Literary

Café I

The best restaurant in the history of the city of New York closed forever last year, and it was all my fault.

It was a modest little place in the center of a long row of squat gray buildings, tucked in between a yoga studio and a plumbing supply wholesaler. It did not have a listing on Yelp, or a marketing budget, or even a name. The restaurant—people just called it that, “the restaurant,” if they called it anything—was open only for lunch on weekday afternoons, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to be closed on Fridays if the weather was nice outside.

The owner’s name was Sandy, and Sandy worked alone. No one knew why. None of us knew a thing about Sandy, other than the one startlingly obvious fact that Sandy was a genius with food. Every meal I ever had at the restaurant was superlative, off-the-scale excellent even in a city of high-level cuisine. Sandy’s food was always simple in concept—heart-nourishing soups, thick meaty sandwiches, hand-crafted salads—but everything was fresh and delicious and skillfully prepared.

Sandy very easily could have been a famous chef with a national reputation, leading a talented brigade at a high-end restaurant that would thrill diners and dazzle even the most jaded food critic. But that would have meant dealing with investors and sous-chefs and waiters and bartenders, and that wasn’t what Sandy wanted to do at all. Sandy worked alone, and that informed what the restaurant was and how it worked.

The restaurant didn’t have a menu, for one thing. You ate whatever Sandy was dishing out that day, and you were grateful for it. If you were a regular—that is to say, one of the few people who knew of the restaurant’s existence—Sandy would send you a text in the morning, telling you what was available that day. You replied “IN” or “OUT,” and if you were “IN,” Sandy would send you a text telling you when to pick up your lunch.

When you walked into the restaurant, you walked down a long, thin corridor until you came to a tiny window, where your lunch was waiting for you. Just to the right of the window was a large refrigerator stocked with bottles of Poland Spring water, one to a customer. (If you wanted a soda, or coffee, you had to bring it in yourself.) You took your lunch, got your water bottle, and found a place to sit down.

And this was the beauty of the restaurant, what made it so special, what made those of us who ate there so devoted to it. There weren’t any tables. The restaurant had carrels, like at a library, and each carrel had one chair. You found an unoccupied carrel, sat down, turned on your laptop or tablet or whatever other device you liked, put on your headphones, and ate your delicious lunch in complete solitude.

I mean, you just couldn’t beat that.

I only found out about the restaurant because of a guy I barely knew. His name was Ron Newman, and he had rowed crew at Brown when I was at Princeton. He was leaving Manhattan for a new job in Seattle, and that meant he could nominate someone to take his place as a regular. He’d remembered me as a kindred spirit, I guess. We had a quick drink at a quiet bar in the Financial District, and he told me all about Sandy and the restaurant and how it worked. I was skeptical at first, and then I tried Sandy’s pastrami sandwich—on toasted pumpernickel, with hand-ground mustard and just a tiny smear of apple butter—and I was hooked.

I ate at the restaurant at least three times a week, more if I could get away with it. Every time I had a lunch meeting in the office, eating a flimsy sub sandwich and having to listen to other people crunch on mass-produced potato chips, my heart sank. But whenever I could get out of the office and grab a quick bite at the restaurant, I was revitalized. It was more than just the food, although the food was spectacular. It was the opportunity to commune with myself, to be alone for a brief moment in a city of 7 million people, to be exactly the person I expected myself to be, and nobody else.

The last time I went to the restaurant was a sunny day in late August. Sandy was making roasted eggplant soup, spiced with curry powder, served with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt. I left the office and strolled the four blocks to the storefront. Two people were waiting out front for me.

“There you are,” Lance said.

Lance was my supervisor, and Clayton was with him. Clayton worked in human resources, something to do with staff development. I stifled the urge to run in the other direction.

“We thought we could do lunch,” Clayton said. “Lance saw you come into this place a couple of times, and we figured we might join you for lunch.”

I should have lied. I should have told them that I was going to the Thai restaurant on the next block, or that I was just out for a stroll. But I couldn’t make the words come out of my mouth. Lance opened the door and ushered me inside, and I was trapped.

There was just the one brown paper bag waiting for me in the window. I took out three bottles of water, and handed one each to Lance and Clayton. I took my bag, knowing there was only one serving of soup inside.

“Let’s find someplace to sit down, first,” I said. “I’ll see if I can get you something.” I showed them to a carrel; they looked skeptical but didn’t ask any questions. I went back to the window.

There was a screen just behind the window, so you couldn’t see into the kitchen. I had never seen Sandy, not any more than just a hand putting a bag in the window. I didn’t know anyone who had ever seen Sandy, or had had so much as a conversation with the reclusive chef.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but two people from my office followed me here, and they want to try the soup. If it’s not too much trouble.” It was a horrible moment for me, saying something to somebody else in the restaurant, in the very citadel of solitude.

Approaching Sandy and asking for a favor was like a cargo-cult savage asking the heavens for canned Spam, but I didn’t have a choice.

I waited for a long moment in silence.

“I am really sorry about this,” I said. “Please.”

I could just barely make out Lance and Clayton’s conversation; one of them was saying, “Who the hell does this guy think he is, anyway?”

Two brown paper bags appeared in the window. I snatched them, said a brief word of thanks for my deliverance, and went back to the carrel, where an obviously agitated Lance and Clayton were waiting for me.

“What the hell kind of place is this?” Lance said. “Is there not any place to sit?”

“Or a menu?” Clayton said.

“Trust me,” I said. “It’s delicious. Maybe the thing to do is to take it back to the office and eat there.”

“It’s soup,” Lance said. “It’ll get cold, and then we’d have to heat it up.”

“Do you think we could find a couple of chairs?” Clayton said.

I went down the row of carrels, and found two of them were unoccupied. I grabbed the chairs out of them, and slid them down the aisle. This earned me more than a couple of glares from other diners, but nobody said anything. They wouldn’t.

“Here you go,” I told Lance and Clayton. “Sorry.”

“This is easily the weirdest restaurant I have ever been to,” Lance said.

“It’s so quiet,” Clayton said. “It’s too quiet. It’s like eating at a library, except you’re not supposed to eat at a library.”

I opened up my container of soup and motioned for them to do the same. It was heavenly, the sweetness of the yogurt balancing out the bitterness of the roasted eggplant. Lance and Clayton tasted theirs, but their focus was on me, and that made me even more uncomfortable, if that was possible.

“We wanted to have a chance to chat with you outside the office,” Lance said. “You know, to talk about you, and your development, and your future with the firm.”

“We have been watching you for a long time,” Clayton said. “Your work has been stellar. But we’ve noticed that you don’t always do your best work when you’re collaborating, or when you’re a team. You always seem a little reserved, a little aloof.”

