The Trump administration’s handling, or rather mishandling, of the Covid-19 pandemic could possibly go down as the most epic failure in the nation’s history. The inhabitant of the White House has been almost breathtaking in his finger-pointing, general ineptitude, and lack of basic human empathy. It could be fairly said that it will take years to erase the stain Trump has put on the once vaunted image of American know-how and expansiveness. I’ve edited publications through the recession of the 70s, the stock-market disaster of the late 80s, 9/11, and the recession of 2008. And I’ve never seen anything this devastating to the thin threads that hold the American fabric together.
Since Trump came into office, I’ve felt like I’ve been in the back seat of a car driven by a drunk who’s barreling down the road at 60 miles an hour. With the addition of the pandemic, I feel like I’m still in the car, we’re still going at top speed, and we’ve just hit an ice storm. Given the complete hash Trump and his circle have made of the pandemic so far, there will no doubt continue to be further tsunamis of mismanagement, failure, and attendant devastation. My guess is that the administration’s various stimulus programs will become the darkest pit of graft and self-dealing since the breakup of the Soviet Union. By comparison, Teapot Dome will look like a small, short-fingered hand in the cookie jar. Don’t take my word for it: read “The Covidfefe Chronicles,” tracking 100 days (or so) of the coronavirus in an annotated time line that matches key moments in the deadly spread of the pandemic to Trump’s more inane and insidious pronouncements.
The Great Reckoning, as some are beginning to refer to this seismic shift, will most likely change the way many of us live our lives. The rat race, as it was so wonderfully known in the 50s, will hopefully slow down. All those senseless flights for senseless meetings. Senseless cab rides to senseless lunches. Senseless cross-country flights for senseless adult birthday parties. And then senseless holidays in the sun to get away from all that senselessness.
By comparison, Teapot Dome will look like a small, short-fingered hand in the cookie jar.
All of these indulgences could become artifacts of a busier, more frantic American past. Airplane travel was once reserved for the well heeled, or for special occasions, or for the business traveler on expenses. Over the past 40 years, the U.S. airline industry has essentially become a collection of airborne bus lines, designed to get us from A to B in no-frills style. If even this means of rudimentary travel to minor U.S. markets disappears, America will have some serious issues. Unlike Europe or Japan or China, we have left our rail system—once the envy of the world—to rot. In the 1930s, the 20th Century Limited took passengers from New York to Chicago in a little over half a day, and in complete luxury. That trip today takes hours longer. And it’s like spending the day traveling on the Brooklyn L train.
Lockdown nostalgia, if not already a thing, will certainly become one for the brittle survivors of this disaster. It will be looked upon as a time when the air and water cleared. When frantic Type A’s realized there was a life of the mind. When neighbors looked out for each other and people who scrambled to get richer than they were the day before realized that their money couldn’t put a moat between them and the outside world. For most of us, we simply realize that we’re all in this together whether we like it or not.
My wife, Anna, and I have been riding out the lockdown in Provence with two of five children, plus a daughter-in-law and a dog named Charley. My son Spike is a documentary filmmaker, finishing up a film about the actor Eric Roberts, and he also writes about film, music, and artisanal spirits. His wife, Pip, is an artist. Both are pitching in at AIR MAIL, and Pip illustrated the landing page for the Arts Intel Report.
Before the lockdown, anytime I used Pip’s name in public, I would get horrified looks from women within earshot—or at least more horrified than usual. It took a month or so before I discovered why. “Pip” is—how can I put this delicately?—the French word for something one doesn’t shout about in public. (If you’re that curious, do a Google search.) Not the slang for it. The actual word. I’ve since recalibrated myself to calling her “Pippa” when we’re in the market.
We are about 20 miles from where F. Scott Fitzgerald was quarantined in 1918. I endeavor to drink less than he did when he was under lockdown. And many days I succeed. Here, both the government and, by and large, the people have taken the shutdown seriously. Since mid-March, parks, beaches, and stores have been closed, except for the usual essential services such as food stores and pharmacies. And this being France, essential services also include wine shops and tobacconists. Such are the hallmarks of a civilized people. Beginning on Monday, shops and parks will begin to open, as will outdoor markets, the social and economic lifeblood of villages across the country.
I would get horrified looks from women within earshot—or at least more horrified than usual.
Restaurants remain closed, but those offering take-out food have stayed open, as they have in other countries. Indeed, we have a pizza place down the hill from us called Chouchou. We sort of snobbishly avoided it, largely due to its proximity. I mean, how could a place this close to us make great pizza? Well, the thing is, on the advice of our neighbors, we tried it. Every Wednesday since, we treat ourselves to an order from Chouchou. And I will tell you that it is the best pizza I’ve tasted outside of Naples.
Here in the French chapter of the Carter household, we’ve tried to keep busy. Among other activities, we’ve organized our own film festivals: Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Jacques Tati, and so on. Spike and I have our own Steven Seagal festival once a week. Women will never understand this—indeed, most men probably won’t, either. I’m re-reading all the Wodehouse and Waugh books that are in the house. I’ve gone through a dozen or more Georges Simenon mysteries. Same with Martin Walker’s glorious Bruno Courrèges police procedurals, which are set in the Périgord.
