Unmasked on a Tram


 

I should be home by now. Work at the clinic has kept me late. I tear off my mask, race down the stairs, tear across the road, chase the tram and leap aboard. It’s peak period and the tram’s pretty full. I find an aisle seat, sit down and breathe. I reach into my bag – no mask. All around me everyone wears the mask of the good citizen.

My breathing feels like an offense. I turn my back on the person at whose side I’m seated. Facing the aisle now, face turned down toward my shoes, breathing surreptitiously, I’m disturbed by a voice: 

Excuse Me. 

I turn to the voice, which comes from behind a mask. The voice sounds again: Why aren’t you wearing a mask? 

 

 

When I tore off my mask, I ripped the hearing aids from my ears as usual. This happens: masks and aids are both secured behind my ears so the removal of the one often occasions the other. The speaking voice isn’t hard to hear however. My interlocutor is her own megaphone. Humbled, I reply, I’m afraid it’s not with me. I must have…

 

My reply is cut off. You have to wear a mask. It’s the law. I’ll give you a mask.

My antagonist-turned benefactor gropes in a handbag, gropes some more, shuffles contents without result. A second woman, seated facing her, opens the bag on her lap and produces a ziplock full of pristine masks. 

I always carry spares. WE’RE BOTH WORKERS IN HEALTH! Take a mask.

I take a mask and fit it. Thank you, I say. Her fellow-worker-in-health resumes operations: You never answered me, WHY don’t you have your own mask?

 

The questioner and her mate look about 55-60 years old. Wide faces, good complexions, fair skin, hair well-groomed. All is handsome but smiles are lacking.

 

 

A tramful of now very interested passengers gazes in our direction as I lean towards the workers-in-health and speak slowly and softly, enunciating clearly but confidentially: Have you never made a mistake? Apparently not, for my sweet reason evokes not compassion but derisive snorts. 

 

 

Conversation takes an abrupt turn as the women address a second malefactor. WHERE’S YOUR MASK?

The question is not directed to me, but beyond me, to one not yet seen. I crane and glimpse the smaller form of an adult male of Chinese appearance. This person declares: I DON’T HAVE TO WEAR A MASK.

YES YOU DO. IT’S THE LAW.

I DON’T HAVE TO.

 

 

The workers in health decide greater volume is required to help their quarry’s understanding: 

IN THIS COUNTRY WE KEEP THE LAWS. MAYBE BACK IN INDIA YOU DON’T HAVE TO. HERE EVERYONE HAS TO WEAR A  MASK!

 

 

It’s time for me to rejoin the conversation: In this country we don’t accept racism, not even among Workers in Health.

 

 

A young man strides down the aisle and joins us. He looks like he’s in his early twenties, slim, elegant in his black suit. His voice is another that needs needs no megaphone: YOU TWO ARE MISTAKEN. THE LAW DOES NOT REQUIRE EVERYONE TO WEAR A MASK. SOME PERSONS ARE EXEMPT.

 

 

Health’s blood is up. Health is not ready to yield: What’s his exemption?

Blacksuit offers further legal advice: YOU HAVE NO LEGAL RIGHT TO DEMAND THAT INFORMATION. THIS IS NOT HEALTH CARE YOU’RE PRACTISING HERE: YOU’RE JUST PRACTISING BIGOTRY.

 

Health falls silent. The Gang of Two turn to each other and shrug. Two stops later the mask refuser leaves us. Health loses one pitbull a few minutes later. Now alone, the remaining worker in health suddenly finds her kindle demands her attention. For the next twenty minutes she does not look up or across the aisle. When I descend she’s still silently absorbed.

 

 

Once home I open my backpack. There, with my hearing aids, is my mask.

 

 

 

How are You?

My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.


Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’

My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.

Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.

But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?