“Did you hear them?” asked my running partner, and, looking over my shoulder at the two people we’d just passed, they climbing the hill as we trotted down it, I told him no. Like us, they were out for some exercise on a breezy Sunday morning, choosing this wide, little-used road parallel to the path along the bluffs just outside the city, but they were walking instead of running, and, unlike us, they wore masks. My partner told me they’d been complaining about us. I had had no inkling of that, their words carried off in a gust of air.
“Not understanding has its advantages,” I said, though then I thought of the man whom we’d passed 15 minutes earlier when we were running along the highway, and whom I’d had no difficulty understanding. We were on one side of the two-lane road, he on the other, a good 20 feet separating us. Like this couple, he was walking, his mask dangling from an ear. The wind was gusting there too. As we came roughly even with him, he made a show of pulling his mask on, adjusting it one way and then another, all the while turned to face us, as if transmitting a message. I could almost feel his indignation from across the road, and my partner and I smiled at how worked up he seemed for the 30 seconds that he fumbled pointedly with his mask. I’d understood his meaning perfectly.
“Hay gente para todo,” my partner had said with a laugh, because the man seemed so absurd. Gente para todo: it takes all kinds. The phrase can be used for rueful recognition of confounding differences between people, or it can be used in wonder at spectacular diversity, or in disgust at inexplicable variation. He said the same thing again with the couple on the hill, though now he was irritated. Perhaps because we were closer to the source and the criticism hit harder? Because there were two this time? Because it was spoken, not just pantomimed? Because it was the second time that morning? For whatever reason, the words that for me had been a puff of air were for him arrows hitting their mark.
Running maskless, we did everything possible to steer clear of others out exercising, whether they were masked or not: we detoured around others, giving a wide berth, switched from one side of a road to the other, and hopped off the sidewalk into the street. Mainly what we did was keep to the wide roads or little-used lanes. But not even that effort saved us just last week when on a winding road through an area with widely spaced houses amid fields and farmsteads, a woman walking towards us veered suddenly away from her side and closer to us as we approached. I’d thought she was closing the gap in order to call out a friendly greeting and I was already smiling in response when I heard her angry voice telling us to wear masks. She spit out the words, and I was astounded at the vitriol of her tone and at her face twisted in anger. Thinking about it later, I was astonished to recall that she’d crossed the road to accost us.
We were already past before I’d realized what had happened, but my partner had turned his head to yell over his shoulder his angry response—that engaging in rigorous outside exercise while keeping a two-meter distance required no mask. I think my face was probably still frozen in that jolly grin I’d put on for her.
Can you believe that? we asked each other, he disgusted at how regularly his feeling about people was confirmed, and I astonished at how wrong I’d been. As we ran on, we shared our incredulity at something else—that she hadn’t herself been wearing a mask. Hay gente para todo.
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