Last Wednesday, or maybe it was Thursday, I began to understand that things were fundamentally shifting around me. I was slated to host my book group Thursday night and we had agreed to meet together since we were all feeling healthy and none of us had compromising medical conditions. No one had been asked to stay home from work – yet – and we didn’t want to cancel the get-together since so many gatherings were being cancelled. As I was prepping to host the group, I was acutely aware of cleaning the place at a higher level than usual. Since “the usual” tends to be a quick vacuum, bathroom scrub, and candle lighting to obscure the cobwebs, I knew I needed to up my game so I pulled out the spray cleaner with bleach and quickly realized I had run out of paper towels. A quick trip to the grocery store was in order.
The scene at Big Y had the same feeling that comes with the announcement of a snow storm, but with a slightly more dystopian edge to it. People were not smiling at one another and carts were piled high. I made a beeline for the paper goods aisle and found the only paper towels available were the Armageddon sized variety, so I picked up a package and went towards the check out.
As I entered the queue, I looked to my right and saw a large man in an orange jacket standing in the next line over, turned not toward the check out, but toward the rest of the store. He did not have a cart and he was asking the people behind him in line to push back. A man wearing a baseball hat with a small shopping cart containing a few essentials waited directly behind him and he did not move when requested to do so. This was before the call for “social distancing” so people were clumped up tightly in line and this shopper seemed reluctant to lose his spot in the long line. The cartless, orange coated man, who had at least 8 inches in height and 70 pounds in weight over the man with the cart behind him, raised his voice and shouted, “Let my son in the line.” This got everyone’s attention and we looked to see his teenaged son, with a very full cart, trying to get past a long line of shoppers who had all been waiting in the line to check out. Several shoppers sighed audibly and moved, but the smaller man in the baseball cap did not move. Mr. Orange Coat then engaged with Mr. Baseball Cap directly, telling him to move. Baseball Cap moved, calling Orange Coat “selfish and entitled,” to which Orange then told Baseball Cap he would, “see him outside.”
At this point, my line had moved up enough so that I could hide behind the rack of candy and try to ignore the exchanges occurring on the other side. Eventually, I put my gargantuan package of paper towels on the conveyor and completely forgot about the drama in lane 8. I exchanged a few pleasantries with the shopper in front of me, whose brother was with the NYFD and had implored her to “get prepared to stay home.” She seemed bemused by this and we sort of chuckled together, until Orange Coat, in the next line over, interrupted us by shouting, “Go ahead! Keep staring at me! Enjoy the view!” at Baseball Cap while he packed his groceries, bag after bulging bag. Baseball Cap said something in return that I could not hear, and then I saw Orange Coat’s arm fly up and over toward Baseball Cap. I swiveled around expecting to see a blow struck, but instead, I saw the two men shake hands. Apologies exchanged all around for selfish behavior, blamed on heightened tensions. As we all paid up and went on our way with our purchases, I bit my tongue, because I really wanted both of them to use some hand sanitizer on their way out…