“Not that this is a bad thing,” Lance said. “But we think it could hurt you down the road. You know, as far as getting promoted. This soup is delicious, by the way.”

“I know,” Clayton said. “It’s got just enough spice to it. Anyway, look. We are not trying to get on your case here, all right? This is not going on your record. It’s a friendly chat. What we’re trying to do is to see if we can figure out how to get you to open up around other people. Be more of a team player.”

“It’s a personality thing,” Lance said. “Not a work thing. It’s just that people don’t like to work with someone who’s not all that outgoing, you know?”

If we had been at work—in some anonymous conference room—I could have addressed everything they were saying. I could have explained that I wasn’t being aloof or reserved or anything like that, at least not on purpose. I could have pointed out everything that I brought to the table, how it balanced out those elements of my personality. But here, in a space that was created to honor silence, introspection, and incredible soup, I could not say a word in my own defense.

“This is outstanding soup. Lance, doesn’t your wife manage a restaurant?”

“She does indeed, and she’s always looking for new talent. And this soup is evidence of that. Do you happen to know the chef? Because…you know, working in a place like this, a chef is probably looking for greener pastures, right?”

A door that I’d never noticed before opened, and Sandy came bursting out of the kitchen. She raced down the aisle of carrels to where we were standing, and took off her chef’s hat.

I had never seen her before now; nobody had. She was unspeakably beautiful. In a town filled with beautiful women, she was something like a minor goddess. And she was incandescently angry.

“You’ve had your soup,” she said. “Now get out of here, and don’t come back. Ever. This is my place. I worked hard for it, and I sweated blood to get it just the way I wanted it, and I’m not giving it up for anyone.”

“Are you sure about that?” Lance said. “Because you could do so much better, with a little more effort. You could be a real star in this business.”

“Leave,” she said, and her pastel blue eyes were visibly seething with anger. Lance and Clayton put their soup containers down and silently filed out of the restaurant.

Sandy turned to glare at me. “What were you thinking, bringing them here?”

“I love you,” I said. I hadn’t meant to say it, but it was true. I had never loved anyone before, and I had to say it to her, if I never said anything again.

“You are banned,” she said. “For two weeks. Don’t try to call me or text me, or you’ll be banned forever.”

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked. “Maybe we could go and…”

“Get something to eat?” Sandy asked. “No.”

“Go see a movie?”

“Talk to me in two weeks,” she said, and went back into the kitchen. I finished the dregs of my soup and left.

I returned a week later, just because I couldn’t stay away. There was a line at the restaurant that was already out the door and spilling out into the street. The next day, the line was around the corner. The next day, the line was gone. There was a handwritten note attached to the door that said, “Closed forever.”

I got a “needs improvement” on my quarterly evaluation from Lance and Clayton, and I took the hint and quit. I spent half my severance pay on a private investigator to try to find Sandy, but he could find no trace of her. I spent the other half of the money on a two-month lease on the storefront Sandy abandoned.

The first two weeks, all I made was grilled cheese sandwiches. But all of the regulars came back, like nothing had happened. I started to learn how to cook from watching YouTube videos. I can turn out passable stews now, and decent sandwiches, and last week I made a curried Waldorf salad that wasn’t too far removed from what Sandy would have made.

The only other thing I did differently was to give the restaurant a name. I hold on to the hope that one day Sandy will just decide to walk by, to see what’s occupying the space where her restaurant was, and she just might see the name on the door and step inside and order something, just out of curiosity. It is a thin reed of hope, I know. But dreams have been built on less.

Commentary

Miracle at the Meadowlands

I wrote something very critical of the New Jersey vaccination process the other day; this is the follow-up. My appointment was today to get the vaccine. There are basically three tiers in the system now: one is through the mega-sites that use the state vaccination registry system (Somerset County, Morris County, and Middlesex County), one is through the mega-sites that don’t use the state vaccination registry system (the Meadowlands site, Burlington County, and the Atlantic City site where my wife got her vaccine last month), and the other is through the major chain pharmacies. The first-tier mega-sites are wait-and-hurry-up; at some magic moment the state will give you a registration code and an appointment, you just have to be patient. The third-tier pharmacy sites are all whackadoodle; you have to be on at just the right time when they’re ready for you, and if you don’t have your chakras aligned with the universe, you are out of luck.

The second-tier mega-sites are the way to go, they release appointments at a certain time and you can get one if you’re persistent and lucky. The Meadowlands site, where I went today, is affiliated with the nice people from Hackensack Meridian Health, who run a lot of hospitals in North Jersey. If you’re on their site at midnight, and keep hitting that refresh button, you can get an appointment, or that’s what I did. So this is my list of tips for anyone who’s going there:

  1. Sign up for MyChart once you have your appointment. This is the Hackensack Meridian patient portal. The key advantage of doing this is that, for reasons that don’t make any sense, the Hackensack people do not send you an email that tells you that you’re registered. If you have any anxiety issues at all, you can sign up with MyChart (the HMH version, other hospitals use the same software), and it will tell you when your appointment is.
  2. Get there in plenty of time. You want to go to Parking Lot M, which is a little sliver of parking in the big Meadowlands complex. The vaccines are given in the west grandstand of the racetrack, which is just north of MetLife Stadium. (Why they don’t use the stadium itself I do not know.) There was a good bit of parking when I went there; didn’t really have much trouble with traffic or parking. (I had one moment of panic where the police shut down Route 206 north of where I live, but that was just for a few seconds to deal with an idjit driver who was going southbound in the northbound lanes.)
  3. You’re going to have to wait. There was a three-stage line when I went there: a) a line to get into the building, out in the freezing wind–this was populated by Army National Guard soldiers with bullhorns who barked out the latest time when you could get in time. I got there at 10:55 for an 11:10 appointment, and had to loiter out in the cold wind for three or four minutes before they would let you on the line. (This is to combat the very long lines they’ve had periodically.) All they will do at that point is check your printout to see if you have an appointment. After that, b) you have to climb a steep ramp which does NOT comport with ADAAG standards, I’ll have you know. There’s a checkpoint at the top of the ramp–which is inside, out of the biting wind–where they check you in and give you a little plastic card with a QR code printed on it. After that is c) another line to get to the registration desk.
  4. Bring your significant other with you. Okay, so I went with my wife to the Atlantic Convention Center mega-site, and could not have felt more useless. So you might be thinking, hey, I can just go myself, leave the Mrs. at home, right? Yeah, don’t do that. Why? Because if you’re signed up, and your spouse isn’t, they might just offer to sign up your spouse for their first appointment at the same time you get your second dose. Cool, eh? (They do NOT do this at the AC center, if they had, I would have jumped on that option like a duck on a Ritz cracker crumb.) The only flaw in this system is that it’s only one person you can do this for. One of the people ahead of me in line was a twentysomething kid who had brought his elderly parents, and they would not let him into the registration area–only two people at a time, that’s the rule.
  5. It’s going to take awhile. I was signed up for 11:10 AM, and didn’t get the shot until close to 11:45 AM. That’s not bad! I was able to pick up the plastic bin that the Mrs. wanted me to get at the Container Store in Bridgewater on my way home, and was in home in time to pick up the kids from school. But, yeah, it took maybe a little longer than you might think.
  6. So far, so good. The shot wasn’t painful, and the arm isn’t incredibly sore. No side effects yet (this was the Pfizer shot, in case you’re keeping score at home.)

