The smiles we’re hiding

This ‘Life In Quarantine’ column originally ran on Sunday, August 9, 2020 in the Gaston Gazette.

I don’t remember exactly what aisle I was on when I saw him. I might have been on the bread aisle. Or it could have been the potato chips and cookie aisle. I forget. But I won’t forget the little curly headed boy that smiled and waved at me as I passed by.

He couldn’t have been older than three. He was just sitting there, quietly, feet dangling just below the front of the grocery cart, while his mother was shopping.

He probably waves and smiles at everyone that passes by, but it caught me off guard initially. No one has made eye contact and smiled at me while inside the grocery store for a few months now.

I did what any normal human being would do. I waved back. And smiled. And then I realized, this kid couldn’t see my smile. My smile may have been big and bright but it was hiding behind my 3-ply disposable face mask.

So I smiled even bigger under the mask in hopes the kid could tell by my overexaggerated facial expression that I was reciprocating his kindness with a smile in return.

I felt like an idiot, but how else can you share a smile in the age of COVID? Can you smile through your eyes? If so, I did my very best to do it that day.

Pianist-comedian Victor Borge once said, “A smile is the shortest distance between two people.” These face masks, while absolutely necessary, widens that gap even further. Strangers become even more strange these days.

I find myself making less small talk while wearing a mask. It’s like I’m in my own world, my head looking down, barreling through my to-do list. The masks make most of my public outings that much more impersonal.

And while I hate that’s what we’ve become, I wish more people would mask up.  

That’s all I seem to focus on when I go out these days. I feel like I’m becoming the school hall monitor, taking mental notes on who is following the rules (the mask wearers) and who’s not (the non-mask wearers).

Even when my girlfriend and I go out to eat at a nice restaurant, just to escape for an hour or two, I still end up doing it. I slowly morph into the Barney Fife of the room.  

I watch all the patrons as they enter the restaurant and pass by our table. There goes the Smith family, party of five, all being compliant law-abiding citizens, wearing masks as they follow the hostess to their table. But for every Smith family, there is a Jones family, party of four, all maskless, strutting into the joint like it’s 2019.

I want to stop the Jones clan right then and there and make a citizen’s arrest for committing a G.S.§14-12.11 – failure to follow the face covering mandate in public places. It’s just a class 2 misdemeanor. But like Barney Fife says, “It’s from little misdemeanors that major felonies grow.”

It dominates the conversation at the table. Instead of “how’s your chicken parmigiana” or “can you taste all five cheeses in the five-cheese ziti”, I end up keeping score on the mask wearers versus non-mask wearers that enter the restaurant.

I compile the numbers. I analyze the data. From there, I report the statistical outcomes of my findings to anyone who will listen. I drop percentages, discuss averages, and dare to estimate the standard deviation of my study sample. I break it down by gender, race and age.

I do all of this because I just want people to wear a mask while out in public. Call it selfish, but I feel like the sooner we can all do this, the sooner we can get back to life as we used to know it.

I’ll be honest. I was hesitant to wear a mask at first. It’s not flattering. It’s unattractive, uncomfortable and impersonal. But if it helps, even just a little, then I don’t see why I can’t just suck it up and do it.

The world could use more smiles, but right now I’d rather see more masks than smiles.

They say a smile is contagious. But so is COVID-19. Unfortunately, the rate of transmission is far greater and more dangerous with the coronavirus than a smile. The sooner we all can mask up, the sooner we can put this thing behind us. And free our smiles.

Ben Dungan has been writing about how life has changed since the COVID-19 outbreak. You can email him at [email protected] and read more from him at