“Dispatch from Essen, Germany” by Melissa Knox

vac cleaner
Saturday Evening Post

March 22, 2020

Today I made a home-made face mask, ripping half the plastic cover off a student’s BA thesis, rolling a length of bubble wrap into a fat sausage and package-taping it to the long side.  When I put the thing to my forehead, air could enter from the side covering my mouth. I threaded twine through the bubble wrap and rubber bands, which go around my ears. The mask pulled tighter around my face, stayed on in the breeze. “Welder chic,” said a friend.

I tried folding up and taping a Siemens vacuum cleaner bag over my mouth and nose, something The Wirecutter said to use only under “desperate” circumstances, and I considered my trip to the local Edeka supermarket and pharmacy a desperate circumstance. The vacuum-cleaner mask, without my welder-chic thing is said to be only four percent less effective than the real thing, which is on back order from Amazon. The only problem was breathing, so I tossed the vacuum cleaner bag and put on the single cosmetician’s mask I’d been able to snag at the pharmacy, and which I’d been hoarding for my trip to the hospital, where I get cancer treatments once a month. Before entering the grocery store I flipped up the hood of my raincoat, pulling the strings so that “welder-chic” tunneled around my face.

People in the store were chatting, laughing, exchanging droplets, jaws dropping at the sight of alien me.

A few weeks ago, I’d gone to the Go Asia store to pick up bags of rice and packages of beans—the Germans were hamster-shopping anywhere but there; some of them think all Asians automatically carry the virus. My Vietnamese cleaning lady—who’s been living in Germany for years—said heads turn toward her on the tram.

Now, of course, she’s no longer taking the tram. Her husband drives her to us.  She sprays on hand sanitizer. We ask after each other’s health the way we always did, but now with real interest. No more gossip. She washes dishes while I’m downstairs with the laundry or upstairs folding it.

One set of those beans from the Asian store never softened—was it the tomato sauce instead of water? Water from now on. Ordered Brazilian beans from Amazon.

April 2, 2020

The plastic fry-cook mask arrived from China. The instructions probably told me to remove a thin, clinging layer of plastic, but they were all in Chinese characters, so I accepted the ugliness of the thing, wore it to Edeka, and didn’t dare lift it to check whether the potato chips I was buying for my vegan child would pass muster. The mask is as ugly as sin and, in non-pandemic times, worth less than one percent of the almost-thirteen euros I shelled out for it. At home, I rubbed a spot I thought was leftover adhesive from a price tag, and found the extra layer, which I pulled off. And then I could see through the thing!

(1) It fits around my head with the attached elastic band–better than the twine-and-rubber-band arrangement I made for myself.
(2) It covers my entire face–if someone coughs on the back of my head (but I’d never let them get close enough to try) I might still be okay.
(3) It’s better than nothing.

April 6, 2020

A woman standing at the marker behind me as we were waiting on line at Edeka asked where I got the plastic face shield. I told her, forgetting social distancing for a nanosecond, but the mask soldiered on, social-distancing me from her. On the way home, my cell phone rang; the double layer of latex gloves inhibited response, as did the shield. Back home, I soaked the thing in a bowl of very hot soapy water.

April 7, 2020

At breakfast this morning my eighteen-year-old said, “It was a dream, right?” As I was pulling a vegan lemon cupcake, one of my daughter’s successes, out of the muffin pan, I asked, “What was?”

“I dreamed you told me Georgia died.” Georgia is a very good friend in New York—very far from us. Yes, it was a dream, I said—hoping very much this dream had no truth to it. Boris Johnson was in intensive care with a high fever.

Every day I go to the home page for “city of Essen, coronavirus.” Two-hundred-ninety-eight residents–in a population of 582,624– are suffering from the disease.  Two-hundred-six have recovered. Since the onset of the pandemic, 565 of us have been affected. Oldsters haven’t done well. One doctor on the Corona floor of the hospital said: “I’ve never seen so many people born in 1925.”

When I take a walk in the forest or ride my bike, I never bother with face masks. But when I go to the Edeka and the pharmacy, I still wear the surgical mask, plastic face shield and latex gloves—single-use ones for house cleaning, which I snagged before anyone but me started wearing face masks. Had I not been a former New Yorker who still has many friends and a small apartment there, had I not been a cancer patient who wishes to take no chances, I probably would have shrugged off the warnings too. Yesterday, a few people in the aisle of the Edeka were still chatting in groups and pointing at people like me.

Today I went to the local university hospital for my mandatory monthly treatments. A long line for the waiting room had already formed on the stairs, and most of these folks, like me, wore masks or scarves —but few wore gloves. When I entered the waiting room, the door to the balcony was wide open, a chair placed there to keep it open. I went right out and stayed there watching You-Tube videos of the Moiseyev Dance Company until several other women, inside and in chairs, wanted to close the door—which would have prevented me from hearing the nurse call my name.

“We’re freezing in here!” said one woman.

It was a warm spring day. Breezy. You didn’t need a coat.

I came in, sat on a couch, the seat beside me occupied by a piece of paper on which was printed Bitte Freilassen or Keep this spot free. There were many lung cancer patients, so people were coughing. It was hard to see my computer through the plastic shield or the steam building up under it. But I could hear the man sitting opposite me, decked out in a mask, as he nervously tapped both it and his face.

The guy continued to splay fingers across his mask, the patient near him pulled his mask down below his chin, spreading fingers on his cheek. The woman nearest me put her her fist against her maskless mouth, and the woman two seats away had hospital-grade latex gloves and a surgical mask. Also she was holding a magazine with both hands. In the distance—possibly in the room where they draw blood, and where I would soon go—somebody coughed loudly. A nurse came to get me, plucking at her face-mask with un-gloved fingers.

A few days ago, walking in the park, I heard a woman say to some acquaintances she’d just run into, “Oh, when I want more room, I just cough loudly!”

(A version of this piece appeared on the author’s blog.)

melissa2 Melissa Knox‘s recent writing appears in *82 Review. Her book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren Press (2019) and reviewed in ACM. She is shown at left in Coronavirus Chic, accessorized with nitrile glove. Perfume by isopropyl alcohol.