Journal of the Plague Year 2020: A Rude and Intrusive Remark

So, I just had a total stranger criticize me for wearing a mask.

I was standing in line at the food coop, waiting to buy groceries, when a guy in his 50s or so walked by me and said, “Wearing a mask does nothing to protect you or anyone else.”

At first I wasn’t sure he was talking to me. He paused and looked back at me, as if he expected a reply.

“Thanks for your input,” I said. As I moved forward to give my basket to the clerk, he said something about how his input mattered because he’d spent 40 years in the military. The clerk and I exchanged greetings, and I’m afraid I missed the part where he explained why military experience gave him license to confront a stranger about her response to an ongoing pandemic.

In retrospect, what’s interesting is how much it pissed me off and why.

I think we can all agree that few strangers will be won over by a rude and intrusive remark, especially when it’s justified by an empty appeal to authority. The equivalent gesture would be if I went around the Circle K chastising people for failing to wear an mask, and justified it by explaining that I’m an engineer. There are douchebags in every profession, and 13 years in the defense industry does not qualify me to spout off about anything vaguely related to numbers, math, logic or reason. Mostly, I can speak with authority about what it’s like to swap out a tampon on an unimproved airstrip while surrounded by unexploded ordnance. (Hint: It sucks, but it’s also kind of funny.)

So, here’s the chip I carry on my shoulder as a little, queer white girl: A lot of guys assume that I’ve lived a sheltered life, and that I’ve had it easy. It’s the “Karen” thing — the assumption that white women are rich, entitled, privileged whiners. And, hey, I get it. Some are.

But I hotly resent the assumption that I’m some sheltered little flower. When a male stranger my age or a bit older pulls the “I was in the military 40 years” thing, I think, Fuck you, buddy. I’ve been raped. I’ve spent weeks at a time in a lockdown ward with heroin addicts. I’ve launched live missiles and worked with test pilots. I’ve been on a ventilator, and have scarring on my lungs and a permanent heart arrhythmia. You probably live in your parents’ basement and tell girls on Tinder that you were a Navy Seal.

(Side note: If there’s a term equivalent to “Karen” for white guys who think they’ve cornered the market on authentic experience, and that it’s their duty to instruct the frailer sex on the Harsh Realities of Life, please leave it in the comments.)

The reader will be glad to know that I refrained from inviting the poor, mannerless fellow to suck my fucking dick. I checked out, and sang along with the radio on the way home, and marveled at my own rancor and frustration.

I can’t know why he chose me out of all the mask-wearing liberals at the Food Conspiracy. A skinny little tattooed white woman in combat boots, shorts and a black concert T-shirt, topped with a frivolous black-and-gold mask and aviator sunglasses. The very place to begin his campaign to win over hearts and minds.

As I write that, I’m reminded that attacks seem personal because we personalize them. It’s as if I found an obscene note, and went to the trouble to address it to myself.

One thing’s for sure: As the summer wears on, there will be more confrontations around masks and risk. I plan to handle them in a cold, awkward manner.

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