Between 1975 and 1978, I learned to play three games with my child-aged neighbors around the 400 block of South Sixth, my babysitter Ida’s building and adjacent junkyard at 240 East Third, and during our first year at 616. The most obvious one was Hide-and-Seek. I was never good at it, except when just playing with my older brother Darren. Usually I was among the first to be found. Because others were more creative or athletic about hiding spaces — as in climbing trees or hiding in nearly-empty yet dangerous dumpsters — I didn’t find too many kids, either.
There was also You’re It, or Tag, and the folks at 616 were especially rough with their tags. The kids around there each thought it was their duty to “it” you with the heavy slap on skin of someone who seemed to want a fight. Of course, they sometimes did. The first time me and Darren went outside to play, they chased us around 616 and 630, pelting us with rocks every chance they could. That some of them thought this was play is so telling of the roughness of all our lives. With neighbors like these…
There was a less popular version of You’re It and Tag. I mostly played that during my extended stays with Ida at 240 between 1975 and 1977. It was Cooties. This one could be mean in its own way. The kids would gather around and yell “Cooties!” when they touched you with their germ-infested hands. Some of us were designated vaccines, so that when we touched someone with cooties, they’d yell, “I got my cooties’ shot!”
We hid even harder for Cooties than we did for Hide-and-Seek. We’d be all over the junkyard, hiding in and around gigantic pieces of metal with rough edges, sometimes cutting up a hand or a leg on a piece of jagged rusted iron, steel, or aluminum. We’d hide behind 240 in the woods in between it and the junkyard, subjecting ourselves to smells of puddles of piss, broken beer and soda bottles (Pepsi and Coke wouldn’t start producing plastic soda bottles until 1977) and sharp glass that could come up through our thin-soled sneakers. Yeah, playing Cooties at 240 could sometimes lead to us actually getting the real-life cooties. Such were the dangers of poverty and environmental racism.
This week a year ago is when I began playing our real-life version of our global game of Cooties. Except this is not a game or a drill. Like so many, we did not have everything we needed to protect ourselves during our ventures into the world. March 23, 2020 was the first time I wore material over my mouth and nose. I say “material” because all we could order initially were pieces of cloth that we could fold over. I placed a coffee filter in between my two folds to create a makeshift face mask. It was red. I looked ridiculous.
I ran an errand that weekend to a mom-and-pop store I’d bought good cheap meat from since 1999. I was one of maybe four people with any type of face covering at all. Otherwise, it was a normal errand. Except for the elderly couple I saw walking in after I had cleared the front and was walking toward our car. The White man who trailed the White woman was struggling to walk, which is normal for someone in their mid-80s or 90s. The White woman was struggling to breathe. She was flush, looked congested, and looked ready to collapse at any moment. I haven’t been back to that store since. I heard it was under new ownership a few months ago.
Seeing that White woman, likely with the flu or with COVID-19 or even both, it changed my approach to the pandemic. I went from Let’s be careful out there but let’s not get paranoid to Let’s set the board to Def Con 3 — it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you! My shopping habits changed. I used to hit up to five stores in one outing to put $150 or $200 of groceries and stuff we needed in carts, bring in my reusable bags, talk to shelvers and cashiers, bump into neighbors and colleagues, and make a go of it. Or, when cash was less fluid, I’d shop for small sets of items at a couple of stores.
Either way, I spent three, four, five days a week in warehouses and supermarkets shopping. The last time I was in a grocery store was December 5, in Pittsburgh, buying just enough food to take back to our hotel room while visiting Pittsburgh after my mom-in-law died. Locally in the DMV, I have not shopped for anything other than Disaronno or Absolut Citron (which I’ve hardly touched) since October 15. Why? Because I don’t want anyone touching me with their cooties.
Per Crystal Fleming (yes, #CiteBlackWomen) and Twitter, I started cleaning groceries after shopping at Safeway and Trader Joe’s last April 10 and last April 24. Even at that early stage, as I saw people refusing to wear masks as mandated by Maryland, my aversion to cooties got worse. By then we had secured ten medical masks, and we were looking for medical grade gloves. We had just switched to using Dawn for our dish washing in the summer of 2019, so we were good there. But Lysol, Clorox, Microban, Windex, and all the stuff we needed to keep the house smelling like an antiseptic surgery bay, was long gone from most stores. Every human I saw was a walking meat bag of COVID-19 cooties.
We received our first pack of gloves at the end of April. We hardly used them. I went to a Latinx store in my community for toilet paper on May 1, and picked up groceries in a Safeway parking lot on May 30. After that, I visited a medical supply store for more masks and face shields on June 30, shopped with all that equipment at Giant on July 15, Trader Joe’s on August 17, and Whole Foods on September 15. This past year is the most time I spent indoors since the World Book Encyclopedia-discovery years of 1978 and 1979. Get thee hence, Cooties!
I already had a healthy disdain for humanity before the pandemic, one where I could fake my way through life with superficial interactions and a thin veneer of trust. Now it feels strange to even sit in the car and drive a mile to the nearest USPS mailbox, just to send off a payment. Now it is beyond weird being outside — I cannot believe I used to run or shoot hoops nearly every week for the previous 20 years. Now if I can find any reasonable workaround, I will pay double for something I know I can go get at a store, but don’t wanna leave the house, because people are cooties and cooties are people.
Lucky for me, I am in the queue for a cootie shot, and soon.