The food markets I love now serve as a daily reminder: How quickly our comforts can vanish.
Before the pandemic, I was an every-day-of-the week shopper. I live in Jackson Heights, Queens, where there are many grocery stores, smaller markets, produce stands, bodegas, and specialty purveyors, and stopping in to at least one of them each day has long been a source of pleasure, even pride. People like to say, “Oh, you shop just like a Parisian housewife!” And while I’m truly flattered at the suggestion that anything about me is even remotely French, I’m not exactly out there in a pencil skirt and a kitten heel, huffing the tomato musk and bantering with a non-threateningly horny greengrocer in an apron and a comedy moustache. I’m wearing extra-wide sneakers, unstructured garments, and, lately, a relatively chic cloth mask.
I shop every day because I don’t have a car. And because I suck at making and following extensive lists and plans. And because I am loath to set a welcoming table for the ravenous New York City insects who adore an overstuffed pantry. Also, as a retired semi-pro drunk, and as a work-at-home writer perpetually on deadline, I don’t typically have a wealth of social or entertainment options at my disposal—even before all our beloved cultural institutions went dark. So, grocery shopping has long broken up my day. It’s that rare thing: a source of delight that serves an immediate, practical purpose.
Each empty space on each once-abundant shelf was unsettling, a reminder of the extraordinary abundance and choice that I had taken for granted my entire life.
Or rather, it was a source of delight. Covid-19 makes the very act of leaving one’s home a complex risk-reward proposition. It incentivizes hoarding, compounded by the fear of other peoples’ hoarding. It even ruins the quiet reassurance of a crowd, with neighbors and strangers reduced to potential vectors of a deadly and little-understood virus. I know I’m lucky to be able to shop everyday, to never have to worry where my next meal might come from. I never saw this coming: that buying food supplies could quickly become a stressful, frustrating, and potentially dangerous experience, to be undertaken only once every eight to ten days.
The changes in my neighborhood happened slowly at first, and then all at once. In early March, the stores were crowded and suffused with a low hum of panic. Then there were hours-long lines outside the stores. Then many stores were shuttered, for weeks at a time, with heartbreaking, handwritten signs taped onto the doors. One week I couldn’t find my preferred brand of eggs, and the next week there was in the refrigerated case only a single carton of duck eggs, two of them already cracked and oozing. No cleaning supplies, no paper products, no flour, no rice, no milk: Each empty space on each once-abundant shelf was unsettling, a reminder of the extraordinary abundance and choice that I had taken for granted my entire life.
Slowly, shuttered stores started to re-open—along with free community fridges and mutual aid organizations, picking up where government left off.
Cherry and magnolia blossoms bloomed spectacularly, then fell. Eventually, the daily toll fell, too. The ambulance wails, the 7pm cheers for essential workers, trailed away. Slowly, shuttered stores started to re-open—along with free community fridges and mutual aid organizations, picking up where government left off. And I’ve resumed my ritual of daily shopping, though my relationship to the stores I frequent feels more complicated now.
What remains, for me, is a new, lived awareness of how quickly things can go sideways. I’ve let go of the last shreds of my (admittedly naïve) belief that things will always get better, that devastating world events are only ever relics of the past, and that political leaders and institutions will always act in good faith.
Our sources of comfort are fragile. It’s easy to feel that when the grocery store shelves look raided and emptied out, as they still do now. But I want to carry that awareness with me, even after the masks come off, as the shelves fill in again. That’s what shopping is to me now—a way to remind myself, once a day, that today is a gift.