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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Three



 Nevertheless, We/She/He/They Persisted



Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality,

we sensed our own.


-Studs Terkel talking about Billie Holiday

Why does no one take you aside and tell you what is coming?


-David Foster Wallace



It was my mother's 93rd birthday. I was driving up the Merritt Parkway listening to my favorite jazz station and enjoying the turning leaves when my sister called from the emergency room at Norwalk Hospital. After a recent fall, and a hairline fracture in her spine, my mother was in a lot of pain. She had pressed her Lifeline button and allowed the paramedics to take her to the emergency room. They had dosed her with two shots of morphine and released her. Like the leaves, my mother's long and interesting life had turned.

When my stepfather died, we wondered how she would cope. Surprising all of us, she began to live out some of her dreams. Without a man, she was free, free for the first time in her life and living alone, happily, not in Vienna, the city of her birth, but in America where she felt not only free but safe. She liked to be messy and so she was messy. She liked to read into the wee hours and sleep late, so she read and slept late. She ate what she wanted when she wanted. She flirted with an admirer, a physician colleague, who wanted to move in with her. She'd had enough of caretaking and said no to him. She loved her house and wanted to live alone in her house. She was affluent and healthy, had many friends and interests, loved to travel, joined clubs, voted in every election, read the NY Times cover to cover every day, doted on her grandchildren, remained robust.

But not on this day, her 93rdbirthday. When I got to the house, she was in bed. Neither my sister nor I realized how dire was her despair at being immobilized. "Only last week," our sentences began. Now our mother was agitated and hallucinating from the morphine; they had given her too much for her small body. There was no question of going out to a restaurant and a movie to celebrate her birthday, our original plan, and I knew I would have to spend the night. But she recovered and went on to live another six years. If she'd been alive during COVID-19, taken a fall and ended up in the ER, who knows what would have happened. Certainly, she would have been parted from her family, and we would have lost her forever.

Old in America. It has certainly taken on a complicated significance during this pandemic. Old means vulnerable, old means senior hours at the grocery store and mandatory masks, no discussion, and physical distancing, no discussion, and hopefully no emergencies requiring hospitalization. Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas, said he'd be perfectly willing to die, aged 70, if it meant that the young, less at risk Texans, could return to work to get the economy going again. Tracking the surge in Texas this week, and the frontier individualism of its citizens outside the "blue" voting cities such as Austin, Dallas, and Houston, he may get his wish. Except that many young people may also sicken and die, not to mention the state's essential and front line workers, as the virus finds its level.

In many countries, the elderly are revered for their wisdom, and protected from harm by compassionate governments and extended families. They are not shoved into nursing homes to live solitary, attenuated lives, or told by their politicians that they are expendable.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Two


Listening to Dexter Gordon



Jazz to me is a living music. It's a music that since its beginning has expressed the feelings, the dreams and hopes of the people..."


                                         Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)




I've been listening to the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon non-stop since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place began. We have a couple of things in common: his dad, a graduate of Howard Medical School, was a physician, and his mom, Gwendolyn Baker, was the daughter of Captain Edward Baker, one of five African American Medal of Honor recipients in the Spanish American War. Accomplished, educated, upper middle-class parents, one of whom was a doctor; both of my parents were doctors. I wonder if Dexter Gordon's parents were shocked when he decided to become a musician and tried to dissuade him from such an uncertain profession. I know that my parents were skeptical of my ambition to become a writer, until I promised I'd also get a teaching credential.

Gordon was an expat for many years, not in London as I was, but in Copenhagen. Why did he decide to leave America? Racism? Opportunity? Love? Had we ever met, I think we would have had a lively conversation about becoming expats in a Europe enamored and supportive of artists, writers, actors and musicians. Even in lean times, and no matter the party in power, the arts still are subsidized in Europe.

I fell in love with Dexter Gordon's music long before I knew his biography and, in a way, I suppose, the biography is not important now, it's the artistry that's sustained his fans and his reputation. As Dexter Gordon's instrument comes to life, I hear his voice, his signature and his stories. He never fails to inspire me.

