Carting off groceries.

America’s pandemic war zone: grocery stores.

Adult content warning: There is explicit content in this article, generally avoided in mixed company describing an act best conducted behind closed doors, that may be offensive to some readers.  If you require more specificity before venturing into the following text, the offending word mentioned multiple times is comprised of four letters and starts with the letter “f.”  

I was watching one of those “Talk Back” programs on a local TV station the other night. You know, where cranky people call in each evening to complain about just about everything. The big topic of late has been the wearing of face masks, and most of the callers gripe about: (a) having to wear them, (b) that they’ll never wear them or (c) to unequivocally state that they don’t work. They never cite any legitimate or recognized authority or science, often resorting to homespun logic or simply anointing themselves as experts on the subject.

Since many of them are only slightly acquainted with the English language, it is difficult to take them seriously as they bluster and blither on about conspiracies and liberal agendas. (Maybe they don’t actually say “agenda” but they really, really like the word “liberal”.)

Anyway, one particular caller had this attitude like the rest of the world is stupid, and, yes, liberal, and he’s going to set us all straight. You think these masks do a damn thing to stop the spread? No way, crowed the pseudo-scientist as he mispronounced coronavirus as corny-virus. You don’t need science when you’ve got common sense — and this guy was about to impart a big dose of uncommon senselessness.

I wish I had taken down the exact quote but it was essentially this: How come when you wear pants and you fart, people near you can smell it?

That was his proof, his example of common sense. And, yes, he did use the word “fart.” In other words, if your pants can’t extinguish evidence of your gastric eruptions, how is a mask going to stop the spread of a virus? He stated this with the self-satisfaction of someone who had cracked a code that would render nuclear bombs harmless.

I needed a few seconds to absorb his wisdom, but it soon struck me as funny, real funny. Then I started to worry. What if the president gets wind of this (no pun intended… okay it was intended) and he uses this example in his next speech? He’s taken enough guff about not wearing masks. Time to fight back. People will start showing up at his rallies with pants over their heads carrying signs and chanting, “Take Your Masks and Fart in Them!” or “Something smells! Did you sneeze in your pants?”

Coughing for the Right to Unmask

I guess that’s as far as I can take that brief television moment. So why are so many people dead set against wearing masks and keeping their distance as confirmed cases climb? Why have people flaunted these precautions, crowding together in bars and on beaches in bathing suits with less fabric than a typical mask? That begs the question, if you fart in a thong or Speedo how far away will you be able to smell it? Sorry, that should be the end of the fart references.

So before continuing on this theme, I am reminded of a recent Tweet by George Takei, a.k.a. Mr. Sulu on Star Trek, who is a Japanese American:

 I didn’t spend my childhood in barbed wire enclosed internment camps so I could listen to grown adults today cry oppression because they have to wear a mask at Costco.

There are people so upset about being asked to wear a mask in a grocery store that they cough on other customers, store employees and even perishable food itself to make their point. That point, it seems, is that they are spoiled, ignorant and selfish. We’ll soon have to include directional coughing as a deadly weapon and get the NRA to rise up against gunk control. I can imagine the slogans: “Coughs don’t kill people. People who cough do.”

Hey, at least I’ve progressed from farting to coughing, which, if you think about it, often occur in tandem.

We had a recent case in northeastern Pennsylvania where a woman, upset about being asked to wear a mask in a food market, went around coughing on edibles, spewing her gunk and contaminating thousands of dollars in food before she could be hauled out of the store. Fortunately for her, she was white or she might have been mortally wounded in the parking lot instead of being fined for a misdemeanor.

It seems that grocery stores have been the real war zones right from the beginning. The grocery store has been described “as one of the only respites from cabin fever” throughout this pandemic by Olga Khazan in Atlantic magazine. Not such a respite for employees. They were among the first essential workers putting themselves at risk to keep their jobs. They were risking their lives so we wouldn’t run out of toilet paper.

They’ve seen the best and the worst from their customers. Last week, during a day trip to Williamsport where Mary and I lived for seven years early in our marriage, we stopped at a Wegman’s. The place was extremely busy. It was hard to keep socially distant as we went up and down the crowded aisles. There were reminders at strategic points about wearing masks, and everyone was doing so. I saw one man wearing his mask low on his face and under his nose, and, within a minute, a store employee amicably asked him to cover nose and mouth. I could tell he didn’t like it, but he complied.

Keeping Us Safe in High-Risk Places

I’m sure there were hundreds of people in the spacious store. As we approached the checkout aisles, I could see long lines at each with people and carts six feet apart. Extra employees were patrolling the perimeters directing shoppers to one of a dozen checkout lines.

“We’re never going to get out of here,” I grumbled. But I soon recognized with fascination the concerted effort that kept each line moving. In our line, I realized we were actually advancing as the number of carts ahead dwindled.

The young man at checkout worked quickly and efficiently. Those on the registers at each side displayed a similar professionalism. Once he checked each cart ahead through, he thoroughly sprayed disinfectant and vigorously wiped off the moving belt before signaling us to start unloading our cart. He was almost mechanical in his movements. It took no more than five minutes before everything was bagged, back in the cart and payment rendered.

I thanked and commended him for doing his job so efficiently. “Thanks,” he said quietly. I think he smiled, even though his mask covered everything but his eyes. They sort of crinkled, and without hesitation, he was sanitizing for the next cart.

A woman, who appeared to be the manager, was shepherding people out with a smile and toward the exits to avoid traffic jams. I paused briefly and said, “You guys are doing an impressive job. Thanks for your good work.”

It was spontaneous, but I’m so glad I said it. I could tell she was moved by my compliment, even behind our masks. I thought, as we exited the busy store, about efforts such as theirs. Then I considered those people who believe wearing a mask for a few minutes in a public place is a great sacrifice and a violation of their rights.