Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
It’s late March in Spokane. Spring, according to the calendar. However, it doesn’t look like it. Snow has been falling since morning and it isn’t the typical dusting that often comes at this time of the year.
It’s thick and icy. The temperature has inched up, but it is enough to make the roads slushy and slippery. In addition, it does nothing to stop the snow from coming down like a white curtain.
These are not ideal conditions for a routine jaunt to the store. While the main streets are constantly being plowed, small residential roads like mine aren’t. And from my vantage point -- the balcony overlooking the intersection -- I’ve seen those who dare to drive it. They slip and slide, barely recovering from a potential disaster.
Still, another disaster is out there. The one that has kept me in the house for several days. The pandemic is in full swing, and it’s causing its own heat in the frozen land before me.
I take a deep breath before exiting the balcony. Despite the obvious hazards, I have little choice. I know where I have to go.
The fridge looks pitiful. So does the pantry.The milk is low, the fruits and cheese are either dwindling or spoiling. Worst yet, the Eggos are nearly gone. Cassidy will panic if he doesn’t have waffles in the morning (it’s better to stock up on that and avoid the fits). I make my mental notes as I leave the kitchen and enter the living room.
I glance at Cassidy, seated on the couch. He doesn’t take stock of me. Instead, the loud, obnoxious Youtube gamer video has his attention.
“Hey kiddo,” I say. “Want to go to the store with me?”
“No,” he says in an unusually quiet voice.
The COVID-produced isolation at home, and the absence of his brother, Gordon, makes him lonely and introverted.
He appears emotionless, staring intensely at the TV. But, I can tell a lot is going through his head. This family is in disarray. Annie is with her cousin helping her through a difficult stretch (we don’t know when she’ll be back).
The COVID-produced isolation at home, and the absence of his brother, Gordon, makes him lonely and introverted. He is not his playful self. World events have made sure of that.
“Well, if you don't go, can you go down stairs and visit grandma?”
He looks at me as if to say why? I have only one response.
“You can watch your show down there while I’m gone. Besides, you can keep her company since it’s my turn to do the shopping.”
“Do you have to go?”
“Well, you do want me to get your Eggos, right?”
He cracks a smile (waffles always make him smile). He pauses the show and gets off the couch.
Melody Needs a Break
My mother-in-law, Melody, has been a trooper, of late. The local stores have been opening up their businesses early in the morning to exclusively serve the needs of older adults. The reasons are obvious:
- The elderly are more vulnerable to COVID;
- Social distancing can be easily obtained with fewer people;
- They get first dibs on limited, but essential, products.
Often, at five or six o’clock in the morning, she heads out to the local market to buy food and supplies for the house. She’s done this consecutively for the last week while I kept busy with distance learning sessions with my students.
But one can’t keep that pace. Melody needs a break and I’ll honor that. Besides, this day and week coincides with my school’s Spring Break. I can give my computer and students a rest, too (who knew distance learning and teaching over the Internet can be so taxing).
Also, I've been cooped up in the house for too long. Sure, the conditions are not ideal, but I need to get out. Glued to a screen and boxed in by four walls doesn’t do wonders to one’s psyche.
“You may want to bring that,” I say to Cassidy as I point at the tablet.
“I've finished school already,” he says (his Spring Break will be next week)
“Check it, just in case she posts some more work.”
He grabs it, but I get a suspicion that he may decide to play a game on it while downstairs with grandma, even if he is supposed to do some work. Then again, what’s to stop him? At this point, during this stay-at-home period, anything to keep him busy will do.
I follow him to her place and tell her my plan.
“We’re getting low and milk, cereal, coffee,” I tell her.
“And Eggos!” Cassidy pipes in.
She laughs at Cassidy's remark. Afterward she ruminates for a second before answering me.
“Be careful,” she says. “And good luck if you can find those things at the store.”
The shortage is no joke. She told me on several occasions that she had trouble finding things. The news is also full of stories and images showing empty shelves that once held toilet papers and hand sanitizers.
I ask her if she has a special request. As I ask, Cassidy goes to her couch, plops himself in front of the TV and immediately asks if he can change the station.
She sighs seeing this. She knows what he wants to watch. Thus, she says, “You can get me some beer.”
