I turned back down Aisle 5 to grab another can of chickpeas and almost walked right into a man wearing a grey T-shirt with red letters reading: “WARNING. I’m Awesome.”
“Hold on sister. You’re going the wrong way,” Mr. Awesome told me, pointing to the arrow on the floor.
“You’re right. I am so sorry. This is my first time with all this.”
“It’s fine. I’m just busting your chops,” said the man, who is exactly the type you’d expect to say “busting your chops.” About age 65, a little round with disheveled, black curly hair.
“It’s our first time with the directional arrows, too,” he said, nodding to his Mrs. Awesome, who was down toward the black beans.
“It’s exciting and newwww,” he sang as he turned his cart away from me. The theme song from “The Love Boat.” I recognized it instantly.
Yes, this was my first time in Publix since it started limiting the number of customers in the store, so I’d already waited in a line for entry and now was navigating arrows on the floor. It was a tiny price to pay and nobody, including Mr. and Mrs. Awesome or me, seemed to be complaining.
I realized I’d forgotten spinach and carefully followed the arrows to maneuver a legal return to the produce section.
Another man approached me. This one in his early 20s, wearing a lime green Shipt shirt with baggy gray sweatpants.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said.
“Sure,” I replied, looking down to confirm I was going in the right direction and wasn’t about to get in trouble again.
“Is this an avocado?”
“Yes it is. You are absolutely right,” I assured him.
“Thanks. I don’t know half the stuff on this list,” he said looking at the phone he held in his gloved left hand.
This man certainly had worked somewhere else before the Covid 19 Pandemic furloughed him. Now he was deciphering grocery lists of strangers who had very different taste buds and recipes than he did.
I glanced over his list and led him to the cilantro, admitting that even with 100 more years of grocery shopping experience, I often bought culantro by mistake.
He was so stressed out, he didn’t even break a smile. Or maybe my comment just wasn’t smile-worthy. I steered the Shipt shopper toward a few other foods on his list, then headed back to the refrigerated back wall where I’d left my cart.
There I encountered an Italian woman, about 4-foot-10 and in her 70s surveying the bacon. A Publix employee with red hair and the beginning of some upper lip hair growth restocked the two-for-one Oscar Mayer.
“Why you not wear mask?” the older woman asked him, pointing to her own.
Along with the arrows on the floor, masks were now the new “normal” at Publix. Still, about a third of shoppers and employees weren’t donning them.
The young employee shrugged his shoulders and went back to the low sodium bacon.
“Why not mask?” she persisted.
“Because I don’t want to,” he said, without making eye contact.
“Why?” she persisted, pointing to her own again, and others nearby, including myself, wearing an array of bandannas and homemade versions in solids and prints.
“Because I DON’T want to,” he said, still looking straight ahead.
“Jesus Christ,” said Mr. Awesome, who overheard the exchange as he circled back to grab some hotdogs.
I wondered if he was Team Older Woman or Team Ginger Stock Boy.
I kind of saw her point at first. The Centers for Disease Control was recommending everyone wear one. But then I felt for him. He’s a teenage stock boy making about $8.50 an hour– not Anthony Fauci.
I fast tracked my sanitized cart to the wine section in the back of the store and was thrilled to find Kendall Jackson Chardonnay on sale for $10.99 a bottle, down from $13.99. I put two in my cart and wheeled forward until another shopper headed in the wrong direction blocked me.
“No, it’s not crowded at all,” a woman in her 40s looking great in exercise clothes said into the phone she held up at her face as she FaceTimed a friend. “I’m going to bring you some wine. How many bottles of Chardonnay do you want?”
She was partly right, the store wasn’t as crowded as usual, but at least 37 people were waiting outside in line. She was taking her own sweet time FaceTiming friends while she FaceTimed. This woman annoyed me and made me ashamed that I, too, loved Chardonnay, the most unsophisticated white wine.
As I put one bottle of my Kendall Jackson back on the shelf and replaced it with a bottle of $9.99 Canyon Road Pinot Grigio, a cheerful female voice came across the loud speaker.
“Good morning Publix shoppers. As we continue to practice social distancing we remind you to please shop six feet apart. Thank you for shopping at Publix. We’re all in this together.”
My mind flashed to the constant loud speaker warnings in airports reminding travelers not to leave bags unattended. That was to guard against terrorists planting bombs. Now we had to be wary of friends, family and neighbors unknowingly planting a virus.
I turned back and the bottle of discarded Kendall Jackson back in my cart. Times are tough.
Finally, I approached the finish line of cash registers. Warnings from every consumer reporter on network and cable TV played in my head. “Definitely bag your own groceries. The fewer hands that handle your food and bags the better.”
But another voice spoke louder. It belonged to Mary Evertz, my 84-year-old no-nonsense, but very refined friend and mentor. She was one of the first female reporters at The Tampa Bay Times and still offered the best tips 20 years after retiring.
“I don’t do cash bars and I don’t pump my own gas,” she told me more than a decade ago.
I’m sure Mary doesn’t ring up her own groceries either. I took a page from her classic book. I was just too mentally exhausted with too much produce sans barcodes and too much wine requiring my birth date verification to check out my own groceries.
After loading my groceries into the car and settling into the driver’s seat, I put my head down on the steering wheel and cried.
I cried for the young man who asked me about the avocado. I cried for the teenager who wasn’t wearing a facemask. I cried for the girl with Down Syndrome who was so bummed she couldn’t hug Patty, the pharmacist. I haven’t even mentioned this scene. Apparently that’s part of their routine, but now it wasn’t safe.
Then I thought of Mr. Awesome and his T-shirt and Captain Stubing and the “Love Boat.” We all know too well by now the unimaginable pain this pandemic brings. But as we navigate each day, we bounce like a pinball between bumpers of sad reality and finding ways to make the best of it.
My apologies to The Clash.