I never felt like much of a vigilante before, but lately, I can’t help myself. After shopping at our very safe food co-op where everyone was wearing masks except for one young family, I eyed said family in the parking lot, right next to where I would be returning my empty cart. “Should I?” I asked myself, followed by, “Why not?” I gingerly walked over to them, standing 10 feet away of course, and cheerfully said, “Hey, please wear masks next time. The numbers are going up, and we want everyone to stay safe.”
One of them looked away like this masked poet with messy hair in old bike shorts and a tie-dyed shirt was crazy, and the other shot hate rays from her eyes. I shrugged and headed back to my car, once again unsure if speaking up is going to change anything in a world where so many people are actively embracing stupidity, carelessness, ignorance, denial, or something else that eludes me. But then that’s the job of being a masked poet: speaking up and spreading awkwardness, then speeding away quickly.
Not that I always have the nerve to say something: when traveling through Missouri to get to a relatively safe harbor in Arkansas (writers’ colony where I would inhabit thoroughly disinfected rooms without having contact with other humans), I had to stop at numerous gas stations, thanks to a small bladder and a whole of iced ice. Did I see anyone working anywhere who had a mask? Of course not, and the only exception to the maskless were three women coming out of a bathroom. I wanted to shoot my fist in the air and yell, “Right on, sister!” Furthermore, the good working people of quick shop world looked at me like I was from outer space because of my mask. I got back in my car and pumped more sanitizer on my hands.
Coming back through Kansas, I still didn’t encounter any people donning masks, except for the employees at a very mechanized Taco Bell, who passed my burrito to me through a plexiglass contraption, which I appreciated. But at least the older woman I saw stocking cigarettes in southeast Kansas smiled at me and called me “Honey.”
Then there’s the grocery store encounters that led me to write to two national chains, one for a store where half the employees wore their masks pulled down under their noses, and another where the manager had his mask hanging around his neck. My polite but pointed conversations with them didn’t go so well, and in one case, I had to ask a woman, much older and likely much more at risk, to step back when she got face-to-face with me. At least one of the chains (Aldi’s) took my complaint seriously, and we had a prolonged conversation about how people working there needed more education (my point — I didn’t want any of these front-line workers fired).
I know masks are a hassle, and I struggled mightily with my glasses fogging up until I found some tricks that worked for me (the right-sized mask for the face, and making sure the top of the mask is tight and secure), but I’ve noticed I’m actually getting used to wearing a mask. Back in March (many years ago, it seems), I rushed through grocery aisles just throwing anything in my cart in an effort to get outside in a hurry and get the mask off. Now I’m relatively okay with my nose and mouth under layers of cloth.
I also realize those of us who aren’t front-line workers only have to endure little bouts of maskfulness. My son Forest, who works 40 hours each week at our food co-op, has to wear his mask for eight hours at a time. People working in hospitals, doctor offices, clinics, restaurants, manufacturing, and so many other industries have had to seal up half their face as a way of life.
Although I’m mostly home, just edging out once a week, I’m astonished at what I keep seeing. Some of my friends say it’s just too much for people to accept that the old normal isn’t coming back around for longer than they can endure. One friend equated our relationship with the pandemic to grief: we keep cycling through all the stages, and some people are especially at home in denial or anger. Whatever the case, I’m dumbfounded as to why everyone isn’t building their mask wardrobe.
There’s a well-worn saying among many of us about speaking truth to power, and while asking people to wear masks isn’t quite a same, it feels like something, if we can do it without evoking defiant reactions (which I’m surely not often successful in), is worthwhile. After all, given all we’re learning about the truth of what helps prevent the virus (masks!), we do have the power to be what my people call mensches: decent humans. Let’s mask up and use our power!