Arts & Life
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Remember when one could just... go to the store? When one could just pop in for milk on one's way home, or maybe pick up a glistening rotisserie chicken? Or, my goodness, browse — while away some time choosing produce, or looking for dinner inspiration?
That seems downright luxurious — and increasingly foreign — through the lens of a worldwide pandemic. Over the past few weeks, grocery shopping has evolved from mundane errand to stressful social experiment. Everyone still has to eat, which means everyone still has to shop for food. Figuring out how we can do that while keeping everyone, especially staff, safe has been not without its growing pains, particularly during the great toilet paper panic of March 2020.
Now is not the time, to paraphrase Dr. Brent Roussin, for brand loyalty, and it's certainly not the time for browsing. Now is not time to be fussy about apples. Now is the time to get in and get out.
Under normal circumstances, I love grocery shopping, and I especially loved it as a kid. There was usually a new Archie comic from the checkout in it for me, but that's not why I liked going.
It was a way to spend quality time with my mom. I liked using the scoop and the scale in the bulk area, and admiring the neat rainbows of cereal boxes that seemed to stretch on to infinity. When my mom wasn't looking, I furtively squished the plastic-wrapped packages of ground beef. I liked the way they'd yield under the pressure my thumb, leaving behind a perfect indent. (What can I say? Kids are gross.)
The grocery store is comforting, a place where everything is where it always is.
I thought of those formative trips to the grocey store when I went for my weekly shop on Monday morning. I was struck by how different the experience is, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. When I did my inaugural pandemic-grocery shop in March, I found it incredibly anxiety-provoking.
This was before the arrows on the floor, the cutesy signage in the produce department: "Now is not the time to squeeze me." Very few people were distancing. In the checkout line, some people were so close I could feel their breath on me.
Things have changed in the intervening weeks. There's signage, now, warning people to keep their distance, and decals on the floor that tell you where to stand and at what end of the aisle you can enter. I sanitized my hands upon entry and received a freshly wiped-down cart. There are plastic shields protecting cashiers, and the self-checkout is immediately disinfected.
Still, I had concerns that the province's recent loosening of COVID-19 restrictions would be taken as a permission slip for people to do whatever they wanted. And I'd heard some not-great stories: someone tapping someone else on the shoulder to alert her to a free checkout terminal; someone being sworn at for giving a friendly reminder to stay at a distance; people being rude to grocery-store workers.
My experience was mostly fine. Half the people in the store were wearing masks. People were observing distancing guidelines, or at least attempting to. Everyone, generally, was following the rules. No one touched me or breathed on me. I saw one man touch five identical bottles of syrup and then proceed to buy none of them, but that was the only major infraction I witnessed.
What people didn't have, however, was a whole lot of patience. Despite the fact it was a chill Monday morning — coupled with the almost eerie absence of tantruming toddlers — people were noticeably on edge. Because here's the thing: you can no longer "run in" or "pop out" to a grocery store. Gone, too, are the halcyon days of bypassing slow pokes and browsers by simply uttering Canada's official grocery-store pleasantry: "Just gonna sneak right past ya."
Oh no. There will be no sneaking right past anybody. There will be waiting your turn. And if you're not fast enough, I learned, you will be subject to much impatient harrumphing. The 20 seconds I took trying to locate smoked paprika drew the exasperation of one woman, who sighed, heavily. Trying to find a spice shouldn't feel exactly like defusing a ticking bomb, and yet. These are the edgy times in which we live.
For a long time, it was easy to be an oblivious individual in a grocery store, with your list, your preferences, your needs and, more recently, even your own checkout terminal. But to grocery shop in 2020 is to be acutely reminded that we live in a society. We need to take care of each other. That looks like hand-washing, distancing, mask-wearing — but it also looks like not openly glowering at an old man trying to choose some bananas.
Take a deep breath. We're going to be here a while.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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