Featured Non-fiction by Gary Fowlie

A Covid Recovery Road Trip

Gary Fowlie

A Covid Recovery Road Trip

Gary Fowlie

I’m sharing this with you because as a member of your family, or your friend, or fellow Covid ‘Long Hauler’, I want to thank you for your support during the past pandemic months. Obviously, Covid didn’t kill me. Not so obviously, I wasn’t able to escape its clutch.

            My last dispatch from New York, the pandemic epicenter, was sent on Easter Weekend, a day or two before Covid and I had our rendezvous. That dispatch went like this:

May Easter bring strength to the young couple upstairs fighting Covid; peace to a friend whose mother passed and he couldn’t be with her; thanks for the health care workers fighting for us; courage for family and friends facing financial challenges; selfless leadership and protective equipment for all.

Count your blessings and stay safe.

We are; XO G&K

            At the time, it was heartfelt. Today it sounds sanctimonious. I stand by the missive to count your blessings and stay safe, but the morally superior tone of we are—that should definitely have been changed to we are trying to.

            If you read beyond this, you’ll find out that no matter how hard you try to avoid this insidious illness, it can sneak up and attack you despite your best efforts.

            I’ve called this chronology of events a recovery road trip, in hopes that the journey to our cottage in Canada would do just that. It began on June 5, 2020, when we were able to rescue our car from its isolation in Yonkers and load it up in Manhattan. But to do this tale justice, I need to go back to early March, when we were unloading the same car in the same spot, after a winter road trip to the south.  

            What follows are the events which marked mileposts on the Covid expressway.

March 6

The Siren before the Storm

On arriving in our neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, we were greeted by police cars and emergency vehicles racing past us—an all too obvious omen of the steady stream of emergency vehicles to come. This noisy welcome turned out to be just some idiot on the next street with an attitude and access to a gun.

            The first New Yorker with the virus had been confirmed five days earlier, and we would have the first Covid fatality in the city five days later. Less than two weeks after that, there would be 18,000 confirmed cases, and 200 New Yorkers would be dead. The infection rate was five times greater in New York than in the rest of the country, and it would still be five weeks before my own Covid symptoms appeared.

March 13

The Buck Stops at Barack

Common sense and the memory of my grandmother describing how a cart rolled down her street every day to collect bodies during the Spanish Flu in 1918 was enough motivation for me to begin hunting for personal protection. A century earlier, they’d worn masks soaked in camphor oil or horse liniment. With no horse and no idea what ‘camphor oil’ was, an internet search led us to vacuum cleaner bags as a good substitute for an actual face mask.

            The Mayor of New York City and the State Governor dithered about what was an essential service and when to lock us down, but at least they were engaged. Better to fight over who should lead than to leave us rudderless, I figured. Unfortunately, the rest of the United States of America had begun to look like the 3,141 Disunited Counties of Denial.

            In the week we’d been home there’d been an exponential pandemic liftoff. The misery that followed came with an expectation of a national strategy and guidance. Instead, President Trump let America’s states fight over essential equipment, and blamed the shortage of available virus testing on President Obama. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump told us, pointing to an unspecified “set of circumstances” and “rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.”

            It was a different kind of time alright. It was a time for courage, for coordinated leadership, and a time for at least a call from the President to the Governors to find the ‘United States’ of common ground. For the latter, it was the time to exercise their collective bargaining clout to break the supply chain logjam for protective equipment that brought on a bidding war between hospitals and among states. But apparently the time wasn’t quite right for the President to act. It would be another three weeks before he stepped in—sort of.

April 5

Cuomo and the Queen

Most of us had been forced to look for guidance from somewhere other than the very top of the electoral food chain. Like many New Yorkers, I found it in Governor Cuomo. Also, unlike most, I found surprising strength in the words of Queen Elizabeth II.

            I’m a permanent American resident, a Canadian who made the United States my home when it deemed my career at the UN and in the technology sector ‘extraordinary’ enough to warrant issuing me an EB-1A Green Card.

