It happened, walking past a group of pot-smoking teenagers crouched around a tiny portable television. We didn't make eye contact. My choice. There was a head nod, a sort of tacit acknowledgement of presence, and a hasty "boa noite." The kid with a walker (he's easing out of the wheelchair, I think), moved it out of the way. Some five feet away, I wondered. Do they feel as non-existent as I just made them? What masks must they wear to protect themselves from the indifference or fear of their neighbors? We know who they work for, and what they could be involved in. When the shots ring out in the middle of the night, their faces flash across my dreams and I pray for their safety. But I don't know their names, and haven't said more than a 'hello' or a 'goodbye' and a 'can I pass please' to them in two years. What does that do to a person? Is that enough stigma to stay in the trade?
J- is a forest of smiles around me, gentle in his actions and interested in so much around him. Polite and soft-spoken, he shines in the group of street kids we have gotten to know. But if I hang around a little after, once the volunteers have gone home, he puts on his heavy mask that buries pride and suffocates shame to beg for money or at least a shoeshine job. If I call to him, he doesn't respond. The mask is on so tightly, he can't hear. He's become a beggar, no longer J-.
L- pulled her hat down over her face, a perfect US-style robbery mask, and laughed behind the black striped wool. For warmth or concealment? I prefer not to know...
I wear masks too. To hide disgust or humor at the pick-up lines that come on all sides like we're prey in some urban dating video game. To pretend I'm not scared or frustrated or angry or white when the police cars pass. To bury my tears deep, because there are façades I would like to keep intact. Or like the feathered Carnaval masks, gaudy with glitter and iridescent mirrors, I paint elaborate plumage to attract, entice, keep at a safe distance. That must be the real purpose of a mask...fearing exposure, we need another layer between ourselves and the world, others, God...even our own souls.
And when the masks come off, would we even recognize ourselves?