After fifteen days at home, I ventured out. We needed toothpaste, mouthwash, lettuce, oranges, more jalapenos and cilantro, and wine. Rum was on the list, too. Okay okay I also picked up vodka and tequila and mushrooms (the kind you sautee or stuff) and some polska kielbasa and a giant pork butt and twenty-gazillion pounds of potatoes and a few bags of flour. I spent more in those two hours than I’ve ever spent on groceries in my life.
I also bought toilet paper.
When I first moved to Chicago I lived in a high-rise with a convenience store on the first floor. I perpetually ran out of toilet paper because it was so easy to get more. I didn’t realize this was an issue until a friend showed up at my door with a wrapped roll marked with her name on it, just to ensure that no matter what, when she visited there would be a few squares just for her.
Now, I’m never out.
My conversion from “Oh, crap!” (ha!) to back-up supplies happened gradually. When Jim and I lived in Logan Square, a walkable Chicago neighborhood, we’d make nearly daily runs to Family Dollar for this or that, and often TP was on our list.
Then we moved to the suburbs. Toilet paper became a Thing a Family Stocked. We had to have at least four rolls at all times.
Then. Then, we joined a warehouse club and had. a. garage.
This wasn’t hoarding. This was buying things in bulk because it was cheaper and we had space and it wouldn’t go bad.
IT WAS PRE-PANDEMIC. DON’T JUDGE ME.
So, anyway, I go to the store – three of them – on Monday, and I see toilet paper everywhere. That’s a good sign, I think. People aren’t freaking out. We had a few weeks’ worth, but seeing all those full shelves made me feel comfortable picking up another 30 pack. We can now pee and poo for months. Yay, us.
When I started writing, I had no intention of talking about toilet paper, but it’s a pandemic and we’re all living on borrowed brain cells so let’s just forgive a little potty mouth, maybe?
I started at Walmart. I put on a couple of oversized plastic gloves from our bag of 120 and loped my bandanna mask over my ears. Because it had been so long since I’d ventured out, I was surprised to see the entrance roped off except for a narrow opening. A man stood outside and pleasantly welcomed me and let me know the carts inside were disinfected, and I tried to gracefully say hello through my fogged-over glasses.
Lesson learned: when grocery shopping during a pandemic, wear contacts.
I picked up our toothpaste and mouthwash, and then took a run through produce and saw that asparagus was on sale for $1.79 a pound. I pulled a bag from the spindle and spent the next eternity trying to open that bag while wearing bags on my hands so I could safely store my bundle of stalks. Finally, after several minutes, I noticed a woman wearing a mask patiently waiting. She didn’t look at me. She simply stood there, between the oranges and asparagus, waiting for me to figure out how to open that bag so I would finally move on and she could finally get her asparagus, too.
“Oh. Sorry.” I said, and moved out of her way.
Normally, I’d go back because I wasn’t done browsing. Browsing and backtracking are now things of the past.
The nice gentleman at the door took my cart. I put the bags in the back seat and carefully peeled, palm side up, one glove off my right hand. Then, even more carefully, used that glove to peel off the other one. I threw them into a trash can, plucked a sanitary wipe from my purse, and wiped down my hands, purse, and the door handle.
This was exhausting.
Next was Aldi. A masked man guarded the carts, disinfecting and making sure the gent behind me didn’t get too close. As we moved, single file and one way, a rebel parked his cart at the end and backtracked to pick up a bag of chips.
The gent behind me said: “I guess he didn’t get the memo.”
I followed the directional signs. One way. This way. Stop and wait until the person in front is done. Then move forward. The gent behind me asked about pita chips because his wife gave him a list and I told him where to get them. I said that my husband offered to go, but it’s easier if I do it because I know where everything is. He said he’d probably buy a lot more while he waits. I agreed, as I looked over and noticed the sweetened condensed milk and the slivered almonds and put them in my cart.
With the exception of the backtracker and my sticker shock at checkout, shopping at Aldi was as good as I suppose it gets when people are afraid to be within spitting distance of each other. The cashiers were their normal, speedy selves, except now they were wearing masks and gloves, protected behind a clear shield.
I put my groceries in the car and returned my cart to the man waiting outside. Peeled my gloves off palm-first and threw them, inside-out, into the garbage can. Took the wipe out of my purse and wiped my hands and purse and door handle before driving to Costco.
Costco was…fine. They moved the entrance to the side and through rows of carts, the corridor narrow to prevent people walking side-by-side.
Another woman and I, twelve feet apart, waited silently while a man checked his phone. When he looked up, he apologetically moved off. She moved to his spot and I moved to hers. It was a dance. A dance of distance. Stay away. Don’t come near me. You could kill me. You could kill someone I love.
I completed my routine: store items in car, return cart, carefully remove gloves and throw away, wipe down my hands and purse and the car door.
Try not to cry.
Relatively speaking, I’ve been holding it together the last few weeks. It’s harder for me to sustain a line of thought and I’m not sleeping well, but I’m handling it. I’m writing my book, re-branding my core site, cooking like mad. I’m hugging my husband a lot, and when he comes into my office or greets me in the hall and says “dance break!” I know that our Us-ness is keeping me sane, that his love is keeping me sane.
As I drove home that day, I realized why I was so shaken. Cerebrally, I know what’s happening. I understand that distance and extreme precaution are necessary. Thousands are dying and I live in a country where states are fighting the Federal government for basic equipment. I feel like we’re witnessing evil: some actively support letting people die if it will help the economy. (Which it won’t.) I live with a constant undercurrent of anger and fear.
But, I’ve been somewhat sheltered because my routine hasn’t changed all that much. My travel, the bulk of my research, has always been sporadic and intense: I travel in bursts and write when I return.
I’ve worked from home for twelve years and Jim and I have worked from home together for nearly a decade. We’re fairly insular and lean towards introversion (he more than I). We are comfortable at home.
Weeks at home are not unusual. But now – we’re home. Period.
Now, what I do for a living doesn’t exist. “I tell people where to go” has been my amusing sobriquet for nearly twenty years.
Now, I tell them to stay home.
Going to the store awakened me from the stupor of complacency. At home, I could believe that I was simply in a writing phase, and that’s all it was (besides the fact that I wasn’t writing). I knew better. Of course, I knew better. But it’s easy to ignore, laugh about losing time. “What day is this?” “Doesn’t matter, does it?”
I have ideas and as long as I can DO something, I mentally survive. As long as I can dance with my husband and talk to our parents and friends, I can feel comfort. As long as I can see the good that so many people are doing to help, as long as that humanity exists, I believe there’s hope.
I was shaken because this was no longer remote. If I stayed away from the news and didn’t check my site statistics, reality wasn’t obvious. Even when I do see that I’ve made nothing, for weeks, it doesn’t feel tangible (although knowing I spent the last of what we have to feed us certainly does).
Entering a world where a touch is dangerous and a smile is hidden was foreign and painful and too damn real.
I came home. Put away the mountain of groceries, safe in the knowledge that I don’t have to leave for another month. (Until Jim asked about cat litter, which I’d forgotten. Why is it always about poop?)
I came home, and I was fragile. Reality surrounded me. Broke me. I couldn’t hide in my insular world.
I realized I’m trying to hoard my hope by keeping it safe at home without any outside dangers. Holding jealously onto its thread and refusing to believe that it could break. It’s not so much that I’m afraid of running out of hope; more that I want to be wrapped up in a weighted blanket of optimism.
What I need, what my heart and soul and mind need, is the belief that good outranks evil, that love is stronger than hate, and that behind every mask and downturned face is a smile and a gift of compassion. If not every face, then enough to ensure the world will be better when the masks come off.
I do believe that we will emerge from this with more kindness and more awareness of our fellow humans, because while even grocery shopping is fraught with peril, there is a distinct feeling of connection, illustrated by nervous banter at the store or interacting with neighbors by, ironically, increasing our distance.
This is one time when everyone has something in common, and that links us together. While we may all be experiencing this differently, we are all experiencing it.
That is our reality now, and my hope is that once we can safely interact, and jostle, and touch, that the link will remain, and our world will be better, kinder, and connected on a basic, human, and humane level.