Anyway, lookit. The fact that we have a vaccine today is nothing short of a miracle. I don’t know for sure if it’s a miracle cure or not. But I was glad to get it done, no matter how aggravating the process was, and I’m glad I have an appointment for three weeks from now for the second shot.

Commentary

The Needle Tears a Hole

I don’t remember when I started really seriously worrying about the vaccine. It wasn’t right away. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t want the vaccine. I just thought that I would get it in good time.

I am a fairly normal and average person, but I am maybe a little more vulnerable than a lot of people to COVID-19, for two reasons. First, I am overweight and have Type II diabetes, and yeah, there are a lot of people like that. Second, I am working outside the home; I do human resources at a small social services agency in Philadelphia. In this role, I have been exposed to COVID-19–haven’t contracted it yet, or I might not be sitting here typing about it.

I was under the impression, early on, that I would get the vaccine through my employer. I wasn’t particularly stressed about this; I assumed that the state agency that funds the program where I work would make the vaccine available in short order for our staff.

I didn’t start to get worried until the stories started coming out about the 21-year-old Drexel student who was, stupidly, put in charge of the Philadelphia vaccine program. That was the first inkling I had that anything was wrong. I decided to hedge my bets and sign up for the New Jersey registration system. That was easy, but then there was nothing from that system except radio silence.

Not long after that, New Jersey posted a long list of places where you could sign up for vaccinations. Some of them (like the designated site in my county) were tied to the state system. Others… weren’t. I signed up through the Camden County site. I got an appointment–for early August. Not ideal.

Not too long after that, vaccines started to be available through the large pharmacy chains, and I started checking them on a regular basis. When I didn’t have anything better to do, I would click through. Shop-Rite–nothing. CVS had intermittent stretches where it looked like you could make an appointment, if you held your mouth right. Walgreens would let you enter in ZIP codes all day long but never give you any availability. And Rite-Aid… oh, good Lord, the Rite-Aid site. You have to click on every store and see if appointments are available. One time out of, say, fifty, you can click through–but you can’t ever make an appointment.

And I began to hear from other people–won’t say who–who were getting vaccines, and who had way less entitlement to the vaccines than I did.

I have spent a lot of time working in social services, and one of the most corrosive things in social services agencies is I’m not getting what I want but someone else is, which is just a variation on that’s not fair. You hear this all the time. “I just fell through the cracks.” “I’m not getting this because of my race,” whatever that race might be. “The illegals get taken care of and we don’t.” Whatever your particular flavor of grievance is, there’s enough unfairness in social services delivery systems to justify it.

So this was familiar territory for me, dealing with service delivery in a fundamentally broken system. What you learn in dealing with these systems is that you need to figure out what the unwritten rules are and then use them to your advantage–that, and you have to advocate for yourself, because nobody else is going to be as effective.

The first step in the process is self-education, and it turns out the best way to educate yourself rapidly is through Facebook, which hosts several New Jersey groups for vaccine advice. It didn’t take me long to get helpful tips. Follow the vaccine bots on Twitter. Walmart only does appointments for seniors, so don’t bother. Rite-Aid releases appointments at 11:45 at night, and check http://vaxxmax.com/ for what sites are available. CVS updates at 5 am. (Being an insomniac is a great way to get a vaccine.)

So far, it’s worked, despite frustration after frustration. We were able to get an appointment for my wife at the Atlantic County mega-site; they operate their program by, literally, the luck of the draw. I got an appointment at the mega-site in the Meadowlands because I was on a certain website at midnight, holding my mouth right, and just kept clicking until an appointment came up.

The Facebook group that’s the largest does have incredibly useful information, but it’s also a litany of misery. People are trying as hard as they can and not getting anywhere. People are trying to get appointments for elderly parents who won’t travel. There’s a lot of anxiety, and a lot of heartbreak. And it doesn’t have to be this way. There is plenty of opportunity for the state to step in and tell their partners to develop a more systematic, orderly way for giving out the vaccines instead of relying on people to navigate a bewildering and tech-heavy system. I can’t imagine why it’s not being done, other than it’s easier to do it this way. (Just as it was easier to hand thousands of vaccines to that 21-year-old.)

I get vaccinated in the next few days. I can’t wait. I can’t wait to get back into the mainstream of life. But I’m aware that I’m only able to do this because I learned about the vagaries of the system and was able to exploit them–and that others aren’t as lucky.

A Circle of Moonlight, Books

Just A Quick Update on A CIRCLE OF MOONLIGHT

For the–er–forty or fifty people out there who actually bought A CIRCLE OF FIRELIGHT, you might be interested that I’m now officially 40,000 words through with its sequel, tentatively titled A CIRCLE OF MOONLIGHT. (Possible alternative titles include I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS TAKING ME THIS LONG and HOW DUMB DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO WRITE A SEQUEL TO A BOOK THAT SOLD THAT POORLY.)

And so, below, is a sample chapter. It doesn’t make much sense out of context but here you go.

Long Black Limousine

March 30 | Madison Square Garden, The Other New York

“Ya did good, there, Lady Ashlyn,” C.J. says. “Time to go home.”

“Not just yet,” I say, tears wet on my cheek. “One more thing to do. I need to make it to where Penny is, let her know that it’s okay.”

“No can do,” C.J. says. “You heard the Dark Lord. He gave you a job to do and you did it. Now I have a job to do, and that’s to send you back home. No time to run any other errands before you leave.”

“Call the Dark Lord,” I say. “Ask him for me. He understands about Penny; he’s not going to stop me from talking to her.”

“I have my orders, Your Worship, and they involve escorting you straight off this island.”

“I understand. I am not trying to get you in trouble. There’s just one thing.”

C.J. leans on her sword. “What might that be?”

“You have to catch me first.”

“I ain’t too worried about that,” she says. She cracks a cruel smile, then snaps her fingers. All the house lights in the Garden come up. The arena is filled with dark furry shapes, all of them wearing hockey sweaters.

“Maybe you can get past me, but all of them? Not seeing it, Your Worship. Best to come along quietly. I can be reasoned with, but werewolves, you know, they don’t excel in the art of negotiation.”

“I was right. This was a trap all along.”

C.J. smirks. “That’s as may be. Question is, what are you going to do about it?”

All right, Ashlyn, I think to myself. You against the Warden of the Eastern Marches, backed by twenty thousand werewolves. How do you get out of this one?

Assets: my brain, my sword, the most powerful wand in the world.

“What I wouldn’t give for a holocaust cloak,” I say.

“Old movie quotes ain’t gonna help you any, love,” Valentine says.

Fight or flight. Fight or flight. Fight or…

Accio Broom!” I shout, and a push broom flies from behind one of the benches, into my outstretched hand. I climb aboard, and kick off the ground in one fluid motion. I rise into the air, wafted by a ragged chorus of howls.

Madison Square Garden turns out to be a pretty good place to learn to fly. No crosswinds, for one thing. I fly over the court in a lazy loop, about twelve feet up. The werewolves rush the court, but all they can do is mill around, waiting for me to fall. C.J.’s face is an unbecoming shade of scarlet, as she yells something at me that I can’t hear.

I take a second loop around the court, rising a little higher, until I’m level with the new bridges, which are lined with werewolves wearing Philadelphia Flyers jerseys and shaking their paws at me from behind the thick glass. I shake my fist back at them, and feel the broom dip under me; apparently this flying thing takes a good bit of concentration. Either that, or the enchantment on the broom is dying out. Whichever it is, I decide that I need to develop an exit strategy. I climb up to the level of one of the upper-level lounges and pull out my wand. “Reducto!” I shout, and the glass in front of the lounge explodes, sending shards onto the cursing werewolves below. There’s only a few werewolves in this lounge, and they duck for cover. I sweep into the lounge just as the magic in the broom sputters out, and hurtle into the concourse.

There are only a few werewolves hanging out here; they’re waiting in line for beer. I spring to my feet, snap a curse in their general direction, and take off in the other direction. I’m too high up now. I have to get downstairs, and find an outside door that will let me into the streets of the city. I have a vague idea where New York Presbyterian is from here; it’s somewhere on the East Side over by the UN building. Another platoon of werewolves spots me from the other side of the concourse, and I blast a curse at them, but it just slows them down. I spot a stairwell, and race towards it. There’s a horde of werewolves racing up it, and they spot me, and start howling.

I take a deep breath. The enemy’s gate is down, I think. There’s just enough room in the center of the stairwell to fit through. I hold my left hand over my head, and give my wand a flick.

Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious!”

I grip the umbrella with my left hand and vault over the rail, floating down the middle of the stairwell. The werewolves howl in frustration, and some of them try to swipe at me, but I manage to hold them off. I drift down all six stories, and land gently on the concrete floor. There’s a door that says “Emergency Exit,” and being chased by twenty thousand werewolves would seem to be a pretty big emergency. I fall against it, and it opens, and I am outside, in the still night air on 31st Street. I cross the street, dodging two tour buses (both thankfully werewolf-free, from the looks of them, or at least nobody was howling at me). I wind up in front of an Irish pub, next to a Vietnamese pho restaurant. I stop for a minute to catch my breath, and head east, racing past a parking garage and some kind of construction site. Seventh Avenue is up ahead. New York Presbyterian is northeast of here, up on First Avenue somewhere, if it’s in the same place. Easiest thing to do is head east and hope for the best, then turn north once I get close to the East River. It’s a plan, anyway.

Traffic has picked up a good bit, with the usual chaotic mix of police cars and taxicabs. I don’t see any good way through. I look to my left, towards the Garden, and there’s a crowd of werewolves, spilling out of the arena. They haven’t spotted me yet, and I don’t have a prayer of outrunning them if they do. I turn right, heading south, with the idea that I will cross over Seventh in a couple of blocks.

I don’t get five steps before C.J. Valentine appears out of nowhere, chewing gum and wearing a ridiculous chauffeur uniform. She’s holding a sign that says LADY ASHLYN REVERE, and is standing next to a sleek black limousine parked against the curb. “Get in the car,” she says. “Unless you want to get up close and personal with my furry friends.”

I have read too many Jack Reacher novels; I am not ever going to get into that limo. “Get out of my way,” I say, brandishing my wand.

The door of the limo opens, and the Dark Lord unfolds himself from the interior. He is tall, and bald, with his undertaker suit hanging off of him. “Miss Valentine is only doing her job,” he says. “Please don’t abuse her any more than is strictly necessary.”

“I don’t want anything to do with you,” I say, “not right now. I have a score to settle with you, but that can wait. I’m here to see my sister.”

“That is easily accomplished,” the Dark Lord says, gesturing to the interior of the limo. I look inside, and there is Penny, curled up in a ball in the back of the limo, shivering in a green hospital gown.

My wand is out, but I can’t think of any curse or hex that would be enough to blast him into oblivion for this. “She should be in the hospital,” I say.

The Dark Lord blinks. “She is in the hospital, of course. In your world. In this world, the place you call New York Presbyterian is a warehouse; publishing companies and literary agents use it to store rejection letters. Anyway, never mind, that’s not important. What is important is that your sister is asleep—really asleep, by which I mean not REM sleep. She will wake up in an hour or so, is my guess. And much improved, thanks to your banishment of that inconvenient ghost. You have nothing further to do here, and would be well advised to leave. And even better advised not to return, although I have to admit that I do admire the creativity of the bobsled run.”

“I’m not leaving without Penny,” I say. “You can’t hold her hostage like this.”

“Like every child, she is a hostage to fortune. You can’t blame me for that.”

I can feel the anger rising against the backdrop of the screeching werewolves behind me. I point my wand in their direction, and shout, ”Igneous!” A pool of lava erupts in the middle of Seventh Avenue, and the howls of the pack turn into yelps of pain.

“That was unnecessary,” the Dark Lord says. “They would not have hurt you without my leave.”

“There’s no need for anyone to be hurt today, least of all my sister. If you can’t let me have her, you can at least let her go.”

The Dark Lord smiles a ragged smile. “That would show exceptionally poor judgment on my part. And you are leaving without her, no matter what happens.”

“Don’t be so sure,” I say.

