Among the Unmasked

Friday Thoughts

We moved to New England in 2015. We came here because we thought the area had a vibrant literary culture, because we thought there were many people working together to make a good life in this crumbling world, because there is water here unlike back home in New Mexico. One of those turned out true. 

We bought an antique farm house with a couple acres. The plan was to grow a good deal of our own food, be thoroughly rooted in a local economy, and join with a small community to build out a good future. It seemed good on paper. The problems began immediately.  

I can’t fault New England for the most immediate problem: two acres of poison ivy. Or maybe I can because this rampant weed has taken over mainly because humans have utterly failed in stewarding the land in this region. New England has a legacy of concerned environmentalists penning advice down the decades. But New England’s stronger legacy is one of neglect and destruction, squeezing short-term profit out of every square yard, never mind the consequences even to the profiteers. Poison ivy, Japanese knotweed, Oriental bittersweet. These all are taking over land that has already been weakened, often destroyed, by humans. These plant bullies would not stand a chance if we weren’t the bigger bullies undermining the local ecology to bolster up our economy.

But I’m not talking about that today. 

As we were trying to wrest control over the poison ivy — at least to the point of being able to go outside — more problems were revealed. First, I was introduced to the neighbors to our north (who lived in our literal back yard) with this large male pounding on my front door to fling spittle and accusations at me — while I was alone in this rural house, a new-comer and stranger in the community — because the company that rented us a large waste bin (for the poison ivy, because you can’t do anything else with it) had made a mess of the grass next to this neighbor’s driveway. Not his grass (nor ours either because New England has crazy property lines). And certainly not my actions. I hadn’t even called to have the Dumpster removed. But this person spent over twenty minutes yelling at me. I didn’t even know who he was until some minutes into the harangue.

So that happened. And in the meantime… A confederate flag went up in the prepper compound across the street. It was soon followed by a thin blue line flag. And I think there may have been the snake thing also. And there they flew. If I looked out my dining room window, that is what I saw. Just imagine the indigestion. And then down the highway, another confederate flag went up. (More preppers.) In liberal New England! All I kept saying was “This was NOT in the New England-y promotional literature!” It was beyond demoralizing.

Now, we lived three miles from the nearest town center, BUT we lived on the road that connected that town center to the local high school. Hence our curvy, hilly, 25mph speed limit road saw regular traffic. Our rock wall was plowed into by reckless teens at least five times that I can recall. That is, five car were totaled in front of my house in the few years that we lived there. There was also a bit of trash bin abuse wherein they’d either run into the can or merely drag it several meters as they drove past, spreading refuse everywhere. And there were daily additions to the refuse in the form of orange Dunkin’ Donuts plastic trash tossed out the car windows. I began to pick up trash weekly. (One week I filled five large plastic bags from the quarter mile stretch in front of our house.) And I noticed some other nifty things.

There was more alcohol-related trash than the fast food stuff. Emptied while driving on a hilly, curvy road and tossed out the window of a moving vehicle. (How many broken laws is that?) There were also needles dumped into the grass. (Which was full of poison ivy.) I was dealing with urban levels of chaos in the middle of the boondocks of north-central Massachusetts — with none of the benefits of urban life!

What’s more, I walked on these roads around my house. Of course. One does. But this seemed to be interpreted a direct assault on car culture. New Englanders drive huge vehicles. All the time. Everywhere. And fast, recklessly fast. All the time. Everywhere. The vehicle of choice for rural Massholes (their term, not mine) is an enormous black compensation-mobile pick-up truck — the louder and smellier the better. These trucks are wider than half of the road in many places, including the road I walked for my daily constitutional. So here’s this vast tank of a car roaring at me. I can hear it long before I can see it. The driver can’t see me at all. This is already a problem. But even on the straight stretches with no oncoming traffic, I began to notice a high number of near misses. And then I began to notice the intentionality. These hairy males would look me in the eye from several meters out and then drive their trucks directly at me, swerving away — barely — at the last minute. As if they’d thought seriously about killing me merely for having the audacity to be an old lady pedestrian on their road — and then lost their nerve.

This is the current state of New England culture encapsulated. 

So we tried to like that place. We tried to stay there, root in, be local. But… we just couldn’t. 

We moved again in 2019 to be on a couple acres within a town center, thinking that the proximity to witnesses might curb aggression. Silly us.

Our current town is worse. There are no confederate flags flying, but next door there are “Lions not sheep” signs out front, as well as an 8 by 12 foot (!) Trump sign facing the stretch of Main Street that abuts their property. Their expensive and large and otherwise beautiful property. (This is a point I’ll get to in a bit. HINT: Trumplicans are NOT poor.)

Across the street, a guy is renovating the local boarding school building (these are everywhere in New England). He bought this large and highly visible property because the old gymnasium was a perfect place to host his gun trade shows.

