Smiling During The Times

23 Apr

Just so we’re all on the same page, I am calling this current period of our communal lives “The Times.” There were “The Before Times,” there will be “The After Times” but The After Times won’t be the same as The Before Times because of what we are living through right now. The Times. With me? Great.


I know that there is this idea that people in New York City don’t make eye contact, that we don’t smile at each other. But that is simply not true. That might partially be the story of those of us who, over the years, have tired of the throngs of tourists making the city so crowded that we cannot enjoy some of the amazing things it has to offer. Try walking, running, cycling or driving across the Brooklyn Bridge at any time that isn’t a pandemic and you’ll see what I mean. But more than that it is the story told by the many visitors to this city who have, over their lifetimes, been told countless stories about the coldness that will greet them when they visit here. The people who have not realized that New York City is one of the safest big cities in the country. Those who somehow don’t understand that there is a symbiotic relationship between a city and the people who live within it. People visit New York because the city is amazing. The city is amazing because the people who live here have made it so.

In The Before Times, I would walk around the city and make eye contact with people and then I would smile at them. Not a smile that would invite conversation, mind you. I didn’t have time for that because I was for sure running 5 minutes late for something. But a small smile that said,

Hey, I see you.

In a crowded place sometimes we struggle to be seen.

But now it is The Times. And during The Times people are wearing all manner of face coverings. Surgical masks, N95s, scarves, bandanas, homemade things, those creepy ones that I think maybe are gas masks – Eric says respirators – but either way they make people look like they are either underwater explorers or serial killers. I hate the masks. I hate all of them. I hate wearing them and I hate seeing them. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they are needed and I wear one because it is the only option if you give a shit about anyone other than yourself, but I still don’t like them. They make it hard to breath, they make it look like we are at war (which I suppose we are) and, perhaps most troubling for me, they make it hard to smile at people.

Today, for example, Eric and I took Goose for a walk and got the things we need for the next few days at the store. Eric did the shopping and I stood outside on the sidewalk with Goose, mask firmly in place. For those of you who are making all the wrong choices and have never met Goose, here is her Instagram page. You’re welcome. Point being, Goose is very cute. People LOVE Goose. Usually, in The Before Times they would smile at her when they walked by and then I’d smile at them and then Goose would wag her tail and everyone would be happy. But now they walk by and I look at them and try to figure out if they are smiling and in the meantime I smile behind my mask and then maybe they are trying to figure out if I am smiling and maybe they also are smiling behind their mask and so there we are, blankly staring at each other, smiles completely obscured, not knowing what the fuck to do. We just make a lot of really intense and confused eye contact. So I wonder, Should we all just print out pictures of ourselves smiling in The Before Times, laminate them, wear them around our necks and then hold them up in front of ourselves at the time when we normally would be smiling? And maybe actually are smiling but no one can tell? Do we force everyone to watch America’s Next Top Model and spend their time standing in front of a mirror practicing their smize? Do we use the Defense Production Act to force companies to create see-through masks so that we can be safe out in public and also be able to communicate nonverbally? Do we walk by people and just say “I am smiling at you right now?” I don’t know. I am truly at a loss.

Yesterday, I went for a drive in my car. I was the only person in the car so I wasn’t wearing my mask. When I stopped at stop signs and people crossed in front of me, I would smile at them and they would know. And even though they were wearing masks, I believe they were smiling at me because they could see my smile and read my nonverbal message of

Hey! I see you!

Honestly, I felt so free just being able to interact with the world in a way I was accustomed. I was able to speak the language of facial expressions that involved more than my overly expressive eyebrows for which I currently am more grateful for than ever before. And it was weird because never in my life, in all the time I have spent thinking about the privilege I have, did it ever occur to me that smiling is a privilege. That smiling at someone, and being smiled at in return, is a gift to be treasured. I have caught myself a few times, while wearing the mask, not smiling when normally I would. I have caught myself wondering what the point is. But there is a point. Because there will be The After Times. And even though The After Times will be so different than The Before Times, at least we will be able to smile at one another on the street and in the store.  I am really looking forward to that. Because for all the things I feel sad about, I feel most sad when I smile at someone and they don’t know. I feel sad for the smiles I haven’t knowingly exchanged. The ones I haven’t received and returned in kind. Or the ones I just didn’t know I was given because I couldn’t read what was happening underneath the mask. I deeply feel the loss of those random moments of brightness. I miss strangers. But more than that, I miss their smiles. I can’t wait to see them again.


If you are enjoying my writing, and since a lot of the cafes are currently closed, consider buying me a coffee on ko-fi! It only costs $3 (or a multiple of 3 if you’re feeling frisky!) and would make my house-bound, under-socialized heart sing. To those of you who caffeinated me, I send you so much gratitude. And I send gratitude to all of you who took the time to read this piece and helped me hold some of these thoughts. 

2 Responses to “Smiling During The Times”

  1. The Other Scott Frank April 25, 2020 at 10:42 am #

    I always cry when I read your blog. I like being moved, so it’s a compliment. Most of us that write have danced around the importance of feelings. But I believe helping someone feel themselves is one of the greatest gifts one can impart.

    • FranklyRebekah April 25, 2020 at 6:59 pm #

      Thank you, Scott! That means so much. Love you!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: