Last night, I was walking to a subway station in the West Village. Maskless.
I've never been able to wrap my head around the willingness for wearing masks outdoors—some people in NYC seem almost gleeful about it. Regardless of your take on efficacy, the politicization of their use means that wearing them outside has become a way to virtue signal. People in other cities don't wear them outside constantly, and it has become almost cult-like in New York to do so.
Since the start of the pandemic, I've been to a handful of other cities: Montreal, Miami and Raleigh, NC. In those places, you might see elderly people wear a mask outside, but not the general population. Regardless, I had one in my pocket for when I need to go indoors, or for when I'm in the subway.
For context, I am a healthy, gay male in my early 30's. I haven't drank alcohol in over two years, I don't smoke. I am physically active and I go to the gym, on average, about 4 days a week. I haven't had the flu since I was a little kid. As I walked by a group of three women, in the age range of 25 or so, one of the girls looked at me and then said to her friend "God, it's always the ugly ones who don't wear a mask." I wanted to tell her, sweetheart, I'm gay, you're not my type either. I wondered what her strategy was. To shame, for being barefaced in public (horror of horrors!), and to then double-shame, for having the audacity to show my face?
We were less than half a mile from the Stonewall bar. I wondered, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, would this liberal white girl shame me for being gay? Does the spectre of a public health crisis permit us to socially read others as disease-ridden 'carriers'? What other areas of my health and life is she going to police and moralize? When did liberalism become so nosy? I can still remember a time when the state and moral authoritarians needed to get out of the bedroom. Now it seems they need to get the hell out of my face.
I wouldn't be able to share this kind of story to liberal publications like The New York Times because their culturally sanctioned op-ed columnists have already made up their minds, as well as the minds of their readers. In a rather backwards and condescending op-ed by Paul Krugman, 68, titled "Unmasked: When Identity Politics Turns Deadly," he asks: "Will Republican politicians kill some Texans to own the libs?" This in regards to the state's recent decision to rescind mask mandates.
Oh, Paul. We slowed the spread for you, dear Paul. A year ago. Paul Krugman, who is 68, who is a Distinguished Professor of Economics, can't figure out why people make "such a big deal" out of "just wearing the damn mask!" Mr. Krugman, who hasn't lost a job, hasn't lost any income, hasn't dealt with his children struggling over Zoom classes, well, he's just fine working from home. I can almost hear him asking—why aren't you, peasant? Yes, Paul. When you live inside a liberal echo chamber, it seems quite reasonable that everyone else is the problem.
Mr. Krugman asserts that wearing masks saves lives, a claim to which there is no support in regards to outdoor settings. He asserts that anyone not wearing a mask is "participating in conservative identity politics." This is highly ironic—and a classic example of accusing your opponent of that which you yourself are guilty of. Let that sink in. Not wearing a mask—ie, doing what you'd normally do every year up to this—is, in this man's mind, a symbol of identity politics. Not the virtue signaling, security theater splendor of donning a mask every time you go outside—to broadcast your compassion and fear and "trust in the science"—despite the complete lack of evidence that outdoor spread justifies outdoor masking. But the people who would like to go outside normally—they're the ones who are playing identity politics, not the masked zombies who view their outdoor masking as some kind of life saving procedure, despite all evidence to the contrary? Okay, boomer. I mean Paul.
I stopped and turned to the group. I said to the girl: "Seriously? Did you seriously just say that to someone?" Yes, I wondered what she was trying to achieve, but most of all, I wondered where in the hell she was from that she felt so comfortable insulting a random person on the street. The cardinal rule of New York that I'm familiar with is: mind your own business, don't stare, and keep it moving. "Put a mask on" would have been one thing. But to insult? You're just asking for trouble.
The group stood their ground: "Well, you should be wearing a mask." I kept calm: bringing home the point that it was not their place to impose their moral positions on anyone, let alone insult them. She told me her dad died. While I not only doubt she was telling the truth, even if she was: are we now organizing society according to the butterfly effect? A 30-year-old man walking down the street barefaced without a fever and without any symptoms, by all known metrics not sick isn't responsible for your family's health, lady.
One of her friends started to apologize, but the other two kept going: "antibodies don't matter!" For a short period of time, we were having a civil debate on the street about risk, public health, the limits of collective responsibility, but then it dawned on me: why in the hell am I explaining myself to three random girls on the street? I shouldn't have to do that. They're not doctors. They're not in any position of authority.
The discussion reached a boiling point and I snapped, and yelled at them to mind their own business, leave me alone and stop harassing people who are literally just walking on the sidewalk. As soon as I started to yell, their eyes widened in shock, and they stepped backwards, apparently unaware that people don't enjoy being verbally harassed. Losing my composure in public like that gave me conflicted feelings—one little decontextualized cellphone recording and I'd be a YouTube sensation.
I thought to myself: it took ten years, but I've finally become "that crazy New Yorker" yelling on a street corner. We've all seen the videos of people fighting over wearing masks in grocery stores, for example, but they're always in those places this girl would surely turn her nose up at, despite their similar rates of infection and fatality, places like Florida, Texas and Georgia.
On the other hand, it felt really cathartic, even liberating. New York City has always been a place where people came to feel free, to live a life without judgment or shame. A place where you can be yourself and show your true face. I ended my shouting with "go back to your suburb!" And walked away, to which the girl muttered "I'm from here!"
Which made me wonder: is New York still that place? Perhaps it's time we took a long, honest look in the mirror (with or without a mask on, it's up to you) and decided.
Nick Comilla is a New York based writer whose publications include the 2016 novel Candyass (Arsenal Pulp Press) and, more recently, essays in Quillette and Areo Magazine.
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Remind me next month