1. Life & Culture

Who was that masked man? Notes from the pandemic in paradise

How the Lone Ranger would fit in right now.
Clayton Moore in his role as 'The Lone Ranger.' Note the mask.
Clayton Moore in his role as 'The Lone Ranger.' Note the mask. [ AP ]
Published Jul. 29, 2020|Updated Aug. 3, 2020

My first role model was a television cowboy hero known as the Lone Ranger. Played by a dashing actor named Clayton Moore, he was a wonderful character, full of humanity and virtue. He spoke with perfect diction, treated women with respect, reached out to Native tribes and Mexicans. His best friend was Tonto, played magnificently by one of Canada’s greatest athletes, Jay Silverheels.

As a defender of law and order, the Lone Ranger could serve as a model for our own times. He believed that reasoning with a troubled person was a better path to justice than violence. He shot silver bullets from his six shooters, but never with the intent to kill — only to wound and disarm.

All that would be good enough, except for this: The Lone Ranger was the coolest cat in the West. He rode a magnificent white stallion, Silver. Together they could ride like the wind. He had these great catch phrases: “Hi Yo Silver, Away.” And every time the Ranger and Tonto rode off after a mission accomplished, an orchestra somewhere began playing the blood-stirring “William Tell Overture.”

And he wore that mask. We never saw him without it. At a time when masks were associated with bad guys who robbed banks and stage coaches, his mask filled villains with dread and good-hearted citizens with hope. Wearing that mask, Clayton Moore became one of the most recognizable characters on the planet. Until the end of his life, he wore it with honor. If he were alive today, I bet he’d be wearing not one but two masks — both designed to save lives and help others.

Essential workers

Every two weeks we pop into Publix for supplies. More and more, I find myself engaging with the workers there. Many are young and remind me of when I had my first decent job as a teenage bag boy at a supermarket on Long Island. I smile at them from behind my mask, ask how they are doing and thank them for working so hard. They are working for themselves, no doubt, but also for us. At the checkout, I greet two young women, Destiny and McKinley. I tell McKinley that I love her name and that when I was her age, I lived on McKinley Avenue. “I know, sir,” she says. “You told me that last time you were here.” As for her friend, I said, “You know if you ever had a daughter, she would be Destiny’s Child.” “Oh, that’s a good one,” said McKinley, lifting my spirits.

The stuff we leave behind

The word “detritus” has always baffled me. I don’t even know how to pronounce it. My dictionary says “du-TRY-tus,” but I don’t trust it. It denotes “debris,” often the nasty stuff we leave behind. Those petrified McDonald’s french fries stuck under your car seat: That’s detritus.

A face mask is seen on the ground in the parking lot of Xtreme Juice Friday, May 29, 2020 in Tampa. Discarded personal protection equipment is like masks and gloves are becoming more prevalent as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
A face mask is seen on the ground in the parking lot of Xtreme Juice Friday, May 29, 2020 in Tampa. Discarded personal protection equipment is like masks and gloves are becoming more prevalent as the coronavirus pandemic continues. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

We have lived with the pandemic long enough now to have acquired pandemic detritus. I can’t help but notice that every time I venture out of the house, especially in downtown St. Pete, I see blue medical masks and discarded latex gloves on the sidewalk, in the gutter, even floating in the bay. Signs of our times. Man, I could really use some french fries.

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He ain’t heavy

For most of my adult life, I weighed about 150 pounds, but gained about a pound a year, 10 pounds per decade, till I maxed out at 184. That weight freaked me out, not because of the way it made me feel, but because my waist measurement ballooned from a 36 to a 38. Inconceivable.

For a while, I worked out a little more and ate a little less. I lost weight, like a quarter of a pound a week, only to gain it back. Then something happened. The pandemic. When I climbed on the scale in Publix, it settled at 171. My doctor asked me what I was doing to lose weight. I told her I drink one beer before dinner and eat 3 ounces of vanilla ice cream for dessert. The beer/ice cream diet.

In truth, working from home for four months has meant no big lunches or irresistible workplace snacks. It’s a hot summer, so we don’t bother cooking big meals. But who am I kidding? Nothing controls my appetite more than stress: a pandemic, a recession, social unrest, a crazy election, and, oh yeah, the ceiling in our Florida room collapsed.

Shop till I drop

I visit my clothes closet about once a week and tell my dozens of shirts, pants, sport coats and shoes how much I miss them. My regular wardrobe is down to five T-shirts, two golf shirts, two pairs of gym shorts, three pairs of big-boy shorts, one pair of Brooks running shoes, Crocs, an endless supply of white socks and maybe five pairs of boxers. (I have more undies than that, but my bored wife keeps doing the laundry, and I retreat to my favorites.)

Unlike most men, I love to shop. I miss shopping. My New York City mom taught me how to look for bargains. I have bought a half-dozen sports jackets at Stein Mart, a department store in the Northeast Shopping Center. I am a patient shopper. I can wait more than a year to see a jacket marked down from $199 to $159 to $129 to $99 to $79. Then comes the glorious moment. Clearance sale. An additional 50 percent off. Discount taken at the register. $39.99!

Even if it didn’t fit me, it would be worth buying, cutting up and tossing in my garage for rags. But when will I have another chance to wear my John Lennon khaki jacket with rainbow peace signs?

I don’t need another thing to wear. This did not stop me from dropping into Stein Mart on a recent rainy day. Sales galore. My eye caught a moss green hooded sweatshirt, light fabric, one that zips up the front, just the way I like it. I checked the price, $79. No, but wait, marked down to $39. Hey, lookee here, half off. $19.99. No, I didn’t need it, but I walked out into the rain smiling as if I had just won the lottery. I’m wearing it now.

The ghosts of 13,000 fans

I own more than a dozen Rays caps and spent most of a decade as a season ticket holder. I miss the ritual of going to the cool confines of that much maligned ball park. Now, watching the games on television with all those empty blue seats makes me hanker for the enthusiasm generated by the 13,000 of us who used to show up and make a little noise.

Speaking of baseball, I was disappointed for the first time in the performance of epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci. He tried to throw out the first pitch for the Washington Nationals, but he gripped the ball too tight, and it veered way left toward the dugout. I thought that his critics on the right might use the moment as evidence that the charismatic doctor is not always accurate. But my daughter shared a thought that he threw it that way “because he doesn’t want anyone to catch anything.”

Looking ahead

Over the last five years, my wife Karen has had two bouts with breast cancer. The treatments have been more devastating than the disease. Surgery, chemo, radiation. It took almost a year for her to recover from the last treatments. And then she did, in time for her 70th birthday. We threw a great party for her on the weekend of Valentine’s Day, and it felt as if we were ready to return to a “normal” life. To travel. To explore. To be reunited with family and friends. A month later we were housebound.

At first, we were kind of angry, victims of some cruel, cosmic practical joke. And then we thought: “You know, during four years of cancer treatments, we mostly stayed in the house. We washed our hands all the time. We avoided crowded places because our immune system was compromised.” We were encouraged by the idea that we had been training for the pandemic.

August 7 will mark our 49th wedding anniversary, and we will celebrate by replacing our ceiling. But I promise you this: On August 7, 2021, there will be a huge party to which you will all be invited. Maybe we’ll have it at the Trop. And there will be much hugging and kissing. Maybe just for fun I will arrive on a white horse and wearing a mask, looking like a geriatric Lone Ranger.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of many books, the latest being “Murder Your Darlings,” a writing book about writing books. He can be reached at


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