Everything I Need to Know About a Pandemic, I Learned from Golden Books

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

In times of sustained stress, like that now caused by the worldwide pandemic, we often turn back to activities from our younger days for comfort. Maybe it’s eating a favorite breakfast cereal from our childhood. Or watching reruns of old TV shows or movies. It could playing nostalgic games, or completing jigsaw puzzles, or building models.

Such behavior is completely understandable. “Whenever we’re in a stressful situation, we tend to regress,” California-based psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb explained recently in Time magazine. “Going back to a time in our lives when we felt safe and we felt protected is a natural instruct during these times”.

I sometimes return to rereading old classic books that I previously read and enjoyed. And for Baby Boomers like me, one of the series of books that placed many of us on our love-of-reading road is the Little Golden Books.

A few years ago here in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian Museum of American History featured an exhibit highlighting the history and impact of the Little Golden Books, which featured memorable characters like Nurse Nancy and Doctor Dan, Tubby the Tugboat, or Little Pokey Puppy.

After viewing the exhibit, I purchased the book Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book, written by Diane Muldrow, a Golden Books editorial director.

Although written before the COVID-19 crisis, Muldrow’s words in the preface seem even more applicable today. “Our country has faced some hard times of late, and we’ve been forced to look at ourselves and how we’re living our lives,” she wrote.

“We here at Golden Books think there’s a good chance that many of us learned pretty much everything that really matters about life from what we read between those sturdy, gilt-bound cardboard covers.” she added. “After all, Little Golden Books were first published during the dark days of World War II, and they’ve been comforting people in trying times ever since”.

So I  decided to take up Mudrow’s assertion – what would be the top 10 lessons Golden Books might be able to teach us but how to cope with pandemic times. Here are the 10 I chose:

Don’t Panic
Obviously these are scary times. Our concern is elevated because we don’t have the answers we need.  What should we be doing to keep ourselves safe? We need to reopen our economy and get people back to work, but how do we do that safely? When can we go back to school, travel, go to the movies, eat at a restaurant, attend a concert, take a vacation? The list is long and the only honest answer is – we just don’t know. We do know however that panic will only exacerbate our disturbing position.

Keep in Touch 
In quarantine, that is hard to do. But contemporary technology like FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom allow us to keep in contact with our family, friends, and neighbors. Make sure you do that.

Stay Clear of Shady Characters
Just as the pandemic is showing us some of the best of human traits, it is also showcasing the worst. With so many people forced to stay home, unscrupulous characters are using this time on the internet to push untruths and try to entice people to fall for scams. Check and verify everything you encounter on online.

The Simplest Things Are Often the Most Fun

There’s no question for most of us our pre-pandemic lives were hurried and complicated. Now, whether we wanted to or not, we have been forced to slow down and reflect. That reflection should allow us to determine what simple things do bring us the most enjoyment.

Take a Mental Health Day Now and Then
These trying times are taking an emotional, psychological, and mental toll on all of us. We need to periodically recharge. Figure out what would recharge you and do it. Any work will still be there when you get back to it, but you should be better able to handle it.

Always Keep a Medical Kit Handy
Make sure you always have what you need to get through a time of crisis when it’s not that easy to get to a doctor or a hospital. If you don’t already have it, it may not be that easy to obtain. I mean who would ever have thought we would experience a shortage of toilet paper. But don’t hoard. Most say your medical survival kit should be able to get you through about 14 days until you have to restock.

Get Some Exercise Every Day
Gyms and fitness centers are closed, but that does not mean we should let ourselves go physically. In fact, vigorous activity will not only help physically, but mentally as well.

Turn Off the TV from Time to Time
There will always be a place for television and cable viewing in the 21st Century. But like any activity, it can be abused. Strive for balance. You don’t have to give up TV completely, but balance it with other activities.

Crack Open a Book
This is one of the activities that can balance screen time. But with modern advances, you can also get your reading from Kindles or audiobooks. One of the purposes of reading is to force us to create the pictures instead of always having them provided for us.

Do No Harm
In uncertain times, we all are going to make mistakes. But if we make sure that we are being motivated by the central principle of considering ourselves sand others equally, we should be able to minimize any possible harm we may bring to ourselves or others.

