The Mouth Behind the Mask

illustration by Christine Gregory

Last month I ran my second fake COVID-19 marathon, a self-flagellation ritual meant to keep me semi-sane as I wait out the pandemic. My first fake marathon happened last October. I ran along the beach from Torrance to Marina Del Rey, turned around, and ran back. It wasn’t as romantic as it sounds. A lot of sand, heat, and inconsiderate pedestrians without masks. Less Chariots of Fire, more Lawrence of Arabia meets Contagion.

For the second one, I accepted my friend Patrick’s challenge to run from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica, retracing the “old” route of the Los Angeles Marathon. It was much more fun. No sand, less heat, and the downtown homeless population are remarkably more CDC-mask-guidelines-adherent than upper-middle class South Bay beachgoers.

We chatted incessantly until the last 45 minutes and finished three minutes faster than my personal record. My wife Marilyne and Patrick’s fiancée Kerry met us en route a few times with water and snacks. My teenage daughter Cassidy and step-daughter Aimée joined us at the finish line.

I subscribe to the well-established sports nutrition theory that, upon completing a sub-four-hour marathon, there’s a brief window during which you can eat and drink pretty much anything the hell you want, so it made sense to hoist an 11am post-run celebratory lager with lunch at the Santa Monica Mendocino Farms. Patrick, being German, joined me but then had to leave unexpectedly after only one sip. Since I oppose food waste, I stepped up and finished his beer. After all, what could possibly go wrong after running 26.2 miles and then rehydrating with 32 ounces of beer?

We’ll get to that in a minute.

“Put on your mask!”

The Mendocino Farms is located next to Sidecar Doughnuts, a trendy donut shop featuring out-the-door lines all weekend long because, I’m told, their donuts are amazing. This day was no exception. As Marilyne and I ate salad and drank beer in the sunny outdoor dining area, Aimee and Cassidy braved the line with my credit card to buy a long, skinny, awkward-shaped box of a dozen donuts that I would eventually learn costed, along with a couple coffee drinks, $66.13, a fancy price point that explains the British “ugh” in their “doughnuts.”

The girls were back at our table doing damage control over having just shafted me for over half a C-note when a ruckus arose from the Sidecar entrance.

“Sir, you need to put on your mask to come inside.”

The large doorman at the donut shop (when you sell $5 donuts, I guess you need a bouncer) was patiently talking to a patron at the front of the line. He was a stout millennial in a green-and-white, mafioso-style track jacket and jeans. Although his girlfriend wore a mask, he’d spent his entire time in line maskless. In fact, he didn’t appear to even have a mask, but rather a beige, flowy, gossamer kerchief around his neck that detracted from him otherwise resembling a young Tony Soprano.

“I’m gonna put on my mask,” he sneered as he edged around the bouncer towards the door, “when I get inside.”

“Sir, your mask. Please.”

The game was obvious. I remember Cassidy playing it when she was four. The donut bouncer was not the boss of him, so he would assert his dominance by complying only at the exact moment it was required. He was now six inches from the door.

“Please,” pleaded the bouncer, clearly unprepared to actually have to bounce. On a Sunday morning at a pastry shop, no less.

The maskless guy was three inches from the door when Marilyne hit her limit. “Put on your mask!” she bellowed. Our girls dropped their heads on the table in shame.

“Yeah! Put on your mask!” I joined in, hoping a chorus of voices would join us in putting this rube in his place. The chorus never came. We were a peanut gallery of two.

The maskless guy ignored us, his smug expression fixed on the bouncer. “Gonna put on the mask when I get inside.” One inch from the door.

If I’d just toughed that inch out, everything would have been fine. He would have wrapped his mug in gossamer and peace would have returned to the valley. But I did not. “Put on your mask!” Marilyne and I yelled again in unison.

Maybe the physical exhaustion caused me to say what I said next, or the beer, or the year of powerlessly watching selfish people like this refuse to wear masks in public, or all three.

“Loser!” I added, instantly wishing sound waves had physical form so that I could reach out and grab the word before it reached the intended party’s ears.

“Surround yourself with your women!”

The maskless guy’s head cocked. He looked right at me. “Oh, it’s on!” he bellowed as he sacrificed his place in line and ran to the sidewalk in front of where I was eating. “You wanna show me how to put in a mask?”

I find it odd that guys feel the need to vacate commercial properties before initiating a fist fight, like that’s the civilized thing to do. Had he yelled, “Mind your own damn business, old man!” he would have effectively called me out for being a name-calling busybody. But now he just looked like a hothead who lost his place after waiting 30 minutes in line. Maybe he’d just gotten close enough to see the menu inside, realized how expensive the donuts were, and taken the opportunity to back out without losing face to his girlfriend.

I walked to the edge of the outdoor dining area, trying to figure out what to do next while remaining out of haymaker range. For some reason, egging him on seemed the logical option.

“You wanna show me how to put in a mask?” he repeated.

“Sure!” I said, pulling the sweaty gaiter I’d worn for the run up over my mouth and nose. “Like this.”

“You wanna show me how to put in a mask?” he said for a third time.  Perhaps this was code for some other activity he had in mind, but I continued to take him literally.

“I just showed you, but here it is again.” I pulled the gaiter down and put it back up.

