« Song of the Day #1779 | Main | Song of the Day #1780 »

Coronavirus (12): The Trials and Tribulations of Grocery Shopping ... and Living in NYC

The numbers continue to startle for those of us living through this Coronavirus pandemic: The world now has 1,095,968 confirmed cases, with 58,817 recorded deaths. The United States leads all countries with 275,802 confirmed cases of the virus (with 7,087 deaths---1,094 deaths today alone). The US is ahead of Italy, Spain, Germany, and China (though the skeptic in me actually believes that the US intelligence community just might be right that the numbers in China have been profoundly under-reported by its government).

To bring these numbers even closer to home, New York state now has a total of 102,863 confirmed cases of the virus, with 57,159 of these in New York City. The state reports 2,935 deaths, 1,562 of these in New York City. In fact, in the last 24 hours, the highest single-day increase in both deaths and hospitalizations were recorded in this state.

I have already experienced more grim news than I can bear with regard to friends and neighbors who are dealing with this virus in very personal terms. And all one need do is turn on the television to hear about the growing list of famous folks who have died from this virus over the past week alone, including jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis (father to both Wynton and Branford) and Paterson, New Jersey-born jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (father of John), who I had the pleasure of seeing many times in New York jazz clubs and concerts throughout the years. And the passing of Bill Withers, from a non-COVID-19-related illness, is just as tragic. Indeed, "we all need somebody to lean on..." [YouTube link].

And yet, with all this sickness and death around us, even with calls for greater social distancing and the omnipresent mantra of "Stay Healthy, Stay Home", you gotta do whatcha gotta do. This morning, I got up at 5 am, did an hour workout, cleaned up, and walked a block and a half to my local supermarket, which opened its doors at 7 am. Determined to shop when the place was relatively less populated, and knowing that we'd earned a 20% discount off our groceries just from our shopping there over the past month, I ventured out and purchased enough food and necessities that could fit into our kitchen cabinets, refrigerator and freezer, in the chance that we have yet to see an apex of this virus that will dwarf the number of people lost on September 11, 2001.

This had to be done with the utmost preparation. I went out, dressed in shorts and a light jacket, carrying an umbrella because of the light mist that was keeping down the tree pollen (which is my nemesis at this time of year) and quickly ran through my shopping list and my checklist:

- Vinyl Gloves: Check
- Facial Mask: Check
- Shopping Bags: Check (except I had all the groceries delivered to our apartment 2 hours after I was done shopping...)

Once I got into the supermarket, the scene was surreal. Everybody was like a mirror image of me. There wasn't a person in there who wasn't wearing gloves or some sort of facial covering. And everybody was keeping a safe distance from everybody else---and if they weren't, you could be sure that some New Yorker would speak up and simply say: "Hey, buddy, back up!"

But despite all the coverings, you could still see people's eyes. And if "the eyes are the mirror to the soul," one could see deep into the soul of almost every person in there. I'd like to say it was pure projection, but somehow, I didn't think so. Not when I could hear the hushed tones of folks saying: "I just want to get these fu@&ing groceries as quickly as possible and get the hell out of here!" Especially heartbreaking was seeing elderly shoppers, walking slowly, and backing up, in fear, as you approached them. Heck, I know, I turned 60 in February, but I was practically a kid next to the husband and wife who were surely in their mid-80s, or the one guy, walking slowly with a cane, who was probably in his late 80s. Most people are wanting to be kind and courteous, but some don't even want you to hold a door for them or to even grab the paper towels that are so obviously out of their reach, because they are simply afraid that, even with your gloves on, you'll be transmitting death to them. I found it a bit emotionally overwhelming. My eyes watered, but I marched stoically to the cashier, gave her my address, unloaded my shopping cart, paid the bill, and walked swiftly back home before the mist turned to a steady rain.

I walked into the hallway downstairs and climbed up one flight to my apartment on the second floor of this two-famly house. I got to the top step and stood outside the door of my home. And in a striptease of necessity, off came the jacket, off came the sneakers, the socks, the shorts, the underwear, the T-shirt---all of it placed in a laundry bag left outside the apartment, to be picked up this evening by the laundromat owners who are pitching in to avoid having any people gathering in their places of business, cleaning our clothes with the utmost sanitary care. And finally, off came the mask and the gloves, which were turned inside out, an art I've begun to master. And I walked into my apartment the way I came into this world... going directly into the shower.

I don't think I'll need to go back out for a couple of weeks---unless I have to pick up something at the pharmacy, which, given my own medical condition, is something of a bi-weekly ritual for me. But even here, our local pharmacists are doing everything they can to get prescriptions to their customers without having their customers come to them, keeping social distancing to a minimum.

***

There are all sorts of theories floating around about why New York City has been hit the hardest; some have argued that it's merely a function of the "leftist" politics of this urban center, which has increased its vulnerability due to overcrowding. A few others have embraced the more absurd position that this is God's retribution for countries that allow LGBTQ Pride Parades (and considering that NYC sponsored World Pride Day in June 2019, I guess that the Big Apple is at the top of the list for divine wrath!).

I think it is going to take a while to truly understand the nature of this pandemic and how it has been spread. But it does seem to me that New York Governor Mario Cuomo was at least partially correct in acknowledging that NYC in particular is "an international hub tightly packed with people from all over the country and the world. What makes New York unique has also rendered it vulnerable to a pandemic."

While I too am upset with the contribution that NYC politics has made to this pandemic and while I too can sometimes find the city's density a bit daunting, the truth of our situation transcends politics or population. This city's "density" has come less from its wrong-headed housing policies than from its promise. That promise is the source of this city's beauty and the diversity of its people, those who were born here, those who have come here from abroad, and those who stay here regardless of the regulations and rules that might constrain them.

