Living in a COVID-19 Ghost Town – #7: Soon to be Guinea Pig Village

It has been almost two months, since my last post. Until today, not much had changed. As a result, there was little to report.

In mid-April, through June 7, small groups of students began to return. Most of those living in apartments came to pack up their belongings and leave. Those living in fraternity houses apparently had a plan: stay until graduation, completing whatever they needed to online locally, and socializing for the last time with their friends of the last four years. However, even if they doubled the headcount in the Greek residences, they probably added under 20 to the Ghost Town, as others continued to leave. The photos show several residential parking lots empty, for the first time since we moved here, in 1988.

I did understand the mindset. However, as they came from several states that are hot spots, especially New York and New Jersey, they posed a risk to friends and family, when they returned home.

As expected, the organizers of all regional, large annual public celebrations cancelled their summer events. No Centre region 4th Fest. No mid-July Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. No mid-August University Ag Progress Days. No late August Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair. No “Summers on Allen Street.” We, and most area residents, will miss all except the last.

The University’s Center for the Performing Arts continues to delay setting its 2020-2021 offerings. University and area high school athletic schedules are still on hold.

It has been quiet. We have had few COVID-19 cases in the county, with the few deaths mostly confined to our nursing homes. Our local hospital has not had to choose between coronavirus and other conditions for spaces in its ICU. Unfortunately, businesses have suffered; those that had been on the brink, have been closing

Last week, things began change. Much of Pennsylvania, including Centre County, re-opened for business. True, guidelines for social distancing remain. However, based on our experience, in just one week, many will refuse to follow them, defiantly or out of ignorance.

This brings me back to the ghost town concept. The worst conditions here have been better than the best in many places, since March. It links to where we are.

When the students are present, State College, with 50,000 residents and transient students, represents approximately 30 percent of the county population. Without the students, Centre County is home to 110,000, in a land area slightly larger than Rhode Island, with a population of over 1,000,000. As a result, Centre County has been low density, with approximately 111 people per square mile. Consequently, we have been spared the worst of the pandemic.

However, our local population statistics are about to change. This morning, the University announced that it will bring back the students, in mid-August. This is against all medical logic. It reflects magical thinking on the part of University trustees; few live locally and fewer ever see the students in their off-campus milieu.

  • They claim that they have plenty of face masks. The mathematics works out to approximately one mask per student every two weeks
  • They promise massive testing. This is occurring nowhere in the commonwealth now, and the results yield too many false negatives to reassure any reasonable person
  • They will encourage social distancing

Alas, Centre County went into the Green on June 8. This first weekend saw hundreds of students return exclusively to socialize. They arrived from all parts of Pennsylvania, some still in the red, and from other states. Few wore masks. All literally stood or sat shoulder to shoulder. When the rest of the 50,000 return en masse, in eight weeks, we will be on a two-week COVID-19 incubation countdown.

 

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All Mothers are Beautiful, Especially on Mother’s Day, but…

At some point American dads are likely to tell their children that their moms are beautiful. It matters less that it is objectively true, but that they believe it to be.

So, when I was young, my father would now and then let me know that my mom was “The Most Beautiful Girl in Passaic,” my hometown, in New Jersey. I was not sure that he meant me to take this literally. By the time I was aware that my parents were people, not special beings there to heed my every need, my mother had been ill more often than healthy. This significantly affected her physical appearance. However, over the years, I did learn that as a person, the descriptor fit.

I was not emotionally close to my parents. However, we always lived in close quarters, by their choice, usually four rooms. This meant that there was little privacy. Combined with their attitude that children, in general, and especially me paid no attention to what adults said to each other, they usually spoke freely, in front of me. This allowed me to learn what they actually believed, not just what they preached, which served me well. It also gave me insights into who my mother really was and what a husband/wife relationship could be in the era of “Father Knows Best.”

She had a good sense of humor, usually directed toward herself and rarely, if ever, at others. It started and always came back to her initials. Probably unintentionally, she was named after two Roman emperors, Justinian and Augustus. With her pre-marriage last name, she was Justine Augusta Price, with the initials J.A.P. Having had a doting father, she often referred to herself as the original Jewish American Princess.