“You gotta a big mouth!” he raged.

“Yes, I do,” I conceded, “but it’s behind a mask.”

The maskless guy faltered for a second. I wasn’t going to cower, but I also wasn’t going to walk into his waiting arms. “I’m gonna be right here waiting for you,” he hissed and he walked into the alley to the right of the restaurant. Unfortunately, we had to pass that alley to get to the minivan. I walked back to the table.

“Surround yourself with your women!” Marilyne suggested passionately. I admired her logical thinking, but this wasn’t an option.

“Civic responsibility.”

I quickly formulated a plan as intelligent as every other move I’d made so far that morning. Dodging Marilyne’s attempts to shield me, I walked out to the street while calling 911. Anesthetized by 26.2 miles of running and two pints of lager, I figured a couple blows to the head wouldn’t hurt that badly. My plan was to time it so the cops would arrive just as the pummeling began. They’d cuff him and take him to jail—and that would be kind of funny.

“911. What’s your emergency?” asked the dispatcher.

“I’m at the Mendocino Farms on Wilshire. There’s a guy out front threatening to beat me up because I told him to wear a mask before entering the donut place next door,” I responded, shrewdly leaving out the “Loser” part.

“Do you work there?” she countered.

“No. I just… you know, civic responsibility,” I offered.

“Right. What I’m going to ask you to do is—”

“Wear your mask, loser!” The maskless guy had poked his head around the corner and noticed that I’d pulled my mask down to make the call. Touché.

I covered the phone and looked up at him. “I’m on a call right now. If you could please just hold on—”

“YOU F****** WANNA FIGHT HIM?” Aimee came charging out of the restaurant, iPhone up and filming, at a dead heat towards the maskless guy, with Cassidy close behind. I hadn’t discussed Plan 911 with my teenage daughters, so they’d formulated one of their own.


“YOU HAVE A SMALL PENIS!” added Cassidy, ever the diplomat.

You could almost see the little exclamation points above the maskless guy’s head when confronted with the level of teenage estrogen that some of us deal with on a daily basis. Fight or flight shifted to the latter and he bolted down the alley, choosing future Instagram anonymity over satisfying his ego.

Although not thrilled about the f-bombs or the genital shaming, I admit it was an inspired bit of shock and awe. I hadn’t thought about using my camera. As a Gen Xer, I tend to see the phone as a communication tool rather than an accountability weapon.

“Sir? Are you still on the line?” asked the dispatcher.

“Um, yeah,” I responded. “He’s gone now. My daughters chased him off… with their phones.”

This came as no surprise to the dispatcher. I guess this is how the youngsters do it now. We agreed that I’d cancel my request for assistance, but she asked me to let the donut bouncer know that the maskless guy was in her system, so if he hassled them again, they should call.

I’d established a small fanbase, so the line parted as I walked into Sidecar Doughnuts (with my mask on). The bouncer and I did that awkward thing that most guys still do, even after a year, where you go in to shake hands, realize you can’t, then cycle through a series of unacceptable tactile salutations, eventually aligning on an elbow bump. A small group of employees surrounded me as I explained that 911 was on their side, should the mask-scoffer return.

The bouncer gestured towards the display case, asking if I wanted some donuts. I thanked him and declined. It did cross my mind to ask for my $66.13 back, but this seemed crass.

“At least you didn’t throw that donut.”

We walked back to the minivan in a two-by-two formation, as opposed to Marilyne’s female triangle shield formation. I took the opportunity to lecture the girls on the mistake I’d made. I admitted to them that it’s never okay to call someone a “loser,” even if they are a loser and everyone within 50 feet agrees that they’re a loser and you’re basically just giving a voice to the frustrated masses.

Then we turned a corner and there, a block away, was the loser.

In all likelihood, he’d calmed down and he was on his way back to the donut shop. He didn’t seem to break stride as we walked towards him and his girlfriend. I relinquished the keys to Marilyne and we climbed into the van. The best thing to do at this point was to drive away in silence.

Instead, I reached into the donut box and pulled out a waistline wrecking monstrosity called the “Salted Malted Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough” donut. As we u-turned out of our spot, I rolled down the window and yelled, “This donut is amazing! Too bad you didn’t get any!” and took a huge bite.

Round two. Both the maskless guy and his girlfriend took off running after us. Taking a page from Aimée’s playbook, the girlfriend pulled her phone out, filming us as we drove away. “We’ve got your license plate number!” I could hear them yell as we turned into Wilshire.

What was he going to do with our license plate number? Maybe he had access to our DMV files. Was he a cop or a member of the Russian mafia? These questions would keep me awake at night for a week, but in the moment, I was more stuck on why these people thought our plates deserved recording. In their minds, I had insulted their alpha and then refused to follow the rules of engagement, instead antagonizing him like a smug, manipulative Jerry the Mouse to his angry, beleaguered Tom the Cat. In their worldview, I was the loser—and they had a point. There are two sides to every donut and, most often, they’re equally glazed.

I furled my brow as I sat back in my seat. Familiar with the guilt I often feel after my antics, Marilyne put a reassuring hand on my knee. “At least you didn’t throw that donut at him,” she said.

I nodded as I took another bite. There’s no way I would have thrown this donut at him. After it, it really was amazing.