I began listening to jazz on the radio when I was in high school. There was an FM station out of New Jersey that played jazz 24-7. Deep into the night, the rest of the household asleep, the radio on the sill by my pillow, I listened and contemplated my emancipation as a young woman. I kept the volume on low, drifted off to sleep to jazz and woke to jazz. I don't remember if there were commercials, or not, or what the call letters of the station were, or why all my friends were listening to Rock & Roll instead of jazz. I liked to dance at parties, of course, but found most of the music boring and predictable. I liked Sam Cooke—his gospel background and sound was close to jazz—but hated Presley, though I knew that Presley and Cooke were friends.

My first boyfriend was a singer and a jazz aficionado, though he wasn't a jazz singer; he sang folk music. I tried to sing with him and even had a short, embarrassing stint as a folk singer myself in a coffee house in Boston, where I also waited tables. But what's most interesting to me now is how universal and lasting jazz is, and probably always will be. Decade after decade, it never fades, it's classic, and continues to speak to us—in times of joy, in times of sorrow, and in times of struggle.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-One

Let's Party



Better to love your country with a broken heart than to love it blind.


Roger Cohen, NY Times 5/22/2020




It was a cool, early summer Sunday and we'd decided to search out a solitary fishing hole, not for me, I don't fish, but I was going along for the fresh air, change of scene, and mountain vista. We were loading the car, masks on, as the cars in the lot are in close proximity and some of our neighbors have started to party, exiting their apartments without masks, blasting video games and music, and drinking lots and lots of beer, the re-cycling bins filled to overflowing. Not everyone living in this apartment complex is young or careless, or young and careless, but the few who are make me nervous. The strict, albeit unenforceable lockdown protocols worked for a while, but now have loosened throughout the town, I'd say, as we entered Phase 2 re-opening this week. For those of us in the "vulnerable" population, it's an even more dangerous time. Not fun at all.


I felt them behind me as I was loading the trunk, my husband already in the car, two unmasked well-dressed athletic bikers on a golden bicycle-built- for-two tandem bike. On a normal Sunday I would have chit-chatted about where they were from, where they were going, and asked what it was like to ride a tandem bike.


They were lost, looking for Ohioville Rd. They were far from Ohioville Rd. and it would require some explanation. I asked them to back away, give me some space, but they were unsteady, falling over, and laughing so hard they couldn't pay attention to physical distancing. I backed away and tightened my mask, but not fast enough, I told my husband later. I was skittish even though I knew that the breeze off the ridge and my mask was protective. It was the attitude that got to me. These were visitors from another world—young people having fun on an early summer Sunday—and it's not my world anymore, and not just because of the generational divide, though that is even more significant these days. The reminder of our vulnerability and their youthful entitlement made me angry and resentful. But I remained polite and gave them very specific directions—out to Main St., hang a right, then straight down Rte. 299.  Then I got parental and told them it was a busy road, they should be careful, and praised them for wearing helmets. So many conflicting emotions in that short encounter. It was a relief to get into the car, our safe isolation chamber, and to drive and drive and drive. We left the town behind, and we left the party behind. Governor Cuomo had already warned us: if the transmission numbers go up, we shut down again. There have already been 25,000 complaints of violations of re-opening protocols, particularly by restaurants. Indeed, with that amount of reported violations, how can re-opening be sustainable until we have a vaccine.


We are giddy with the prospect of restored freedoms. We cannot help ourselves, it is in our nature to move freely, to embrace our loved ones and, in these United States, to continually question authority and renew ourselves with fresh experiences. If we are young and eager and energetic, the containment of freedom must feel painful. Admonitions to protect elders and those with underlying conditions, to even protect one another—the virus can be deadly to young people and children, too—don't work forever, it seems. I'm at a loss about what to do or say to those that challenge the rules in my presence other than: please, give us some space, wear a mask, the pandemic is not over.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty


 Risk vs Reward



Pay attention to what other people are saying, not just with your ears,

but with your heart.

Maxine Hong Kingston, talking to Hua Hsu in The New Yorker, 6/8/2020




My daughter and son-in-law joined a protest in Kingston, NY the other day. Like any over-protective mom—even of full-grown, competent, deep-thinking adults, I might add—I tried to dissuade them. No luck. So off they went with their signs and their masks and their determination to participate in what is, most certainly, a watershed moment in American history. I started to pay attention to their decision, not just with my ears and heart, but with my years of experience as an activist. In truth, I was proud of them, and grateful that they could march and chant for all those who could not march. Risky during COVID, certainly, and not to be underestimated, which is why Governor Cuomo asked that all protesters get tested. (We'll know in a couple of weeks if there has been a spike.) Risky, too, when the military exuberance of the local police force is an unknown. Fortunately, it was a peaceful protest, no tear gas or rubber bullets, no violence.

