“Social distancing? Hey! No big deal. I never really liked you anyway.”
It’s mid-morning. About 10:30am. The store, a suburban Whole Foods Market, opens at 8. I exit the store with my two reusable shopping bags, festooned with WFM logos and nowhere near full with my short haul of singular items, a few apples, a couple of fresh pastry items, a partial loaf of sourdough bread baked in huge bâtards and then cut into quarters, bagged and weighed and sold by the pound. A chocolate bar. Those sorts of things. No staples.
I dodge and weave through other shoppers’ carts. In front of me, as I get near the produce section at the front doors, a woman stands next to her heavily burdened shopping cart, filled to the brim with a variety of groceries. On top of these, held gingerly in place with her left hand, a stack of five paste-board packages—the standard package for a pound of sliced, cured and smoked pork belly. Bacon to most of us. Five pounds seems a lot, but is not inconsistent with the mounds of other foodstuffs in her carriage. I don’t linger even a moment to see what other comestibles are featured in this matron’s haul.
I think immediately and fleetingly of the usual coroner’s expression I’ve heard repeated so often on my favorite streaming British detective series—a “well-nourished female in apparent good health, of about middle age.” The store in fact is full of such subjects, all very much alive of course, regardless of my morbid speculations and associations. I think even more fleetingly of why she, and her cohort, and the dads, and the nanas, and the myriad children I would otherwise have expected on a friday morning, a warm one in an early spring of persistent and no longer unusual mildness, not to be clinging to sleeves and shopping carts, and pulling items off shelves. I would have thought they’d be in classrooms doing what school children do these days.
And I realize the teeming aisles of this prosperous suburb, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania (media home value just north of half a million dollars), are as full as the township’s school building corridors must be empty. But not because of spring break; that was originally scheduled for a month from now. I’ve learned in the interim, schools were closed on Tuesday, three days ago, because two students and a school staff member may have been exposed to the area’s first reported case of the virus – a Children’s Hospital cardiologist serving in a satellite clinic in nearby King of Prussia. He has been in the ICU at UPenn Hospital downtown since the discovery he was positive.
The schools were to have been cleaned and sanitized and reopened, but, as in neighboring Cheltenham School Disrict, they remain closed for the week.
Here at the Whole Foods, which bursts with boisterous life, and has increasingly depleted shelves of stocks, there are nine register lanes. Eight are open. All are full. I’m guessing after the fact there are about six or seven carts in each lane. I am guessing about every two out of three carts is full to the top of the cart. These are mainly full-size grocery carts, rather than the smaller, two-tier carts, which are in every event in much shorter supply anyway.
The people in line are civilians. By this, I mean, they are not part of the usual and sizable brigade of Amazon Prime shoppers, who use the same carts and fill them to the same brims – usually every day of the week as increasing numbers of consumers exploit the generous Amazon policy of free same day delivery of groceries in orders in excess of $25 placed by their premium customers (called “Prime” as is the membership program which entitles them to such, and other similar, amenities).
I am by now used to the brigades of Prime shoppers who normally manage quietly to stay out of the way of legitimate consumers fending for their own urban foraging needs. But even as much as they clog their specially designated deployment area, the deployment zone keeps growing as the shopping service beneficiaries mushroom in number. It now encroaches on a section of the store that originally served as an area for customers to dine on the prepared foods for which the chain is justly famous. Where there had been a dozen tables seating six at a time, there are now three that serve to seat maybe two or three disparate customers who try to keep their mutual distance, and consume their pizza slices or fresh salads as quickly as they can before moving on.
But for now, as in those rare historical moments that adverse weather reports predicted as imminent, and usually in mid-winter and delineated in terms of massive snow accumulations and blizzard-like conditions, the platoons of professional grocery stock pullers are far outnumbered by the expeditionary force of an army of householders preparing for the siege of an invisible enemy that demands adherence to that defensive term of art in the peculiar stiff bureaucratic rhetoric of public security enforcers, first heard as a recommended tactic for those under siege by only too palpable wielders of only too real armament. These shoppers are provisioning for sheltering in place.
And what is most unnerving is that there is no definitive sense of when the siege will end. But, while the prospects for toilet tissue are equally unclear, it’s a good bet some of us will always have bacon.
I did have a chance to do a very informal survey of what is disappearing from the shelves.
I knew a week ago, when I went to look in supermarkets, drugstores, big box, whatever, the usual suspects, there was no hand sanitizer in any size to be had. At the Whole Foods, the price leader brands of pasta – Whole Foods own, and the Italian brand De Cecco – stocked with the greatest variety of shapes and sizes and the least deviation from the vanilla of pasta grains #1 semolina are being depleted. Today, they are pretty much gone, and the much higher priced premium imports, the kinds with convolute names and made with convoluted antique bronze dies and allowed to air dry, have also (amazingly to me) begun to disappear.
Cheaper mass-market brands of canned tomato products were already well-gone and the more recent hebdomadal toll sees a decimated reserve of the authenticated, certificated San Marzano stocks. Somehow consistently, I do note that the olive oil shelves are as depleted as I’ve ever seen them, and Whole Foods being who they are tend to stock only the EVOO varieties of oils, whatever the points of origin (or bottling: information which must be sought scrupulously on the label, and usually in virtually no-point size type, next to the names of the countries of origin of the olives which may have been pressed in Italy, but are about as Italian by derivation as my great uncle Sol of Ukraine).
At the Giant Supermarket, just across Wynnewood Rd, and slightly south of the WFM, in a strip mall with other somewhat more downscale retailers, including a Bed Bath and Beyond and an Old Navy, there are no more paper products to be had. To wipe one’s bum, or any other body part, or the kitchen counter.
I don’t check the pasta shelves at Giant, kind of knowing what to expect, but I do note that virtually every kind of packaged rice product is in extremely limited supply, as are most of the processed tomato sauces in jars and cans. I don’t check the raw goods shelves.
I am so astonished by the vast expanse of shelf space in the paper goods aisle, I have to take a rare photo. I’ve not seen shelves so empty in a consumer store of such magnitude since I was given privileged access to the first Staples store in the world, prior to its opening, prior to its stocking, some 35 years ago.
It bespeaks emptiness. I mean in the sense of the hollow lack of accord that somehow, whatever the calamity, hummed in the interpersonal spaces and voids and promised, even if only in an inchoate way, assurance of a return sooner than later to some kind of normalcy. Now, I am not so sure.
And the little sign, tucked in the crevice of the long unbroken expanse of tier on tier of emptiness of this most basic, dare I say fundamental, of symbolic necessities in our modern sense of inhabiting a coherent and resilient society, offers no reassurance of any kind in the platitudinous eviscerated insincerity of corporate speak.