A family affair made it possible to travel from Switzerland to the US, and the plan was to stay until the elections to do some reporting, but another family affair demanded a fast return to Switzerland. Reporting was not in the cards anyway as the I-Visa apparently is rendered worthless in Corona times. Entering the country was a tedious process and allowed to visit wife and family only. Until 25 August declared the customs official in New York. You are not allowed to work, understood?. She said that I could possibly prolong my stay for a month, but you would need to turn in an application, otherwise you have problems.
Where do I apply?
You have to call the Embassy.
The US Embassy in Bern?
The US does not have a US Embassy in the United States.
Oh yeah, whatever.
So – where?
What is it again? IS or something like that.
You mean the Immigration Service?
I don’t know. Google it.
Flying in Corona times is a dream. The plane from Zurich to New York was one third full at most. So were the airports. The customs hall in JFK, in a normal July overflowing, was empty. The traveler sails through the controls like a diplomat or a VIP.
Coming from Switzerland where no one wears one, the first thing you notice are the masks. People wear masks, also in the streets. Even among the homeless there are some mask wearers. New York City, last spring the global pandemic hot spot, has learned a lesson.
Bars and stores are open again. But some are gone. Brooks Brothers went bankrupt. The second-hand dealer in the corner is gone, yet another coffee place is announced. The Greek with the fabulous octopus closes at 5 p.m. Is New York about to discover European store closing hours?
The city is dirtier than usual. Large piles of trash bags are lined up along 43rd Street towards the Hudson, all week long.
90 percent among the small minority of non-mask-wearers are 90 black. To spell this out is taboo. If I mention it, people change the topic. “Ich leave it to the sociologists to comment on this”, says J, a lawyer.
The TV screen is teeming with race. “Black Lives Matter”. National Public Public Radio recites the rosary of race issues on and on. Independence Day on the 4th of July is one tormented attempt to reconcile America’s racist foundation with the great promises of the declaration of independence and the constitution. On local TV a high schooler demands empowering a student panel on racist incidents with investigative powers. The right-wing stations televise revolution. “Situation Room”, Steve Bannon’s outlet, rants in the style of the erstwhile Josef Goebbels. Subversion. Sedition. War. They have a reporter from England, an Arab or Caribbean guy who reports on a street fight between police and black-lifers in London. Boris Johnson is too soft, he too is one of the elites, the Caribbean man knows. I have been to their cocktail parties. Now is the time for the iron fist. Worldwide. Fox in the morning has the slimy Dick Morris, who in the nineties pushed Bill Clinton toward the right: It is not about race discrimination, it is about overthrowing the public order. The leaders of “Black Lives Matter” are the most radical on the planet. Sean Spicer, Trumps first speaker, now a Fox presenter, asks how to frame Biden. The epithet “Sleepy Joe” does not work, Biden stays high in the polls. Morris recommends portraying Biden as weak. A coward before the interior enemy.
On the way back from shopping am bum barges into me and lets a paper bag fall on the ground. I say “sorry” and keep walking. He turns around, follows me and makes a scene: It is my fault that his food lies on the ground. I give him a dollar.
Are you joking? I paid 20 dollars for this food, my daughter needs something to eat.
Are you kidding? Here is another dollar.
I move on quickly. The bum is black. What if he yells “racist”? Would this provoke a crowd to gather? Would the police show? Am I a racist for not playing along with his spiel? So be it.
I actually am to spend two weeks in quarantine. Upon leaving the plane the body temperature was taken, in the plane a questionnaire with address, phone number and e-mail had to be filled out. Customs hands out a leaflet. The quarantine obligations are not phrased totally airtight. In my interpretation I go shopping and jog early mornings along the Hudson. You have to do something against the Covid-15 too, after all. This is how Americans call the 15 pounds they put on during the lockdown. Nobody contacts me with inquiries about compliance.
N, the neighbor, says he was tested for antibodies and showed up positive. Therefore, he already had the virus and was on the safe side, he said, even if he should catch it again. The second time was less severe, he believes. N knows that an infection can take a turn to the worse. “The father-in-law of my son died of it; he was a little over 60 years old. We could only have a video funeral”. N says this was hard. But it is what it is.