“Sure,” I say with a smile.
It's a running joke between the two of us. Still, I put that in my mental list. And with that, I head up the stairs to the garage.
The Challenge of Driving on Icy Roads
I shoveled out the drive-way the night before. Still, the snow came and covered my progress (at least the snow is a thin coating compared to the street). I ponder for a moment if I should shovel my way out. That’s tedious work and that's not fun.
In the end, I rely on the car, which is built with tires and gears designed for driving in the snow (something I wished I had, instead of snow chains, when I used to drive the highway to Southern California’s Big Bear so many years ago).
Having icy road conditions on your street is one thing. Having this condition on a road that happens to traverse hills is another. We live on an incline just above an intersection. I can either go up or down in order to catch a major road.
As I ponder my decision, A pick-up truck tries to climb the incline. The wheels slip and sputter. Its tail end slides on the icy road. The driver tries to rev up the truck, but his attempt is in vain. Finally, he stops and lets gravity pull his truck back to the intersection. He turns to his rights and traverses a less hazardous route.
I apply the brakes in an attempt to control the descent, but I can feel the car slipping on the ice.
Lesson learned. I pull out carefully, feeling the ice under the tires trying to prevent my progress. I point the car down toward the intersection. With that, I advance as carefully as possible, but the same force of gravity that defeated the truck is now pulling on my car into an inevitable disaster. I apply the brakes in an attempt to control the descent, but I can feel the car slipping on the ice.
About this time, I notice a new hazard; a car is approaching the intersection from the right. Slowly, I apply the breaks, but it doesn’t stop my slide. The driver in the other car sees me, but doesn’t stop. He keeps going in the same direction. He doesn't seem to care.
To avoid a collision, I turn to my left, avoiding the other car all together (thankfully, he was able to slow down -- maybe that’s why he wasn’t so worried about this. Then again, Washington drivers seem to be very laxed).
Into the Blizzard
My journey is just beginning. The snow is falling harder as I make my way to the main street. I get onto it, but the falling snow makes it difficult to see far. Luckily, I’m the only one on the road. But, that doesn’t make the business of driving in these conditions easier. With every turn I take, I have to desperately correct it.
Braking without sliding is nonexistent. The tires may stop, but the car keeps going. The five minute drive to the supermarket feels like an agonizing and terrifying eternity.
Finally, my destination is within reach. In addition to that, the snow stops falling as I pull into the parking lot. I blow a sigh of relief as I put the car in park and ready myself to exit the vehicle and head to the store.
Social Distancing in the Store
I’m hearing that lockdowns in my former home state of California may include mandatory masks in places deemed to be essential. The need for masks is not mandatory here, yet. Still, many people around here are not waiting for Governor Inslee to make that proclamation; they’re wearing masks.
I have a mask. I got mine the other day. Cassidy and I needed them the other day to enter the Chas Medical Center. In addition, we had to be screened for temperature and possible symptoms. We walked away with two disposable masks. That was just a five-minute visit to the pharmacy to pick up his meds.
And, yes, I’m about to enter a store with that disposable mask. It’s not a good idea. I know that, but at this point, I’m waiting for several to arrive, via the mail.
My wife discovered that a friend of hers was making designer masks and ordered them for the family (even in the darkest times, somebody has to be an entrepreneur).
Lonely Aisles Become Hazards
I trudge my way to the entrance. There, signs are up as are hand sanitizer kiosks. The sign warns shoppers to practice social distancing. In addition, several masked employees are there. They are not there to greet. Instead, they do an assembly line of cleaning used shopping carts and placing them with other sanitized ones. One worker guides shoppers to clean carts. Upon seeing this it’s apparent that things we once took for granted such as grabbing a shopping cart or basket now need to go through a cleaning protocol.
Once inside, I am free to head down an aisle….well, the empty ones, that is. I’m heading down the aisle containing cereal. It’s smooth sailing until I’m near the end of it. Two shoppers, one masked and the other without, enter from the other side. And, the room to pass them is less than six feet. Thus, I turn my cart and head down the long distance from where I came. I’ll get the cereal later.
I’m not the only one doing this. More than half of the shoppers wear masks. The mask-less are still a sizable force, and the silent opposition between these two groups is apparent.