“I am sure,” the Dark Lord says. He pulls back the sleeve on his suit jacket and checks a gold watch. “It’s seven-fifteen. They just brought in dinner for the room across the hall. They’ll be waking you up any second now.”

“This isn’t over,” I say.

“It is for now.” And just like that, the towers of Seventh Avenue dissolve into smoke and ash behind the Dark Lord. I get a last glimpse of Penny, silent and helpless in the back of the limousine, before reality comes crashing in and erases the New York of my nightmare.

                                                   ☾☾☾

March 30 | Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, New Brunswick

I wake up with a start, heart racing, with my right hand outstretched, gripping the handrail of the bed.

“Didn’t mean to wake you up like that,” the orderly says. “You need to eat something, though. I’ve got macaroni and cheese, if you think you can handle it.”

I gulp in a lungful of air. My hospital gown is soaked in sweat. I try to brush away the droplets on my forehead with my left arm, forgetting for the moment that it’s in a cast. I stop just in time to keep from bashing myself in the head with it.

“If I can get a glass of water, first,” I say. “And my phone, please, it’s in the side pocket of the green bag over there.”

The orderly looks like he’s going to shoot off a smart remark, but he swallows it and nods. He pours me a drink from the pitcher on my left, and retrieves my phone for me. “Thanks,” I say, while managing to enter in my access code one-handed. I open up the phone app and call my dad, who picks up on the first ring.

“You’re awake,” he says. “Good. I was wondering.”

“How is Penny?” I ask.

“She took a real turn for the better about an hour ago. Morton thinks that the anti-rejection drugs started working. She’s not out of the woods yet; she still has a fever and they’re not sure whether the virus she has is antibiotic-resistant yet or not. But it’s looking promising, finally.”

I collapse back onto my pillow, exhausted. “Are they going to try to wake her up?” I ask.

“Morton says so. We’re actually on our way over to ICU. I’m not planning on telling Penny you’re in the hospital, too, no need to stress her over that. Understand?”

“Of course.”

“How are you doing, though? Dr. Torrez texted me and thought you had come through okay, but he didn’t do the surgery, so I wasn’t sure.”

“Fine,” I say. “My hand is still numb, but all the fingers are there.”

“That’s a plus, in case you need to ever use the Yellow Pages. And you’re sounding good. That’s the best your speech has been in a long time.”

I hadn’t noticed that, exactly, but he’s not wrong. “I’ve been working hard in therapy,” I say.

“It shows. Look, we’re almost there. You need to try and eat something, get your rest. I’ll get you an update in the morning.”

I put the phone down carefully on the bedside table and try to sit back up.

“Are we good with the macaroni and cheese?” the orderly asks.

I take a long, cool sip of water, to try to chase the foul taste of the city out of my mouth. “Yeah. Sounds good.”

Humor

MYSTERIES OF THE ABANDONED, 2021 Edition

NARRATOR: Alongside a lonely highway in Central New Jersey, a deathly quiet falls over a deserted suburban shopping center.

ROB BELL, ADVENTURER: You drive by, and you see houses, and farms, and all of a sudden you see this site. And it’s almost completely deserted. And you ask yourself, what could have happened?

JIM MEIGS, JOURNALIST: Every once in a while, you will see an abandoned strip mall, and it’s obvious why. The buildings are old and not in good shape, with peeling paint and crumbling curbs. But this one looks brand new.

NARRATOR: What powerful forces could have emptied this promising shopping destination?

ANDREW GOUGH, HISTORIAN: The only signs of civilization are the cars passing back and forth on the highway. But none of them stop here. It’s uncanny.

LYNETTE NUSBACHER, MILITARY HISTORIAN: The buildings all look brand new, but it’s clear that no one has ever set foot in them. Who could have built this vast complex and then just walked away from it? Where are the shoppers? Where are the tenants?

ROMA AGRAWAI, ENGINEER: It’s just so strange. You look in the windows, and you can see the certificate of occupancy. The mall looks ready to move in. It’s structurally sound and everything. You can look around and just imagine a Liberty Travel here, a Dollar Tree there. But there isn’t anything.

NARRATOR: What once was a promising site for commercial development is now an empty husk of a strip mall. What could have caused this site to become abandoned so quickly?

BELL: You get the feeling like a major piece of the puzzle is missing, like there’s something unexpected and different about this site.

NUSBACHER: One thing that’s fascinating about this site is that it’s so modern. Which means that, whoever abandoned this place, it couldn’t be Nazis. Which is odd, because if you watch this show, it’s usually Nazis.

MEIGS: On one hand, it’s just an empty strip mall in suburban New Jersey. But on the other hand, it’s a powerful metaphor for loss and isolation in the twenty-first century. It’s extremely unsettling.

NARRATOR: This is the Princeton Meadows Shopping Center.

AGRAWAI: Work on this site started in 2019, with plans for construction to be complete by summer 2020. The weather in the winter was mild, and the contractors made good progress. By March 2020, the site was nearly ready to open.

NARRATOR: But in March 2020, an outbreak of a virus named COVID-19 would wreck all the grand plans for the opening of Princeton Meadows. Anthony Harper was one of the developers.

ANTHONY HARPER, REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER: It’s not been an easy year for us. I mean, it’s not been an easy year for anybody. We had several tenants lined up. CVS. Einstein’s Bagels. I had a couple of feelers from Orvis, you know, they sell all that fancy outdoor gear? They all backed out as soon as the lockdown started.

MEIGS: There’s a certain poetry to the silence, a certain splendor to the absence.

BELL: All that effort that went into building something like this, and here it is empty. You walk around, and you think of everything that could be here. A nail salon. A hardware store. Maybe over there in the corner you could have a Five Guys.

GOUGH: I haven’t been inside a Five Guys in over a year now. You can get takeout but it’s cold by the time you get it home. It just isn’t the same.

AGRAWAI: All I want is to go to a restaurant with my husband without worrying about getting sick. I’m talking a date night here. Just to sit and talk for a while. It was such a normal thing, and now it isn’t.

NARRATOR: Princeton Meadows now faces a difficult time in an uncertain future.

HARPER: So from a financial standpoint, we’re taking a severe hit. And that’s not a great place to be, but there are so many people in this community that are hurting so much more than my partners and I are. You hate to see it. A lot of the crew that built this strip mall are out of work now—have been for months.

MEIGS: I look at one of the online tracking pages every day, and the numbers just keep going up and up. I remember when losing a thousand people a day was such a scary figure. Now, it’s four times that, and it’s heartbreaking.

NUSBACHER: I think back to the 1940’s, during the Blitz, and people in London wondered when that was going to end, and it didn’t, not for years. Is this close to the end of the pandemic, or is it just beginning?

