TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Washington D.C. during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a year after his first trip.
Since September 2020, I’ve crossed the Atlantic numerous times to Europe, Africa and Asia, and flown to the Yucatan. But, other than commutes between my home in Haworth NJ and New York City (Manhattan is 20 minutes from my house), September 30, 2021 is my first real journey in America in the Time of Corona. And it’s by train to the nation’s capital.
It takes forty minutes to drive from my house to Penn Station in Newark. I valet park. I enter the gorgeous train station, dating from the WPA period of the 1930’s, with its soaring ceilings and optimistic art deco stanchions of streamlined planes, trains, cars and ocean-liners thrusting through waves.
I first visited Newark in 1963. Back then, it was a city as grand as Cleveland or Buffalo or Portland, Oregon. My uncle’s insurance business was housed on a high floor of a prewar skyscraper, with a soaring marble lobby. Newark’s grand Market Street was actually grand then. We would eat Reuben sandwiches in the office building’s chrome and Formica coffee-shop and my uncle would smoke supposedly healthy King Sanos, and drink Sanka. Opposite the office, Bamberger’s, the city’s main department store, was thronged with shoppers. Broadway shows would still do the occasional pre-Broadway try-out in Newark, its audiences’ reactions used to judge which numbers should be pulled, which actors should be replaced, before the final opening in Times Square.
Sixty years later Newark is a very different place. Bamberger’s is long gone. Many of those offices in those towers are still there, but the city is a shadow of what it once was. New construction – the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts, the Prudential Center Stadium – have given Newark new meaning, but it remains woebegone, shorn of its Philip Roth nostalgia, fractured by the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the flight to the suburbs.
But the station is still grand…architecturally, anyway. At 8AM its long wooden benches are home to the sleeping, the miserable, the hopeless. Because of COVID, the masses are sloppily masked but not huddled. Yet they seem desperately yearning to breathe free.
I take the escalator up to platform 3 where the Acela is to speed me to Washington. A regional train – once known as the Metroliner – sits at the platform, its stainless-steel sides stained with grime. I locate the floor decal which tells me where car 6 of the Acela will stop. And I look back at riding the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Tohoku just weeks before the pandemic. As the Shinkansen train had streaked into the station, a crew of cleaners with pails and mops had scrambled from nowhere to scrub the sides of the train and wash its windows. After the regional train leaves, Newark’s Penn Station proves itself to be one hundred percent mopless as passengers wait for the Acela to arrive from New York’s Penn Station. Its thrusting snout engine reminds me of Japan, but little else does. I board, find my assigned seat, stow my carry-on and we glide southward. Announcements are welcoming…with stern admonitions not to remove masks unless sipping or popping a morsel of food into the mouth.
I had booked the train on the Amtrak app, and yesterday submitted a form confirming my lack of COVID symptoms, and my promise to wear a mask. And everyone on the train remaini dutifully bemasked as we rode to Metropark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and, eventually, Washington. I’ve ridden this route a hundred times: I once ran the Thomas Cook office in Baltimore, and for four years my former wife (and sometimes I) commuted from our home in Manhattan to Hahneman Medical School in Philadelphia.
Yet, there are certain moments of the ride that are magical. As we glide into 30th Station in Philadelphia, we pass the Edwardian fraternity houses that are home to the University of Pennsylvania’s patrician rowing teams. And there, atop the hill, stands the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as if supernaturally transplanted from the Roman Forum of two millennia ago. About an hour later there is another moment of magic as the train line ride at water level through Chesapeake Bay and it is as if we are not on rails but actually sailing. Not all is magic though. The abandoned homes, the murky streets, the empty lots, the boarded-up windows of the benighted slums of northeastern Baltimore remind me (as if Newark Station hadn’t already) that for many, the State of the Union remains sadly in disrepair.
From the last car of the train, it is a long walk along the unprepossessing platform into the soaring grandeur of Washington’s Union Station. But instead of the pre-pandemic clamor, crowds are unusually sparse, and several stores are out of business. The elegant main concourse with its absent swath of “open-air” bistros beneath the cathedral-like gilt-embossed roof, is like a deserted field of mosaic. One tiny café remains open in a distant corner.
I emerge into the sunshine and there is the Capitol, and I realize that the last time I was in Washington, Barack Obama was in the White House. The wait for a taxi is fleeting, and I am driven through strangely empty streets. I’ve always found the humongous, faceless buildings that line Washington’s avenues-by-L’Enfant disturbingly Orwellian. They seem even more ominous on this weekday morning, with so little traffic and barely a pedestrian. The driver tells me that to reach the entrance of the Hay-Adams Hotel he either has to make a giant diversion, or “do I mind walking a block to the hotel?” I don’t mind. I stroll alongside the construction site that is busily pedestrianizing the block of 16th Street that ends at Lafayette Park. And there is St. Thomas’ Church, outside which, 18 months ago, a thuggish president had stood brandishing an upside-down, possibly never-opened bible.