            I’ve become a proud New Yorker, and I look forward to the day that I can become an American citizen. I have no plans to give up my Canadian passport, unless keeping it required that I swear allegiance to a monarch in England, who by accident of birth and colonial history is the head of country of Canada. That’s something I could no longer do.  

            When I was a child, we’d gather around the television at Christmas to listen to Queen Elizabeth’s message to the ‘Commonwealth’. The only thing I recall about any of those messages was how one year Liz managed to say ‘reconciliation’ a half dozen times without moving her lips. Try it yourself if you think it’s easy. Still, as I listened to her Covid address to the Commonwealth on April 5, I thought that her stiff upper lip was just what the doctor had ordered.

            Cuomo had given us the kind of clear, concise, no crap talk that makes me love New York. The Queen provided the comfort and confidence I sought from a head of state. Compare that with the conflict and conceit that Washington served up.

            This was not the first time the Queen had faced war-like adversity. Neither royal birth, nor bone spurs had kept her from joining the auxiliary forces in WW2 as a truck driver and mechanic. She’d done her bit to beat back the Nazi pandemic. She’d also done her first broadcast in 1940 at age 14. She’d given a message of hope to the children who’d been sent away from London for their safety.

            I’m 65, yet I felt like a child forced into exile in order to avoid the battle taking place outside West 162nd Street. The Queen’s words were a welcome knock on our door:

       “Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do. While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour. Using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal, we will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.

            Cue the Big Band music. Cue the tears. Cue the sense of ‘Mask On and Carry On’. Her inspiring call to ‘join all nations across the globe in a common endeavor’ wasn’t lost on me—even if the leader of the country I called home had missed the memo. At least I had Liz and the Governor of the United State of New York.

            Cuomo played it like the political master he is. He knew that the tougher the issue or crisis, the more truthful the words must be. Lead with the facts, good and bad, focus on bold action, not bad attitude. Determined resolve beats the hell out of finger pointing recriminations. Be resolute! When Cuomo spoke to the New York National Guard there was no denying that resolve: “This is going be a long day,” he said, “and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day.” He charged them (and us) to fight this “invisible, insidious beast” and to “kick coronavirus ass.”

            I wasn’t sure how we would do that, but at least we had a leader I felt I could trust to find a way. Cuomo led with empathy, he understood that every one of those ‘casualty numbers’ represented someone whom somebody had once loved. They weren’t just numbers on a golf scorecard. He, unlike the President, knew that you might be able to cheat at golf, but there’s no cheating death.  

April 12

Easter Egg on My Face

The Corona virus had already made a stop next door. A neighbor had been visited, and was recovering. It then found its way through the door of our condo unit, up the stairs, and attacked the least likely of suspects: our 31-year-old neighbors, the ‘kids’, as my wife and I call them. They are a wonderful couple: fit, energetic, healthy, fun, smart, and respectful of their elders.

Masked and gloved, I’d made a couple of trips up the stairs to deliver parcels to them. When they asked if I could get some Tylenol and cough syrup, I hadn’t hesitated. I set out to a nearby drugstore on Easter Sunday morning, happy to play the role of Father Rabbit in search of some relief for the young bunnies. It was ironic, I thought, given my ‘senior’ risk status. Instead, I should have reminded myself that vanity indeed precedes the fall.

            The drugstore shelves weren’t empty, but they might as well have been. Children’s Tylenol was all that I could find. I saw the humor in this, and even though the ‘kids’ might be too ill to get the joke, I assured myself they would when I would tell it at next condo meeting.

            I kept my distance from the woman in the line in front of me. Unlike me, she had no mask or gloves, and she had a cough she wasn’t trying to hide. I stepped back further when she hacked, and only approached the cashier when summoned. How unfortunate that the stricken woman came back to demand another bag. I should have moved. In hindsight, it could have been a fatal error on my part.

April 17

My Ticket on the Covid Express

Like any sensible, science-respecting New Yorker, I heeded advice to stay inside unless I found myself having trouble breathing or with an uncontrollable fever. Five days past Easter Sunday, I had neither. However, I did wake up to a killer headache, and an uncomfortable pain between my shoulder blades that was coming from my lungs, but without a sustained fever other than a series of overheated hot flashes.

