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Opinion: I Just Starred in an Episode of "When Mask Karens Attack"

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Alex Parker, whom many of you know from these pages, shared his take on what’s happening in the world right now in his own, VIP piece recently. After quoting an interview with Adam Carolla, in which the comedian bemoaned the lack of character in young people today. Alex followed that up by talking about the importance of humility, then moved on to something that now hits me close to home. He wrote:

Over the last several weeks — and the last few years — the web’s been awash with people shouting in others’ faces. You’ve surely seen them on video, and even in text.

Picture it — imagine that person, inches from another’s face. Screaming. Even spitting.

Before this week, I could nod along with this and remember many incidents on video of Conservatives and veterans getting harassed or otherwise mistreated  — some of which led to physical attacks on them. And I could imagine how that might feel, to be placed in that situation.

I don’t have to imagine it anymore. It happened to me on Tuesday. Let me tell you the story of how I met a couple of Mask Karens and lived to tell about it.

The plan was to do a little grocery shopping — just a few items at the chain store down the street, nothing major. Of course, I should have planned my trip better; by the time I stepped out of my home around 2 p.m., the temperature was already soaring. If you don’t know already, I live in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.  Summer doesn’t mess around, with some July daytime highs reaching into the 110’s.

Tuesday was no different. After slapping some sports-style, SPF 30 lotion on my face, I dragged myself on the three minute walk to the light rail platform. I watched the previous train go past as I walked, so I knew there would be a 12 minute wait. At least the platform gives you some shade.

Anyway, once I got there, I spotted some transit guards and struck up a conversation. Both, of course, wore masks. Since I have health issues that keep me from wearing one, I was mask-free. And though signs are prominently displayed all over on the platform about masks being required on board, I had yet to get called out for it by either a guard or a fellow passenger.

The 10 or so minute trip was uneventful. But that changed once I exited the train and made my way to the crosswalk.

Only one other person had gotten off at my stop — a Hispanic woman who might have been in her late 20s or early 30s. And she was wearing a mask. It was the first time I’d seen her; she’d traveled in a different segment of the train. Amazingly, unlike most people I encounter around town, she wasn’t talking to someone on her phone. So, as a single woman who lives alone, I jumped at the chance for some bonus, social interaction.

Pointing to the swaying palm trees on the other side of the street, just behind the “Stop” pedestrian sign, I commented that the breeze wasn’t doing anything but moving hot air around. She said something short in reply, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I started to take up the topic again, when she turned her head towards me and said, “I wear my mask to protect you, not me.”

When I tried to tell her why I wasn’t wearing a mask, her voice became like a growling dog’s — which is trying to warn you it’ll bite you if you take one step closer. She shouted, “Get away from me!” And I don’t remember the rest, but it was strewn with expletives.

Moving back onto the train platform, because I assumed she was going to cross the next intersection I was, I said, “Ohhh-kay, I’m going to go over here.” Just then, the light had changed, then the pedestrian signal changed to “Walk.” The woman crossed the street and, thinking quickly, I rushed back down the platform and crossed the street the other direction. I hadn’t had lunch before heading out, so figured I could go to the McDonald’s at the intersection and recover from the real-life Mask Karen I just encountered, before getting back to my chores.

Boy, was I wrong! As soon as I walked in the doors, into the nearly-deserted McDonald’s counter area, the woman working there said, “You need to wear a mask.” No “Hello,” no “Welcome to McDonald’s.” Just that. Now, I’ve been in this location before, so I knew there was a mask rule in place; there are also no seats — only carry-out orders. The other time I visited was several weeks back, and I figured I would only be wearing the mask until my order came up. It was a major disappointment, once I got there, to learn there was no dining in.

Anyway, this time, I didn’t have a mask. I smiled at the customer service rep and said, in as pleasant a voice as I could manage, “I have a medical condition and can’t wear one.” Without blinking, the McDonald’s employee repeated her line like a robot: I would have to wear a mask. Luckily, a manager showed up right then and took over. But it wasn’t any more pleasant dealing with him. He seemed impatient and urged me to order quickly. I picked a few budget burgers, and left it at that. And I thanked him for his help with the situation, which got no reaction from the manager.