She engendered strong loyalty in her many friends. Friends from her school years remained her friends for life. New friends joined this cohort, when my parents moved to northern California, when she was 50. You hear stories about the terminally ill: friends say that they will visit often, possibly do so once, and then never again. When my mother was terminally ill, the hospital and nursing home staffs had to manage the numbers, to prevent overcrowding, until she was too ill to greet them. At her funeral, in Passaic, everyone who knew her attended, even though she had not seen some since moving 22 years earlier.

She parroted traditional values, when discussing what she read and heard in the news, print and broadcast. However, when she would speak with friends on the phone, ignoring my being in easy listening range, she was supportive of those whose high school age daughters became pregnant, whose sons were arrested for joy riding, whose children chose alternate lifestyles just emerging from the shadows, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She modelled tolerance and empathy.

She also did not live a traditional life. During World War II, she joined the Women’s Army Corp and rose to the rank of sergeant.

She always worked. I remember family “discussions” about household finances. She would periodically ask my father for money to buy something not in the budget. For years, he would make it clear that he thought this was not wise, but gave in. Then one day, he offered her a deal: if she went to work, she could keep every cent she earned and spend it as she wished. She took him seriously and he meant what he said.

Over 10 years, she progressed from clerk-typist at a New Jersey factory, a division of Sun Chemical, to the same role at the then home office, in midtown Manhattan. Assigned to the traffic control manager, she self-educated herself in that specialized role and succeeded him, when he retired.

In California, she dedicated multiple hours every week to visiting veterans in the regional military nursing home. After her death, at that same facility, they honored her dedication with a plaque.

And, when she was young, she apparently was the most beautiful girl in Passaic. I came to believe this not because my father said it. Not because every woman friend of hers that I ever met told me this (including several whose husbands had pursued her first). But because complete strangers would volunteer it.

Regularly in restaurants. My favorite was in what was then Avery Fisher Hall, in Lincoln Center. We were there for a performance of the New York Philharmonic, probably in the mid-1980s. In the box above us, we could hear two women discussing Passaic.

I turned and mentioned that it was my home town. They asked my name. When I told them, the follow up from one was “Was your mother Justine? She was so beautiful. My bother wanted to ask her out, but was too intimated to try.”

The first photo, which I never saw until after her death, was at age 16. The other was her military photo, at 22.

Happy mother’s day, mom.

 

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[Virtual] Commencement in a COVID-19 Ghost Town and Elsewhere

Across Pennsylvania, and in other states, I am sure, this is commencement weekend. However, no one is walking, to receive their diplomas in front of friends and family.

There is no tossing of caps, at the end of the degree ceremony. Friday night, there were no towns with restaurants filled with proud parents, grandparents, and spouses hosting pre-commencement celebratory dinners.

Few graduates will stand in front of their favorite campus building or monument, alone, and with classmates, friends, or family members. Couples will not propose lives together, on the spots where they first met.

This is the year of COVID-19 and the invention of the virtual commencement ceremony. It is a pale shadow of what these new graduates deserve.

There is no common format. Yesterday, our adult daughter’s master’s program, at a university in western Pennsylvania, used Zoom. This allowed the small numbers in her specialized program to share the experience in real time. They could see each other wearing the regalia. However, the limited capacity of Zoom and the available bandwidth at her relatively small campus meant that her proud parents could not observe.

Here, at Penn State/University Park, the option was a live-streamed event earlier today. This limited who viewers could see to those serving as hosts and speakers. However, this allowed anyone – from those still on campus to friends and family across the globe – to watch and listen. A meagre substitute for the norm, but it still publicly honored the graduates.

In the Ghost Town, the apt term was inadequate. Normally, live ceremonies begin on Friday. Throughout the weekend, the University holds separate commencements by college and for special student populations. You cannot fail to notice when the commissioning rituals occur, for those completing the Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC programs. Cadres of students in dress uniforms are impossible to miss, as they walk to and from their on-campus venues.

Which brings me to my personal disappointments. For over three decades, first with the noble Noah, then with the gentlemanly KC, and now with the third of our rescue standard poodles, Hershey-the-Wonder-Pup, we would walk through the neighborhood throughout the weekend.

In the earlier years, when both Theresa and I were active adjuncts, graduating seniors would occasionally come up, sometimes with parents and siblings in tow, and thank us for our parts in their college experience. Few things in life are as rewarding.

Then and until this spring, these strolls were also our opportunity to congratulate the students and often their parents and to wish them success in life. In response, we could count on smiles and thank yous.

Today’s virtual event was scheduled for 2:00 PM. Hershey and I went for a walk through the neighborhood at 2:30. The only indication that something special had occurred was an occasional cheer through a fraternity window or from an apartment balcony.

The next Penn State/University Park commencement – there are three annually, for spring, summer, and fall – is on the academic calendar, for August 15. As summer sessions this year will be virtual, a live event is unlikely. Maybe by December 19, for fall.

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Living in a COVID-19 Ghost Town – #6: Empty Streets, Emptier Shelves

My neighborhood and most of the adjacent areas of downtown and campus are closed. The area is home to few vendors of goods and services that meet the governor’s criteria of essential. This is the new status quo and will not change until we receive revised lockdown guidance from Harrisburg.

However, beyond my COVID-19 Ghost Town, life is, well, livelier. The fringes of the Borough and the surrounding townships have retained most of their residents. Where there are permanent residents, there are often continuing essential services.

Supermarkets and specialty grocers. Gas stations. Restaurants that offer take-out, drive-through, and delivery service. Bank ATMs and drive-up windows. Big Box stores, at least those that sell food and health-related essentials. We have used all of them, although as infrequently as possible.

With one exception, our experiences could pass for normal. Except for the supermarkets.

Most Americans are familiar with images of store shelves devoid of paper goods and any cleaning product that serves as a sanitizer. I had completed a routine, major stock-up trip, just before panic buying set in. Consequently, I was somewhat amused, not concerned, when I saw…a world without toilet paper!

On the other hand, I was not prepared to view the results of the carnage elsewhere.

Baking supplies! I can almost understand the increased demand, as Easter baking season was coming. However, that is an annual occurrence. And the shelves of commercial and in-store bakery products remained full. Even the day-old discount bin was well-stocked. Has some organization offered large monetary prizes for first-time bakers, for a first loaf of bread that was not a doorstop?

But canned tomato soup and every brand of regular mayonnaise? Really? These are the targets for hoarding? And not just in the first two weeks, but continuing into this first week of April!

If this continues, will I need to turn to the Black Market – for brown sugar and white flour?

By the way, this is why I noticed the baking supplies: A banana bread and four of eight loaves of Hubbard-type squash breads. All baked last week.

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Living in a COVID-19 Ghost Town – #5: It is Always Darkest Before it Gets Darker

To paraphrase a quote sometimes attributed to Chairman Mao….

Regardless, this does reflect – pun recognized, intended or otherwise – what Hershey, the Wonder Pup, and I have been experiencing on our late night walks.

These photos show three of the fraternity houses that line a single block, on the path we followed in the previous post. We took them midafternoon, on March 22, 2020. (I held the camera and Hersey tried to make it impossible to push the shutter.)

At night, these and all the other fraternity mansions are floodlit 24 hours a day, every day, for at least the past 32 years. These are the same three houses at night, albeit brighter than usual, as it was holiday lights season.

 

Starting on March 23, the floodlights went dark on the first of the houses. By the next night, this was the view along the block these houses share.

From ATO Toward DSX

Fortunately, the human visual system can partially compensate; we could still see where we were walking. However, a week later, the dimming continued.

Rents were due on April 1, for many students living in off-campus housing. By then, they knew that the University had extended the campus closure through the May end of spring classes. The same day, the governor announced a statewide stay at home order, through April 30. Many of the remaining students packed up, and left. Others came back, packed up, and left.

