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A plea for competence

We’ve had enough incendiary rhetoric. We need boring, plodding, fact-based national planning and administration.

A note on the entrance door of the Commonwealth in Cambridge, one of many restaurants that have chosen to shut down temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic.
A note on the entrance door of the Commonwealth in Cambridge, one of many restaurants that have chosen to shut down temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Here’s what it’s like to walk along a stretch of Mass. Ave. in Cambridge right now. Hardly any pedestrians, hardly any cars. In the nail salon, a masked woman gets a pedicure from a masked woman. A couple of masked women do squats inside the fitness place. The automatic door of the drugstore opens and closes when you walk by, as it always has, but today it seems as if ghosts are going in and out of the store. Instructions in store windows about wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Dear customers, wonderful customers, welcome back, but … But please no talking during your shampoo. But only two people may enter store at a time. But please bring in essentials only. But we invite you to check us out online.

The smoke shop is open. The liquor store is open. The vet is open: masked people sitting in chairs on the sidewalk while their cats are inside getting shots. The bakeries are open, with long lines of masked people waiting to place orders. There’s a jaunty, scrappy, inventive valiance to it all. You can still get a tattoo, but no friends or relatives, please. You can still order pizza, souvlaki, shumai, falafel, ravioli with wild boar ragu. Contactless, delicious. Take it away. Or sit at a little table on the sidewalk chained to a parking meter (so that no one steals it? so it won’t blow away?), under a heat lamp and an awning strung with festive lights, between tubs of shivering plants. Winter is coming, but it’s not here yet. Yes, we are open!


A restaurant closed since March, still closed, window boxes filled with dead yellowed boxwood, crumpled trash, a discarded pack of cigarettes. Dear customers, we look forward to seeing everyone again when we can.

Retail space for lease. Retail/office space. Dear customers, thank you for your support. Thank you for your patience.


“Closing sale!” says the sign in the window of the little store that’s been there forever. A temple to frivolity, this place has been; a business that existed, literally, for fun. You went here to buy the quirky present: the Etch A Sketch, the kaleidoscope, the Swedish angel chimes, the clock shaped like a bumblebee. Four years ago, in the run-up to the election, they had a little sign in a corner of their window, which changed every day. “Only 19 more days of this,” it said. And “Only 6 more days of this.” Nobody needed to spell out what “this” was. The sign acknowledged something that, at the time, seemed finite. A shared sense of exhaustion and anxiety brought on by Donald Trump’s long ugly presidential campaign, with its chants of “Lock her up” and “Build the wall,” and its triumphantly bullying invective. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he had said.

“Only 4 more days of this,” the sign said, innocently confident that candidate Trump was an aberration.

We know now, far more painfully than we did back then, that elections are unpredictable. We also know just how much damage an arrogant, ignorant president abetted by a party of fawners can do to the basic mechanisms of national government we thought we could rely on to protect us in an emergency.


What I am thinking about, as I walk along this neighborhood street that’s trying to survive, is how much I hope that the vote across America in this election will be, resoundingly, in favor of reinstating competence. Boring, plodding, fact-based national planning and administration. We’ve had enough incendiary rhetoric. We’ve had enough of personality (as opposed to character). We need clearly defined, adequately funded measures that will address the coronavirus pandemic’s epidemiological and economic impacts in ways that feel trustworthy. We need national leaders who let expert scientists give unfettered, publicly available advice that informs government decision-making. We need consistent policies supporting — not attacking or mocking — simple actions everyone in society should take to protect one another. We need federal resources to help the people who are being most harmed, regardless of whether they are political allies or adversaries.

The sign in the store window back in October 2016, asserting that we were getting close to being done with Trump, was mistaken. But please, please, in however many days it takes for us to learn the results of the 2020 election, let it finally be true.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.