            The chills set in on Day 2, and with them an eerie itching sensation, like goose bumps creeping around under the skin of my back. On the morning of Day 5, my ear started to ache. I’d had surgery on this ear a few months earlier. It demanded to be scratched, and when I didn’t, it revolted in a bloody mess on my pillow.

            On Day 7, I still had no trouble breathing, and not much of a cough beyond a constant urge to clear my throat. The chills remained, and the fatigue was so bad that I could barely make it to bed when it struck. The unusual pattern of symptoms, best described as ‘weird,’ had me wondering whether I was losing my mind. How could I have Covid? I wasn’t coughing. I wasn’t burning up. I’d taken every precaution, or so I thought. Maybe it was just the stress of endless sirens, and the fact of waking up every day and wondering how many of my fellow New Yorkers had perished during the night.

           It wasn’t until I’d talked to my 92-year-old cousin, a former nurse, that I was shamed into seeking medical help—at least for my bloody ear. Even then I only realized something was truly wrong when I stepped outside and became light-headed as I walked the 500 yards down the block to catch the Covid Express—aka, the M2 bus that runs from our home in Washington Heights to my doctor’s offices near Lenox Hill Hospital. The bug may have been playing tricks with my head, but there was no denying that it had taken hold of my body.

           An hour later I was ‘presumed’ Covid positive, pending test results. They cleaned up my bloody ear, found my ‘inflammatory’ condition unusual, but interesting, and I was sent home with ear drops to manage the itch, along with instructions to quarantine.

           There were ‘only’ 544 deaths in New York City the day I was presumed positive. That was already down from the peak of 813. These were people who’d succumbed in a single day. Three days later, when my Covid diagnosis was confirmed, 1400 more bodies had been added to the pandemic pyre.

           I greeted the confirmation of Covid with a surprising sense of relief. I wasn’t crazy, and more importantly, my wife, whose health was already at risk, and who, after being exposed, had an afternoon of chills so bad that she spent it in bed fully clothed under two extra blankets, was thankfully spared anything worse. Our shared fatigue turned into shared, albeit selfish, gratitude.

           New York City remained the epicenter of the attack on the USA, even though the body count was at a two-week low. In fact, things were still so bad that the cool, clear, and credible Governor Cuomo had compared the ravages of the pandemic to the “same evil that we saw on 9/11.”

            The number of New Yorkers who’d died on that fateful day was one third of those that had been felled by Covid—an airborne terrorist of a viral stripe that didn’t give a damn about race, religion or creed. The number of dead was “so shocking and painful and breathtaking,” Cuomo told us, that “I can’t, I don’t even have the words for it.” Many others did. They called New York a war zone, an analogy that was soon turned into an overworked cliché by the media.

            The battle imagery was easy enough to relate to. While the front-line warriors of today only differed from the ‘grunts’ that pushed back evil forces in the past by the uniforms they wore, it wasn’t until a friend from Canada called, and I held my cell phone out the window to share the sound of wailing sirens, that I heard the truthfulness of the war zone analogy in his reaction. “It must be like London during the blitz,” he said. Indeed it must have been. This was war and New York City was in the midst of it.

            We woke up every day anxious to know the overnight casualty count, and grateful for having escaped the nightly bug bomb. The anxiety and the sirens were quelled only by the 7pm catharsis of opening our windows to express our gratitude for those on the medical and food front lines who were keeping us alive.

            I’ve only lived in the city for 15 years. I’ve survived a transit strike, two hurricanes and the normal indignities of Gotham life—like being bitch-slapped by an Amazonian drag queen on the Uptown 4 train at ‘Lex and Loony’ (125th Street and Lexington Avenue), when I accidentally stepped on her size-13 heels. Yet when September 11 rolled around, and 9/11 was commemorated, I never quite felt like I belonged in my adopted home. I will now.  