Even as more fraternity floodlights went dark, so did student houses and apartments. On our last late night walk, Hershey and I could make our way using only street lamps and the lights in emergency stairwells, a few parking lots, and emergency exit doorways – all required either by building and fire codes or insurance requirements.

We welcomed the waxing moon. We look forward to it being our companion and guide, until it wanes to less than half, in four weeks.

 

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Living in a COVID-19 Ghost Town – #4: The Local Terrain

We chose our present home, in 1988, because it checked many boxes.

  • A university town
  • Within a short walk of downtown businesses, municipal services, and campus
  • A vibrancy that comes with living immersed in a student-dominated neighborhood

Additionally, State College comes closer to my home town, measured by size and population density, than most large public university towns. State College is under five square miles, with 9,300 persons per square mile. Many of the official 43,000 residents – mostly undergraduates – live within four blocks of our home.

By comparison, I grew up in Passaic, N.J. It is under four square miles, with a population density of 22,200 per square mile, the 10th highest density in the U.S. and the fifth, among U.S. cities with at least 50,000 residents. In other words, for me, State College is roomy.

We live in the Highlands Historic District. One short block divides us from Downtown and two from the dormitory area of Penn State.

 

State College LION Bash Map

This image gives a more detailed view of our local neighborhood in the Highlands. We are the symbol-marked house to the upper right. For reference, in theory, avenues run east/west and streets, north-south.

My Neighborhood

To the east, across South Garner Street, housing is a mix of student rentals and owner-occupied, family homes. To our north, south and west, we are the only owner-occupied structure until you reach the College Heights district, north of campus; beyond Pugh Street, to the west; and after East Fairmount Avenue, to the south.

At the moment we are also almost the only residents to our north, south and west. There may be up to 600 students on campus, mostly international students, with no alternate living options. However, the capacity is 14,500.

Scattered numbers – mostly married students, those with active employment, and others, for whom the Borough is home – are in the rows of high rise apartments just to our north, on Beaver and College Avenues, in the 18 or so neighboring fraternities, and in other, scattered student rentals. This local capacity probably adds another 15,000.

In other words, there may be under 1,000 people living within a square mile that normally houses 30,000, most on campus. How quiet is this? Follow Hershey, the Wonder Pup, on a recent afternoon walk. Oh, you may see a parked car or two. Most have not moved in weeks, usually have out of state license plates, and are waiting for their owners to return, eventually, from Spring Break, during which the University closed.

We start by looking east, where families do live. Then, north, to a current and a still under constriction student apartment, across from our home.

We then head west, along East Foster, looking across Fraternity Row towards Locust Lane.

At Locust Lane, looking southwest, toward two vacant fraternity houses and more apartments.

The view south, along Locust Lane and, off to the west side, student apartments on East Nittany Avenue.

At Locust Lane and East Fairmount Avenue, one of the larger fraternity houses and the view south, along Locust Lane, toward East Prospect Street.

We turn the corner, onto East Fairmount, heading east, on a block lined with vacant fraternities.

At Fraternity Row, we can see eastward, across South Garner Street. The first four buildings on the block, just beyond our view, are four more fraternities. Then on to Fraternity Row, heading north.

Almost home, looking north, on Fraternity Row, toward East Foster. Finally, the view south and east, from our back terrace.

It is even more abandoned, at least subjectively, at night. However, that is for another entry.

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Living in a COVID-19 Ghost Town – #3: : Fake News, No. Incorrect Mathematics, Yes

It’s “geometric growth.”

Exponential….Every time I see or hear this word used to describe the growth rate for COVID-19 diagnoses, I think of Inigo Montoya’s line (from the Princess Bride): You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Unless you are thinking exponents of 1, plus a small fraction….

Let’s say that it did spread exponentially, starting from 10 cases, after week one, in just the U.S. Let’s also set the basis for measuring this increase weekly. If we used an exponent of only 2 (i.e., squared), and use January 20, 2020, as the start of reporting, it will be 10 weeks on March 30.

Week 1             10 cases

Week 2             100 cases

Week 3             10,000 cases

Week 4             100,000,000 cases

Week 5             Yikes!

