Grocery Shopping During The Pandemic

When we first arrived in Canada, I would sometimes cry when I went to the grocery store. A variety of of things would set me off. I tried to do our first big home-stocking shop on July the first, not realising that it was Canada Day and that little to no stores would be open. I rode busses and streetcars to various groceries that had been recommended to me, only to find them shut. I was once overcome by emotion in the detergent aisle, finding myself unable to be certain of which of the products before me was actually laundry detergent. Still converting all prices from Canadian Dollars to South African Rands, the cost of a punnet of strawberries or 500g of mince made my eyes water. Once, after a really big shop, I tried to push my cart onto the sidewalk so that I could load my groceries directly into an Uber, only for the wheels to lock and an alarm to sound as I pushed it through the automatic doors.

The act of shopping became less emotional as time went by. I figured out where to buy Family Size boxes of cereal and the large bottles of Tide at a reasonable price. I bought a little shopping cart with a cat motif (‘Those are for old ladies,’ Max giggled) so that I could drag weekly shops home without hailing a taxi. I figured out the limit to what could be taken on the streetcar at rush hour (a box of milk and a loaf of bread is fine, adding a head of cauliflower or a bag of chips is pushing it).

But then, the coronavirus came, and grocery shopping started to make me cry again. It didn’t happen immediately. That first weekend in March, when things suddenly went crazy, I made a jokey Instagram story about the state of my local supermarket. The shelves emptied of all pasta, except for the $2 No Frills lasagne sheets. The pallets of tins stacked in the middle of the floor so that people could just attack them, liberating lentils and beans and canned soup. The way all the frozen veg was gone except the broccoli, all the bacon gone except the low sodium and ‘stacon’ versions. The queues and queues of shoppers, their carts stacked high with toilet paper and soda and frozen pizza.

The grocery stores got organized pretty soon after that. Stripes got spray-painted onto the pavements outside the doors, or stuck down onto the tiles inside shopping centres, indicating to customers where to stand so that they would remain 6 feet apart in the queues that had now been transferred to outside of the shops. Perspex screens appeared around the cashiers, allowing groceries in on one side to be scanned, and out the other side to be bagged, a small hole cut in the middle to allow access to the card machine. Stores started refusing cash. Cashiers started wearing gloves, and then masks.

I was still going to work most days in the beginning — we had a bunch of urgent cases to be mopped up before we could settle back into a full scale-down — so I was still riding the transit and seeing my colleagues and buying Starbucks and work lunch. The kids could still do playdates and hang out at the park, chase their friends over the climbers, play soccer, shoot hoops. We still went to neighbours for dinner although we noticed people having drinks out on the sidewalk would stare at us. In the beginning, life felt kind of chaotic but cosy, for the most part, but it was when I went to the grocery store that the weirdness of the new normal hit home. Standing in those outdoor line-ups on the grey, March mornings felt a bit like I was queueing for rations at the end of the world. I know I’m being melodramatic. Inside, I knew the produce shelves would be stacked high with shiny cucumbers and apples and ginger and kale that I could afford to pay for, while in other places all over the world people would soon be queuing or even crushing each other for food parcels.

Of course, the playdates and dinners ended and the parks were declared off-limits. The coffee shops closed, as did the book and clothing stores and the restaurants. The urgent cases trickled off and I stopped going to work more than twice a week. People had initially been cheerful at the stores but as the weeks dragged on the initial comaraderie and festivity disappeared. The man standing at the entrance to my local No Frills controlling the number of people allowed in would scream at someone if he saw them take more than one detergent wipe to clean their trolley. ‘Can’t you read? What’s wrong with you?’ Inside the store, a cashier yelled at an old man behind me in the checkout line as he approached the conveyor belt before I’d moved to the bagging area. In a smaller shop up the road, where I buy anchovies and nice cheese, the doorman scolded me for trying to shop with just a basket. ‘The carts help you maintain social distancing! Do you know what that is?’ In Bulk Barn, I struggled to don gloves after soaking my hands in the extra-foamy sanitizer provided, and someone behind me sighed loudly. ‘I’m a surgeon!’ I wanted to say. ‘I sanitize and glove all the time! There’s something different about these products!’ My personal shopper that day was a nervous teen who shook as he scooped flour and sugar into bags for me. Eventually he confessed that I was his first customer, and that it was only the second time time he’d ever been inside the store. I showed him how to use the peanut butter machine. How soft and Canadian have I become that these little acts of aggression upset me so much? At home, people must brave the police and the army to buy bread.

I don’t cry every time I go shop, but there is always a tightness in my chest as the process seems to serve as the most acute reminder of how our world has changed. I always try to be in the queue as the doors open, but even that early morning queue is growing longer and longer. I obviously have some residual visceral memory of those early days of empty shelves, because every time I shop I need to actively remind myself that I have a pantry full of canned tomatoes and pasta. I don’t need another three boxes of fusilli, I don’t need another two cans of kidney beans, ‘just in case’. My kids are like piranhas: they eat and eat all day long, endless slices of toast and sandwiches and fruit and rice cakes and pretzels. I buy mountains of bread and jam, dozens of eggs, litres of milk and yoghurt, bags of tangerines. Our weekly grocery bill always makes me cringe, even though I buy very few luxuries. The food is mostly gone by the end of the week. What do poor people do? How will we manage if one of us loses our job?

As I pack my cat cart I phone my husband to come to the store. I won’t be able to carry everything I have bought the several hundred metres home. I remind myself that we no longer go out for dinner, we don’t incur babysitter or childcare costs, we don’t buy lunch at work, we don’t buy coffees. I stack the bags back into the shopping cart and push it out the front entrance with one hand, dragging my cat cart behind me. The man guarding the door wishes me a Happy Easter from behind his mask.

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