The Hay-Adams had been shuttered because of COVID during that appalling moment, and, when it eventually reopened, its address was no longer “the corner of 16th and H Streets,” but “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” The great yellow letters painted on the roadway are gone but they will come back when the reconstruction is finished.
I’ve never before stayed at the Hay-Adams and have long wanted to. Its interior is muted and elegant. I am greeted by two porters and whisked to the front desk. It is 11:30AM and my room is ready. The doorman is smart in a grey suit and an even smarter grey mask with the Hay-Adams logo. He notices that my mask says “Hassler” and he tells me how much he loves Rome, that particular hotel, and its legendary owner, Roberto Wirth. I tell him I do too, and that this is also the world’s most comfortable COVID-era mask. (I have a supply of them.)
I’ve been silently upgraded to a junior suite – all cream and beige, with piles of feather pillows and a mushrooming duvet. On the coffee table is a card from the managing director welcoming me, and, on an oblong plate, a White House made of white chocolate, whose roof is ajar to reveal homemade cookies.
I am in Washington for two reasons – the first of which is to hop into an Uber to ride to Grand Oaks, an assisted-living facility into which my 97-year-old second cousin Henry moved before the onset of the pandemic. We speak often on the phone, but I’ve never been 100% sure he knows who I am. He’s told me mournfully of the unrelenting loneliness, his morning walks through empty streets, and the midnight briefings he continues to receive from the CIA for whom he worked for more than three decades.
I am met on arrival by Jeanina, the facility’s liaison officer, who is warm and caring and thrilled that I have come. She sits me down in the lounge and she tells me how much she loves Henry and it appears she is his guardian angel. His platonic girlfriend of 70-years, Susan, had moved into another apartment at Grand Oaks at the same time as Henry, and they would eat every meal together, sit in the garden together, sit in the library together, until one weekend morning, when Jeanina was off-duty, an orderly casually mentioned to Henry that Susan had died at breakfast-time. Ever since, Henry has been in a state of bottomless grief, isolation, with macular degeneration making it impossible for him to read the newspaper or his thousands of neatly arranged Folio Society books without a magnifying glass. His daily walks, she tells me, are imaginary. As are the CIA briefings. What are not imaginary, she explains, are the frequent nightmares Henry relates to her of the Nazis coming for him in the night – nightmares that recall his youth in Frankfurt, his father’s arrest on Kristallnacht, and their escape to London and eventually to America aboard Cunard’s Aquitania.
Henry’s one-bedroom apartment is spacious and immaculate. Jeanina leads me in and Henry isn’t there; he must be having lunch, she explains. She shows me the rose-pink velvet armchair where he sits eighteen hours a day. Next to it are papers, the Washington Post, and a card from me reminding him that I’m coming to see him. She shows me his pristine bedroom with its forlorn single bed; his closet with dozens of perfectly ironed white Oxford shirts, and at least fifty military-style striped ties. On the closet wall, out of sight of some non-existent hoi-polloi, hangs his framed Intelligence Commendation Medal from the Director of Central Intelligence. His bathroom is spick, span and neat, the sink counter’s toothbrush, toothpaste and razor in an orderly row. In the bathroom cabinet are a dozen cans of Gillette shaving foam and three boxes of Epsom salts, the latter useless in a bathroom that has a vast shower but no tub.
The apartment door opens and there is Henry in his white Oxford shirt, striped tie, hand-knit sleeveless sweater and heavy tweed jacket. Never tall, Henry is now stooped by osteoporosis, his gaze downward. I haven’t seen him for five years. He recognizes Jeanina, but seems a touch perplexed as to the identity of the man next to her. She tells him “Geoffrey’s here,” and he robotically shakes my hand. I remov my mask. “I’m almost positive we’ve met before,” he says, peering up at me. “I’m Geoffrey,” I say, and his memory seems to flare back as I hug him. Jeanina takes photos of us on my iPhone.
We sit, he in his 18-hour-a-day armchair, me opposite. On the coffee-table is the Meissen shepherd and flock of sheep his parents managed to smuggle with them out of Germany. He tells me how desperately lonely he is, and he tells me that he once had a dear friend who has died. “Her name was Susan,” he says. I don’t have the heart to tell him I’d met and dined with Susan dozens of times. He is glum, hopeless, shattered by grief, by curious guilt, and loneliness. He tells me stories of his parents, of Louisville, where he first lived in America. He tells me the doctor says he has the constitution of a forty-year-old. It doesn’t seem to thrill him.
“Don’t live to be 97,” he urges me, “it’s not worth it,”
I tell him television would help assuage his loneliness and that his cousin Terry wants to send him one.
“I couldn’t accept so expensive a gift,” he wails.
I tell him family is family and televisions are not expensive. I lie that they cost not more than $150.
“That’s a lot of money,” he moans, “I’ll feel like a beggar.”