"New York, New York" has been a magnet for millions upon millions of people since before the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs into a single city. Millions of immigrants from every country, every race, every ethnicity, have come through its gates precisely because of its financial, cultural, and spiritual promise, embodied by the statue in its harbor that lifts "the lamp beside the golden door.

This is still a city of neighborhoods, of people who, whatever their differences, seem to find common ground when they are most vulnerable. We saw this in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, when even strangers joined hands to rebuild that which was torn down. Now, of course, as Adam Gopnik writes, unity must take new forms:

The current crisis is, in some respects, the mirror image of the post-9/11 moment. That turned out to be a time of retrospective anxiety about a tragedy unforeseen. The anticipatory jitters weren’t entirely unfounded---anthrax killed a hospital worker in Manhattan---but they arose from something that had already happened and wouldn’t be repeated. By contrast, the COVID-19 crisis involves worries about something we’ve been warned is on the way. The social remedy is the opposite of the sort of coming together that made the days and weeks after 9/11 endurable for so many, as they shared dinners and embraced friends. That basic human huddling is now forbidden, with the recommendations for "distancing" bearing down ever tighter: no more than five hundred people together, then two hundred and fifty, then fifty, then ten.

I am confident that New Yorkers are still coming together---even in the act of social distancing---and that they will rise like the phoenix from the ashes left behind by this pandemic.

Postscript 1 (4 April 2020): Some folks on Facebook inquired why my family wasn't doing more online shopping or resorting to ordering from local supermarkets for delivery, without having to leave the house. I replied:

You have no idea how much we've ordered online (Amazon, Target, Walmart, etc.) with regard to everything from BAND-AIDS to shampoo, napkins, tissues, etc. The thing we can't really get from those places, however, is fresh food or frozen food items, and, in truth, the specialty places around here offer the best stuff of all. So we've tried to cut down on the amount of time we're spending in supermarkets, focusing on milk, dairy, meats, poultry, fresh fruit and vegetables, and so forth---while getting the non-food items from the online services. So that's one way we've severely cut into our grocery-time shopping (which we've been doing once or twice a month during this pandemic; this trip will, however, last us through at least mid-May, I assure you!). We do have delivery, but unfortunately, because our local supermarket is short-staffed, they are no longer taking phone orders. So you have to go and pick out the stuff yourself (which I prefer to do because when one used to 'order' things from the store, they invariably got something wrong!). But they do, in fact, deliver all the groceries to you once you've shopped ... I couldn't possibly carry it, even with a shopping cart, and we wouldn't dare move the car for fear of losing a parking spot... for the situation in parking has only gotten worse since the days of "Seinfeld." But we still get delivery from the best pizzerias in Brooklyn, so on that count, we're in good shape!

Postscript 2 (4 April 2020): Of course, like so many things I write, some folks will offer comments that are critical. But sometimes, criticism crosses the line. One commentator attacked me with such ferocity, taking umbrage that I was "complaining" about grocery shopping in NYC during an uptick in Coronavirus cases, which pales in comparison to the experiences of Anne Frank during the Nazi genocide or the experiences of John McCain during the Vietnam War. There was nothing in this post that compared my experiences to either the Holocaust or the war in Vietnam and there was nothing written that could be remotely compared to "complaining." I am providing an ongoing journal on my Notablog of my experiences during this pandemic; it is a cathartic and therapeutic exercise for me, but also one that I hope will resonate with those who are going through similar experiences. Facing this kind of personal attack, I was compelled to Unfriend, Block, and Delete the comments of this so-called Facebook "Friend" on my Facebook Timeline. I stated on Facebook, and I state here, for the record:

Some people think they can come on my Timeline and insult me. The comments have been removed. I will not hesitate to unfriend, block, and remove comments from any person who thinks that being an FB "friend" is a license to be rude and recklessly stupid.
At one time in my life---and still to a very great extent---I was open to any and all critics, no matter how crazy some of the criticisms of my writings have been. For goodness sake, till this day, I still have on my home page every negative review ever done of any book I've ever written. I welcome criticism and I welcome the give-and-take of discussion. I also recognize that in social media, sometimes things are not as elegantly expressed as they might be and it may require a few exchanges to get things clear (after all, we can only capture so much with regards to tone and intent in simple emojis).
But let me be very clear about what I've written here and in all my installments on the Coronavirus: This is not an ongoing series of essays in the art of complaining. I am simply writing an ongoing diary or journal of my experiences during a very difficult time for my hometown. It's nothing unusual to me; as I said in a comment now deleted, I'm still posting annual installments to honor the survivors---and those who paid the ultimate price---on September 11, 2001.
I count my blessings that I am here and well enough to continue to write and to express myself. I count my blessings that I am here to take care of myself and my loved ones to the best of my ability. I count my blessings that I have so many people in my life who express their care and concern, love and support. I also count my blessings that I have people who offer comments and critiques of my work, for none of us ever stops learning.
Still, there comes a point at which even somebody who has spent the better part of his adult life promoting the value of dialogue (indeed, the "dialectical method" I champion finds its roots in the dialogues of the ancient Greeks), must give pause. And with the rudeness of the commentator, all I can say is: "My cup runneth over".
I will not tolerate somebody who comes onto my Timeline as a so-called Facebook "Friend" only to piss on my back and tell me it's raining. Not. Gonna. Happen. Those days are over. Unfriend. Block. Delete. And I will repeat that exercise any and every time I confront this kind of harassment. Life is too short. That I've devoted any time to explaining this is already a waste of more minutes of my life than was necessary.
But it had to be said. Just for the sake of those who do support my work and even those who do engage in spirited, but reasonable, disagreements with it.