SCHENECTADY — In normal times, I’ll write on a huge variety of topics, which is fine. It’s one of the things that makes the job interesting.
But 2020 has been mostly about COVID-19. There was less business news for a business writer to write about while the economy was shut down, so instead I took the lead many days on the package of words and images that The Gazette news team presented on the crisis.
The word “COVID” appears in 419 of my archived stories so far. The actual total may be only 400, thanks to the occasional duplicate, but you get the idea.
I’m proud of the work we all did on COVID. The daily updates on the news of the pandemic and the fight against it were important for the newspaper and its readers.
But my favorites — the stories that stand out most for me in retrospect — have been deeper looks behind the scenes, rather than the breaking news of the day.
(Come to think of it, that’s usually the case.)
Here are some of my faves from 2020:
I recently wrote a profile of Dr. Numan Rashid, a pulmonary and intensive care specialist at Saratoga Hospital who recounted in excellent (and moving) detail leading a team that saved 27 of the 30 COVID patients admitted to the hospital in the first wave of the pandemic.
Single-voice stories can be hit or miss — the writer needs someone who speaks in relatable terms, who recognizes a meaningful anecdote and is willing to share it. Rashid is all of these, and he managed to weave the science and compassion of medicine into the narrative details of battling a health crisis.
Rashid’s work didn’t end when the springtime surge of patients subsided. He followed up in his office with all the local patients after they were discharged. They’ve suffered lingering physical and mental after-effects.
And he’s in the thick of it again: When I interviewed him, Saratoga Hospital’s COVID-positive patient census had jumped from zero to 10 in less than a week.
FAREWELL TO TOLL BOOTHS
On Nov. 13, I stood in the little office at New York State Thruway Exit 26 in Rotterdam and listened as the toll collectors from Kingston to Canajoharie ran their final roll call over the radio.
It was the end of an era: That night, the last of the people who for 66 years had collected money from motorists on the longest toll highway in the world left their booths.
One 35-year veteran told me of the highlights and lowlights of her career there. She freezed and she broiled, babies were born, missing elderly motorists turned up. She would miss it all, but she was also looking forward to a second chapter in her career, come springtime.
The technology that replaced the humans at a cost of $355 million — cameras for license plates, scanners for E-ZPass tags and a massive computer network to tie it all together — is also quite interesting, if you like that sort of thing.
JACK WELCH’S LEGACY
One of the highest-profile corporate leaders of the 20th century died March 1, and I wrote about his legacy in Schenectady.
Jack Welch was revered in the business world and by shareholders for leading massive growth of General Electric and a huge concurrent surge in stock price. He was reviled in the cities where he slashed or closed businesses that for generations had been integral to the local economy or even the community identity.
GE’s workforce in Schenectady — where the company was born and long maintained its headquarters — shrank more than 70 percent during Welch’s tenure. Nineteen years after his retirement, news of his death dredged up mostly bitter memories in GE’s old hometown, rather than fond remembrances.
Epilogue: GE Research pioneer Walt Robb of Niskayuna called me after my story was published. Sharp as a tack at age 92, he told me it was unfairly harsh, and I helped him get a tribute he’d written to Welch published in The Gazette as an op-ed piece on March 15. I’d spoken to Robb a few times over the years for other stories, but this would be the last time. On March 23, he became the first known Capital Region resident to die of COVID-19.
CARPET MILL COLLAPSE
If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if there’s no one there to hear it? No, because sound is just a vibration unless an eardrum or a microphone converts it to sound.
If a hulking old carpet mill falls in a struggling post-industrial city, does anyone care? Yes, of course they do, but there’s not a lot they can do about it.
So it goes in Amsterdam’s East End neighborhood, where one of the last big remnants of the industry that spawned the nickname “Carpet City” is in slow-motion collapse. The long-vacant structure caught my eye years ago for its sheer size and caught my eye again in October, when I noticed (from a half mile away) that chunks of it were missing.
I interviewed the Amsterdam mayor for this story, and he said the city has no good options: The owner is an anonymous LLC that can’t be found, let alone forced to take corrective action, and the city has no money to do any stabilization work, pre-emptive demolition, or cleanup after collapse.
The only saving grace is that most of the massive complex is made of concrete and not in any apparent danger of collapse. Only the old wing made of wood and brick is collapsing, and it’s set back far enough that no bystanders or nearby structures will be hit by falling debris.
LIFE IN THE BUNKER
Here’s another COVID story that went behind the scenes.
National Grid controls the electrical supply for 520,000 New York homes and businesses out of a control center in Guilderland. When the virus hit New York in March, the utility couldn’t risk having the employees debilitated (or worse) by the virus. So it asked employees to volunteer to sequester themselves there, living on-site and seeing their loved ones only from a distance in the parking lot.
The concept was fascinating to me, and once again, the details and narrative provided by the people on-site made the story.
One of the locked-down grid operators was doing her daily visits with her 1-year-old baby on a smartphone. She presented a brave front but it was also clear she wouldn’t be able to keep the sacrifice up forever.
Luckily, she didn’t have to.