I have a deep abiding love for convenience stores. They are clean and succinct. They don’t require anything extra of me, neither bra nor brush, conversation or confrontation. They give me protein, caffeine, and those pillowy “Bon Appetit” cream danishes that can set the worst of worlds to rights.
There are lots of convenience stores in this small college town, and each owned and operated by different immigrant families. There are many generations working different shifts in most of them. The wend and warp of accented English decreases with the youth of the employee; while the ease of the (“fake”, I heard a Ukrainian describe it) Polite American Smile increases.
Americans do well with politeness. Maybe a holdover from a time where everyone was struggling and reliant on community in this strange new land, or because, to quote the nearly impenetrable Robert Heinlein whom I’ve never read, “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”
For whatever reason, Americans tend to try to put strangers at ease.
No one is at ease lately.
My State is enforcing masks in all businesses, including, fantastically, ones that require use of the mouth. Except briefly in Lincoln County,a coastal town, which briefly decreed the law didn’t apply to People of Color. Which made everyone just lose their shit, as is to be expected, because we are all barely maintaining the integrity of our collective social sphincters as it is.
This is how masks work in my town.
I walk into any of the convenience stores and watch sweaty cashiers hurriedly put the straps of their black utilitarian masks back over their ears so quickly it must sting. They move with the kind of furtive misery that comes being caught in an immoral act their body desperately wants to continue. They are so tired. Tired from standing for eight hours or more, stocking shelves with bound mouths and wrenching an undesired elegance into their aching wrists to give change back without touching skin.
I say, “Dude, I’m only wearing this for you. I don’t…don’t really need ’em.”
The headlines still scream for a firm, fear-based click, but the charts they lead to aren’t scary to me anymore, now that months of increased data and knowledge have cropped the frightful height of their lines and winnowed the width of their thick bars. The cases rise, but that isn’t useful information, as I’ve nothing to compare it to. I believe cases rise because testing has risen.
Now that “underlying condition” follows the description of those who’ve died, making these pandemic deaths hard to distinguish in number and detail from that of a standard obit page.
Now that I’ve seen the disease pass through friends and family with the same tepid aggression and unfair selectivity of any bad flu.
I don’t think Covid is fake, nor do I think it’s a barely contained world-ender. I think it is a bad and very scary virus. The scariest part being that we didn’t know anything about it. Remember, this is the Information Age. We are used to knowing EVERYTHING with a well worded Google Search. But the return hits on Covid were nothing but confirmed death mixed with speculation. It’s all we had.
So we took precautions until the data pile was large enough sift. And it was good that we did. Now we have to balance that data, which suggests the danger is less than we prepared for, with fear that we still aren’t sure. And then do one more balancing act…knowing that you can’t protect everyone and deciding to let go and let life trip back into sloppy, risky motion. That is very difficult.
I’m not particularly at risk, nor anyone I love. It affects my lens on all of this, naturally. If my father were still alive, suffering his last years with a blood clot burned on his brain, and lungs choked up with debris, I’d be afraid yet. I’d keep him separate and safe as possible. Because the masks wouldn’t.
But that isn’t how it goes in the convenience store in my town, in your town. The cashier first relaxes in the shoulders, then push their masks up their hot brown faces to cap mussed hair, and I slip mine down my chin to smile.
Then the door jangles again and we’re both caught criminals, hurriedly pulling the masks back. But the guy who walked in came with his t-shirt collar over his nose. He’s not really worried, then. He was just doing it for us, too.
And we all three reveal ourselves, like recognizing Masonic rings or distinct religious terminology. Guilty smiles, relief. We’re all “cool.” That is, corrupt, non-believers in the magic of the talisman, but still trying to respect our community by wearing it.
We’re Americans. And Americans, for the most part, try to be polite and make others feel comfortable. So we wear the masks because we know some people need us to. Not necessarily to protect them from a virus, but to ease their wrecked spirits and divert the weight of their fears.
We can do that. Masks are the current Polite American Smile, and fake or not, it’s how we do things here.