Covid-19 Pandemic: 1 Year In

Three years ago, my wife Judy had eye surgery. The surgery was done in Washington, DC and she had to periodically return to the eye doctor to see how the healing was progressing. On March 11 of last year year, she and I rode the Metro into DC for one of her checkups. After the visit, I decided to stay in the district to have lunch at a new Indian eatery – the Butter Chicken Company – that I had wanted to try. Since Judy isn’t a fan of Indian food, she opted to return to our Crystal City apartment.

At the time, I had absolutely no idea that this would be the last time I would eat a meal indoors in a restaurant for a year and neither of us realized that it would be 7 months before we would return to DC, which is only 3 Metro stops from the Virginia urban community where we live.

Within a matter of days, the corona virus virtually shut down the nation’s capital. Today, exactly one year later, there are still restrictions that don’t encourage us to return to the city we visited at least 3 or 4 times prior to the advent of the pandemic.

For the past year (except for a few weeks in October and November when several of the museums opened, only to to be closed again as covid cases rose), we have limited our travel world to the 3 communities – Crystal City, Pentagon City, and Potomac Yard – that comprise the area now referred to as National Landing, the new East Coast home of Amazon.

Of course, even in much isolation and always practicing masking and socially distancing when we did venture out, I found much to write about.

As a look back, here are links to 10 of the articles I wrote about the effects of the pandemic on my wife and I and the National Landing community where we live

Pandemic Pushes Puzzles to the Forefront

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

My wife’s fascination with putting puzzles together has always been somewhat puzzling to me. I simply don’t have the patience for such a time-consuming activity. However, Judy obviously isn’t the only person currently using puzzles as a big piece of their pandemic-forced homebound entertainment.

Judging by sales, jigsaw puzzles are proving welcome relief for individuals and families all over America and sales are skyrocketing.

Brian Way, the owner of Puzzle Warehouse, the largest distributor of puzzles in the country, reports business is up 2,000% compared to this time last year.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Way told CBS News. “As you look down the aisle, we’ve got people getting orders off the shelves to ship out.

Amazon reported in April that “adult jigsaw puzzle” was the 8th most searched term on its website. In fact, at different times this spring, Amazon, as well as Target and Walmart, were sold out of all but the most expensive puzzles.

But that hasn’t deterred determined puzzle put-togetherers. Unable to purchase new puzzles, they took to exchanging puzzles with other avid enthusiasts. For example, Judy has put together a few puzzles belonging to our apartment complex neighbor Mark, who is an administrator with the National Parks Service and possesses a large collection of puzzles depicting scenes of natural beauty and wildlife.

Others have come up with novel technological ways to satisfy their puzzle itch. Hannah Boehm told NBC 7 News in San Diego that she uses the Next Door app and other social media to arrange puzzle swaps. She will leave a puzzle on her doorstep and someone will take it and leave a different puzzle in its place. Boehm says that process allows both parties to maintain recommended social distancing, adding that she always wipes down the boxes and puzzle pieces before she starts working on her new project.

The jigsaw puzzle itself has a long history. The origins of the puzzles go back to the 1760s when European mapmakers pasted maps onto wood and cut them into small pieces. John Spilsbury, an engraver and mapmaker, is credited with inventing the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767.

Initially, puzzles were considered for play and learning for children only, but puzzles for adults emerged around 1900, and by 1908 a full-blown craze was in progress in the United States much like that of today. 

Adult puzzles range from relatively easy (a few pieces) to extremely challenging (1,000 pieces or more).  While Judy tackles her puzzling task alone, our daughter-in-law Shannon, who is currently with our son Michael and our 2 grandchildren Audrey and Owen on a one-year stay in Australia, convinces her family members to join her in the fun.

Or at least that is the plan. Shannon recently got a complex Harry Potter-themed puzzle for Audrey, who is a huge Harry Potter fan. But Audrey moved on to other things, leaving Shannon to complete the complex puzzle.  She said about a third of the 1,000-piece puzzle was black/navy or dark brown making it difficult to determine which pieces went where.

But my daughter-in-law is nothing if not determined. “It’s torture, but I can’t quit now,” she said.
And she didn’t. As you can see, the puzzle was no match for her. Despite the arduousness, the fact of Shannon’s determination certainly didn’t surprise her mother, Sue Sullivan. “You always did like a challenge,” Sue wrote on her daughter’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, back here in America, Judy discovered a fix for her puzzle addiction. A local gift shop in our underground run by a Taiwanese owner has puzzles for sale. And Judy has already gotten so many there that the owner says she can look at the catalog and she’ll order special puzzles for her.

Man, if this stay-at-home lockdown continues, I guess I will just have to come out of retirement and get a job to support my wife’s puzzling puzzle habit. Can anybody out there solve the puzzle of where to find a high-pay, no-work job in a pandemic and an economic depression?

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.