Categories: Culture

I’m a lifelong New Yorker. Nothing could make me want a car—nothing except grocery shopping during a pandemic.

“It wasn’t long before we began taking our own versions of culinary adventures, picking supermarkets based on the treats they stock and what the ride looks like along the way.”

Like many people who grew up in New York City, I don’t drive. I passed my road test and got a driver’s license on the first try at 17, but there was never a reason to delve into the hassle of car ownership with the subway only a few blocks away.

For years, being carless felt to me like freedom: There are no monthly insurance bills to pay, no expensive and time-consuming repairs, and you’re never stuck looking for a place to park. But getting groceries home has always been a challenge. When I left Brooklyn for a pre-war walkup in Manhattan, my sole form of strength training became hauling purchases from the Union Square Greenmarket up three flights of stairs. Additional groceries came via delivery or 10 p.m. supermarket trips, buying all I could fit into a collapsible utility cart from Staples (perish the thought I’d ever buy a “granny” cart).

Eventually I moved into an apartment building in Queens with an elevator, which made it easier to lug home seltzer bottles, whole watermelons, and other heavier purchases. Still, my buying habits hadn’t changed all that much: I stuck to the minimalist recipes I’d learned to love when I was forced to carry every ingredient up to my third-story kitchen (which was roughly the size of an ADA-compliant bathroom stall).

During those early days of self-isolation, it was impossible to secure delivery slots from the usual grocery providers, so T suggested that we rent a car.

Though I’d moved in with my partner, Thorns, he wasn’t home a lot. As a touring merchandise manager for artists ranging from Billie Eilish to Papa Roach and Cannibal Corpse, T is typically away for five to six weeks at a clip, primarily enjoying catered backstage meals and huffing over the French version of pizza. Aside from the exquisite variety of feta cheeses I’d buy from a local Greek grocer, my dinners for one remained simple and unadorned: roasted or sauteed veggies, and some Trader Joe’s turkey meatballs thrown in for protein.

In February, as Covid-19 began making its way into the news cycle, I kept a close eye on European border closures since T was overseas on his first—and what turned out to be his last—tour of 2020. Soon he’d be home with a mild case of Covid-19, and we were forced to learn how to quarantine long-term in a one-bedroom apartment.

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During those early days of self-isolation, it was impossible to secure delivery slots from the usual grocery providers, so T suggested that we rent a car. He wanted to drive out to his old stomping grounds in Long Island to stock up, arguing the spacious suburban supermarkets allowed for better social distancing. Besides, he was eager for the highway practice—he’d only obtained a driver’s license a year earlier in 2019.

We took solace in knowing we’d procured enough granola and salsa varieties to last through a nuclear winter.

That first trip, we lugged home enough food for two elevator trips, overfilling our pantry with all sorts of exotic sweet and savory snacks along with sought-after staples. This sudden abundance was a totally unfamiliar experience for us. We had to reorganize our storage space just to make it all fit. Bags of tortilla and potato chips were shoved horizontally above canned pantry items. The top shelf of our refrigerator became a skyline of dip, sauce, and hummus tubs. I played a losing game of Tetris with our small freezer. And chocolate delicacies were nestled in our whiskey cubby. But we took solace in knowing we’d procured enough granola and salsa varieties to last through a nuclear winter.

From there, it was hard to go back. T soon bought a car of his own. And it wasn’t long before we began taking our own versions of culinary adventures, picking supermarket destinations based on the treats they stock and what the ride looks like along the way in our mobile bubble.

During my workdays, Thorns enjoys going on solo food hunts. He’ll buy Just Egg in bulk when it’s on sale, always seeking to perfect his vegan breakfast burrito-making skills. He’ll try to find my favorite spicy condiment, chipotle Bitchin’ Sauce. And he’ll search everywhere for cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, which have been in short supply this year—so far, to no avail.

This winter, I’ve resolved to take refresher driving lessons of my own. The pandemic will end some day. But now there’s no way that I’m giving up my all-access pass to the wide new world of snacking.

Zena Tsarfin
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Zena Tsarfin

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