Something was going on with the grocery stores.
It was the middle of a Sunday in early March when I arrived at my local King Soopers market for the first time since the coronavirus’s rapid and inexorable spread became the lead story on every cable evening news show. The novel coronavirus is what they called it, a disease with a mortality rate ten times greater than a flu virus that kills more than sixty-thousand American people per year. No one was safe, especially members of our elderly and minority populations, within whom the disease has discovered the most opportunity to wreak havoc.
I’d watched intently as bug-eyed cable television anchors and pundits begged for a more robust response from the United States, the erstwhile undisputed leader of the free world before the arrival of Donald Trump. When we did finally summon the will to act to save ourselves, we were at a loss at exactly how to respond. For there was no reliable treatment plan or certified vaccine, no agreed upon method to control and eliminate the spread of the bug, and no coordination amongst local municipalities and the federal government. Most Americans were trying to figure out how to exist within this pandemic sans guidance from the people in charge. It was a veritable Wild Wild West out there in the world. When I took a step beyond my door I sensed the change, our world tilting askew. Pressure began to rise as civilized society fell further and further behind.
We were running up a mountain that was growing taller with each passing day. Our discombobulated and patchwork response was deemed weak by epidemiology experts — because it was. So, we of course panicked and flailed some more. Because the virus wasn’t just a threat to the physical health of the citizens of the entire world, it threatened the fabric of a society that was loosely held together by threads.
The potential breakdown of society was reflected through the crisis taking place at my neighborhood grocery store.
There was nary a parking space left in the lot for me to drive into.
The check-out lines extended for what seemed like forever. Those people not wedged in between another person in the lines were pushing shopping carts through aisles, scouring the shelves for food and supplies, and discovering that shelves were being stripped clean. I was one of those people.
My staple foods were gone. There was no meat, chicken, oatmeal, bread, or almond milk for cereal. Paper towels, toilet paper, and napkins were nowhere to be found. The fruits section was empty except for a large bumble bee that hovered overhead.
As I continued to forage for goods, I noticed the pace at which the other foragers/competitors were searching for their supplies. Foragers were more purposeful than what I was used to in the past. Shoulders were rigid. Arms were coiled. Jaws were set. No one stopped to offer a hello. I surreptitiously scanned the eyes of my competitors and was filled with dread. Some were wide open and ablaze with panic. I quickened my pace in response.
I rounded the corner of the of the cake mix aisle. I snaked through parked carts until I happened upon a bald man carrying a basket filled with canned goods. We actually locked eyes before he shook his head.
“Oh my god,” he said, exasperated. “It’s just a damn virus! Why are people losing their minds over a god damn virus?”
I smiled at this ignorant individual and immediately forgave him, as we were all still trying to wade through the information — much of which was preliminary — that was being thrown at us. He was right about people losing their minds though. Never in my life had I’d seen abject fear and anxiety played out through the actions of strangers. The only comparable time period were the ensuing days after the terrorist attacks in New York, but at least the world came together after the towers were brought down by those airplanes. Today was different. Today was every man for himself.
“That’s what I’m saying,” I said. “It’s not right what is going on here.”
As I pushed my cart past the man, my mind reverted back to the time I watched A Quiet Place on my computer. In A Quiet Place, society has been decimated by ravenous monsters. The movie begins with a scene in a supermarket.
Once firmly ensconced in a checkout line, I took inventory of what was contained in my shopping cart. I sighed heavily, as I’d been able to secure one-quarter of the items that had been inscribed on my piece of paper. As I waited for the line to inch forward, I scoured my memory for the last time I’d prepared to exit a grocery store without buying everything I came for. There was nothing.
I needed an anchor. I pulled my cell phone from my front pocket, texted my sister to inform her she was right about what was going on, and then dialed my mother’s cell phone number.
“Hello,” said momma.
“Momma, it’s me?” I said, shuddering.
“There is nothing here momma. The food is almost gone. The shelves are empty and there’s no water! I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!”
“Oh.” She paused before saying, “that’s okay my dear. Get what you can and then come back.”
I sighed again. “Hold on momma.”
I kept the phone pressed against my ear while taking steps to the left until I was standing apart from everyone in the line. I realized I didn’t have my eye glasses on and cursed underneath my breath. My vision was blurred. I jutted my head forward and squinted my eyes. There was still a long way to go, but at least the line was moving forward. I stepped to the right until I regained my space in the line.
“I’m going to see if I can find some stuff at Walmart,” I said.
