My work is a 15-minute walk from the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento, California, and when I went to work as an essential employee April 20, I didn’t expect for the Reopen California protests happening that day to make their way to me. Hundreds gathered in a show to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to lift the restrictions that have been put in place to protect California residents against the coronavirus pandemic, but the protests were far out of my mind until a stranger came in and started making small talk after he ordered a cup of decaf.
He asked how I was faring during all of this—which is such a strange thing to ask during an economic and public health crisis—which I answered as professionally as I could. I’m there to work, not complain; I didn’t want to tell him that my wife has an autoimmune disease that affects her heart, we have no idea how she would fare if she contracted the virus and I’m fighting to apply for unemployment so we don’t become homeless. Instead, I pivoted to my standard answer: “We’re able to keep the doors open here. But I’m hanging in there, y’know? How are you?”
He proceeded to erupt. He drove up from Los Angeles, California, and said he felt defeated by the protest, which he thought was more of a Trump rally in disguise. He seethed at the idea that so many weren’t there for the intended purpose of the event—to lift the quarantine restrictions.
I knew nothing about this man. He very well could be unemployed and struggling to pay an exorbitant price for rent in Southern California. He could have family in similar situations or a child he was trying to homeschool for the foreseeable future. So, I listened—I didn’t agree with him, but I felt that I at least owed him that.
He admitted that he believed the virus was real and that steps needed to be made to protect the vulnerable in our society, but he was adamant that most of us—gesturing with a pointed finger between us while saying it—could withstand the effects of the virus.
I had to summon a lot of strength to maintain my composure while at work. I knew that unloading my problems on a stranger very likely wouldn’t change his mind, I’d probably never see him again and it may cost me the employment that I very much depend on. However, it felt horrible to be typecast in such a way—this man didn’t know my life or my fears. He didn’t even know my name, but he was willing to dismiss any possibility of my suffering based on an assumption.
Unfortunately, after living with someone with an invisible illness, I am very familiar with how much people can judge a person’s health by simple appearances. There’s no ventilator or oxygen tank trailing behind them. There’s no deformities or flashing lights to indicate that something’s amiss. It’s just them—whole and complete yet broken—trying to live as though nothing is wrong.