To be honest, I can’t blame Covid for putting a damper on my Saturday nights. Even before the pandemic, my Saturday nights were never rip-roaring, including my ten years back in New York. Usually, I had to be coaxed out of my fourth floor walk-up, which out-of-town guests were happy to do.
Part of the reason then, as now, was my workload. I spend a lot of time on projects outside of my regular job. Also, after years in academia, I got used to the lonely, scholarly lifestyle. I can’t write in bars or noisy student unions. Finally, part of the reason for staying at home is my disposition. I’m not a hermit, but silent retreats have been a source of fascination for me. I never managed to do one or anything like it, though…until now.
Covid has given me the opportunity to do a silent retreat of sorts, especially since I live alone and the Zoom frenzy from my job ends Friday evening. I do personal projects on Saturday, but my verbal interaction with people plummets. I go into energy-saving mode and turn off social media. Family is an exception. I spend time with them on Saturday and Sunday. Somehow, though, Saturday night has become the time set aside for grocery shopping. I don’t know how this happened, since it had been Sunday afternoon in New York. It could be from the weakening of ritual and social structure that comes with the surburban lifestyle. That, plus parking lots are full at the supermarket on Sunday. In New York, I didn’t even own a car.
Enter Safeway. If you’re not familiar with it, Safeway is a multibillion-dollar supermarket chain with 1,300 stores mainly in the western United States and 250,000 employees. There are two within walking distance of my house. It has become my custom to walk to the closer one on Saturday night and stock up. When I say “stock up,” I don’t mean according to any plan or inventory, although I do make a list. Half the time I leave it at home, but I make a list.
I cruise the aisles, awed by the magnificent abundance on shelf after shelf, bin after bin, and in chillers, freezers, and display cases. At Safeway, you can get everything from prescription drugs to hair pomade, single malt scotch, coloring books, frozen dinners, bisque soup, layer cakes, dog food, orchids, Hershey chocolate, maccaroni, pot roast, salmon, goat yogurt, kiwifruit, and sushi. Not sauerkraut, though. I couldn’t find it. When I asked the cashier, she said they usually carry it but it wasn’t in stock. Something about it being seasonal. I asked her to bring it up at the next staff meeting. She assured me she would. I wasn’t exactly sure why I asked for sauerkraut except that we have German friends and I started eating it with flour tortillas, Swiss cheese, and gobs of mayonnaise.
You see what’s going on here. Limited interaction with people in face masks standing six feet from you over mundane topics. Naturally, if your kid has an ear infection and you are picking up an antibiotic at the pharmacy, that’s one thing. But I don’t have that kind of interaction with people on Saturday night. The most I’ve ever had has been over sauerkraut. Well, that and the time I asked the cashier what her birthday was in response to her asking mine because I was buying a bottle of sake (cf. A Pocketful of Miracles). Yes, you can buy sake at Safeway, which ought to be one of their promotional hashtags (#sakeatsafeway).
Here’s the thing. It may be a lonely existence at Safeway on Saturday night, but as I roam the store seemingly without purpose or direction, I’ve noticed a few things. First, Aisle 9 has no intrinsic value whatsoever as the aisle to stand in with your basket or cart, so the Safeway line monitor shouldn’t act annoyed when people enter the wrong aisle or don’t stand squarely on the red blotches marked for social distancing. After all, it’s only natural for Americans to treat the blotches as bases in an infield. So, let them take leads.
Second, I may be one of the few people at Safeway on Saturday night with no other place to go. I could just as easily put down my basket and walk out as nonchalantly as I walked in. Most other people, however, look hellbent on getting out of the store as quickly as possible before an earthquake hits. Their focus is directed outward, not in the moment, unless, of course, a scanner at Self Check-Out doesn’t work.
But where are they rushing to? Dinner, a date, Netflix on the couch? It’s a strange feeling to be in the middle of a mass of people who don’t want to be there and are heading somewhere else. You’d think you were at a bus terminal. Granted, why would anybody hang out at Fruits & Vegetables? Not even the employees want to do that. The only people who stay put, watching customers rush through the electric doors in a frenzy of consumption, are the homeless who wait outside and have not much else going on.
And, apparently, neither do I.
Image credits: feature by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash; Safeway by Thomas Hawk-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0). Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”