? And why are there so few Black people living here today?  Is there any evidence of Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, Racial Covenants in land deeds, segregated schools, indentured servitude, rape, or lynching? Is the rumor of a terrorist fire-bombing of the Pencil Hill Road AME Zion church reported in a recent Kingston Daily Freeman article true? How do we approach these lacunas and myths in local history today? How do we shift and amplify the narrative? What is our responsibility as citizens and neighbors?  How do we move forward? What kind of a town and nation do we want to live in?

 

Soon after I arrived in New Paltz, NY, in the spring of 2018, I heard about a upheaval on the SUNY campus. Why were the Black students so upset about the names of Huguenot families on their dormitory complexes? What was going on? A lot. After a whole year of testimony, the dormitories were renamed, the beginnings of  reconciliation and reparation. Then the pandemic hit and the process of re-constituting the narrative history of New Paltz slowed. Nonetheless, various re-interpretation projects proceeded at Historic Huguenot Street, in the Village by the Historic Preservation Commission, and with the tenacious work of Town Historian, Susan Stessin-Cohn, who had, among other finds, unearthed a Poor House under the Ulster County Fair Grounds; she commissioned a statue to memorialize it. Who was living in that Poor House I wonder?

 

Hopefully, the library and Historic Huguenot Street itself will eventually honor the slave labor which contributed to the construction and wealth of the town with an acknowledgment before each program similar to a Land Acknowledgment:

 

It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that we in the town of New Paltz and environs are learning, speaking and gathering on the land and in the houses built with the help of kidnapped enslaved labor. We pay honor and respect to the slaves who labored here and their descendants and we are committed to building a more inclusive and equitable space for all.

 

I mentioned this idea to my friend, who quickly had his own "reparation" idea:  What if his family's educational fund was offered to descendants of New Paltz slaves—if they can be found?  That suggestion warmed my heart.

 

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They Don't Want to Govern, They Want to Rule

Once again, I cannot resist this extraordinary image of the desecrated American flag ©copyright Peggy Weis 2001.

 

 

Tang was baffled that foreigners might imagine that people of his generation were somehow unwise to the distortions of censorship. "Because we are in such a system, we are always asking ourselves whether we are brainwashed," he said. "We are always eager to get other information from different channels…but when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed."

 

-Tang Jie to Evan Osnos as quoted in his 2014 book about China, "Age of Ambition"

 

 

Before Covid, before Ukraine, before Trump, I had  Chinese students in my classroom at NYU. I miss their earnest effort to fit in, complete assignments in a new, challenging language, their fear of electronic surveillance on email submissions, and of one another. They always arrived in twos. No matter how much I assured them that the workshop was a safe space, they rarely felt totally comfortable. Nonetheless, I was pleased to have them in my classroom. Mostly, they were children of government officials or wealthy businessmen and women. Much as I wanted to keep track of them when they returned home, I lost track of all of them. They disappeared into that vast, fascinating country without so much as a goodbye whisper.

 

I believe with all my heart that we need to maintain an open communication with China and its upcoming generation. The reasons are obvious: an ancient civilization, China continues to become an economic and political world power. There isn't a corner of the world where their presence is not felt; their workers are everywhere, as is their influence. Understanding the importance of a global lingua franca, everyone in China studies English, everyone is aware of the power of the internet, of education, of buying and selling power, even of the art market, of world peace. Indeed, it is my firm hope and belief that they will be instrumental in ending the war in Ukraine. Note: the visit to China this week by the German foreign minister. I am certain it was not just about vaccines. Back channels keep the diplomats talking.

 

A friend from UC Berkeley, who traveled to China often before Trump to teach in Shanghai, fell in love with her students. They are not rote learners, as she had feared, but original thinkers, deep thinkers. They have learned how to survive in a system that straps them down, which takes courage, discipline and determination. The Chinese students I have known never took whatever freedoms and opportunities they had for granted. They worked hard, unsparingly hard. Evan Osnos was stunned by their ability to resist their government's efforts at control through propaganda emanating from an office building in central Beijing he dubbed "The Department." Its' propaganda brief is similar to many totalitarian regimes, past and present, and—let us not be righteous--to  Madison Avenue's manipulations. We are faced now with a population that swoons at the bombardments of fake news on cable and social media. What is this if not propaganda? The resistance to this barrage seems minimal; it's like a drug to an unthinking, poorly educated mob addicted to their own ignorance. Violence and mob rule are the natural outcome of such ignorance. We should not be surprised.