HARPER: I got a call the other day from a guy who wanted to open a shoe repair place here, and I nearly cried. I mean, it doesn’t sound like much, a shoe repair place. But it was something hopeful. I feel that we’ve lost that in a lot of ways.

BELL: I’m an adventurer. A world traveler. I spent six months in a studio apartment in Hoboken, sheltering in place. You can’t imagine what that’s like.

GOUGH: Twenty years from now, we’ll look back on this time, and I don’t think any of us will ever remember it fondly. All of us have been touched by this cruel disease, in ways we won’t ever fully understand. And those that have lost a loved one will never forget that impact.

HARPER: I know it’s just one shopping center. There are a million of them in New Jersey. But to see it empty like this, day after day, when it should be filled with life, is just so depressing and sad. I keep thinking, one day, we’ll have tenants, and customers, and things will get back to normal again. All we can do is hold on until that happens.

NARRATOR: The tides of history move on, racing past us all. Princeton Meadows stands as a mute reminder of the ravages of disease and time.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: A MAN AT ARMS, by Steven Pressfield.

From the acclaimed master of historical fiction comes an epic saga about a reluctant hero, the Roman Empire, and the rise of a new faith.

One of the most interesting facets of religious belief is that religious belief has answers for everything. The Bible is full of what’s called “wisdom literature,” with advice on how to solve everything short of how to fix holes in drywall. In Orthodox Judaism, this is supplemented with incredibly detailed rabbinical teachings. Deuteronomy 6:9 commands that the words of the Shema prayer be written on the doorposts of your house, which is easy enough, until you realize that there’s a dispute as to whether the words on the scroll should be horizontal or vertical, and that because of that, you have to put them diagonally.

Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. (Here’s how you can tell; Stoicism doesn’t have holidays.) Stoicism is behaviorist; its teachings are focused on ethics and virtue. The true stoic isn’t (as the modern usage has it) someone who is indifferent to emotion; it is someone who lives their lives consistent with their own ethical code.

I don’t know if Steven Pressfield identifies as a Stoic or not, but his signature philosophy is something of an uneasy marriage between Stoic ideas and Manichean cosmology. The Manicheans, like George Lucas, believe in a dark side in constant conflict with goodness and light. Pressfield’s philosophy, expressed succinctly, is that there is a creative spark of light in all of us, and an invisible dark force, called Resistance, that is trying to blot that spark out. The job of the creative mind is to create, and not to surrender to the siren call of Resistance, however that manifests (usually as negative self-talk).

The appeal of the Pressfield Way, for lack of a better term, is threefold. First, it’s uncomplicated. It doesn’t take a very sophisticated viewpoint to understand that applying butt to chair is work, and checking your email and Twitter and sneaking into the kitchen for a snack is not-work, and is therefore the work of Resistance. Second, it’s task-oriented, a philosophy that is supremely helpful if you have a job to do that needs doing and you need to eliminate distractions in order to do it. Third, it tallies with lived experience. Everyone deals with obstacles and procrastination every day; the Pressfield Way is dead useful as a mental model for addressing these conflicts. (I just this minute brought up the George R.R. Martin website, and he’s busy watching movies and reading Hemingway and, as far as we know, not writing, so that tells you something right there.)

There are, however, three main limitations with using the Pressfield Way in practice. First, it can’t always tell you what kind of work to do. This is especially difficult if, like me, you have creative projects pointing at different directions every day. Down in the basement, I have furniture that needs to be refinished, and an art project that I need to finish, and the kids got a keyboard from Santa Claus and I want to learn how to play that at some point. I have this book review to finish, and a hundred others I’ve written that I want to cross-post to my website. I have to rework the website for my (struggling) publishing company, and I have a web project about baseball and one about music that I want to complete. I have a good idea for my sixth law review article. My fourth novel is about halfway complete, and then I have two non-fiction projects (one about politics and one about history) that I want to pursue. And I have a day job on top of that. I not only have your ordinary garden-variety everyday Resistance to deal with, I have an inner voice telling me that I need to work on the other things that keeps me from completing the thing I am doing.

Second, the Pressfield Way can’t tell you if the work you are doing is crap or not. The most common self-talk you get from Resistance is what you are doing sucks and you are wasting your time with it. Pressfield teaches us that Resistance is always lying and always full of crap. Which is true enough as far as it goes, but every lie has a kernel of truth in it. Maybe what I am doing really does suck. How do I know? How can I tell? (This is where your editor and your beta readers come in.)

The third limitation in the Pressfield Way is love.

A MAN AT ARMS is about this limitation, about the intersection of fighting Resistance with finding love. Its hero is Telamon, a Greek warrior in the Roman legions now working as a mercenary. Pressfield portrays him as an exemplary Stoic, someone who acts according to his own code, impervious to any other concerns other than the welfare of his mules. Telamon accepts a commission from a Roman officer to track down a fugitive Christian who is carrying Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. The Romans want to suppress the apostle’s message, and Telamon wants to be paid.

The problem is that there’s a little girl involved.

As a story, A MAN AT ARMS Is lacking in a lot of ways. Telamon seems scarcely human, and seems an unlikely object of childish devotion. The narration is chock-full of little deviations, some helpful, others with the consistency and appeal of cold oatmeal. The action scenes are taut and cinematic, though, and the villains are suitably villainous. But the attraction is in the clash of philosophies more than anything else, and in this area if no other, A MAN AT ARMS is instructive, and worthwhile.

The message of the Pressfield Way in terms of the twenty-first century would-be novelist, typing merrily away on his wireless keyboard, listening to 80’s rock through his Bose speakers, is forthright. Spouses and children are tools of Resistance. You spend all your time hanging out with other people, whoever they are (which you can’t of course always do in this year of grace 2021), and you are not going to get as much work done, and that is a fact. But you have to talk to your wife, you can’t (sigh) let your kids play with their screens all day, you have to do your other job, and what do you do with that? Pressfield, in his other books, says that you fight Resistance, you become a professional, you follow the path of the warrior.

In A MAN AT ARMS, he comes to a very different conclusion, and the correct one. Pressfield paints an idealized man of infinite Stoic virtue and accomplished prowess, the exemplar in many ways of his own personal philosophy, and it all comes to tatters in the face of love.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: TINSEL: A SEARCH FOR AMERICA’S CHRISTMAS PRESENT, by Hank Stuever

The author of Off Ramp takes readers on a journey into the excess and beauty of Christmas in an American suburb by following three people through all their holiday preparations and celebrations. Reprint.

