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From behind the mask to beyond the mask

BY KATE WALTER | Within three years, I’ve gone from behind the mask to beyond the mask. Last week I got on the 14th St. bus and reached into my pocket for my mask and I couldn’t find it! How did this happen? Every coat I wore had a mask in the pockets. I never left the house without one. I automatically replaced my mask when I threw a used one away. Public transportation, especially the subway, is one situation where I still wear a mask.

During these past few months, I’ve realized everyone is in different stages with their physical and emotional recovery from the pandemic. That was clear when I gave a pandemic writing prompt to the students in my memoir class at the senior center. I was moved as they read their work that recalled the rituals and restrictions of the lockdown and the overall impact on their lives.

I wrote obsessively about the pandemic as a way of soothing my anxiety. This resulted in my memoir in essays “Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter.” (Many of these pieces were originally published in The Village Sun). At the suggestion of my publicist, I included 12 pandemic writing prompts.

Writing can be healing and I think we need a lot of emotional healing from the pandemic, even if we’ve dropped the masks. Some people are still living in fear and are depressed and traumatized, especially if they lost someone. Some people still are afraid to eat inside a restaurant. A few folks still wear a mask outside. Others have pretty much resumed their lives.

What’s changed for me since I started documenting my pandemic experiences? Three years after the lockdown, I no longer think about the pandemic 24/7. In fact, I hardly think about it at all. Much to my relief, I resumed writing about other topics.

At one point I was totally obsessed with staying safe and not getting COVID, even after I was vaccinated and boosted. Now I assume my sneezing or sniffling is from allergies or a cold. If I really want to be sure, I take a home test. I started going to parties where guests are required to take a home test before they arrive. A small price to pay for being able to socialize indoors again. My church still requires masks.

On March 26, I attended the annual meeting of the Westbeth Artists Residents Council in the community room. The majority of people were not wearing masks. The president of our board of directors addressed us, noting that the last time he spoke in this room was in March 2020 right before New York went into lockdown.

I was scared when I left that meeting three years ago. It was so early in the pandemic, we hadn’t even started masking yet. Masks soon became required in all the public areas of Westbeth. At my book launch in December 2021 in the community room, (which had been closed for over a year), everyone had to cover up. No refreshments allowed.

Today Westbeth is back to life and bursting with activity: gallery openings with wine and cheese, a concert series, puppet shows for the kids, a two-day installation dance festival coming up in April. Once again, we will have Staff Appreciation Day this spring. The first one was held in 2021 to thank our workers for protecting us during the pandemic. They did a great job.

Like everyone in New York City, and especially for those of us who stayed, my life was irrevocably changed by the pandemic. I was fearful for a year until I got the vaccination at the Javits Center. I emerged scarred, but with a new appreciation for life and for my resilience, a trait inherited from my feisty Irish mother.

I’m in good health, but I am a senior. I did not want to die, especially since I had retired right before COVID arrived. I had earned this time to enjoy myself. So I made decisions involving deprivation in order to stay safe. I missed holiday celebrations with family (which I have now resumed). I was lonely but played it safe.

I’m not sure when I slipped into my current “no more fear” lifestyle. I guess it happened gradually. Now I hate that I must wear a mask when I go for a doctor’s appointment, even though it makes total sense.

At one point, I was resentful of all the people who weren’t masking as much as I was. I hated the people who didn’t mask on the subway when it was the law. Now I don’t care what others do. What a difference three years makes.

Today my greatest fear is getting run over by a delivery guy on an e-bike speeding the wrong way. I recently had a close call at 14th St. and University Place. I had the right of way and was in the crosswalk. I had crossed the street and was about to step up on the curb when I spotted this maniac turning the wrong way into my space.

As I darted out of his way, I tripped on the curb and fell on the sidewalk. I was bruised but nothing was broken or dislocated. It could have been much worse. I thank my regular yoga teacher for helping me gain the agility to react fast. Three fellow New Yorkers rushed over to see if I was O.K. The bike rider sped east on 14th Street in the westbound lane.

When my mother was alive, she prayed every day for my safety on the streets of New York. I miss her prayers and could use them again.

