Sunday, January 23, 2022

To the woman who told me to "Turn Away"


You don’t know me, but our paths crossed — sort of — yesterday. Let me tell you a bit about myself. 

Like you, I have tried to do what the experts have advised us to do during the COVID pandemic. 

Until a month after my second vaccination, I wore a mask whenever I ventured out to the supermarket or an appointment. At first, the experts said that cloth masks offered the most protection so I wore one. Now they tell us cloth masks aren’t nearly as effective as paper masks so that’s what I wear. 

For 18 months, I didn’t go to the gym because experts said the virus lived on surfaces. Now that we’ve been informed it doesn’t, I’ve returned but am careful to stay at least six feet away from others.

For the first months of the pandemic, experts told us avoid restaurants. My wife and I continued to patronize our favorites, but ordered carry-out that was delivered to the car by waitstaff wearing masks and rubber gloves. Now that it’s okay to go to restaurants, we have resumed meeting friends for dinner and if they insist on sitting outside, we’ll gladly do so if it makes them feel better. 

In March of last year, the day after we received our second vaccinations and feeling hopeful things would soon be returning to normal, we booked a cruise to celebrate our 70th birthdays. It was scheduled to depart in November, 2021, but in August, after the news that fully vaccinated people were getting COVID anyway, we canceled it. From what I’ve since learned, we were right to cancel. Cruise lines were allowed to resume operating in the fall but it turns out their ships are petri dishes for COVID and experts are now advising they be avoided. 

In October, we received booster shots we were told would extend the protection our first two shots had given us. For a week or two we felt confident, until we read that people with three vaccinations were coming down with COVID anyway. This morning I read that the CDC will be recommending yet another round of booster shots. 

Twenty-two months into this pandemic, I remain cautious and try to follow the latest advice, but no longer have much confidence in the guidance issued by the so-called experts.  

The only routine I’ve refused to change over the last 22 months is my daily walk with our Jack Russell terrier. Those walks are the highlight of Russell’s day and mine. He and I were taking our walk when we met you.

Every morning we walk two or three miles along the sidewalks that run through this beautiful community we are fortunate enough to live in. Come to think of it, perhaps you don’t live here and are a visitor -- Florida is getting lots of visitors these days. Whatever, most residents, like me, are retired and many of them take long walks, too. Not only does it give us a good reason to leave the house, it’s good exercise. I tend to encounter the same walkers day after day and, occasionally, meet one wearing a mask. It seems extreme to wear a mask outside but hey, whatever makes the wearer comfortable is fine by me.  

A COVID protocol has developed among those of us who walk.  When walkers approach each other from the opposite direction, one of them either walks out into the street or steps aside onto a driveway to avoid passing within a few feet of each other on the sidewalk. I haven’t heard of COVID being transmitted by people walking past each other for a split second in the open air — and can’t imagine how people in crowded cities in New York can avoid sharing the same sidewalks  — but everyone in this community gives wide berth to their fellow walkers so I do, too. 

I always acknowledge my fellow walkers by saying “Good morning” or “Howya doing?” or some variation. In recent months I’ve noticed that some no longer acknowledge me back or even look at me as we pass. To be fair, many of them are, as I usually am, listening to music or an audiobook or talking on the phone. I try not to be annoyed by those who don’t return my greeting. Realistically, there’s no reason to say hello to someone you saw the day before and the day before that. And there’s no rule of etiquette that says you should say “hi” to someone you don’t know but I can’t help myself: I grew up in a tiny town where everyone says hello to everyone else whether they know them or not so I continue to say hi or at least smile at my fellow walkers. Many even beat me to it, commenting on Russell, who always struts proudly down the sidewalk like he owns it.  His walk -- his butt sashays from side-to-side as his tail wags furiously -- is the doggie equivalent of Tony Manero’s, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. It’s hilarious and makes most people at least smile if not laugh out loud.

Yesterday Russell and I were strolling down the sidewalk when I realized someone was coming up behind us, approaching quickly. I stepped into the next driveway and turned and smiled at you. “I’ll let you pass, you’re faster than we are.” I told you.

“Turn away,” you hissed. A split second later, you added, “Please.” 

You passed us by in a heartbeat. I didn't have time to turn away, you were gone. 

If you had been a man, I would have told you to do something anatomically impossible. But you weren’t. You were a woman about my age, wearing shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers. An old lady. Let me take that back. You are old. I’m not so sure you were ever a lady. 

I was speechless.

As you continued down the sidewalk, I went over the ways I could have — should have — responded. 

I could have replied, “If you’re so afraid you’ll catch COVID walking outdoors, why don’t you get a treadmill and exercise at home?”

Or, “Why didn’t you step out in the street so you could have overtaken us while leaving the social distance you obviously feel is so important?” 

Or,  “Have you ever heard of COVID being transmitted by people ten feet apart in the open air?”

Or, “If you were that afraid you’d catch something from me, why didn’t you turn around and reverse your course?"

Or,  “Would it have been too much trouble to at least nod your head to acknowledge that I was thoughtful enough to step aside for you?”

But no, you walked past and ordered me, who was there first, to turn away. Please.

Are you really that scared you’ll get COVID? 

Did you, by chance, know you have an active case of COVID and told me to turn away because you wanted to protect me? 

Or are you simply an entitled asshole? 

I didn’t acknowledge anyone who didn’t acknowledge me first for the rest of my walk and came home in a bad mood. My wife said she couldn’t believe someone could be that rude.

This morning, after thinking it over, I no longer feel angry or insulted. I’ve decided I pity you. 

I have no idea whether you’re vaccinated or an anti-vaxxer, or whether you have had COVID or not. Whatever your status, unless this disease is miraculously eradicated from the face of the earth — and it’s not going to be any more than the flu is going to disappear forever —  you are going to go through the rest of your life fearing and avoiding contact with strangers, and, let’s face it, there are billions of us.

Those of us you order to turn away (please) may find ourselves in bad moods temporarily but you are likely to be in a bad mood until you die. I imagine you’ve been in a bad mood since the day you were born but somehow managed to conceal that from most people. And you are not alone. This God-awful COVID pandemic has revealed a second, equally noxious pandemic that was lurking below the surface all along, a pandemic of self-absorbed people who lack common sense, courtesy, empathy and basic civility. 

No mask will prevent that pandemic, there’s no vaccination for it, and if there were, it wouldn’t work on people like you anyway.