In a Plague-Time, Two Old Friends Get Philosophical

Thirteenth in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time

The following exchange is between my longtime friend, Sally Frame Kasaks, and me. Sally and I were roommates in college for two years and have remained excellent friends over the decades. Sally is retired from a successful career in women’s retail, serving as president, first, of Ann Taylor (which recently filed for bankruptcy), then Abercrombie & Fitch, and finally Talbots. She and husband Ivar split their time between their base in New York City and Florida. Sally and I maintain a weekly email exchange. This one began when I forwarded an article from The New York Times. What started out about real estate ended more philosophical.

At posting, America has lost over 300,000 lives to the coronavirus, with the last week losing over 3,000 a day, more than were lost on 9/11. Meanwhile, the vaccines arrive….

Dear Sally,

FYI the article below, about midtown Manhattan “reeling” from rising vacancy rates due to the pandemic, with the question “Should its offices become apartments?” Well, if you are looking for lots of space and high ceilings….

I am so worried about the deep and likely permanent damage being done in all corners of the economy. I am sure it occurs to you, as a devout New Yorker, that maybe New York won’t come back entirely. Sure, New York will kick back to life in some way, but, big question: What way? Also concerning: children’s education, including social interaction with other children whereby they learn about human nature, human relations….

Hope all’s well with you two. This will certainly be a different Christmas, won’t it. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, j’espere….

Love, Carla

Dear Carla,

Yes, I read the article, but more to the point experienced the empty store fronts all over Manhattan. Walking down Madison Avenue from 58th Street to the Flatiron area around 22nd Street then to Union Square around 14th Street was painful. Good exercise, but painful — the absence of office workers, shops either permanently closed or locked so salespeople could keep number of people in shops “socially distanced.” Of course I don’t believe I passed more than 100 people on my walk.

A few days later I took a similar walk on Fifth Avenue. A few more people and fewer store closings, but the scene equally bleak. Ditto the Upper West Side. It is a residential and commercial area with a more neighborhood-y vibe, with the clever outdoor dining venues somewhat offsetting the dark, empty store fronts. Lots of moving vans as well, some moving out and others taking advantage of reduced rents to move into a desirable area. (Let’s hope it remains desirable.)

And to think the 21 Club will be closing. It has endured every disruption to hit the USA and NYC for a century!

Though I feel like a “turncoat” being in Florida, I am glad that we returned. At one point Ivar mused that we should stay in NY. But I reminded him how dark, chilly and wet New York is in winter and that we would be restricted to our apartment and that reduced indoor dining would likely be eliminated, since the virus would likely start its merciless march again. So here we are. Ivar and I go out for the occasional late lunch. And walk only the nearly empty beaches.

Larry [Carla’s husband] wrote inquiring about impact of COVID-19 on retail. The article from The New York Times says it all for many areas of the country. Over the past five years or so rising rents and online shopping were making it tough for brick-and-mortar retailing, but the pandemic accelerated that trend. Whiplashed is likely a better word.

I won’t go on.

All I know is that Ivar commented the other day: “I miss New York.” I reminded him that he missed the New York that existed, pre-pandemic.

So we each/all continue to adapt to a world we never fully anticipated….even as the virus started in March. Tara [our daughter] and her husband are keeping their brewery together by a thread. Yesterday they celebrated the fifth anniversary. Peter creates and makes excellent beer, so his reputation has kept them alive with curbside pick-up and walk-ins. Yesterday they put up tents in the parking lot (but no heaters, as they didn’t want to burn the tents!). On a drizzly December day, a few diehards showed up to celebrate.

Other friends have had to close their stores and businesses. Heartbreaking.

I have finally come to terms with the fact that whatever “normal” will be as we emerge from this time likely will not fully evolve in my/our lifetime. The implications of how we define “work” and “education” clearly changing. What happens to the kids locked out from school as they try to make up for lost time and classwork? The impact of reduced or, worse, lost income for so many? The loss of family members and loved ones?

The Great Depression left its scars. What will the combined impact of the Great Recession and COVID-19 have, especially on young people who have lived through both as they try to make their way in the world? Then add the basically 50–50 divide of our nation politically that has created this horrific nightmare.

Oh well, it is a sunny, warmish day here. We will take our two-mile walk, then I will start Christmas cards and wrapping gifts.

Take care, dear friend.

Love, Sal

Dear Sal,

Wow, so much meat in your response. What a switch from your notion of correspondence in earlier years, when I got….maybe….a postcard….every other year. You will recall I used to joke that if I got something longer from you, like an actual letter, I would notify the Library of Congress’ documents department. You have reformed!

Of course what you describe is the sad cavalcade of our times. Starting with the NYT article about New York being “decimated.” A friend whose doctor daughter just moved from NYC (she was there during the COVID-19 nightmare last spring) to Washington, D.C., reports, “Does anybody realize what a ghost town the nation’s capital is?” All the media hoopla about Trump’s whining at losing, and the Republicans’ complicity, are distracting from that ongoing damage.

