Shopping In The Time of The Virus

Just back from a 6 AM necessities shopping run during “elder hours” and it was quite interesting from my casual social social science perspective. The store was packed (got there around 6:20) as expected, but people were clearly trying to maintain 6ft between each other, using their carts to measure space. There were mostly white people, mostly couples, but a number of men running around scowling. I saw two other Black women, and two men, one in a couple. There was one tall, dimpled, twentyish, Black man stocking shelves.

The most striking thing was the anger and determination the white folks displayed. No eye contact, niceties, or even basic politeness. If anyone had even accidentally veered into someone, I think violence would have broken out.
With one exception (the man on his own) the Black people spoke or nodded, and the young employee was sweet as pie when I made eye contact and greeted him. (He seemed genuinely delighted to be acknowledged)
Only that lone male Black elder looked straight ahead and moved quickly. I could head the old Mission Impossible theme in my head as I watched him adroitly avoiding other shoppers in the crowded aisles, murmuring what sounded like his list items as he flew by me in a heavy looking sheep skin coat. (It was a warming, foggy, drizzling morning. This gentleman was prepared for the next Ice Age)

Making my way into an aisle, there was a heavy set white woman with thick, slightly askew grey and white hair, exiting. We made eye contact and both laughed, she shaking her head and both of us nodded, saying “Crazy, right?”and laughing again.

As I made my way throughout the store, no one else spoke to me or anyone else, and eye contact was assiduously avoided. Even the couples moved silently for the most part, many masked, eyes grimly looking straight ahead, and almost everyone had their jaws set tightly. (The expressions were more grim than any of my students during final exams.) There was one tall, attractively mustached man who just stood in place, between the refrigerated juices and flower aisles, looking around with what seemed to be fear and confusion, but still that prevalent look of determination. His head and eyes moved, but his body seemed frozen. I wondered if he’d lost his partner or was determining a strategy, or if he’d suddenly awakened to find himself in the Stop and Shop of The Twilight Zone. It was so hard for me not to ask…

A short time later, as we waited in the long line, taking turns to run back for additional items “just to be safe,” all stock clerks were called to help bag groceries, and the sweet young man came to our line, allowing me to thank him and wish him health and a good weekend. The cashier was a pleasant, “motherly” looking white woman (55-60) who was not only cheerful, but seemed to be having a good time, sharply contrasting the customers who all looked angry, sad, and occasionally shell shocked. I would liked to have chatted with her to discover the source of her joy, but this wasn’t the time to slow down the line and risk the wrath of the ten or more full carts behind us possibly being used like tanks to move us out of the way. I had a prayer-like thought for anyone who might dither or otherwise have a problem checking out this morning, but it wasn’t going to be me.

When the woman behind me loudly complained to her companion about the higher prices on many items, I turned and we made eye contact, so I nodded sympathetically. That seemed to please this tall, slender, very pale, ivory skinned, white haired woman, (a ringer for Eileen Atkins) who nodded enthusiastically in the silent solidarity of her righteous indignation.

Thanking the cashier and stock clerk once again, we soon made our way back to the parking lot where, in stark contrast to the scene inside the store, people were now moving very slowly, unloading groceries from their carts, lethargically walking to return carts. I recognized faces that not ten minutes before had been set in combat mode, yet now seemed listless and lost, as people moved, zombie like, to complete their errand.

For a few minutes more I watched from the car as I sanitized my hands, door handles, and bag, and “Hubs” returned the shopping cart to its aisle. Most people now moved like balloons that had been popped and were deflated, as though all of their energies had been mustered for the task of shopping and none was left afterwards. I’ve can’t remember ever having seen such a rapid contrast in behavior among a group of people.

But then again, this is a different moment in history, comparable to none in my lifetime. I’m curious about how people in other areas of the country are behaving. Long Island is unlike other places I’ve lived, and not a welcoming place in the best of times. It will be interesting to see if people will have come to appreciate these brief social moments by the time I venture out again sometime in April, or if isolation will have turned folks feral and even more hostile. I hope for the former, but will be prepared for the latter. Meanwhile, I will waive to my neighbors and plant my garden and try not to grow fatter as we nosh our way through this pandemic. I will hope that a leader in the spirit of FDR will appear and promote the spirit of community, collectivity, and kindness that is needed if we are ever to thrive again and not merely survive physically. “Divided we fall” is as crucial to our motto as the “United we stand” part. Separation is a dangerous illusion: beware of those promoting it.

Now go out and help your neighbors, thank the sanitation workers, market workers, and all of the people risking themselves to keep us relatively comfortable and safe. Contribute to a food pantry, purchase a gift card from a local restaurant, check on the elderly on your block. And for pity’s sake and to avoid future dental work, please try to relax your jaws.

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