This Ain't Your Mamma's Grocery Games

6 May 3:40pm

I know work-life changed when the pandemic came to Milwaukee, but I don’t know that anything changed as much as grocery shopping. Honestly, I didn’t particularly love grocery shopping before this as it felt like a chore to fit 40 minutes of fluorescents and shit-what-am-I-forgettings into my day, but now it feels like a damn ordeal. Like suiting up and getting ready to enter Thunderdome.  

I always make a list before I go to make sure I don’t forget anything. Chances are half the stuff on my list will be completely absent from the shelves anyway. I don’t know why I bother. Normalcy maybe? 

Pulling into the parking lot, I reach into my door and pull out my hand sanitizer. My new best friend. It’s been there for well over a year because humans are gross and I’m paranoid. But, I’m glad I purchased it before prices shot up to completely baffling levels. 

My mom used to periodically buy me fancy hand sanitizer as a gift or just because and I laugh at how a gift of sanitizer would be like gold right now. I might look nuts rubbing hand sanitizer into my hands and laughing to myself in my car, but everything is now upside down and I don’t care.

Pep talks seem to help for occasions like these as I take a deep breath and recite grocery store mantras in my head. 

Focus on vegetables, rice, and beans. Ignore any distractions. Don’t look at the end caps. 

Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE.

After long enough your brain convinces you that’s actually what you want to do, not the absolute last thing you should do right now and shit gets confusing as you find your hand reaching up to touch your eyelid for no reason.  

I enter the store, mask on, hands wafting fumes from the hand sanitizer, and looking left and right like a prey animal ready to peace out. 

I’ve pretty much come to accept I have to give up organics and premium ingredients at this point and just surrender to the cardboard-tastic flavorings of Keebler products (no offense, Keebler, but you got nothing on homemade cookies).  

We wear masks now. Yes, masks fashioned together out of old collared shirts and hair ties I forgot I had while we wait for some more legit ones to ship from some fashion company in LA. The world got so weird in just a few week’s time. We are in a movie, right?  

As a former nurse, I understand, in excruciating detail, everything that’s happening right now. I know how viruses work. I know how to wear masks. I understand what droplet precautions mean. I don’t, however, understand why Sharon over here doesn’t know what six feet means. 

She looks like a Sharon, but I’m making assumptions. I’m assuming she somehow missed the memo that her bodily fluids are not welcome and that she is too concerned with what she’s going to panic buy on Aisle 7 than to do her duty to protect the rest of us from her sputum. 

Over in the dairy section, some dude is stocking up on 17 packages of cream cheese. What in God’s Green Earth are you doing with that much cream cheese? Making the world’s largest cheesecake? Inducing dairy-related constipation to save money during this epic toilet paper shortage? 

Heading left up the pasta aisle, I find my favorite pizza sauce. It really is the best. It’s the perfect mix of thick tomato flavor, sweetness, herbaceousness, and it’s not too acidic. There is nothing worse than overly acidic pizza sauce. However, I can only buy two small, six-ounce cans of it because the normal size is mysteriously gone. 

I notice this everywhere. Everything comes in smaller sizes right now and I’m not entirely sure why it is, but it reminds me of a homestay I did in Shropshire, England when I was 14 and how my host parents spent my first evening there feeding us a meat and cheese board and telling us how all the food in “America” is excessively large. They are not wrong and the optimist in my head keeps thinking, maybe we need to shift to smaller sizes. Maybe this is a good thing. 

Then, my patriotism bubbles up and I think, “F’ that. This is the United States. We do what we want.” 

I then have a moment of silence for people boldly protesting stay-at-home orders on behalf of Lady Freedom and consider the pitfalls of our rampant individualism. Then, I remember I’m here for snacks. 

Every aisle I go down is another variety of what the fuck. In the chip aisle, there is one lonely bag of plain potato chips sitting on the shelf and I can’t help but relate to it. Even the chips are social distancing now. Anyway, this salty snack also reminds me of how I typically feel at parties. Those things people used to have. 

I toss the bag in my cart because apparently empathizing with potato chips causes impulse buys. 

Weirdly enough, the tortilla chip shelves are fully stocked. Where’s the love for tortilla chips? The more I look at the full shelves, the more I think there is something wrong with the tortilla chips. My neuroses have somehow gotten worse during the pandemic (shocking, I know), but I can’t help but think this is probably what everybody standing here before me did. If nobody else is buying these, should I *also* not buy them?

Somehow the grocery store became a new vessel for peer pressure. Get the potato chips. Everybody’s buying them.

In the frozen food aisle (thank heavens, I’m almost done) I marvel at how everybody scooped up the chicken nuggets and toaster waffles, leaving little but shitty ice cream and bags of frozen broccoli and green beans. Nutrition! I buy two of them. The shitty ice cream, to be clear. 

Rounding the last aisle and heading back towards checkout, I see an obstacle in front of me. An elderly woman is standing near her husband in line, but she’s aimlessly meandering back and forth, staring off into space, covering a good 20 square feet as if we aren’t in the middle of a damn pandemic. Listen, I’m not here to guess what was going on in her head. Maybe this was her way of coping with restricted space, like a fists-at-the-sky, damn the man sort of thing. More power to you, Ethel. 

I keep naming people in the store I don’t know and I’m pretty sure it’s my deep loneliness coming out, but this is life now. Weird dreams. Inappropriate laughter. Rampant consumption of cream cheese.  

I engage in a quick game of Dodge the Grandma and get in line. There’s a woman in front of me nearing the end of her journey and as she pulls out her credit card, she coughs all over the credit card machine. Yes, that device that is standing between me and my exit from this special kind of hell. 

I cringe and wait for my turn. As I near the dreaded credit card machine, I pull my card out, touch it as little as possible, remind myself not to touch my face. Anything, but my face. I stare at the buttons as if I could somehow see the viral particles sitting there, laughing at me, but it’s just plastic.  

I keep the card out as I grab my bags and mall walk to my car. The first thing I do is sanitize my credit card. Does anybody else do this now? Then, I sanitize my hands. Then, I pour hand sanitizer over my head and bath myself head to toe in this alcoholic elixir. A desperate, gel-like bathing experience. 

Okay, so I didn’t, but I really wanted to.

I turn my car on, glad I made it out okay, and head home to dig into some shitty ice cream. The coughing woman? This grocery trip was two weeks ago and I don’t have symptoms, so she was just rude, not contagious. 

Good luck out there, friends, and may your grocery shopping adventures be quick, socially distanced, and completely forgettable. How grocery shopping is supposed to be. 

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.

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