After a freak accident on Friday, my daughter-in-law ended up in the Intensive Care Unit at Strong Memorial Hospital here. It was an unreal series of events in a day that was quietly uneventful up until that point. Our lives began that morning, not as usual, but at least unremarkably, if you discount the fact my son and his wife were back living under our roof with their two-year-old son as a result of the Covid-19 shut down in California and the nation. I began that morning two days ago around 6 a.m. by ordering groceries for my 95-year-old mother, still living independently, but unable to drive. It’s been a year since my father died, and she has adapted bravely to his loss. The help my brother and I offered my parents while he was dying occupied our entire summer last year, when we set up a hospice in his living room to deliver palliative care for weeks as he succumbed to sepsis from an inoperable pressure wound. Our new summer emergency wasn’t yet upon us at this hour. The Instacart order from Wegmans arrived here at my house, as I was mowing the lawn, even though the notes for where to deliver the food outside my mother’s door were visible on the payment page during checkout. So I finished the front yard and loaded the groceries into my Kia and drove twenty minutes to her place with them. We spoke briefly about the state of affairs in my household—for the time being, my son and daughter and their two-year-old son have migrating back to Pittsford, NY from Encino, CA, thanks to the economic shut-down. Our country’s state of suspended animation has interrupted, if not ended, Matthew’s ten-year career as a successful editor/creator of movie trailers for Seismic Productions. Movie production has been completely dead since March. Laura continues to work remotely for Ellen Degeneres. producing Ellen’s website videos with Kristin Bell and others. Her ability to do her job at home, with conference video calls, has enabled them to sell their home in Encino and flee the highly inflated cost of living in Southern California (as in most of the large metropolitan areas in the U.S.).
They arrived here with a carload of household items three weeks ago when they moved into our two spare bedrooms. We rearranged the house to give them space to live and work: the two spare bedrooms upstairs are now theirs, one for Will and the larger one for them. Laura works at a desk in our living room while Matthew takes care of their son, Will, who is possibly the most energized two-year-old on the planet. Matt talks about how, the day he was born, Will was wide-eyed and studying the features of his room, when he should have been sleeping or eating, and unable to see much of anything around him. When he goes for what might euphemistically be called “a walk” he sprints on his tip toes down the street, using the grate in a storm sewer as a razor thin balance beam for the balls of his feet if he isn’t wearing shoes. (Last year, along this same path during his visit, not even two years old at that point, he recited the numbers on the mailboxes as they passed.)
Neither Matt nor Laura know what the future holds for them as a family. She arrived here in the middle of this economic depression—if the unemployment rate, rather than the financial sector, represents the true measure of the economy—and not long after publication of a Buzzfeed article about the “toxic” work culture at the Ellen show. It was followed by revelations in which employees talked about harassment from several executive producers. Each of these stories sparked separate investigations within the company, still ongoing. The day after they arrived, Laura got a call from Warner Brothers and was interviewed by one of their attorneys asking about the allegations. She told the attorney that she was treated with respect and kindness, but that she was aware this might not be the case for others. My impression from everything I’ve heard is that Ellen is a creative spirit who, like many others in many fields, is being required to run an organization rather than focus on her strengths as a comedian and a personality. Once a creatively productive individual rises into management, it can often create problems. This happens everywhere: reporters become editors, detectives become desk sergeants, art directors run art departments, James Patterson becomes the head of a fiction factory. OK, maybe that last one worked out, for better or worse. Ellen seems like someone more at home in a green room than a C-suite conference room. It seems Ellen delegated the actual leadership of the company to her executive producers and they may not have been entirely suited to the power. But all of this is gossip at this point, gossip that has imperiled an entire company.
We all spent several weeks wondering if the show would return in the fall. Each day, Laura started her day at noon, EST, and finished up around 9 p.m., running meetings. Meanwhile, Matthew continued to play the John Lennon house-husband role, becoming Will’s closest and most available companion. On top of all this upheaval, Laura is pregnant and due to deliver her second child in December. So there was a faintly Joad-like quality to their journey, if the Joads had been traveling east rather than west, in an air-conditioned VW, staying at boutique Airbnbs, and funded by a modest nest-egg of equity from a highly inflated real estate market in California (where realtors set dates to take bids and houses nearly all sell for more than asking.) Their nest-egg was no larger than the down payment they made on the house two years ago: closing costs consumed the slight mark-up in the price. The 2,000 square foot “starter” home cost just under $1 million, with a back yard directly adjacent to a busy cut-through street at rush hour, with no side yard on either side, only a pair of catwalk-wide alleys, and no garage.