It is what it is. The little phrase turns up like a leitmotif in our scant encounters with Americans. The Caudillo in the White House said it, too, when asked about the tens of thousands of Covid-fatalities in the US: It is what it is.
The family affair morphed into a funeral. D died. The nursing home suspected a Corona infection, had her tested and put her in total isolation while waiting for days for the test results (negative). This broke the last will to live. The home says they know of at least a half a dozen cases in which disorientation, anxiety and confusion during the isolation triggered death.
Because I arrive from high-infection New York, I am asked to do a second quarantine. A shorter one. I do the Corona test. Negative.
A funeral or memorial cannot take place inside. We are in a park, two dozen people. The family members say something. Afterwards we sit around for a bit, in distance and masks mounted. Then we go home. The ones from Chicago came in J’s small plane and fly back. The siblings stay together until after dinner.
Remarkably, not a word is said about politics. Usually, sparks fly fast. We have far right thinking Trumpist, strict Christians (pro-Trump as well), a Democrat with Elizabeth Warren’s “persist”-sticker on the car, Independents with libertarian tendencies, non-political ones. Some don’t wear masks and adhere to the theory that it is better to get infected and beat the virus than trying to dodge it. Others are hyper cautious. No one speaks of Donald Trump or mentions the heated fights about sense and nonsense in governments’ Corona-measures.
America is so divided that political issues need to be taboo if conflict is to be avoided. But not so deeply divided that such taboos are not respected any longer.
Traveling in a refrigerator
B is afraid of flying. I am not. So, we drive to New York. First to Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, then into the city. Four days of driving, three stays in hotels, one week of rest and again a day of driving. Eating outside. No patronizing any restaurants.
A summer car trip in the US is like traveling in a refrigerator. In the morning you leave your air-conditioned room, enter your air-conditioned car and only at the gas station become aware that outside it is 100 degrees. Most Americans spend their summers inside, in air-condition. Strangely enough, air-condition is no big issue in the epic debates about the virus being air-borne. The newspaper is mum, you have to google to find information. The assessments of the airborne risk are as different as the variety of air-conditioning systems. Unimaginable what would happen if Doctor Fauci suggested to his countrymen to get used a little bit more to the summer heat.
Hermann on the Missouri River. The American Rhineland”. A wine-growing area purchased and founded by German immigrants in the middle of the 19th century. We grab a bite in a bar and eat in an arcade along the main street. Not alone: a young man bears us company, uninvited. Nate. He does not wear a mask and follows too loose an interpretation of the 6 feet distance rule. Nate has a great urge to communicate about mask-wearing. “I cannot wear one”, he says, “I get anxiety attacks”. Asthma. Nate is a believer in what he calls oxygen therapy. “If you have enough oxygen, your immune system is strong enough to beat back the virus”. Nate lives with his mother. She is old and he acknowledges a risk. It’s pro and con. Should the government mandate mask-wearing he would follow suit.
A rainstorm forces us to overnight in Casey/Ill., population 2700. It’s claim to fame is the world’s largest rocking chair and a half a dozen other entries in the Guinness Book of records – the legacy of a local businessman. The hotel is a former mansion harking back to better times. We are the only guests. Throughout the night endless freight trains roll through the village but the railway station is long shut down. There is – the virus – no breakfast served, but with a voucher you get a bag of junk food and a warm coffee in the coffee shop across the street. Three elderly sit at tables and eat eggs with hash browns. The building is a former bank. Someone put a stuffed lion behind the door to the empty entrance hall.
Right after the border comes Terre Haute. The site of the federal prison where they recently have resumed the killing of inmates. The rest is as flat and boring as the Vice-President Pence who ruled the state as governor. The memory that sticks is an extraordinarily lousy lunch. Mushy white cardboard bread with 2 slices of boiled beef on an off-white gravy. I did not pay enough attention when I ordered a roast beef sandwich and got it in the “open sandwich” form. Lesson learned: When in Indiana, make sure you don’t get your sandwiches “open”.
Along I-70 large billboards say “Trump Pence 2020”.
Traffic is heavy, the right lane solidly occupied by trucks. But always moving. In four days, we never were stopped by a backup.
