The first person I voted for was Al Gore in 2000 and I watched, with mounting horror, the nightmare that unfolded on cable news over hanging chads, uncounted ballots, and a slippery little man’s attempt at weaseling his way into a job he didn’t deserve. Now in 2020, the prospect of a similar scenario, combined with a pandemic and four long years of fatigue has left me swinging wildly between mounting dread and blank nothingness.
Naturally, it is better to keep my nihilism to myself, as there are real issues at play this election. Exploring optimism at our current moment feels like the radical choice, at least for me, but the niggling sense of doom that nips at my heels sent me directly to the official merch page for the Biden-Harris campaign, in an attempt to either fake it until I made it, or, at least, have a laugh. Campaign merchandise is by definition, embarrassing. Declaring one’s love for anything so passionately as to wear it on your body is unbelievably earnest and extremely corny, but campaign merchandise is special: there is a certain level of trust involved to assume that a politician will not do or say something stupid before the t-shirt is even shipped.
Perhaps because nothing really matters or maybe because I wanted a nice way to synthesize my feelings of disinterest, doom, and mortal terror, I selected three of the most audacious items I could find: a Thakoon Panchigul-designed sweatshirt, a bucket hat, and, naturally, Biden-Harris face masks, the last of which will surely serve as a pleasant souvenir from what has been an absolutely terrible year.
My vision was to wear all of these items at once, together, every time I left the house, in order to force myself into feeling something by broadcasting my voting preferences every time I went to the grocery store. I ordered these items in the beginning of October, and the face masks were the only items to show up in time to be relevant. (My inability to read things all the way through is, as ever, my downfall—the masks are one of the only items in the store that were guaranteed to ship quickly.) Initially, I didn’t think wearing the masks would be that bad, but a face mask is, now, a fashion statement as much as necessity. My own insipid vanity has driven me to purchase reusable masks voraciously, in a never-ending quest to find the one that will be just right. Not to do this, but: A mask is the new statement tee, communicating exactly who you are by what’s covering your face. Personally, I am a Baggu mask —the ear loops, not the head tie—for weekend excursions and any event where I’ll see people, and sometimes, a black neoprene mask emblazoned with the Dior logo in rhinestones. For walks down the block to the store, I prefer the child-sized printed disposable masks that I found at a dollar store. They are small, to fit the face of a child, but also, to fit me. This detail about my face is crucial as it is the launching pad to a mediocre metaphor about the branded face-covering I purchased from the Biden-Harris website: That shit was floppy as hell, but I suppose it did the job.
For the first week or so that I had the mask, I sort of forgot about this experiment and wore it only when running downstairs to get the mail or take out the garbage. Something about the mask’s floppiness was curious to me; it came equipped with a nose wire, which I feel is a requirement, but the rest of the thing did not adhere to my chin in the way I feel it should. A mask also kind of makes everyone slightly more interesting to look at, if only because we all spend more time now looking at each other straight in the eyes. Masks that say something on the outside force you to look directly at them, which seems like an unnecessary reminder. Statement masks also feel tacky. At the beginning of this shit, I saw an unfortunate Instagram of a mask, embroidered with a twee sentiment that was spiritually aligned with a pink pussy-hat mentality; no, please, why. I generally don’t like to make a statement of the sort that a Biden-Harris mask would project.
Wearing a mask in public is no longer a stressful or anxiety-inducing activity; it feels normal now, but wearing a mask that screams the names of the Democratic nominees mask put me on edge. For starters, the bagginess makes it feels like the face mask equivalent of your oldest pair of underpants, elastic worn out, the kitty attempting to make a run for it. Also, I fear a face mask that declares both my politics and an interest level in politics that I do not actually possess will invite conversations with strangers that I am ill-equipped to have. The other weekend, a very nice woman at an antiques store talked to me for 20 minutes about the election and I am embarrassed to say that I handled myself terribly: My apathy always bites me in the ass and also, I am now very bad at small talk. I was wearing a normal mask that day, but the possibility of a repeat scenario made me feel like I was about to take a test that I did not study for.
My personal exhaustion with politics is not because I am apolitical necessarily; I understand that the decisions made by the people in power affect everyone, including me. The fatigue I’m experiencing here is not related to an actual disinterest, but the natural result of being worn down by the relentless media churn of cable news, Twitter, and people who think they are funnier than they are making jokes. Every day, a new disaster beckons when I look at my phone or find myself within earshot of a television in public. Everything is bad, but when it’s truly so bad that you’ve forgotten what baseline “good” can be, well, the easiest impulse for self-preservation is to turn off the valve that metes out care and to instead, look for succor in silence. Wearing a face mask that screams my dedication to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, two candidates that I will vote for because I have no other choice, feels like breaking my silence in some way that is largely unnecessary. The lovely thing about living in New York is that, even though the pandemic has made people generally friendlier, I rarely have conversations with strangers about anything particularly deep or important. At the wine store around the corner the other day, the shopkeeper and I exchanged pleasantries about wishing for death as he rung me up for a nice Sancerre. We didn’t touch on politics at all, but maybe it’s because I was wearing the mask—it’s my tattered flag in the sky—capitulation rather than triumph, but it’s better than nothing.
Admittedly, I forgot that I had to wear the mask for this self-imposed experiment most of the time, preferring to instead wear one that felt secure and not like a child’s reusable diaper. Still, the mask was on my face when I met my across-the-hall neighbor for the first time a few weeks ago. We exchanged plesantries about our apartment building and discussed the quirks of our various homes; as I stood in her kitchen, which looks a lot like mine, but slightly nicer, I realized at some point that she was maybe trying to avoid looking at the political statement I was making with my face covering. Of course, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but my own self-consciousness about wearing that specific mask almost drove me to explain why. “It’s for a blog” is an excuse that sounds better in my brain than it does spoken aloud. After crowing in envy over the fact that she has both a dishwasher and a brand new fridge in her kitchen, I eventually forgot that I was wearing the thing at all.
At one point during this experiment, I left my apartment in the mask and saw another woman, walking towards me, wearing the same one. We avoided making eye contact, perhaps out of shame, or maybe just because everyone is tired of looking at other people. She did not seem embarrassed to be wearing a mask that screams a vote for Joe Biden. I guess I can try to follow her lead.