During my grocery delivery to my mother’s place, we talked about all this, speculating on where my son and his family will end up, how Matt might be able to resume employment, and how much stress this has put on their little family. Laura has become the bread-winner, Matt the homebound parent, and this creates tensions symmetrical to the ones in my own home, where I continue to work for a living though my wife is retired. Being an earner gives you some illusory leverage, but mostly it’s just a foundation for resentment rather than actual power. Living here, they could easily afford to continue in these roles—in L.A., never. When people talk about the urge to preserve the economy, it may in part be an expression of the desire to preserve the animal spirits of Wall Street, but mostly it’s about avoiding this kind of disruption through unemployment—the need for the middle class and working class to pay their bills and remain solvent. The continuing response in states like California, where the lock-down has been fairly stringent and lengthy, is only worsening what has been a growing trend around the country for years: the unaffordability of life in cities like L.A. and New York City. Tents for the homeless are going up everywhere as a result of this inflation. There was an encampment of the homeless only a quarter mile from Matt and Laura’s home in the San Fernando Valley. Inflation is invading smaller U.S. cities as a result of an ongoing wave of migration out of the big metro areas into these more affordable towns. It’s all the outcome of a temporary largesse thanks to the arbitrage of two currencies, the big city dollar vis a vis the much stronger small-town dollar. You bring that weak L.A. dollar into Western New York’s stable economy, and it buys a house more than twice as large, with outstanding public schools supported by taxes, not tuition, not a feature of parenthood in L.A.
We witnessed this last year in Boise when my wife and I looked at housing there, as a possible move to get us within a two-hour flight of Los Angeles, where both of our children and all of our grandkids were located at the time. I remarked to a Circle K cashier working in one of Boise’s more prestigious eastside neighborhoods how robust the housing market was in that beautiful city—the prices were already slightly higher than here in Rochester. She said, “Yeah, it’s great for the new arrivals, but terrible for the rest of us.” Those words will be the motto for countless cities across the country as people migrate steadily out of the big cities over the coming years. She said that if you’d grown up and taken a job in Boise, housing was essentially already unaffordable even in that idyllic, smaller city. Inflation, as a result of a decade of Fed policies to prop up an unsustainable economy, is the big story no one is reporting.
To have lived in Encino and continued to work in their industries wouldn’t have been utterly impossible for Matt and Laura. Matthew’s hours probably would have returned to something like a normal level by next spring, though the money in making trailers has never recovered to its pre-2008 levels. Laura’s job has somehow never seemed in danger, until the news stories shook the program and put everyone at the company on a resume-update footing in anticipation of the potential decision from Ellen Degeneres to simply give up on her position as one of the most successful talk-show hosts in the country. Yet in the tentative words of resolve issued at first to the media and then to employees, it appeared that the show would go on. I told Laura, I didn’t get the impression that someone as courageous as Ellen—one of the first gay entertainers to come out and work openly in the context of her gender identity—would give up and slink away into some kind of semi-retirement. As the days passed, Laura has become more confident and took heart from the love shared by her team and among her co-workers. Ellen and the executive producers who report directly to her may have been either remote and emotionally difficult, defaulting to anxiety-fueled management seeded with encouragement for motivation, but drop a couple tiers down into the show and the bond among workers is fierce. One of Laura’s closest friends and former co-workers, Lena Waithe, has risen into the ranks of elite Hollywood royalty—something that was beginning to happen when Lena attended Matt and Laura’s wedding in 2014. She remains in close contact with Laura even now, through texts and personal visits to their former Encino home.
As I was driving home from my mother’s, Matt called, and I answered in hands-free mode.
“Laura was hit by a car. I don’t know many of the details. She’s at Strong. When are you getting home?”
“In about fifteen minutes, probably. You mean your mom’s CRV was hit? Wasn’t she driving the CRV?” I asked.
“She wasn’t in the car.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“She was waiting to go in for her blood test, sitting outside, and a car ran over her.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s what the guy said. The car rolled over her.”