When a mask-less shopper is in an aisle, the masked ones turn and leave it. There is no way they will get near them. Still, social distancing is practiced by all. Thus, it’s no surprise that two masked shoppers or two unmasked shoppers will avoid each other when entering an aisle from opposite ends.
There’s also an unspoken riff between these two. Since this whole thing started, President Trump’s administration has been downplaying the crisis, even as it worsens. Spokane has its fair share of Trump supporters who will believe him over state and local government warnings. It comes as no surprise that some of these mask-less shoppers wear a Trump shirt or hat.
I head down to the frozen food section. There, an employee shoots liquid cleaner and wipes a glass door, inside, outside and on the handle before moving down the aisle and repeating this until she reaches the end of this section. As soon as she exits, another employee comes along, sweeping the floor.
About five minutes later, as I am about to leave this aisle, the first employee returns, cleaning the same doors with a quick squirt and wipe.
No doubt, the employees make their presence known. Nearly every section of the store has employees (all masked) sanitizing the store while we shop. In some cases, they clean up after us as we leave their stations. So much cleaning is going on that much of the store has a strong fragrance from the cleaning fluid wafting in the air.
Since the start of this pandemic and lockdowns, store employees have been deemed as essential workers. They keep things stocked and the place clean in order to supply the customers need during these difficult times. There’s no doubt they are earning their new designation with all the hard work -- as well as the hazard they must endure -- to ensure that this vital place is up and running.
Luckily, food is not a problem. The Eggos are there, so are the cartons of milks. But, the non-food items are another story. I was told, as a proactive measure, to always purchase toilet paper, hand sanitizers, or laundry detergent or bleach. We didn’t need these supplies, but rumor had abounded that these items were hard to find. It is best to get them the moment you see them.
The rumors prove to be true. The aisle for the toilet papers and paper towels are empty. So are the ones for hand sanitizer (interestingly, the hand soaps are well stocked ).
I head to another aisle to see if I have better luck with the bleach. I find only one and take it. Not taking chances on this -- even if we have a month’s supply of bleach at home. You never know what will happen to store supplies in these heady times.
Now, I come to the last aisle of the day. I grab two six packs (one for me, of course) and head for the registers. I got the Eggos, too.
Check Out Time
The stickers on the floor warn you; stay six feet away from the other sticker. It’s overkill, no doubt. But you can never be too careful in these situations. They’re like breadcrumbs to the registers. And we have to follow it, along with the rules they display.
Choice for the register are two; either a live person handling your groceries or the automatic ones. Most choose the live person -- probably out of habit, despite the speed and safety of the other. Paper money is not encouraged. Still, people pay with paper money, handing it over to clerks with gloved hands.
An nearby employee overlooking this area wastes no time to wipe down the touchscreen.
It’s time to go and I choose the quickest route, even if it means bagging my own groceries. I’m in. I’m out. No problem.
Still, as I leave the automatic register, I hear -- and smell -- the squirt of cleaning fluid. An nearby employee overlooking this area wastes no time to wipe down the touchscreen.
I make it outside and take off my mask. I take a deep breath of the cold and fresh air. This is my check-out time.
Traffic at the Fast Food Joints
My journey is almost over. It’s time to head home. Yet, as I head onto Sprague, the city’s major street, I notice lines of cars at several establishments.
Many businesses are closed along Sprague, including several sit-down restaurants that haven’t transition to the delivery or pickup-only model. The exceptions are fast food and coffee establishments with drive-thru options. And they are doing brisk business.
While out, I was tempted to get coffee at the local Dutch Bros. However, when I see the line of cars, I change my mind. Oddly enough, the diminutive Dutch Bros. (basically a hut) has two drive thru. Only one is open and that one line stretches near the parking lot’s entrance. The establishment is in the middle of a massive parking lot.
At other establishments, however, the line stretches onto Sprague, moving at a snail's pace. It makes me wonder why anyone would want to wait in a line, especially with the slippery roads and falling snow.
I just want to get home, stock the fridge and pantry, deliver Melody’s six pack and take one from my own six pack and enjoy. This is, after all, my Spring Break, even during these difficult times.
© 2021 Dean Traylor