Letter from Maine: The Man in the Ironed Mask

by Hugh Gilmore
Posted 8/12/21

Okay, so you figure that if you're going to take a chance and travel out of town during this pandemic, you have to have a plan. A sort of how-to dodge-between-the-rain-drops scheme that gets you to the cabin in Maine without getting a whopping good dose of delta variant blown up your nose by an unmasked yahoo on the I-95 turnpike.

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Letter from Maine: The Man in the Ironed Mask

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Okay, so you figure that if you're going to take a chance and travel out of town during this pandemic, you have to have a plan. A sort of how-to dodge-between-the-rain-drops scheme that gets you to the cabin in Maine without getting a whopping good dose of delta variant blown up your nose by an unmasked yahoo on the I-95 turnpike.

Accordingly, we (Hugh, Janet, son Andrew) packed not one, but two, cooler bags with sandwiches and snacks and yogurt and water. If we got hungry we'd eat in the car or sit at one of those rest stop picnic tables. For bathroom necessities, we'd mask up and rush in and out, hopefully all on one breath, begun and ended in the parking lot. Exposure minimized.

That tactic worked. Sort of. For the first time in 35 years we drove the PA Turnpike to the New Jersey Turnpike and went up and over the George Washington Bridge without a moment's pause along the way. Our first comfort stop was on the Connecticut Thruway near Stamford, where we'd encounter the first of many of those humidity controlled microbe-breeding stations called hand dryers. Wet floors, wet hands and lots of those air blower machines get the moist germs blown off people's hands and misted into the ambient air we must all pass though while having our inner ears shredded by their horrible, desperate screams.

More importantly, only about two in ten people wore masks. And that includes the food service and other employees we saw, there and at the other rest stations. That was surprising after coming from Philadelphia and knowing that the delta variant was rushing up from the south behind us. From the surface of it, you'd think the pandemic was merely a Netflix series that had come and gone after so many weeks.

This seemed especially so when we arrived at our halfway destination, Nashua, New Hampshire (to visit Janet's cousin and her now one-year-old child whom covid had kept us from seeing till then). We pulled up at the Hilton Marriott Courtyard behind a car with Alabama plates. The driver was just getting out of his car then. Yep: camo overalls, a red shirt, a long ZZ Top gray beard. Oh, and no mask as he entered the lobby. Well, I guess they'll straighten him out, I thought, as I snapped on my blue surgical and followed in his wake. Guess again. Two very pleasant, uniformed receptionists greeted me and said, "Welcome." Neither wore a mask. Apparently they played by different rules up here. My anxiety level went up a notch as I thought, And we're going to sleep here?

No one, except one cleaning service lady and two other guests, wore a mask during our stay there. Once in a while I was tempted to go naked-nosed and "do as the Romans do," but being from Philly I could still feel the delta variant's hot breath on my neck. When we went up to our room we brought our car pillows with us and tossed the Hilton's in a corner.

The next day we were in Belfast, Maine, our destination, and our first stop was at Bell the Cat restaurant, one of our favorites, for takeout that would serve as dinner. Again, as in New Hampshire, almost none of the fifty or so diners seated inside wore a mask. All the servers and kitchen staff did, though. I asked our cashier about that and she said her boss required it.

A slightly different picture emerged at the Left Bank bookstore when I went to buy some vacation reads. A sign on the door said; "Masks are once again Requested for all customers. Regardless of vaccination status, in keeping with the recommendations of the Maine CDC." Though the message was phrased as a "request," all ten customers and both of the staff members wore masks while I was in there browsing. I asked the manager about the masking sign and she said that during May and June they had all felt "wonderfully liberated" from the protocols. But then, as with so many other places, the covid rates went up again, so they're doing their part to help shut them down.

On Saturday we drove out Route 1 to Searsport, hitting the flea market circuit. It was a beautiful day. The markets are quite picked over and shabby by this time of year, but it's still fun to walk around and look at all these remnants of Western Civ and be tempted to buy some just because they're cheap. That trip always culminates for us with eating in Stockton Springs at Just Barb's cafe. Good food, authentic oilcloth tablecloth atmosphere. Quite satisfying. On the approach we saw they'd erected a big tent at the edge of the parking lot for outdoor dining. Janet and Andrew took a table and I went in to order. I should not have been surprised, but I was when I saw that all the booths were occupied and that neither the diners nor the servers nor cooks wore masks.  I said we'd like to eat outside and the waitress gave me menus and said she'd be right out to take our order. Wearing a mask in a setting like that makes me feel like I'm the only virgin at the seventh grade orgy. Better weird, but alive, than cool and dead, I guess.

For the next hour we sat in the hot tar-smelling lot in the transparent plastic tent a mere twenty feet away from the very noisy Route 1 as traffic bound for Bar Harbor and thereabouts zoomed and roared past. The food when it arrived was great, as usual, but the atmosphere was brain-wracking.

The price of being a masked man I guess.

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