Photograph of several stickers on a utility pole, the most prominent of which depicts the Statue of Liberty wearing a surgical face-mask.
Seen near Columbia University, April 2020.

Earlier this month, New York City’s government asked all of its citizens to, for the foreseeable future, always wear a mask when out of the house — ahead of the CDC recommendations for same by a couple of days. This came after I watched friends, acquaintances, and trusted local news and opinion sources slowly inch over the course of the year so far from “Mask-wearing is an interesting cultural quirk practiced by East Asian visitors” to “We should all probably wear masks”. I accepted the mayor’s announcement as the natural end-point of an inexorable shift in public perception, and figured I’d ease into compliance when personally convenient.

But then, two immediately subsequent events convinced me to act much faster than that, resolving to not step out my apartment door even once more with an uncovered face. First, Maciej Cegłowski wrote the compelling article “Let’s All Wear a Mask”, which I quite recommend to you as well. And then, only minutes after the CDC announced its revised guidance to Americans about wearing masks, the president undermined this expert advice by dismissing the guidelines as merely “voluntary” and stating that he had no intention of following them himself — implying that his own fans and followers could ignore the directive as well.

Taken together, these brought to mind a hyper-accelerated version of how many obviously cisgender people of my acquaintance prominently advertise their preferred pronouns, and how I consciously choose not to adhere to this practice myself. Many of the arguments that Cegłowski makes for even healthy people to wear a minimally protective mask during a pandemic echo reasons I have heard about pronoun-wearing. These include offering cover for people who have much more practical reason to use a mask, and as a passive-but-visible social signal to remind those we meet of our common situation, and the responsibilities we share.

Last year, I wrote that I wouldn’t pin on pronouns “unless we enter a point where not wearing pronouns is like not wearing pants”. Driven by that same resistance against weighing down my personal presentation with sociopolitical tokens, until quite recently I held the same stance about masks. However, under the pressure of a global crisis, the combination of my city government issuing a formal request of its citizens plus the loathsome president staking his own typically selfish and anti-expert position made it immediately clear to me that this moment — at least for masks — had indeed arrived.

Overnight in the western world, masks have become a requisite article of clothing. Maybe not as primary as pants, but certainly at the level of shirts or shoes, I’d argue. So long as we remain under the pandemic, not wearing a mask will increasingly draw attention to yourself and your weird decision to show off more flesh than your neighbors may welcome — and walking into a public confined space without one may deservedly turn that discomfort into a shooing-away. Come back when you’ve covered up.

And so, as soon as I read the news that day, I pawed around my board-game shelf until I found my old Looney Labs chessboard bandana. Stained and funky-smelling, it had probably never seen a washing machine since its purchase some 20 years ago. (To my credit, I’d never actually worn the thing, either.) This led me to look up tutorials on hand-washing clothes; I would end up scrubbing it in the bathtub, then hanging it to dry on the curtain rod with a couple of chip-bag clips. At last I followed a short video tutorial to fold and rubber-band it into a serviceable mask, one my household used for a week until a crafty friend rescued us with a mailed gift of some properly sewn and much better-fitting examples.

Affixing and wearing a mask tasks practice. You notice things about yourself you hadn’t before, when your air intake-and-exhaust path is even slightly constricted: the fact that you breathe a little more intensely when walking a gentle incline, for instance, or even how often you casually burp while strolling. Walking outside for exercise and mental clarity loses its splendid effortlessness, and I don’t like that at all. But, until the day arrives when I and all my neighbors have received the vaccine, I’ll do it. I would ask that you do it, too, for your own neighbors’ sake.

Bonus updates of life in my part of New York City since my observations from two weeks ago:

☕️ All the Dunkin Donuts have become “gray pins” now, shuttered, along with most every coffee shop in walking distance. I have not purchased coffee in liquid form since posting that article: most assuredly the longest I’ve ever gone without paying someone else to make me coffee, by orders of magnitude, since taking up the habit a quarter-century ago. I have every reason to expect I won’t talk to a barista for months yet. Who even knows what will open, and when, once the city starts to thaw?

✊ My neighborhood was slow to take up the 7 o’clock applause, a daily five-minute sunset salute that we seem to have borrowed from our friends in Italian and Spanish cities whose own terrible COVID-peaks preceded New York’s. After the worst week so far here, with thousands of our fellow citizens lost to the disease, the previously muted participation in this ritual around my building became a roar, five-to-fifteen minutes of clapping and shouting and pots-and-pans banging, enough to really confuse my cats.

Officially, we cheer in appreciation of New York’s medical professionals risking their lives and their health every day as they fight to contain the coronavirus and comfort its victims. But I think there’s an additional element to it, something more primal. We squeeze up to our open windows and our fire escapes, and we howl. We shout in the face of that which would kill us, we bellow with lungs that it would weaken and rend. And we all see and hear each other doing it, and we know that we’ll come back again tomorrow and do it again, and it helps us stay strong.

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