Postcard from Rome: Post-Omicron

Last year, when the Delta spike was over and just as Omicron was gaining steam, I met my friend Anthony, who was already in Europe, in Bologna for a week’s vacation. There’s something truly sad about using virus variants as markers of time, but this is what comes to mind these days. I don’t fight it.

Having enjoyed that trip immensely, we planned another Italian venture for this year (post-Omicron, pre-sub-variants 4 and 5.) This time we recruited Anthony’s niece Juliana to join us, who was a welcome addition to the team.

La Squadra (the Team) goofing it up at JFK

Note that despite the wisdom of a single 35-year-old judge in Florida, we are wearing our N95 masks, which we kept on throughout the entire flight except, as Amtrak says, “when actively eating.” I’m curious about “passively eating” and wonder if it could be the culprit behind involuntary weight gain at certain points in my life.

Landing in Rome, we did what all experienced, overnight travelers know to do to combat the inevitable jetlag: check into your hotel where your rooms will, of course, not yet be ready; check your luggage with the porter; and go for a walk and a lunch. After our first of many excellent meals in the Monti neighborhood of our hotel, we wandered around the Forum of Trajan, where we received an “august” greeting from one of the emperors.

Caesar Augustus welcomes us to Rome

Having read Mémoires d’Hadrien (Hadrian’s Memoires) with my French group, I was anxious to visit that emperor’s villa in Tivoli, just outside Rome. Anthony and Juliana had been there, so I found a tour to join and went by myself the next day, while they went to Ostia for a day at the beach.

Four of us––myself, a brother and sister about my age from Minnesota, and an older gentleman from the north of England––got an education in Roman construction at the Villa Adriana, which is really an estate of multiple structures as opposed to a single villa. Over the centuries, the marble cladding of the buildings had been looted for use on other buildings, leaving the underlying brick work to suggest what was there.

A wall at the entrance to the Villa Adriana

Our guide acknowledged the elder Hadrian’s relationship with the much younger Antinous, who died mysteriously in the Nile at the age of nineteen on a campaign there with Hadrian. However, he cast it more as what today we would call pedophilia and less as a tragic love story. I suppose we’re all free to choose our own interpretation.

Pool at the Villa Adriana

The following day, La Squadra was back together for an e-biking adventure on the old Roman road, the Appian Way. Our fellow bikers were mostly a group of young Icelanders, whom one might describe as “aggressive” cyclists. I cut them some slack. Having toured Iceland, I know it’s a small country. Maybe they felt compelled to assert themselves on the broader European continent.

Biking the electrically-assisted way on the Appian Way

It wasn’t all brain-rattling cobblestones, although some of it was. It was also a national holiday, celebrating independence from Mussolini and Nazi occupation, not to mention a beautiful, sunny, cool spring day.

Cycling through a park along the Appian Way

The following day, we hired a car and driver to take us to the Castelli Romani––a number of hillside towns surrounding Rome, where well-to-do Romans have weekend vacation homes. Our first stop was Ariccia, known for a spiced, roasted pork called porchetta, which we sampled in a sandwich. On the Piazza della Republicca, there’s a lovely church designed by the great baroque architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Interior of Bernini’s Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo, Ariccia

Next, we moved on to Castel Gandolfo, the summer home of the Pope, who was not yet in residence there and therefore, unable to meet with us. The town itself was charming, however, with a spectacular view over Lago Albano, a volcanic crater lake.

Lago Albano from Castel Gandolfo

Our driver Daniele arranged lunch for us at Casa Mirandi, a small-batch family winery. The manager Pier Paolo gave us a tour of the property, and then we had a lunch and wine-tasting at the cantina. Alfredo, one of the proprietors who was serving us wine, broke out a guitar after lunch and he, Pier Paolo, the chef, and the kitchen help entertained and delighted us with several songs. My share of a case of their Cesanese awaits me at Anthony’s apartment.

Serenaded by our friends at Casa Mirandi (photo credit: Anthony Vitalone)

On our final night in Rome before heading to Florence (subject of another post), we met Anthony’s Roman friend Rosella who took us first to a place where you could see the dome of Saint Peter’s through the keyhole of a door to a courtyard in a building that belongs to the Knights of Malta. We ended the evening at the Garibaldi Monument on the Janiculum Hill with a view over Rome.

Rome at night from Janiculum Hill

Postcard from Bologna: Sanctuary

This is about a 7-minute read.

Rooftops of Bologna with Santuario di San Luca on the hill in the distance

I hadn’t intended on traveling internationally this year.

I was fully vaccinated by the beginning of April and watched the new case numbers begin to dip, as they were meant to, indicating the vaccinations were doing their job. We had our first family visit in eighteen months in Virginia. I spent two weekends with friends in rural Pennsylvania, and made plans to meet another friend in Philadelphia. Toto Tours, the company I’ve hosted tours for and which had been on hiatus since the beginning of last year, was making plans for 2022. I felt too much was––pardon the pun––up in the air globally as regards the pandemic to travel abroad now; I could wait for things to be more settled before getting on an airplane and landing on foreign soil.

Then I started hearing stories from Americans returning from abroad, particularly from Italy. “Everything’s open, and no one’s there” and “If you can, now’s the time to go,” were the common refrains. “I was in the Sistine Chapel with ten people,” a friend said. When I replied, “I’m jealous,” I meant it.

Less risk-averse than I about traveling during the pandemic, my friend Anthony had made plans to meet friends in Rome for a week at the beginning of August and then join a Greek Island cruise at the end of the month. With a week to kill in-between, he decided to stay in Europe and visit Italy’s Emilia Romagna region and its capital Bologna. In the past, we’d traveled together. We drove ourselves around western Ireland in 2002 and in 2019 spent a week in Milan. “I didn’t ask you to join me,” he said one Sunday night in July over dinner, “because I didn’t think you felt ready to travel abroad, but if you wanted to… …” and there the invitation dangled. By midnight that evening I’d booked and paid for the hotel and my airfare.

Ceiling of the Anatomical Theater in the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, Bologna

Then the Delta variant started filling the news. New case numbers rose exponentially. There were anecdotal headlines about “rare” cases of breakthrough infections among the fully vaccinated. Individual countries started putting other countries on “no entry” lists, based on their rates of infection; the lists seemed to change daily. Spain, which I was flying through, and Italy both required travelers to register online and receive a QR code that had to be displayed digitally on one’s phone or printed out. Proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours prior to arrival was required for entry. I had my vaccination card, but taking no chances, I went for the test as well three days before leaving. Demand for tests was so high that results for the more reliable PCR test were not available for five days. The young doctor seeing me assured me Italy accepted the rapid test. What seemed like a great opportunity two weeks earlier now felt stressful and anxiety-producing. I thought to myself, if Anthony had asked me today to join him, I would have declined.

Lamentation, Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna

I had been listening to a series on the philosophy of Stoicism, applied to modern life. One of its principles was to reframe set-backs as opportunities for growing one’s coping ability. Instead of freaking out, one was advised to step back and acknowledge that the Stoic Gods (“wink-wink” the commentator said) were simply testing us. I decided I’d done everything I could to meet requirements and have the right documentation; the rest was in the hands of the Stoic Gods. May they smile on me, I thought.

