Scene From a Pandemic: 56

14 06 2021

by S. Eudora Smith

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photo: S. Eudora Smith)

Democracy on a Ventilator

Washington, DC

I wore two masks this past year—one to guard against Covid-19, another to hide my fear of the political violence that infected the nation’s capital.

Eleven thousand people died from the coronavirus in DC. Nearly 50,000 were diagnosed with Covid out of a population of more than 710,000. And at the US Capitol, five people died when a white mob incited by then-President Donald Trump ransacked the building in an attack on democracy and the sanctity of the vote. As Washington reopens, it’s easy to celebrate survival, though it’s hard to claim real security from Covid and the other virus that has left American democracy on a ventilator. Even if the source of only one of those will be formally investigated—leaving prosecutions the only hope for answers about the unprecedented attack on the Capitol and capital—what happened mustn’t be forgotten.

District residents endured what no other place in the country has—a lockdown for a public health crisis and a crisis of democracy. After January 6, tanks had rolled into town. Twenty-six thousand National Guard troops were amassed. Surrounding waterways were patrolled by federal marshals. Armed soldiers and military vehicles mingled with the monuments and symbols that tell the official story of America, the postcard version that visitors from across the country and the world take home with them. Shortly before the inauguration of Joe Biden, I wrote a friend: “At the request of the Secret Service, the bridges leading to Virginia will be closed from the 19th-21st. (A main bridge has already been closed.) I immediately thought of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Manhattan is a penal colony, and all the bridges out are wired to explode if anyone tries to escape.”

We got a taste of living in a state of siege. I’d imagined the nearby on-ramp to the interstate as my escape route in the event of armed conflict … tanks blocked the ramp.

We got a taste of what it’s like to live in a state of siege. I had to go no further than the corner. My home was on the periphery of a sweeping secured zone that included the Capitol and the National Mall, which were cordoned off by a massive chain-link fence. To the south this zone included the offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is bordered by a major interstate. I had imagined the nearby on-ramp to the interstate as my escape route if the capital descended into armed conflict, but National Guard tanks blocked the ramp.

Like other Washingtonians, I looked at the troops and worried, “Will Trump leave without a fight? Will there be blood in the streets before it’s all over?” And, as important, “Should we even trust the Guard to oppose the insurrectionists? Might they turn on one another, and then on We the People?”

The first night I drove home from the grocery store, two young Guard members stopped me as I tried to turn at the light to enter my complex. “I live there,” I said, pointing at the complex, ready to provide proof of address. After a brief pause, I was let through, though I didn’t understand why I would be questioned in the first place. As a black woman, I wasn’t the reason the Guard has been deployed to the city.

Today the soldiers are gone. The last of them departed a few weeks ago. The metal fences that cordoned off the National Mall following the insurrection are gone too. I am leaving as well, for an ordinary reason, a different job. It strikes me, though, at this moment of reflection, that so much of what I love about DC has been eclipsed by memories of contagion and these multiple and still-uncertain efforts at containment.

Covid-19 cases have been reduced here. More than 42 percent of residents have been fully vaccinated. People talk of a return to normal, as if the crises we have experienced were just random interruptions in an otherwise predictable stream of events, not the movie trailer of disruptions to come. Health care experts anticipate a rise in cases in the fall and winter among unvaccinated people, and there are likely to be more variants, more pandemics in the future.

But for now, joggers leave puffs of dirt in their wake on the paths along the National Mall. Friends lounge on the bright green grass by the Washington Monument. Tourists pack the sidewalks on Independence and Pennsylvania avenues. People are out, masks off, while our democracy remains in critical condition.

