To mask or not to mask, that is the question.
As we slide into another endless year of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of us continue to wear masks in public places, while others have tossed them away like costume masks the day after Halloween.
I’m in the “you can’t be too cautious category,” as I march into the beloved supermarket known as Fortinos —Main St. West location. I head towards the produce section clutching my grocery list. I will buy the necessary groceries and hightail it out of there.
Who am I kidding? The main purpose of this excursion is not shopping. My ultimate goal is to run into an acquaintance, any acquaintance, and start a conversation. I stand by the cucumbers (overpriced and possibly a bit mushy), scanning my surroundings. Do I recognize that woman near the tomatoes? I think I know her, but with a mask covering half her face, I’m not sure. Should I say hi? I hesitate. What if she’s not who I think she is? Will she think I’m a nut job desperate for human contact? Her assessment of me would be right. I’m in a supermarket scouring the aisles on the off chance that I’ll see someone I know.
I smile at the woman. I can’t tell if she’s smiling back at me. Damn these masks! As I inch closer, I realize that she’s a stranger. I slink away and pretend to investigate the green beans.
And then, someone I actually know is standing by the strawberries. She belongs to my synagogue. I approach her. Her eyes light up. I think she’s smiling. She thinks I’m smiling. We begin to chat.
“How’re you doing?” she asks.
“Fine,” I say.
“How’s the family?”
“Good. And yours?”
“Good. Everyone’s healthy.”
“Thank goodness,” I say.
We nod and wave good-bye. My shopping trip has been a success.
As I travel on the slow train to normal after more than two years of pandemic-related restrictions, I tread gently into the world at large. I get together with friends when I can, but usually outdoors, at least for now. When I dine at indoor restaurants, I feel both brave and reckless.
And as I anticipate a future with dwindling pandemic stress, I picture myself immersed in a huge crowd of people. I dream of mingling with acquaintances at a wedding, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or even a meeting. I look forward to rekindling connections with people I haven’t seen in a long time. I miss these superficial relationships.
I love being part of a group, part of a community of people with similar backgrounds, interests or values. I’m a better person when I consider myself within the framework of other people. Superficial relationships are more than they seem. They can broaden perspective, opening doors to the experiences and viewpoints of others.
For the past two years, my only link with the big wide world was through virtual gatherings. I groaned as I joined Zoom meetings, quite certain they would go on forever. I stared, bleary-eyed, at the images on my computer screen. I wished I could share my complaints about the presentation with a friend, but one friend lived in a box in the upper right hand corner of the screen while another resided in a compartment on the far left side. Any attempt at communication would look like an involuntary spasm. The best I could do was turn off my video and slide into obscurity.
Now, as I gaze into my crystal ball and dream about the future, I see myself chatting with acquaintances at many large gatherings. In this vision, I am maskless. I am completely at ease, with no concerns about the room’s ventilation or how close I’m standing to the next person. If, or when, this dream becomes reality, will I continue to hunt for people I know at Fortinos? Absolutely!
Phyllis Shragge is a local writer, mother of five, and grandmother of four.