Good morning wonderful people! Recently, I’ve been writing short comparisons between daily experiences in pre-pandemic times and the world we live in now. Below is a free-write I compiled Wednesday morning, loosely based off of a NYT Pandemic Diary prompt. No scene feels more striking, mundane, and *different* than a trip to the grocery store. I hope you relate, and perhaps are inspired to jot down a few of your own observations on “then and now”.
The date was March 13, 2020.
It was noon, and I was at the grocery store for the sole purpose of a chocolate bar. (Chocolate, I argue, is a food not a dessert, and it is appropriate to eat at all times of the day). The store’s crowded parking lot hadn’t set off any alarms for me. Neither did the elevated bustle at the door. Even upon entering the store, it didn’t register to me that the scene I was stepping into was evidence of the world turning on a dime.
Headphones in, music on, auto-pilot engaged, I entered, weaving between people to get to the store’s chocolate section. I compared chocolate bars for a minute, picking up and putting down at least five before settling on one. Probably scratching my head and touching my face at least as many times, too.
On my way to check out, I bumped up against maskless shoppers, passed by toddlers plopped on the ground at parents’ feet, and slid between couples staring at empty shelves…empty shelves. It was the empty shelves that caught my attention first. I hadn’t noticed them on my way in.
Then, when I got in line, I saw carts packed high with cans of tomatoes and beans and rice and hand sanitizer?! Every cart had duplicates of each item, making each shopper’s selected stockpiles strikingly obvious. Rumors of quarantine and lockdown had been circling, and many companies had already gone WFH, but standing in that line was the first time I genuinely wondered: Wait, are the floodgates opening, is this corona thing – which seemed so distant and ephemeral – really here with us and among us?
I tried to take mental stock of the food we had at home as I stood there with my one measly chocolate bar, absurdly close to the family in front of me in line. We have quite a bit of food at home, but should I still be loading up? I pondered, the concern slowly rising in me. Suddenly, it felt like I was in some sort of denial if I left the store without at least a few extra things.
So I dipped out of line, grabbed a basket, and filled it with what remained on the shelves – a few boxes of pasta, granola, tuna (in retrospect, my gathering was more psychological than practical). When I got back in line, two shoppers near me recognized each other from school and embraced without hesitation. I thought nothing of it. I checked out, chatting briefly with the friendly cashier. Despite the chaos, his smile was big.
Outside, I loaded the groceries into the car. Before turning the car on, I pulled out my chocolate bar, and broke off a piece with my hands. The chocolate melted in my mouth. Delicious. I licked my fingers.
The date is September 1, 2020.
It is noon, and I am at the grocery store for more than a chocolate bar (because the calculated risk of a trip to the store for just a chocolate bar doesn’t make much sense anymore). I grab a cart (methodically wiping down all its surfaces) and stand outside of the store in line waiting to enter. I am six-feet-apart from others, on spray painted dots with smiley faces and “your safety is our priority” slogans.
Somewhat vigilant, I enter the store. Shoppers are proportionally populated to the building’s square footage. Even so, I cast a wide berth around people as I load my cart, as if in an invisible bumper car. “No, after you, I insist!” I subconsciously evaluate the density of aisles before I proceed down them. I’ll come back and get the peanut butter later, I tell myself. (Of course, I forget the peanut butter).
I don’t browse anymore. I don’t pick up five versions of chocolate bars – or any items for that matter – to compare. I try to touch as few things as possible. I resist every urge to scratch my face or adjust my mask. If I find myself in the unfortunate position of needing to sneeze, I hold it in as if the world depends on it (no pun intended).
When I go to check out, I find myself an empty dot to stand on. I feel like a buoy, along a line of evenly spaced out shoppers: bobbing a little left and right, but never too close to the person in front or behind. No one chats in line. Two people recognize each other and they wave, without getting any closer.
When my turn comes, I unload my items on the conveyor belt (which is damp with disinfectant). I reach around the partition to hand the cashier my card. We chat briefly. It’s hard to hear him behind his mask. He is friendly. I find myself searching his forehead and the corners of his eyes to see if he’s smiling.
Once I’m home, I wash my arms up to my elbows, lathering and scrubbing and rinsing, as if I were a surgeon. I unload the groceries, then wash my hands again. I never used to wash my hands all the time (
I am not I was not particular about germs), but now…well, now is now.
I unwrap the chocolate bar I bought this time and cut a piece off with a knife. The chocolate melts in my mouth. Delicious. And just before licking my fingers, I catch myself, wiping them on a napkin instead.