Shopping in a strange time

My wife and I had to go out the other day to pick up a couple of things. Nothing crazy, mind you, just groceries. We donned our masks, made sure we had a wallet, our phones, and car keys, and headed into the store. 

Right off, stores are less crowded on most days than they once were. Most of the folks I saw were doing the distancing thing to the best of their abilities and all were masked and some gloved. It was like a congregation of surgeons on the way to the O.R., but the spousal unit called in a shopping list.

We used to find shopping a very relaxing experience, but now we find it tense and disturbing. You now think about every surface and item you touch as a possible disease vector, though the experts are suggesting that’s less of a worry than they first thought. You would use a public bathroom these days, but only in an emergency. Shopping carts should have the handle wiped down before touching. Items on shelves are still a little suspect no matter how clean and shiny they look.

Dealing with people is now more fraught too. With everyone having their faces covered, it’s hard to know who and what you’re dealing with in terms of emotional states. In the old, pre-pandemic days, you could always tell if someone was having a rough day and either avoid them or try to help, depending on how crazed they looked.

Now everyone looks sad, scared, and furtive. We dodge around one another like kids playing Marco Polo in a dark room.

We try to be extra courteous since we’re all in this wonderful Dumpster fire together and yet you still see human nature’s darker side winning out at times. People can be short, angry, and touchy for no discernable reason.

Some folks look very scared, especially older folks. The young can be silly and arrogant as if none of this applies to them. And the kids all look a little shell-shocked and wary. The only ones who seem oblivious are babies, who just seem to float on through being babies.

I feel for the folks who are working in stores these days. My wife and I have always been very courteous to people in stores because we’re polite people. We try very hard to respect everyone no matter what job they hold.

Well, that’s not totally true. I have little or no respect for politicians, bureaucrats, wealthy people, trial lawyers (the type that sue for a living), stockbrokers, and bankers. But I digress.

When I do speak to folks who work in stores, I always try very hard to be pleasant and polite. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to go to work every day for minimum or barely-above-minimum wage, little or no benefits, and no sick pay or leave. And yet they do it because they have to, in order to pay the rent and feed their families.

When this is all over, I truly hope these folks unionize and can force their greedy masters to treat them with respect, pay them fairly, and give them the benefits that all working people deserve. After all, if we’re giving a piece of human waste like Mitch McConnell a six-figure salary, a lifetime pension, top quality health benefits, and endless perks and sick days, then people who do real work deserve exactly the same.

But back to shopping. I find wearing masks very difficult as I find it hard to breathe in them. It makes me even more tense and, when I finally get back to the car, I can’t wait to pull it off and breathe again. The gloves, when I do wear them, don’t really bother me as I’ve used them for years in my work as a bicycle mechanic and jeweler.

Certain very dirty jobs are really done better with gloves and so we always keep a box around. When we load up the car, return our cart and get ready to drive away, there’s the ritual removal of the gloves in the prescribed fashion and then the quick spritz of hand cleaner before firing up the car and heading home.

When we get home, unload the groceries, put them all away, plug in the car to charge, and re-stash the shopping bags back in the car for the next trip, it’s time for a final hand wash. We don’t wash the groceries since the experts we tend to listen to have deemed it unnecessary unless you have special circumstances.

Then we can finally sit down and take a deep breath. We have ventured out into the infected world, taken precautions to protect ourselves and others, and made it back, hopefully still healthy.

I know this won’t last forever. Testing will ramp up to what we truly need, contact tracking will go into practice, and better treatments and ultimately a vaccine will emerge. We will make it through this, but the world really won’t ever be the same.

I hope someday shopping becomes relaxing again for us and I hope the folks in the stores can get what they need too. I want us to emerge from this mess better people living in a better world. That would be nice.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he and his wife used to consider shopping a date-night type thing; they hope to get back to that some day.