After the big shopping trip to stock up on the house on March 18th, my girlfriend and I fell into a routine. We were both working from home. We’d get up, eat breakfast, and go to our ‘offices’, set up in separate rooms. We started trying to learn Spanish using the Duolingo App and would practice for about an hour a day. In the afternoons I’d putter around the house, or do some home improvement projects. In early April I learned that my bathroom had always been a gnarly shade of off-white because the previous owners had painted white over electric purple with no primer in-between! By the end of the summer, I’d also built three self-designed radiator covers out of wood and refinished a wooden desk organizer I’d bought years ago at the Brimfield flea market. I’d watch some of the DVDs that I had bought to take with me overseas, or I’d read. For some reason fiction no longer seems so interesting; I’ve read a lot of history. I mentioned it elsewhere on this site, but - anyone who has lived through the pandemic and still thinks of the Cultural Revolution in China as some sort of big mystery ("How could so many people turn on each other?") must be blind.
The one thing we didn’t do unless absolutely necessary was leave the house. My attitude, at least, was that the Pandemic was a test of my ideals. Would I be willing to endure the boredom, stress, and monotony of not leaving the house AT ALL in order to protect others? The primary things I enjoy in life are international travel and sitting around dive bars bullshitting with the other regulars. Would I give all that up to protect others? In the spring I still thought that we’d do the reasonable thing, as a society – similar to what my friend in China endured. Total, absolute isolation for two or three months, then everything totally back to normal. Enormous short-term sacrifices to ensure a better long term. What an unrealistic clown I was – I cannot describe the intense bitterness I feel when I compare the things I thought and said during the early months of the pandemic with how the rest of the year played out. As I saw someone say it on twitter - "We never had a lockdown, we just had poor people bringing food to rich people's houses."
Anyway, until about midsummer, my attitude was that my sacrifices were for the greater good. When I got cabin fever and was tempted to say “ah, it’s fine” and go grab some more paint (or whatever) to keep myself busy, or have a few friends over for dinner, or just go sit on a barstool and mind my own business for a few hours, it was my duty to safeguard the community that kept me at home. When I left the house it was either to pick up groceries or to visit my church/the bank/the post office. No other reason. I would have limited it only to groceries, except that as the church Treasurer I was obligated to do certain things. I did let a good two weeks pass between visits and exclusively used the bank drive-through. I do clearly remember that the post office was the only place in town that seemed to be taking serious precautions, even in the early days. I also had a half-dozen or so visits to the dentist’s office, to get two crowns installed and more than my fair share of root canals performed. This, of course, did not seem like an optional luxury at the time. For haircuts, I shaved, and continue to shave, my head by myself standing over the toilet.
Other than that – very little. I think it was July before I left the house for something non-essential. We went to one (non-coronavirus) funeral over the summer; I went to my friend’s to drink a couple of beers in his yard in July; we had another couple we know over for a BBQ in the yard in August. We went to a small outdoor wedding in July and I didn’t take my mask off. Of course, these friends were work friends that had returned to campus, and thus were getting routine coronavirus tests, so these little visits seemed reasonable. (As someone who did not return to campus, I am not eligible to participate in my employer's testing regimen.) My girlfriend has gone once or twice to a girlfriend’s house for the night, but they both got tested first, and her friend works from home anyway and is as strict as we are. Over the summer I did make a couple trips to the Home Depot for woodworking supplies that weren’t strictly necessary, but by God I went in and out as fast as I could and got there when they opened the doors at 6AM.
Our main focus was food. Early in the pandemic we got very disciplined, very fast. We didn’t waste more than a mouthful of food over the course of the first three or four months, and had meals planned a week, if not several weeks, in advance. Every other Friday I’d wake up at 6AM so that I could be at the Shaw’s on Gold Star Boulevard when they opened at 7AM. On my first visit I didn’t have a mask, and wore a scarf. (For the first few months, remember, everyone in the country was telling us masks were pointless!) But despite this, before my second trip to the grocery store I scrounged an old dust mask out of my woodworking supplies and wore it. It stank of 100-year old varnish and sawdust from my previous project; to this day I’m shocked I didn’t pass out vomiting among the aisles. A little later on my girlfriend’s mother sent us two nice, hand-sewn masks, and towards the end of the summer I got a similar one, but with the little wire that goes over the bridge of the nose, from my realtor. That little wire is a life saver if you wear glasses.
