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A Journey into Mask Country

An outsider observes the absurd safety theater of pandemic America.

Note: For reasons of privacy, all persons and some places mentioned in this article are referred to by names I selected by opening Antony Beevor’s definitive history of the siege of Stalingrad to a random page.

Until a few weeks ago, I could have been the subject of an article in the Daily Mail: “Michigan man, 31, has NEVER WORN MASK.” This is not because my family and I have spent the last year locked in our house gorging ourselves on CNN statistics. We have attended public Mass continuously since the bishop here restored it last year just before Pentecost. I have spent hundreds of hours in stores and bars and restaurants (including some that were not technically “open”), given speeches at two weddings, and even voted for the first time in a decade, all without donning a ritual purity garment.

This has been possible for the very simple reason that in the small town where I live no one cares. The only places that require masks are chain stores out on the highway that I would never enter. But last month a few days before I left to visit Washington, D.C., for work, my wife decided it was time to have The Talk:

“You’re going to have to get one, you know.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Honey, if you walk into the airport without a mask, you will end up in Guantanamo writing one of those prisoners’ diary things that Marxist publishers used to bring out.”

I’m tempted to say now that the joke was on her, as my diary is being published in TAC. But at the time I knew she was right. When she dropped me off at the airport the following week she handed me a black piece of cloth emblazoned with the slogan “THIS MASK IS AS USELESS AS THE GOVERNOR.” (It didn’t occur to me until after I landed that D.C. is still a few Senate votes short of having a governor in addition to a mayor.)

Air travel presents difficulties for us 40-a-day smokers at the best of times. I will not bore readers with the extensive logistical details. Suffice it to say that not arriving at the gate until the last call for boarding and some combination of nicotine gum, Red Man, and those Gameboy-shaped devices that allow you to huff flavored Chinese water vapor are typically involved. With the current restrictions in place, I didn’t chance any of these, not even in the cabin bathroom.

Instead I suffered, or at least I did until an unexpected blessing arrived in the form of a flight attendant offering snacks and bottled water. Who knew that you could take these things off as long as you were eating flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid?

This confirmed something I had heard from friends in other parts of the country, namely, that the virus is a very obliging sort of pathogen. He is a predator, but one with a sense of honor and fair play. For one thing, he insists upon hunting mainly at night, which as far as I can tell is the reason that bars in Washington were closed after 10:00 p.m. In addition to not being so unsporting as to come after anyone who is eating or drinking, he refuses to go after non-masking kitchen staff, cleaners, delivery drivers: anyone, in fact, who does not have upper-middle-class white liberal standards of propriety. And even there he is more than willing to make exceptions for things like Fᴀᴛʜᴇʀ ᴏғ Nᴀᴛɪᴏɴs Jᴏsᴇғ winning the presidential election, when even the then-Senate minority leader had no choice but to drink wine in the streets with random passersby. In fact, as far as I am aware, the only people he really goes out of his way to infect are teachers in public high schools, which is why it makes sense to pay an army of minders minimum wage while their powerful unions ensure that they stay home and keep their foreign vacations off of social media.

But enough science. In case any of you are wondering, I can now tell you that the exact number of Cheddar Cheese Original Goldfish Crackers in a standard individually wrapped airline pouch is 23. I thought that I would spend the rest of the flight making these ichthyological inquiries when I heard a voice behind me:

“Sir, you need to be actively eating or else put your mask on.”

I should have known that it was too good to be true. Lᴛ. Lᴇᴘɪɴsᴋᴀʏᴀ was wise to me.

“What constitutes actively eating?” I asked with half-hearted defiance, as I savored what turned out to be the very last cracker in the pouch. Lᴇᴘɪɴsᴋᴀʏᴀ said nothing. For a moment I considered making a go at the dodgy looking “health” bar packaged with an image of a man climbing a mountain but thought better of it and put my mask back on. 

After we landed I made my way to the cabstand at Reagan International, where I smoked four cigarettes before giving a taxi driver the address of 62ɴᴅ Aʀᴍʏ Hᴇᴀᴅᴏ̨ᴜᴀʀᴛᴇʀs, an establishment that, in previous times, had made special provision for smokers.

Then it happened. Upon exiting the car in downtown Washington, I had one of those Charlton Heston end-of-civilization epiphanies. Here in the cool spring air were people who actually wore these things outdoors, as a matter of habit. “You maniacs!” I shouted more or less to myself, trying to remember when it had first been established beyond any reasonable doubt that there was no meaningful risk of outdoor transmission of the virus. I stumbled along in a daze past double maskers, a species I assumed were bred only in captivity, and a child wrapped in some kind of translucent garbage bag. Rain began to fall.

It is almost impossible to describe the sadness I felt as I turned from this miserable scene to a notice on the door of the bar stating that masks were required of all customers and smoking only permitted outdoors. With a heavy heart I entered, only to find myself greeted with surprise by Cᴏᴍᴍᴀɴᴅᴇʀ Gᴀᴠʀɪᴇʟᴏᴠᴀ, who seemed unaware that the sign existed and showed me to a table. Here I passed the rest of the afternoon and some of the evening with Kᴏʀᴇʟᴇᴠᴀ, Cʜᴜɪᴋᴏᴠ, Yᴇʀʏᴏᴍᴇɴᴋᴏ, Zʜᴜᴋᴏᴠ, and other comrades.

I would be lying if I said the rest of the evening was without incident. After having dinner with his family and seeing the children through their prayers, Zʜᴜᴋᴏᴠ and I traveled to the Mᴀᴍᴀʏᴇᴠ Kᴜʀɢᴀɴ, another smoking bar across the river. Once again we were greeted by a notice informing us that masks were required for us to walk up the stairs to the table at which we would sit down and exhale tobacco smoke for the next several hours.

This is where I learned something about the art of non-compliance. If you are walking around furtively, as if expecting to be accosted by the 38ᴛʜ Mᴏᴛᴏʀɪsᴇᴅ Rɪғʟᴇ Bʀɪɢᴀᴅᴇ, you will arouse suspicion. But if you approach the same task with the easy confidence of a non-native masker, you are almost certain to get away with it. The same bouncer who told Zʜᴜᴋᴏᴠ that the virus would not allow him to leave our table without appending a cloth diaper to the bottom of his face did not say so much as a word when I walked insouciantly to the bathroom and then the bar, where I was surrounded by college students wearing white surgical masks attached loosely to one ear and dangling a surprising length below their chins.

What else is there to tell? I spent only another 36 or so hours in Washington. By the time I found myself standing outside the airport at 5:00 a.m. chain smoking, I felt like one of those double agents undergoing an existential crisis, not knowing which side I was on or what I was even fighting for.

But I was sure of one thing. Some part of me had been changed forever by the experience. Like Adam and Eve, I had tasted from the tree of knowledge and as I touched down in Michigan again I knew I had exited the earthly paradise. Seeing my wife pull in to the short-term arrivals lot, I walked “with wandering steps and slow.” Without a mask.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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