This near collision shook me up. It is an understatement to say the sidewalks and streets are out of control with reckless delivery bike riders (thanks, de Blasio for legalizing e-bikes). This residual danger is worse than ever, now that New Yorkers have resumed our active lives walking to the store or bank or Greenmarket.

I put my right hand out to break my fall, an automatic reaction, and strained my shoulder. I’m treating my injury with acupuncture and massage (not covered by insurance). Can I send the mayor a bill?

It appears the city is doing no enforcement as motorized bikes or scooters go the wrong way. Maybe there is no crackdown because the delivery guys are seen as an industry that employs struggling people. I’m all for them getting better wages and better working conditions, but they must stop breaking the traffic laws. We should not have to fear for our safety while out running errands in the city where everyone walks.

I will exercise caution when walking and enjoying this warmer weather. I love spring in New York. The buds are popping in the parks and in the three marijuana commissaries in the Village. Two things to celebrate — flowers and legal weed.

Not long after my sidewalk fall, I was in that area to make my first legal purchase of marijuana from Union Square Travel Agency (love the name) on East 13th Street, off Broadway. I chatted with the budtender about various hybrids and took her recommendation. As I left with my purchase of “Wedding Cake,” the security guard wished me, “Safe travels.”

I plan to indulge at home. For sure, I will not be crossing the street stoned.

Walter is the author of “Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter” (Heliotrope Books).


  1. Midtown Apt Midtown Apt May 29, 2023

    I’ve been biking on NYC streets for 60+ years. I was never scared doing so until biking became widespread. Most (no, not all, but most) automobile drivers are careful and respectful of others; few run red lights; and in all that time I’ve never seen a car or truck driving the wrong way up a one-way street or on the sidewalk. Many, many bikers (no, not all, but a very large percentage) do those things every single day throughout the city, without being careful and without respect for other users of the road. Credit (blame) for the legalization of ebikes and escooters goes not to de Blasio alone but to every Democrat in the NYS Assembly, every Democrat (other than Liz Krueger) in the NYS Senate, and every Democrat in the NYC Council — all of whom voted in favor despite written requests from almost every Manhattan community board to vote against. For lack of enforcement, credit (blame) again goes to the legislators and, in particular, to former NYC Councilmember and now-DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, whose deputy recently said that “only 10 pedestrians have been killed by e-bikes” and that is “not enough” to warrant any legislation or enforcement action.

  2. Lora Tenenbaum Lora Tenenbaum March 29, 2023

    I just got a text from my sister. She & her husband, both in their 70s, have Covid. They either got it on the plane (where a man, coughing constantly & dazed, sat near them) or at an overcrowded Vermeer exposition where very few wore masks. I just read that the death rate from the disease is the same as last year, at least in the US. SO, while I have been stepping out & walking outside without a mask, I intend to continue wearing one inside public places for a while yet. Say its my reflexive jumping back from a dangerous cyclist.

    And yes, cyclists. The city has their priorities wrong. Shouldn’t the order of focus be pedestrians, surface public transport, bikes, motorized vehicles? The best way to deal with this is creating infrastructure that protects us all from our own stupidity & bad behavior…daylighting to 30 feet in, for example, widened sidewalks, less cars, designated spaces for loading & more bike lanes protected by bollards, not cars (to avoid dooring).

    We also need to promote a greater sense of responsibility…something that seems lacking in most NYC bicyclists. I understand it’s also lacking in some pedestrians who, eyes to their phones, step into bike lanes & cause accidents. Because there will always be intersections & conflict as we all try to get around in this vast metropolis we all share.

  3. lin lin March 29, 2023

    On Monday I was hit by a CitiBiker going through a red light. Fortunately not hard. But the bicyclist was not particularly apologetic.

    IMO in NYC “regular” bicyclists (including CitiBikers and racing) are the worst in their entitlement and proactively ignoring traffic rules — going through red lights, going the wrong way, ignoring bike lanes etc.

    Sadly, the bicycle lobby “runs” the City’s Department of Transportation.

    The City refuses to acknowledge that cyclists endanger pedestrians.

    The City also spends a lot supporting bicycling – instead of encouraging use of essential MTA bus and subway.

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