Michael Mohr’s First Blog Post Since September, 2017!
(To read my “fictional memoir” about living in East Harlem NYC during Covid check out my Substack newsletter, “Sincere American Writing” where I am publishing the book in chapters each week: https://michaelmohr.substack.com/) *You can subscribe for free but PLEASE consider becoming a paid subscriber for $5/month.
Hello everyone!! Wow. I haven’t posted a single blog post on my website since September, 2017. That’s right. Just over five years. Wild. Much has happened since then, of course. FYI: I have re-posted all of my old blog posts from 2015-2017, so check those out. I originally started the blog back in late 2013 while I was interning for a Bay Area literary agent. I started as a slush pile reader (I learned a lot!) and later got into editing. From there the blog grew. Around late 2017 I grew bored with the blog, frankly, and I started focusing more on my fiction writing and book editing. I edited Christian Picciolini’s memoirs WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH and later BREAKING HATE, both published in 2018 and 2020 respectively by Hachette Book Group. He had an MSNBC tv series for a while, also called Breaking Hate. In addition I edited Deborah Holt Larkin’s memoir, A LOVELY GIRL: THE TRAGEDY OF OLGA DUNCAN AND THE TRIAL OF ONE OF CALIFORNIA’S MOST NOTORIOUS KILLERS. As well as Gene Desrochers’ SWEET PARADISE, among many other successful books.
Also, many of my short stories were published, one of which was nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in 2018 (“American Freaks”). I wrote several more books, several of which were read with serious interest by dozens of NYC literary agents but were ultimately turned down due to often complex reasons. (One read my literary roman-a-clef YA novel three times and sent me long emails praising it and then disappeared; another loved the book but rejected it due to me being a WSM in the Time of Trump. Yes, this is true.)
I left the Bay Area, where I was living in 2017 still. My longtime girlfriend and I split up. I kept the house and the cat. Saving up money for all of 2018—not to mention the sordid love affair with a woman I met in Mexico City, a story for another time perhaps—I moved across the country in March, 2019 to New York City. Manhattan. This was my absolute dream. I wrote, I explored, I saw live comedy and Jazz. I took the subway trains everywhere. I explored like a lurid madman, insatiable. I lived in lower East Harlem, then Hamilton Heights, then upper East Harlem, and finally Lenox Hill in the Upper East Side on 70th between First and York.
In March, 2020, as everyone on Earth knows, the global pandemic struck the west, where it’d already been decimating China. It was a terrifying time. I lived on the corner of 130th and 5th Avenue when it happened, in East Harlem. Those first three months of lockdown were the scariest of my life. I lived alone, nearly 3,000 miles from any family. I was isolated, alone, afraid. This led me to depression, anger, grief, fear and terror, yes, but it also led me to writing. This became my “fictional memoir,” TWO YEARS IN NEW YORK (click here) which I am publishing now on my Substack.
In June, 2020, I fled East Harlem for Lenox Hill. In May, 2021, my 16-year-old niece tried to kill herself. Finally, I flew back to California after eighteen months away. While there, in July, my father was diagnosed with Stage Four Melanoma. Thus began a new period of chaos. I left New York. My mother and I started caring for my sick father. It got bad. He almost died. He lived. He’s better now. I continued to write and revise and edit my “fictional memoir.” Eventually I asked writer friends to read it. They did and gave me solid feedback. I implemented the changes. All the names are changed. Many details are altered, blurred, etc, to protect real human beings. But almost 100% of this all happened “in real life,” except the parts that didn’t :)
I don’t know how often I’ll post on here. Maybe once a week. We’ll see. Maybe more at first. I have found Substack to be the best platform at the moment for serious writers who respect Art and free speech and who are sick of Woke-obsessed white female agents who reject anything that isn’t ideological and propagandized. That, in my view, is not Art. That is the Anti-Art, if anything. For more on the infestation of Wokeism on writing, read this brilliant interview with Cuban-American author Alex Perez: https://www.hobartpulp.com/web_features/alex-perez-on-the-iowa-s-writers-workshop-baseball-and-growing-up-cuban-american-in-america
So if you’re interested in going along for the journey of my NYC experience, again, check out my Substack: https://michaelmohr.substack.com/. I have and will also publish different material, besides simply my memoir. Political commentary, more books down the line, all of this is to come.
As always: Thank you for reading and supporting me!
Sincere American Writing
TWO YEARS IN NEW YORK
Early May, 2020
Hospitals were overflowing all over the five boroughs. Queens got it the worst, then the Bronx, then Brooklyn. Manhattan not as bad but still terrible, of course. Ventilators were yanked from intubated Baby Boomers in hospitals and handed over to younger COVID patients who needed to breathe to survive. We read the stories in the New York Times and the New Yorker; we heard the tales online and from DeBlasio’s and Cuomo’s mouths. Fear whirled in the air in Harlem like helicopter blades at riots in the 1960s. There was an anxiety which glowed around the neighborhood.
I was, it was obvious, seriously depressed. I barely talked to anyone. Days went by without my even texting a single friend. I started eating and drinking horribly—tons of soda day and night leading to a bad sleep/caffeine cycle; pizza and gigantic pasta plates to suck the carbs from them like manna from heaven in a desperate attempt to feel “better.”
Most white residents seemed to have left. I wanted out of Harlem so bad but my will to take action was very low. Plus I had another three months left on my lease.
I hadn’t told my parents about the two times being chased, or about the gun holdup in the building. They’d just worry. And there was nothing they could do anyway. I felt so alone, so isolated, 3,000 miles away from everyone and everything I truly knew. It was as if I were actually in outer space, floating by myself in the vast dark emptiness, inside of this small, cramped two-bedroom apartment in East Harlem. No one knew where I was. No one would help me. The energy from young men outside had become hostile. I stared at the middle-distance when I passed them; I averted my eyes, looked away, looked down.