Images of fists in the air, the black power salute—now adopted by Black Lives Matter—brings back memories. This gesture of resistance has a history that dates to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City when Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the podium to collect their medals. They raised their fists as the "Star Spangled Banner" was played—from beginning to end. "Black America will understand what we did tonight," Tommie Smith said to reporters. But what about the rest of America? Both men received death threats.

I was a student teacher in Oakland, CA assigned to an 11th grade American History class during that violent time in America. English was my major, American History my minor; I wanted to teach both. In this streamed school, I had the "C" stream, the bottom rung of the disaffected, brutalized children of the Oakland ghetto. Half the students in my class were Black Panthers, the other half Black Muslims, a third were on-and-off truants, if those numbers add up. I was a white Jewish girl from New York wearing a brown tailored suit to bolster my courage. My "supervising" teacher abandoned me after the first day because he was annoyed that UC Berkeley would send a person such as myself to teach at Oakland Technical High School. He could hardly look me in the eye when he spoke, and he wasn't eager to speak to me. Maybe he didn't like outspoken Jewish girls from New York, or maybe he didn't want to take responsibility for my demise.

Oddly, I wasn't afraid. The Panthers were revolutionaries, they carried guns and had shoot-outs with the police, but they also worked social welfare beats—food banks, free health clinics, and Black Pride schools. The kids in my class were their kids. I wasn't much more than a kid myself.

I had already faced down danger at Julia Richman High School on the day I was beaten up and learned about race in America. I had survived without rancor or a desire for pay-back. I'd started educating myself since then and joined many protests on the volatile Berkeley campus. I could take anything, I told myself. The civil rights struggle then, as now, was an imperative. We were all in motion, evolving. I wasn't a revolutionary, but I was dedicated to change, raising awareness, and shredding injustice.

And, so, I opened my heart to that class, waking at 4 a.m. to prep, and making decisions on my own about curriculum. I threw out the textbooks and asked the students to create their own timeline of American history based on their family's lived experience—in the south, in the north, in Oakland. What they didn't know, I assigned as research, aka homework. I taught them how to interview their elders, told them they were reporters, witnesses. They were perplexed at first, but eventually they understood. They came back with tough and heroic stories that challenged the mythology of the accepted American story at that time.

I moved the desks into a circle, seminar style. Students walking the halls peered in and stood in the doorway, a few entered and sat down and listened. They might have been truants, I didn't care. Looking back, I can't believe I did this, had the strength to do it, and that I never felt threatened. I finished up the term, gave out good grades to everyone who had stuck with it, finished up my classes on campus, and was rewarded with a California State Teaching License-Secondary "for Life," with the seal of the State of California at the bottom.

Risk and reward. It's like a dance, a push pull. If we don't take risks, our emotions contract and atrophy. The young men and women at Oakland Technical High School—I'll never forget them. My heart swells at the thought of them. We made progress together. We trusted each other.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Nineteen

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020



My Mother's Lambskin Coat



There's trouble on the mountain

The valley's full of smoke

There's crying on the mountain

And again the same heart broke


-Johnny Cash



Slavery casts a long shadow across our lives.


"Tears We Cannot Stop; A Sermon to White America"  


-Michael Eric Dyson




I passed a sheep farm on my walk this morning. Two lambs were outside the fence scratching to get back in, their mothers and siblings bleating and desperate, though that's a human word. There were no humans in sight. I walked further along and hollered to some kids riding their bikes on a driveway, then spoke to their dad who came bolting out of the house with his mask on. He said he'd call the owner right away, then ended up driving past me to the owner's house because he couldn't get him on the phone, then stopped on his way back and we said goodbye. All of which is to say: it felt good to rescue these lambs even though I'm aware they are possibly being raised for slaughter, not just for their wool, and it felt good to slip the mask down to my neck to talk to another human being, a neighbor, and to be able to thank him at a distance. If life isn't exactly normal, we are at least enjoying some micro-connections now, out of doors and at a distance.