Statue of Neptune, Bologna

They did, and I thank them (wink-wink) for delivering me to Bologna none the worse for wear. Anthony and I had a delightful week sightseeing there, traveling by train to surrounding towns, and of course, eating really well with a glass or two of a good Sangiovese.

Bologna is a charming town with a compact historical center that’s easy to get around on foot. It’s the home of the oldest university in Europe and is filled with late-middle-ages and Renaissance wonders. One of the most arresting sights is a pair of medieval towers that used to be defensive structures for wealthy families. Perspective is drawing them together at the top of the photo below. But, in fact, due to marshy ground they were built on, both do lean somewhat, the shorter as much as eleven inches.

Le Due Torre, Bologna

We took two day-trips to other towns in the region. Parma is the home of the famous prosciutto di Parma and, of course, Parmesan cheese. We had plenty of both on the trip. Next to Parma’s cathedral is a free-standing, 13th-century baptistery. Unless someone played a trick on us, we found some 13th-century graffiti carved into the lip of the baptismal font itself. Look closely below, and you’ll see the date 1249 in Roman numerals. Below that, it’s signed by one Johanes Pallasondro, or something very close to that.

Baptistery, Parma
Medieval Graffiti––MCCXXXXVIIII. Baptistery, Parma

The Stoic Gods intervened on a day-trip to Ravenna, known for its Byzantine mosaics. We arrived without having researched the procedure for seeing them, only to find a rather long line with one lone agent selling tickets requiring timed entries for individual sites. It was a slow process, but our patience was rewarded. We only had a few hours before our return train but, amazingly, were able to see three terrific examples of the mosaics, plus have lunch! Thank you, Stoic Gods!

Apse, Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna

The final test––literally––was to get a Covid test three days prior to returning to the U.S. My friend who’d been to Italy earlier said, “Just ask the hotel where to get one; they’ll know. Or just walk into any pharmacy; they’ll give you one for 15 or 20 Euro.”

The guy at the reception desk of my hotel seemed bewildered when I asked where I might find a place near-by to get the test. “Maybe you can get one at the airport?” he ventured. There was a pharmacy directly across from the hotel. They didn’t give them––”We’re small,” they explained––but kindly gave me the address of a pharmacy near the train station––a thirty minute walk away.

On the third day (I realize that sounds like something from the Gospels) before my departure, we visited the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of San Luca, home to a faded icon of Mary and Baby Jesus known to have worked numerous miracles. The sanctuary sits atop a hill just outside the city. The longest portico in the world leads up to it, if you care to walk the two miles. Judging from the faces of the people we saw doing that, we were wise to take the tourist train that leaves from the city center (which looked like the Little Engine that Could) and walk back down.

As soon as we got back within the city itself, I decided I would stop at whatever pharmacy I saw to try and get a test. I was feeling anxious; I didn’t want my remaining days to be about finding a Covid test. I kept hearing my friend’s voice––”Walk into any pharmacy.” Well, finally on my sixth attempt and then just a few blocks from our hotel, I was directed to the Farmacia di San Paolo, who did, indeed, give me a rapid test and a print-out of my negative result.

When I checked in for my flight from Bologna to Madrid, the gate agent questioned the timing of my test relative to the regulations––about which she was mistaken––but finally sent me on with an annoyed “Good Luck!” She must have actually blessed me, because at the gate in Madrid for the flight to New York, I was waived through with only a “Buen viaje!” And in New York, nobody asked for my results.

I’m not sure if I should thank the Stoic Gods or the Blessed Virgin of San Luca for my good luck in making the trip. I certainly thank Anthony for inviting me and for being great company all week. Traveling in Italy was, itself, a bit of sanctuary––good for the soul. But I might wait for a post-Delta world, before I let the Stoic Gods test me again.

Dinner at Osteria Quadrilatero, first night in Bologna, under the protection of the Stoic Gods

Postcard from New York: The Constancy of the Sun

The day after the U.S. death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic crossed the threshold of 500,000 souls, I got the first dose of the vaccination against it at a Duane Reade in Times Square. It was a ten-minute ride from my apartment on the #1 train, but otherwise, getting there had not been easy.

Selfie with Duane Reade, Times Square, after my vaccination

In early January, when New York State announced that anyone 65 or older was eligible to be inoculated, I started trying to secure an appointment. It was a fruitless and ridiculous exercise. At one point, clicking through the city’s scheduling site, I was connected to the servers of the single Rite-Aid in Manhattan that was scheduling appointments, only to receive the disheartening message––”Number of users in the line ahead of you: 27,869.”

I posted a screenshot of the message on Facebook, to which one of my friends replied that she’d had luck through Mount Sinai Hospital––plenty of availability, simple process to secure a date online. I tried them, and after a brief game of Whack-a-Mole––choosing a date and time at a location, only to have the availability disappear by the time I filled in the personal information to request the appointment––I made it through to a booked date at their facility on 100th Street and Fifth Avenue––quite a distance from where I live near Union Square, but an office I’d visited more than once to see a specialist. I was thrilled.

Then there began to be supply issues. The Mount Sinai website posted a series of messages that cast doubt on whether my appointment would be honored. I decided I should attempt to find a back-up. So for a number of weeks, I kept six or eight browser windows open on my computer, which I would refresh several times during the day and night––New York State’s site, New York City’s site, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, various medical groups, and two citizen-created meta-sites that drew from a variety of sites to report availabilities. It was like buying a dozen lottery tickets several times a day, scratching them off, and finding nothing. As I feared, Mount Sinai cancelled my appointment last week with no option to reschedule due to lack of supply; only second-dose appointments would be honored. I was back at the healthcare craps table in a game I didn’t want to play.

Then yesterday, serendipitously, I hit the jackpot checking Walgreen’s site just as appointments opened up at some of their Duane Reade affiliates. I chose the one that had the most appointments available––twenty-eight at 1430 Broadway. I had no idea where 1430 Broadway was; no one knows where anything is in New York without a cross-street, but after living 45 years in Manhattan, I knew at least it was probably within the range of places I’d been in Manhattan.

Everyone I know who is eligible to get a vaccination has some version of this story. As I sat in a chair by the pharmacy waiting for the pharmacist to call me, I thought of the phenomenal scientific and technological achievement that has created two effective vaccines against the pathogen in less than a year. I praised the scientists, technicians, and even the past administration’s Operation Warp Speed that brought this about. In the next breath, I cursed the phenomenal ineptitude at every level of government, who had a year to work out the operations to distribute them. Healthcare should not be a roll of the dice at a casino where, most of the time, you lose.

Everything went without a hitch. I want to give a shout-out to the young women who managed everything at Duane Reade––two behind the pharmacy counter and the pharmacist herself. They were organized, efficient, and so incredibly patient. Like all good gay boys, I did exactly what I was told to do to the letter (this is how we’ve survived; if you do everything perfectly, they can’t, in good conscience, kill you): I printed out my confirmation email, downloaded and filled out the vaccination consent form, and had my Driver’s License and Medicare card handy. The same can’t be said for the three other people who had appointments at the same time. These women had the patience of Job dealing with them.

