I decide to try grocery shopping at the time set aside for those 60 years old and older — 8 to 9 a.m. Some 60 people are waiting for the store to open. One man, wearing mask and gloves, becomes nearly hysterical when someone stands three feet too close. He moves deeper into the crowd, making himself more threatening than the person he was upset with.
The doors open. As I enter the store, I watch elderly people grab a wipe from the dispenser and break into almost a run. They are rushing to the paper aisle, where they will find — no toilet paper. This is the last time I come at the senior citizen hour. It’s too painful to watch.
We live in a time and place where many of us have never known want. Few people remember what Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, called the moving geography of hunger, including the Great Depression of the 1930s. This country knew hunger, and not on a small scale. My mother, who grew up in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, told us stories about going to bed hungry, not even a loaf of bread in the house. I’ve never had that experience, nor am I interested in having that experience now.
What I didn’t realize was how much her experience shaped her children. Eat everything on your plate. Everything. A great dessert is bread and butter sprinkled with a little sugar. Pickled pork works just as well as sausage in red beans and rice.
Paper products disappear first — toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, even paper napkins. For three weeks, the shelves are bare. Then off-brand toilet paper shows up, with a limit of four rolls. Then off-brand paper towel, limit of one roll.
No more drying hands with paper towel. Cotton hand towels are back. Using paper towels now requires a strategy. Can I use it more than once? Can a cotton towel substitute?
My wife is spending considerable time online, searching for paper towel and tissues.
Four employees at our grocery store have been infected with the virus. Online, the newspaper and the Nextdoor local information app report that the store has been cleaned. Twice. My wife wants me to skip the now weekly trip. I decide to trust the store. I’m wearing gloves, mask, long-sleeved shirt, and jeans. I read news articles about how to avoid your glasses fogging up when wearing a mask.
The supply of frozen vegetables and branded bread is stabilizing. The first two weeks, they disappeared faster than toilet paper. Also hard hit have been pastas of all kinds, rice, tomato sauce of all brands and variations, and specialty breads.
I find a single jug of Clorox bleach on the shelf and almost do a happy dance right there in the detergent aisle. And I get down on my knees to check the bottom shelf and discover an overlooked refill container for liquid soap. My rejoicing is doubled. Every week, I check for Clorox or Lysol wipes. They remain gone with the wind.
When I get home, I wash my gloved hands with soap. My shirt, jeans, and socks go into the washing machine. This is now part of my grocery shopping routine.
In 1957, when I was almost 6, the Asian flu started in China and spread to Russia, Europe, and North America. In the U.S., 116,000 people died, in a then-population of 172 million. There was no lockdown, no shelter-in-place, no closing of restaurants, theaters, and sports arenas. In 1968, during my senior year in high school, the Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 in the U.S., with a then-population of 200 million. Life continued normally.
Life in the time of coronavirus is anything but normal. I wonder why the news media focus on the 1918 influenza epidemic but say nothing about 1957 or 1968.
My grocery store’s deli is operating close to its usual business. Choices are somewhat fewer; they’re considerably fewer in the seafood section. The butcher department is closed. Fresh meat supplies vary weekly. Some weeks they’re almost normal; others, I’m fortunate to find any ground meat or chicken. Packaged meat has changed dramatically, with the emphasis on reduced choice. I’m amazed to find sliced ham after an absence of three weeks, particularly after all the news media reports of closed meat processing plants and threats of supply disruptions.
I haven’t seen brown rice in more than six weeks.
What seems unaffected: fruits and vegetables, packaged cereals, most canned fruits and vegetables, snack crackers, coffee and tea, sodas and sports drinks, packaged snacks like potato chips, food wraps and plastic storage bags, pet food, ice cream, and yogurt.
The dairy section is strange. Eggs are generally plentiful, with a limit of a dozen. Milk varies widely. One week, my choice was one brand of 2 percent milk or nothing. The next week, milk supplies were normal. The week after, the choice was 1 percent milk or nothing. Butter and margarine have been fine, until this week. The shelves were almost empty. Packaged cheese products — sliced, shredded, block — are looking pretty thin, except in the specialty cheese case near the deli. I wonder what sliced blue cheese would taste like on a sandwich.
The detergent aisle is as hard-hit as paper products. Our regular dishwasher soap has disappeared. Dishwashing liquid is also generally not available. A stocker has told me people are buying it to use as hand soap.
I find an older lady who’s nearly in tears. She can’t find any liquid soap. I point to the bar soap and tell her it will work just as well. The key is to lather up; the suds help break down the fatty protective layer around the virus.
I’ve never paid attention to my fellow shoppers like I do now. I notice who’s not wearing a mask or gloves. I keep an eye on where people are in the aisle. I watch how people handle things I intend to buy. Most people are also wary. Some are oblivious, as if nothing has changed. I notice several people wearing Shipt t-shirts, buying food for others. I haven’t seen children in the store for weeks now.
After all flour had disappeared, store-brand flour has reappeared on the shelves.
A month ago, the store instituted customer controls. Only one family member is allowed to shop, with a few exceptions. One door is the entrance, and another door is the exit. Shoppers are required to wash their hands (including gloved hands) before entering the store. Plexiglas barriers are been erected for all checkout lanes. The courtesy counter is closed. And a no-return policy is now in place. No one seems to mind; everyone understands.
Any kind of disinfecting cleaner is long gone. The shelves for wipes, sprays, and sanitizers are bare and have been for six weeks.
I check the detergent and cleanser aisle, and I unexpectedly find containers of Clorox wipes, limit of one per customer. Quite a few containers, in fact.
I’m stunned. Clorox wipes.
I pick one up and cradle it like a baby.
It strikes me that the coronavirus has turned us all into 21st century versions of hunter-gatherers, except we’re hunting toilet paper and wipes instead of mastodons.
Perhaps I’ll write a poem about this. One day.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish