Thanks to a brave wife who’s used to hitting various markets — mostly Trader Joe’s and the Isla Vista Food Co-op — multiple times a week, I’d been able to put off any trips to the grocery store since this whole COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home party kicked off. I’ve laughed at the toilet-paper hoarders and bottled-water worriers from afar, but I was yet to experience the empty aisles of panic-buying with my own two eyes.
That changed on Thursday.
Faced with no more eggs; yes, a slightly dwindling TP supply; and FOMO-powered curiosity about what this crisis really looks like, I headed out to my regular haunt, the Albertson’s on Calle Real in Goleta at about 2 p.m. It seemed like a good time — past the morning rush, before the after-work rush, and in advance of inside intel that more county COVID cases are likely to be confirmed soon. (They were, and then came the statewide shelter-in-place order that Gov. Gavin Newsom decreed on Thursday night.)
The parking lot was mellow — I even pulled into a shady spot — and the inside seemed somewhat normal at first glance. The produce and deli cases were fully stacked — organic bananas, check; yellow onion, check — as was the cheese zone, where I grabbed two tubs of the cream cheese that my son scarfs like candy and some grated parmesan for noodles that my daughter slurps like water. The meats were stacked, so seemed the booze, and so was most everything else.
Decimated, however, were the soup and canned-goods aisles. Same for the bottled water, which I still do not understand — the taps aren’t stopping, people. And my hunt for the salt-and-vinegar chips that my kids prefer fell short; the Lay’s version will have to do, as we all must sacrifice. As for eggs, only one brand was left. Thankfully, it was one of our super-sustainable usual picks. Bonus: It was knocked down from its usual $6 to just $4 a dozen, but I could only buy one of them.
Toilet paper was indeed on my list. I played it nonchalant, not wanting to appear overly needy but also not wanting to be disappointed. The bath tissue shelves were bare, but a smiling employee was passing out Charmin 12-packs one by one from the big cardboard box. I got one and tried not to crack a celebratory smile. I’m now one-for-one in the coronavirus TP game.
Along the way, people were keeping realistic distance, but rarely was the prescribed six-foot range possible. All ages were out and about, save for kids. Plenty of elderly people were shopping, some looking quite confident in their lingering, some looking a bit anxious and rushed. Masks and gloves were worn by a small minority of shoppers.
Checking out is when things got less than ideal. Though there were plenty of fast-moving cashiers, the lines were backing up quite a bit, and people were starting to cram a bit closer together than the CDC would prefer.
As I tried to stay at least three feet away from the woman in front of me, a group of twentysomething women huddled behind me, laughing loudly about TP and other items in their hands. As I imagined the invisible spit droplets spraying my back, I jumped at the chance to move to a shorter line.
One line over, a dude about my age eyed my toilet paper and gave me a nod. “It’s a good day,” he said with a subtle laugh. Nothing struck me as all that funny about the situation, but I managed to move the TP a bit in acknowledgement and smile back with a “Yep.” My phone was buzzing the whole time, but rather than yank it out like usual and get lost in my messages, I just decided to wait until I’d washed down at home.
Of course, the short line I selected turned out to be the slowest mover in the entire store. The twentysomethings escaped into the safe outdoors long before me, as did many masked people behind them.
So I had ample time to read the checkout line’s big signs warning that none of these purchases would be returnable and that people should only buy enough food for a week or so, reassuring the panic buyers that supplies would keep coming. I was far from panic, but I was also pretty sure I hadn’t bought enough of anything. I just wanted to get out of there. Then my nose had the slightest tickle, and I started pondering what sort of insanity might ensue if I actually sneezed. I did not.
Upon arriving home, I saw a box on the porch, walked straight into a spider web, and spun in silly ways, unable to clear my face due to potentially viral hands. I hit the kitchen for a quick hand wash, then unloaded the two bags of groceries; wiped down my truck, keys, wallet, phone, and credit card with a Clorox wipe; tossed my clothes and grocery bags in the washer; and hit the shower.
Excessive? At this point, watching the death tolls climb in Italy and in Spain — where my family was supposed to be right now on a long-awaited family vacation; instead, our friends who live there are holed up in their apartment for weeks of isolation — I think excessive is advisable.
Certainly, my experience was nowhere near the wackiness I’ve read about and seen on social media, but it was far from my favorite trip to the grocery store. This new normal is already getting old.