Akron. Seat of the Firestone tire company which in 1978 dismissed more than 600 workers in Pratteln/Switzerland, because the Swiss franc was too strong and the wages too high. Headquarters did not allow the manager to discuss alternatives with Swiss authorities. So, the government of the canton (state) of Basel-Land, supported by the federal government and Swiss diplomacy, made the pilgrimage to Akron, hoping – to no avail as it turned out – to achieve some leniency. This all happened before globalization, in the days when the state took “social partnership” more seriously than now. Today, political resistance against corporate decisions at most is reduced to the phantom fight against “the EU”. The rest is fatalistic put-uppery with the seemingly inevitable.It is what it is.
On the radio we listen to the press conference of Governor Mike DeWine. He declares a state-wide mandate to wear a mask at indoor locations that are not a residence and outdoors when a 6-foot minimal distance to other individuals cannot be maintained. In stores, restaurants, offices, public transport. Exceptions are for those who play sports, officiate at religious services, are involved in public safety or have a medical condition. Also, “those who are actively eating or drinking” do not need to wear a mask in Ohio. Wearing masks will make a difference, it will determine what our fall looks like, says the governor. We want kids to go back to school, we want to see sports. To do that, it’s very important that all Ohioans wear a mask. DeWine appeals to the civic spirit of his constituents. Please help. Mike DeWine is a Republican. A different kind of Trumpist.
On breakfast TV the director of the Centers for Disease Control also recommended wearing masks. Would he support a mandate by the government? The man knows that he is not allowed to say this, because if he does, Caudillo”s ire will come down on him and he might lose his job. It is more important to convince the citizens, he says. That’s a matter of good example.
Trump does not wear masks.
From Cleveland on the beautiful parkway along Lakes Erie and Ontario. In Buffalo I espy a “Biden” sign in some yard. The only one on the whole trip. Trump signs were regular sightings. This means something because such signs are sympathy signals of individual citizens. It is way too early for orchestrated sign postings. Trump, on the basis of what we see, is stronger than the serious press makes believe. In Kansas City one guy, surely frustrated by the meager offerings on the ballot, put a campaign sign of his own making in his front yard: Any functioning adult 2020.
Niagara Falls, then overnight in Oswego/NY. A literary trip down memory lane to the pre-teen years. Leatherstocking. Chingachgook. The noble Uncas. Natty Bumppo. Was there not a party of English ladies stuck in the wilderness either on the way to or from Oswego? We probably could tour the old fort, but we are not on an educational trip. We want wine – after all, there are vineyards along the lakes. I want to taste the local whites.
Do you have something dry?
The waitress stares at me quite puzzled. How can something liquid be dry? She calls a colleague, who turns out equally clueless. B orders a Scotch. I try the Riesling.
B was right.
stay clear of the larger beaches. We belong to risk groups, double and triple. But we go for a dip in little Mexico State Park on Lake Ontario. Two lifeguards in red bikinis are watching us.
Is the water clean here?
No. There are dead fish around. This morning we found a real big one, we put it over there.
But can we swim?
Yes, if the dead fish don’t bother you.
There are none. The water is not very clear, but the afternoon is too hot. As soon as we reach the buoy about 60 feet off the waterline, a red bikini shouts “stop, only until the marker”. On the western shore a nuclear power plant puffs steam into the sky. Further on, in Lowville, we see a field of wind turbines almost as big as the ones in Germany.
New York is catching up.
The TV broadcasts the funeral ceremony for representative John Lewis from Georgia, a comrade in arms of Martin Luther King. Obama speaks. Clinton speaks. George W. Bush speaks. John and I had our disagreements of course, he says, but in the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action. John Lewis was a democrat and an ardent opponent of W.’s policies. He refused to participate in Bush’s inauguration in 2001. Some days later, the Caudillo in the White House is asked what he thinks of the civil rights hero John Lewis. He says: He didn’t come to my inauguration.
Lake George – like Swiss lake Thun but without snow-capped mountains and with less traffic and buildings. Strictly speaking we should do yet another quarantine. The Corona infections in Kansas have increased so much, that the state now falls into the “red” category which the state of New York hits with a quarantine for incoming travelers. But our house on the lake could only be rented for a week, so we leave it at that.
Our neighbors are from Chicago. They drove here in one day, 13 hours in the big van. “We will have a lot of family visiting”, they announce. That proves to be true.