The shot was quick and painless. After waiting fifteen minutes without going into anaphylactic shock, I was on my way. After two weeks of winter storms, it was a sunny day with temperatures in the high 40’s. I walked down Broadway toward home, intending to reward myself with lunch at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park.

It’s hard to describe how I felt. At this time in February, the angle of light shifts in a noticeable way––it’s the northern hemisphere of the Earth leaning in more toward the Sun in its orbit. Most of us will register this as “a taste of spring.” We have this optimism about finally leaving winter behind, and, indeed, in a month or two more, we definitively will.

I felt that, but also something else, something more. “Hope” is the thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her most famous poems. Perhaps there was some hope for a return to normalcy fluttering around my head, as I headed down Broadway this afternoon. But I am often a critic of hope, seeing it as the antithesis to agency––hope is passive, makes us feel good, gets us through difficult times, but in and of itself does nothing to get us where we want to be.

One of my own poems closes with these lines:

Aren’t we all just looking

for something, a Greek ideal

of beauty, a father figure,

someone to hold onto,

the constancy of the sun?

Perhaps it’s the promise of that last line that was with me after I’d gotten my vaccination. No matter what happens to us––pandemics, climate disasters, worthless government, you name it––the sun inevitably will rise each day. And even if we are not there to witness it, it will warm something that is capable of engendering life.

If by luck or determination, we muster the resilience to live to see that rising of the sun, then we’ve won. At Shake Shack, I ordered the burger with double patties. I figured we deserved it.

Postcard from New York: Where are We Headed?

This is a 10-12-minute read.

Since I started my lockdown walks in Hudson River Park back in March, I’ve noticed a number of geese floating in the river near the shore or plodding around the green spots, honking, pecking at the ground, and shitting indiscriminately. Goose scat is larger than you might think, and one needs to be watchful when walking there.

I don’t know if this is their warm-weather home to which they return in the spring after snowbirding somewhere south, or if this is a rest stop on their way back to eponymous Canada. Whichever, they’re not the least bit frightened by New Yorkers. They go about their honking business as if we were no threat at all.

I was doing my usual route on May 4th, having just entered the park at 15th Street. There’s an area under construction where the Little Island is being build just off shore in the river and below it some kind of annex to the Whitney Museum back across the highway. A pathway has been designated with concrete barriers across the asphalt, and I had to stop for this group who were crossing in front of me.

A family out for a walk

Many families bring their kids out to get some exercise in the park while we’re all in lockdown. It’s not uncommon to see a mother herding several children on Razors or pushing a baby carriage with a dad lagging somewhat behind, head usually buried in a cellphone. This family looked a lot like their human counterparts. I’d never seen a gosling before and was struck by how much they looked like Easter chicks––squat, yellow, and fuzzy. The next day I saw them again, five chicks and their parents, grazing at another spot close by.

A few days after that, I noticed a similar grouping at the edge of a breakwater jutting out into the river. I thought it must be the same family, but I only counted four chicks. Was it a different group? Was it the same, and maybe the fifth was still in their nest somewhere? Or maybe, somehow, one didn’t make it?

Yesterday, I saw the group on a patch of lawn pecking at scraps that a small homeless encampment had left after their breakfast. The chicks were now about three times bigger than when I last saw them and almost totally brown. Their necks had grown longer; they looked like adolescent geese. And there were only four of them. I’m sure this was the original group and not a different family––less one chick. Who knows what happened.

Nature can be harsh. My other walking route takes me down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square Park. A while ago on my way home, I heard quite a cheeping racket as I walked under some scaffolding in front of a building on Fifth Avenue. Looking up, I saw––incongruously––a nest built into a crossing of metal supports for the scaffolding. An adult bird was sitting in the nest, and in front of the bird were three or four little beaks pointing skyward, squawking for food.

I had neglected to bring my phone, so couldn’t take a picture. But when I went out a few days later, I made a mental note to get a shot. There are a number of buildings with scaffolding, so I wasn’t sure which was the right one. But finally at one place, things started to look familiar, and then I saw the nest. Just as I did, a large-ish bird flew out of it. Looking up, I saw no little beaks. But one dead baby bird was hanging grotesquely from a twig just outside the nest, as though it had been strung up there. There are some predator birds in the city; rats can climb scaffolds; some drama of nature had played out there. I walked on feeling deflated, sad at life’s harshness.

It was announced last week that here in New York City we were on track to begin Phase One of re-opening on Monday, June 8th. Already I’d been seeing signs of some things coming back to life. Although restaurants had been allowed to do take-out and delivery since the beginning of the lockdown, many had opted just to close completely. But in the past week, I’d noticed a number of them re-opening, marking 6-foot intervals with tape on the sidewalk, taking orders and payment at tables in their doorways, bringing your order out to go. I did some tacos once, and another time an Italian sandwich at a salumeria in Chelsea Market. I wanted to support the local businesses.

Both the deli and the liquor store on the corners of 16th and Sixth had closed, even though they could have stayed open as “essential businesses.” I love that liquor stores were considered “essential;” a bureaucratic nod to reality, if ever there was one. I assumed they’d closed, because there just wasn’t enough business to cover the costs of staying open. I wondered about the young guy from Nepal who worked the late shift at the deli and the Mexican boys at the liquor store: were they being paid while the stores were closed? Were they just shit out of luck? Would they be back when things re-opened?

Returning from my walk one day, I saw the deli had re-opened. I went in, and there was the guy from Nepal, who goes by Dennis, behind a plastic screen in a blue surgical mask. There was an incredibly heart-warming moment when we both repeated––several times, genuinely––that we were so happy to see each other again. I asked him why they hadn’t stayed open, and all he said was, “We had to close.”

My neighborhood deli where Dennis works

The liquor store is across 16th Street right next to the Hollywood Diner. There are four or five Mexican boys who work there, one of whom is the manager and is always behind the counter. I never knew their names, and they wouldn’t have known mine. But the manager knew to reach for a bottle of Belvedere whenever I came in.

My neighborhood liquor store

When I went in the first time after they re-opened, I recognized the two guys who were working, but the manager wasn’t there. Nor was he there the second time I went in. On my third visit (don’t judge me), I asked the guy behind the counter, “Where’s the guy who’s usually here?” He pulled out his phone, made some thumb swipes, then held it up to me. “This guy?” he asked. I was looking at a picture of the manager. “Yes, him,” I said, “where is he?”

“He passed,” the boy said, and he unfolded a wrinkled piece of paper and showed it to me.

GoFundMe flyer for the manager of the liquor store

After a month-long battle with Covid-19, Roberto––whose name I’d never known––died, leaving a wife and two adolescent children. He’d worked at the Wine Gallery for 23 years, having immigrated from Mexico. He worked his way up to being manager. His was the classic American immigrant story. The GoFundMe page established for his family has photos of him and his Hispanic wife with their children, named Wendy and Michael Kevin, Americans from birth.

I’d asked the guy behind the counter why they hadn’t stayed open, and he said, “We had to close.” Exactly what Dennis at the deli had said. Suddenly, I got it: Roberto at the liquor store and someone at the deli had come down with Covid19. The stores had to be thoroughly disinfected; time had to pass.