It’s hard to persuade a 97-year-old who is feeble, intermittently demented, grieving, stewing in layers of some unfathomable unshared guilt, not to mention comfortably off, that $150 is not a fortune. I tell him the TV is coming, and I will arrange with Jeanina to have it set up. Exhausted, he agrees,” but I want to contribute,” he says. “Of course,” I assure him.
My visit lasts another hour of reminiscences, moist eyes and sadness. It is left unsaid, but his healthy heart and lungs give him no pleasure. He would clearly just like not to wake up one morning. He insists on walking me to the entrance. His apartment is unhappily at one distant end of the vast building, and it’s a slog to the elevator. He has to pause midway on a bench to catch his breath. We sit outside in the sunshine as we wait for the Uber. I tell him how good the fresh air feels. He agrees. He stands as I stand and hug him. He thanks me for coming.
“We’ll talk soon,” I say, “and he gives a dejected, stooped wave as I drive off.
In the Uber, I call Henry’s first cousin Terry and tell her about the TV. “Let’s order it today,” she says. Back at the Hay-Adams, I call my wife to relate details of the visit. I pour myself a glass of minibar Bombay Sapphire and order corn chowder and a smoked salmon salad. I work on my laptop.
At 5:30 I take another Uber to Arlington to a new restaurant called Maison Cheryl, whose chef, Bobby Maher, I’ve known since he was in 1st-Grade at Manhattan’s Columbia Preparatory and Grammar School with my 35-year-old elder son, Benjamin. My dinner guest is already there. I wave through the window and entere to be embraced by Malia Asfour, head of the Jordan Tourism Board. We’ve known and adored each other for more a-quarter-century but it has been a long time since we’ve been in each other’s company. Rami, the handsome young restaurant host, greets us, and we swiftly discern his legacy and he and Malia chat in Arabic. I understand he is saying he was born in America but he’s Palestinian. He tells Malia he used to visit Amman many times. I tell him that his boss, Bobby, traveled with me to Jerusalem 22 years ago for my son’s Bar Mitzvah.
Malia and I order cocktails and talk of our children (we each have a son and a daughter of similar ages), we talk of Covid, we talk of loss, we talk of tourism and how Jordan is back to 70% of its record 2019 numbers. We laugh, and we reminisce about our mutual visits to Nashville conventions of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, when we worked in parallel in the days I handled tourism public relations for neighboring Israel. Both atheists and ultra-liberal, she of Muslim-Christian heritage, and I of Jewish-Christian ancestry, we would suffer through these gatherings of right-wing bible thumpers extolling their faith, proclaiming their bigoted beliefs, and the one thing that had brought us there: their passion for visiting the Holy Land.
Bobby’s training at the French Culinary Institute has paid off. Crispy cauliflower is a delicious appetizer. Malia and I are into tastings and we split a Paris-perfect Steak Frites, and breast of duck in a citrus and pomegranate sauce. We talk with Rami about where to get the best Mediterranean food in Washington. Bobby shows Malia the extraordinary leather cooking-knife roll-up my son – theater-lighting-designer, Benjamin – has made him in his Covid-has-closed-all-the-theaters adjunct career as a maker of leather fashion accessories selling out on Instagram’s @spaceflamingos.
Malia and I talk politics – American and Middle Eastern – and, sadly, we agree on the bleakness of pretty much everything. This Arlington restaurant is pretty full on a Thursday night – just 13 minutes from the White House. We hug goodbye as we wait for our Ubers to take us homeward.
Breakfast at the Hay-Adams is courtly, delicious and you’d think it was 1950. Union Station seems busier the next day as we all stand in our masks around the TV screens that announce platform numbers. I board the Northeast Regional train, which seemes identical to yesterday’s Acela, but as the ride to Newark takes 25 minutes longer and the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, it is half what I had paid the day before. No Wi-Fi means I can be creative on my laptop instead of plowing through emails. And that’s just fine with me.
The train stops at the station at Newark Airport. And all of a sudden, I recal that decades ago cousin Henry had told me that during the Eisenhower years, when Washington was even more Orwellian than now, and he was youthful and sprightly, he and a “friend” (Susan? Or X, the source of his unexplained guilt?) would drive four hours each way to have dinner at Newark Airport. Newark Airport?! Yes, the art deco North Terminal’s Newarker Restaurant was ultra-ritzy and ultra-gourmet back then…hardly surprising in retrospect, because it was one of the first ventures of the legendary Joe Baum, who went on to found Manhattan’s Brasserie and Windows on the World. I look across the tracks at the airport’s three sleek modern terminals and the upcoming vast new Terminal One and consider that one can still eat better at Newark than at JFK, especially at Terminal C’s Saison, opened by Alain Ducasse and, incredibly, run by Paris’ Brasserie Flo.
After three hours of pulling out of Union Station, and after 75 reminders to wear a mask-covering-nose-and-chin, I am back in downtown Newark.
And the world goes round.