It was like I was starring in an episode of “When ‘Mask Karens’ Attack.”

My order arrived quickly (there was only one order before mine), and I left. But then I thought: “Okay, where exactly am I going to eat this?” That’s when I spied the shady bus stop shelter, along the street next to the store. I headed over to eat my burgers.

And there were people sitting on the seating. And several sitting on the concrete below the shelter. It was five or six people, and none of them were waiting for the bus. They were homeless.

The three I remember the best were the two sitting on the bench, a 50-something woman and an even older gentleman, and a 30-something young man. Immediately, I offered them one of my sandwiches — it was a triple cheeseburger. The woman smiled and thanked me for it, as she took it.

And we all started chatting. I picked up a few, important aspects of the lives they were dealing with. None of them had been able to find room at shelters; there was nowhere to go to the toilet. The older man told me he wanted to apply for unemployment, but his phone had been stolen. That’s when I realized: the shutdowns caused by the Chinese plague are hurting those who can least afford it. The government agency that handles unemployment normally would be able to process the man’s application in person — or at least, he would be able to walk in and use their computer center to fill it out. That building is closed. As is the public library, where the woman could do one of the basic things we have to do as human beings. Nope. That’s closed for entry, too.

The woman told me, matter of factly, that she can only use the bathroom twice a day.

Near the end of our visit, somehow we got on the topic of what they could find to eat. The woman mentioned that, though she knew fresh foods were healthier for you, there was no way to keep anything fresh. Homeless people don’t have refrigerators, obviously. That gave me an idea. I asked them all what I could pick up from the grocery store for them, within reason. And their answer broke my heart. Their only reply was some version of, “No, we’re fine.” Oh, except the older man, who – God bless him – asked if I could bring him a 2-liter of the generic, store brand Dr. Pepper. He even knew the price: seventy-nine cents. I agreed that I would. As I turned to walk back to the corner, the younger man offered to go with me. I thanked him but said I figured that angry “Mask Karen” was long gone by now.

So, off I went.

Entering the grocery store without a mask was no problem at all. It’s my regular place, and it’s never been an issue for the employees there. I grabbed a cart to put my purse in, and started wheeling around the store. I may have had three things in the cart — mineral water, some steaks, some mini-cupcakes to share with my new friends from the bus stop — when something hit me. I was being handed an opportunity to repay the kindness I’d been shown. They really had turned around my day with our conversation.

So, I put away the steaks and told myself that the mineral water could stay in the cart. I wanted that steak, and some sausages I’d seen on sale, and other things, of course. But  as I shopped, I filled half a cart-full with items that those people needed to live.

The woman needed alcohol-free body towelettes to clean herself, and some clean pairs of socks, and especially important: an insulated, lunch cooler to put meat in. In a genius move, I picked up two packages of frozen veggies for the “ice packs.” And I got the older man his soda. And for everyone, I got beef jerky and hard boiled eggs and some deli-sliced, Colby cheese. It was hard to stop, I’ll be honest.

Now, it’s important for me to mention here that I am an incredibly slow shopper. Always have been. I probably took forty-five minutes to get the items together in the cart. So, not surprisingly, when I got back to the shelter, there were many surprised faces. Likely, they’re used to being disappointed by other people.

Slowly, I unpacked the goodies, explaining why I got each one: they had, without realizing it, told me what they needed from the store.

And I got what I needed, too. Two hugs. One from the woman and one from the guy who’d offered to go with me. Turns out, he had waited for me outside the store for a bit, he said, so that he could help me carry the bags.

They were the first hugs I’ve had from another human being in almost four months. And it felt so good.

The entire situation shed light on one, basic truth for me: We simply can’t live in fear of the virus — or each other. Not in the most generous, compassionate, Christian nation on Earth. That’s not who we are. And God willing, it’s not who we’ll ever be.

Oh, there’s one last detail: how many of the homeless folks do you suppose were wearing face masks? The answer is zero. Not a single one.

EDIT [07/30/20, 1:23 p.m.} This video absolutely belongs here… because aren’t we all on that “mission”?