Mr. T did not smile at me.
No, I didn’t think it was because he was mean or anything; in fact, he was polite and had quite a calming voice. But honestly, it was hard to read someone’s facial expression behind a mask — at least during the first few months of the COVID-19 outbreak. This barrier pushed me to look closer: to look past the mask, to observe the subtle changes of pupils, to notice the slight wrinkling of the forehead and to study the illusive furrowing of the eyebrow. Now, a year into the pandemic, I feel considerably more confident in my ability to decipher someone’s emotions behind a mask.
I remember my first time arriving at the shelter as a student clinic leader. Mr. T, dressed in a faded green T-shirt and oversized jeans, greeted me at the door and gave me a firm handshake. The contours of his hands were coarse and I could feel the time-toughened calluses on his palms. His dark skin was dry and peeled off slightly near the numerous small creases and folds. He was bald, but several loose strands of grayish hair still sprung out near his temples. His beard stuck out as uneven patches from either side of his mask and yellowed slightly at the ends.
As I greeted him, I tried to accentuate the curl of my eyebrows so that he could tell that I was smiling. However, Mr. T did not smile back as he led me through the doors of the building. I was one of the dozen medical student leaders at my school for preceptor clinics. We worked with local shelters and rehab facilities to expand initial access points to a greater primary care network for underserved populations. This shelter served regular residents for substance abuse rehabilitation. It also provided dinner to the nearby homeless, who would come in every afternoon.
Mr. T’s job was to coordinate seating and provide amenities for these walk-ins. He would stand near the chapel entrance, handing each person a mask and then walking them to a specific seat. “Masks on, please!” he would holler occasionally, adding “Masks gotta stay on!” Then as he registered each person, he would take out a tiny notebook and write something. I stood beside him to provide each walk-in with information regarding our upcoming clinic. I eventually grew curious and asked Mr. T to show me what he was writing. He turned around, gave me a look that I could not quite decipher and then showed me the notebook.
I was shocked. In contrast to Mr. T’s austere appearance, his notes were incredibly meticulous. The notebook itself was kept in pristine condition; only the pages’ yellowing gave away its age. Written in a small but clear-cut font were each person’s name, age, allergies and requested accommodations. Comparing his scrupulous calligraphy to my own chaotic scribbles on the patient intake sheet, I instantly felt a rush of embarrassment. Trying my best to hide the shame and lighten up the mood, I commented, “Wow, your handwriting is A+!”
“It’s just my job,” he said as he again did not smile. “These people, they be waitin’ in long lines every day just to grab a hot meal here. Gotta help how I can.” I nodded, looking at him as he jotted down some extra notes using a worn, blue ballpoint pen.
“Ever since the virus, we could not take in as many no more,” Mr. T let out a short sigh, “but these people are also havin’ the hardest time because of the virus. And it’s a pity we just can’t help enough of ’em.”
I then followed him to grab a wheelchair for a gentleman with crutches waiting in line. I watched Mr. T as he carefully flipped the footrests up and gently helped the man get seated. He handed me the crutches and signaled me to follow him as he led me back into the chapel.
That was when I noticed how Mr. T coordinated the seating. Everyone was seated sufficiently far enough from one another to adhere to social distancing guidelines but also close enough to engage in conversation or prayer together after their tough day outside. This arrangement helped to maximize space usage while minimizing physical contact.
We gave the gentleman a hand as he transferred from the wheelchair onto a seat. “Anything else we can do for you, brother?” Mr. T kneeled down and asked. “Anythin’ at all, just let me know. Or let this young man know if you want to see a doc.”
“Thank you, sir,” the man said as he repeatedly shook Mr. T’s hands with both of his. Looking up at me as well, he exclaimed “God bless you, sir.”
Mr. T curled his eyebrows and wrinkled his forehead ever so slightly. Was there a smile underneath that mask? I wasn’t sure. He then gave me a firm nod and the other gentleman a pat on the shoulder. If anything, I caught an odd glimpse of apprehension in his eyes as he started to walk away. He turned around halfway down the hall and briefly raised his hands up as if he was going to wave me over. However, it just turned into a quick wave and a thumbs-up as he continued walking away.
Inspired, yet confused, I then went upstairs to run our clinic. During the entire shift, I was trying to comprehend the paradox that was Mr. T. How could someone so friendly feel so distant at the same time? Why didn’t he want to talk with me? Why didn’t he smile?
Four hours and ten patients later, I came back down to the front desk, feeling winded. After thinking it through, I decided to talk to Mr. T again myself. I wanted to bid him farewell, thank him and unveil a bit more of his enigmatic personality.
“What’s up, Doc?” The shelter manager greeted me enthusiastically.
“Not quite a doc just yet!” I smiled back. “Where’s Mr. T? I gotta go say thanks to him before I leave.”
“Oh, Mr. T, um,” he paused for a second, then cleared his throat: “Mr. T just left to go back home. His mother passed away from COVID yesterday.”
I stood there in silence.
“Yeah, we told him to go back yesterday,” the manager shook his head, “but he insisted on staying to help us finish serving dinner today.”
Something was stuck in my throat. I blinked rapidly as I felt a flinch in my eyes.
That’s why Mr. T did not smile — but that should not have mattered at all. While I had felt so confident in my growing ability to decipher people’s emotions behind their masks, I had overlooked something much more important. I had tunnel vision — focusing on the subtle changes of his eyes and desperately looking for a window to peek through to his mind. Yet, it should have all been abundantly clear how he poured his heart out through his every thoughtful act.
Behind the appearance, behind that mask, there was a love and kindness that emanated from his every step. There was compassion written among the meticulous pages of his notebook; there was graciousness in how he bent down to secure the wheelchair; there was humanity in the way he treated everyone as his own brother or sister. His love and kindness in serving others easily lit up the entire room, even when he was in a dark place himself.
What I can do is keep up his work, continue paying it forward and carry on smiling. When we can eventually put these difficult times behind us, maybe, just maybe, I can join Mr. T in celebration and in bittersweet reminiscence. I’m even willing to take a bet: he will have the brightest smile of us all.