I bought my Belvedere, went home, made a donation on Roberto’s GoFundMe (you could, too) and had a good cry. Nature is cruel. In this pandemic, as in the natural world, not everyone makes it.

I confess to being anxious about the “re-opening.” What does it actually mean? We succeeded in not collapsing the healthcare system by isolating in lockdown. But what has changed, as we prepare to re-open? Now we know to wear face masks? The virus is the same virus it was before lockdown. It’s still transmitted in the same ways. What has changed about getting on the subway? Is an airplane any safer than it was before? What are the rules when we socialize again in person, or should we not?

Then, while all these questions were percolating for me and many others, a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on a black man’s neck for almost nine minutes until he died, and the world exploded.

I live, as the realtors like to say, “steps off Fifth Avenue.” Union Square Park is one block beyond Fifth Avenue, and for more than a century it has been a gathering point for protests and demonstrations or for community mourning––there were candlelight vigils there nightly after 9/11.

I am also less than ten blocks north of Washington Square Park––another New York gathering place throughout history for the Bohemian downtown crowd, for artists and radicals, for NYU students, for freaks and friends of freaks, for anyone who wanted to be part of that scene. I have been walking there throughout the pandemic, just to get out of the house.

Both spots have seen huge protests. Crowds have gathered at both and then marched toward other parts of the city. I have shuddered at the thought of the conditions in those demonstrations, so perfect for spreading the virus––large numbers of people in shoulder-to-shoulder proximity for extended periods of time; the forceful expulsion of breath that accompanies shouting and chanting; the inconsistent wearing of face masks. The danger to demonstrators and to the police who are engaging with them, sometimes violently, is very disturbing. And last week, in the early days of protests, the demonstrations unwittingly provided cover for looters and other purveyors of mayhem.

West 16th Street, where I live, is a one-way street that feeds into Union Square. As such, it’s an access and exit point for anyone with “business” in Union Square––police, demonstrators, looters.

Mostly, I have heard the goings-on: helicopters whirring overhead throughout the nights; constant police sirens; the clanging alarms of fire trucks; the chanting of the crowds. But I’ve also witnessed the periphery of the chaos from the window of my fourth-floor aerie, looking out over 16th Street.

One night, amid sirens blaring and red and blue lights flashing, eight or ten police vehicles roared onto my block going the wrong way. They came to a halt. Policemen and policewomen jumped out, pulled shields down over their faces, un-holstered their billy clubs, and headed toward the crowds surging up Fifth Avenue.

Police vehicles on my block

Late last Sunday, I watched an SUV park in an empty space on the street. Four young men got out. They were all dressed completely in black, and wore hoodies and surgical facemasks. They headed toward Union Square, but stopped briefly at a pile of garbage on the sidewalk. One of them yanked at something that was there, and pulled off what looked like a stick or pole. He held it one hand and batted the tip of it against his other hand, much as the police had done with their billy clubs earlier.

On Monday night, I heard shouts in the street, and when I looked out the window, I saw several undercover police vehicles with lights flashing. Undercover cops had just tackled a man in the middle of the street. Another man in cuffs was being led toward one of the cars. The cops had intercepted two looters running from Fifth Avenue. I saw the cops looking into two backpacks and a duffel bag they’d confiscated, all stuffed with presumably stolen merchandise.

Taking down two looters in front of my building. There is a cuffed man we can’t see across the hood of the car on the left; the second cuffed man is standing directly behind the trunk on the right, a policeman holding his cuffs behind him.

Many of the stores on Fifth Avenue between 14th and 23rd Street were looted on Monday night. The next day the sound of buzz saws was ubiquitous, as any store that hadn’t already boarded up was doing so now, although for many, the horse had already run out of the barn.

On Tuesday night, the first night of an 8pm curfew inposed by the city, I had just gone to bed around 11:45pm, when I heard voices in the street. Until then, it had been almost beautifully quiet. I looked out my bedroom window and saw a group of twelve to fifteen young black men standing on the sidewalk opposite my building. They were dressed all in black, and one of them was talking to the rest. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but then he led them in a call-and-response chant, like a football team in huddle before taking their positions on the field. “We are… ” he would say, and the group would respond, “one.”

“We are… one.” “We are… one.” “We are… one.”

Indeed, we are. And where are we headed?

Postcard from the Pandemic: Pathway to Freedom

This is about a 7-minute read.

There’s an old maxim about horses and bicycles: if you fall off learning to ride, get right back on. In other words, don’t let fear and one mishap stop you. I don’t know if it also applies to falling down after being struck by a bicycle, but yesterday I gave it a try.

I’m writing this on Sunday, April 26th. A week ago, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, I went for a walk in Hudson River Park, as I’ve done many times. It’s a restorative treat, especially during quarantine: the closeness of the city opens up to the expanse of the river; the air smells of the sea (it’s easy to forget in New York that it’s not far away ), and the sun isn’t blocked by skyscrapers. Particularly now, one feels a sense of normalcy, of continuity from before to beyond the pandemic.

Pier in Hudson River Park looking toward New Jersey across the river
Flowers in bloom in Hudson River Park

As I was starting my walk home on the pedestrian promenade along the river, a cyclist––who later said he hadn’t seen me because he was going too fast––ran into me from behind and knocked me down.

Let’s start with the fact that there is a separate path designated for cyclists and skateboarders––in other words, for people on wheels who are moving at speeds greater than that of pedestrians. There is a promenade for pedestrians right along the river on which cyclists are forbidden to ride.

Should a cyclist decide to ignore that rule and ride along the pedestrian promenade, he is facing an obstacle course requiring constant alertness and attention. There are people walking in pairs and groups, talking, unaware of their surroundings. There are unpredictable children and pets, who at any point may step out in front of you. There are rollerbladers (still, two decades after the ’90s?) and runners weaving through the pedestrians themselves, constantly shifting their positions as they pass those moving more slowly than they.

Pedestrian promenade at the exact spot I was struck––just beyond the lamppost. Imagine riding a bicycle through this.

Choosing to ride here on a bicycle is a recipe for disaster and exactly what my cyclist caused. As I was walking along the right edge of the promenade above, the cyclist––in a moment of distraction––ran into me from behind, knocking me down onto the lawn to the right.

Not that he could have known it, but the cyclist was knocking down a 66-year-old man with two knee replacements: not recommended under any circumstance. He was very lucky in that the 66-year-old man in question wasn’t hurt, other than two minor scrapes on his palm where he blocked his fall.

Looking back at the incident, I’m struck by its randomness––both the fortunate and unfortunate aspects of it.

Unfortunate, in that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain moment when the cyclist swerved in a certain way and was for a certain second distracted: all had to align in the space of a nanosecond for him to run into me.

Fortunate, in that I could have been severely injured but was not. There are plenty of stories of people struck by cyclists in the street, thrown through the air, suffering multiple broken bones, fractures and concussions. Recently a woman was struck in Midtown by a cyclist running a red light and died from her injuries three days later. The cyclist faces a year in jail for “reckless endangerment.”

Consider the place were I fell after I was struck: a grassy spot at the foot of a tree. It was an exposed root of the tree that scraped my palm as I blocked my fall. Less than five feet behind me, there was an iron lamppost with sharp metal edges. Had the cyclist hit me a nanosecond earlier, I could have fallen against that. Or several seconds later, against a set of concrete steps.

I fell just to the right of the base of the tree in this photo.
Note how close I was to a metal lamppost, where I could have fallen.
Concrete steps fifteen feet or several seconds beyond where I was struck, where I also could have fallen.

When I posted about the incident on Facebook, I received dozens of well-wishes from family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Many closed with words like “take care,” “be safe,” “be careful,” and other such admonitions. While I recognized the heartfelt concern behind those words, I couldn’t help but think that there was no more care I could have taken to prevent what happened from happening, short of growing eyes in the back of my head. There was no protection against such a totally random occurrence, other than never going out of my home.

My French conversation group has been reading a memoir of Jean-Paul Sartre. So perhaps I’m influenced at this moment by that definitive existentialist. I’m struck, not just by a cyclist, but by the profound indifference of the Gods, the Fates, the Universe––whatever you want to call it or them––to this incident in the park, to both its unfortunate and fortunate aspects. Serendipity prevented a worse outcome; blind bad luck caused it to happen in the first place.

Oddly, there is something freeing in perceiving it this way. As hard as it is to grasp at times, I think this is part of what Sartre’s existentialism was all about. If life ultimately happens by chance, then we should pursue life however we like, because our actions are not determinant. They may or may not be rewarded or subverted; we may as well go for what we want.

My incident with the cyclist is a metaphor for my relationship with this pandemic. I didn’t choose it; I can’t control it. It came up behind me out of nowhere. There are things I can do right now to protect myself, but beyond that… what happens, happens. I continue living my life and will adapt. There is a phrase in French, je vie ma petite vie––I’m living my little life––that expresses this contentment with just living day-to-day, doing gladly what is there to be done.

When I was in college studying French, I was first exposed to Sartre and Camus and the existentialistes. I recall devouring Sartre’s trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom, sometimes translated as The Pathways to Freedom. What attracted me most––sitting in my room in an apartment in Lexington, Virginia with a mattress on the floor and an end-table my father had made from a fiber-optic cable spool––was the characters’ lives in post-war Paris, la vie boheme. They were artists and writers, hanging out in cafés, talking about art and beauty and pondering existence. I wanted to live like that, like them. I dreamed of it.

The other night, I was sitting in my living room, finishing the last of a bottle of Tuscan sangiovese after a homemade meal of penne integrale al’amatriciana, listening to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major––on the 46th day of quarantine during a global pandemic, the likes of which we’ve not experienced since the Spanish Flu pandemic over 100 years ago, and six days after being brutally knocked down by a rogue cyclist while walking in the sunshine in the park.

Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the music, but suddenly I realized, despite it all, I was living the life I’d dreamed of when I was a college student reading Sartre in my badly-furnished room. In fact, I have been living that life for years; I was just too busy to notice it––until now.

Sangiovese, Penne al’Amatriciana, and Ravel

Postcard from Within: Open

I’m a frequent listener to Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. As he often comments on current affairs, he will reference the date on which he’s recording the podcast in the event something has changed by the time one listens to it that might render something he said irrelevant.

This is certainly the case with communicating anything during the Covid-19 pandemic. At times, circumstances change dramatically day to day, or even hourly. I had intended to write this post two days ago, but for one reason or another, I didn’t get around to it until today, Friday, March 20th. If, by the time you read this, what I’m saying seems like a quaint remembrance from days gone by, don’t blame me. The “pen” may be mightier than the sword, but the virus is quicker.

Twelve days ago on Sunday the 8th, I was sitting in my new favorite restaurant, Santina, which is under the High Line in a Renzo-Piano-designed glass cube around the corner from the Whitney. It has fantastic food and an Italian-seaside-summer ambience that’s delightful in winter or otherwise dark and dreary times; not to mention a really fantastic, dry, pink Nero d’Avola, for those who care. It was a double birthday celebration for my goddaughter Nora and her mother. It would be the last dinner out with friends to date for a man who adores everything about restaurants.

Two days later, at a suggestion of my friend David a few days before, I went with him to see Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen on Broadway. I debated the wisdom of this, but at the time, couldn’t land definitvely on a nay. The house was packed, and the show was great. We stopped for a gelato at Amorino afterwards. It would be the last performance I’ve attended to date––me, a New York culture whore par excellence.

I know many of you have similar tales to tell: it has now been ten days since I’ve left my apartment––other than to go to the store, to mail something, or to take a walk. And despite countless phone conversations, Facetime sessions, texting marathons, emails, Zoom meetings of all my various interest groups and even some work-related projects that may actually continue, I have been alone in my apartment.

Normally, this is not something that bothers me. I’m a Meyers Briggs introvert by nature, far to the “I” end of that introvert-extrovert continuum. Absurdly independent, relentlessly creative, defiantly self-sufficient, I can amuse myself forever; there is not enough time in eternity for me to explore and do everything I’d like to, even without leaving my apartment.

But when the best thing you can possibly do for yourself and your survival––and that of every other human being you may come in contact with––is to isolate yourself, that independence and self-sufficiency take on a different hue: bluer, hazier, vaguer, easier to get lost in.

My saving grace has been to go out for walks. It’s allowed in New York, including for purposes of exercise (at least as of this writing.) And you don’t have to carry a form, as the French do, attesting to why you are out on the street. (The final reason you can check on this form says “brief outings near home, linked to physical activity by individuals––excluding team sport activities––and for the needs of pets.)

On Wednesday the 18th, two days ago, we had a lovely, sunny morning with temperatures in the 60s in New York––a harbinger of spring. I walked over to Hudson River Park on the west side. The Hudson is wide; when I start to feel constrained within the tight-packed verticality of the city, it’s a relief to walk along the river with its open, horizontal expanse beside me. I had a similar feeling once in the jungle in Peru: the jungle cloys, feels like it’s constantly encroaching on you, inching toward wrapping its tendrils around you. Our lodge was on the Madre de Dios River. When I’d sit on the dock with the open river before me, I felt like I could breathe again.

The Jungle, Peru, 2005
Madre de Dios River, Peru, 2005

In Hudson River Park on Wednesday, there were a fair number of people––people walking solo, in pairs, or with dogs; women pushing baby carriages or guiding children on Razors; men running shirtless (Thank you!) Not a crunch of folks, maybe less than on a “normal” weekday, but neither a brave few souls.

I was amazed to see that landscaping had begun on one of the more quixotic and wonderfully bizarre developments in New York: a park and performance space built over the Hudson River on undulating pilings that resemble giant concrete murshrooms. The brainchild of that improbable couple Barry Diller and Diane von Fürstenberg, after intense resistance from environmentalists, it finally got the go-ahead from the City. Brilliantly creative in its conception and design, it’s been given the sadly banal name of Little Island.

Little Island on the Hudson River
Trees being dropped in by a crane on Little island

I sat for maybe thirty minutes on a bench looking out over the river. I especially enjoy seeing children and dogs: seemingly unaware of the deadly danger all around us, the children are having the equivalent of a snow-day released from school, and the dogs are just dogs, casting their wide-eyed looks toward anyone who might love them.