 

And now, in this election week, as we listen—or  try to shut out—the nonsense spouted by the right-wing white supremacist fascistic American politicians, repeating themselves ad nauseum, moving from one subject to another opportunistically, or according to the dictates of their spin doctors, we have to ask ourselves, do they really want to govern, or do they want to rule? And if the answer is the latter, what is next for all of us, and how shall we live happily ever after?


 

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Lady Liberty is a Woman of Color

Making life as hard as possible for free African Americans, impairing their movement and economic prospects—even if that meant the state would forgo the economic benefits of talented people who wanted to work—was designed to prove that Blacks could not operate outside of slavery."

 

― Annette Gordon-Reed, "On Juneteenth"

 

 

Not only a woman of color, but a woman of many colors, mostly—or entirely—verdigris green at the moment, and forevermore, most probably. She arrived in New York Harbor from France  on June 17, 1885, just two decades after the end of the Civil War. Little did she know, from her optimistic vantage in the bay overlooking the first European settlements on the Lenape  Manahatta Island,  that we'd still be fighting that war today. What is she thinking of us as we enter this fraught election season?

 

She was bright brown copper when she was assembled on Liberty Island, intended to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution, "Liberty Enlightening the World."  How low we have fallen from those heady enlightenment days. Just for starters, the barbarity of the war in Ukraine is medieval, a primitive barbarity not that distant from a cave dweller ripping bone from the flesh of a boar.

 

It's difficult to imagine the sensation of relief and promise my family felt when they landed here as refugees and went through the humiliating rigamarole on Ellis Island before being admitted to what they considered a land of promise, peace, opportunity and plenty.  Escape from genocidal barbarity to freedom and light. That is how they must have experienced it, I've always said to myself. But this is not exactly what it was for them, at first. They were ragged, desperate, poor, frightened, distraught about the fate of family left behind. They had to learn English, find a place to live, study.  My stepfather, a  well-known lawyer in Vienna,  had to get a job in a factory to support medical care for his terminally ill wife. He never lawyered again. My mother and father were sent to Wyoming by the refugee agency. She worked as a nurse, and he worked as a "ghost doctor" in a hospital where he shared his ophthalmic surgical knowledge with the local staff. Eventually,  they migrated back to New York.

 

The population of New York City was diverse and it was segregated by race and class, which must have been difficult to decipher. Class they understood well from Vienna, a status conscious culture, a person's German accent inflected with high class or low class origins, as English is in Britain.  How would they rise to the status they expected of themselves in New York?  They'd been persecuted as Jews, but when they arrived in America, they were, suddenly, completely privileged. Yes, there was anti-Semitism, quotas at universities, a myriad of discriminatory policies, but they were, at least, undeniably White. That gave them an advantage they did not expect. They made the most of it. By the time my sister and I arrived we had Black maids in the house. And, of course, they were always "treated well," "respected," "part of the family,"  addressed only by their first names,  and the grateful recipients of hand-me-down clothes. When I was beaten up by a gang of Black girls in the public High School gym locker room, my parents knew the deal; it was time to send me to a nearly all-White private school, where I would be safe and assured of a fungible college degree, and a step-up onto the affluence train.

 

Now I live in a town in upstate New York, where slaves were owned by the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers and the extant stone houses were built by the settlers and the enslaved population in tandem, laboring side by side, owner and slave.  So why does this town have only a miniscule—mostly  transplanted—Black population, and no evident slave-descendant population, though descendants of the settlers are embedded in the culture, geography and real estate of the town?  Obviously, Lady Liberty was taking a nap while post-emancipation, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow and domestic terrorism raged.  She's finally awakened from her slumber and telling us it's time to vote. It's the very least we can do.

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A Writer Long Admired

photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2022

 

 

I can do pretty good work in various short forms, but anything over 1400 words, I'd be of no use. I like to say I'm a river navigator. I need to see the shore behind the shore.

 

-Peter Schjeldahl

1942-2022

R.I.P.

 

 

When a writer friend mentioned that he'd met Peter Schjeldahl (pronounced  SHELL-dohl) at a party in Brooklyn, I was deeply envious. I had been writing about my father's Egon Schiele art collection, not just about the art, but so much more—life itself, family, how a writer translates what s/he sees into words. I didn't necessarily want to ask Peter Schjeldahl how to do it, I just wanted to be in the presence of a writer who thought of himself as an art lover more than an art critic. Maybe if we shared a physical space for a few moments, some of his skill would rub into me. I wondered if he used interesting, literary words in his spoken conversation. His columns often sent me to a dictionary, which I enjoyed.  

