People of the Pandemic

Nothing illuminates the beauty of the average day quite so brilliantly as the fear that the average day has vanished indefinitely, maybe for always.

And so, on the morning after the President of the United States declared the virus pandemic a national emergency, I ventured out to see how my little world would respond to this chapter of reality never imagined in my lifetime.  The strict government guidelines on cancelling large gatherings and restricting business traffic were a few days off yet, so I set out to see what was open, what was closed, and who might be out and about

First stop, the grocery store. Facebook updates had seemed incredible, with notes on shortages, featuring photos of empty shelves where abundance had reigned just days before. It seemed like something that happens in some sad, faraway place we have no desire to visit, yet suddenly, we have arrived there.  Still, this particular grocer—my personal favorite, Trader Joe’s—was ready for the small crowd that gathered for the 8 a.m. opening.  “Good morning!” said a cheerful greeter as customers filed in quietly, hopefully.  “We’re glad you are here today.”  Friendly charm as a talisman against panic?  It was a brilliant strategy.  I could feel myself breathing a little easier.  The woman just in front of me at the stack of carrying baskets grabbed one for herself, then turned around, extending her other arm and offered one to me. “Good morning,” she said companionably, and I accepted the basket, returned the smile, and breathed just a little deeper still.

I looked around, encouraged at the sight of full produce shelves, banana bunches brightly curled in piles of riotous yellow and ruby apples nearly spilling over their bins. Bread shelves were lined with plump, fragrant bags.  The amiable spirit of the crowd as shoppers spread out among the aisles seemed, indeed, to help stifle any urge to snatch multiples for hoarding, and I observed no one piling carts high.  I leaned over the freezer section to snare a particular favorite, frozen organic blueberries, and met the eyes of a woman acquiring raspberries from the adjacent bin.  “Good morning,” she said with a congenial nod, and I marveled at this group of strangers, so bent on offering civility.  Determined to respond in kind, I admitted, “I’m so glad to find my blueberries this morning! I was afraid they might not have any.”  For this, I received an empathetic eye roll. “People need to BEHAVE,” she answered firmly, with the authority of a sixth-grade teacher who brooks no foolishness from hormone-mad adolescents.  “They need to wash their hands, only buy what they need, and BEHAVE.  Now, you have a good day,” she concluded briskly, pushing her cart in the other direction.

A few aisles over, I was disappointed to find the shelves for canned goods nearly empty.  No beans or diced tomatoes for chili, not on this day. I stopped a box-toting staffer who was motoring past.  “No beans at all today?”  I asked sadly.  “We’ll be full on this shelf later today, closer to closing time, ma’am,” he said, shifting his carton to the floor briefly so he could face me.  “I’m sure you don’t want to make another trip, and I’m really so sorry.  We were caught by surprise by all of this, like everyone, I guess, but we’re starting to get a handle on it now.  It’s going to start getting better in the next few days.”  I get it, I answered with a shrug, thinking how hard it must be to disappoint so many people.  “Hang in there.”  He hoisted his carton again and grinned back at me as he sped away, adding, “You do the same.”

Next stop:  some professional attention for the toenails. It seems astonishing now, but just six days ago getting a pedicure still seemed like a logical, not risky, thing to do.  Is it petty to crave a pedicure during a national crisis?  Quite possibly, but I elected to view it as fuel for the local economy, and the urgent imperatives of social distancing were a day or two away from commanding the national consciousness, at least around here. I crossed the street to the popular nail salon that takes walk-ins and is regularly patronized by nearly everyone I know. On a pre-pandemic Saturday morning preceding spring break and beach plans for many families it would have been hopeless to get in without an appointment. Stepping underneath a large American flag prominently placed at the entrance, I pushed open the door and walked into an empty salon.

“We are very glad to see you,” said the smiling proprietor.  I followed him to a chair and caught a whiff of disinfectant as I sat down and waited for the technician.  As always, the place was sparkling clean, and I was impressed with the careful precautions—gloves, masks on all technicians, sterilized instruments– throughout the process, though I knew those had long been there and were not instituted to combat our national problem.  A few customers trickled in, probably a dozen or so on a morning when there would have been three times that many.  With smooth, exfoliated feet and sparkling toenails, I passed him again on my way out the door.

“Thank you,” I said, and paused, gesturing around the wide space.  “I hope things go OK for you, that people still come, you know…” I trailed off, struggling for something appropriate to say in this unknown territory. Nodding, he gestured in a similar manner and answered in a heavy Asian accent, “We have lots of space, we spread people out, we be very careful.”  I regretted that I couldn’t understand everything he explained, but his conclusion was clear as a bell.  He paused and gazed at me warmly, looking me straight in the eye. “It be OK,” he said, “It be OK. This is America.”  I turned to go, overwhelmed by the ache in my heart, uncertain if I smiled in goodbye.  Ducking again under his large American flag, I felt tears welling up and trickling out as I made my way to my car.  Whether they were droplets of appreciation, of sympathy, or of sheer terror, I can’t know.

And, of course, a few days later, the flag continued waving above the door emblazoned with this sign.