A chat with Fred Mayo

Fred, you’ve been a career educator in experimental programs and conventional ones, an academic program designer and administrator, an internationally-known scholar of manners and hospitality, a consultant, an author. I also know you to be an activist, a volunteer with a special interest in the elderly community. Simply put, have all of your passions and callings been radically transformed by Covid 19?

The field of culinary education and hospitality is completely transformed. The way I experience retirement is transformed. It’s everything. As Andrew Cuomo has mentioned so many times, we need to find the silver lining in this horror story. Yes, we need to be tough, strong, creative, and loving. But it is also important to find the silver lining.

I was going for a walk yesterday and I saw a turtle, the first I have ever seen on my walks, a bit of magic. And I have been weeding and working in the yard, transforming my property. Many people who are retired find they don’t know what to do with their time. I’m writing letters for the NAACP about getting people registered in Georgia and in Texas. I’m working on racial justice. I’m helping others with masks and hand-washing. It fills the day and the world in a new way.


If everything were the same as before, the people who are retired now would be just hanging out. It can be an empty life. Everyone’s going to work and you’re not. Now no one is going to work. They’re working remotely. We’re all communicating differently, and you have a chance to connect with a diversity of people and have more detailed conversations.


You do a lot at Woodland Pond senior living community in New Paltz. We know the scene has been bad there. Have you managed to stay in touch and help keep your friends there connected?”

I haven’t been able to do anything. I had been there for several hours on Monday, March 8 visiting my friend Michael Projansky. I went to the nurse’s station and they said, “Fred what are you doing here? We’re closed! The pandemic!”

When I left, I had to tell Michael I was the last outside person he would see. I had a chance to help him understand what was happening. I send letters to him. My ex-wife calls me from there periodically. I get a chance to talk to some other friends, but my spring lecture there was canceled. I really have no access to anything at Woodland Pond right now. I talk to people as much as I can and create Zoom meetings.

We have a meditation group that meets Monday through Friday at 7:30 a.m. at the Reformed Church, then we go to The Bakery to chit chat and build community. For many of us who are older, it is a sense of connecting with people in the morning and seeing what is going on in each others’ worlds. We’ve now created a conference call at 8:15. We’re all meditating in our own houses, but then we have the chance to check in with each other. Many of these people are single and living alone. We have still maintained that feeling of community and in many ways, we’ve enhanced it. People aren’t alone in this adventure.


How do you foresee the hospitality industries adapting and transforming in the aftermath?

The issue in hospitality is how do we do what we do and protect people? How do we do this, honoring safety and distancing while still making these businesses productive? The real difficulty is, you know, you can’t operate a restaurant when you’ve got 25% capacity. The margins are too small. Hotels have come up with great ideas about sanitation and disinfecting, but the issue is volume, and quality and standards. It’s fascinating to watch and think about, but it is not going to be easy to transform.


When I reached out to you, you were in a Zoom class. What are your feelings about the sufficiency of live streaming technology? “Better than nothing” or “Godsend?”

For many of my friends and myself, it was a new technology to learn, and it has been fascinating to help others learn. I have been teaching with technology for years, so it wasn’t a shock to me, and now I have a professional Zoom account and I have hosted a number of meetings and have taught people how to access it. I host a Sunday evening cocktail Zoom with my siblings in Florida and Massachusetts. I am taking a Zoom art class with Sevan Melikyan, who runs the Wired Gallery, and it is wonderful. Zoom works beautifully in that situation. He focuses on details, and you can almost see it better than if you were on a gallery tour.

What many of my friends are saying is that, when you get three or four Zoom calls in a day, you get zoomed out. It takes a certain focus and discipline. As you know, communication involves a whole lot of non-verbal language, and Zoom doesn’t communicate much of that, especially when you have twelve or 14 people.

But I think it is a godsend for so many people because you get to see a human being and not just hear a voice. I actually did a guest lecture at George Washington University in Washington D.C. They’re using my book in a research methods course, and I used the blackboard version of Zoom, an entire three-hour class. It was interesting and fun. I am always interested in learning new things.


I’m reading more these days. You?

I’ve had a chance to read a stack of books that’s just been sitting there. Right now I am reading a nonfiction book I hope many people will read: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, about the great migration and about why the depth of racism is so powerful in this country, embedded in our culture because of what happened between 1917 and 1970. Great book.


It’s inspiring but unsurprising to me that you are making the most of this strange time and using it as an opportunity for growth

I am very impressed with New Paltz. It’s an indicator of the quality of the people, really helping each other. When they walk on the River to Ridge, they move away from others. We now have a community walk at River Park. We chat with each. We see neighbors we would not otherwise see. People are making connections in a new kind of way. I think that’s the magical part.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

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