Critics, in one way, are sort of like World War II submarine captains: they love nothing more than a juicy target — and the bigger, the better. In TINSEL, Washington Post critic Hank Stuever has two of the most tempting targets in his sights — well, three if you count Sarah Palin, who just merits a quick sideswipe here.

The first — and less obvious — is the concept of the Edge City. First popularized by Stuever’s Washington Post colleague Joel Garreau, the Edge City is what was once pasture and is now a 21st century metropolis with malls, big-box stores serving as urban centers, and new communities tied to — but far from — urban downtowns, largely without history and (depending on who you talk to) wholly without a soul.

Stuever, a self-confessed member of the godless East Coast liberal media, seizes on Frisco, Texas as his Edge City target. Frisco was once a small community in Collin County, a railroad
depot in the vast expanse of prairie north of Dallas. Today, it has over 100,000 residents, a sprawling shopping mall, a Double-A baseball team, and the usual agglomeration of chain retail and dining establishments. In short (not least because Collin County is solidly Republican), it can, under the right circumstances (and if you’re a deep-dyed “urbanist” blue-state liberal), symbolize all that is wrong with America.

Stuever rents a room in a mini-mansion, researches the town’s history, geology and demographics, and identifies three families to follow around the barren and bleak Edge City
landscape. But Frisco is only his secondary target. Stuever is after something bigger; indeed, the biggest thing that there is: the Christmas season and the absolute maelstrom of consumer spending attendant to it. And although the commercialization of Christmas is one of the favorite dead horses for critics to beat (right up there with who-really-wrote-Shakespeare’s-plays and the college football playoff system), Stuever manages to go a few steps beyond the usual so-this-is-what-it-has-come-to story.

The author finds his first family on Black Friday in line waiting for the Frisco Best Buy to open its doors at an ungodly hour (the mother serves as “praise leader” for a big-box church, which, predictably, gets skewered as well). The second family features a stay-at-home mom who has a small business where she decorates the homes of harried suburbanites who don’t have the time or inclination to do it themselves. The third family is consumed with one of those colorful Christmas light displays you see in beer commercials that draws visitors from all over the Metroplex.

TINSEL, like Christmas itself, is wonderful if you’re in the right mood — and if you’re not, it can make you wish you were dead. Stuever’s biting humor (which owes at least a small debt to David Sedaris) undercuts the sticky sentimentality of the season. But it’s his skills as a reporter in noticing the small, telling details that make this book such a fascinating read (his analysis of the Christmas village figurine industry is worth the cost of the book all by itself).

If TINSEL was just a snarky, mean-spirited take on the holiday season as celebrated in a soulless corner of flyover country, it would be a worthwhile and timely effort. What distinguishes Stuever’s work here is not just the excellence of his prose but that it is leavened with more than a little introspection and regret. Just when you think he has gone too far in his criticism — and I say this as a proud son of the North Texas prairie — Stuever takes a step back, examines his attitudes, and manages to find some good in the holiday and those who celebrate it. For a critic, that is quite the achievement.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: GENGHIS: LORDS OF THE BOW, by Conn Iggulden

Continues the story of Genghis Khan as he embarks on a quest to conquer the mighty Chin empire, leaving a trail of devastation behind as he makes his way to Yenking, capital of the empire, and prepares to lay siege to the city and starve it into submission.

Define “civilization” however you want, but there’s always going to be some amount of barbarism mixed in to whatever definition you can come up with.

Only a truly technically advanced civilization could produce things like 50-inch high-definition plasma televisions with picture-in-picture and remote control, but only a truly uncivilized barbaric horde could make sure that the only things worth watching at any given time are celebrity dating shows, Rachael Ray cooking programs, and baseball games on the West Coast that don’t even start until after my bedtime. Civilization gives you email, barbarism gives you spam. Civilization gives you iPods, barbarism gives you “American Idol.” Civilization gives you luxury sedans with satellite radio and heated leather seats, barbarism gives you traffic jams to sit in.  It’s all intertwined.

Conn Iggulden has completed his second book focusing on Genghis Khan’s life story. Large wedges of it are about the conflict of barbarism and civilization, and a lot of that has to do with water, of all things. Genghis leads his united Mongol tribes off the steppes of Central Asia into the hinterlands of China, but is balked by the tall walls that surround the Chinese cities. His soldiers are superb cavalrymen and bowmen — savage, ruthless and skilled — but they stare at fortifications in vain. The first city they encounter is served by irrigation canals, so Genghis sends his men out to break them. This ends up flooding a significant part of the Mongol camp, which is a minus, but leads to the eventual capitulation of the city.

Iggulden makes the contrast between the uncivilized Mongol horde and the civilized Chinese empire even starker in two other scenes involving water. Genghis sends two of his brothers to infiltrate a Chinese city, and they find themselves enjoying the pleasures of hot running water for the first time. At the same time, Genghis leads his young sons to a far-off river in winter, making them immerse themselves in the near-freezing water to make them the kind of tough-minded conquerors who could overthrow the great cities of China.

Iggulden — co-author of THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS — is trying to make the point that the Mongols were able to challenge the more civilized, more educated, more sophisticated Chinese Empire because they inculcated the warrior virtues (which Genghis summarizes as “the cold face”) of stoicism, courage and martial skills. (Iggulden never draws the contrast between our television-addled, PlayStation-wielding boys of today with Genghis’s sons, though it seems to be a preoccupation.) But as Genghis imposes his will on the Chinese, civilization imposes its will on him. Not only is his youngest brother Temuge seduced by the lure of hot baths, he becomes the Mongol Empire’s first official bureaucrat.

All of this sounds as though GENGHIS: LORDS OF THE BOW is little more than social commentary merged with horse opera. Gladly, there is much more to it. There is an incredible amount of wanton destruction and cruelty, enough to delight the heart of the most bloodthirsty armchair Mongol. Early on, there is a scene where Genghis discusses the mob of peasant refugees who have been kicked off their farms by his rampaging horde. He decides that there is nothing left for the peasants to do but die, and they are killed, making a mountain of the dead — and this is just an aside in one paragraph. (Later on, even worse things happen to the next set of peasants.) This is a fighting book, filled with scenes of battles, melees, sieges and military exploits of every kind.

And at the head of the river of blood stands Genghis Khan, imagined by Iggulden as implacable, honest and forthrightly determined to make the world safe for Mongols to do what Mongols do. Genghis is a bit less likable here than he was in Iggulden’s first book about him, GENGHIS: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE, where he was an abandoned child struggling to survive. But here he leads his incomparable cavalrymen into a conflict with civilization itself, one that he can win, and one where civilized modern readers (safe in their armchair, with their satellite radio and laptop close at hand) can cheer his victories.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: RESCUING PATTY HEARST, by Virginia Holman

A daughter of a schizophrenic mother recounts how she and her sister were held hostage for four years while their mother gave way to psychosis and how the medical system of the 1980s inhibited patient progress and victimized their families.

