LOS ANGELES — I presumed he was a crotchety old man with racist tendencies, after he berated me publicly for not wearing a mask as I strolled along a quiet street in our suburban Northridge neighborhood. Why else would he single out my daughter and me, the lone Black people among the walkers, runners and bicyclists enjoying the balmy evening.
It took months for me to realize that the man, whose name I now know is Charles Dirks, treats every unmasked person he spots to the same loud harangue: "Where is your mask? You need to wear a mask!" The retired political science professor considers it his civic duty in the era of COVID-19. "People have got to be saved," he insists. "Even if they don't want to hear it."
His wife, Xiaoping Liu Dirks, views his crusade a little less charitably. "He's passionate about so many things," she said. "That's something wonderful about him." But this particular passion sometimes seems to run amok. He has frightened strangers and aggravated neighbors, she said. "I just have to hope they understand that he means well."
I wound up in the aggravated group last spring. We were a month into the coronavirus siege, and wearing masks in Los Angeles had just become a thing. The rules were still fuzzy, and masks were hard to find. So I was annoyed when the old man with a cane began yelling at me for walking without a mask, on a deserted sidewalk a few blocks from my home.
"Where's your mask?" he shouted from across the street, waving his cane and quickening his pace to catch up with my daughter and me. I bristled immediately, irritated by his authoritarian tone.
"We're outside, and there's no one anywhere near us," I shouted back, walking faster to put distance between us. I could hear him yelling even after we turned the corner: "You have to wear a mask! It's the law!"
I knew that wasn't true, so I yelled back at him. We could have been inching toward the kind of street standoff that goes viral on social media. Instead, my daughter took me by the arm and steered me back toward home.
The skirmish was a minor annoyance, but I stewed about it for months — replaying in my head his uncalled-for interference and my overheated response. This was not about science versus civil rights. And it wasn't really masks we'd been arguing about. His hectoring had threatened my fragile sense of autonomy, at a time when so many options are off limits because of COVID-19.
Nobody likes to be yelled at by a stranger. Still my overreaction made clear that the virus and its co-conspirators — raging wildfires, record-breaking heat, dangerously contentious politicking and Black lives not mattering — were taking a toll on me. I seldom venture out, I always social distance and I strap on a mask wherever it's required or needed. A solitary walk in the open air — without a mask fogging my glasses or impeding my breathing — has become my primary pandemic luxury.
It's the rare good choice I can make; balancing freedom and safety, without imperiling anybody. I wasn't going to let an overzealous neighbor take that from me.