Thursday the 19th was a chillier and overcast day. I did a loop from my apartment on West 16th Street up to Madison Square Park at 23rd Street (Shake Shake was open and serving) down Broadway to Union Square and on to Washington Square Park in the Village. What a difference a day makes! There was much more of a ghost-town feeling to the cityscape. I felt an odd sort of defiant camaraderie with the people I passed on the streets and in the parks.

Today, Friday the 20th, brought unseasonably warm weather in the 70s. Back along the Hudson River, there were throngs of people in the park. Sitting on a bench, I observed two women a ways down from me have an encounter with a dog-walking friend. “You’re awfully close,” the dog-walker commented to the women sitting next to each other. “Well, we’re…” one of the women shrugged, indicating clearly that they were a couple. Within several minutes, the two seated women were petting the dog; the dog-walker was sharing photos on her phone with the two, one of which was touching the phone and swiping through photos with her fingers. How quickly we forget, I thought.

Clouds were rolling in from the west, and the sunshine I’d been enjoying and Vitamin D I’d been receiving were waning. In the breaks of the clouds, the sunlight streamed down on Hoboken across the river as if in benediction. Who could begrudge New Jersey a little blessing?

God blessing Hoboken
What’s so special about the W?

Every morning as soon as I rise, I go into the living room and raise the shade I pulled down the night before. And each evening, as the sun goes down and the light departs, I lower the shade: there are apartments directly across the street from me at eye level. Do I want them looking in on me?

Tonight, I left the shade open. I wanted to feel open to the world. I wanted to take any and all of it in, in huge, avaricous gulps.

Postcard from Malta: Side by Side by Side

(This is a 5- to 6-minute read.)

One’s impossible, two is dreary/Three is company, safe and cheery.” –– Steven Sondheim, from the musical Company, “Side by Side by Side”

I went to Malta with my friends Larry and Gerri. Whenever I say their names together like that, it sounds to me as though I’m talking about a cartoon duo. And when you’ve gotten to know your friends well over the years, they start to seem––as do family––a bit like cartoons of themselves: you’ve seen enough episodes that you know how they’ll behave in most situations.

I’ve been “the third” to many couples in my life. I don’t recall ever feeling like “a third wheel.” If anything, I felt like a welcome distraction. I agree with Sondheim––two can feel like an inescapable rut. I’m often quite content as one, but traveling is best enjoyed with others, I think. I like the fluidity of the dynamics among three––it’s a constantly shifting two-to-one that always seeks a new balance.

I think of our trip to Malta less as a cartoon, though, and more as a favorite episode of The Three Stooges, with a title like one of their highest-rated episodes––”They Stooge to Conga.” Occasionally, figuratively, we smacked each other upside the head, but more often than not, we cracked ourselves up. Larry composed a little ditty, which befits the Stooges comparison:

We three 

We happy three 

We sainted, untainted yet scrappy three 

We’re e’er do wells 

Not ne’er do wells 

We’ve been to Malta, can’t you tell?

Relax, Cole Porter, I think your legacy is safe. But Larry is particularly proud of “e’er do wells,” and you have to admit it’s clever to describe a trio of swells like us. (Personally, I think Cole would have gone for the anti-grammatical rhyme of “can’t you tells?”)

Larry, Gerri, and a midget accordion player at D’Office Bistro, Valletta
Larry and Gerri under a streetlight, examining a statue of the Archangel Michael on the corner of our hotel’s street in Old Valletta.

The first major sight we saw in Malta was the Lascaris War Rooms. Malta was among the most heavily bombed places in Europe during World War II. These were the underground headquarters of the British forces on Malta, from which they tracked incoming enemy bombers.

Our guide was… let’s say… a “generously midriffed” Englishman (not that I’m casting any stones from my own glass waistline) with a dry sense of humor; the kind of guy who makes a sarcastic joke without ever smiling.

Right before the guided tour, I caught Larry and Gerri where I thought they blended perfectly with their backgrounds.

Larry and an Unidentified Colleague Defending our Borders
Gerri and Two Enthusiastic Volunteers, Backing Up the Fighting Forces

One of the things I loved about traveling with Larry and Gerri was their willingness to spontaneously go off-plan when something intriguing arose. Coming out of Mass at St. John’s Co-Cathedral––where we came close to being the only three people over the age of 60 ever to be expelled from a Catholic mass––we encountered a troupe of bass-players, performing outside the Cathedral. They were students of the instrument, gathered for the Malta Double Bass Days––a workshop for players of all ages and levels.

Malta Double Bass Days Ensemble

As luck would have it, they were giving a concert that night at the University of Malta, right around the corner from our hotel. How could we not go? I’m sure we were the only people who were not family or friends of the performers, but we cheered as boisterously as any proud parent for the students from around the world, who’d come to improve their skills.

Our favorite was a local boy named Giuseppe, who was the youngest of the group, and who performed the first solo pieces. When the director announced that Giuseppe was six years old, Giuseppe interjected ––and a half! (I vaguely remember some distant era when a half a year made an important difference in my age.) Whether it was due to that half-year or not, Giuseppe totally rocked, plucking out the double-bass-repertoire equivalent of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. His parents sat in front of us and were glowing with pride and joy.

Giuseppe with a little help on his double bass solo.

One of our more adventuresome adventures was the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour of Gozo, the second largest island of the Malta archipelago. It wasn’t clear before arriving in Malta exactly how one got to Gozo. Inevitably, a ferry had to be involved. Reviews on Trip Advisor consistently warned that one company managed all the trips, and that it was basically total chaos.

Without going into the gory details, suffice it to say that by the time we were on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus that toured Gozo, there was no time to hop off anywhere––not even to grab a snack, much less lunch––before we had to be back at the ferry dock to return to the island of Malta. The bus made one mandatory stop at a tomato-processing outlet, where you could buy various products, tomatoes being a big crop on Gozo. I bought a small jar of a tasty sun-dried tomato spread. The joke––which a British couple we befriended who were sitting behind us on the bus overheard and enjoyed––was that we’d bought the Hop-On Hop-Off tour and only got to hop off for a jar of tomato paste.

Savino’s, Tomato Processing Outlet on Gozo
Larry and Gerri, Intrepid Travelers on the Gozo Hop-On Hop-Off Bus with Audio Tour

For the most part, the three of us exalted in or endured our various adventures together. Once after a long day, Gerri declined a dinner out, and Larry and I made our way to a kind of touristy food court not far from our hotel, where we had really good Italian pizza and some decent wine.

Larry at the Food Court Tucking into a Pizza

On the other side of this table, I’m raising my Nero D’Avola to my traveling companions, who were the real reason this was such a fun trip. As Larry liked to joke with a fake Russian toast whenever we clinked glasses––Garagekey!

Larry and Gerri outside the Hypogeum, a Paleolithic Underground Cemetery

Postcard from Malta: In a Corner

(This is a 5-6 minute read.)

One of the top––if not the top––tourist attractions in Malta is St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.

