Journal of the Plague Year 2020: The Mysticism of Nature and the Agony of Life

I ended last week by reading Heather Ann Thompson’s account of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, Blood on the Water. If you’re puzzled by this week’s riots, her book is an excellent primer on racial violence and injustice in America. Aside from the obvious reasons, I was reading it to understand the roles played by outside observers — trusted journalists and lawyers, some of them white, who tried to negotiate a peaceful solution, and who became firsthand witnesses to a chilling orgy of state violence.

The pandemic has offered plenty of reminders of inequality. Prisoners and corrections officers alike have complained of crowded conditions, lack of running water, soap, hand sanitizer and protective gear. The virus has ripped through meat-packing plants, known for their hazardous working conditions, and for hiring and brutalizing poor and undocumented workers. New infections in New York City are concentrated in Black, Latino and immigrant communities; even in rural areas, African-Americans have made up a disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths. Front-line workers are often ill-paid, and are often women, minorities and immigrants. So we ended last week at a tipping point, where it was becoming clear that we may not all be in this together — that the drive to reopen will allow some people to eat out and get haircuts, and others to die needlessly.

The new week began with another outrageous incident of police brutality captured on video. A white woman in New York helped out by trying to use her race as a weapon against a black birdwatcher in Central Park. Riots broke out in Minneapolis, the city of my birth, and spread across the country. Somewhere in there, the radical AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer died.

I’ve been gripped by anguish and horror, not because this is unimaginable and strange, but because it’s familiar.

I read Larry Kramer’s collected essays in 1986 or so, when I was freshly graduated from high school and working for a daily student newspaper. Back in 1983 he wrote wrote about seeing hundreds of deaths around him, and watching as the government response ranged from feeble excuses to outright contempt and hatred. In “1,112 and Counting,” he wrote:

I am sick of ‘men’ who say, ‘We’ve got to keep quiet or they will do such and such.’ They usually means the straight majority, the ‘Moral’ Majority… Okay, you ‘men,’ — be my guests: You can march off now to the gas chambers. Just get right in line.

We shall always have enemies. Nothing we can ever do will remove them. Southern newspapers and Jerry Falwell’s publications  are already printing editorials proclaiming AIDS as God’s deserved punishment on homosexuals. So what? Nasty words make poor little sissy pansy wilt and die?

I don’t want to die. I can only assume you don’t want to die. Can we fight together?

Partly because of Larry Kramer’s work, I spent the next several years interviewing local AIDS activists, publishing candid safe-sex guides for a college audience, and writing my own barn-burning editorials.

It was partly Larry Kramer, but it was also a coworker. At 17, I was the youngest reporter on a surprisingly educated and worldly Arts desk. The visual arts reviewer was older, a New Yorker, and openly gay in the manner of 1986. Jeffrey seemed much older and tremendously worldly, but he was probably in his late 20s. I admired his writing, his style, and his insouciant manner. It took balls to be out in 1986, and Jeffrey had balls to spare.

During my sophomore year, Jeffry moved to Europe, and wrote funny, charming travelogues, which tapered off, then stopped without explanation. The Arts editor told us quietly, privately, that he’d died of AIDS. A young writer of tremendous charm, wit and courage left the country and died an expatriate, without public explanation because people still couldn’t talk about those things.

Be good. Be quiet. Keep up your end of the bargain.

Trevor Noah spoke eloquently this week about what happens when people realize the social contract is a murder-suicide pact.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was asked about the riots in Minneapolis. After condemning violence and lawlessness, he said, “I stand with the protestors.” He expressed a kind of weary disgust and outrage that we haven’t learned this lesson. He read a heartbreaking list of names: Black victims of police violence, beginning with Rodney King. An arbitrary starting point, but a mental landmark for those of us who lived through those riots.

During the Rodney King riots, I was trapped for a few hours on an upper floor of a high-rise in San Francisco. I worked for an investment bank. Our employer had urged us to stay late working on a pitch. When the Mayor locked down the city, the Muni shut down and the cabs stopped running. We finally persuaded a single cabbie to make a long, winding trip across the city to drop off five white girls in skirts who were making $25,000 a year to pitch biotech stocks. That night I saw what the correctional officers at Attica saw: Your employer will sacrifice you without a thought.

I walked to work the next day, and saw burned-out cars up and down Market street. This was after a full year of gay activists spray painting “Bad Cop, No Donut” on sidewalks and carrying lit candles to City Hall: Placing them on the steps, then throwing them, and taunting the cops.

In so many ways, I’ve been an observer, a witness. Because I work in the defense industry and have a large family, I know people all over the political spectrum. Years ago, I discovered to my amusement that one of my engineering teammate used to be a union cop in San Francisco — one of the Irish Catholic cops so feared and hated in the 1970s, when Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated. Ken’s a great guy. Kind of sexist and a vocal Trump supporter, but also a huge fan of Adam Ant. For years, we were the two people who would come in with ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday: Catholic and Episcopal, both Irish. When I put “Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter” in my email signature, he responded with nostalgic delight.

This is a memorial, a way of writing away the anguish, an affirmation that we really are all in this together. Or, at least, we could be.

Yesterday I left quarantine for the first time. I brought a Daniel Martin Diaz print to Deadwood Framing, and it was wonderful to see Bob and Wade again. I missed them terribly — a gay couple from New York, both just a bit older than I am, with a lot of the same historical and cultural reference points. I got a haircut from Danielle, who brought me my first rolls of donated toilet paper when this all began. She said it hurt her to hear her clients talking about what they’d seen — the Detroit riots in the 60s, the Rodney King riots in the 90s — and how nothing seems to change.

The Attica prison uprising started with hope and even idealism. We always think, If they see our suffering, they’ll have to respond. We look for that compassion in others, and it’s unspeakably bitter to see others turn away from our grief and need.

I leave you with the latest stats from covidtracking.com, and a blurry picture of the print I had framed, “SARS-Cov-2: The Mysticism of Nature and the Agony of Life,” by L.A. artist Daniel Martin Diaz. The photo doesn’t do Diaz’s work justice — he’s elegantly captured the fear and beauty of the virus, and these times.

We’re not all George Floyd, but we are all connected: Jeffrey and Ken and Bob and Wade and Danielle and me. Trevor Noah and Andrew Cuomo, Rodney King and Larry Kramer. The prisoners and COs who died in a hail of bullets at Attica.

Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978 in San Francisco City Hall by a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors, Dan White, whose constituency consisted of conservative Irish Catholics. Thirteen years later, I placed one of hundreds of candles on the steps because people were dying, and the SFPD responded with truncheons and indiscriminate arrests. Thirty years after that, a former SFPD cop would teach me the fundamentals of engineering, and show me how to connect a JSOW missile to the wing of an F/A-18 fighter.

We are all connected. I’ll keep insisting on it: There is love here.

daniel martin diaz print
SARS-Cov-2: The Mysticism of Nature and the Agony of Life

Positive tests in Arizona: 18,465

Currently hospitalized: 931

Currently in ICU: 378

Deaths: 885

Recovered: 4,551

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