Plague Time Journal

The Leap Day cello/piano recital took all of February to prepare. I planned the recital during the Christmas holiday, guessing that two months, starting in earnest on January 1, would be enough time to get ready, and so it was, although the last two weeks were five, six, sometimes even seven hours each day. We played the pieces over and over again, slow practice as taught in music school, first thing in the morning and then late into the night after work. When I could no longer stand the repetition, I added the George Crumb solo sonata to the practice list, a technical workout too modern for our expected audience, but perfect to build hand strength, like gymnastics. An upcoming public performance awakens lingering doubts – what if I forget, my bow shakes, or the last movement of the Brahms e minor sonata falls apart because I can’t keep up with the racing piano. The only remedy for lingering doubts about a performance is excessive practice, and again it worked. The Church was full, tempos faster than planned but still manageable, a standing ovation with plenty to drink at the reception that followed. As with each recital I have done since going to law school after Juilliard, the process confirmed that I would gladly play cello all day, every day. It could be the Blue Danube waltz or a Shostakovich concerto – I started the process early enough, as a child in 1975, that the X-Y axis of the fingerboard and the different challenges of bow control remain unending sources of fascination. If only this pursuit made real money.

While learning to do it in the 1980s, it seemed possible to make a living. But by 1989 the odds of finding a steady pay orchestra job were similar to being struck by lightning, since it was generally necessary for someone in the cello section to die first. Things changed quickly, as the core audience able to follow the development section of a Brahms sonata fell away. Knowing the additional damage that cellphones have done to attention spans, we structured the recital to provide interesting pieces that came in, without intermission, at just over one hour. This did not prevent an audience member from sitting about four feet away from me, in a forward pew I assumed people would stay away from, and knit (clickity-clack, clickity-clack) for the duration of the Boris Chaikovsky solo suite. Maintaining concentration was a battle that worked, and the Knitter made a good war story for the neighbors I could still talk to during the first two weeks of March.

There was none of that this past weekend, and after one last legal filing on Saturday morning, I set up a chair that afternoon and played solo Bach in the front yard. In a scene impossible pre-pandemic, cars stopped, people got out and filmed, a few couples sat far away to listen, people I did not recognize actually thanked me, saying “this is what we need now.” I will do it again next weekend, but now it’s a cold rainy Monday. At this time last month Judy and I were in the final stages of recital preparation, with Coronavirus something safely contained in Europe. Now, there is no legal work to do because Courts are closed and filing deadlines suspended. In a massive irony, there is at the moment no money to be made in law either. Some fast research into plague indicates that it was a frequent visitor to Tudor England, where “outbreaks were particularly bad in London, in 1603, 1625 and 1636, doubtless due to growing congestion.” See Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (17th ed. 2005) at 611. Until now, I had never experienced a plague. The media prefers the more clinical term, pandemic, but plague speaks more strongly to the lives, work and economy that the virus is destroying.

Ten days ago, on March 13 when Columbia University shut down, the situation in New York felt normal. The directive to empty dorms by noontime meant nothing to parking police, who ticketed me and every other vehicle filling up off Broadway with the remnants of a school year that was ending two months early. I argued with the enforcer (as did Columbia security), so he wrote another ticket for the plastic cover on my suspiciously Pennsylvania license plate. The collegiate rowing season had canceled that morning, and my daughter suspected that graduation would be the next victim of overreaction. She did not believe the danger, nor did I while waiting for Sabina to say her goodbyes.

I crossed Amsterdam to get away from the enforcer (arrest seemed the next logical step for him) and found a spot of doubtful legality just up from Mt. Sinai Hospital on W. 114th. It was probably doctors-only parking, but a helpful vandal had removed the sign, and surely the metal post alone was insufficient evidence for another violation. Still, I stayed close to our aging CR-V, pretending to await a patient pickup while doctors, nurses and patients streamed in and out of the hospital doors, none wearing masks, most in close proximity to other people. By 12:30 it was lunchtime, and a sequence of New York types still recognizable from when I lived there 30 years ago streamed by. Construction workers, still smoking, still profane but now wearing Hi-Viz. Orthodox Jews, still in black with yarmulkes, but somehow more fashionable than before. It was Friday in Manhattan, spring was in the air and it seemed pointless to leave. I briefly considered stopping at Bierstrasse, a German-themed beer bar at the foot of the on-ramp to the Henry Hudson parkway, but there was nothing to celebrate. I took the upper level of the George Washington Bridge, so Bina could better see the dark expanse of the Hudson, where her crew team sometimes practiced in the shadow of ocean-going vessels. We got back to Philadelphia in less than two hours, because the NJ Turnpike was empty, the eight lanes in each direction looking like overkill, which is what the media seemed to be doing with the virus that day. In Pennsylvania we still have state liquor stores, and as a precaution I purchased vodka, rum and two boxes of wine that evening. A festival atmosphere prevailed at the checkout counter, with workers predicting imminent closure. It seemed impossible but came to pass five days later.