I’d get to the grocery store right when it opened. I’d have a shopping list with me, divided into columns that each represented a different aisle (bread/milk/frozen on the left, meats in the top center, vegetables/seltzer/fresh stuff on the right, everything else in the lower center). I’d wear a mask, a pair of mechanic’s gloves, and sweatpants and sweatshirt, even in July and August. Do the shopping; come back home; pile everything that wasn’t perishable on a table in the garage to air out for a day or two; strip naked in the basement and put all my clothes in the washing machine; go upstairs and shower. That might seem extreme, but we spent months being told the virus could spread by touch and honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever go to a grocery store without gloves on ever again; all those cans and whatnot are filthy. Frankly, letting the stuff air out in the garage was partially because I was too lazy to schlepp it upstairs. In almost a year, there’s only been one occasion when I went to the grocery store at anything other than opening time. Somehow the elbow-to-elbow lines and people ignoring the one-way traffic signs in the aisles didn’t make me want to relive that experience.
For about two weeks, the super market had a system similar to the check-in counters at airports, with everyone in one long (socially distant) line between ropes, and an employee directing each person to a different register when one came open. That was replaced with just the social distancing reminder signs on the floor. There were very specific shortages at different times. I remember going a good month without eating a fresh salad. On some trips there wouldn’t be a scrap of chicken in the place; sometimes there wouldn’t be any ground beef; sometimes one vegetable or another would be missing. I remember one trip where they did have chicken – hand cut in the plastic bags from the produce section with a price written in marker. No brand information, no labels, no nothing. I remember a tremendous mountain of hams appearing for no apparent reason during the fall, priced at $1 per pound. Last week they must have had ten tons of asparagus on the shelves. I remember during the spring, an employee standing next to the eggs to remind people only to take one dozen at a time; I remember a man getting thrown out of the store howling for trying to buy a shopping cart full of toilet paper; I remember a text from a friend alerting me that salad greens were in stock, and the next day finding the shelves filled to overflowing, piled up on the floor, with gray, wet romaine hearts that shouldn’t have fed to a dog. Odd brands of vegetables started appearing in the freezer section – whereas before you’d see some name brand, say, Green Giant brand carrots, you’d go in one day and see a case full of white plastic bags with no label other than DICED CARROTS COOK THOROUGHLY. They look like the frozen vegetables we used to be issued by the government back when I worked at a food pantry. Frozen pizzas apparently only get restocked one brand at a time; in the middle of an empty case there’d be a full shelf of, say, Red Baron brand. These shortages were more pronounced in the spring than they are now, but they’re not entirely over yet. I can’t remember the Shaw’s ever having organ meat before, but we’ve now gotten to the point where my girlfriend says that if I cook liver one more time she’s leaving me (liver is very good for you, leave me alone).
Anyway, last year, I cooked for 20 people at Thanksgiving and went down to Philadelphia for Christmas with a dozen family members. This year, both holidays were with only my girlfriend’s retired parents. We were all able to go two weeks without leaving the house beforehand as well as get tests, and they didn’t spend more than a few hours at our place.
I know that most of these diaries focus on the spring, but that’s when most of the interesting things happened. I guess after that, staying at home and leaving only for groceries because a routine – just normal, nothing to talk about. It’s hard to tell when, but at some point over the summer, my attitude changed. I wasn’t isolating any more out of a duty to protect others – I was isolating because our society is filled with lunatics that don’t care who lives and who dies.
I can’t be sure when my attitude changed, but I can pinpoint the final straw. Just before Thanksgiving, the Governor had a press conference and, if I may paraphrase, said that the situation was too dangerous for people to have big family groups over for Thanksgiving. Instead, everyone should be going out to eat at restaurants in small groups. The message was: It’s critical to isolate, unless you’re spending money, in which case you can do anything that your heart pleases. I’m not one to believe in epiphanies or sudden realizations or anything like that, but before the Governor’s speech I thought of myself as a Citizen of the United States and after it, I think of myself only as a Customer of the United States.