Saturday, April 18: Emergence

My personal pandemic program has always been to try to stay a week ahead (or at least a day ahead, in the case of Hallinan’s Liquors) of the curve. I never seem to quite hit that goal, as events move fast, but earlier this week I realized that it was time to start taking more risks and just getting out and doing some more normal tasks. It was time to venture out to Wegman’s once again… if only to see what it’s become. I don’t feel right about relying on delivery services, either, so this is going to have to be part of the program.

A Twitter friend of mine commented that his recent trip to my secondary Wegmans was like “the cantina scene from Star Wars” what with all the variety of homemade masks being used, and I found this pretty hilarious, and made me think my primary Wegmans might not be too much a bummer. I wish I could say that was my experience today, but it wasn’t.

It was a bummer.

Some people enjoy grocery shopping as a social thing, but that’s not me. However, Wegmans really was and hopefully still will be a pleasant place to shop. It is the wonderful people who work there who have always made it that way. (On the extremely rare instances you are served by someone who is in a bad mood or is making mistakes, one’s first impulse is to call the store and ask, “Is there something wrong with [name of cashier]? Is he doing okay?”)

Today, I sinned against the Snow God and went out quite early to do some major shopping. I planned ahead, bringing a fresh surgical mask from my dwindling box (as I don’t have a comfortable cloth mask yet that doesn’t look it was taken off a dead Tusken Raider), wearing boots that I would take off in the entryway, and reminding myself I’d need to take my coat off too before coming inside. Hand sanitizer in the car? Check. And I was off to drive to the store, trying to avoid a whole generation of streetwalking robins whose babies this spring will grow up not knowing what a car is.

I was expecting to find a line of socially distanced people waiting to be admitted into the store, but it was probably too early. The only sign something was different was a big “ENTER HERE” on one side, and a sign reassuring customers that carts had already been sanitized. Other than that and stickers placed on the floor advising everyone to stay a cart apart for safety, there was… nothing inside the store designed to control traffic flow. Wegmans is not interested in one-way aisles. Fortunately, 90% of the people inside were doing a good job of staying apart.

What’s hard to get used to, what truly seems un-Wegmanslike and surreal, is the silence. No one talks. There is no chatting. People hardly look at each other (too busy being avoidant). Most people are moving around purposefully with seriousness. Wegmans is no longer a place where you want to linger.

Our officials and experts, as recently as last week, were still soothsaying about the supply chain (“Plenty of food! Nothing to worry about!”) We now know that’s bullshit because we’ve learned about how presumptuous our supply chain really was about mankind’s dominion over the earth. You wonder what else they don’t have a handle on.

Apparently boneless chicken thighs are an extremely popular item, because when you walk into my Wegmans, the first thing that greets you is a single portable freezer where reduced-for-sale meat is on display, and they are selling individually wrapped chicken thighs for $1 each. This is apparently being done to preserve the illusion that there are ample boneless chicken thighs for all, or to make sure everyone gets at least one. But why are boneless chicken thighs so scarce? By the time you get back to the real meat area of the store, and see there’s almost nothing but bulk packs of chicken, and that there is an unusually large amount of bone-in chicken thighs, you get it: There aren’t enough workers to take out the bones at the processing facilities, or else maybe Wegmans lost the sourcing battle to Kroger’s.

There are also now packs of chicken with generic wrapping, labeled “Born/Hatched, Raised, and. Slaughtered/Harvested in the U.S.” I think this phrase must have been on all chicken in the past, but the labels were better designed to keep that in the background. If we’re going to still eat chicken, I guess we consumers now have no excuse not to know where it comes from.

Other than the toilet paper and hand sanitizer that may never actually return, my Wegmans seemed reasonably well-stocked. Workers had masks and Plexiglas shields. (Most of the customer’s masks seemed to be bland paper surgical masks, like mine.) My cashier seemed cheerful, though she lowered her mask to talk to the cashier in the next aisle… in the way that teenagers do when they know they aren’t probably aren’t going to die from this thing.

I was in and out of there pretty quick, and had found everything I needed. Back at the car, a moment to carefully take off my mask and store in a plastic bag for disposal at home, and to sanitize my hands, and I was out of there. It felt more like a spacewalk than I had imagined, though, and I would never feel like doing this sort of thing once a week. I hope Wegmans can work it out and I hope they can adapt to the new normal (and more convenient days are ahead, I’m sure).

In normal times, when I’m in Wegmans parking lot, hoping I can get out of the traffic and get home quickly, I indulge in imagining the past, when Wegmans was one of George Geddes’ elaborately drained farm fields.

After my many years of studying Fairmount’s history, growing to understand its cycles of transformation over 225 years and more, I began to feel I could apprehend the faint shape of its future, of a way of life that would one day be going on here, probably within 30 years. That’s a topic for another day’s long post. But I will say that this future seems both very different (and somewhat disturbing) and logical. Current trends and past patterns both pointed toward this future; but I still couldn’t understand what could possibly happen to create conditions for these changes even within three decades. (Another world war, fought far away, didn’t seem like quite enough to do it.)

What kind of discontinuity, what dislocation, would dislodge this current way of life in Fairmount and create room for this future to happen? I wonder no more.