The Loneliness of Grocery Shopping in a Pandemic

A few days ago, I went grocery shopping. On the surface, nothing went wrong. I got my bananas, eggs, the requisite sugary snacks. A bottle of decent-looking Pinot Noir. The store was about to close for the evening, so I often had the aisle to myself. Avoiding the occasional other shopper was an easy task. Everyone I saw wore a mask, and checkout was uneventful.

As I browsed shelves of canned beans and tortilla chips, I momentarily forgot about the news, the pandemic, the grab bag of worries waiting for me outside the store. The deserted aisles and indistinct background music had lulled me into a strange trance. Reaching for a bag of cheese puffs, I felt the mask pulling on my face and suddenly forgot why it was there. Wait. What am I doing here, again?

Then it came flooding back, slamming into me like a Mack truck. Right. This is what we do now. Maybe for a long, long time.

I thought of what my mom used to say when dealing with something unpleasant. “Haha, just laugh it off! Don’t think about it!”

So I tried, busying myself with procuring ground turkey for taco night. Behind the butcher counter was a windowed room where not long ago, employees had packaged meat and fish. The room was empty now, bright and scrubbed clean, utensils hanging in a tidy row on the wall. A crisp sheet of brown wrapping paper was pulled carefully over the refrigerated offerings. 

The space was too quiet, too orderly, as if it had never before been inhabited by a human soul. A deep loneliness tugged at me. Sadness swirled in my chest.

Where were the employees right now? What did they think about as they wrapped up pork cutlets and breaded tilapia for customers? I wondered if the workers had enough to eat, whether their families were okay, what kept them going day after day. I wondered how many people were living precariously at that moment, their struggles unseen and unanswered.

I could have rambled these thoughts out loud and no one would have noticed. Standing at the intersection of ground beef and frozen fish sticks, I felt completely alone.

Exiting the store, I crossed over markings on the ground reminding shoppers about social distancing, then passed by a sign that read, “Spread Compassion.” The illustration featured two masked faces gazing at each other from opposite ends of the sign. 

This is where we are right now, I thought. Staring at each other across the void, our stoic facades crumbling silently behind our masks. Frozen in place, filled with a mixture of hope and dread, waiting to one day reconnect.

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