Sabina held her parents responsible for enabling the exaggerators until it was time to go to Newark International, to meet her older sister’s flight from London Heathrow. Kate started a Ph.D. in Physics at Oxford this past October. Her college hall was founded in 1610, early in the reign of James I, and the great age of Oxford led me to assume it would stand like a fortress, professors and students hunkering down among medieval towers with candles and wine cellars until the crisis passed. I was wrong, and during the weekend of March 14 Kate got increasingly spooked as the town emptied out, and flights back to the United States became harder to find. By the time we bought a ticket, there were only a few remaining exits, to Dulles and Newark. Contrasting with the bedlam scenes from the second week of March, Heathrow was deserted by the time Kate arrived hours early for her flight out on March 18, and there were 17 people on the plane.

After four years as an undergraduate in Scotland, Kate knew to run towards US customs immediately after exiting the plane, and this time it would be a health risk to land at the back of a long slow line of incoming passengers. They took Kate’s temperature, found nothing, and reminded her of the 14-day voluntary quarantine for UK arrivals. Outside Terminal C where we waited, there was plenty of room to park, among signs warning of catastrophic fines and circling tow trucks. Similar to the week before outside Mt. Sinai, I paced around the CR-V to reinforce the impression that our passenger would arrive at any moment. A few Port Authority police vans stopped in front of the terminal as we waited. I expected at least a warning, but instead the officers got out, looked around, piled back in and then sped off without a glance in our direction. The quiet reminded me of the late 1970s, when my father regularly flew in and out of Newark to work at chemical plants out west. The economies of the Carter administration had shuttered one of the terminals, and I am certain we never spent any money on parking as we waited for Dad’s plane to arrive. Kate soon emerged, from a different terminal that was likewise deserted. Traffic on the Turnpike was even lighter than the Friday before, and the entire round trip, waiting included, took less than four hours. I went for a run to shake off the drive, only to see many others still driving. Traffic on Kelly Drive leaving the City was heavy, stretching nearly one mile south to the statue of Ulysses Grant across from the river. It looked like the aftermath of a fatal car accident, the type that texting behind the wheel has made a daily occurrence in the area. But there was no accident, and it was only 3 pm on a Wednesday. People were getting out.

I had a conference with a federal judge that morning, to resolve the extent to which the Government needed to provide me with discovery (witness statements, surveillance, covert audio recordings, etc.) that preceded the arrest in the Philippines of a sex-trafficking defendant I had been asked to represent by his cousin, another lawyer. The defendant had been indicted, but the Government had still refused to provide discovery information on grounds the defendant had not yet been extradited to the United States. My response was that nobody knew when extradition would finally happen given the virus, and that under the circumstances there was every reason for me to at least get started with reviewing what would likely amount to stacks of evidence against my client. I expected the District Judge to make a ruling during the phone call, but he retreated, saying he had received both sides’ written submissions, understood the issues and would issue a written decision “shortly.” That was five days ago, and in the meantime, the entire legal economy of Philadelphia has shut down. Law is a deadline-driven profession, but with Courts closed and filing deadlines indefinitely suspended by judicial fiat, there is nothing left to do now. I suspect that former colleagues at large law firms are still going in to facetime senior partners, perhaps believing that the perceived importance of their work takes precedence over the Governor’s Order of last Friday closing all but “life-essential” businesses. I gathered a few things from my office this past Saturday and have no plans to return anytime soon.

It is now March 23, ten days after a Friday the 13th that delivered with a vengeance, including the Columbia dormitory shutdown, permanent migration of classes online, the looming and now realized cancellation of graduation, and the pair of parking violations that I received as a parting gift from the City. No doubt the narrative and supporting photos I sent in to contest the violations will sit in an electronic queue, awaiting review indefinitely. Two federal hearings scheduled for today were moved to mid-May, and it is by no means clear that the need for self-quarantine and social distancing will be finished by then. It’s cold and raining outside and I’m glad to have run yesterday. I join in the hopeful theory that regular strenuous exercise may help prevent contracting the virus. With this journal finally started, it’s now time to practice. Since I can’t do that all day, stories about things I experienced in school and on stage will hopefully follow.


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