Covid-19 Claims My Favorite Korean Deli

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

I said goodbye to Margaret Park today. Now I’m certain given the uncertain, unnerving conditions in the new nothing-normal of our COVID-19 world, we’ll all be saying goodbyes a lot in the months to come. And, as goodbyes go, this wasn’t tragic. But it still had a tinge of sadness about it.

Unless you live in Crystal City, the urban Virginia community just three Metro stops from the National Mall and Washington, D.C. where I live, you probably don’t know Margaret (which is her Americanized first name for she is Korean/American). In fact, even if you did live in this community of 22,000 people, where 60,000 more come work Mondays through Fridays, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t know the 67-year-old Margaret either.

But I knew Margaret. For 16 years, she operated the Deli Works, which was the first establishment you came to when you exited our apartment complex and entered the 12-block underground we have in Crystal City.

Actually, I still recall the first conversation Margaret and I had when we met nine years ago. I asked her what was good in her deli, which featured a sampling of Korean dishes. She asked: “You like spicy?”. I responded I did. “Good then, I’ll make you my special spicy chicken”.

And for the next nine years I ate Margaret’s special spicy dish – known in Korean as bul-dak – at least a couple of times a month. In fact, her chicken dish became a running joke between us.

I would pop in to the deli. And she would always ask what I wanted.

I might say, “Let me have the bulgogi bowl” or “I’ll take the bibimbap”.

Margaret’s response was always the same. She insisted that I eat her spicy chicken as she said it was better for me. And so I would once again eat Margaret’s spicy chicken, which definitely rated 5 out of 5 stars, especially when you considered its amazingly low cost given DC-area prices.

Another thing about Margaret was her luminous smile. Every time I would walk by her deli, if she saw me, her eyes would twinkle and she would smile and wave animatedly as if I were her favorite person in the world. Of course, she did that with everyone she knew. But even knowing that, it still seemed special and brightening at that moment.

Last Monday, I was walking past the deli and Margaret motioned me inside. Margaret often doesn’t always trust herself to convey what she wants to say in English. She held one finger up, signaling me to wait. She typed something into her cell phone in Korean and then pushed the translate-to-English button on the app. She held her phone so I could see her message. “I’m tired. On Friday,” it said.

At first, I was confused. “I’m tired. On Friday”?

And then it dawned on me. A couple of years ago, Margaret said she was getting ready to retire and close the deli. “You can’t do that,” I said at the time. “Where would I get my spicy chicken?”.

Now today, Margaret was telling me the time had come for me to answer that question. She was going to retire on Friday and close the deli. I promised her I would come by on that day and have one last supper – or in this case lunch – since she had taken to closing in the early afternoon.

So, on Friday March 27, at 11:30 a.m. I entered the Deli Works for a final time. Now we all know that in these uncharted pandemic times, things are different. And the scene inside the deli demonstrated just how different they really are. You couldn’t see Margaret’s smile since it was hidden behind the surgical-style mask she has been in for the past 2 weeks. Lucille, her co-cook who has been working at the deli for 14 years, was mopping an empty area where a giant display case had stood the day before. The only other person in the deli was another worker, who was unhooking the soda machine. But perhaps, most striking of all, the screen on the TV which had constantly displayed CNN when the deli was open, was now blank.

While Margaret let my chicken cook, I asked her a few questions. It’s what writers who were once former reporters do.

“What will you do now?,” I asked.

Pulling down her mask, Margaret replied she would stay home and rest.

“Did this shutdown for the virus effect your decision?” I inquired.

It was clear that Margaret didn’t understand the question. So I rephrased it, this time pointing to the empty walkways outside which as recently as month ago would have been teeming with workers and residents out for lunch.

“Yes. I planned to go later. But now, nobody comes in. So I’ll go now,” she said.

Of course, Margaret is not alone in being an economic victim of the necessary decision to socially isolate, and in some locations places shelter in place or even quarantine to try beat back this death-delivering COVID-19 menace.

One of the greatest advantages in living in an urban setting like we do is all the opportunities available there.

For example, take dining options. As a writer who loves to eat good food, I have done my research. There is (or was at of the beginning of March at least) the astounding number of 184 eateries within a mile walking distance of our apartment complex.

