In Seattle, we have kiosks to take money for parking spaces. The other evening, I stood behind a man who was trying to coax a sticker out of one of those unarmed bandits. He pushed and pushed at the rubberized button with the point of a mechanical pencil, but there was no response. As his frustration grew, I mentioned that it might work better to use a fingertip. He shot a nasty glance at the button, then turned the look on me.
I understood. "Would you like me to push it for you?" I asked.
Ambivalence left him speechless. His jaw lowered, then raised, then lowered again.
"I don't mind," I said, then reached past him to push the green rubber button. A sticker dropped into the receptacle, the man raised the cover with his pencil point, gingerly removed the paper, nodded to me, mumbled a thanks, and walked off.
Living in what might be the best sanitary conditions in history, Americans are impressive germophobes. Every visit to a men's room is a nonstop show. The man who advances the paper towels with an elbow. The guy who turns the water on and off with a Kleenex wrapped around his finger. The gent who uses a paper towel to open the door to leave, then before the door closes, slings the towel in the general direction of the waste receptacle, and if he misses, well, that's someone else's health hazard. Let the washroom attendant get infected with whatever microorganism might be coating the door handle.
Hand sanitizers are everywhere. I watched a woman enterering a supermarket pull a moistened paper towelette from a dispenser to wipe the steering wheel of the little car her little boy would "drive" through the store. Then she took another towelette to wipe the handle on the back of the car. Then she pulled out several towelettes, walked inside, used one to sterilize the wrapper of a loaf of bread, and headed off toward the rear of the store. I couldn't help wondering how she'd ever managed to conceive that toddler.
There are people who wear face masks to go out into public. No, they're not on chemo, nor do they have immune deficiency conditions. It's just that you never know what's out there.
On the other hand, how about the guy in the men's room I overheard telling a friend about his terrific two-week trip to several primitive third-world countries - as he did everything he could to avoid having a square millimeter of finger contact the flush lever on his urinal? And how about the epidemic of whooping cough now raging through Seattle because so many people don't want their kids to be immunized? (I know about the autism argument, but I don't believe it's valid. What I do believe is that children are dying in my city because their parents have neither allowed them to be immunized, nor themselves received adult booster shots).
What's going to be the outcome of this dualistic behavior? Might we all become pushovers for infectious diseases, bereft of protective antibodies, with immune systems the equivalent of couch potatoes?
But it's an ill wind that blows no one some good, and writers are always tuned in to the world in which they live. One germophobe I watched in action several years back sent me directly to my little pocket notebook to write a description of him. In Scamming the Birdman, he became Fenton Dassidario, who always wore cotton gloves, and loved all things electronic and therefore non-infectious. He was deathly afraid of bugs that might invade his body and kill it, but was a master manipulator of bugs he could plant in someone's apartment to permit him to listen in on their activities.
As the pencil-point man hustled away from the kiosk, I didn't offer to shake hands.