“Are you sure you want to do that? Do you think it will be the same at Walmart?”
“It might be the same over there. I just want to check it out and see. So, yeah. I think I’m going to drive over there.”
“Okay. Just be careful.”
Things were no better at Walmart.
Grocery stores all over the world were being emptied by panic buyers in March and April. These panic buyers fancied themselves as prophets. Fearing an imminent food shortage, these clairvoyants flooded the grocery stores and grabbed everything they could, without regard for their fellow human beings. Grocery store workers were unable to keep up with the demand. Food shortages became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Food security had never been an issue for me before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’d never imagined being reduced to the base nature of my being. But with each ensuing unsuccessful visit to the grocery store, my fear and resentment for my fellow man swelled within me. Intuition took the place of more reasoned thoughts because my very survival was being threatened. My local grocery store was a concrete wilderness now, where small battles were being waged every single day. I knew that only the strong could thrive in this new world of ours, and I was going to have to go to war while being polite about it.
Some optimistic people speculated that the Covid-19 disease would prove to be ephemeral as the weather became warmer. It would fritter away like an innocuous mist, leaving us with a three month reprieve for summer fun until we perhaps encountered a second wave of Covid-19 during the fall.
But here we are in the middle of June, 2020. The novel coronavirus is extending its grip as more sections of the United States and the world reopen. The increased spread in the United States is a particularly distressing development. The band aid that was the patchwork lockdown has been soaked through. It is limp. Dirty. Bloody. The rest of the world is aghast at our ineptitude. It would probably be wise for the United States government to implement a bigger and more expansive band aid — mandatory nationwide lockdown — until we leave the virus with no one to invade.
However, stakeholders — almost every American citizen — in the U.S economy have no appetite for another lockdown, as there is an abject fear of what another shutdown of the country can do to our economic prospects. So, we’re left with an open wound, and the hope that we can mitigate the sore with our collective behavior until a viable vaccine has been approved.
It’s like my mother keeps telling me: “This thing is not going away.”
The past Sunday I awoke from sleep with a sinking feeling in my stomach. Yeah. It’s not going away. I turned onto my side, grabbed my cell phone from on top of my bed table, and checked the digital clock. After taking in the time, I let the cell phone fall onto the floor, turned away from the bed table, and closed my eyes. The sun’s rays were filtering through perforations in the blinds. I needed time to process everything going on before I sat up in the bed. I’d been dreading this particular Sunday morning, the first of my two week stay-at-home vacation, since I was going to visit the grocery store.
There were plenty of parking spaces to pull into on that morning. I let out an exhale, as I was relieved by the sparseness. Still, there is nothing special about an accessible parking lot at the market on a Sunday morning. Most people were nestled beneath their bed blankets at this time of the day. I put my blue mask over my face and braced for the blast of disappointment that hits me after realizing I’m not going to get everything I came for.
A hand wipe dispenser is situated just beyond the store’s entrance. I pulled three sheets from the dispenser and began to wipe down the grocery cart I’d selected. My head was turned in the direction of the meat section the whole time I was sanitizing the cart, as it was going to be my first destination. I knew I would have a good morning if there was some meat and chicken available for purchase.
I drove my shopping cart over the meat section with purpose.
Ground beef, neck bones, and spare ribs were where there were supposed to be for the first time in what seemed like forever. My reaction was to nearly fall over. After that, I felt like jumping up and down in the store. So, I did. Damn what anyone thought if they saw me. I placed my hands together, interlaced my fingers, looked up and said “thank you”. There were so many pieces of meat to choose from. I wanted to share this moment with the people I loved. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and dialed my mother’s number.
“Hello,” said momma.
“Hey Mamma!” I said. “I found meat!”
“Really?” she said.
“Yay!! Thank you God!”
“Yes, praise be! They got everything today. You want spare ribs, right? How many do you want?”
“Get me two packets.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to you later.”
After hanging up the phone, my thoughts turned to my girlfriend. She was probably asleep at this moment. So I texted her the good news before grabbing a few packets of frozen chicken.
The rest of my shopping experience was as I hoped it would be. I found everything I needed. Even better, it seemed as if the other shoppers were able to get what they needed too. There was enough food and supplies for everyone who came.
I was able to make eye contact with some of the other shoppers too. A few people offered a greeting as we drove our carts past each other. If only everyone could have been sensible enough to wear a mask. Oh, well. I guess you can’t get everything you want.
I left the store, jubilant, and more optimistic about our society’s prospects than I had been in a long while.
We can get through this.