A friend of mine recently posted a mock Dr. Seuss book cover. The pretend book was entitled, “Things I Will Put Up Your A**, If You Don’t Put On That Mask.” The image did not make me ponder the decline of civility in our social network streams. Nor did it make me fret about how social media is making us ruder and less thoughtful in general. Usually, I worry about both. But this time, I thought, “I need that printed on a shirt, immediately!”
I am a New York City bus passenger. In the best of times, this is a fraught identity, involving the occasional stand-off, or a delicate negotiation regarding Walkman volume, or demonstrating for some thoughtless soul where one seat ends and another begins. It can also be fabulous fun — I’ve met more charming and fascinating people on city buses than I ever met in college, or even in theater school, back in the day.
New Yorkers are, for the most part, fantastic. They are eager to share, eager to chat, eager to give advice and directions and recipes. They like to admire each other’s hats and scarves and purses; they like to pat the heads of tiny dogs when they are sticking out of someone’s tote bag — more on that in a minute. They love to gossip, they love to roll their eyes about the latest nonsense from Mayor DiBlasio, the latest horror from the White House. New Yorkers aren’t cold, despite their reputation. They are tough, it’s true, but it takes little to disarm them–a few gentle words or a well-timed joke, and a busful of passengers melts in your hands. Usually.
Now, we live in COVID times. I have never been into zombie apocalypse movies or dystopian fiction. I have always felt that life is brutal enough without immersing oneself in worlds that are even more frightening. But maybe if I had, I would have been more prepared for the scattershot breakdown of society I experience in one ten-minute bus ride on the Upper West Side in COVID times. Yes, this is about masks. What else?
A few days ago, my daughter and I got on a bus at the rear — buses are currently free, while they redesign them for the safety of the drivers — and immediately came face-to-face with a woman chatting glibly on her phone, her mask draped nonsensically around her neck. I am not generally one to take matters of life and death casually. “Um, excuse me,” I began, in a loud-ish voice. “Could you please pull up your mask?” The woman looked at me as if I’d spoken in tongues. I made the universal gesture — miming the pulling up of one’s mask, for god’s sake — and she went back to chatting glibly. “Um, it’s the LAW,” I continued, pulling myself up to my full five feet, and barking.
“Take a cab if it bothers you,” she said. Take a cab if it bothers you.
Recently, I have taken to calling myself The Masked Avenger. I got the name from the movie Radio Days, in which a little boy listens to a show of the same name. I get on buses and ask people, nicely — at first — to don their goddamned masks. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why a masked avenger is needed-is there something unclear about ventilators and high fevers and sudden fatal plunges in oxygen saturation? What is confusing you? Seriously, what?
I also wonder, by the way, what non-compliers misunderstand about the workings of the human nose. It inhales and exhales, same as the mouth. If you wear your mask underneath your nose, you do not get partial credit. You get just as sick if you inhale a virus through your nose as you would if you inhaled it through your mouth. I know this, without having attended a single day of medical school! I digress — this is easy to do when discussing non-compliance because oh-my-god there are so many levels of frustrating and ridiculous to explore.
Back to my title. I am the Masked Avenger, seeking to keep city buses safe for the general population. Every comic book heroine has her kryptonite, right? I don’t know, actually, but The Masked Avenger definitely does. And it’s this: indifference.
Take a cab, she said. The passenger betrayed not one iota of shame for being announced as a potential deadly vector to a bus full of people. Further, she applied the same idiotic logic I have heard in response to shushing in movie theaters. “If you don’t want audience participation, watch the movie at home.” (True story: I have heard people say this to other people in movie theaters many, many times.) But it’s absolutely maddeningly, achingly backward.
We get together in common spaces for a common need — to see the movie on a big screen in a cold, air-conditioned wonderland called a theater. We take buses because we all want or need to be moved from one location to another without the use of our feet. We just happen to be in the same space for efficiency. In my recent travels, I have witnessed many people who believe that shared space is space in which you can behave exactly as you would at home, and if the other person doesn’t like it, she should remove herself. Because living in New York City is based on the concept of sharing space for most of your day, we have a major problem when this behavior becomes potentially deadly.
