Germ warfare

- Kate Feiffer

Dear Nicole,

The other day I heard someone on the radio talking about all the germs there were in supermarkets, especially in the produce section. And he said that most homes are not much better, especially homes with pets or small children. He kind of got me thinking. I have friends who, while they’re wonderful people, are not about to get a Good Housekeeping Award. The kids always seem to have runny noses … and I don’t want to catch what they’ve got. I realize that it might be rude to wear a surgical mask, but would I offend them if from time to time I rubbed on a little Purell when I’m over there?

Mrs. Clean

Dear Mrs. Clean:

If the parents clearly have a self-aware sense of humor that their home is crawling with bugs that you might not have much immunity to, the occasional discreet Purell rub probably isn’t a big deal. They might even offer you some. In fact, a fellow writer had a friend who when he came over to watch television, would bring Windex to clean the screen. “Far from being offended,” says the writer, “I got him to work on the windows.” So in a minority of cases, your gesture might make you a valued extended family member, or even provide supplemental income.

But most parents — who apparently have better immune systems than the guy on the radio — don’t fall into that category.

Some parents of young kids are in the category of there-is-nothing-wrong-here-in-the-environment-where-I-raise-my-kids. Revealing your Purell stash in the face of such defensiveness would make you about as welcome as a professional butcher at a vegan convention. Also, as a professional vegan at a butcher convention. (Side note: Per the guy on the radio, a vegan conference must be perilously germy, as it will be full of produce.)

Most parents of young kids, however (I speak from decades of anecdotal evidence), will be oblivious. Not oblivious in the sense of “unaware.” Oblivious in the sense of “they know the germs are there, but due to other matters requiring their immediate attention, they have forgotten about them for now, and for years to come.” If they see your hand sanitizer, they will likely find it mildly ridiculous that you would be leery of runny noses, when their dance card is full warding off toddler fratricide, the bubonic plague, and chewing-gum-supported coiffures. They might not get defensive, but you won’t win any brownie points, and I wouldn’t count it as a bonding moment. I also wouldn’t really call it a classy move on your part.

If you genuinely feel that your health might be imperiled by going to a toddler-infested dwelling, you have three choices. First: Don’t go to the toddler-infested dwelling. Second: Go to the toddler-infested dwelling, then sneak into their bathroom, and use the Purell where nobody will ever know. Third: Try strengthening your immune system first, by hanging out in the produce aisle at Cronig’s.

That’s my take.


Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse, and is the author of “I, Iago.” Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to