Mr. G texted:
We are out of milk.
He said we are out of milk, and I wasn’t planning on going to the market. How long can a family survive without milk? Hours, mere hours for the Gotttliebs. There are cookies to dunk, coffee to adjust, and sweets to bake. We need milk.
I am returning a million (three) things to Best Buy when I see the text. Best Buy is around the corner from Smart and Final. I decided that I would stop in should there be no visible lines. There are not, so to the market I go.
I find myself at Smart & Final on a Saturday afternoon, which is not a time where I’d be at Smart & Final, nor anywhere else but my home most weeks. I come to find, though, that Smart and Final on week 6 of Shelter at Home is a cultural anthropologist’s dream.
For some reason, it is me, a few single women, and a half dozen elderly and infirm men. I know these women are single by their baskets, please don’t ask, trust me. The men are 70 and up, or perhaps 60 and up in questionable health. There are scars, thinning hair, but not male pattern baldness. Rather, it’s the sort of thinning that comes from cancer treatments, malnutrition, or the specter of death. These are unaccompanied men, and they find me.
My forties were magical years. I, like so many women in America, became invisible. It was disconcerting and freeing all at once. Men in their 30’s leave women in their 40’s alone. They look right through 40-something women, except at the grocery store. The grocery store is where the married woman over 40 is deemed not just an expert, but perhaps even The Expert.
For approximately ten years now, I’ve been stopped at Gelsons and asked everything from wine pairing questions, “I dunno ask Keith the wine guy.” to how to pick a good eggplant, “Get a smaller male one. Male eggplants have a dot at the bottom. Female has a dash.” I’ve grown accustomed to being ignored everywhere but in the grocery store. The grocery store is my domain, according to America.
Confession: I cannot pick a good watermelon.
I enter Smart and Final and head to the dairy section. While making my way to the rear of the store, a man backs up out of the aisle he’s in to make room for me. We smile with our eyes because the masks hide everything else. He asks me about almonds, I show him what I buy for my family, we exchange niceties at a distance, and I move on feeling terrible that I’ve not physically helped a man whose cane is hanging off his grocery cart.
The next aisle brings a bouillon discussion. “Is Better Than Bouillon actually better?” He asks me. If the world were fair I’d say, “How the fuck do I know?” But the world is cruel and this is the quality of information I have.
“No,” I say shaking my head sadly, “Better than Bouillon is much worse than Bouillon. See if you can find the Knorr cubes. If not there’s something over in the Mexican food section, but make sure it’s the right kind I accidentally bought pork bouillion cubes before and…”
His eyes are glazing over. This isn’t an octogenarian looking to chat. This is a hipster looking to eat on a budget. I should have grumbled, “No clue.” and walked on. I smiled with my eyes too, I’m getting wrinkles for this guy.
While grabbing paper napkins, another gent comes shuffling down the aisle. He’s tiny, smaller than I, and appears to have shrunk inside his clothes. Much like Larry King, his shoulders roll forward, his toes angle out, and the suspenders are holding his pants up, but the designer belt is a holdover from his high powered career. His hair is wild and reminds me of Doc Brown if Doc Brown had patches of it that had gone missing. This man has stories to tell, and it looks like I’m going to hear them.
I spend ten minutes in the paper aisle. I forget to buy paper napkins. I am still ironing old stained napkins. I am an idiot.
He tells me stories from a distance. The whole store hears his tales, he’s yelling through his mask, I realize he’s hard of hearing. I’m yelling back, “Tell me more.” I was right, that was a big career. No one else stops to listen. They are bigger idiots than I am.
I’m in line and looking for small cans of wine. I like the small size for cooking. I don’t drink wine, but we always have some bottles on hand for friends, this doesn’t mean though, that I want to spend $30 to splash some wine in a pan to zhuzh up a sauce. I want to spend $3 on that nonsense.
As I’m absentmindedly looking for gross cans of sauce wine the man in line behind me asks if I let my kids drink. His are the same age as mine. None of these conversations are remotely private with social distancing in place. Do I yell to a stranger at Smart & Final that I’m okay with 18-year-olds having a beer with dinner? You bet I do. And I have no interest in being in this conversation, none at all, but here I am with a single dad who clearly has no one else to talk to, and two men from his future got me all warmed up.
They all just needed to talk. The grocery store men probably spoke to no one other than me and the checker that day. Humans are not built for this. Humans are built for interaction.
Shelter at home has been kind to me. I have my kids and my husband. We even visit my folks in their yard – and that’s nice, but it’s not the same. My mom’s garden is the only place where I acutely feel the need to have my old life back. I’m not sure that it will ever be back. Some of these changes will be permanent.
Today I called donors on behalf of the CSU Pueblo Foundation to ask them if there was anything they needed. It’s not a moment where big asks are appropriate (are they ever appropriate from an unsolicited phone call?), and it felt good to get on the phone, introduce myself, thank someone for all they’ve given and say, “It’s our turn to ask how we can help you.”
And don’t you know it. I ended up on a call with a lovely man, a much older man who wanted to talk about baseball and football.
And we were both happy.