The new abnormal
Many years ago, to earn a little extra money I took a job at a convenience store near my apartment at the time, in Lawrence. The gig was the night shift, typically seven until closing, which I believe was eleven o’clock. It was a boring job, mostly transacting gallons of milk, scratch cards, and the occasional dirty magazine. I’m glad to say I never had an incident in terms of someone trying to rob the store while I was on duty. But I can tell you one thing for sure: Nothing would have frightened me more than seeing a person coming into the store wearing a mask.
Yesterday I went to a convenience store and I was wearing a mask. So was the guy behind the register. You know what would have been scary in that situation? If one of us wasn’t wearing a mask. I bought four lottery tickets, wondering, with my luck, What if I won the Powerball jackpot but got sick and died before I could enjoy it?
Welcome to the new abnormal.
The trip to the convenience store came at the tail end of a long hike that my girlfriend and I went on. Out in the fresh air, with a paucity of people also out on a stroll, we didn’t feel we needed to wear our masks all the time. We are pleasant, friendly folks, happy to smile at others and say hi. But it was hard to do that when people approaching us on the sidewalk darted into the street when they saw us coming, or stepped onto someone’s lawn to avoid getting too close. One woman who did the latter did so with a sheepish, embarrassed grin, as if to say, “I’m not really like this, but, you know….”
People avoiding people is one thing, but I think it’s starting to go further. I can tell when I’m in a supermarket or other enclosed space with other people who really don’t want to be there but have to be. What we’re moving into is a period where people are suspecting each other. While there’s no question that the number of COVID-19 cases is growing enormously, odds are still good that the person you’re standing in line behind doesn’t have it. But we act as if they do. And if someone gets in line behind you and they’re closer than six feet, chances are you’re shooting them an unfriendly look on that masked face of yours.
I fear that suspecting our neighbors, assuming any given individual in our community has the virus (even if only out of “an abundance of caution”), is giving rise to an isolationism that is not about general public safety so much as self-preservation. And self-preservation in the face of an invisible threat can make people do terrible things. The news is full of people behaving badly, whether it’s harassing Asian people, hoarding supplies, fighting over items in a store, or spraying Lysol in the eyes of a Target cashier who told the attacking customer she had more than the allowable limit of the product in her cart.
Again, welcome to the new abnormal.
What if, when the worst of this is over, when people can go out again, go back to work, go out to eat, return to the parks and cinemas and gyms, the worst aspects of ourselves persist? If we continue to view other people as dirty, germy, or infected, then anyone who sneezes will be ostracized. Anyone who coughs will be read the Riot Act. We will continue to look at people suspiciously the way it was done during the most shameful eras of our history. Is that person a Communist? Is that person a Jew? Does that person have AIDS? That was abnormal behavior made normal by hysterical fear stirred up by demagogues and an acquiescent media.
Does that person have COVID-19?
Maybe he does. Maybe she doesn’t. For now, we’re assuming they do.
That’s the new abnormal.