What the heck is a co-cathedral? you rightfully ask. It has something do with the complicated hierarchy of Roman Catholic churches in terms of where the Bishop of a particular diocese sits when he’s in town attending Mass. In Malta, that’s somewhere other than St. John’s, but St. John’s is important enough that there’s also a bishop’s chair there. The best way I can comprehend it is to say that St. John’s is kind of like the Bishop’s weekend house in the Poconos. He lives in Manhattan, but he’s got a place in the country in Pennsylvania as well.

St. John’s is noteworthy architecturally. An exceedingly plain façade belies the Baroque frenzy inside––every inch is frescoed or gilded or otherwise adorned.

Façade, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta
Interior, St. John’s Co-Cathedral (photo: Larry Kenny)

We made two visits to St. John’s, each a completely different experience.

Our first was to attend the 11:00 a.m. Sunday Mass in Maltese rather than Latin. It seemed like a great opportunity to hear the local language in a somewhat familiar context and also to experience the church not as a tourist attraction but in its real function as a place of worship.

Tourists are not allowed to roam around during the Mass, so there was a sort of screening before we were allowed in––Are you here for the Mass? If yes, you could go in and be seated; if not you were told to come back when the church was open for tourism. We passed muster and took seats in the back of the sparsely-filled church about twenty minutes before the start of the Mass.

Gerri wandered up to the front for a minute or two to see the altar up close and then rejoined Larry and me in the back. I’d always been frustrated by guidebook descriptions of cathedrals, as I didn’t know the terms for the parts of the church that were used to locate something. The third chapel on the right after the narthex is not helpful if you don’t know what and where the narthex is. (It’s the area just as you enter the cathedral, behind where the pews are at the opposite end of the church from the altar.) So I had boned up on my church architecture terms and was pointing out the barrel-vault ceiling and explaining where the apse was, gesticulating toward these features.

We were approached by some sort of church official, who asked again if we were there for the Mass. When we said yes, he told us there had been complaints that we were “wandering around” and “having discussions.”

We restrained ourselves until the service started and behaved appropriately until it ended. Gerri took communion, we put Euros into the collection plate, awkwardly shared the Peace of God with our neighbors, and followed as best we could the spoken Maltese Mass in the printed program. The country’s European and Arabic heritage is revealed in its language. For example, Glorja’l Alla means Glory to God.

Our second visit was with the rest of the island’s tourists on a weekday. We queued up, paid our eight Euros, received audio guides, and Gerri reluctantly tied an ugly shawl-like thing provided by the church around her shoulders, needed since the coverall over her tank top was sheer. (We certainly understand the Lord’s aversion to even of a hint of shoulder skin.)

Despite the strategically-placed oscillating fans, it was hot inside the crowded church. The earphones on the audioguide were the most ill-fitting I’ve ever encountered, and the presenter went on interminably with a detailed history at something like twenty-six different stops.

The tour culminated in the Oratory (a small chapel for private worship) where, most notably, there are two paintings by Caravaggio.

Carravagio had to flee Rome where he’d become a famous painter after reputedly killing a young man in a duel. Through patrons, he made his way to Naples and then to Malta. Impressed to have him there, in addition to commissioning work, the Grand Master made him a Knight of Malta. But his habitual brawling got him thrown into prison and kicked out of the Knights as a reprobate. Somehow he escaped and made his way to Sicily, where he went on painting.

St. Jerome Writing was the more familiar of the two Carravaggios in St. John’s. I’d seen it reproduced before.

St. Jerome Writing, Caravaggio

It’s classic Caravaggio: the use of chiaroscuro––the dark, almost monochromatic background obscuring detail, contrasted by the dramatic lighting on the central figure of St. Jerome and calling attention to secondary details, in this case the skull and crucifix in the lower right. It’s a masterful composition.

That said, it breaks a “rule” of composition called The Rule of Thirds, which claims that the most pleasing place for an important element of composition is at the intersections of lines dividing the image into thirds horizontally and vertically. In the photo below, the phallic rock that stands out from the rest of the landscape is centered on the left, but cropped to follow the Rule of Thirds on the right.

Photo example from Wikipedia. Used without permission.

Caravaggio’s composition in St. Jerome Writing is more like the image on the left: the peak of the composition (St. Jerome’s head) is centered at the top of the painting, and a lighted triangle is defined by his red drape and the skull at the bottom.

The main draw in the Oratory is not St. Jerome, but The Beheading of St. John the Baptist––commissioned as an altar piece for the church and still in place as such. It is the only work Caravaggio ever signed and, in my opinion, one of the oddest compositions among very famous paintings.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, Caravaggio

Fully three-quarters of the painting is background––the wall of a prison where St. John was being held, broken only by light barely picking out a detail of two prisoners watching the decapitation behind a barred window.

The action is limited to the lower left quadrant, an odd compositional choice, where four figures––a maid holding the silver platter to receive St. John’s head, a distressed woman observing, the jailer pointing toward the platter, and the executioner––form an arc that echoes the stone archway behind them.

The light falls most strongly on the body of the executioner––centered in the lower half of the painting. St. John is relegated to the very edge of the composition, almost insignificant, except for the bright red cloth over him, which echoes the blood of his decapitation, in which we find Caravaggio’s signature.

Odd as it is, the composition seems to suggest what W. H. Auden said so eloquently in one of my favorite poems––Musée des Beaux Arts––that suffering goes on:

“Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

Postcard from Malta: Light within Stone

(This is a 2-3 minute read.)

The Maltese islands are the high points of what was a land bridge between Sicily and North Africa, cutting the Mediterranean in two during the last ice age. The soft limestone that makes up the islands has been the primary building material since prehistoric times through today. Because of this, the built environment seems to rise organically from the islands themselves––as if the buildings had been pushed up out of the ground, or as if the hills had been whittled and faceted into structures.

Modern buildings on the island of Gozo
Old Town of Valletta on the main island of Malta
Valletta at the entrance to the Grand Harbor at dusk

The most striking aspect of the stone, however, is that it seems not so much to reflect the ambient light, as absorb it, altering the color completely.

On our visit to the ruins of the Tarxien Temples, which date from around 3500 B.C., under a slightly overcast sky filtered through a protective covering like a scrim––the stone is dull beige and grayish.

Tarxien Temple, paleolithic ruins

Where the old stone has been power-washed––as in the Baroque buildings renovated for tourism––the stone has a warm, creamy feel to it, almost white in bright light.

Faćade of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta
Interior stairwell of our hotel, Palazzo Consiglia, in a renovated Valletta townhouse

It’s at its prettiest, of course, in the fading light of late afternoon. Returning from a visit across the Grand Harbor to Birgu, the original home of the Knights of St. John before they built Valletta, sitting atop the ferry, we’re treated to a beautiful scene of sunlight within the stones of the old city, reflected in the water below.

This is Malta at its most romantic and enchanting.

Birgu from atop the Three Cities Ferry in Dockyard Creek

Postcard from California: Pacific Family Time

My niece Megan moved to central California over two years ago. Leaving the D.C. area where she’d been living and working since getting her Masters in counseling, she loaded her car with her things and her dog, Ferris Bueller, and wwoofed her way gradually across country. That’s not a typo, my eagle-eyed editors. WWOOF is the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmers. In exchange for room and board, you can work for a few weeks on an organic farm. Megan had some very interesting and colorful travelogues to share of her experiences (it must run in the family) and eventually ended up where she wanted to be in Santa Cruz, California and environs.