In 1974, Virginia Holman was kidnapped. RESCUING PATTY HEARST is her ransom note.

The kidnapping was “custodial”, which usually conjures up images of battery or abuse, or a divorce gone horribly wrong. The perpetrator here was not Holman’s father or mother; instead, it was a disease. Holman’s mother began experiencing delusions related to an undiagnosed case of schizophrenia. She came to believe that she was a soldier in a secret war and had to set up the family’s vacation cottage on the Virginia coast as a field hospital to care for hordes of orphan children. But there were only two children in the small cottage — Virginia and her baby sister — and they were not being cared for.

Holman tells the story of her childhood experiences on two parallel tracks; each chapter has a date heading that explains whether a younger “Gingie” Holman, or her older, wiser contemporary counterpart is telling the story. We see what happens to Gingie, what she felt about it at the time, and how it affects her now. The author constantly evaluates and reevaluates her mother’s actions and her own through the prism of time and experience, rotating back and forth in time to better understand what happened and why.

The book’s subtitle is “Memories From A Decade Gone Mad”; its first line is “Nineteen seventy-four was a bad time to go crazy.” Holman does not blame the excesses of the 1970’s for her mother’s illness, but makes the point that society was so topsy-turvy at that time that her mother’s schizophrenia-induced actions seemed more normal than they otherwise might have. Holman’s role model at that young age was Patricia Hearst, kidnapped heiress turned domestic terrorist. She is invoked as a symbol of the times, showing how stunning reversals in character and action can take place.

RESCUING PATTY HEARST is a beautifully realized portrait of a seventies childhood set against the backdrop of a devastating illness. Holman is blessed with both a powerful memory bank and astonishing skills at reviving the spirit of a lost civilization from the misty past. Some of this is unavoidably sentimental, but the areas of the book dealing with her mother’s mental illness are starkly unsentimental. Holman’s intimate knowledge of the disease is tinged with both sympathy and anger, leading to an honest, non-sensationalized portrayal of the reality of mental illness. Her memoir covers not only her mother’s strange and powerful delusions, but also the day-to-day struggle that accompanies mental illness. Early on, Holman discusses an early delusion of her mother’s that results in a stare of disgust from a harried salesman — “a look,” Holman writes, “that would become increasingly familiar in the years to come.”

If Virginia Holman’s mother had never experienced mental illness, there still would have been the makings of a memoir here; her portrayal of a childhood and a time is masterfully written and affecting. The presence of mental illness lends the book a wrenching quality, bringing home the reality of mental disability and the effects that it has on families and lives. Holman succeeds in describing her childhood; she triumphs in describing her mother, her illness and her plight. RESCUING PATTY HEARST is an extraordinary work, putting to shame more conventional or sentimental portrayals of mental illness.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE GHOST MAP, by Steven Johnson


I think that it must be a very rare thing indeed for an author to not want a book he or she has written to sell a lot of copies–or at least for them not to sell a lot of copies for a bad reason. For example, I enjoyed GHOST FLEET, an imaginative thriller about a possible Chinese invasion of Hawaii, and while I certainly would like to have the book earn a wide readership, I would not want that to happen because China had, in fact, invaded Hawaii. (I imagine that the authors would agree.)

THE GHOST MAP, as I write this in January 2021, is selling well, and is selling well not because the book is so well-written and well-researched, but because the world is struggling with a global pandemic. Although there is not a great deal of similarity between the mid-nineteenth-century cholera outbreak in London and the twenty-first century outbreak of COVID-19, there is a commonality in terms of the fear of infection and frustration about how the crisis can be dealt with.

THE GHOST MAP is only sort of a history of the cholera outbreak that devastated (and, as the author points out, decimated, in the literal sense) the Soho neighborhood of London. It is primarily an intellectual history of the outbreak, and illustrates both the “knowledge problem” as set forth by Friedrich Hayek, and its corollary, written by Mark Twain, writing decades before Hayek.

The “knowledge problem” can be summarized thusly:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

Or to summarize, nobody can know everything that he or she would need to know to make rational decisions. And as Twain observed, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Both the lack of knowledge and the persistence of what we may call anti-knowledge are ubiquitous in society, and are especially troublesome in the time of pandemic.

For London, the facts were that the bacteria that causes cholera was both unknown and unseen, and as so, there was no consensus on how it was transmitted. John Snow, a Victorian (in the most literal sense of the word) surgeon had determined that cholera was transmitted through the water supply. But the scientific community at large had determined that cholera was spread via bad smells, of which there were an abundance in London.

Snow was as close as anyone could be to solving the knowledge problem; he had exactly the set of medical, social, and analytical skillsets needed to determine the source of the cholera outbreak. As Hayek stated, Snow was “in the best position to command all the best knowledge available.” But he had to fight against those who believed the alternate theory, and he was unable to prove his theory until a local clergyman–seeking to disprove Snow– became  the “man on the spot,” with the specialized local knowledge to find the specific cesspit located next to the specific well which was the cause of the epidemic.

Johnson’s story is, happily, triumphant, and the the problems of cholera have, in the Western nations, largely been licked. (Outside of Western nations, cholera is a real problem, causing thousands of deaths each year.) Removing the handle of the pump on the contaminated well was a perfect solution–effective, cheap, and simple. (Treatment of cholera, which was unknown at the time, is basically Gatorade–Johnson has a hearty laugh at the quack nostrums sold in London to battle cholera.

THE GHOST MAP concludes with a long essay about how the work of John Snow impacts modern times–which I thought was a bit too long, until Johnson made some very prescient comments about the next pandemic and what it will look like. The knowledge problem related to COVID-19 is much more fiendish. COVID-19 is everywhere, not just in one impoverished London neighborhood. It is spread (or we think it is spread) by airborne particles or close contact, and up until recently we thought it was spread by asymptomatic patients. Although we seem to have a solution to the outbreak, the logistics in getting vaccines to billions of people is several orders of magnitude higher than removing one handle from one pump. The anti-knowledge, or misinformation, about COVID-19 has spread faster and farther than the virus itself.

There’s no doubt that the current popularity of THE GHOST MAP is due to COVID-19, which may be one of the few good things that has occurred as a result. It’s outstanding history, sociology, and epidemiology all in one. I hope that we are fortunate enough to have enough John Snows in this generation, and that we’re able to cut through the misinformation in time to save lives.