Mask, Aisle 5

Well, it happened.  

Today at approximately 11:15 AM, Pacific Standard Time… grocery shopping with a mask on became normal. And, if I’m being totally honest, kind of comforting. 

Gone are the days of my feeling that  “felt over face” claustrophobia. Gone is my furious wild-eyed lurching away from others in the aisle who are too selfish to keep the distance—that life-saving distance needed while picking out a yogurt. 

Even gone is the embarrassment of looking like Dopey from “Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs” because the mask’s elastic straps pull my ears forward and away from my head. All gone. 

Today I shopped, calmly and casually, floating along engulfed in the familiar whiff of my own breath as it billowed back up into my nostrils from my (newly) non-hyperventilating mouth. Today, as I walked up and down the aisles in my mask, I felt safe and anonymous and invisible. 

I’m invisible because that baseball-cap wearing masked shopper with the huge ears looking back at me from the mirror over the organic meat case was so not Me. I am “all gone” too. 

And because I am now invisible, I do not have to acknowledge the others I pass—aside from the furtive non-committal glances I shoot them over the top of my mask. Which, I’ve noticed, is something we are all doing as we shop these days. All sort of eyeing each other without any duty to follow through and acknowledge that the other person is even a person. Like how I used to look at strangers while riding the subway between the 14th and 42nd street stops. Now I’m coolly eyeing others between the bottled water and almond milk stops. 

Back in New York, I never felt guilty just staring at someone on the A train, in fact, it was kind of accepted behavior to pass the time in the days before people could just sit and read their phones. 

And way back in January, in those pre-plague days, I would never have allowed myself to just stare shamelessly at people in the vegetable section, but now, I am. 

And for one reason: these are no longer people. They are masks with eyes.

Here comes a mask with an impressive air vent, not a person that I used to smile politely at or say hello to as I pass. Now I’m passing a leopard print mask, not someone whose personality I would analyze or, if I’m being honest, judge, as I breezed by him or her or they in the artisan cracker aisle.  Nope.   

Since, these are not people anymore, I don’t have to do what society expects, and acknowledge their existence and that’s a good thing because my brain doesn’t have the bandwidth to take them in these days. 

My mind, mid-pandemic, is busy with other thoughts. Thoughts like: “When will this be over?” or “When will this be over? “ and “Seriously, when will this be over?”

There is no room in there to engage with others. And what makes it even easier for me to not engage is this: Those eyes above the masks are always behind sunglasses. 

See, I’m in Los Angeles, in case the artisan cracker aisle reference above escaped you. And yes, I know other cities, both large and small, have artisan crackers but not an entire aisle’s worth.  

And now, as I stealthily move through the market, it’s even kind of fun to hear husbands and wives doing their shopping talk back and forth vocally distorted through their masks. “Get me three red peppers” now sounds like a command from the villain Bane in that Batman movie where Tom Hardy decided the way to not become a major movie star was to cover his face in every film.*  

But what is most surprising about my shopping spree today is not what a bitch I’ve suddenly become about Tom Hardy, it’s that I left my mask on even after I made it to my car  in the parking lot. I was into the comfort of wearing it… sort of like Temple Grandin and her hugging machine. 

And I noticed that I might not be the only one. Everyone in the parking lot still had his or her or their mask on. In fact, even the people I saw getting out of their cars to go in and shop had masks already attached. Kind of a remarkable behavior shift in just a matter of months. Humans… we sure know how to make the best of a bad situation. 

And just one final question I came away with after my day at the market.   Have we domesticated our masks, or have we unknowingly become their hosts?   

*See “Los Angeles” reference above. See also: Tom Hardy’s other film performances. ❏

Michael Patrick King is a writer and director. His latest work, A.J. and the Queen, can be seen on Netflix.   

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One Response

  1. I had just come back from shopping at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods when I sat down to read this essay. Brilliant! So funny! And so spot on!!

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