But on the day Margaret was closing, the number still open had been reduced to fewer than 40, with all of them offering take-out service only. And this reduction had come in only the first weeks of changes here in Crystal City.

The good news is that people are working from home and only venturing out for necessities such as food or visiting grocery and drug stores. But no one knows how long these emergency measures must be in place to be effective. Another month? Through the summer? The rest of 2020? Longer? And of course, the more time that passes until some semblance of daily normalcy can return here – or in any of the communities where you live – the more owners will be forced to make Margaret’s decision – do I stay or do I go.

As Margaret handed me my last order of her special spicy chicken, I had one final question. There were a few still-in-their bag items on the lone display shelf left and some drinks in the refrigerated case that had once been filled. “What happens to that stuff?” I asked.

“I’ll give it to the news stand man down there. You know him, right?” Margaret said, pointing in the direction of a small news/convenience store nearby in the underground.

“Did you say give?” I asked, wanting to make sure that I understood Margaret correctly.

“Yes, give. That’s easy,” she said. “I’m closing. He can use my stuff. In bad times, we must work together. We must help one another. We must share. It’s the right thing to do.”

And Margaret is absolutely correct.

We do need to work together, today more than ever. We do need to help one another, today more than ever. We do need to share, today more than ever. Sometimes, it takes bad times to remind us how we should act in better times.

Now if all the people leaders in the White House and the Congress here in DC and all the officials in all the other government buildings all over the globe can just internalize, come to truly understand, and then follow Margaret’s simple advice, we can beat this invisible virus now threatening all of us.

And then who knows? If we get through this by working together, and helping one another, and sharing maybe … just maybe … we could create a world that is just as good as the best of Margaret’s spicy chicken.

And trust me, as a well-cultivated food lover, that would be a mighty fine tasting world.

Will Great Flavored, Locally Favored Deli Be Able to Keep Its Doors Open

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

Since he first opened the New Yorker Deli here in Crystal City in 1979, Khalil Abdel Hay, or “Charlie” as everyone who knows him calls him, has experienced both hard-won upturns and abrupt downturns in his business. 

Today, as I write this, the deli is still open, offering breakfast, lunch, and the most tasty chicken shawarma sandwiches in the area. But the question of how much longer the New Yorker Deli, like many small businesses here and across the country, can remain open is very much in doubt.

The popular deli was designed to attract its customers from the thousands of workers who have been commuting here Monday through Friday for work since the late ‘70s. Like all  businessmen, Khalil and his brother, who both arrived in the United States from Palestine and jointly opened the eatery, struggled to build their small business. However, in less than 2 years, Khalil says they were serving about 300 customers daily, most of whom were regulars.

“Back then, there wasn’t a lot of competition. And we always treated our customers like family. I knew their favorites and could sometimes start their orders when I saw them walk through the door. I knew just how they wanted their coffee and would have it ready for them,” Khalil noted.

Eventually, his brother moved on. Khalil opened two other stores in Crystal City which he eventually abandoned. At the time, government was the main employer here. In the ‘90s, however, federal reductions and relocations prompted many of the offices  to close.  

It was again time to build a new dining base. The effort was successful. But then in 2001, terrorists who had commandeered 4 passenger jet planes as part of their 9/11 attack, flew one of them into the Pentagon, located less than 2 miles away.  The deadly attack forced the closing of several Crystal City firms and the temporary halt of all operations at Reagan National Airport, whose frequent flyers, traveling business men and women, and pilots and airline attendants based in Crystal City also frequented the deli.

Khalil and his family once again struggled to regain customers. However, by 2019, the deli was back serving about 200 people during its 6 hours of operation.

But in March of 2020, the most far-reaching disaster yet struck. Like communities over much of  America, Crystal City underwent a virtual lockdown to try to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.

The Virginia government decided that the New York Deli, like all other restaurants in the state,  could remain open if it chose to do so, but could only serve take-out orders. 

Of course, the majority of the customers here had enjoyed takeout prior to the pandemic. But because of a state mandate to have workers work from home, the commuting workforce in Crystal City immediately plunged from 60,000 to fewer than 1,000, most of whom were employed in pharmacies, grocery stores, and local eateries which were deemed essential services.