But it is not the deadly decision to abstain from mask-wearing that bugs me the most. It is the casual, reality-is-not-my-problem, I’m-fine-gambling-with-your-health-and-mine indifference that makes me want to jump out of my weary, befuddled skin. And in the context of New York City, I find it baffling. New Yorkers aren’t indifferent about anything, normally. Everyone here has strong views on everything and feels deeply emotionally committed to their viewpoints.
But now I am encountering — for the first time ever in my intense, exhausting, break-neck paced city — something entirely out of place here: the Gallic shrug. (I should leave France out of this, they are driving their numbers down and happily opening schools this fall — Vive la compliance!) Meanwhile, we have a fair percentage of shruggers on our side of the pond. Shrugging in response to Death itself. What would Freud say? He would say people have a Death drive. He would, evidently, be right.
On buses, I have been told to “mind my own business” (Guess what? My mortality is my own business! The better question is, why are you not concerned with yours?!) I have been called a “bitch” and a “lying bitch,” (this, because the man was “wearing” a mask when I asked him to wear one, he just wasn’t wearing it over his mouth or nose.) I have been told, in front of my child, to “shut the f*** up.” This, from a maskless man who threw himself right in front of me, in order — I kid you not — to kiss my dog, who sat nearly hidden, in my bag. When I strongly objected, and — you guessed it — asked the man to put on a mask, he replied. “Shut the f*** up, don’t you know dogs can’t get COVID?” This is not strictly accurate — dogs are very unlikely to get it, that’s true, and the CDC does not consider them to be vectors at this time, but dogs have contracted it. More to the point, when you come within an inch of my face to pet my dog, and I am a human very much capable of contracting COVID, of what relevance is a dog’s susceptibility?
Most people on city buses — and sidewalks, for that matter — wear masks, and wear them correctly. In my neighborhood, I have seen a high rate of compliance. But it takes only one person to mess it up for everyone else on the bus. Re-circulated air is only too happy to transport viral particles from one maskless person’s nose and mouth to the vicinity of nearby humans. And as much as we wish masks protected the wearer as much as they protect the people nearby, they don’t.
My mask mostly protects you, and yours, when worn correctly, protects me. So I ask, again, can’t you please care about little old me? Or my little old grandmother? Or yours? Or the mother of that toddler next to you, who has asthma or diabetes or another underlying health problem? Or that 20-year-old in the seat next to mine, with no underlying health problems, who for reasons we don’t understand, will die suddenly if he contracts COVID? How about the bus driver, without whom you couldn’t get across the city in air-conditioned comfort? How about the little dog you wanted to kiss, who in fact, does stand a slight risk of getting COVID, and dying from it? Or his owner, without whom, that little dog will not get his cuddles and afternoon walks?
The COVID pandemic has doubtless brought out the best and the worst in people. On Saturdays, a violinist who plays in Broadway orchestras now plays free concerts in a Westside park. People gather, six or more feet apart, on blankets, their dogs playing happily on the grass, while they listen to Bernstein and Bizet for one transporting hour a week. People on my block get groceries for older or infirm neighbors, they chat with your kid about how hard the whole business is, how lonely they are, too, and I know many people who sewed hundreds of masks for distribution among the city’s hardest hit. I’ve seen so much good. I’ve seen so much effort poured into making these times more pleasant for other people.
Wearing a mask requires almost no effort at all. Get one with flowers, or bulldogs, or rows of classic books. Get one in neon pink and one in royal blue, the better to express your mood that day. Get one with a funny or sarcastic message on it. Wear a surgical mask and pretend you are a doctor. But for god’s sake, wear one. Would you have unprotected sex with someone who might have a sexually transmitted disease? Okay, maybe you would, but then you’d be endangering only yourself. Don’t be indifferent to the health of others. It’s a bad look. Especially for a New Yorker. True New Yorkers are never indifferent. Not ever.