            According to the CDC ‘micro mort’ data, anyone living in New York City between March and May had experienced roughly 50 additional micro morts of risk per day because of Covid-19. This meant we were roughly twice as likely to die, than if we’d served in the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan in 2010 (which was a very bad year).

            Micro mort data or not, two months after the first New Yorker succumbed to Covid, every New Yorker either contracted Covid or knew someone who did. I’m sure I’m not the only one who kept a Covid casualty hit list. Here’s my tally from March through June in chronological order:

  •  A colleagues father – may he RIP
  •  A friends mother – may she RIP
  •  A Met’s baseball fan & friend –  may he RIP
  • A next door neighbor – fortunately, recovered
  •  The ‘kids’ two floors up – they’ve recovered too
  •  The virologist one floor up – she’s back in her lab
  •  The neighbors across the street – they’re almost there
  •  Another neighbor further down the street – may he RIP

And finally

  • A United Nations colleague – may he RIP

May 5 

Return of the Covid Trickster

Two weeks passed. I felt better, not best, but better. I chalked up the lingering fatigue and aches to the fact I’d done nothing but sit, lie, or sleep. I decided that a bike ride on Day 15 would be the thing to get the lungs and heart pumping. It worked for about an hour.

           I ignored the shortness of breath and the ache between my shoulder blades that had been the canary in my pulmonary playground, but by the time I got home there was no escaping it. I dragged myself back to bed, hoping all would be well after a good rest.

           Twelve hours of sleep only resulted in a return of the symptoms—not all at once, and not in the same order. Some were worse: the headache, and the itchy goosebump skin crawlers. some were better: chills, aches, and fever. And some were completely new: the cough that had been fairly light showed up again as a dry hack to taunt my foolishness. To add insult to itchy injury, my earache returned, and I broke out in hives and a funny slash-like rash on my arms, legs, and feet.  

           The lingering weirdness of Covid continued. By the time Day 15 had turned into Month 1 and then Month 2, it was clear that there was no end to its surprises. Distorted taste had already joined the long list of symptoms, and when I felt well enough to try a beer after six weeks, I faced a new and depressing reality. My barley sandwich came with a metallic sting. I might as well have been chewing on the beer can, and by the time I was almost able to taste the hops again, a few sips would set off the killer headache.

           Weekly trials yielded the same results, and I’ve accepted the reality that I may never be able to drink a good Canadian pilsner again. I console myself with the fact that at least I can swallow. I hadn’t had to check myself into an undersupplied and overworked New York hospital, or to be separated from my wife and loved ones. I hadn’t been left to wonder, when the lights went out and the ventilator went in, if I’d be one of the 25% to survive this drastic procedure.  

           Small mercies become big blessings when you’re the lucky one. It was and still is so much worse for so many. Eight percent of people have mild or no symptoms, and those who do, recover in two weeks on average. Then there are the Covid ‘long haulers’, a group I seem to belong to. I have manageable symptoms, but they’re not managing to go away.

May 10

A Mother’s Day Martyr

I’ve been a regular obituary reader most of my life. We won’t go down that Freudian alley, but suffice it to say, I find comfort in a good death notice because inevitably you discover someone whose life is remarkable. There’s been endless examples of this truth during the pandemic, but I’m only going to highlight one such person. Her life and death have hit more than one of my nerves, including a belief I share with many others that no one should die alone.  

            Nina Pippins was 93, a product of Dothan, Alabama, and a retired registered nurse who’d reluctantly come to New York in 1987 to look after her only child, 33-year-old Nick, who had AIDS. She loved him but hated New York, and had no intention of staying. She would spend three years nursing him before he died. By then she’d become a New Yorker.

            Ms. Pippins watched her son suffer and had seen many of his friends die alone—forgotten by families who shunned their children, rather than rise above the perceived shame of a disease they didn’t understand. Nina became a replacement mother for those estranged from their own; she would hold their hands as they died. First though, she’d call the families and tell them to set aside their differences and come to be with their child. She would volunteer to meet them and answer any questions they had. Having a conservative Southern background helped. She could easily relate to their fear of being ostracized back home.

