I walk out my front door and around the corner. A jogger passes me, socially distanced in the street, no mask; and then a series of recreational cyclists, some without masks. They’re at least 6 feet away and pass me so quickly; I don’t worry about it.
A homeless person is crouched by the Wi-Fi kiosk, not wearing a mask. It must be very challenging for them right now, not able to get masks; many of them have psychological problems that make the discipline a problem. I pass by.
On the next corner, a group of construction workers huddle around an open gash in the street. They are not wearing masks. What a challenge, to be doing hard, heavy labor all day. They are outdoors. I imagine them going home, physically exhausted, collapsing into bed, rising early the next day and returning to their outdoor site; maybe they are their own little pod, in a way. I pass by.
I walk past a woman on a cigarette break, mask pulled down to allow access. Across the sidewalk from her, a worker huddles over his lunch, mask dangling from his ear. A truck driver climbs from the lonesome cab of his truck, walks tightly along the side of his truck to the back, opens the gate, and unloads a delivery, maskless. A delivery person emerges from a building, masked, mounts his bike and pulls his mask down; he pulls it up only when entering buildings. Essential workers, doing the best they can. I pass by.
Restaurants line the streets, literally, with sidewalk dining. You could not call these tables six feet apart, even generously. They are lined up tight against the storefront one side of the sidewalk and then the other edge along the street or in the street, with a narrow channel between. People, maskless sit and sip iced tea, or eat hot food, brought to them by waiters with hastily pulled up masks. I reflect on aerosols and imagine them drifting on the afternoon breeze, lighting on the food that I can smell. If I can smell it, so can the man in front of me who is waiting for a table, his mask already tucked into his breast pocket. I edge between parked cars and cross the street to avoid them. Extra steps are good.
Now I pass a woman on her cell phone, chatting away; apparently she can’t talk on her cell and wear a mask at the same time. A man stands by a parked car, leaning on a signpost, idly scrolling on his phone; his mask pulled down; apparently he can’t scroll and mask at the same time. Another man emerges from a restaurant, masked, then pulls down his mask to scratch his nose. My anxiety rises.
Deep breaths, I tell myself, take deep breaths. Just not right now, while I’m passing that maskless couple, flirting by the mailbox.
Two men in workout clothes, young, healthy, invincible with apparently no elderly or immunocompromised people at home or in their building, emerge from a gym, no masks, and laugh and turn up the street in front of me. I slow to let them distance and hope the breeze is at my back. A woman pushes a stroller; the child has pulled down his mask to cram goldfish in his mouth. Coming towards me, another woman, another stroller; the mother has her mask pulled down around her chin. Stand aside and let them pass.
A beautiful young woman, autumn breeze whispering through her long blonde hair, teasing her light summer dress, floats down the street toward me, her face completely bare. Why should she worry, she is young and beautiful and privileged and nothing bad will ever happen to her. Only old, fat people, people who have outlived their usefulness die, right? Bitch, I mutter under my breath as I pass by.
I read somewhere that our discipline, our ability to resist is finite. If you resist a sweet roll in the morning and a grilled cheese at lunch, resist pizza at dinner, your mind-body will reach your limit and you will have no resistance left when someone offers you that drink after dinner.
I am practicing being more compassionate towards people on the streets who have reached their limits of resistance and can no longer wear masks consistently.
And I am reaching my limit. It is challenging my own ability to remain calm, to not lecture, to not explain, to not challenge; not to turn in to a Covid-Karen. All I can see is the coming surge, like a great, dark dust storm lowering itself over the city. It is already racing through zip codes in Brooklyn and Queens.
I think about the last walk I took in March before we were asked to mask; the streets cold, overcast, empty; the few people who were out, walking in the empty avenues. As we approached the corner near our building, the sidewalk constricted between a pile of garbage leaning against the tightly-spaced parked cars on one side and the poles of an awning on the other.
Another pedestrian walked toward me, I told myself he looked young and healthy and, in my hurry to get safely home, I didn’t pause and step back to give him 6 feet. As we passed each other, he turned his head and coughed on me – not a dry, almond husk caught in my throat cough, but a full, wet, I should be home in bed not walking around the streets of Manhattan cough. When we got home, I showered and scrubbed my face, put my clothes right into the hamper, and held my breath for two weeks. My husband slept facing away from me, so he wouldn’t breathe my exhalations, just in case.
So, yes, fear is a part of this. But there is also indignation – a feeling that is prevalent right now, no matter what side you’re on. For me, this may stem from the fact that I like to do things, to take action, and this – like 9/11 – is a situation where there is very little I can do to take action against the root cause, myself. Aside from stay home, wear a mask, and wash my hands a lot. For awhile, we clapped, but as the weather grew brighter, we became the only ones clapping in our neighborhood, and so we stopped.
When I walk, and see so many people without masks, it is as if they are saying that the little I can do is not of value. And that triggers indignation.
May I and all who feel helplessness find compassion for ourselves and others.