The Corner


Of Masks and Men

(Rattankun Thongbun/Getty Images)

When your first-ever trip to Oregon coincides with a historic Pacific Northwest heat wave, you have to find ways to cope.

One afternoon in Portland, the plan was to while away an hour in the famous, and enormous, Powell’s Books, both for the books and for the air conditioning. It was two days before Oregon’s mask mandate was to be lifted, as announced by the governor. Stores and restaurants in the city had been enforcing that soon-to-expire rule so strictly that I knew Powell’s would be no different. But I wasn’t prepared for what ensued.

It was 115 degrees when I arrived with my family at the store. The AC in the car had been struggling. Just one quick stop before going downtown and then a one-block walk from the parking space to the store left me feeling as though I’d been tumbled inside a clothes dryer on the highest setting.

We walked through Powell’s doors. I hadn’t put my mask on yet — I was sweating, trying to breathe, and needed a moment.

Young store clerk (read: enforcer): No entry without a mask, ma’am.

Me, politely: I understand. I just need a minute to stand here before I put it on. [I took tissues out of my purse to mop my brow.]

Young clerk, barking: We require masks at all times, you can’t come in the store.

Me: I’m not coming in, I’m standing here by the door. I need one minute before I put on my mask. I’m just going to stand here for one minute, OK?

Young clerk, seeming to be very vexed, turns to an older employee, I’m guessing a manager. The manager says, peremptorily: No entry without a mask.

Me, becoming colder in tone but not yet in temperature: I’m standing here by the door. I need one minute, just ONE minute to cool down before I put it on.

Young clerk: You heard the rule, we require masks. No entry without a mask. You have to put on a mask.

Me, in a combination of anger and oncoming tears, but not budging from my spot: I am going to stand here by the door for one minute to cool down. Then I am going to put on my mask.

Manager, exasperatedly: You’re having a problem with the heat? [!!!] Oh all right, you can stay by the door. Do you need to sit down?

A spark of humanity! No thank you, I said. When putting on my mask seemed bearable, I did so, walked into and through the store, found four books I was looking for, and bought them. As I passed the young clerk on my way out, he wished me a good day. Maybe he didn’t recognize me in my mask.

I was left wondering when — if — the enforcers will regain the ability to think individually, to consider circumstances, or just to allow an instinct for compassion to be their first instinct.


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