I was first in line at the Lahser and Maple Kroger yesterday morning, a Sunday. The doors would open at 7:00. I’d been waiting in my car for fifteen minutes, cars pulling into the lot after me, first one, then two or three at a time, killing headlights, engines. I was there more out of curiosity than immediate need. The day before I’d been to Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Menards at 7:00 a.m., checking on what they were out of. I bought a can of Lysol. There were three left on the shelf. A few days before that, in a late afternoon stop at Kroger, I saw one half gallon of 2 percent milk on the shelf. One.
I felt more than little conspicuous yesterday morning, getting out of my car before anyone else, grabbing a cart from the stack outside, standing in front of the main entrance, the first in line, my back to the parking lot. It was cold. It took one person, me, to start the queue. By 6:55 on a Sunday morning, thirty of us waited quietly, shivering.
When the store opened, they unlocked the other main door first. So I wasn’t in the front of the line. I was last of the first that day.
Once inside I went where everyone went. Paper products. “Get em fast,” a stock guy said. On two shelves, Charmin, packs of eight rolls. Three or four people with carts were already there, grabbing product. I took two packages and made my way to produce, where the fruit and vegetable guy I see all the time was piling melons on a shelf.
“Two days ago,” he said, “everything in this area was gone.” He’d come in at midnight to restock.
I said I was glad to see he had the Bartlett pears that were so good.
“People are crazy,” he said. “And mean. They don’t understand. Stuff doesn’t just appear on the shelves.”
We talked about supply lines, about infrastructure. His relatives in Sicily are quarantined. “When they go to the store,” he said, “only two people at a time can go in the store.”
Produce looked like any other Sunday morning: bananas, beautiful zucchini, parsley, fresh apples, berries. But the rest of the store did not. Boxes in aisles, exhausted stock people, some in blue Kroger smocks, some in jeans and sweatshirts, putting product on shelves, some just walking around the store. They looked overtime tired. In peanut butter I asked a stocker, You doing all right? No response.
The evening of 9/11 I recall pulling up to the stoplight at Telegraph and 13 Mile. I was probably listening to the news, still in shock, the ordinary feeling of safety and predictability shattered. When I looked to the car next to me, I met the eyes of another driver, a 30-ish Black male. He nodded at me. I nodded back. We’re in this together, our look said. Brother. Again and again, that day and in the days after, those moments occurred, the look, the nod, the sudden solidarity.
This moment is not like that.
The looks we exchange in the store, when they happen at all, have a sheepish quality. What’s happening? How bad is it? How bad will things get? What the hell are we doing?
Yesterday I needed a few things. They were out of lentils. I took dried chickpeas instead, four bags. Did I need two tubs of yogurt? I read online that Trader Joe’s ran out of frozen foods. I saw pictures. I pushed my cart into the frozen section, grabbed three boxes of Kroger frozen cut spinach.
The line was long at the automated checkouts, six stations open. A harried employee ran from one terminal to the next. I know her. I see her twice a week in a usually deserted store early in the morning. I wanted to do something, say something to her–Thanks. Be safe–but there was too much chaos. While I waited my turn I noticed, on top of the pile in a cart in front of me were two boxes of tissues. I remembered: We’re going to need tissues, my wife said a few days ago.
I’d been in the store ten minutes. It was filling up. Tissues will be gone by now, I thought.
I checked anyway, found four, took two, and was amazed to see one last package of Charmin still there. I couldn’t believe it. People who came in the store when I did must have walked past it and decided not to take it. Why? Resisting the urge to hoard, leaving some for those who might really need it, thinking: I just can’t take the last one on the shelf. It wouldn’t be right. That’s not me.
I hope I’m right about that. Perhaps I am, for now.