Week 10           Yikes!10

At least I have heard “orders of magnitude” only once.

It is actually somewhere between doubling and tripling, if – again – we started with 10 cases, 10 weeks ago.

Doubling each week =        5,120

Tripling each week =      196,830

Which is horrific, enough.

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Living in a COVID-19 Ghost Town – #2

Ten neighborhoods, the downtown area, and the central part of the Penn State campus make up State College. A neighborhood in the Borough is closer to the community districts of New York City than the image of a neighborhood that most people hold. Similarly, they vary in character, size, population density, and activism.

State College LION Bash Map

We live in the Highlands Historic District. Although College Heights, to the north of the campus, shares a long, direct border with the University, functionally, the campus looks south, when it comes to the housing and daily movement of students, i.e., into the Highlands. Similarly, within the Highlands, the view is to the west, towards the commercial areas.

Within the Highlands, the two streets that define our property also delineate where the commercial area of the Borough begins and separately, where housing shifts from a mix of students and families to exclusively students. (More on this in future posts.)

The Highlands has the most active neighborhood organization in the Borough, the Highlands Civic Association (HCA). With the University students gone, local schools closed, and advisories warning against direct interaction with those outside one’s home, the families with small children may feel more isolated and challenged than many.

Conversely, one of the major pluses of life in a college town is the density of bright, creative residents. This appeared yesterday on the HCA listserv:

“As the mother of a new baby, I can’t even imagine what those of you with older children are experiencing trying to keep them all happy and occupied! We’ve been trying to go out walking with our little one every day, and I came across this idea on social media of people putting bears/rainbows in their windows to provide a scavenger hunt for kids.

“Would there be any interest in this? If so, maybe we can all work to create something fun and safe for the neighborhood children! I think it could be a bear or a rainbow… maybe if people did one or the other it could provide two different scavenger hunt opportunities (I personally have enough bears to rotate them, even…). Just a thought, and I’m off to put one in my window now in case anyone is out and about and wants to let their kids ‘spot’ the bear in the window on Hamilton!”

This post received more responses in a few hours than most other concerns garner in a week – all supportive and from all parts of the Highlands.

Yes, we are doing our part. There is a VERY large bear in an upstairs window. The photo is of Ted, the bear my daughter designated as my personal friend, 40 years ago. Ted would appreciate it if you waved, when you pass by.

Ted in a Window

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Living in a COVID-19 Ghost Town

 

Thanks to the writers of the Big Bang Theory – a long-running sitcom, for those of you who do not watch television, I can sum up my mood in a single word: Weltschmerz, one of those wonderful compound German words for a complex concept – a deep sadness about the inadequacy or imperfection of the world (tiefe Traurigkeit über die Unzulänglichkeit der Welt).

I have, of necessity, had the time to consider my radically changed daily life over the past two weeks. Over an unfortunately expected longer period, you will get to read why Weltschermz is a fitting descriptive. But for today, I offer a single example for my choice of ghost town in the title.

As some of you already know, we live across from two high-rise student apartments. In a home on a square block that we share with four fraternity houses. Two doors down from Fraternity Row – yes, it is the legal name, a single block lined with six fraternity houses. There are many more within two blocks.

Tuesday was St. Patrick’s Day. The first photo shows a busy event day on Fraternity Row. The second I took at 7 PM, March 17, 2020.

 

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Bellefonte, PA – Old Europe on Spring Creek

I grew up hearing about cities in the U.S. having few buildings as old as you would see in Europe. Okay, there are some buildings in European cities older than you find in the U.S.

However, on recent visits to several countries in central Europe, tours of “ancient” sites revealed the truth. There is little remaining that predates the 18th Century. Fire took out most buildings from the era of mainly wooden construction. Floods and war destroyed more. Much of what we saw was no older than some of what I grew up with, in my New Jersey hometown, incorporated in 1663.

This realization allowed me to view the center of Bellefonte (see my previous post), with structures dating back to the first half of the 19th Century, with fresh eyes. The area around the courthouse would have fit in well along our path through the sites along the Danube.

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