It does make you wonder what the landscape will look like when this plague-time ends. I saw your email to Larry about Whither retail? At least you can rest confident in your insights as to where retail went — the department store losing ground as a viable business model, etc. And I was struck by your one-sentence paragraph about the consumer boom of the late 20th century, that fueled your career, now gone…. In addition to retail, it must prey on the minds of cultural New York — theatres, museums, the media (NYT, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books) — that New York could lose its heft, its power. Not that New York would become a backwater, but a reduced version of itself. I just hope that, to regain lost ground, it — New York, but also American culture in general — does not go the route of the Jazz Age 2.0, though I suspect it will. Was so disappointed to read Spike Lee plans to direct a Broadway musical about Viagra. Really, Spike? After so much suffering and death and loss, a musical (yada-yada) about Viagra? (I’m making notes.)

Which leads to another important point you raise: about the likely nature and content of our lifespans as they play out. The byword probably is: repair. Repair of politics and government, for starters. Am cheered Joe Biden is appointing institutionalists to his team, to repair the governmental machinery, organize pandemic management (at long last!), and could we standardize our voting system?

But, yes, who knows how much of the repair/reconstruction we will see before we shuffle off this mortal coil? Will we see at least the outlines of a better day, a glimpse of a Golden Age? Along with political commentary, I’ll keep up the cultural commentary, because, you know me, I think a nation is shaped as much by its culture as its politics (Trump is as much our “Breaking Bad” president as Republicanism’s apotheosis).

So, the byword of us, for all four of us, will be: repair. And, you know, Sal, that’s O.K., that really is. All right, so we’ll not be gliding out in a Golden Age, but we can pitch in, during this Brass Age, to get us there, help refine, as it were. With your peerless executive experience, I’d love to see you recruit and launch a “council of elders” to repair the American “brand” of executive management. (Don’t blanch at the “council of elders” label — you’ll class it up, plus I can see the public-service ad now: “This is what ‘elder’ looks like.”) And with me over in my political/cultural lane, we will be engaged, with purpose, not dozing through our dotage. Why waste the wisdom of our advancing age?

The work before us is immense — strap on! As I sign off so often these days, “After the Dark Ages, came the Renaissance.”

That’s a lot of walking you do, Sal — good on you. I need to follow your example. I speed-walk every day, but not the miles you put in. So important to stay strong physically, as well as psychically, as we shelter-in-place.

Also important of course is tending our personal relations. The marriage bond is more vital than ever. Slogging together through this plague-time, Larry and I feel truly like comrades; I sense the same for you and Ivar. And friendship: Dr. Johnson said one must “keep one’s friendships in good repair.” Aha, there’s that repair theme again….

To the Renaissance!

Love, C.

Dear Carla,

Whew! So much to absorb.

I am wondering: Is it “repair” or “reinvent”?

Love, Sal

Dear Sal,

I use the word “repair” to imply working with the materials at hand, the situation and institutions as they currently are. “Reinvent” might spook people, deflate hopes before they can be mobilized. But I agree, “reinvent” will be a huge, if not driving feature of whatever lies ahead.

For sure, “repair” works in the sense Dr. Johnson used it, to keep one’s friendships “in good repair,” meaning: well-maintained. Which we have done for such a long time. And for which I am deeply grateful.

Love, Carla

P.S., Sal: Thought of something else you said. Re the pandemic, you spoke of continuing “to adapt to a world we never fully anticipated.” It prompts me to think back when we met so long ago, of the world we anticipated at that time. Coming of age in the late ‘50s-early ’60s as we did, when I projected ahead, I anticipated a world that was serious in intent, but tractable to hard study. Like a demanding seminar, demanding that you keep up. Now we know the world is serious, all right, but incoherent, and very deadly. (It was ever thus throughout human history, but not in the post-World War II period.) Also, as both our fathers were doctors, whom we admired, we both had a reverence for science, a reverence shared by the public. Who ever knew that that reverence would today be rejected by half the public, who’d revert to superstition and conspiracy theory? It’s this new world — incoherent, irrational — that I find hard to adapt to. (Writing commentary, I’ve come to see, is my way of making sense of the craziness, each piece a pointillist dot in what I can only hope will make a coherent, and maybe beautiful, picture.)

In all this instability, the through-line — the life-line — is one’s moral code, and humanity, and Mozart and Co., and love and friendship. Again, here’s to love and friendship.

Love, C.

Dear Carla,

I have to say once again I am glad our collective parents are gone. This strange world is not what they had in mind.

Sadly we have experienced incompetence on many levels of business, government, and the handling of the pandemic. But I am encouraged by the entrepreneurs and numerous businesses big and small that have stepped up to support their employees, communities, and the needs raised by the pandemic. And though discouraged by the last four years of the Trump administration and by the fact that nearly half the country voted for him, I am encouraged that our system of government has held together, though the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris does not ensure smooth sailing going forward.

But at least we now have a shot at coming back — as you say, “just barely,” but a shot is a shot. And then there are the real shots — the vaccines — so maybe this terrible plague will be ending.

Indeed: With love and friendship — and our parents’ grit — we carry on.

Love, Sal

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