S. Eudora Smith (a pen name) is a writer and editor. She is an advisor to Kopkind and was a mentor in 2009 and 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 9, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Mimi Morton, a Memory

On Memorial Day weekend people gathered at Packer Corners in Guilford, Vermont, just up the road from Tree Frog Farm, to celebrate the life of Mimi Morton, a longtime friend of Kopkind, who died of cancer on January 10. Mimi had come to Guilford in the ‘old days’, visiting from Montreal—where she was a college professor, print and radio journalist—and living for a time at Tree Frog when Andy was alive. Many years later, she moved permanently to Guilford, married Rick Zamore, and the two have been great supporters of our project, regularly gracing public events with their presence, raising incisive points or questions and bringing great dishes to every potluck. Before she died, Mimi completed Before the Age of Reason: A Memoir of Racism, a series of autobiographical vignettes tracing the obvious and not-so-obvious strands of racism growing up white and middle class in Riverton, New Jersey. Below, a lightly edited vignette. The book is available from Onion River Press/Phoenix Books.

Catholics on my mother’s side, Baptists and agnostics on my father’s side, constituted the religious diversity of my family until my paternal cousin and his wife took the trajectory from Agnosticism to Unitarianism to Amyway to AA to Born Again Christianity and the conservative politics that went with it. Eventually they dropped off the family roster beyond holiday emails.

Economic diversity was inevitable during the Depression and the 1950s, when my father quietly supported his indigent mother and brother and a few divorced sisters before more solvent marriages got them back on their feet. 

Racial diversity would have been unlikely had this not been America, where many families identified Native Americans somewhere in their rural nineteenth-century background. By the twenty-first, some families identified African Americans in their genealogy, but my family was not one.

My father was of Scots descent. He spent his adolescence in Jockey Hollow, a nearly unpopulated locale in the Southern Tier of New York State which I have never been able to find on a map. He spoke of Clifford Cellam, a cousin who was, according to family lore, “crazy headed,” my father’s way of alluding to behaviors, particularly drunkenness, which indicated to my father and other relatives that Clifford carried Native American blood. Were alcoholism the mark of First Nation identity, nearly every man and woman in my father’s family could be identified as Indians.

Unlike now, the early twentieth century was relatively easy to ascend in class. My mother’s family was Methodist English until my grandmother married my Irish grandfather and converted to Catholicism. My grandfather worked his way up from bricklayer’s apprentice to carpenter and finally to a partner in a building firm that he ultimately passed on to my father. Like my father, my grandfather supported his sisters when they were out of seamstress work or abandoned in marriage. The exception was his sister Mary, who married above herself, to a dentist. The dentist was South American; the grown-ups never said which country, much as Americans have referred to Africa as a country rather than a continent. Dr. Andrade and his Irish-American wife lived in a four-story brownstone on East 95th Street in New York, where my mother spent several magical Christmases (servants, lighted candles on a towering fir tree, midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, transported in a hansom cab).

But there was the case of Natalie, Great Aunt Mary’s only child, a squat, dark girl with, according to my mother, “Indian blood” via her father from a nameless South American tribe. My mother’s stories of Natalie depicted her as the family scapegoat. “Oh mother, I’d rather die,” Natalie wailed when her mother insisted she wear every one of her three winter coats so as to lighten her suitcase as they returned from a trip to her father’s homeland.

After Dr. Andrade died, the family would never again order additions to their mono-grammed Tiffany flatware and Limoges dinnerware. But appearances must be kept up, and it fell to Natalie to cull the lesser of the family possessions for Christmas presents for my grandmother, such as poultry shears with remains of a fowl still stuck to the blades, and a pair of desiccated men’s suspenders (her father’s?) which, when stretched out, stayed that way. 

I saw the interior of Aunt Mary’s 95th Street house as a small child after she died. We stood in the foyer, the smoke from my father’s and grandfather’s cigarettes swirling in the shaft of sunlight between heavy window drapes. I couldn’t read the funny papers splayed on the floor, but I was fascinated by an object on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs: a plaster camel, draped in fringed and tasseled velvet, atop which sat a little turbaned black boy similarly dressed in velvet and holding in each hand a round white electric globe. This object suggested wealth, in dwindling supply now that Natalie’s father and mother were gone. Years later my mother interpreted for me: “The neighborhood was changing for the worse into Spanish Harlem.” I pictured an elderly Natalie sitting on her stoop with neighborhood women. “She says the neighbors steal from her but where else can she go? She speaks their language.” A non-English language, a language of the conquered. “She was a throwback,” my mother explained. “Not our blood.”


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