My wife, the quilter, has been churning out face masks for family and friends, turning scraps of fabric into colorful protective devices. The one she made for me is suitably manly, sort of a muted blue-gray pattern. I wore it for the first time last week when I went to pick up an online order from our usual grocery store. The woman who brought our stuff to the car was one of the regular baggers; she was also wearing a mask. I greeted her by name, thanked her and told her to “be safe.”
That’s the new phrase, “Be safe.” I say it to everyone I meet, everyone I talk with on the phone. “Be safe.” It feels stupid to say it because what else are they going to do? They’re masked and gloved and standing six feet from me. Or tucked safely in their living room while speaking on the phone. Of course what I really mean is, “Please don’t get sick.” Please don’t catch this awful virus. Please don’t die. Please, God.
Yesterday I ventured out to a different grocery store, because, you know, some store shelves are empty. Of course we all know about toilet paper. “Psst buddy, they got some over at Pick & Save.” Everyone was searching for those elusive rolls. A few weeks later it was eggs. You’re staring at the empty cooler where eggs are supposed to be, and some guy behind you says, “They’ve got lots of eggs at Festival” so off you go.
Well, yesterday it was long grain rice. Regular store was out of it, so I took the grocery list to a different store. Right off the bat, I could see that it’d be a long search since I didn’t know the layout. Masked people wandering around me, but it was easy to spot the regulars. Their carts were full, and they were moving resolutely down the aisles. Newbies like me, had their heads up, scanning the aisle signs, brows furrowed in puzzlement. Said to one guy, “You finding it yet?” “Nah.” “Me neither.”
In another aisle, a man was stocking shelves, down on his knees. He looked up as I approached and nodded. I smiled back. After a few more steps, I realized, “I’m wearing a mask!” So I went back to him and said, “ I forgot about the mask, and that you couldn’t see me smile. So Hi! And be safe!” He smiled; no mask.
I finished my search, found the rice and a few other items and headed to the checkout. There was a big plexiglass shield between me and the cashier. As the bagger was finishing up, I inserted my card, got the receipt and turned to go. “Thank you” I said, “and be safe.” What I really wanted to do was hug them, They were risking their safety so I could get a bag of long grain rice.
Before the virus, we all had other things on our mind. Preoccupied with the petty details of life, heads down staring at our smart phones. Now, I just long to make eye contact with another human being, to say “Hi!” and relate in that passing moment. I attend worship on TV screen, but I long to shake hands, hug people and look into their eyes and see how they are doing. Hopefully, when this is over, we will have learned to appreciate one another, friends and strangers alike. Until then, be safe.