I’ve discovered a new series by Mario Giordano. They are written in Italian and superbly turned into English by the legendary translator John Brownjohn. Two of the books are Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions and Auntie Poldi and the Fruits of the Lord. They are very much in the vein of the splendid television series The Durrells—or, if you saw the series in America, The Durrells in Corfu. (Which I thought was one of the most accurate depictions of family life I had ever seen on television, aside from The Simpsons.) Auntie Poldi is a woman of indeterminate age, but up there. She still has the remaining outlines of her looks. She’s funny, opinionated, lusty, and loves the look of the tanned young Italian carabinieri in their crisp blue uniforms. I mean, what woman doesn’t? Poldi loves wine and sex, often in that order. And, like Miss Marple, she’s always stumbling upon a dead body in need of investigation. Joan Plowright or a younger Maggie Smith could have played Auntie Poldi to a tee.
Spike and I have our own Steven Seagal festival once a week. Women will never understand this—indeed, most men probably won’t, either.
Cities will have the toughest part in clawing their way back to normality—or at least whatever new form of normality awaits us on the distant horizon. My beloved New York, the densest of American cities—and therefore the one most crippled by the pandemic—may have the roughest go of it. High real-estate prices and rents scare out all but the most louche foreign buyers and corrupt arrivistes. Even before the virus, major shopping blocks along Madison Avenue uptown and Bleecker Street in the West Village had been gutted by high rents and failed businesses. Unless you own a plywood company, this is a dire situation that continues to worsen by the day.
The relative health of cities can be measured in good part by the vibrancy of the street level—not by the penthouse level, as the current and previous mayors seem to have believed. New York landlords have been stunningly greedy in their desire to hold out for the highest possible ground-floor rents in the hope that Ralph Lauren, or an LVMH division, or Hermès, will ante up vast capital for the space. The fact is, even big, blue-chip companies have their limits and, as a result, many of the spaces have gone wanting. Some of them for years on end. Right now many retail companies, big and small, aren’t paying their rents at all. More enlightened landlords such as Scott Malkin, who owns the Bicester Village Shopping Collection of luxury-retail enclaves all over the world, have eliminated rents for tenants until the lockdowns in each nation are lifted.
One way to bring life back to the sidewalk level of New York is to change the tax code. And this could apply to other cities as well. Rather than grant landlords who own retail space tax write-offs when their shops are empty, flip the law and penalize them when they’re left vacant. If a retail space goes unrented for, say, six months, double the tax to the landlord. If it goes empty for a year, triple the tax. Believe me, this will get them focused and hungry for tenants.
And this will attract young, talented, and ambitious people. The vibrancy of a city like New York is almost wholly dependent on the spirit and energy of freshman arrivals. It’s certainly not the result of the bloated, if now somewhat diminished, portfolios of their elders. Young people, by dint of a collapsed security in the corporate world, are much more entrepreneurial than the two or three generations that have preceded them. The most significant financial factor in starting up a ground-floor business is rent. When rents come down, new businesses and shops will spring up in the most surprising areas. Also, set up enterprise zones in areas of the city most benighted by the pandemic. If, say, someone starts a business that employs two or more people in one of those neighborhoods, give them a complete corporate-tax holiday for two years. If they employ 10 or more, give them five years off from paying city or state tax.
Think more like the Europeans. Ground-floor-level New York could become a haven for shopkeepers, as it once was. Also, make American cities more like small towns, where lawyers, doctors, dentists, and accountants often occupy street-level spaces. It’s perfect for the conditions of today. First of all, it’s easier to self-isolate your clientele, because there is a sidewalk just outside. There are no crowded elevators. And you get the benefit of free advertising from the shingle you hang out front, not to mention the added possibility of a walk-in trade—which is something you don’t get on the 44th floor of a bland Midtown office tower.
As for those office towers, they’re going to seem like dinosaurs in the years to come. Who wants to cram onto a crowded subway for the commute to a crowded office when you’ve gotten used to working at home? If I had my way, I’d wall off all of Midtown and turn it into a museum—the Museum of the Office Tower. Because they could soon seem like artifacts from another age—worthless save for the wonder they will bring to those who cast their eyes upon them in complete bewilderment as to why they were ever built.
How do I feel confident in making these predictions? Because I’m one of the idiots who predicted that 9/11 would mark the end of the age of irony. That’s how.
Speaking of ironies, which I now have to confess never really went away, this is from Boris Johnson’s 2011 book, Johnson’s Life of London, courtesy of my longtime Vanity Fair and now Air Mail colleague Chris Garrett, who clearly has too much time on her hands if she’s reading Boris:
“As we look back at the last twenty years of the information technology revolution, there is one confident prediction that has not come true. They said we would all be sitting in our kitchens in Dorking or Dorset and ‘telecommuting’ down the ‘information superhighway.’ Video linkups, we were told, would make meetings unnecessary. What tosh. Whatever we may think they ‘need’ to do, people want to see other people up close. I leave it to the anthropologists to come up with the detailed analysis, but you only have to try a week of ‘working from home’ to know it is not all it’s cracked up to be. You soon get gloomy from making cups of coffee and surfing the Internet and going to hack at that piece of cheese in the fridge. And then there are other profound reasons for this obstinate human desire to be snuffling round each other at the watercooler. As the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has demonstrated, the move to the city is as rational in the information revolution as it was in the Industrial Revolution.”