Anyone so morally perfect to never judge another human being by appearance would never enjoy those delightful moments in movies when we find out the Dumb Person is a Smart Person. Matt Damon suddenly goes from janitor to math genius in “Good Will Hunting,” and we marvel at the unlikely occurrence. In “Five Easy Pieces” Jack Nicholson plays a manic oil rig roughneck who spies a piano on the back of a pickup truck and hops aboard to belt out some Chopin. The reveal of talent in each case is dependent on an audience full of flawed people who judge books by covers constantly. The surprise is also validated by the fact we are usually right when we do so. Janitors do not tend to solve math problems no one else ever has, and roughnecks do not tend to be classically trained pianists.
This is not a defense of being judgmental, but an acknowledgement of judgment’s inevitability in daily life. It is also a preamble to say: show me a guy “running” a 15-minute mile in a mask with no one nearby, and I will tell you his politics.
It is now Month 14 of the coronavirus in America, as far as altered daily life goes, and my amazement at the mask habits of my fellow citizens has been constant. I judge everyone from my perch of moral superiority, from the anti-maskers in the red states to the masks-addicts in the blue ones. My habits are those of the Golden Mean between caution and paranoia; yours, whether by excess or omission, is a flawed approach to health and safety at which I sneer. This is my first, flawed judgment I am speaking of. I try not to judge the whole head by a mask, or the lack of one (mask, not head)—but it’s been very hard to avoid doing so during this long, long pandemic.
My urge to judge only grows. Over the past month, the evidence for the pointlessness of masks outside is, at long last, commonly known. It is not only broadcast in the mainstream media but in overtly liberal outlets. The likelihood of transmission on the sidewalk is next to zero. We all know it, and many of us knew it last June, and yet for a surprising number of us wearing a mask in low-traffic areas persists. On my block—a side street—I still see people walking to their cars at 7 AM with a mask on and no one nearby. I see them walking at 10 PM with no one close but their dog. My neighborhood is very progressive. I would bet a lot of money this zip code has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. The odds of these people not being vaccinated by now are low. I don’t know what they think is floating in the air, how they think they might catch or transmit something, and I am reflexively wondering if they are—annoying but useful phrase—virtue signaling.
But then my second judgment kicks in and I think, well, maybe they have a loved one at home who is immunocompromised. Maybe they are. Maybe the guy is running a 15-minute mile because he is recovering from chemo, so the speed and the mask require my sympathy and not my assumption that he has a sign at home about Believing Science but does not believe science. Maybe—no, hear me out for a second—maybe I am the asshole.
But then my third judgment kicks in and I think the North Side of Chicago does not have that many immunocompromised dog-walking 15-minute milers, so I am likely right.
And finally my fourth judgment arrives, the one that does not judge book by covers, and settles it. Yes, a certain percentage of these people wearing masks while sitting all by themselves in the middle of parks are virtue-signaling, trend-following morons who vote for ridiculous lefty candidates and use “trigger warning” in conversation and think Dave Chappelle is a white supremacist. However, I cannot know which ones are assholes and which ones have a damn good excuse for their excess of caution. Therefore, I withdraw my scathing and witty judgment and say a silent prayer for that person who may have, or may love someone with, dangerously low platelets.
Did I say finally? No, it’s not final and won’t be final for a while, because I will see someone else with an unnecessary mask and the cycle repeats itself. It is happening right now, with the person I see standing alone across the alley from my house and talking on her phone with a mask on, outside on this breezy day with no one around. What is her deal? Hasn’t she read David Leonhardt’s piece about the 0.1% or less outdoor transmission rate? Is she the kind of person who thinks saying “hey guys” to a mix of men and women is offensive? What’s her mile time and does the back of her jacket say “FINISHER,” like I should give a fuck she ran a 5:30 marathon?
This passes. At last, I revert to my mean of sage-like kindness, sympathy, and lack of judgment. I offer her this prayer: may her days be full of bliss, and empty of bastards like me.