Before the pandemic I would have thought my height – six foot two on a good day – and other factors like my gait, my clothes, my hairdo, my glasses, would be enough to identify me to all acquaintances and friends, but apparently not. Simply covering my mouth and nose is enough to render me virtually invisible to some. Others do know me, their eyes above their masks registering accustomed familiarity. But to a significant sector, I am suddenly a stranger.
I can’t predict who will fall into which group. Apparently some depend more on facial cues than they or I realized. I have new appreciation for everything from micro-expressions to broad smiles, wry grins, grimaces, the anatomy of a mouth, a nose, and the space between. The eyes are the windows to the soul? Not always. Give the lips some credit.
On a recent visit to Woodstock’s Colony beer garden to have a Guinness, enjoy some live music, and reconnect with friends, I went briefly unrecognized. I experienced a flashback feeling to the mid-Eighties, when simply dying my hair gave me a remarkably efficient, if temporary, disguise. Over the course of about two years, while eking out a living as a Xerox guy and a bartender, I went from my natural brown to orange (an accident), then bleach blonde, to blue black, then blue black with blonde streaks, accidentally dark magenta, and then, finally, when I kept finding strands on my pillow, back to normal.
I recall walking into my various places of work with that blazing orange hair, and for a few moments my co-workers not knowing who I was. Sometimes I needed to get right in their faces and speak before they knew it was me.
“What have you done?” they would say. “You should have let me help you.”
Another time I received that unexpected look of confusion was when my grandmother had fallen and hit her head. As with dementia or a stroke, the trauma had robbed her of memory. Someone who’d helped raise me did not know my face, was suspicious of me. It was an unnerving, anguishing experience.
Conversely, the experiences with new hair in the Eighties were mostly fun. It was like having a cloak of invisibility, like being free of the past, in an exhilarating way. I recall a girlfriend sarcastically saying, “Oh, so you get treated differently as a blonde? Imagine that.”
We do not realize how we limit ourselves through our personas until we are free of them. Opportunities present themselves to reveal other aspects, traits we’ve kept under wraps, perhaps for fear of judgment. Paradoxically, the mask can be revelatory, liberating. Do we take advantage of the anonymity and act out? Rarely. But to know we can …
Is masking up in the pandemic fun? No. The momentary charge of anonymity, the spark it gives to memories of Halloweens, theatrical situations, bracing newness in routine, new hair, are all not positive enough to qualify as a silver lining.
Yes, eventual recognition is deeply pleasurable, when someone’s eyes – and there are so many beautiful eyes out there – light up with a familiar glow. But it’s not enough. I will continue to ache for the telltale smile, the twitch of a nose, the flush of someone’s cheeks, the creases when they laugh. When we are once again maskless, I vow to drink in these details as never before. And I’ll once again welcome being known as the persona I’ve created, a persona that apparently conveys a significant amount of information through smiling.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.