Part of me made the risky trip out of necessity. Part of me did it because, as a journalist during Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 lockdown, my job as witness to what is happening is deemed “life sustaining.” None of me, though, expected it to be so eerie.
I’m talking about a trip to the grocery store.
Unemployment is skyrocketing as the coronavirus pandemic craters our economy, our lives, our psyches. Much of America is on emergency lockdown. But still, we have to try to eat. And not everyone can or does order online. So after a week of isolation at home, I took my frayed journalistic nerves to explore a supermarket in a local epicenter of infection that is normally an oasis of abundance — the Main Line.
It was harrowing. Quietly, unexpectedly, profoundly unsettling.
It happened Friday morning at the Wynnewood Giant. For weeks prior, I’d been in and out of stores, intermittently and with great caution, as normalcy switched to paranoid fear of a new virus that the president was downplaying concerns over, and had called Democrats’ criticisms of his actions part of a “hoax.” Then came panic shopping and, now, as I write, our third week of stay-at-home orders for millions.
I’d been inside Costco King of Prussia, Wegmans Cherry Hill, Giant Havertown, Target City Avenue. I’d seen long lines and full shelves; then bare shelves and thin checkout lines.
I’d seen some stores spraying down carts, while another had removed all shopping-cart wipes from its entrance because customers were stealing them as shelf supplies went bare. I wondered: How do things look now?
Nothing prepared me for the Twilight Zone stuff I encountered on Friday.
It was 8 a.m., and before driving two miles to the supermarket, I put on a flimsy mask and threw a bottle of Purell and wipes into my purse.
At the store entrance I found wipes in an unmarked dispenser. You couldn’t tell if they contained any germ-killing substance effective against viruses. So right there, next to the usually busy Starbucks kiosk, I pumped globs of my own Purell onto several wipes and cleaned the cart from top to bottom.
It was quiet — as I had strategized and hoped. We customers and workers could keep a safe distance from one another.
But that comfort was gone in seconds. At the dairy case, I found just three cartons of eggs.
“This one," said a nice man next to me, "has cracked ones in it.”
He and I grabbed each of the only two good containers.
Not only has our government failed to supply us with adequate virus testing kits, our grocers are still running low on toilet paper, eggs, chicken, and more.
I made my way through the rest of the store to easy-listening music that felt hypnotic. I passed one long empty shelf section after another. A trancelike state took hold. I could hear my own breathing.
“Excuse me,” I said while trying to steer clear of others — only to realize none could see me smile beneath the mask.
Pasta aisle? Hardly any. Tuna? A few scattered cans. Not a single jar of ordinary mayonnaise. In the meat section, a few packages of chicken, a narrow selection of sausages, an OK-looking offering of ground beef. But how much of this would be left even an hour from now?
The produce aisle was abundant. But even that relief was cut short as a recorded voice kept interrupting the store music to insist that “we’re all in this together,” that the nation’s food supply was OK, but to ask that we customers please stop hoarding.
It felt a little too Thou Dost Protest Too Much.
I’d seen barren shelves a week earlier at the normally overflowing Cherry Hill Wegmans, a store the size of two football fields. It had been decimated by panic shopping the week before, and STILL inventory was slim.
As this crisis grinds on for weeks if not more months, only replenished inventory will persuade that all is well with our nation’s food supply.
As my trip wound down, there were two more jarring encounters.
The Giant store robot — an annoying obelisk-shaped vessel that towers over you with googly eyes — ominously wheeled by me. It felt as though it was just me and this robot, zombie-survivors of an apocalypse. I thought, “Et tu, Annoying Giant Robot?”
In the self-checkout line, a woman standing six feet behind and wearing leather gloves demanded my attention. Why, she insisted on knowing, was I wearing only a mask but no gloves?
This from a woman whose fingers were sheathed in leather — a petri dish.
“What was your thinking," she crowed, "in making that decision?”
Moments later, I pulled the Purell and wipes out of my bag — yet again, this time to douse the register panel and screen, then my hands. As I swiped my chicken, it took all my willpower to not hurl my eggs back at her.
Once home, I disinfected every package and the kitchen itself. My next order, I vowed, will be online.