A 300-pound man is gliding down the river in a canoe.
His appearance, his shabby belongings stuffed into every corner, are straight from the last thousand homeless people you saw, under the bridge, on the subway bench.
But Dick Conant did it differently. He had the intellect and knowledge of the med-school applicant he once had been. He could paint. He carried hard-covered books in his canoe, and some days he just lazed by the river and read.
He also could read the river, could decipher the maps, could extract knowledge from other riverman (and more than a few riverwomen) he met on his missions along the Intracoastal.
People on the banks, people seeing him lug his jumbled belongings through the streets, stopped to talk to him, were stunned by his intellect, by his knowledge, and also by his tales of a girlfriend named Tracy waiting for him back there somewhere. People never forgot him.
America – free-falling into cruel anarchy these days – is built upon wanderers. It’s in our blood. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Jim. Daniel Boone and family making their way through the Cumberland Gap in 1769 as if it belonged to them instead of the natives. Lewis and Clark, ditto, toward the Northwest. John Ledyard’s canoe trip down the Connecticut River from New Hampshire – in 1773. The guy hitch-hiking on Route 66, singing to himself, a regular Chuck Berry.
Dick Conant struck a chord. Sometimes the people on the riverbank, meeting this strange hulk, ingesting hot sauce the way other people suck on a Tic-Tac, grew quiet, as if confronting some inner wanderer.
Hmmm, they thought. Hmmm.
That’s what Ben McGrath, a writer for the New Yorker, thought a few yards from his home on the Hudson River, where the Dutch once encountered the Lenape. McGrath was fully nested, job, wife, growing family, but he was fascinated by this articulate and charismatic giant who secured his canoe near McGrath’s backyard. Hmmm.
In the interests of journalistic/literary curiosity, McGrath chatted him up, and vice versa. And when the big man pushed off, McGrath went with him, in a way. Dick Conant was canoeing downriver for perhaps the last big jaunt of his wandering days, and McGrath tried to stay in touch.
Then one day on a bad stretch of North Carolina river, the canoe turned up, but not the man.
An authority found McGrath's name scribbled on a river map and called him, and McGrath wrote a haunting piece for the New Yorker. He was now into it, big-time, collecting every name and phone number and e-mail address Conant had scribbled somewhere.
The only name and address missing was that of Tracy, the lost love Conant always said was waiting for him back in Montana, or somewhere.
Now, McGrath has written a touching book entitled “Riverman: An American Odyssey,” recently published by Alfred A. Knopf, including photos of Conant, and photos of a few of his paintings.
How did a college soccer player (Albany State) come to be most at home on rivers? McGrath writes about the large and complicated Conant family (he likes every Conant he meets) and all have their version of what happened to kid brother Dicky: too many drugs, too much booze, the late 60’s. (The book is worth it for the meeting at Woodstock between Dick Conant and Jimi Hendrix.)
There is a one-sentence allusion to the young boy's quick exodus from a church summer camp: inexplicably, McGrath lets it sit there for many chapters before another quick allusion or two as to why Dicky left that camp, and never seemed the same.
That human mystery aside, “Rivertown” is a touching ode to all river towns, most of them falling apart, a century past their prime, but inhabited by people still in touch with the water rushing past.
I’ve known rivers (see below): Hannibal, Mo., two visits in the late ‘50s: Louisville, Ky., when my young family rode our bikes alongside the Ohio; as a news reporter, accompanying ecologists on a canoe glide on the Youghiogheny, a tributary of the Monongahela; Uncle Harold Grundy’s cottage in Bath, Maine, a few steps from the Kennebec he had dredged before WW II -- I never appreciated river towns as much as I do now, via the mobile Conant.
McGrath solves no mysteries. He writes that Conant either sighted or imagined Tracy, a latter-day Dulcinea, an American Beatrice. Conant drank and danced gracefully in river-town bars, telling people how he was soon going soon to be with Tracy; women were charmed by his eloquent faithfulness; but he never got back. (Unless he’s there now.)
("Cathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
("I'm empty and aching and I don't know why." --- "America," Paul Simon.)
McGrath writes the book half expecting Conant to ring him from some river town and fill him in on the empty canoe, about his recent adventures.
The alternative is to slip onto the river in a suitable craft, just to see what’s out there.
From the classic poem by Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Gary Bartz has recorded his version: “I’ve Known Rivers.”
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.