Every day was a struggle.
It happened one night when I least expected it. The night before I’d read an article in the Washington Post about how NYC hospitals were seeing a small but growing number of patients in their twenties and thirties who’d come in for asymptomatic COVID-related stroke. Some small percentage of them were dying. Turned out most of them had had COVID without knowing it. That was the thing about COVID—it was often, especially in younger, healthier people, asymptomatic.
This particular day was a bad one. My usual routine now was this: Get up around seven, eight AM, read, drink caffeine, try to hit at least part of an AA meeting on Zoom, eat something, feel the strong urge to write but skip it out of emotional COVID fatigue and depression, and then, around eleven or noon, take a “nap.” I was 37 years old and I’d never in my life needed to take naps during the middle of a Wednesday, say. But now I napped every day.
I passed out that day around 2pm. It was sunny and blue outside, but with a crispness which tickled me through my open dirt-stained window overlooking 5th Avenue. Everything was silent now except for sirens and police and paramedics; even the basketball courts across 130th were silent; the city had finally removed the nets and locked up the courts.
I woke up later that day confused, groggy, out of it, as if from a profoundly deep REM sleep. My phone, which I reached for on my bedside desk, proclaimed it was 5:30pm. Glancing outside I saw it was bending slowly towards dusk. COVID days were like Before Times weeks. They passed sluggishly and slowly like honey globulating down a tree. Like dripping molasses.
I decided I’d take a shower.
After ten minutes of scalding water I turned it off, got out, stood there a minute, steam rising off my naked body. I closed my eyes. I breathed deep and slow again. My heart, probably because of the heat, I thought, seemed to be beating rather fast. I toweled off.
I walked back into the kitchen. My hot heel and toes cooled against the cold black kitchen tile. I poured another glass of water and drank half of it. I walked into the second room—my writing office—and looked out the window onto 130th, north, and at the empty, desolate basketball court. A black SUV drove by pumping gangster rap.
Back in the kitchen—thinking I’d put fresh pants on—standing right in the center of the space, I suddenly stopped. My heart out of the blue started pounding. I mean really pounding, as if an angry child were inside my body and was punching as hard as he could. I’d never experienced anything like it, not even when I hopped freight trains, got in scary fist-fights, or hitchhiked across America in my twenties. This was something new and foreign to me.
Next, before I had even processed the pounding heart, a wave of frenetic heat washed through my entire body from my head down to my toes. I imagined being electrocuted might be like this. After that, my left arm started going numb. I mean completely numb, as in useless limb. Then the rest of the left side of my body started numbing. By now I was absolutely terrified. I remember thinking, I’m having a COVID-related stroke.
Still naked, frantic, the left side of my body mostly useless now, my whole body vibrating with heat and a pumping heart like a fist, the final blow was the worst: I started, for the first time in my life, truly struggling to breathe.
I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how much I tried. The oxygen to my brain dropped. A vast, hyper-intense headache was descending. I panicked. I started trying to gather my clothes so I could…do what? My impulse was to run. But where? Why? Then I thought: Hospital. I need a hospital. But the next thought was: Hospitals are dangerous right now. What if you get put on a ventilator? What about COVID? But isn’t THIS COVID? I didn’t know. I was lost. Scared. Alone. I ran to the window again in the office, looking outside. Empty streets, shiny from a light spring drizzle. Street lamps. Desolation. Nothing.
Police, I thought. Call 911. Or my downstairs Texan neighbor, Latisha. Someone! I sensed in that moment that I was going to die. It was inevitable. I was going to die at 37, 3,000 miles away from friends and family, totally isolated and alone, scared and depressed, in East Harlem of all places. I felt my eyes widen in fear. I was too young to die. Too young to leave this planet, this life. Help!
At last I looked for my cellphone; it took me ten seconds to realize it was already in my right hand. I’d been going on autopilot. Had I been talking out loud? Had I already called anyone? The breathing got much harder again. I struggled. I needed air.
I dialed my mother. She picked up. She knew something was wrong. I never called randomly, unplanned. I said, my breath locked and rugged, “Mom. I need help. Struggling to breathe. Beating heart. Left side of body is numb.”
“Jesus Michael,” she said, the fear hot in her voice. “Ok. Ok. Look. Honey. What happened. Nevermind. Can you sit down?”
“I need a hospital mom,” I said. I realized then there was a hospital up on Lenox and 137th. Eight blocks away. I could throw clothes on and sprint up there. But with my struggle to breathe?
“No!” My mom yelled into the receiver. “Hospitals are dangerous right now! Let’s see…let’s see…shit…honey, can you call your neighbor? Can you sit down?”
I heard the panic in her voice. I heard my father asking her what was going on. She briefly answered him. I heard my dad say “shit” in the background. I had my mom on speaker phone. I was still in the office. I’d managed to get an old raggedy pair of shorts on. I sat down on the little thrift-store gray couch in the corner. My heart was still beating hard; the left side of my body was still numb; my breathing was shallow and weak.
“Ok, I’m sitting,” I said.
“Good. Good. Ok. Honey. Can you just take real slow, deep breaths for me?”
I wanted to weep. “I don’t want to die mom.” Fear was paralyzing me. My brain seemed half frozen. I was groggy and confused. Time seemed to move in LSD-like waves almost. It was like crawling through psychic mud.
“You’re not going to die, Michael. Keep breathing. Slow. Deep. In…out. In…out. In…out. Okay??”
“Ok,” I said, and it sounded slow and syrupy… (CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ON MY SUBSTACK. PLEASE SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE. EVEN BETTER, CONSIDER PAYING $5/MONTH.)