Sunday, March 29, 2020

Dispatches from the Trenches

After three weeks of coronavirus self-quarantine, I ventured out to buy medicine and food. The streets had a third of their normal traffic. I hadn’t wanted to go out but mail-order prescriptions weren’t an option despite my repeated online enrollment attempts and no one at the pharmacy would answer their phone to arrange a delivery.  Fortunately, I thought, they had a drive-thru window so I wouldn’t have to wander about the drugstore or stand in line with sick people. I asked the clerk if she could add a box of face masks to my order. She said yes but I’d have to come inside for that. “Rather defeats the purpose,” I said. The irony was lost on her.

I entered Winn Dixie wearing a face mask and plastic gloves feeling like a refugee from a bad Halloween costume party. I passed a police car parked at the entrance. There’s something about walking past a squad car wearing a mask as you enter a store that creates an ominous feeling in the pit of your stomach. I hoped they didn’t think I was an inept, poorly-dressed robber. I pictured spending the night in jail and immediately regretted my hasty decision to wear my slippers to the store. The customers coming out weren’t wearing masks or gloves and I began to feel like the awkward kid showing up at the door of the fancy dress party and realizing that phrase on the invitation meant black tie, not funny animal costume.

I took a deep breath and wrapped my gloved hands firmly around the handlebar of a shopping cart and pushed it inside the store. See, I really am a shopper, I tacitly conveyed to the cops. I saw several shoppers, unmasked and ungloved. This was the dream where you stand before the class to read your book report and discover you’re still wearing your pajamas. Except I was fully clothed… and then some, conspicuously masked and attired as a Playtex gloves model.

Then, I saw a young woman turn the aisle. It was like staring in a mirror. Validation at last. I relaxed, feeling less foolish and becoming more confident. Observing her face mask and plastic gloves, I knew we were kindred spirits. I felt a bond and even though we maintained the mandatory six-foot distance between us, I felt oddly close to her. She looked cute in the mask and she was likely quite attractive beneath it and… Uh oh. I realized three weeks in quarantine was taking its toll.

I stopped at BJ’s. Another squad car outside. More empty shelves within. I left empty-handed, en route to Publix. Yet another police car parked outside a grocery store. I was sensing a pattern. Was this a precautionary move? Were they expecting customers to turn into a rioting, unruly mob fighting to the death for the last roll of toilet paper? My mind wandered. Do they even have toilet paper? If so, should I pick some up?

Everyone was masked here. I felt… accepted. It was the new normal. I waved a gloved hello. Everyone was courteous, keeping their six-foot distance. There was no panic shopping. Perhaps the panic shoppers had already raided the barren shelves that faced us. I mastered the art of substitution. I came in for chicken but bananas are sort of the same… if you don’t think about it too much. Or I could choose from their copious selection of wines and spend the evening in deep contemplation pondering the similarities of bananas to chicken, like a nostalgic 60s LSD trip. What else are you going to do alone at home, anyway?

A woman stepped into my aisle. I immediately noticed the sleek plastic face mask she wore. It was a white respiratory antiviral N95 face mask respirator and it put my flimsy surgical mask to shame. I was filled with envy. Three weeks in quarantine was definitely taking its toll.

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