 “It was very bad,” Kahlil says. “We went from 200 customers a day to fewer than 10. We aren’t even making enough to pay the rent. I never thought business could be this bad”.

However, even though he realizes the “scary time” is far from over, Kahlil maintains he isn’t ready yet to close the store and retire. But he also knows decisions like those will be dictated by conditions outside his control. 

“We have to wait and see,” Kahlil says. “We again have to be patient. We have to see what happens next. At some point, however, we have to start making money again”.

Currently, Virginia is in Phase 3 of its long range plan to slowly reopen, which means restaurants  can finally serve patrons on-site outside and inside with guidelines specifying maintaining social distancing, having at least 6 feet between tables, drastically reducing counter service, and instituting new sanitizing and cleaning rules.

The loosening of restrictions has benefitted many of the area’s eateries, as local residents  tentatively leave their apartments and homes to dine out again. But the New York Deli isn’t designed for such benefits. Most residents are dining out for dinner, which isn’t offered at the New Yorker Deli. And, since it is located inside the Shops at the Century BuildingKhalil and his 32-year-old son Ahmad, who assists his father daily, can’t offer any outside dining options. And, even if they could, the biggest problem remains a lack of customers. 

There is a strong possibility that customer shortage may become permanent here, experts contend. Or at least permanent until Amazon phases in the majority of its expected 35,000 high-end office workers here to staff its new east coast headquarters. During the ongoing pandemic, many firms have learned much business can be conducted without having large groups of workers in one place. Several major American firms have already announced that the bulk of their workers can continue working from home. Plus, Zoom and other such websites may have made the business trip obsolete, meaning there may never again be as many opportunities to attract customers to the deli. And there is no telling when regular flights to and from National Regan Airport will again become the reality.

“Again, we just don’t know,” Kahlil says, repeating the only answer that appears to be available right now for all the questions about Covid-19 and its long-term effects. “We would like to keep open, but we will just have to wait and see”.

Charley with his son, Ahmad.

What Happens to an Acclaimed Sports Pub in a Pandemic? Hint – It’s Not Great

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

Bill Bayne remembers the exact moment when he realized the business he and his 3 partners operate here in Crystal City – the acclaimed Crystal City Sports Pub – could be in serious trouble from a virus that was then ravaging a city in China 7,545 miles away.

“I was at the last game the Wizards (Washington’s pro basketball team) got to play before the season was suspended. I was talking to this guy next to me who worked for the government. I remember saying ‘this stuff is getting bad’. I could see the storm coming. But he didn’t have a clue how ugly this thing (the virus) was going to be,” Bayne said. “Actually, I got pissed off and walked away”.

Today, two months later, Bayne admits that though he saw the impending danger, he still underestimated the drastic impacts from the COVID-19 virus. “I never in a million years dreamed the government would shut us down,” he said. “The financial impact is unbelievable”.

The sports pub, like many eating establishments across America, is now only allowed to offer food for takeout. So how does that drastic reduction translate into the money flow of the operation which Bayne co-runs with his other partners James Madden, Art Daugherty, and John Finley?

“ We estimate that we will lose $170,000 to $200,000 in April alone,” Bayne said, his tone matter-of-fact, but solemn.

When it was fully operational as recently as Super Bowl Sunday, the sports pub, which opened in 1994, was one of the places to be in the DC area to watch any sporting event, especially the most significant ones. The pub, located on Arlington’s restaurant row on 23rd Street, consists of three stories with bars and tables on each floor. It long has been heralded for having 100 TVs available for viewing, but Bayne explained this is no longer true. A giant screen that takes up one wall on the third floor replaced 16 of those sets. “So we only have 85 now,” he added.

The pub, which has a legal capacity of 350 patrons at one time, was always packed with Redskins, Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and fans of other professional DC teams whenever there was a local game televised. On Sundays, you can watch every NFL game being played. In addition, the pub serves as the unofficial home base for the fans of 19 colleges ranging from nearby Maryland University to Oregon State on the west coast. There are pool tables and video games. Sports memorabilia line all the walls and bathrooms of the establishment.

