Capt. William Smith's house

This time last year, I took myself to an author talk with Elizabeth Gilbert in Harvard Square. This year, all author talks are virtual, and I can’t remember the last time I was in Harvard Square. When will it feel safe to go into a crowd again–to mingle with strangers? The rush of community–the thrill you feel walking down a crowded street or congregating with other readers, sports fans, or theater-goers–is something the virus has stolen from us, at least for now.

Today J and I went walking at Minute Man National Historic Park. J had never walked down the Battle Road there, and it has been a long time since I’ve been walking there: a year or so, or more? This time, I was mindful of the space between us and other walkers, joggers, and cyclists, and I carefully noted whether each passerby was or wasn’t wearing a mask. Strangers in the time of COVID-19 have become something dangerous or at least suspect: a new form of stranger danger.

On our way back to our car, J and I saw a large family posing for a group photo, one of the family members taking a photo of all the rest. In the Before Time, we might have stopped and offered to take a picture of all of them, together: the kind of thing Friendly Strangers used to do. Instead, I quickly calculated the potential risk in my head: the risk of stopping, the risk of drawing near enough to offer help, and the risk of touching and taking a photo with someone else’s phone.

The risk was too great, so we walked on. It will be a while, I think, before being a friendly stranger feels safe again.