Thursday, March 12, 2020

Bread in the Time of Coronavirus: The Long Emergency

Very scary times right now. Panic and anxiety seem to be hovering like a cloud over Durham.

Ordinarily, when I am feeling overwhelmed, all I can do is work my way out of a jam. By keeping my nose close to the grindstone, I prevent myself from being overcome by feelings and ideas that I can't control. Working allows me to become immersed in a project, and feel valued and valuable.

But in this situation, unlike a temporary emergency, the unknowns are so great that even working harder may be impossible. We are in a long emergency without any kind of clearly defined end point. It could be months, or it could go straight through the summer, or it could go dormant and the virus could return next Fall and we could be right back into the same situation again until a vaccine is developed, if a vaccine is developed. The rabbit hole of the long emergency is deep and dark.

Our world is unprepared for crisis. We have a better health system, better medicine, and better public health protocols than during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. And yet, due to the globalized, capitalized, interconnected nature of the world economy, the effects of literally stopping and quarantining economic production has the ability to create recessions or depressions, throw countries into economic disarray, especially those reliant on tourism or consumer spending (like the U.S.).

Monday, I came out of a workout in East Durham at my gym, and did a short cool-down run along Angier Avenue at 7:30am. It had been a cold night, and the temperature hovered around 37 degrees. On the curb of Guthrie Ave., homeless folks built an open fire to keep warm with the types of small sticks you might collect from your yard. We looked at each other, me in my running shorts and long sleeve tee, them standing around this tiny open fire by the curb.

Our city is unprepared for crisis because the crisis of poverty has stricken Durham for some time without resolution. While we should give thanks for what we have, and I regularly do, we need to help the neediest, to share this immense wealth we have generated in a time of easy credit and seemingly infinite resources.

We can become stronger through this crisis. There is no safety net for folks on Guthrie Ave. There is no safety net for hourly workers without paid sick leave.  

We have been asleep for years, diddling in City Hall and the State Capitol while regular folks undergo the most severe deprivations imaginable.

One night years ago, I took a wrong exit getting onto the New Jersey Turnpike at a confusing interchange and went North instead of South. When I explained this to the tollbooth operator, she was unsympathetic. "Do you want to pay more?" she asked. I didn't quite hear her through her accent and tried to explain my mistake. "DO YOU WANT TO PAY MORE?!" she finally shouted at me. With the threat of a ticket, I paid her the turnpike fees for my mistake and humbled, went on my way.

We have paid dearly already for our mistakes, our unpreparedness, our apathy, and our guilt. But do we want to pay more? We have the capacity to build a true safety net, to conserve and not waste our natural resources, to see the value of commodities in a shrinking planet, to not prize a sexy intellectual economy over centuries of hardscrabble self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

This might be our legacy.

If history is any precedent, once people get a cake, they want the leader that is most likely to keep giving them cake, or promises more cake than they already have.  They only want revolution and social welfare and change when there is already a widespread demand for that.  When people are needy. The "change" Obama aspired to used rhetoric that hearkened back to a Civil Rights movement that lifted people out of deprivation and racist policy en masse. But Obama's legacy was largely achieved in rhetoric only, and not in terms of real policy change or redistribution of wealth. Obama kept the cake coming, and the nation remained racist and stratified. Voters are picking Joe Biden over more progressive, change-oriented candidates like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren for one reason: not because he is so eloquent, or because his platform is so robust, but because he reminds them of a guy that once let them eat cake.


1. Durham should have a city-wide crisis self-sufficiency plan.

2. Durham should have a means to ensure safety net services for all citizens before engaging in any business-as-usual development.

3. Durham should have a means to redistribute wealth so as to actively mitigate stratification.


  1. I like your thoughts; they echo my own.. The recommendations are right on target. Let's make plans that include everyone having the basic needs.

  2. Ari, Thanks for your insight and community thinking. Durham, and the Bakery are lucky to have you. One thing Durham can do is buy the best bread in Durham at the Ninth Street Bakery!
    Let me know if I can be of help.

  3. Your thoughts are shared by others in Durham and beyond. And your ideas are crucial in these times.
    Folks can contribute in large and small ways by buying the best bread around - at Ninth Street Bakery - and help Ari in these tough times. We need you now more than ever. And thank you.