The pub sponsors various leagues, including one for softball and one for kickball. Throughout the year, it hosts almost-always-sold-out bus trips to professional sporting events. It’s not only a DC-area institution, but has been recognized by nationwide sports networks and magazines like ESPN and Sports Illustrated as one of the best sports bars in America.

But none of this was noticeable on this particular Tuesday afternoon in late April. Inside the pub there were only Billy, another of the partners, two managers shuttling back and forth from the street front widow of the pub’s patio to the kitchen with takeout orders, and a small kitchen staff to prepare the meals. There were no current sports on the TVs because there are no sports now being played anywhere in the country.

Prior to the pandemic-prompted shutdown, the pub employed a staff of 75, with about 40 of them having worked there for more than 3 years. Now they are all, except for the skeleton crew, collecting unemployment. The co-owner said the operation did apply for and receive PPP money (Paycheck Protection Program) a special federal allocation to help keep small businesses operating during these horridly troubling times, which are proving to be as devastating as the Great Depression of the previous century. “I think President Trump and the Feds did a great job with the PPP,” Bayne said. “I want to especially commend the president and then both (political) sides for passing the bill”.

Bayne said that while a major concern is the economic stability of his staff, which he compared to a large family, he is also worried about the “collateral” harm the closings are having on the Crystal City community in particular and the country as a whole. “This is unreal, the damage that has been done,” he pointed out. “People are cooped up with nothing to do and nowhere to go. There’s anxiety. There’s stress. You can’t stop the locomotive of the country from running. You’ve got to figure out a way to keep it open and safe”.  

“I get it, I really do get it,” Bayne explained . “We have parents. We have grandparents. I’m 56. I’m overweight and diabetic so I’m in that danger zone. But I can’t live my life being scared of living. As a businessman, I don’t wake up every day to fail; I live to succeed. It’s the toughest call there is. But we have to at some point open up the country”.

Bayne said that while “we still could lose our business” he’s confident that won’t happen. His confidence, however, doesn’t extend to all the other eateries in the Crystal City area. “When they let people come in, we will get people back in here. We will do business. We have a model that works and we will be able to adjust that model. Will we make the money we did before –  no way?  But that’s not going to happen for everybody here. We have about 100 eateries in Crystal City. My best guess is that 40 percent won’t be able to survive and that means only about 60 percent of us will,” Bayne said.

“This will change the world of bars and dining. Look, at the end of the day, I hope everybody’s healthy. But I also hope for this country that the reaction (to the pandemic) doesn’t put a knife in that will hurt us for generations to come,” he added.

Not Exactly a Custom-Tailored Ending

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

As I write this, 94,477 deaths in America have been attributed to the coronavirus. Of course, each of those deaths represents a tragedy to friends and family. However, the high human toll of fatalities are not the only permanent endings being caused by the effects  of COVID-19. In an effort to try to control the spread of the pandemic, most businesses in more than 40 of the 50 American states have been temporarily closed.

With no money coming in, some small business owners are seeing no chance of ever reopening and are opting to close their doors for good.

The latest such casualty here in my extended Washington DC community of Crystal City is the Crystal Custom Tailor Shop, which has operated in the Crystal City underground for 27 years.

The business is operated by Yun Hung. Hung has announced that his last day of business will be May 25th. The reason for his closing is simple. “Nobody come in. I can make no money so it is time to go,” he says.

Like most of the small businesses in Crystal City, Hung depended for survival not solely on the 22,00 community’s residents, but on  the additional 60,000 workers who come here Monday through Friday to work. Or more properly you could say came here to work until March, when orders went out for workers in all the major employers here like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, PBS, and government offices to work from home. It’s estimated that much fewer than 1,000 of the normal 60,000-work force are still commuting here.

The closing of the store, which specialized in rental and sale of tuxedos, as well as alterations to high-end suede, leather, silk, and mink garments, also marked he end of Hung’s 55-year career as a tailor. The 77-year-old began that career in his native South Korea. “I had friends here and they say ‘this is where you want to be. So I came and opened this store”.

So with a smile on his face, Hung said he accepts the closing. “What are you to do? I guess it’s time for me to just start slowing down,” he said, inserting the key in his door for one of the last times ever.