Quarantine means I don’t personally experience as many racists as I used to. They’re not exactly absent, but they sneak up on me a little easier because I experience a different, more frequent kind of personal conflict these days.
It was the middle of the afternoon and the snow was coming down hard. I got a call from a neighbor whose car was stuck in the snow. Coat, hat, gloves, mask — don’t forget the mask — and I’m outside. Her car was just barely stuck. One good push and it was out… only to immediately get stuck again. I prepared for another push and suddenly there’s a stranger beside me, ready to help.
Normally this is something I really love about winter in Maine. Neighbors coming together, random strangers showing up to help, community kindness. I really love it… normally. But not during a pandemic, because this “helpful” stranger standing right beside me is maskless. He’s about to physically exert himself. He’ll be breathing heavily. It’s cold outside, so I can see his breath. I can literally see coronavirus crystals coming out of his goddamn mouth.
I considered shoving him away, but I didn’t want him exhaling and spitting his filthy goddamn COVID all over me. I considered telling him to fuck right off, but I didn’t want him yelling and spitting his filthy goddamn COVID all over me. Of course, there could’ve been less extreme options if we hadn’t been literally shoulder-to-shoulder. My only real option was to jump away, but just before I made the leap, he slipped. Straight down to the ground, face first. I thought about explaining how he wouldn’t be spitting out a mouthful of gray street slush if he’d been wearing a mask, but again, avoid the spitting of his filthy goddamn COVID. Instead I asked if he was OK, quickly turned around, and pushed the car out before he could answer.
Every outing has become a constant deliberation over just how warily I should navigate the unmasked. On one hand, I’m telling myself not to freak out, but on the other there is a wildly infectious and deadly virus easily spread by people telling themselves not to freak out. So I go out as little as possible.
But last week I had to go to a store. I walked in and saw the masked clerk being talked at by a customer. The clerk clearly didn’t want this guy in the store, but hadn’t yet been able to get rid of him. This was probably because the customer wasn’t wearing a mask. With what appeared to be a negative amount of self-awareness, the customer was actually bragging to the clerk about being unmasked. He obnoxiously brayed about insulting those who even dared suggest he wear one.
I grabbed my item and walked up to the counter. The clerk looked apologetic. The customer said to me, “Oh! Ha-ha! You can go ahead of me. I haven’t paid yet!” The clerk had already bagged his items, but he wasn’t taking the hint. I took the customer’s offer — again, looking to avoid provoking any more of his spitting filthy COVID. But I was staring at him. I was just so mad that this goddamn fool was such a goddamn fool. The goddamn fool noticed, and in an attempt to defuse me, he joked, “Since he’s going first, maybe he wants to pay for my stuff, too! Ha-ha-ha!”
Failing to see the humor in this, I replied, “You’re gonna be looking for someone to pay your hospital bills if you keep fucking around and catch COVID.”
He remained quiet until I left. I swore off going out after that. Except my car inspection was due.
As I sat in the waiting area, I noticed another driver staring at me, but every time I’d look back at him he’d look away in a very peculiar fashion. Since he was masked, he wasn’t able to convey silent opinions via facial expression, so he melodramatically turned away with his nose in the air like some kind of cartoon heiress, as if to say, “Well! I never!”
It must’ve happened five or six times, and it was as weird as you think it’d be. Eventually he got up and started walking in my direction, nose fully in the air. Was this actually just how he sneezed? He veered away from me toward the door. He was apparently going outside, and I felt silly for being paranoid. Then he paused just before leaving and put on his hat. He did it with purpose. He wanted me to see that his hat was a Confederate kepi adorned with various white-supremacist pins.
Surprise racist! I told you they were sneaky. There are a lot of new problems right now, but we still have the same old ones, too.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.