I’ll admit, I don’t consistently wear my mask. On the rare instances I go into a store, I keep it on. But when I’m walking in a park or through the neighborhood, my mask is often tucked in my back pocket.
I don’t have a good excuse. I simply don’t enjoy wearing it. Who does? It’s hot. It fogs up my glasses. And instead of smelling the fresh air, I smell my own breath. This is especially displeasing on a hike, when the scents of pine and earth are, unfortunately, replaced by egg.
Still, I do wear the mask sometimes. On the sidewalk leading to Seward Park, on the descent down a trail, and in other places when I anticipate crowds in narrow spots, I make sure to don it, often opting to keep it on. That is, until something—a cool breeze or Ria commanding “Mask off, Dada”—provokes the switch.
In an odd way, this has allowed me to experience both sides of the ongoing mask debate. Ideologically, of course, I’m for masks. I’m for doing whatever we can to keep us as healthy as possible. But because I don’t always put my money where my mask should be, I’ve posed as a kind of spy for the mask haters out there. What I’ve learned is that we’re all easily divided—by something as simple as a colorful piece of cloth.
Interactions change as a result of the mask. When I’m wearing it, there is a kind of camaraderie with fellow mask-wearers. Mostly, it’s just head nods and an extra second of eye contact, but on a hike, one fellow face-coverer went so far as to thank me for wearing my mask. Awkwardly, I thanked her back, but it felt a little cringeworthy. It reminded me of a South Park episode in which do-gooders driving Priuses go around honking kudos to each other.
Besides, what that other hiker didn’t realize was that minutes earlier my face was stark naked. What would her reaction have been to me then? Would she have furrowed her brow? Lowered her eyes? She’d have been huffy instead of happy.
I do feel guilty when I pass a mask-wearer while my own royal blue face covering is shoved behind my wallet. In these instances, I do what I can to force Ria and Manny to the side of the path. And, mostly, I try not to meet the disapproving eyes leering at me from above the fabric. It might be my imagination, but I really do sense loathing in these moments, and I feel especially bad when the grumbling person walking the other way is obviously in an elevated risk category. What kind of an asshole am I?
Interestingly, there is a camaraderie between non-mask-wearers as well. I’ve noticed smirks and glinting eyes. Expressions that seem to say: Can you believe all those other suckers have fallen for it? I try not to engage in such anarchistic exchanges. Alas, I’m human, and it’s nice to be liked.
All of this is a bit tongue and masked-covered cheek, of course, but there is a serious point. For many people—the president included—the mask is a political statement. Do you believe the doctors and the scientists, or do you subscribe to the conspiracy theories? But I’ve actually been thinking about the mask in terms of race. I want to be really careful here not to overstep, but in some small way wearing and not wearing a mask has made me stop and think about what it might be like to be a person of color in America. In this country, if you’re not white, you are judged—or perhaps feel like you’re judged—every time you leave your house. As a white person, I take for granted the small interactions I have out in the world. But if I were black or brown, I wouldn’t have this luxury. I might have to worry about jogging or speeding. I might live in fear that every instance of microaggression could escalate dangerously.
There is evidence that racism is bad for a person’s health. Not just the obvious insidious acts, but the smaller transgressions, too. The anxiety about facing all of this every day can increase stress levels, which can deteriorate bodies.
So, because of the masks, I’ve been paying more attention to minor interactions throughout the day. Nothing is as casual as it once was. I’m not really sure what to make of it, except to realize that—mask or no mask—it never hurts to smile. —Andrew Waite