BOSTON. It’s shortly after 7 a.m. as the first mass transit train of the morning rolls into South Station, and debarking commuters hit the platform for what will be for many their first full day of work outside the home in two months. “It’s been a frustrating time,” says Meredith Olson-Jenkins, who home-schooled her ninth grader daughter with her husband while schools were closed. “Had we known we’d have to use algebra as adults, we would have paid attention in class instead of passing mash notes back and forth.”
There are some new faces in the crowd of public sector officials who man and woman public transportation facilities to maintain order in addition to the usual members of local, state, federal (Amtrak) and MBTA police this morning; white-coated representatives of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, who closely scrutinize the passengers as they pass by.
Miles Northcutt, an Underassistant Deputy Secretary in the DPH, whispers out of the side of his mouth to Kaitlyn Ferber, who hold a clipboard, cotton swabs and a forehead thermometer at the ready to screen passengers who display potentially risky symptoms. “We’re going to have to intervene with these yahoos,” he says sharply, and Ferber reaches into her “Public Health is for EVERYONE!” tote bag to pull out a bull horn.
“Attention,” she blares at a group of three people, all wearing masks, who have been chatting with each other. “I’m going to have to ask you to observe Anti-Amiability Guidelines.”
“But we’re all wearing masks,” says Ed Phloebersk, an actuary at Modern Moosehead Insurance Company, referring to the exception carved out of social distancing guidelines by the state’s executive order.
“That may be,” says Northcutt, “but you’re being way too amiable.”
“What’s wrong with that?” asks Emily Cheshire, an associate at a real estate law firm.
“Boston is a world-class city known for the reserved demeanor and haughty–almost hostile–attitudes of its citizens,” Northcutt says. “We don’t want to backslide into being a third-world hellhole like Keokuk, Iowa, where people actually talk to each other on the street–for no good reason.”
Boston Public Garden: Please don’t compliment the tulips, it’ll go to their heads.
Boston is known, in a well-known poem handed down through the ages, as a place where the Cabots speak only to Lowells, and the Lowells speak only to God, but the two-month coronavirus has eaten into that reservoir of disdain, causing people to think that they’re “all in this together,” notes local historian Benedict Traister. “It’s troubling, both from a public health perspective, and in terms of decorum. If you begin to experience sympathy for your fellow man to the point where you actually speak to someone who wasn’t known to your grandparents, you should lie down until the feeling goes away.”
Order is restored as the group of commuters heeds the warning and re-sets their faces into masks of indifference, but the two public health officials can’t drop their guard as successive waves of workers file past them, many with expressions of relief on their faces as they achieve social distance from their spouses for the first time in eight weeks. “Familiarity breeds contempt, absence makes the heart grow fonder–these are age-old truisms,” says Traister. “It is literally impossible to miss someone unless they go away first.”