            Still, Nina Pippins was what I call a ‘WTF’ New Yorker. There are, by my non-scientific estimation, only three types: those born in the tristate area, who think life in the Big Apple is perfectly normal; non-natives, who’ve spent their life finding their way to the city because, well you know, ’if you can make it here….’; and people like Nina and myself. For me it was career and coincidence that drew me in; for her, parental conscience. Yet for anyone in one of those groups, there’ll be some Gotham madness that they’ll bear witness to at least once or twice a year, which will make them ask themselves, “What the fu#k am I doing living here?”

            I don’t know exactly what secured Nina’s New Yorker status, but according to her NY Times obit, she wanted to give something back to the city after her son died. “I needed to have something to do that made me feel better about me,” she said. My own reasons for staying weren’t as noble. It took one Mets Opening Day, a visit to the Strand Bookstore, and the bread at Orwashers Bakery to seal the deal.

            There are three things that make Nina’s Covid story resonate with me. I, like Nina’s son, am an only child, and I can’t imagine my parents forsaking me on my deathbed for any reason. I’m also the father of a gay man and two straight ones, whom I could never forsake, no matter what. Finally, and of least significance, I’m from a conservative family in Saskatchewan, who by the grace of a scholarship ended up at the University of Alabama, where I made lifelong friends with Bama natives, and who, like Nina, Roll an honorable Tide through Christian principles.

            Second Corinthians 4:8 tells us: we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.

            Truth be told, I was being driven to despair by the thought of all of the Covid victims who, through no fault of their own, and despite the heroic effort of others, were on their own during their darkest hour. Nina Pippins was one of those poor souls. A loving mother, who had done her best to stand in for the parental affections for so many, died alone on Mother’s Day.            

May 24

One Hundred Thousand and Counting

The United States had reached a grim milestone. One hundred thousand people had died. Countless Nina Pippins, and maybe some with even more heroic life stories. No doubt there were some who would never have found redemption had they lived until 100. It matters not. How many of them could have been saved if there’d been coordinated action by the government for the people and by the people? Of course, hindsight is crystal clear, and justice is a long game, but there’s little comfort in a history that will be written to celebrate the heroes who set their sights above their self-interest. Still, Dan Barry’s tribute to those 100,000 (and counting) American victims was some consolation, despite that the fact that many thousands more were bound to die. I reprint it here, without Mr. Barry’s permission.

One Hundred Thousand

      A threshold number: It’s the number celebrated when the family car’s odometer ticks once more to reach six digits. It’s the number of residents that can make a place feel fully like a city: San Angelo, Texas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Vacaville, California.

      So imagine a city of 100,000 residents that was here on New Year’s Day, but has now been wiped from the American map.

      One hundred thousand.

      Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9, Manager of the produce department, Tavern owner,  Nurse to the end.

      Loved baseball. Loved playing euchre. Loved seeing the full moon rise above the ocean.

      Man, she could cook. Always first on the dance floor. Always ready to party. Always gave back.

      Preferred bolo ties and suspenders. Awarded the Bronze Star. Served in the Women’s Army Corp. Survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria. Competed in the Special Olympics. Immigrated to achieve the American dream. Could quote Tennyson from memory.

      A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition. One. Hundred. Thousand.

May 24

My Memory in Mourning

I said I’d relate only one Covid victim’s story and that’s true. However, as I read the obits (and as previously stated, I always read the obits), I was struck by a picture that brought back my first experience with death. John Loengard, a great American photojournalist had died. His death foreshadowed the racial firestorm to come.

            John passed one day before George Floyd was murdered. His death was not Covid related; it was just good old heart failure, like my father’s. Loengard had given us dozens of iconic photos during his lifetime: the Beatles together in a swimming pool; a pensive Georgia O’Keefe contemplating a rock; Louis Armstrong applying lip balm. But it was the picture he took at the funeral of the Civil Rights Leader, Medgar Evers, on Juneteenth 1963, that grabbed my attention. It focuses on Medgar’s son. Nine-year-old Darryl sits with his mother in a church pew. He’s inconsolable. Tears roll down his face as he stares at his clasped hands. I’d been there—or more precisely, I would be there. Exactly two months later, we laid my father to rest. I, like Darrel, was nine years old.