 

He wrote for Art in America, 7 Days, The Village Voice and, finally, The New Yorker. Scanning the table of contents of The New Yorker when it arrived, I'd be disappointed if his byline wasn't there. When the magazine re-ran his eloquent piece about dying from lung cancer this week, I knew he was near the end:  

 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/23/the-art-of-dying

 

The obituary in The New York Times revealed yet more about him: He wrote poetry before he wrote prose; he went to Carleton College, he considered himself a "miniaturist," writing pieces of a certain length, never anything book-length other than collected essays; he never knew what he was going to say about the art before he began to write. In the writing is the discovery, an artistic act in itself, and Peter Schjeldahl was an artist.

 

 

 

 

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Checking in on Peter Zalmayev in Kyiv

Peter Zalmayev sitting outside on a peaceful street over the summer. He took this screenshot as we were talking, music playing in the background. © photo copyright Peter Zalmayev 2022 with permission.

 

This is how my July 7 interview for HV1 with broadcaster Peter Zalmayev began:

 

9 a.m. EST, Thursday, July 7. Well known Ukrainian broadcaster, Peter Zalmayev, is talking to me on Zoom from a table outside the Sto Rokiv Tomu Vpered Café (translation: 100 Years in the Future) on Volodymyrska Street in Central Kyiv. He's sitting outside, it's summer, jazz is cascading out of the café, and scooters are parked on the curb. "In an ironic way there isn't a better place to be right now than Kyiv," he says.

 

Since then, I've been following Peter on Facebook, or he sends me texts on messenger with links to his latest interviews. Most are in Ukrainian or Russian. (He is tri-lingual.)  This week he did two interviews in English, one for the BBC World Service, and one for French television. So, he's alive, he's still broadcasting. Thank goodness. But the peaceful hiatus is over.

 

Always, an interviewer must ask, "How are you? How is your family?" Peter is living in a war zone and talking to him is not about ratings. Everyone who has interviewed him knows this, and respects it. He evacuated his family when the war started, brought them back over the summer, and has evacuated them again. His children used the playground in central Kyiv that was hit by a rocket and now has a huge crater. No one was hurt or killed in that particular location, at least. 

 

When asked directly about his family, Peter's reply is, "They are elsewhere." He is broadcasting again from a bunker, wearing what looks like a winter jacket and a baseball hat. It's cold down there as it will be throughout Ukraine this upcoming winter, cold in the metaphoric sense, too, without the end of war in sight.

 

It's difficult for those working and/or simply hoping every day for world peace and disarmament to think about more weapons and more lethal weapons for Ukraine, about the training of thousands of civilians to fight and kill, and the ever present threat of a nuclear cataclysm. But it's obvious, from where I sit, as a child of refugees from genocide, that Putin's war against Ukraine is a genocidal war—as it was against Chechnya—and  that he must be stopped, somehow. It took too long to stop Hitler, the genocide in Rwanda, Assad in Syria, to name just two other atrocities. Put your finger on the map of the world blindfolded and you will find continuing global escalations of cruelty and violence and war on every continent, including our own. Then stop and take a walk into a meadow or a forest. Talk to the cows, the porcupines, the chickens, the owls, the bees. All these creatures, and then some, are wiser than us.

 

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What We Save, What We Throw Away

 

What We Save, What We Throw Away

 

 

There's a story, maybe apocryphal, that back in its 1920s heyday the manager of The Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street in New York City offered struggling writers discounts on lunch and was the only hotel in the city to allow women to stay there alone. Even in my more recent personal heyday, the management of the hotel welcomed writers and book lovers into the plush, comfortable lobby to sit and talk without disturbance other than the occasional visitation from one of the friendly wait staff hustling drinks or items from the too-expensive menu, which I always declined with ease, no pressure. Ease, in fact, is the word I most associate with The Algonquin lobby. In its history, embedded in every dark oak wood panel, the extant Round Table at the back, and a Hirschfeld mural of the Round Table revelers on the wall behind it, was the promise of success, if not notoriety.

 

The hotel, opened in 1902, its exterior landmarked in 1987—not its interior, alas—has been sold and resold several times, renovated several times, but always in the spirit of the original lobby with its famous round table, carpeting, oak paneling, and soft lighting. I went there often before I moved upstate in 2018, to meet colleagues and friends, or to sit and read if I was early for a mid-town appointment, or before I taught an NYU class in an art deco building on 42nd Street overlooking the New York Public Library.  

 

Last week, I went back for the first time since the pandemic began. Like so much else since Covid, the once familiar space felt alien, as though it was floating in another dimension. I was with my cousin, Karin, who needed to use the facilities before heading back uptown to Washington Heights, and as soon as we entered, I was greeted by four wait-staff from Bangladesh who have been working for the hotel for at least as long as I have been going there. They laughed and laughed, as happy to see me as I was to see them. We had all survived Covid thus far, and the fact that they were still working under new management was a miracle. I hadn't yet looked around the lobby, so focused was I on the celebratory greetings.