And while there are exactly three houses on our one-way road, we still have a lot of traffic in front of our house. Still trash (mostly alcohol). Still reckless driving. (One couple last fall was driving a “borrowed” car at night, the wrong way, well above the 25mph speed limit, and took out a row of granite stanchions and a couple small trees — tossing their plastic bags of contraband into our woodlot before the cops showed up. You can’t make this stuff up.) 

And the black trucks are even more of a scourge. Our home is a few dozen meters from the highway traversing this part of the world. Apparently people out here all have places to go, but never actually spend any time being in those places. They drive. All hours of the day and night. And all in enormous, smelly, compensation mobiles. It’s bad enough that we’re in a depression in the mountains, so that you have to accelerate going both ways on the highway out of town. But these massive engines really have to work at it. And the drivers are intent on going fast. Up the hills. 

So here is my morning:


Slowly fades into the distance.

Unless the vehicle turns and drives up Main Street, a route that nearly encircles my house, thereby drawing out the noise for many excruciating minutes.

This begins at 4am most days. It does not truly end. I’ve heard them going by at two in the morning as often as two in the afternoon. 

This could be seen as merely an annoyance, an unintentional hazard of living near a highway. Except it’s not unintentional. For starters, the speed limit is 30mph around town. To make this much noise, these drivers must be accelerating far beyond that. Then there’s a good deal of engine revving apparently while in neutral gear — just to make noise. And there is the recrudescence of flooring both the brake pedal and the accelerator in a screaming eruption of tire marks and stench. Because how else are they to make their mark on the world? 

And they still try to bodily threaten you if you dare to walk down the road while female.

No, I don’t think this is normal traffic noise. This is an hourly (if not more) slap in the face to everyone not in the cab of that foul truck.

This too is an encapsulation of New England culture.

And this is where I can bring in recent trends. Because these same people driving the compensation mobiles also fly Trump flags (still) from their truck beds and will NOT wear a mask.

Yes, we all went through a period of confusion when this pandemic began. Even the CDC initially told us masks didn’t do much good. (However, I can’t recall that they ever said “don’t wear a mask”; my sister the Maricopa County epidemiologist was telling us to mask up back in January.) But by late spring there was no excuse to not wear the mask your kindly aunt made just for you — you know, the one with the tie-backs and the little smiley suns and flower faces all over it. It was law in New England states as well as a no-brainer. Don’t kill grandma; wear the dang mask.

So it was concerning to note that customers at the local pizza shop — a retail space that is smaller than my kitchen — were maskless. Husband refused to go in. I didn’t even like walking by. And thus we had to drive 13 miles for take-out pizza. Each way. This was not as bad as it sounds. No, we’ve not consumed as much pizza as we used to. But we’ve all lost weight. (Of course, there’s been a good deal of anxiety contributing to that as well. Don’t go making No Pizza the new miracle diet.)

There is a convenience store across the highway behind our house. When we bought into the community, we thought that this was a perk. Because the one grocery store in town didn’t stock much in the way of groceries. And the nearest next grocery store is in the same plaza as the pizza place in the next town over. (Not much of anything for sale in our town actually. Firewood. A lot of firewood. And maple syrup. Part of the year.)

The convenience store is dirty and tends more to lottery tickets and cigarettes than food. And it’s staffed by New Englanders. (Doesn’t it hurt to keep your lips permanently pursed?) However, I was prepared to use the place if I ever needed bananas late at night. (Low potassium leg twitchies are the worst!) But not since COVID. I walk by this shop a couple times a week; I drive by nearly once a day. (Did I mention our road is one-way? Makes for longer trips for everything.) I have never once seen anyone going in that store wearing a mask. Maybe I’m missing the masked majority, but that seems rather statistically unlikely.

Then there was the town selectman who loaned his land to a traveling tent revival in late August. To a group of zealots who made a cause out of flaunting the mask rules. (Something about god protecting them so why bother.) The previous stop on this organization’s road tour saw a huge surge in COVID cases. They baldly stated that they would not wear masks or encourage revivalists to do so in the tent. This was in direct contradiction of New Hampshire state law which required wearing masks in all spaces outside the home and limited gatherings to under 100 people. Let me repeat: a town selectman, an elected representative of our local government, provided the space for this tent revival. And he promoted the event. This is the kind of town we live in now.

(The coda to that story is darkly humorous. The crowds were scanty and the one news photo I saw showed some of the audience in masks. If there was a COVID case surge, it was swallowed up in the back-to-school acceleration of September. And as they were cleaning up after the event, an epic down-pour collapsed the tent. God was apparently not amused. Fortunately, nobody was badly hurt. Unfortunately, this meant they carried on their crusade to the next victim town.)

