The evidence of things not seen

This is not a “problem” so far as problems go. This is not a threat by any stretch. At best, on the worst days, it’s an inconvenience. But it gives me something to write about when not able to sleep after 4:37am on a Saturday. A Saturday, no less!

The pandemic has kept me–or, more accurately, my fear–my atypical fear–associated with the pandemic–from going more often to H-E-B and spending time poring over produce and sauntering through the salsa section. There was a time when I might loiter near the horseshoe-shaped live food demo island adjacent to the Meat Market, not so much watching the store associate make whatever they were making as listening to his or her narrative, sensing and enjoying the other shoppers move past me–almost like we were in a Walt Whitman poem, where rubbing flesh together is good–or being aware of them stopping by for a taste. All senses engaged. Time has less authority.

If there’s an effect of the pandemic that I mourn the (perhaps only temporary but-who-knows) loss of, it’s the community aspect of shopping.

Food shopping is in fact the only kind of shopping I can tolerate. When I shop for dress shirts, for instance, it’s a precise and pre-planned in-and-out military-like extraction. Intel has identified that at Belk in the markdown racks there is a specific 100% cotton shirt–probably a Michael Kors or Ben Sherman–with french cuffs, 17-inch neck and 33/34-inch sleeve. In a 1-man unit, I move through the double glass doors, to the left and down the aisle 30 clicks (actually 30 yards, but clicks sounds better), find the shirt and pay for it in approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

No one gets hurt.

My father-in-law used to joke that he’d “rather be stabbed in the eye with a stick than go shopping.” We used to kid him when he’d leave the house with my mother-in-law to go to La Cantera or The Rim: “Got your shopping stick?”

Food shopping, however, is an experience.

Were I to play the Navy S.E.A.L. at the grocery store, I’d be using the self-checkout (10 items or less) with nary an item besides a gallon of milk and maybe a box of PopTarts. (For the boys, don’t you know.)

No.

When parking at the “Big H-E-B” on Main Street was still possible and not Mad Max Goes To Kerrville, that was my usual choice. I’d enter on the produce end and immediately sweep left. Perhaps organic lemons were on the list. Almost always there is a deal on blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries. But what’s the best value? One must stop, consider, remember last time, think about pricing trends…will one fruit be more expensive or cheaper next time? Perhaps today it’s about blackberries and none of the above. Yet any of them will do nicely in some Fage Total 2% Low-Fat Plain Greek Yogurt with a splash of organic blue agave. We go with blueberries. And maybe strawberries, too, since one of my sons eats those like candy. 

 

We shall not detail here–though we could–the shopper’s admiration of the different vinegars in Aisle 1, even if none is purchased; the near foot-by-foot temptation he feels at the other end of the store, on Aisle 28, deciding between raw almonds and yogurt-covered raisins, and whether to get 4 ounces of the former or 2 pounds of the latter; nor shall we even mention the slight frustration that unlike the Little H-E-B, the Big one doesn’t appear to sell SafeCatch tuna. I’m talking plain style, not “Elite Garlic” or “Elite Chili Lime.” (Yet, now I see on my H-E-B app that even the Little one appears to have no stock whatever.) Karen did, however, find me a package of tuna from One World Protein, based in Weatherford, Texas. The point is, that H-E-B has these kinds of things, and one wants to spend time to find them. And that’s half the trip: spending one’s time there.

The loss surrounding the pandemic is not insignificant when it comes to food shopping. Or any retail shopping. And the loss conjures a hackneyed word: community. Yet the word’s connotation is never hackneyed.

My father-in-law, a local surgeon specializing in colonoscopies and endoscopies, would walk H-E-B’s aisles with my mother-in-law, and people would greet him with a “Hi, Dr.____!” He’d smile back and say a big “Hello!” (Probably wishing they would turn around and drop their trousers so he could ID them more definitively.)

Shopping is by necessity less friendly now. And it must be. For now.

Zoom calls are a blessing. And not in any way, my opinion, a curse. Were it not for Zoom, texting, email, the Internet, and overall modern technology including TV, we all might be sheltered in place and going nuts.

And we wouldn’t have heard the news telling us about the coronavirus.

And the year would be 1917.

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