A couple weeks back, I had been sending funny memes, as I had acquired them from others about the pandemic back and forth with my friend Madison who lives down the street. She has a boy who is a year older than my daughter and they have been going to the same schools since preschool. She texted me about how she was freaking out with all that was happening. How was I with all the homeschooling, etc? I told her that I was fine and that meds helped. She was very interested in what I was taking. I texted –Xanax. And Zoloft. To take the edge off.
Since, we had only a few text exchanges of articles pertaining to the virus or politics. I wanted to know how she was fairing. So instead of texting, on a whim, I FaceTimed her.
“You’re FaceTiming me!” she said, delighted with a glass of wine in her hand.
I said I would get a glass so we could have one together –all I had was some weeks old open Rose in the fridge, so I poured some and we caught up after we both apologized for our physical presentation, no makeup, dirty pjs, unshowered with gray roots.
Madison is a working actress who had been on various TV series through her life. She is beautiful, dramatic, an animal rights enthusiast and a vegan. Before the pandemic, we often had Friday dinners together with the family. She told me how she was on Zoloft now after talking to me and was feeling much better after she’d had a few literal meltdowns over the state of the world. “I’m just not that mom who loves to stay home and play with my kid all day,” she said.
I agreed with her and we had much needed girl talk before saying goodbye. I thought how this was the new normal, connecting as deconstructed versions of ourselves over the phone or Skype or Zoom after weeks of isolation with little to discuss other than fear and complaints and apologies and outrage over Trump.
The next day, I had to brave a trip to Costco. This time was different from my last visit. There was a giant grouping of carts, handed out and wiped down by an employee one at a time on the far side of the entrance. To get there you had to walk around the large barricades used to herd people in lines like at Disneyland. People wore various face masks, some homemade, some bandanas, some professional grade. Their eyes were a mix of anxiety and mission. Once a cart was retrieved, you then had to stand in the long line to enter, which moved every five or so minutes, again, like Disneyland, where the gate-keeper was instructed to let so many people into the store. I didn’t know how long this line took because I didn’t want to take my phone out to look at the time. Minimal touching of everything, I’d decided. I was listening to Conan O’Brien’s podcast and had my Costco and credit card in another pocket.
It was hot. There’s was an inexplicable heat wave in SoCal. Yes. After weeks of 60 degree weather with intermittent rain and drizzle, it was now 98 degrees at noon with strong dry winds like October. One more thing I didn’t want to deal with, Climate Change. Weren’t we experiencing the best air in Los Angeles since the beginning of time? I had no sunscreen and with each corner of the maze I squirreled through, I could feel my middle-aged arm shriveling into sun-poisoned freckled old lady crust, or at least that was where my brain took me. A woman and her tween daughter were behind me in line and getting too close, not standing on their “X” for social distancing, and more than once I gave the girl a scolding “get back” look. Finally, after the third offense, I became “Karen.” Do you know who Karen is? I recently learned about this term on the App Quora, the one where you can ask any question and various experts or lay-persons can give an answer. To anything. I had joined this as a contributor a couple years back when I was promoting my book. I still get a once a week email highlighting issues I’m an “expert” in or that are marked as of possible interest to me.
A Karen per the Slang dictionary is a “mocking term for an entitled, obnoxious, middle-aged white woman…” usually with a bob haircut who “wants to speak to the manager.” I recently read an op-ed by Jennifer Weiner who said that in this age of pandemic, we are all Karen. But I digress. Annoyed with the squeezing of my space, I turned to the woman and her daughter behind me and with dagger eyes and an angry frown beneath my mask and pointed with authority to the “X” on the ground. They both look surprised but the mother pulled on her daughter’s arm to stay behind their cart from then on.
After the four or so loops of the entrance obstacle, I finally made it into the store which felt like an end-of-days free for all. Some people were organized in their shopping while others stared confused or fingered products like folding chairs and sport socks. All I could think of was the germs they were transferring to each item that was left behind. I did, however, know what I was there for and went about my business at high speed to get the things I came for. To my surprise, in a new prominent place in front of the produce and refrigerated section the store, was a giant stack of Kirkland toilet paper. I took one. Though, I could have been a better person and left it for someone else as I had enough for the time being. But one never knows, right? The word is now there will be shortages of everything from fruit and veggies because there is no one to pick it as it all rots in the fields and no more meat because of a Covid outbreak at major food processing plants around the country. If I’ve gone off on a tangent, it’s only to describe the collective fear and energy that had me grab that T.P.
