Face masks and physical distancing have wreaked havoc on our innate desire and fundamental need to connect with other humans. Unless someone is a member of your inner posse-pod, hugs and shaking hands are shelved.
Inconvenient as it may be, it beats the alternative and most of us have adjusted in the name of science and sanity.
My quasi-outcast hero Dr. Anthony Fauci applauds us for doing the right thing, but as a spot-on meme suggested, masks are also like bras: Necessary but uncomfortable, and if not worn in public, people notice.
And, if you care, they’ll judge one way or the other.
In addition to keeping my respiratory droplets to myself, masks have saved me in ways I hadn’t considered. My Type-A high-curiosity level is often mistaken for outgoingness, but don’t we all have those moments when we’d rather pump our gas, look at the gravel we’re kicking around, and not say hello to an acquaintance one pump over? Maybe we’re in a hurry, or don’t want to exchange COVID commiserations, or simply can’t muster the energy to converse at that moment.
Antisocial distancing, therefore, is so much easier to pull off behind a mask.
This theory proved true when I saw an old colleague near the avocados at Trader Joe’s. Since I last bumped into him pre-pandemic, I’ve swapped out my sequined Red Sox baseball hat for a straw fedora and flowered mask. A lovely, but long-winded person, he simply didn’t recognize me.
Later that afternoon, I ran into another co-worker from years gone by on the Eastern Prom. Dotted with blankets and chairs, I found a perfectly flat spot for my lounge chair and was about to doze off when I sensed someone close to the perimeter of my 6-foot bubble.
“Hey, Natalie Ladd?” a recognizable voice said. “I thought that was you. What’s going on with you these crazy days?”
Initially annoyed, I was happy to see the guy and invited him to sit on his towel at the CDC-recommended distance. Last I knew, “Paul” was the bar manager of a well-known place Down East, having landed a full-time job with benefits and perks. Before that, he migrated between making hot toddies at a ski resort in winter to shaking margaritas at the Down East oceanfront restaurant in summer. The position was a well-deserved lifesaver since his wife was experiencing a high-risk pregnancy and they had counted on her server income to survive.
Paul told me his wife and daughter are quarantined with her family in Rangeley and he came to Portland to drive for Uber and work for a restaurant food delivery service after he was laid off from his job and having difficulties with the unemployment system. He’s working nearly 50 hours a week between both jobs and staying with a friend who physically distances “upon occasion.”
“We Zoom and Facetime, but I haven’t seen my family in almost a month,” Paul said. “My in-laws are immunocompromised and I have to keep at it down here to make money.”
Wishing I had something grand to offer, I realized a renewed friendship might be the best option. The conversation turned to masks and he shared stories about supposed non-contact doorstep delivery service.
“People come outside without masks and want to talk when I have other deliveries and they’re standing right next to me,” Paul said. “It’s awkward because some people tip in cash and you don’t want to be rude. But I don’t want to die, either. There was an older guy who was drunk or something, and he asked if I’d come in and help move a table. Normally, I’d do it no problem, but I had to say no to him and he got pissed, telling me it was a hoax and all that.”
“Uber is a different story,” Paul continued. “I carry disposable masks and gloves and hand sanitizer in my car and if the rider won’t use them, I turn down the ride. At first, Uber wasn’t cool, but people were quitting. I meet so much resistance – and Maine is on top of the charts in following the recommendations. Can you imagine Florida?”
Recalling scandalous times gone by and catching up further, I asked Paul if he’d like to grab sushi next Saturday, my treat, sit in my yard, and maybe have a few beers.
“Wow, that sounds great, but I can’t,” he said. “I have a job interview for a start-up similar to grocery store Instacart.”
I asked him to text when he had a few free hours, and we virtually hugged as he headed to work. Unable to relax, I started packing up my stuff, but not before I sent an out-of-the-blue hello via Facebook Messenger to the guy I spotted earlier by the avocados.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.