            The lives of Darrel’s father Medgar, and my Dad Pete, couldn’t have been more different, but to a nine-year-old smothered in the grey fog that rolls in when a parent is lost, circumstance is meaningless. When I looked at that picture, I could still conjure the hurt. I could also feel the unspoken bond between children who’ve faced the grim reality of death at too young an age.  

            Medgar Evers once said, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” He was right. It took 31 years and three trials before his assassin—a white segregationist with the vainglorious name of Byron De La Beckworth—was convicted of his murder. It would be another 19 years, before Medgar Evers’ idea of racial equality would be rekindled by another photojournalist who captured the horror of George Floyd’s sadistically inflicted death. Another martyr’s child would be immortalized too. George’s daughter Gianna had joined the ‘Children in Mourning’ club when she told us, “Daddy changed the world.”

May 25th

Pestilence Meets Prejudice

I’d never met a black person until I left Saskatchewan for Alabama in 1976. It wasn’t that I didn’t know any people of another race or that I didn’t have some understanding of racism. I grew up a few blocks from an Indian Residential School where children who had been ‘scooped away’ from their families were warehoused, and taught to be good little English-speaking Canadians.

           I’m not saying I’m color-blind. No one is. But I’ve lived in Harlem and Washington Heights long enough to really only be aware of color when I look up from minding my own business on a downtown train and wonder ‘Where the hell did all these white people come from?’ There are two things I’m confident enough to say about systemic racism: one is that it can be as subtle as where you stand in the subway car; and two, it can cut both ways.

            There’s probably no greater racial or economic divide in New York, if not America, than the one that separates the 86th Street and 125th Street stops on the #4 Subway line. In less than 10 minutes you go from the center of the rich and richer Upper East Side at 86th Street, to the heart of poor and poorer East Harlem at 125th and Lexington.

            ‘Lex and Loony’ had been my subway stop during my first six years in the city. I lived in Upper Manhattan. It took about a week of rush hour commuting from the United Nations in midtown to realize that if I wanted to get a seat on a crowded uptown train my best bet was to stand in front of a white person who was already sitting. Odds were about 80 to 1 that they’d get off at 86th Street, and I’d get to sit.

            This harmless, yet systemic race game, is played by both races every day. I only realized it when I noticed a young black woman who’d sidled up in front of a seated me on the Uptown 4. When I didn’t get off at 86th she muttered ‘damn’. 

            “Fooled you!” I said, and we both laughed.

            The other insight I have on the issue of racism in America came from the first black person I could call a friend. RT was from Chicago, and like me he was at the University of Alabama because of a scholarship. Unlike me, however, he probably could have received the same financial support for his studies anywhere.

            It wasn’t until after Mr. and Mrs. Ku Klux Klan handed me a flyer as I walked down MacFarland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa in 1976, which invited me to a ‘family’ picnic somewhere in Pickens County, that I got the nerve to ask RT why a black man from the North would choose to go to school in the South. His answer explains a lot. It also involves the ‘N’-word, so cover your eyes if you expect to be offended.

            RT told me that it didn’t make much difference where he went to school because, “Up North a Nigger can get big but he can’t get close. Down South a Nigger can get close he just can’t get big.” I interpreted this to mean that northern and southern USA were merely two sides of the same racist coin. If you were black and lived up North, you were welcome to get as successful as you wanted – just as long as you stayed in your corner.  Down South, well ‘bless their hearts,’ a black person could have a friendly relationship with a white person, but ‘don’t be getting too successful.’ No ‘risin’ above your raisin’ or your race allowed.

            The mid-70s marked the dawning of the ‘New South’ and the era that followed the election of President Jimmy Carter, a Georgia peanut farmer. Yet 55 years later, the New South and the Old North look pretty much the same to me. This is the reality I rediscovered when we moved to Upper Manhattan.

