Social Unrest, Broken American Dreams, More Isolation …The List Goes On
Storekeeper Vince, a second-generation Italian American, is sweeping up in the back of his family’s deli.
Smashed boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake batter are strewn across the floor, surrounded by piles of the loose ingredients that filled the air during the mayhem, along with a container of Land O’Lakes butter.
“They’re picking on the wrong people,” said Vince, whose immigrant father opened the Bronx deli in the mid-1950’s after serving in the Korean War.
Moments earlier, a group of young men had ransacked the store.
The second episode of COVID Ditty, an eight-part dramedy web series, leans heavier on the drama as it presents a tumultuous composite of the Summer of 2020 in NYC.
As COVID Ditty’s writer/director, Steve Greenstein sets the table, delivers a bounty with trimmings and hands everyone their coats in a tight six-minute serving. The parting favor? A calming ray of light that signals the storm will pass, yielding a brighter tomorrow as telegraphed by Vince’s face after the lead-character’s poignant capper: “It’s not your fault,” says Phil, played by Steve, a Bronx-bred, film-TV-theater actor who is spending down his retirement savings to create new jobs amid the pandemic. “It’s just the sign of the times. You just got caught up in it.”
Amid the backdrop of a national lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, the episode entitled “Sal’s Deli” captures a snapshot of a caldron bubbling over:
- While protests took over the streets in New York City in reaction to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, “outsiders” took advantage of the situation and started an organized campaign to loot big-brand names in Manhattan and small businesses, mostly immigrant and minority-owned, in the Bronx, according to authorities. “To think people have a right to burn things down because it’s for a greater good,” says Steve, “is ridiculous. It came on the back of deaths. Did we really need looting by anarchists?”
- Social media also called attention to the Aunt Jemima brand amid protests around the world as a result of Floyd’s death. Quaker Oats said it would change the name and image after admitting they were based on a racial stereotype.
- Goya Beans became political football when the company’s CEO showed support for President Donald Trump by taking part in a White House initiative that promised better access to education for Hispanics. Goya, which is the country largest food company that caters to the Hispanic market, endured boycotts and celebrations from a polarized nation within six months of a heated presidential election.
And the pandemic raged on in the sticky, hazy heat coming up from the sidewalks and stoops. The Bronx, which is home to 1.4 million residents, has the city’s highest rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitals stays and deaths.
All the nation’s unsettling karma somehow ended up with the dry goods on the top shelf in Sal’s Deli in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx.
Unlike the oddities in Episode #1, the second installment discusses the sharp inequities that we don’t want to talk about. “It felt like society was unraveling,” says Steve, who lives a few blocks from the Fordham neighborhood where the heaviest looting and unrest took place. “I had to defriend so many people on Facebook. I couldn’t take it.”
Like Steve, Phil believes the legitimate protest over Floyd’s death was marred by malicious criminal activity from individuals not associated with the cause, harming innocent business owners in the process.
COVID Ditty’s second episode, “Sal’s Deli”, doesn’t take sides, but it gives hope. Vince the shopkeeper, played by Anthony Augello, provides perspective. Phil’s 12-year-old son, Charlie, who is a precocious whippersnapper/internet-devotee, brings today’s social commentary. And Phil clings tightly to a world that’s moving faster than the A Train during rush hour.
The episode reminds us that surviving is the poetic flipside to suffering—and they both hurt.
More Awake Than ‘Woke’
Phil, who embodies the hard-day’s-dollar-for-a-hard-day’s-work middleclass, is peculiarly lost in the middle. And he doesn’t know exactly who moved the cheese. He is not a political, cable-TV worshipping rabblerouser, but he’s his own man who values common sense more than consensus. His couches himself as a Blue Dog Democrat, who still can’t find the sides of the pool as he floats toward the deep end, while the nation’s Right and Left row in different directions.
As the lead character, Phil is more awake than “woke.” He still reads the paper, showcasing generational differences with his son, played by Andrew Terranova, and recites the ‘70s slogan, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” to his mini-me when he feels he’s about to be lectured. His retort reminds us that everything seemly new ain’t always shiny.
If the new coronavirus outbreak has turned the center of the universe into a confusing circus, then NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is the ringleader, according to Phil, who turns the two-term official into a condescending verb.
“Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” proclaims Phil to his son as they stand in front of a ‘de Blasioed’-shuttered public library that was supposed to be open.
To be clear, despite winning a second term, de Blasio has never won style points with New Yorkers. He is a proud Boston Red Sox fan who eats pizza with a knife and fork.
However, Phil takes exception to more substantive points like the mayor telling city residents it was fine to take the train and go out without a mask back in March and April. In the beginning, de Blasio didn’t want the schools to close; it was New York Governor Mario Cuomo who overruled him.
According to a June poll, 11% of New York political insiders approve of de Blasio’s job performance. His decision to relocate the shelter-bound homeless into more than 60 hotels throughout the city and then reverse course after the threat of lawsuits from angry residents probably won’t make his numbers go up anytime soon.
“As my father would say,” says Charlie during the final minutes of Episode #2, “You’ve been ‘de Blasioed’!”