april 20, 2020—field notes: grocery shopping in the time of coronavirus

I pull into the quasi-empty parking lot mid-afternoon. Still too full for my comfort, at least it’s not log-jammed like every grocery store, uber-Target and co-op in the tri-county area was over the weekend, and unless I want tuna and dry raisin bran for dinner (“you’ve had worse…” my inner poor-kid survivalist tries to reason), suck it up, buttercup. Get in, get out, get yer ass home.

I’ve memorized my list and strategically mapped my route through the store. I double, triple, quadruple check my purse for the world’s tiniest bottle of hand sanitizer—the only one I own—along with a handful of Handi-Wipes, that I’m rationing like beans in the depression, thanks to the assholes who wiped out the world’s supply back in March, along with rubbing alcohol and Clorox wipes. I use my meager bottle and wipes for just such outings; the overwhelming urge to rub my eyes never seems to happen except when I’m in a grocery store these days. I slide a doubled-up, filterized bandana over the lower half of my face and check my purse one last time to make sure the hand sanitizer didn’t mysteriously leap out when I wasn’t looking. I take a deep breath, slip out of my ol’ Jeep, scurry across the lot and into the store.

I glance around for wipes to clean off a cart. A young man in a company-issue polo shirt stands guard with a spray bottle and paper towels, wiping down of every last inch of every last cart that’s returned. Nice touch. The sharpness of my breathing softens a bit. Tape covers the quarter slots, umbilical-cord keys that used to link the carts together dangle without purpose from cart handles. Another nice touch—one less thing to have to touch. I thank the young man from behind my mask, take a freshly-wiped cart and slip through the automatic doors.

Goddammit. They’ve rearranged the entire store since I was last in, maybe a couple months ago. Instead of beelining, I wander aimlessly, dodging other shoppers like they have a disease or something, haphazardly crossing back and forth through the store (shit-ton of boxed mac and cheese, I notice, no quinoa anywhere), haphazardly ticking items off my list. I hyper-tune in to shoppers committing various acts of social distancing violations. My breathing intensifies again. 

I stand in front of the refrigerator case, scanning the rows for eggs, when I feel an unsettling sensation of energy behind me. I turn to find an unmasked shopper practically breathing down my neck as he reaches around for a tub of yogurt. Over my bandana, I glare and hiss, “Excuse me—” He doesn’t notice. Or care. He snags his yogurt and meanders on. A young woman cavalierly weaves her maskless way through the aisles, pushing others’ shopping carts out of the way with her own filthy mitts to get at what she needs. Another’s arm and mine reach for the same bag of spinach. Hands recoil at lightning speed, bodies pull back as our eyes meet. I think we’re both smiling, but it’s hard to know for certain when half of our expression is covered in handmade masks. “Go ahead,” she gestures. I grab a bag, wave a quick thank-you at her, and continue.

An older gentleman sneezes, not into the crook of his arm, but aerosol-blasts his microbes right into the store’s atmosphere for God and everyone to breathe. I spin around and head down another aisle. My heart is flopping against my sternum, frantically trying to leap its way out of my mouth, breath comes in shallow gulps, a slight headache begins thudding at the base of my skull. If I despised grocery shopping before, now, it’s a literal exercise in agony. I read the news, I listen to my governor’s press conferences, I know what’s going on. 

I snag the last few items on my list—dog treats, coffee, cereal (I rediscovered the versatility of cereal—cheap, effortless, every-meal food—though a minor win that hardly offsets the growing list of transgressions flaring up around me). In spite of not working for over a month and not knowing when I’ll go back, I decide that this kind of stress calls for an unessential not on my list: emergency ice cream. Salted caramel to the rescue.

I didn’t see any six-foot spaced x’s on the floor at the checkouts as other grocery stores have done (that’s not to say they weren’t there, I was too distressed to notice), but the store has the stretch-limousine-version of grocery carts, which help keep shoppers appropriately spaced. Still, I stand another couple feet behind the shopper in front of me. The man behind me does not extend the same courtesy to me. Usually, I’m ridiculously Minnesota Nice! in the grocery store and at least smile at the person behind me should we meet eyes, sometimes even chit-chat a bit. I can’t help it, it’s my Dad in me. Today, I keep my back turned and seethe as his cart creeps closer and closer to the backs of my ankles. Swear to god, if that thing touches me…

The masked checkout clerk sits behind a shield of plexiglass that’s usually seen in casinos and sketchy convenience stores. Another new protocol in place. After ringing up my items, she slides my cart out of the way, I slide it to a long counter and quickly bag my things up, dropping apples on the floor in my frenzied packing, which sets loose a string of expletives that would have made even my father, King of the Foulmouthed, cringe. I loop all the bags all over my body like some kind of strange peddler, awkwardly steer the cart back out to the Keeper of Carts with one hand, and waddle out to the Jeep with my wares—god forbid would I make another trip back in to return the cart. 

My body practically implodes as I heave a sigh of relief once I’m safely ensconced in my car. I dig out the tiny bottle of sanitizer, splootch some on my hands and scrub them together furiously, taking several long, deep breaths as my blood pressure settles down, before heading back home, where I don’t think I’ll leave, ever. I can totally live off tuna and raisin bran, I think. I wonder how agreeable my landlords would be to a couple of chickens, a field of quinoa and spinach in my yard. 

A friend summed up my experience wisely—no one’s winning here. You’re an asshole if you don’t wear a mask, you’re an asshole for judging other’s maskless existence. If I hear the phrase “new normal” one more time, I swear…There’s not a goddamned thing normal about any of this. If and when this virus is ever chased out of town, mental health workers (and hairdressers) will be our new front line.

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