It’s hot in the sun. In the shade, it’s cold. I can’t seem to catch a break with the weather today. Standing in line outside Trader Joe’s with 50 other people, I begin to question my resolve.
According to the sign, the wait time is approximately 30 minutes. The line stretches from the entrance around the side of the store, through the parking lot and down a residential street. It’s only gotten longer since I showed up, enviro-sacks in hand, 10 minutes ago. As we get closer, another sign informs potential shoppers that personal bags aren’t allowed anymore. Cashiers must use fresh paper sacks. For safety reasons. I survey the other people in line. Everyone is carrying reusable bags.
A dutiful lot, we diligently maintain the requisite six feet of space. Every few minutes the line moves forward solemnly and I take my place on the next strip of duct tape.
Facemasks are the hot new fashion accessory. Some folks have the standard surgical models, but most are wearing decorated cloth wraps. Unable to find anything else, I’m rocking the bandito look with bandana and gloves.
Fully succumbed to quarantine life, I haven’t showered in three days. My parenting skills are evident in the grime on my pants.
As we move into the shadow of the building, I zip up my jacket with a white stain on the sleeve that I hope is toothpaste and try to remember my list, which is, of course, dependent on what’s in stock.
Widespread hoarding has subsided somewhat lately, but it’s still difficult to find toilet tissue and cleansers. Even eggs and milk are usually scarce.
Before letting people inside the store, an employee directs the lucky customer to leave their reusable bags by the entrance. Once it’s finally my turn, I drop my filthy enviro-sacks, grab a shopping cart and a sanitizing wipe.
I’m only able to find half the items on my list. Hardly enough food to last the three of us long. Which means coming back in a few days. And standing in that line again.
I make another loop through the store. Despite trying to be conscientious about not taking more than what we absolutely need, I grab two of whatever looks decent.
“It’s good you stocked up on bread,” the cashier tells me. “We ran out for a few days.”
“Gonna be eating sandwiches for a while, I guess.”
As he hands me the receipt, he says, “Hey man, your barn door is open.”
“Um, your fly is open.”
“Oh,” I laugh. “Thanks.”
Next stop, Safeway.
The difference between the two stores is astounding. While Trader Joe’s is organized, with limits on how much you can buy, the larger grocery chain is complete chaos.
There’s no queue to get inside, but the lines at the registers stretch to the back of the store. Everyone looks dismayed and bewildered.
I grab a hand basket, figuring the express lane will move faster.
There isn’t much to buy. The shelves are mostly barren. All the baking goods and canned foods are cleared out. The only pastas are the weird shapes nobody wants.
The paper goods aisle is completely ransacked. Just a few jugs of Tide where the cleaning products should be.
Dodging shoppers with overflowing carts, I grab some soda and head to the liquor cabinet, which, thankfully, is fully stocked.
With exactly 15 items in my basket, I take my place at the end of the express lane.
Even though we’re in the frozen food aisle, I feel flush. Removing my hoodie, I spy my reflection in the frosted glass. My hair is tangled and unkempt. I look like a wolf man.
Twenty minutes later, I begin muttering to myself, “Why aren’t we moving?” I start counting the items in other people’s carts. Most have way more than 15. “Who’s in charge here?”
“It’s a free for all,” says the man behind me.
After waiting another 10 minutes, I bail on the express lane. Think, If I have to wait forever, might as well load up. I exchange the hand basket for a shopping cart and frantically scour the store. Grab all the soda on the shelf. Another bottle of vodka. More bread. The last container of half and half…
Once I’m done pillaging, I get in line with the rest of the hoarders and wonder aloud, “Maybe they have toilet paper at Walgreens.”
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. A veteran zine publisher, he is the author of the novel A Masque of Infamy. His long-running Behind the Wheel zine series was recently collected into a paperback Omnibus, available through all book marketplaces or direct from his blog, idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Thursday Examiner. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.