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Guestwords: Social Distancing Revisited

Wed, 10/07/2020 - 16:51

With my hat, sunglasses, and N95 mask, I’m even more invisible than a middle-aged, gray-haired woman usually is in America. Not that I mind all that much. There are some advantages to invisibility if you like to observe people — study their facial expressions and body language, listen in on their conversations, note their social interactions, imagine their lives. Writers do that every day, gleaning nuggets to incorporate into their stories.

The mask is awkward and uncomfortable, however, digging into the bony bridge of my nose. It’s hot, hard to breathe. I remember the women I encountered as a tourist in Egypt, their heavy black burkas covering every inch of their bodies, absorbing the intense sunlight, deflecting the male gaze. Sweating profusely in my white cotton sundress, I wondered how they summoned the energy to shop, to carry their children and bundles, to walk. Some could view the world outside their homes with uncovered eyes. Others only through a dark-meshed veil — a sweltering, claustrophobic cultural norm of social distancing. For women anyway.

An N95 mask and disposable gloves are the closest I’ll ever come to wearing a burka. Thank God. But outside my home, I can no longer read people’s expressions. Are they scowling and angry? Friendly and smiling? Merely indifferent? Eyes are hard to read without the engagement of the rest of the face, and sunglasses eliminate even that possibility.

Masked people cross the sidewalks and streets to avoid breaking the six-foot rule. A little wave or muffled hello might mean “Yes, I’m friendly, but I’m a little afraid of you.” Or perhaps “Yes, I’m friendly, but I’m trying to keep you safe from me.” No wave, face averted, certainly means “Keep your corona-ridden breath away from me!”

For the especially friendly, social distancing is tough. The people you’re stuck sheltering in place with aren’t enough, or may even be part of the problem. In-person small talk with friends, neighbors, and even strangers is so awkward at a distance of six feet. More intimate subjects, impossible. You instinctively move closer together until to your mutual horror you’ve breached that imaginary barrier, and you both must leap back to safety.

We all now shout at each other as though connected to Bluetooth headsets, except now there’s an actual person somewhere in the vicinity, not just a disembodied voice. Sometimes we’re louder than the Bluetoothers, trying to make up for our muffled voices. Soft-spoken individuals are completely disregarded. And talking to strangers is no longer even worth the effort. Still, I applaud the decision to make social distancing and masks mandatory, especially in East Hampton, where the wealthy have fled urban hot spots to their second homes, and the essential-worker parade of construction and landscaping is only slightly diminished.

It does take time, though, for people to accept new laws — or even follow old ones. Some people follow social distancing and wear masks hoping to protect themselves. Others wear them to protect everybody else. And some don’t wear them at all. This third group intrigues me. Is it vanity, or discomfort, or inconvenience? Perhaps an infringement of their civil rights and individual freedom? Or are they just following their president’s example?

It’s just like at the beach. Some people never litter, some clean up everyone else’s litter, and others just leave messes wherever they go. Same scenario at the dog park, only more disgusting.

I’ve noticed lately on my weekly venture into the world to forage for food and run unavoidable errands that people are good about wearing masks in stores. Only occasionally is there a transgressor. One muscular man and his very blond wife prowled the produce section of Stop & Shop with lots of attitude and no masks, laughing and chatting, just hoping someone would challenge their right to exhale with impunity. They deliberately invaded the personal space of the law-abiding and ethically motivated, but everyone just moved quickly away, leaving them free to paw through the fruits and vegetables without competition. No one wanted a fight.

The other day the post office was my first stop. The bag on the front seat of my car contained two empty egg cartons to return to Iacono’s, grocery bags for the weekly shopping, and the post office box renewal form with proofs of residence. I knew I had a problem before I even got to the P.O. The car stank. Even through my N95.

At first I assumed the culprit was broken-egg residue in one of the egg cartons. Then I checked for a forgotten vegetable decaying at the bottom of one of the grocery bags. Of course nothing is ever that easy. The culprit was the post office box renewal form, already stamped and signed, and not easily replaced. Sardine oil. The papers must have served as a placemat for someone’s special lunch.

I slid by the waiting postal patrons to the end of the line with my malodorous burden, hoping their masks would block more than just airborne corona.

The well-dressed man who had followed me into the building, talking loudly on his Bluetooth, didn’t join the line. Instead he yanked open the lobby door and walked right up to the counter, jumping ahead of at least 10 customers. Summarily ejected, he scowled his way to the back of the line, still arguing with someone on the phone.

He was the only person in the building with no mask, or any desire to social-distance. I knew he wasn’t six feet away from me because I could feel him breathing down my neck as he complained to his broker: His portfolio wasn’t doing well. I was invisible — just another gray-haired, middle-aged woman. But this time invisibility felt dangerous. I just hoped any Covid droplets he might be spewing along with his vitriol would lodge in my hair or on the back of my jacket, not in my eyes or under my mask. I didn’t dare turn around.

The building was warm, and as I waited the smell grew stronger and stronger. Then, in the middle of his diatribe, the man sniffed loudly. And when the line moved up, he didn’t, finally standing six feet away. My mask blocked my big smile as the sardine stench blossomed into the sweetest of perfumes: eau de poisson, a natural defense against corona.

He might not have seen me, but he could surely smell me. Social distancing at its finest. No mask required.


Laurie Gurney Newburger shelters in place in Amagansett.


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