I was reminded of a certain young man driving a manual-shift U-Haul truck–his earthly belongings filling maybe three feet of the cargo space in the back–from Lexington, Virginia to New York City in 1976 with two cats, Lunch and Mutispaugh, in the cab. On that trip, there was no farming involved. If you told me today that I’d have to do something similar now, I’d tell you to go jump off a cliff. (I’m not sure how I managed to park that truck on West 87th Street and return it somewhere on the Hudson River midtown the following day.) But one does what one has to when one has to do it and somehow survives to write travelogues about it.

While we’d seen Megan back east for family holidays, we hadn’t visited her in her new stomping grounds. Her parents, Jan and Bruce, and I decided it was high time.

Megan and Jan in front of Megan’s apartment, Los Gatos

After some adventures with roommates and boyfriends-at-the-time, Megan has her own place–what’s referred to as an “in-laws’ apartment”–in a small building behind a house on a residential street in Los Gatos, close to her job in San Jose, but not that far from where she likes to hang out in Santa Cruz.

We rented a funky, old, comfortable AirBnB in the Seabright Beach neighborhood of Santa Cruz, which worked out well for us.

Our Seabright Beach cottage

We took great delight in the flora of central California–flowering succulents and other plants we just don’t have back east. This century plant was having its suicidal bloom the very week we were there.

Century Plant at our AirBnB
Jacaranda in bloom, César Chávez Plaza, San Jose

Megan came down to meet us on our first evening after she got off work. We had dinner at one of Megan’s favorite haunts, India Joze. Joe of the Joze/Joe’s pun is the head cook and cuts a uniquely Santa Cruzan figure in a black leather apron, knee-high boots, and the tools of his trade hanging off a thick belt. He was a bit like Mad Max meets Julia Childs meets John Glenn in his culinary capsule of a kitchen, where almost single-handedly he cranks out incredibly delicious meals.

The next day, while Megan was at work, we visited The Tech Museum in San Jose. I think Bruce enjoyed the interactive tech exhibits more than Jan and I, but we all enjoyed an Apollo 11 documentary in the IMAX Dome Theatre. I spent many a night across the César Chávez Plaza from The Tech at the San Jose Fairmont over four years when Intel was my client. So the visit brought back many memories.

That afternoon we met Megan at her place and accompanied her and Ferris on their daily walk through Vasona Lake County Park.

Jan, Megan, Ferris and Bruce – Vasona Lake County Park

Los Gatos creek was dammed to make the reservoir in 1934, and there’s a pretty little marina with paddle boats and kayaks.

Boat dock at the Marina, Vasona Lake County Park

Megan took Friday off, and we all trooped up to the site of the Santa Cruz Mission, built by the Spanish in 1791 and one of a string of missions going up the California coast. (Basically any town with a “San” or a “Santa” in front of it was part of the mission project.) A park and the Holy Cross Catholic Church sit on the site of the original mission church, but a replica was built nearby. It had a great little gift shop, and I picked up an illustrated pamphlet called “The Lives of the Saints for Boys.” This sort of thing comes up in crossword puzzles from time to time.

One of the mission dormitories still exists in the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park. The exhibits aim to give you a sense of mission life and those who lived there–from the Native Americans gathered up by the mission priests to the last Irish immigrant family who occupied the building after the mission had been closed. In reference to the Native Americas, that they were forced into labor was not ignored, but I don’t think anything actually ever used the word “slave.”

State Historic Park with Holy Cross Church steeple in the background

Afterwards, we drove up “the One,” as one says, to Swanton Berry Farm, where we had delicious vegan chili and berry cobbler and pie. Payment is on the honor system. You add up your own total and charge it on an iPad to your credit card. Or you pay in cash and make your own change from the open cash drawer. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in New York anymore.

Swanton Berry Farm

Just up “the One” from Swanton’s is a nice little cove where Scott Creek flows into Monterey Bay. We walked along the beach there, examining unusual stones worn by the tides and the geographic strata of the cliffs.

Scott Creek and Monterey Bay

On Saturday morning, Jan and Megan went to Megan’s Ecstatic Dance class at India Joze. While they were there, Bruce went for a run along the San Lorenzo River, and I went to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. There was a great exhibit on the history of Santa Cruz and one done by a Chinese-American graphic artist, tracing Chinese immigration to the area–as charged an “issue” in its time as immigration today across the southern border. Maybe we should study more history in school.

In the rooftop garden of the Museum of Art and History

The four of us reunited for lunch and a six-mile hike through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. I recall lore about redwoods even as young child in upstate New York, but I realized when were hiking that I’d never actually seen any live. It goes without saying how amazing these trees are, towering so above us, living thousands of years, surviving and thriving.

Redwood grove, Henry Cowell State Park

Santa Cruz was perfect for experiencing the phenomenon known on the California coast as “June Gloom.” (We poets call that a slant rhyme; it leans toward rhyming, but doesn’t quite make it, and we love to use them.) Every morning was chilly, gray, foggy, and dripping. If you drove twenty minutes west, you were in bright sunshine. Or if you just waited until noon, the gloom (another slant rhyme) would have been chased away. Our cottage was no more than two blocks from Seabright Beach, so once the gloom cleared, we spent Sunday enjoying the ocean.

Beach at Santa Cruz in front of the boardwalk

Megan also took Monday off, and the four of us drove up to Marin County just over the Golden Gate Bridge to meet Bob Hanenberg, a former work friend of Jan’s. He led us on a hike through the Marin Headlands with great views out over the bay.

Angel Island in San Francisco Bay from the Marin Headlands
Wildflowers on the Bobcat Trail, Marin Headlands

After the hike, we drove into San Francisco and had lunch sitting on the rocks at China Beach–named for the Chinese laborers who used to sleep there–with views to the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, it’s a toney neighborhood with some spectacular mansions hanging over the cliffs above.

China Beach, San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
Bob Hanenberg scaling the cliffs at China Beach

That evening, we met the “dog people,” those who walk their dogs in Vasona Park at the same time when Megan walks Ferris. It was a special day: Snowflake the poodle was having a 12th birthday party. There were doggy cheeseburgers, frozen doggy treats, and some human snacks as well. The dozen or so dogs were having the greatest time and were impossible to gather for a group photo though an attempt was made – just like at a kiddie birthday party.

Closest one could get to a dog party group photo
Snowflake, the Birthday Girl

Megan had to work on Tuesday, so Jan and Bruce and I took the tourist train from the Santa Cruz boardwalk up through the Redwoods State Park to Roaring Camp, a former logging site. We had an hour layover to roam through the redwood grove again before the train ride back. That evening we joined Megan at a human birthday party in a park in Capitola for one of her friends.

I spent that night at Megan’s to be closer to the San Jose airport for my early morning flight back to New York. I woke up several times during the night to feel the comforting warmth of Ferris, snuggled up next to me, once with his head resting on my stomach. And isn’t that what family is all about?