Open Notes

How to Buy a Mask

We are prepared and resourceful people, we Americans, so I knew it would be easy to buy a mask when I needed one. Since the fires tore through here back in the fall, I had a wrinkled cache of N95 masks in the back of a drawer and one crushed at the bottom of my backpack. I would be shamed for wearing that kind on the streets of our little town, however; it had happened to friends. I didn’t want that. No, I needed a mask for a prepper: Stylish, effective, providing air flow and filtering, serious.

Amazingly, there are no masks like that in America.

It must be because we are too optimistic. Or I guess this whole pandemic thing caught us by surprise or something. Or we thought we had it covered and we didn’t. Not even remotely. I had to search in China, Eastern Europe, and in the UK, where they take air pollution seriously. They have developed good masks there. I looked longingly at online pictures of the most useful masks,masks with ventilation and filtering, masks that were rated by respected authorities, masks that worked, as evidenced by the filthy filters that could be removed from them, and replaced, after a gray, gritty day in bad air. That’s what I wanted. They were all sold out, but it was briefly reassuring to see a working mask, one designed to filter and allow you to breathe, one not made in a semi-panic out of a t-shirt, not tossed up online by a sewing expert to extract a few dollars of profit and maybe goodwill from a pandemic. I kept trying Google searches.

One mask maker in the UK had a range of wonderful masks, masks that may have been designed like Dark Vader liked colors other than black. Red, blue, bright but serious. Even the name was perfect. Ultralight. They had nothing in stock. Their website said nothing about when they’d be back. A different mask company in the UK sent me a polite, flawlessly-worded note about having no masks until mid-August, and then only one kind that you could pre-order, blue, unisex. They hoped it would suit me. It did not. I needed one this month, not two months from now. The Eastern European suppliers seemed to be running a scam, inviting me to charge up my online shopping cart with masks at an 8 AM Monday click frenzy. I tried this, logging on at 7:59, but before I could check out, the mask I was about to buy disappeared from my cart, leaving just the strap. A strap without a mask wasn’t going to filter anything. I canceled the order. Feeling chastened, but proud I wasn’t caught up in their scam, I searched online again. My searches led back to the same companies that were sold out. The Eastern European scammers were starting to look better — at least they had masks in stock. I kept typing in keywords: “face masks in stock,” “face masks for cyclists,” and the brand names I’d already tried, going around and around, always getting the same results. Being a prepper was proving harder than I thought.

I could have bought colorful masks from fashion companies, a dignified, understated mask from Brooks Brothers, but no masks that would actually filter anything and no masks that looked like they meant business. The cloth masks out there were sublimating the anxiety of the pandemic, turning it into a fashion statement, making wearing a mask something lighthearted and kind. I didn’t want to go there. I wanted a mask that said *this was serious.” I was trying to take it all seriously.

I already had my unsanctioned N95s, and some ill-fitting cloth masks I bought from Etsy in the early days of the pandemic. I made masks from scissoring up two old t-shirts. We had some paper surgical masks that were decent and disposable. They fogged my glasses while on walks or rides and felt like running with a paper bag over my face when out for a run. I could talk myself into believing they did something. Doctors wore them in surgery so they couldn’t be worthless. They kind of said this is serious, but not for me, because I wasn’t a doctor. I needed a mask worthy of a prepper.