I don’t think any of us could have imagined that going out to buy groceries would become so fraught and so time-consuming. But then, there are so many things we couldn’t have imagined, even a few short weeks ago.

Trip to Trader Joe’s
by Ruth Neuwald Falcon, Seattle, WA

The cupboard was bare, or close enough for discomfort. And it’s no wonder, as the last time I was out in the world was March 18, when I went for the one-week follow-up after my second cataract surgery. Even then, no one in the office wore masks until I requested it. They have to get a lot closer than six feet to look deep into your eyes with their bright lights and magic lenses.

A friend had picked a few things up for me in the intervening weeks, but I was running too low on too many things to ask her to resupply me. So despite my trepidation, I suited up for senior hour at Trader Joe’s this morning. Hat, mask, bandanna, goggles. I found those in the earthquake emergency preparedness supplies in the entry closet, all ready for a different disaster. I’ve read that gloves may not be the best idea since nasty things can cling to their surface more than to skin, so my hands were bare. Every other inch of me was as covered as I could manage.

Between the driving, standing on line (despite not having lived there for over 35 years, I’m a still New Yorker: we stand on lines) waiting to be admitted in groups—socially distanced groups—of five with the request to please not to start in the produce aisle, loading up the cart, checking out, packing the seven bags into the car and taking them out again, carrying them up to the landing outside my front door where I set up a cleansing station to wipe down every item with a Clorox bleach solution, bringing them in and putting everything that wasn’t cardboard into the sink to be rinsed, quickly filling the drainboard with the newly clean (I hope, I trust) items and doing the same with the dishwasher—between all those things, it took more than four hours. One definitely gets a feeling of accomplishment never before achieved by grocery shopping.

I’ve been to this Trader Joe’s countless times. Whenever I went, whatever the day or time, it’s always been busy, bustling, with a low hum of voices competing with the classic rock playing over the store’s speaker system. People don’t tend to chat with strangers in Seattle, so there never was a lot of social interaction, though every now and then someone (usually with an accent that betrayed their East Coast origins) would ask a question (Have you tried this?) or make a comment (Oh you’ve got to try that!).

But today, it was strangely quiet at TJs, both on the line and in the store. Most people wore face coverings of some kind. But there were others who stood bare-faced as they waited or pushed their filling carts. There were even a couple of store clerks who were uncovered. One young man, stocking frozen vegetables, chatted energetically with a masked co-worker a couple of feet down the aisle. I could almost see the respiratory droplets spraying out of his mouth with each word. “No,” the green-masked checkout clerk replied to my question a few minutes later, “there’s no requirement we cover our faces. But it is strongly suggested.” I don’t understand why it’s not a requirement, both for staff and for shoppers. One’s fundamental freedoms are not being abridged by not being allowed to smoke in stores. At this point, second-hand smoke might be more welcome than the miasma of someone’s imperceptibly infected aerosolized spray. If they didn’t hang in the air, remaining behind like an invisible signature when he moved to restock another area, they were certainly covering the surfaces of all those neatly stacked bags of frozen peas, spinach, mixed vegetables and riced cauliflower stir fry. I would say that I found myself unreasonably angry at that young man and the other bare-faced shoppers, but I don’t think my feelings are unreasonable.

Then there was the young woman at the checkout stand, in her green homemade face covering. She was pleasant, friendly and efficient, and did the best bagging job I’ve ever experienced, so that when I got home and started the disinfecting process, my task was eased by like being placed with like: all the freezer items together; the produce, cans, bottles, boxes in appropriate groupings. She and I had the longest face-to-face (or face-to-plexiglass) conversation I’ve had with anyone in a month.

Mostly, I am all right in my solitude. I talk to my friends, I’m part of a weekly Zoom exercise class, I see the occasional person when I’m out on my afternoon walks. But it was feeling the warmth and presence of this young stranger that brought to the surface the sorrow that lives underneath the open-ended necessity for living without at least the option of daily contact with others. I had already almost forgotten how enriching the smallest face-to-face exchange with another human can be. Even when all you can see of each other are the eyes.

Photos by Ruth Neuwald Falcon

12 Comments

  1. I can totally relate to the need for human contact and connection.
    It’s almost unbearable, the solitude and the uncertainty of these awful times. Sending warm thoughts to all.

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  2. Thank you, Ruth, for expressing so eloquently and candidly what many of us are feeling at this time. Your willingness to be vulnerable makes it easier for the rest of us. I keep reminding myself that someday, some way, this will end, and once again we’ll shop for groceries with ease. My hope is that I remember, at that point, to be grateful for what I once took for granted. Love and virtual hugs to all…

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  3. Hi Ruth, Loved your post. Glad to know I am not the only one covering up when going out and wiping down groceries. This is a very mindful way of living. Love the photos also. Are you wearing goggles because of the cataract surgery or do you recommend it for everyone? Also, what percentage of Clorox to water do you recommend for wiping down groceries?

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    1. Hi Sherry, Lovely, as always, to hear from you. The goggles and the cataract surgery are unrelated. An 88-year-old friend in New Jersey mentioned that he wears them when he goes to the store. The eyes are the other possible point of entry and goggles serves the double purpose of having them inaccessible to my hands as well as whatever might be floating in the air. I didn’t make the Clorox mix, but have a spray bottle of bleach cleanser that I used. Bleach has always scared me, though I think I will need to overcome that fear soon and mix up my own. Perhaps we can share recipes.

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    1. I am deeply touched and honored by your words, Rob. This blog is a lifeline for me and I am grateful when I learn it is helpful to others. Stay safe. Stay healthy. And write something should the spirit move you.

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  4. So well put, Ruth. We’re stuck here in the retirement home with a total idiot for a manager. He comes from hotels, so he keeps trying to run it like a hotel, not a community of increasingly aging seniors. I’ve already written one letter that I know got to the district manager, but our manager remains clueless. I have rent lock and am determined to stay put, but it’s getting more challenging every day.

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    1. How awful, Carol. Things are challenging enough without having to contend with a “total idiot” in a position of power over aspects of your life that you can’t do anything about. It is frightening how many of those incompetents are in charge of things these days. May your letter to the district manager bring results. Let me know how it goes. Sending love.

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  5. You are a fabulous writer, Ruth. We are still in Chile (flights canceled) and I long to be back home…. and to shop at TJs again. What Sheila and others are trying to tell me is that home is no longer home…

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