 

Karin sat on a low chair to rest before heading uptown, and a text came in from my friend, MacKay, to say he was a block away. I still hadn't noticed the new décor. At what moment I saw it, actually took it in, I cannot say. Maybe MacKay noticed it first. As soon as Karin left, we perused the changes: the floor stripped down to concrete, the plush couches, chairs and small tables replaced with plastic couches, chairs and tables, and when I asked about the big roundtable itself, I was escorted to the back where there was a small child-sized replica. And that was it. The Algonquin Round-Table was gone. So, too, the warm oak wood paneling which has been painted over in white.

 

Marriott is the newest owner of the hotel, which is now part of their "autograph collection," an ironic title I'd say, as they have expunged the literary history of the hotel, no writers I could see, except for myself, were there ready and willing to sign an autograph in the flyleaf of a recently published book. Contemporary reports of the lobby's gutting and $4.5 million renovation suggest various "artifacts," such as real books by famous Round-Table writers, placed on shelving somewhere, but there was no there there that I could see.

 

It seems that Sara Duffy of the design firm Stonehill Taylor is responsible for this historic lobby's desecration. In an April 5, 2022 article in Interior Design by Stephen Treffinger, she says, "We took all these ideas and looked at them in subtle ways, never kitschy." She mentions the obliteration of the oak paneling with white paint casually, perhaps with pride, I'm not sure. Apparently she's an established designer with a secure reputation and a lot of high-paying corporate clients. Corporate "hostile" takeover? That explains it.

 

Despite this unexpected disappointment, MacKay and I sat down to chat and share a pot of chamomile tea, and that was all we had. Insult to injury, the bill came in at $25.

 

 

 

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They Changed the Locks

© Peggy Weis, "The Devil's Inferno."  Since 9/11 artists and writers have re-imagined the American flag.

 

A liar has many points to his favour,—but he has this against him, that unless he devote more time to the management of his lies than life will generally allow, he cannot make them tally.

― Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (1875)`

 

When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak."

― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941)

 

My historian husband reassures me that left wing-right wing surges are cyclical, and that Planet Earth and the Universe, now protected by NASA from asteroid collision, will right itself. But in the 20-odd days I have not written a regular blog post, at least two fascist leaning leaders (small or capital F, your choice) have ascended to the Parliaments of Sweden and Italy respectively, and Masha Amini was  killed by the "morality" police in Iran. What the American Senate looks and feels like to me, a child of refugees from fascism is, in some ways, much worse: it is a clear and present danger to the fabric of American life which so many in emerging democracies or autocratic tyrannies still regard as their beacon of hope. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale vision is no longer a vision, it's a reality in America. Our Supreme Court is our morality police. How many women will die as a consequence of their rulings?

 

So. let me proceed with the thought expressed in the title of this post: It feels as though I've been on vacation, had a wonderful time, and returned to find strangers in the house and the locks changed. Is that too dramatic? I don't think so. Were we not paying attention? Were our expectations of peace and prosperity and personal freedom delusional? Are these rhetorical questions?

 

Years ago, when I was in college, my not yet husband worked for AP at the Republican Convention in San Francisco. It was before digital photography and he was tasked with running film back to the main office. At the photographer's side, he mingled with all the politicians, including Richard Nixon. All he can remember from that encounter was Nixon's make-up, more than any other politician facing the cameras that day. What was Nixon hiding under all that make-up? A lot, as it turns out.

 

Who goes into American politics these days anyway? Good people, ambitious people, smart people. Many want to "serve their country." Up here in Ulster County we have a new Congressman, Pat Ryan, two tours in Iraq, he was an excellent Ulster County Executive. I interviewed him for the local paper, HV1, in the presence of his campaign manager, which troubled me, not the interview, just the attempt to control the flow of information, as I have written here before. Ryan withstood the scrutiny and I was more than pleased he won. But watching him introduce legislation this week to guarantee medical abortion pills through the mail, I cheered him, but also felt dismayed; he didn't sound authentic, he sounded scripted, even more scripted than on the day I had interviewed him. As a citizen and a writer, I protest at the celebrity packaging of our honest, well- meaning, albeit ambitious politicians. I want them to feel real to me.  

 

This post is dedicated to Masha Amini, the brave people of Iran, and the Ukrainians, all of whom are fighting to the death for their freedoms.

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