Masking

I have started taking walks again, leaving the house, en mask, to get some fresh air and escape the oppressive confines of the apartment. It feels good to walk, to move around, to see something other than the walls of the neighboring buildings that surround my home.

I usually like to say that Central Park is my back yard, but that’s stretching it a little since it’s almost 3 miles away from where I live. I may as well say that the Highline is my backyard, or the playing fields along the East River. But Central Park serves as my backyard because it’s where I go when I want to be outside, someplace green. Unfortunately, because it is so far away from my apartment, and because, if I were to walk there, the part of the park that is closest to me is the urban part, the part that always feel full of people, it’s not accessible to me right now.

But it feels good to get outside anyway. To move around and begin to reintroduce exercise into my routine.

And it feels scary, how many people are not wearing masks.

The white girls in their 20s, in their short dresses with their hair hanging down their backs, who walk bare-faced, as if to say, “Why would I cover this up?”

The parents, with small children in strollers, masks dangling off their chins. Apparently they don’t love their kids enough to want to protect them from this new threat, the new way this disease has morphed into something else terrible, that stalks children.

The man, sitting in the small “public” park outside the Trump building, shirtless, soaking up the sun. He sits as if on a throne, as if – because he lives in that building – he has the right to take up that space, shirtless, maskless, it is his, he owns it.

The groups of young men, groups I would usually expect to be heading into a bar, some masked, some not at all, not even dangling below their chins. The delivery people and young men on their way home from essential work, pulling their masks up only as they approach a store or building where they want admittance.

It infuriates me how many people are not wearing masks. At first, I thought it was anger masking fear – fear that I might catch something from these people. Then I thought it was anger masking resentment – here I am, doing everything that they tell us we should do (God how I hate that word, should) and these people are doing nothing, and it’s not fair! The people who most deserve this disease, I think petulantly, won’t get it, while many who deserve life will die. But that’s not fair either – no one deserves a terrible disease, no matter how angry they make us feel for their willful disobedience and rule-flaunting, as if rules didn’t apply to them. And death comes to us all in the end, despite the best efforts of biotechnology.

Over the weekend, I read an article by a medical professional, on how masks are made and which ones are appropriate in which situations (in a hospital, in the streets, etc.), and the challenges of building a culture where one wears masks, even amongst medical professionals in a hospital setting. He introduced a way of thinking about masks that resonated with me and helped clarify my thinking about my negative reaction to all the unmasked.

He talked about the importance of wearing masks in public as way of protecting others. I protect you, the mask says, by keeping my germs to myself, and I trust you to protect me. That seems relevant since the virus is at it’s most contagious just before you begin to show symptoms.

And my feelings of resentment crystallized: I am angry because people are not protecting us from them.

I read another article this weekend about the common cold. You know how your mother always told you to wear a hat or a scarf, or not to go out with wet hair in the winter, or not to stand around in wet shoes, because you could catch a cold? (I say your mother, but I don’t remember my mother ever saying anything like that to me.) And, as you grew older, maybe you wondered: if a cold is a virus, how could it spread to me because I had cold feet or a cold head?

This second article said, Well, you wouldn’t catch a cold because of being cold. But when you are cold, your immune responses that fight off colds are repressed. Most of catch the cold virus and walk around with some level of it in our systems. Our immune system represses it, keeps it from multiplying to the level where we begin to show symptoms and realize that we have a cold. Until we go out without a coat or hat or get wet shoes and our immune system gets repressed, and then the cold virus surges up in volume and we feel sick. We recognize the connection without understanding it.

So perhaps this is the reason why colds seem to go away in the summer, because we catch them but we don’t realize it, because our immune systems hold them at bay, and we have less of a chance of doing things like commuting in sleet that might cause our immune systems to become repressed.

These two thoughts are circling each other in my head like two cats with backs up and tails lifted, growling at each other, just before open warfare breaks out.

They’ve all got it. They don’t realize they have it because their immune system is repressing their symptoms or because they caught it too recently to have symptoms, which means they are at their most contagious. And they’re too selfish to mask-up and protect their neighbors from catching it.

This is the problem with living in the city. Not the urban density, per se. Singapore, Seoul, have far more people squeezed into far less space. And people there wear masks to protect others.

I went on a trip once to Newfoundland. I drove up the West Coast from the ferry at the southern tip all the way to the Viking settlement at the top. It was beautiful and wild and I loved it. But I found the people confusing. I didn’t see many of them while I was driving – it was past tourist season and just into hunting season, which meant that most of the hunters were in the interior where the game was, where I did not go because that road (there was only really one) was not paved. But every now and then I’d pass another car on the two lane highway, and I always got an uncomfortable feeling like they were staring at me. When I reached the historic park at the northern tip of the West Coast, I went into the museum and then started out to the park, when the park ranger told me it had closed for the day and we fell into conversation. I had been traveling alone for two weeks and was conversation-starved so we talked for hours.

He explained that people on the island greeted each other when they crossed paths, even if they passed each other on the road, so they probably found it suspicious that I did not greet them as I passed by. He asked where I was from and he shook his head. “I couldn’t live in New York City,” he said. “I would get exhausted greeting everyone I passed on the sidewalk.” I explained that it wasn’t expected there and he shook his head at me as if to ask how people could live in such a place.

We are one. We do work together. We came together after 9/11 to mourn and to rebuild.

But we do lack that sense of community that you get in a place where people wave at every car that passes theirs or say Good Morning to everyone they pass on the street or in a store. In a community like that, perhaps the unmasked would mask-up, because the people they would be killing would be people they know, people they say Hi to every day.

People they see as people.

Who knows?

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