I picked up the assorted groceries. In normal times, I would never buy such large quantities. We have a small house and no room to store anything. But as a family of four, eating three meals a day at home plus snacks, I have never cooked or cleaned so much in my life. We are pounding down the chow. I have bags of onions, lemons and potatoes on the floor, a crammed freezer, bulging veggie bins and a pantry door that won’t close. I’ve taken to storing dry goods like giant bottles of Heinz ketchup from Smart-n-Final in the guest room closet. Just when I think I’ve gone off the deep end and we will never finish this stockpile, the fridge is empty again.
Anyway, again I deviate from the story, which I guess is the mania and the collective angst. There is an ongoing loudspeaker message about maintaining a 6-foot distance. It feels like 1984 or Brazil or Twelve Monkeys. Most people are cutting and dodging through the warehouse. There is bold print alarming signage with the rules –Only one per customer. Or arrows to enter an aisle in a certain direction, meant to keep people apart. Some ignore the policy in the dairy fridge. This does not bring out my Karen because at some point, all have the accidental slip of coming too close to another shopping cart. Most of the offenders are men, and often the older ones. They seem not to know where anything is or what they came for. There’s a lot of confused wandering. I get to the bread, where, again, an amount I would never buy under normal circumstances, get the minimum of two loaves. While I’m selecting what to put in my cart, a guy with his mask pulled down under his chin comes without a cart, reaches around me, grabs a loaf and takes a picture of it and the price.
My inner Karen says “Hey, six feet.”
“I was here first,” he says.
“You don’t even have a cart!”
“You get back.” He grunts at me with indiscernible accented English.
“Put your mask on.”
“You talk too much.” He yelled and then darted away.
A tree-tall black guy was down the aisle within earshot and looked at me like oh-no-he-didn’t.
Another time, I might have fought with this selfish chauvinist pig, but time in the Petri dish was of the essence. In and out was the mission. And I thought as I moved to the next item on my list that this is the reason it is too soon to “open up the economy” – people don’t follow the rules.
The next day, I took my usual walk around the neighborhood. These walks help to provide the minimal exercise I need for my sanity, an escape from the family and a chance to listen to a podcast or book on tape. I have been trying to get three to four miles in a day and I have been doing it in the morning to avoid the heat. I walk anywhere, zig-zagging through streets and I look at all the houses that I would normally not see while whizzing by in my car. I take pics of doors I like, or carports. Not many. Most homes fail to charm. Before the pandemic, we had planned an addition to the house, which is still in the works with the architect and engineer and I am forever looking for ideas.
I wear a mask now, even to walk the dogs. Though I live near a medical center and in a very populated part if the city, there is not much traffic or many people on the street. When they do appear, one walks across or into the middle of the road to go around the other person. I ran into Madison walking up from the L.A. river with her giant rescue dog. She was wearing earbuds and a mask like me. We smiled and waved at each other from across the street. Nice to see you, I shouted. She pointed to her ears and shouted back, I’m meditating, and we walked on. Almost an hour later as I was circling back, I passed her house, and she was in front with her other two little doggies. She had a mask on and I waved hello again.
“I like your mask. It’s so pretty,” she said as I walked by.
“Thanks,” I said, “A friend made it for me.”
I thought of the strangeness of this exchange. How hyper-aware we’ve become of boundaries and privacy while we are universally disheveled, in pajamas with headphones on. This is what we’ve come to, complimenting each other on our masks like we used to of each other’s purses, or hair, or shoes. Masks. Wow.
As I headed toward my house I had to dodge some gardeners who were returning to their truck. One of the men had pulled down his mask. He probably needed to drink some water and breathe after all the hard work in the hot sun. I bowed around him to create space. Right at the moment that I passed, he turned his head and coughed dry and hard in my direction, not into his elbow, but into the air. It wasn’t aggressive or dismissive like the guy in Costco, it was absent-minded. He probably wasn’t sick –or was he? No, surely he just needed to clear his throat after leaf-blowing for an hour.
But I was apoplectic. I marched home as fast as I could and sprayed my shoes with Lysol, took off all my clothes and mask and washed my hands before getting in to the shower. This was the new normal. The weirdness of friends “admiring” your pandemic gear, dread and judgment at the big box stores, running home to disinfect yourself after an innocuous cough on the street sends you into a reeling panic. As I scrubbed away, I thought again of all the reasons that we are in no way ready to return to business-as-usual.