            Friends from downtown brought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate our first night in Harlem. After drinking it, we decided it was time to get something to eat. The closest option in our neighborhood was Applebee’s.

            When we walked in, I was introduced to what I call the ‘Gilly Gang’. They were black men of about my vintage who seemed to favor bucket hats—the kind made popular by Gilligan of Gilligan Island TV fame. They were none too happy to find white folk on their shore. “Here come the fuckin’ gentrifiers” we were told.

            It might have been foolish or just Canadian-naïve of me to think of myself as an economic refugee from overpriced downtown Manhattan. Regardless, it was the first time anyone had judged me solely on my color. Ten years have passed, and I don’t notice the Gilly Gang much. Nor have I been called out for my ‘gentrifying’ white skin too often, but I know that the privilege of my gender and race upsets some people of color. I get it. I’ve never had to worry about a cop putting their knee on my neck for eight minutes and 45 seconds just because of my skin pigment.

            Social Psychology has shown us that attitudes only change with action. It’s the reason I consider myself a ‘reluctant’ economist. This ‘dismal’ science is based on the premise of Ceteris Paribus, meaning that a theory is sound as long as all the variables remain the same. The problem is that they don’t, and no matter how well you document or weigh every ‘dummy variable’, some dummy or dumbass event comes along to prove your calculations wrong.

            When it comes to influencing people’s behavior, you can try and talk them into a change of heart, but it’s only when something happens to shock them silly that they’ll see the error of their preconceived economic, political, or racist ways. Then and only then will their hearts follow your words. George Floyd’s death provided that overdue shock.

            The knee on his neck was that sadism-ladened moment that tipped the attitudinal scale. Perhaps we’d been prepared for it by Covid, a virus that couldn’t care less about skin color, although we have seen that African American and Latino communities are bearing the burden far more—with more than their share of the deaths. It’s no surprise, given their underpaid and under-appreciated roles on the ‘essential’ service front lines.

            The Covid racial inequities are proof of what Toni Morrison, the great African American Nobel Laureate, meant when she wrote the following of the American melting pot:

       “The venerated melting pot does not work for black people because we have never been in the pot. We are the pot. For to become American has meant, it must be admitted, to become a particular shade of white. And that whiteness was something to be earned by European migrants to the United States who made their way into the melting pot.”

            Jason Purnell, who writes eloquently in the Common Reader, takes Toni Morrison’s theory to its ultimate conclusion: “Black people are underneath the melting pot,” he says. They are the “bodies disposed beneath it that make America possible.” They are the fuel, the kindling for the fire.

           The firestorm that followed George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis, and the outrage it sparked across the country ran right into our Covid recovery road trip. We’d timed our escape from New York to coincide with the first hint that the city might be opening up, and I could rescue my car from its quarantine. On June 7 the city looked like it was on the road to recovery, and it seemed like we would be too. I hoped to be healthy enough to make the 2200 mile drive from New York, northwest to North Dakota, and across the border to our cottage in Saskatchewan.

            We’d booked a three-day stay in a hotel in New Minneapolis, a city that is about the half-way point on this trek. It would give me, the sole driver, a break. We had no idea it would be in the middle of an important event in the history of racism in America. That was all yet to come. We wanted only one thing—to get out of New York City.

           Things were looking good: masks had been made mandatory, and the curve had been flattened. The numbers were going down by all accounts, but as I was to find out, the Covid virus in my body had a long tail, and my temper, a very short one.

To be continued in November…

Return to WordCity’s October 2020 issue…

Gary Fowlie is a Technology Economist and Consultant.  He is on the Advisory boards of ID2020, a non-governmental agency that is working toward secure digital identities for all and of ‘Geeks Without Frontiers’, which brings emergency telecommunication services to disaster relief efforts. Gary was formerly the United Nations Representative in New York for the UN specialized agency, the International Telecommunication Union.  He led an inter-agency UN effort to ensure information and communication technologies were recognized in the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda. Previously, he served as Chief of Media Liaison for the United Nations in New York and was responsible for communications and advocacy for the UN World Summit on the Information Society.

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