Yes, this is the town we live in now. But it is not unusual. It is certainly not unique around New England. This might even be an average A-mur’-kin community. This is the town, but more importantly these are the times. This IS us. (You stupid cow…)

These are the unmasked. In every sense of the term. They have utterly lost all inhibitions based on any pretense of maintaining the appearance of social norms. They no longer mask the hatred and othering that has long lived in their hearts, eating away at the core of their being. They are unmasked. And I live among them.

Back when Trump was elected there was a flurry of rural apologists defending the fly-over zone, explaining the one question rational people couldn’t help but ask — why did you vote for that? The premise went like this: rural people are disaffected by increasing marginalization and decreasing economic hope, bearing the scorn of coastal elite urbanites as they try fruitlessly to cope with the many woes our urbanization has heaped on ex-urbia. This sounds true. It has truthiness anyway. And in this new world of alternate facts, even sounding true was better than the bald-faced lies being peddled by the White House.

But the truth? Is nothing like that. Yes, there is marginalization of rural communities. There is even more marginalization of most urban communities where things have always been bad and are getting much worse. There is decreasing economic hope everywhere, but I would say it is far worse in an urban environment. In the country one can at least eat healthy food most of the time — as well as just not be in, you know, a foul human-infested city. And finally, the scornful elites? Are not urbanites. They’re not rural bumpkins, but they would sooner live amongst the cows than cheek by jowl with urban humanity. They live in New England. And other bedroom communities.

I read Hillbilly Elegies like every other guilt-ravaged white person in this country. I wanted to understand these people, to know the “real cause” for all these acts that sure seemed to be motivated by garden variety bigotry.  Surely half the country couldn’t be racist pigs, right? Surely most of the people who look like me are not hateful idiots. Surely it’s all image manipulation by media autocrats (always the bad guys).

Surely the trends I’m seeing — black trucks, excessive rudeness that seemed in direct proportion to an increase in ugly facial hair, viscerally tangible pride in being assholes — surely that is not real. Because I can’t live in that world!

So I read the book, along with a good deal of the rest of the white-people-explainers that were produced at the time. And even back then, when I was desperate to believe in this message, I knew it was baloney. I went to high school in southern Indiana, in a town that had only recently removed the sign planted on the courthouse lawn that read — and this is a quote because I do not use this word — “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on your heels”. This festering whiteness has existed for a long time. For a while it was covered up and spoken of in euphemisms. And now it’s unmasked again.

I got rid of the book with a whole pile of other white-guy-stories when we moved. I rather hoped that the dwindling interest in defending whiteness and other othering ills marked a change in judgment, a new perception of the sicknesses we all carry. I thought we maybe had turned a corner. And maybe most of us had.

But the worst of festering whiteness had one last salvo. Claiming to be patriots, they attacked the Capitol Building at the instigation of the sitting president. (Just sit with that.) They fought the police — injuring and killing some — whose thin blue line flags they carried. They screamed hate and abuse at the entire nation. And these were not the disaffected rural poor. 

Because that part of the story is a lie also. Those who follow Trump are not doing so from a place of economic hardship. They follow him because they don’t want to lose the privilege and wealth that comes with their race and class and gender. They do not want to share with those who actually are suffering from this system that was intentionally designed (by white guys) to extract everything from everybody in order to benefit those at the top of the socioeconomic heap (again, white guys — and their sycophants — this is not a coincidence).

Trumplicans have nice houses (next door, valued at over half a million dollars in rural New Hampshire, is a case in point). They can afford enormous black compensation mobiles and the steady flow of petroleum it takes to drive these gas-guzzling machines everywhere all the time. They have good jobs and vacation time and can fly to Washington in the middle of the work week to take part in an insurrection. They have money to spare on stockpiling everything from toilet paper to advanced tactical weaponry. They are not looking to better themselves by putting a fascist in power. They are looking to preserve their position — because they too are fascists.

And I hate that they’ve managed to twist the story around so that they are the victims. They are the perpetrators. That is the message from the attack on January 6. And that has always been the message when white males lash out at a world that is only trying to wrest back some of the entirety of living that white males have appropriated.

I’m angry not merely because these people have proven to be craven white guys. Yet again.  I don’t feel smug or superior. I’m not a coastal elite laughing at the excessively bearded clods blundering around with horns on their heads and flags wrapped around their backsides. (OK maybe I am laughing, but… not the point.) These people are not inferior to me; they are inferior to who they could be as humans. They have betrayed not just me, not just my home and my country; they have betrayed humanity, their own as much as mine. This world could be great if they weren’t wearing the MAGA hats that proclaimed their tribal insecurities. We could all be great — and unmasked sooner than current trends indicate, trends that these people are driving with their hateful masklessness — if they’d just be decent humans. 

I hate living among the unmasked. Because I don’t want to see how ugly and stupid and infinitely disappointing humans can be. I want to live in a world where masks are not required.

© Elizabeth Anker 2021