Wearing the new, cute mask a local writing friend made—deep violet pansies on a black background—my glasses were already steaming up before I hit the produce aisle. I was almost able to walk right in to my favorite grocery store, but a store employee (whose face I’m sure I’d recognize if the bottom half wasn’t swathed in black) stopped me before I hit the door and guided a red cart toward me. I never use carts. I held up the reusable bags Trader Joe’s taught me to use when this store opened in my neighborhood years ago.
“I know that I have to pack up my own groceries,” I said because I’d done so a week ago.
He shook his head. “Can’t use those now,” he said kindly. “We’ll give you paper bags.” Pause. “For free.”
I didn’t say I pride myself on not having to use your bags and save a tree, or a small part of one. I didn’t say I don’t know how to judge the amount of purchases in a cart. I can carry two of my bags when full, which is how I know when I’ve bought enough. I didn’t say this is all I can carry to the parking lot next store behind Burr’s Fountain, my favorite ice cream/sandwich joint that closed 18 months ago, the place where many of you employees park now.
I started to put my bags in the red cart, thinking I’d fill them up there, but he stopped me. “Maybe you can just carry them on your arm.”
He was polite and trying to be helpful, but I got the message: My bags and I are dangerous now. Even though I was one of the harmless-looking oldsters in the store in the 8–9 a.m. shopping hour—never my usual time to be in any store, much less out and about, if I can help it. Age has its privileges, but only a few.
I held up my new mask in a plastic bag and smiled at him. “Should I…?”
“About 80% of our customers are wearing them,” he said. “And we all have to now.”
Why that did it, I’m not sure, but tears sprang to my eyes as I slung my empty, poisonous bags over one arm and awkwardly affixed my mask, which promptly began to fog up my glasses even though I affixed the little metal strip over my nose.
And so I entered my favorite store unable to see and in tears.
A week ago on a weekday afternoon I stood in the long line running down the outside of the building where customers also stood six feet apart. The line moved surprisingly quickly, and I was in the store in about 15 minutes. Then they allowed me to fill my own bags at the checkout stand where the employees wore gloves but not masks.
“We can’t touch them,” the young woman said about my bags, the ones they persuaded customers to bring when the store opened years ago by having a contest. If you brought your own bags, you’d fill out a ticket, and at the end of the week, they’d do a drawing for a bag of food. You couldn’t choose the food—they did it for you—but it was good stuff. I won once and felt like I’d hit the lottery.
This morning I pushed the red cart around the relatively empty store, and sure enough, everyone I saw was wearing a mask—mostly the ineffective-for-germs cloth kind. One customer, a man, was wearing an N95 mask, but he was the only one. I wondered if he had them in his garage or wore them for work since, like toilet paper, they’re impossible to get.
I hung onto my cart for dear life, like the other older women in the store, feeling as if I was walking through thick sludge in a bad dream, one in which I’d gone to my favorite store and everyone was wearing masks, avoiding each other like, well, the plague, and there was no toilet paper to be had, even at 8:35 on a Monday morning. (Fortunately, I didn’t need TP.) I got what I needed as quickly as I could as always, periodically taking off my glasses to let them defog. The man at the door had said that some of the young women employees had some anti-fog goop, and I thought, oh, yeah, so do we—with the masks and snorkels Dick and I take to Hawaii. What might that do to coated plastic lenses, though?
Crackers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots. Persian cucumbers for snacking. Three big gala apples. Two boxes of almond cluster cereal for Dick. Chicken pesto wraps for lunch and rosemary chicken and rice for dinner. Peanut-butter filled pretzels. Didn’t need hummus or Monterey Jack cheese sticks for the writing groups, though I did get chocolate-topped shortbread cookies because Dick likes them, too.
I pushed the red cart to the checkout stand area. Stood at a taped yellow X on the floor more than six feet away from the man in front of me who was at the counter paying for his groceries. When it was my turn, a young checker whose smile I could not see pulled my cart toward her and put out a hand. “Wait there,” she said, and I did as she unloaded my cart with gloved hands and ran each item over the reader. Another young woman standing a decent distance away arranged my purchases into three paper bags. I wondered how I’d carry them to the parking lot next door—all those veggies are heavy.
When the bagger finished, she backed away from the counter all the way to the checkout stand behind her, as did the checker, who beckoned me forward. I stepped up to the little machine that takes the card and inserted it as usual. But I had to think about my pin number, which I ordinarily punch in without having to pause. I looked around for a second to get my bearings. I noted the other oldsters like me (surely I’m the youngest of them here, I thought, at my whopping 61 years and 7 months). Then, somehow, the pin number arrived at my fingertips. I juggled the card back into my wallet, shifting my useless, germ-y bags again, and then I was free to push the red cart outside into the morning.
I had to leave it there, of course, as two red-coated employees with the TJ’s logo in masks and gloves stood ready to wipe down my tainted cart. I managed two paper bags in one hand (thank goodness for their sturdy handles), one in the other and began the trek to the car.
As I walked past the large plate glass windows in the front of the former Burr’s, I stopped and looked in, as I often do. I sighed at the sight of the now dusty, deserted place where Dick and I and so many friends and loved ones had gone for fresh turkey sandwiches that Jim Burr sliced off Brannigan’s turkeys raised in Woodland. Where Dick had taken his mother before she died for those turkey sandwiches. Where his favorite sandwich was the hot dog, sliced vertically in half and laid on sourdough with lettuce and mustard. Where I’d happily eaten the tuna mix on sourdough that Jim Burr cut into three pieces—the ladies’ cut—sometimes as I graded papers solo at a four-person table. Where I’d consumed who knew how many gallons of Jik Jak ice cream in frosts—shakes with soda water and ice cream.
This global disaster has been hard on us all. We are all suffering together, though alone, some more than others. Neither I nor my loved ones are or have been sick. We have the trappings of privilege—good jobs or retirement; nice, secure homes; our own cars and the ability to go to the store, if we wish; friends we connect with by phone or online, and access to far too much information. I am working at home, trying to get 120 community college writing students through the last month of their curtailed semester. I am beyond fortunate in weathering this storm, and I am grateful.
Still. When one lives long enough, the accumulated losses pile up, the unshed tears flow, and the heart breaks a little more. We are in a time of enormous global change, of cosmic transformation, a moment after which nothing will ever be the same again. The old ways are dying; new ones have yet to be born. And in this liminal space we are floundering.
I set down the bags and yanked off the pretty mask, stuffing it into the pocket of my pullover sweatshirt. I looked again at the booths where we used to eat and drink and laugh.
Then I picked up three paper bags, made my way to the car and drove myself and my groceries home. All by 9 a.m. on the 25th day of Sacramento County’s shelter-in-place order.