On the neighbors’ porch, cousin M is holding forth. The topic is data protection and vaccination, the pros and cons of making a forthcoming Corona vaccination mandatory. B tries to place the joke on the American obsession with surveillance and the Obama-Administration, but “Obama” hits the wrong spot. “Don’t get me going about Obama, Trump must be reelected”, M crows. “Because of the money”. M is a building contractor in New Jersey. He says when Trump took office the economy started to boom. Now it was different, he says, because of Corona. Nothing doing, but it will pass. It is what it is.
B’s joke falls flat, but the Corona banter continues. M is against a vaccination mandate. He believes that with the vaccine the government will inject a chip into every patient, similar to what the Swiss do with dogs. With the vaccine they will put that little chip into all Americans so that they can know what we all do. M believes that Obama and Bill Gates are behind the pandemic. Gates had a patent on the coronavirus, says M. He invented it. And Obama financed the lab in Wuhan from where the virus was set free. Six billion dollars the US paid to the Chinese. Believe me. Neighbor J from Chicago is skeptical.
From where do you know this?
I read. Public knowledge. It’s on the internet.
How do you verify this?
Google it. I am a theory man. It is what it is.
A short probe with Google shows that M is right, but only partially so. Yes, the US supported the lab in Wuhan to do virus research. But not with 6 billion, but rather with 3.7 million dollars, payable over several years. The financing was through a private foundation. The contract was concluded in 2015, Obama’s seventh year in office. Most of the money was paid out by the Trump Administration.
M tells us that he had Covid, badly. I was down for two weeks. He isolated himself for two weeks in the basement, in order to protect his family.
Were you in the hospital?
No. They would have put me on a ventilator which would have killed me.
What did you do?
I know a doctor who gave me extremely heavy antibiotics. They did not do anything against the virus but helped with everything else.
M and J went fishing and brought bass home. A five-pounder and a smaller one. They gave us a taste. On the last evening they invited us to a boat ride on the lake.
K was here. He plays with the New York Philharmonic and is out of work. Not in this nor in the next season will the orchestra play its normal schedule, K says. We need to fill 1000 seats in order to make money. The Corona restrictions allow for 350. The musicians of the Philharmonic get 75 percent of their salaries, but K expects further cuts. This is better than the Metropolitan Opera which dismissed its orchestra with 14 days’ notice. This was in compliance with the union contract, says K, but besides the Met only the orchestras in Indianapolis and Nashville made use of the provision. The others try to hold on to their musical staff. Even so, the salary cuts are painful. A musician whose partner also is an artist, falls on hard times, despite the good pay, says K.
New York City
Back in the city. A few restaurants on 9th avenue put tables in the street. Inside dining remains banned.
A visit at the Apple store on 5th Avenue. I have a reservation for the genius bar and try to enter. At the entrance two guys in uniform point to a young man on the other side of the square. The young man points to a young woman behind a cordon. She checks the reservation and goes to another young woman. She comes back and points to another young man. This one takes my temperature and points to the end of the cordoned area. Nobody is there and I slip through under the cordon. Yet another young man separates himself from his mobile telephone to admonish me that I “can” not move like this. Then he points to the guys in uniform who let me enter. The store is practically empty.
The day after, an iPhone moment again, this time in a small repair shop on 38th street. No reservation is necessary, but one wears a mask. The boss is a man from the Middle East. He lives in Long Island and told me that he takes the train to Penn Station to come to work.
Did you always take the train, also during the really bad Corona times in March and April?
Until May, yes. I had a store further uptown. In May it was destroyed in the riots.
What do you think of the Black Lives Matter protests and the riots?
Waste of time. Only a pretense for the thieves. It did harm to the goals and purposes.
Was something stolen in your store?
Indeed. Goods for 30 000 dollars.
Did you have insurance?
Did they pay?
Quarantine again, the fourth. On the Swiss plane you have to fill out a form, after entering the country you have to report to the canton (state) within two days. The temperature is not taken, but the canton of Bern sends E-mails. An excel table where you are supposed to enter your body temperature twice a day and note any coughs, headaches and assorted ailments. Another E-mail giving the precise time your quarantine ends (“until and including 16 August 23:59 hours”). The canton of Bern announces that it envisages contacting me “in the next days, by telephone”.