There was already a line Saturday morning when I went to Origin Coffee to pick up some breakfast. I’d put on my mask to go in, but as I looked in the door around the line, I didn’t see the usual table for pick-up orders. I was early for it anyway and stood at the end of line.
Seeing the guy ahead of me with his white chef jacket on, I struck up a conversation. He didn’t have a mask on. I commented, “I guess since I’m still outside, I don’t need this yet,” as I took my mask off. “Actually, you don’t need one inside if you’re vaccinated,” he replied. I am, so we stood there, maskless, and had a little conversation in the sun while waiting.
I didn’t comment on whether the store required masks or not; I knew I wouldn’t be inside long when my food came. The guy spotted my order on a side table, apologizing that he had blocked my view of it.
“No worries, having random conversations again with strangers is still novel, and I enjoyed it!” We both smiled in agreement.
At the Coin Wash a couple days before, I masked up as they require and had gone in to get my now-dry clothes. Only one other guy was there, in the back watching his clothes tumble in the machine, headphones on and facing away from me. While I was folding, another man came in, masked, no eye contact, and began putting his clothes in a washer. Starved for the everyday human interactions we so took for granted before, I commented aloud, “It’s so quiet in here.” The guy barely turned his head, as if I could have been talking to myself, or someone else. Not wanting to be a weirdo, but tired of masked life where so many people avoid even eye contact, I pressed on, saying in his direction, “I’m not a fan of a TV blaring, but even just background music would be nice.” He agreed it was quiet, more than usual. I could tell he wasn’t looking to chat, though we did talk briefly.
It reminded me of my first visit back to the gym. I’d gone into the locker room and saw someone I knew. She looked up from changing her shoes to leave and smiled. Though also masked, I smiled and said hello as I went around her to hang up my jacket. She said, “So, how’s it going?” I responded, and she said “What’s that?” not looking up from her shoes. I repeated myself, and she looked over, taking an earbud out, saying, “I’m sorry, what?” And it dawned on me, she had probably been in a phone conversation and had not talked to me at all. It occurred to me how little we really interact anymore. The pandemic has created the sense that we are all our own little islands.
Early on, like back in April or May of 2020, I had on a fabric mask with cartoon airplanes on it — one of a dozen made by a friend and given to me. I was grocery shopping; the antiseptic-smelling store was not empty but was eerily devoid of voices. Coming out of an aisle, a small toddler seated in his mother’s cart looked over at me, smiling as he saw the cartoon airplanes. I automatically smiled back, then realizing maybe he couldn’t tell because he couldn’t see my mouth, I did the raise-the-eyebrows kind of thing you do at little kids and said, “Hello there!” His mother looked around at me and saw her kid smiling around his tiny little mask, and she smiled at me, too.
After I had gotten the groceries into my car and was sitting behind the wheel, I took my mask off, thinking of the little boy’s uncertain face behind his mask, then his small happy smile at the cartoon airplanes on my mask, and I started crying. How are babies going to be affected by not being able to see random people’s smiles and expressions? How are we going to survive not seeing their innocent, happy little faces? And what about grade-school kids? Middle and high school kids? My own son, stuck home last spring and summer, missing out on all the social things that living on campus and going to college are really about? How long will this last, and how are people going to manage? I rarely cry, but those thoughts swirled, and that small baby smile beneath his tiny mask really got to me. I had planned on ordering some “cool” or “fashionable” masks, but when I realized those silly cartoon airplanes made a kid smile, I decided I didn’t need any other kind of mask.
Mask restrictions are lifting, and things have been slowly opening up. A friend told me about an outdoor music event south of here a couple weeks ago. As the three of them had gotten out of their car and started to mask up, they realized no one else there had masks on, and they slowly took their masks off, and put them in their pockets, wondering, “Are all these people REALLY vaccinated?” As we talked about it, I noticed there’s a level of distrust, of wariness, about strangers that was not there before.
Is that our new normal, to distrust strangers? I never taught my son “stranger danger” when he was small. Once, when I was the new mom with my toddler in a shopping cart, an older woman was smiling and making faces at him while I unloaded my groceries in the checkout line. Then she stopped herself, apologizing, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t do that, I’m a stranger.” I smiled and let her know she was fine; babies love seeing people smile. I didn’t want my son growing up to be generally afraid of people he didn’t know.
In my experience, the vast majority of all people are friendly. Across all cultures I’ve seen, a smile begets a smile. Whether at an airport, on a bus, at a rest area, a gas station, in Target or in a new city, a request for help or information results in a stranger’s help. People like helping. Though many are afraid to offer help, if you ask almost all people will help in whatever way they can. That is the world view I live with. And it transcends politics; it always has. People are inherently good. The news and some public figures may profit from having us think otherwise, but they are wrong. Look for goodness, and you will find it; it is everywhere. Smile, speak — talk with random strangers. They are going to be around all summer. Try to remember the best of who we were before as we move forward now.