Ever since I have been working remotely from home, I take short lunchtime walks along one of my regular neighborhood routes. It is about a 15- to 20-minute walk; nothing too exciting, just a large rectangle of blocks, except for a few short, elevated bridges overlooking the canal waters of Long Beach.
The longest stretch of the walk covers the full length of a local kindergarten to grade 5 elementary school. The property includes a large asphalt-surface playground for kids in the upper grades, then the red brick school building itself and finally, a smaller playground specially designed for younger children.
The day that I wrote this was the first time I walked past the schoolyard with school back in session since it was first padlocked in mid-March. I was not prepared for the profound sadness that I felt as I approached the chain link fence, peered in and saw the older kids playing kickball and basketball and the younger ones climbing, swinging and sliding on the jungle gym equipment.
For some reason that I could not pin down at that moment, witnessing the scene felt to me like I had traveled to another time and place, maybe sometime the past when there was something seriously wrong. The kids seemed carefree, but they were wearing surgical masks of various colors and designs. I overheard one of them say to another, “Everything is harder in masks.”
When I snapped out of the spell, I realized that it was not a dream at all and that a highly infectious disease had in fact gripped the nation. It would have been a scene worthy of The Twilight Zone, had it not been real. Perhaps I had allowed myself the luxury of suspending disbelief as I strode past the playground.
On the very same day, just a few hours earlier, I watched a 30-second video clip on social media of a group of adults marching up and down the aisles in a Target store in Florida. The scene seemed farcical.
The adults were acting as if they were wartime liberators, waving masks in their hands and, with smirks on their faces and in their voices, loudly imploring the store’s customers to: “Take your masks off! Take them off! We’re not going to take it anymore!”
As the children cooperatively followed the rules that the school implemented in order to reopen and optimize safety, the entitled grownups in the Target store arrogantly defied health and safety guidelines in a faux protest that will likely result in advancing the spread of a highly infectious disease.
So what was it that made me so sad? Did observing the kids running around in masks evoke their innate vulnerability in me? Or was it the image of a group of adults so selfishly celebrating their emancipation from and abdication of responsibility as citizens to protect one another?
I do not know if was either. Maybe it was the realization of all that has been lost in our deeply divided nation—a loss of innocence and a loss of common decency.
The soul of America is dissipating, slipping from our grasp and we seem to lack the collective will to hold on.
Andrew Malekoff is a New York State licensed social worker and an Anton columnist.