Digested week: The Atlantic can’t protect me from Boris Johnson shame | Emma Brockes


It has been a feature of Covid that, along with all the other bad things ushered in by the pandemic, it has opened up whole new categories of people to hate. Thought the mum you exchanged casual greetings with every morning at school drop-off was more or less sane? Turns out she believes the health authorities are lying to us and the vaccine programme is tantamount to murder. Or the friend who, before vaccines were available, was still throwing indoor parties? Or the cabinet minister and the testing contract? The world is full of lunatics, benign in good times, dangerous in bad, available, almost two years into this rolling disaster, for unprecedented levels of resentment.

If there is one group in New York that, prior to Covid, would appear to have been exempt from this dynamic, it was the FDNY, the fire department still rightly lionised after 9/11. On Monday, a vaccine mandate came into effect for New York’s 378,000 public sector workers. Of 35,000 uniformed police officers, the NYPD put a mere 34 on unpaid leave for failing to show proof of vaccination. Of the city’s 17,000 civilian employees, only 40 were benched for being unvaccinated. And then there were the firefighters.

The FDNY has a 77% vaccination rate, which is still higher than the average population, but lower than other city workers. On Monday morning, Daniel A Nigro, the FDNY commissioner, announced that 2,300 firefighters had called in sick. (That daily number is usually between 800 and 1,000.) Andrew Ansbro, head of one of the biggest firefighters’ unions, said the Uniformed Firefighters Association was “not anti-vaccine, we are anti-mandate”.

There was, the mayor’s office insisted, no disruption to service; of 350 fire units, only 18 were compromised and no firehouses closed. Still, it was an odd mental reversal, getting halfway through slamming the firefighters in the rudest terms possible, before pulling up short. Do you want to call the person who lugs 20 kilos of gear halfway up a burning skyscraper to save you an arsehole? I don’t. (The highest FDNY ladder stretches to the eighth floor of most apartment buildings; the majority of New Yorkers, including us, live higher than that). Great bunch of guys. Hope they come to their senses soon. But you know, whatever works.


It’s election day and the schools are shut. Pre-Covid, the kids would have had a free day. Now, thanks to protocols established during lockdown, they are subject to a day of “asynchronous learning”, which means lots of homework for them and zero work at our actual jobs for us.

The first task is to navigate the massive resurfacing of trauma triggered by overseeing their schooling at home. As we unpack the pages and pages of assignments from their folders, I shudder at the memory of March 2020. They were in kindergarten then, and at least the work made sense. This is second grade and what an earth is going on here? I pick up one of my second-grader’s work sheets, in which she is instructed to read a series of sentences and “scoop the phrases”.

“What’s scooping a phrase?” I ask, peering at the paper like an elderly judge. “Oh, it’s underlining. When did underlining become scooping?” My daughter glares. “And why is that a phrase?” I point to the given example. “Why do those two sections represent constituent parts?” My children never sound more American than when they’re telling me off. “Mom!” she says sharply. “You don’t understand.”

And that’s just the English. Oh my god, the maths. Did you know this? That they’re not called sums, or “addition”, any more, they’re called – in America at least – “number models”? These are distinct from “number sentences”, which are themselves, of course, different from “number stories”. It’s horrifying. “This is nuts. How do you keep track of all this?” I say before putting my head on the table, closing my eyes and groaning loudly. My children quietly get on with their work.


Eric Adams has been elected mayor of New York, which we knew would happen. The surprise is that, after the primary, when any eccentric detail was seized upon to liven up duller parts of the race, Adams continues to seem deeply odd. God knows De Blasio was weird, dropping down to Brooklyn flanked by security to use his old gym. But Adams seems, possibly, weirder.

One of the scandals of his campaign was the long-running, and increasingly hilarious, speculation that he didn’t actually live in New York. To counter the rumours, he invited reporters into his Brooklyn residence, where it was noted that famously vegan Adams had salmon in the fridge. It was speculated his adult son really lived there.

This week, the website Curbed staked out Adams, using seven reporters in round-the-clock shifts to occupy a grey Nissan Sentra parked across the street from Adams’s Brooklyn address. After a day of no activity, Adams pulled up at 4am, ditched his car in the street so that it blocked the entrance to a busy plumbing supply company, disappeared inside, and didn’t re-emerge for many hours, even when his car caused a huge traffic problem. Eventually, the plumbing company attached a forklift truck to the car and dragged it out of the way. When Adams emerged the following morning, the Curbed reporter watched him blithely get into his car and, to avoid the traffic chaos he had himself caused, drive up on to the sidewalk and away. Weird guy. Although to his credit, as a former cop he did bust the stakeout, yelling “I caught you!” before driving off.


I would, obviously, take Adams over Boris Johnson. The never-ending embarrassment of the British prime minister filters across the Atlantic via photos of him slumped over at the Cop26 climate summit, less head of government, more man who falls asleep on the last Piccadilly line train and wakes up at terminal 4. President Biden appeared to fall asleep too, but he was at least masked while doing it. To reach the transgressive heights of Johnson breathing on Sir David Attenborough, Biden would have to cough on Betty White, stick out a leg to trip Barbara Walters or do something to callously destabilise 95-year-old Dick Van Dyke.


Suddenly, it’s freezing in New York. Time to unpack last year’s puffers. These things could cushion a fall from the highest FDNY ladder and fully take up half the hall closet. In previous years, I’ve had one compliant child and one who is aggressively anti-puffer and insists on wearing the skinniest jacket on the most brutal days, like those boys who wear shorts all year round. Now, she puts it on quite cheerfully and compliments the fluffiness of the lining. I’m relieved and a little sad. All things pass.

'Standing next to you, one feels quite competent!'
‘Standing next to you, one feels quite competent!’ Photograph: Reuters

Read More: Digested week: The Atlantic can’t protect me from Boris Johnson shame | Emma Brockes

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