He decided to head to Strong Memorial Hospital himself, not knowing any further details. When I got home, with further texting from Matt, I pieced together what had happened. Laura arrived at the University of Rochester testing clinic, where you can show up without an appointment and get blood drawn. It was crowded inside so, wearing her mask and conscious of the need for social distancing, she went outside, where people were already overflowing from inside. She looked for a place to sit away from the throng. There were no chairs or benches or anywhere to wait comfortably. She found a spot on the grass strip alongside the parking lot and sat on it to text with co-workers. As she put it to Matt, “I was texting and then I was under a car.” The older woman driving the vehicle had gotten confused and saw herself heading toward Laura, kicked the throttle instead of the brake and jumped the curb, the tire climbing over Laura’s back, pinning her to the ground, crushing one side of her pelvis, which probably saved the baby’s life, cracking the opposite hipbone as well, breaking a rib, her shoulder blade and her forearm. The tire left a track of bruises across her back. It also dislocated her hip, which caused her great pain at the time. A bus driver saw the entire accident and jumped out of the bus to help her. Another bystander waiting outside the clinic—there were many who had to find a place to wait outside—called Matthew and also called the ambulance.
When the paramedics got her to Strong (also owned by the University of Rochester, the city’s largest employer, the new Eastman Kodak Co. in terms of its role at the apex of the local economy) they determined her vital signs were good and got her into the ICU as quickly as possible to make sure the baby survives. Its heartbeat was untroubled, and continues to be strong. Through she arrived at the emergency room on Thursday, surgery to repair the hip couldn’t be scheduled until tomorrow, Monday. So she is in traction, virtually immobile, unable to move enough to text, yet able to make a phone call or dictate into the phone. Yesterday, she was in some degree of pain until later in the afternoon when the attendants found the right cocktail of pain analgesics for her drip.
My wife, Nancy, and I have been caring for Will as Matt spends much of his time at her side in the ICU. Almost immediately after the accident, I called a personal injury attorney to find out what we needed to manage the costs of her medical care. I also wrote to one of her closest co-workers at the Ellen Show with a quick summary of what had happened, after which word spread throughout the company and resulted in a flood of texts and phone calls of concern and support. The attorney said few people understand that despite the prevalence of no-fault car insurance, the car insurance policy of the driver at fault, the one who ran over Laura, will pay for medical care—not Laura’s health plan from the show. Car insurance is entirely responsible for the payment of injury claims, he said. We haven’t yet checked with another attorney on this, though Matt has a name from a high school friend here. Once the driver’s liability coverage is exhausted, Laura’s own car insurance will pick up additional costs. After that, the source of the money needs to be determined. The question is simply how long she will be in the hospital, and the cost of the care she will receive. At this point, everyone expects her to fully recover, but it will take months of rehabilitation before she delivers the baby in December. Costs were an immediate concern because one of Laura’s best friends had a highly premature child not long ago and those six weeks of neonatal care, and treatment for her own complications, ran up a bill for $1 million, with a co-pay of $25,000 for the couple. The last thing Matt and Laura need is to see their nestegg erased along with one of their jobs.
Yesterday, Matt was at her side in the ICU when his phone rang from an unidentified caller. One of Laura’s producer friends at the company said she could expect a mystery call and to answer it. Laura was anticipating a call from an executive producer. Matt answered.
“Is this Matthew?” she asked.
“Hi Matt, this is Ellen Degeneres,” she said.
“Oh, hi Ellen! Let me put you on speaker.”
As he did this, Matt was startled by an alarm in the room. Laura’s heartbeat had spiked so much, it set off an alert from the monitor.
“Hi Laura. How are you honey?” she asked.
Laura told her.
“Do you remember the accident?” Ellen asked.
“Yes, every second,” she said, and proceeded to recount what happened.
Ellen spoke with her for a while and said the company was very concerned about her and would be there for her if she needed anything. She signed off after a short while, saying, “Believe it or not, I have another person to call in Chicago who was in a car accident.”
The call reassured all of us that the show will go on, that Laura will have a secure job, and that her team cares deeply about her. When Matt got home, he was telling us the story of their day together in the hospital and a text came in.
“It’s Kristin Bell,” he told us, sitting on the couch in our family room.. Bell offered her concern and sympathy and any help Laura needs. Matt said, “She says to tell her we love her.”
An hour later, he got another text. He said, “A car full of food is arriving.” He went out into the driveway and carried in a dozen packages, full of chicken parmesan, pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken wings, garlic bread, salad, a feast of fast food ordered for delivery by Laura’s team at the show.
Every night since they’ve gotten here, Will has woken up crying at some point between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Last night, after Laura’s mother arrived from Philadelphia and slept in the room where Matt and Laura had been sleeping, Matt slept on the floor beside Will—without any discomfort, he said, which is more a reflection of Matt’s tolerant, flexible character than the ergonomics of a hardwood floor. Will slept soundly through the night for the first time since their arrival. With a few prayers for Laura’s complete recovery and a successful surgery, we all did.