But it's been a hard week and as I got closer to the sheep and their lambs I remembered my mother's lambskin coat. Why did she buy this coat? What did it signify if not a refugee's "arrival," newfound privilege, warmth and safety, status. And though I had my personal struggles as a child of divorce, and a child of the Holocaust, my childhood was mostly privileged, and it was white. I would not collapse on the church steps in the summer, homeless and hungry, this would not have been my fate.


It seems as though many friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances are making politically correct confessions these days, and I have resisted making mine, but the memories have come tumbling as the fires burn, so I decided to write a blog post about them after all. I remember that coat and I remember my friend Rochelle, whose mother took a risk and sent her to elementary school below the interface, the invisible line that separated Harlem from White New York. Somehow she'd gotten special out of zone permission for her beloved daughter. And my mother knew Rochelle's mother, maybe from the Planned Parenthood clinic where they both worked—my mother a doctor, Rochelle's mother a nurse, and somehow Rochelle became the only black child in my elementary school. What did that feel like? How did she navigate being just one?


I knew nothing of de facto segregation, or the struggles of Rochelle's middle-class, educated family in a de facto segregated city, or the despair of the underclass, or that most of the underclass at the time was black. But it does make a difference, a real difference, when children go to integrated schools and make all kinds of friends, and play with each other and love one another. We know this from many reputable studies. And it made a difference to me, and still does. I've remembered Rochelle all these years, and why it was best not to ask why she could visit me, but I could not visit her on the other side of the interface.


My family moved to the East Side to get away from the Puerto Rican migration which in itself is a story of privilege. My mother's had an office in our home and her white, privileged patients refused to walk the side streets to West End Avenue as they could not by-pass these immigrants who were boisterous, gregarious, chattering away in Spanish, sitting on their front stoops, the "strange" odors of their kitchens cascading onto the street in the warm weather. And on the East Side, I was placed in a segregated section of a public Junior High School called "special progress," SP for short. 7SP and 9SP; there was no 8th grade, we skipped the 8th grade. How did this happen and why? Where were the darker-skinned children?


We met them in the lunch room, we met them at recess, we watched as they boarded buses to be taken further uptown, and we went home to our well-appointed apartments in White New York. This was called "busing." Us and them.


High School was even worse. My parents didn't understand the "system," and they didn't have money to send me to private school, so I went to Julia Richman High School, was placed in a segregated "Country School," and was beaten badly by a group of black girls in the gym locker room. And though I was terrified, or perhaps because I was terrified, I refused to point them out to the powers that be and told my parents to let it all go, just to let it go. Within months, they got me a scholarship and moved me to a private school where I was out of place and disheartened in ways I could not, as yet, understand. It wasn't the suburbs, but it was white flight nonetheless. And it was there, in a Social Science seminar, that I learned that something significant had happened that would shape me and my life's work. I was imprinted with outrage, not at the girls who had deliberately targeted and hurt me, but at the legacy of one of America's two original sins: the genocide of the Indigenous People and the slower-moving genocide of enslavement, Jim Crow, lynchings, chain gangs, mass incarceration.


Years later, we chose a private school for our daughter—Manhattan Country School—that was founded by people who had worked with Martin Luther King Jr. It had a sliding scale of tuition and a deliberate, carefully architected policy of ethnic/racial quotas. A documentary filmmaker dubbed it "The Little Utopia," which was sustainable within its walls, and at least for the time that our daughter was there. But by 8th grade, when she entered public school, it was all over. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, a terrific school in many ways, was disappointingly socially self-segregated. Still, I suppose we have to be grateful that talented kids from all over the city—rich and poor, black, white and brown--passed the audition and got to go there, and make their art together in the studios, and celebrated their achievements together, and then graduated together.


And I remember our daughter's African American boyfriend whose father worked for the court system. He arranged for him to carry a badge in his wallet as protection. But how would this protect him if he got stopped? Our daughter traveled with him everywhere and then lived with him in an apartment in our building. I was on the board at the time and received a phone call that a strange black man was in the laundry room. Sound familiar?


And there are more memories, but I will stop there, and conclude with this thought: the toxic weed of racism must be pulled out at its roots, and muscular models of restorative justice energized, if our democracy is to rebound and flourish.




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