Hope needed when every stranger poses a health threat

Published in the Duluth News Tribune

06/22/2020

In the new social norm, nobody seems to know how to act — including me. It is both funny and sometimes sad to see how people handle themselves.

I still chuckle about an exchange I had with a woman at the post office in Ashland. The lobby was approximately 50 feet long by 20 feet wide. There was a standalone section of P.O. boxes to the left, and the customer service window in front of me had two panels of plexiglass with an open section between them. I had pulled my sleeve over my hand to push open the door and go inside. A woman was leaning against the outside wall holding onto an opened package.

There was a clerk at the counter helping a customer. I had advanced just far enough inside for the door to shut behind me. A man following close behind me had brushed past on his way to his P.O. box. Another two customers were already there, sifting through their mail. In a matter of seconds, I had watched at least four different people move around in the lobby, coming and going.

In my attempt to social distance, I stayed near the door and away from the woman. With no one standing between her and the service window, I couldn’t tell if she was waiting for a friend or didn’t move up in line because she was lost in thought. I finally asked her, “Are you waiting in line?”

She pulled her mask down and answered with a smile, “Yes.”

I gestured with my hand, welcoming her to step forward.

She pulled her mask down again and explained, “I’m social distancing.”

I was momentarily stunned. I remembered hearing on the news that morning that some experts thought people should social distance a minimum of 10 feet apart, and I thought maybe that was what the woman was doing. It was obvious to me the post office wasn’t the place where that sort of spacing was possible. I looked behind me and supposed I could wait outside. But if I did that, people would just walk right past me, like they already were doing in the lobby. I didn’t know if I was more frustrated with the woman or entertained.

Thankfully, the customer at the counter left, and the woman finally did move forward.

I spotted the popular “X,” the six-foot distancing marker, on the floor and stepped onto it. I watched the woman set her package down in the gap between the two plexiglass windows, pull her mask down, and start questioning the clerk. I giggled when I saw the clerk point the woman over so the correspondence would be done behind the barrier.

I knew the woman meant well. Everyone was trying to do their best. What I struggled with was our need to start viewing anyone outside our intimate circle as a possible health threat. And then I thought of another occasion.

I was at the Ashland Walmart, trying to abide by the directional signs on the floor. One thing wearing a facemask offered was the freedom to swear. I never seemed to be going in the right direction, and there was never anything on the shelves that I was shopping for. I swore under my mask a lot in that store.

Just when I thought my frustration hit the max, I saw a younger man in a mask walking toward me with his arms piled high with groceries. His surgical-gloved hands struggled to balance his load. My eyes smiled at him. He reminded me of me when I figured I only needed a few items and didn’t grab a cart.

Next thing I knew, the man’s groceries toppled over. “I’ve done that before,” I said, trying to be friendly. “Can I help you load back up?”

The man knelt down to the ground, almost in a panic as he rearranged his load. “They didn’t have any wipes at the door. I couldn’t take a cart.”

“I know,” I said, holding up my covered hands. “I’m using my sleeves.”

The man’s eyes darted away from me. I realized I wasn’t social distancing, and the man was frightened of me. My offer to help was taken as a threat. The virus made me an adversary.

The COVID-19 news coverage has given us daily reminders of just how fragile humans are. What we all need now is hope — hope that our families and our world’s new normals are going to be OK.

 

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