Humanity can be surprising. It can hit you in the heart when you least expect it. As was the case when I needed to do a big food shop right after the State of Emergency was declared because of the coronavirus. Social media streams were flooded with images of empty aisles. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer were ravaged as if we were all expecting a horrible bout of diarrhea. But I had to go. I was out of everything. I’m talking no butter, no onions, no cheese, no cereal (and I have teenagers). It was time. My son was hungry. Lacrosse season had already started.
I grabbed all of my reusable shopping bags, I knew this would be a big one, threw them in a cart and began the aisle by aisle procession. It started fairly normally…tons of processed breads, yogurts were aplenty, no dent in the orange juice supply. Folks didn’t seem panicked, there was a general ease to it, despite my typical almost panicky feeling when grocery shopping (yes, I am shopping adverse—I blame it on the obscene amount of choices in big stores), but this time I was more in the “Breathe…it’s all going to be ok” mindset.
Near the entrance to aisle five, I saw a man lean and take a photo on his phone, “here we go,” I thought, “the toilet paper aisle.” I was a bit concerned. As an American I do use toilet paper and really should restock. Of the four long shelves for toilet paper, there was hardly any stocked. About 40 or so packs remained on the top shelf. In fact, it was all “ultra soft quilted,” surprisingly, folks left the most luxurious type. A woman that had been in front of me for about two aisles now stopped and smiled at me and said, “Can you believe this…toilet paper?” A mutual moment of shock was shared, and then I took a six-pack of toilet paper. Usually I would take a twelve-pack, but there were none left. I took a second six-pack, then a third. I actually thought about taking four, but then realized the only reason I wanted to take more was because I thought everyone else would take it all. If I stopped, along with others, there would be plenty for all of us.
So, I put back the extra pack I had grabbed and moved on, noticing that no one I passed had an exorbitant amount of anything. In fact, it seemed they all had quite a normal amount of groceries. I was the one whose cart was full of pasta, beans, veggies, dairy, and snacks. I felt a little guilty as my grocery mountain was growing in my cart, but honestly, that’s how I roll…the house empties and I do a massive shop. Timing was just awkward. But this experience was consistent. People were friendly.
I don’t know if it was that everyone was feeling the massive amounts of cancellations that just happened today—college closings, NBA shut down, Broadway closed, and on and on…a steady stream of cancellations, closing, and warnings all day. There were probably twice as many shoppers as I usually see (which was in contrast to seeing less people in public all day, including on my commute over the Mid-Hudson Bridge both ways). This forced shoppers to be patient, to communicate, to share. I spoke to more people than ever before in my decades of shopping experience.
In the chocolate aisles, I joked with a woman about how we couldn’t believe that there was still so much chocolate available. I saw two college-aged boys shopping together and truly mourning the fact that there was no beef ramen left in the aisles, only Top Ramen stating, “the world is ending!” A woman nearby heard them and to their joy offered to give them her beef ramen, and took the soy Top Ramen in its stead. She laughed, “It’s really no problem, I don’t care what ramen I eat!”
This went on throughout my experience there. I got on a very long line to check out. A worker came over and told me and a few folks to go to register four, where someone would be there to help us soon. The man behind me offered to let me go first, but I insisted that he had far less items. We got to the aisles and a line quickly formed behind us. As we awkwardly waited for the cashier to come to the register, the man commented, “hope this wasn’t a practical joke to get us out of line”. I laughed, but then this energetic young woman came practically running to the register, chewing rapidly with one hand in front of her mouth. “I’m so sorry,” she said behind her hand, “I’m starving. I haven’t had a break in hours.”
We all agreed she should take her time and swallow, but she rapidly started checking him out. She was like lightning. Before you knew it she had run my mountain of items with her store credit (saving me $17) and was helping my slow a– bag. She told me usually she’d be able to completely bag for everyone, but it’s been so busy. I asked her if it was like this all day, and she said it was actually far slower now than it had been most of the day. She said she was exhausted, but she’d probably wind up going out when she got off. “My friends will convince me,” she smiled. Sometimes life has a way of showing you the beauty of humanity. I found it today at the supermarket.
This article was written before social distancing was the new norm. If it were written today it may end, “She said she was exhausted but she was probably joining an online party when she got off.”