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A life I'm not living: Grocery shopping

It's the early days of the pandemic, and we still can't get a delivery slot on any of the major online food delivery services. I'm wheeling my large old-lady cart up to Whole Foods one day a week and to Trader Joe's another; some weeks, there's a third store. But each time I make may my way west up from Riverside Drive toward the food mecca of Columbus Avenue, the combined silence of the empty streets, the rattling of the metal cart, and the weight of my intentions makes me sigh. Then I whine. And then I cry. Every single time.

I am in full gear: N95 mask and nitrile, non-powdered gloves. I wait on line to get in, not realizing yet that my age grants me privilege. I am flattered, though, when I get carded the first time I do take advantage of the over-60 right of passage.

Once in, I awkwardly position a recently sterilized plastic basket in my cart to try to separate my household's groceries from those of my mom's. I also shop for my mother, who lives three blocks away, with respiratory and memory issues and who has 24/7 care.

It takes me about three weeks to figure out I shouldn't shop for her and her caregiver on the same day as I shop for me and my two grown daughters. Inevitably, her groceries and ours get glommed together anyway, and once at the register, I'm sorting through everything like some game show contestant whose winnings depend on strict separation. I try my best but inevitably end up with two orders of Atlantic salmon once I get home or some such thing. Then I need to suit up and bring it back over there later on. Some version of this happens every single time.

As I shop, the potential for infection weighs on me in each person I pass, in every fruit and vegetable I almost touch and do see. Should I even be buying the fresh fish and meats? But the pre-packaged goods get packaged by people at some point in the process, so . . . I go for freshness and move on to the everything bagels and ice cream.

Those first few times I shop for two households, I weigh myself and the cart down so much, I can barely make it to my mother's house and then back home. Once, along the way, I see someone take my picture. I want to ask why or admonish her, but I am too busy making sure I don't lose anything as I balance the top bags of groceries in the cart. Somehow, I see myself at that moment more clearly for the memory of someone taking that picture. She has one of those monster telephoto lenses. Is she a freelance photographer? Am I in some Upper West Sider rag in a photo essay on grocery shopping in the pandemic? Let me know

In the early days, when I reach my mother's house, I simply drop the groceries by her apartment door, and text her caregiver to let her know they are there. I don't want to risk contagion. After the first few times, I'm letting myself in, maintaining my distance, and allowing myself a glass of water before finishing the rest of my journey.

When I double back to my own house, my doorman drags the cart up the front steps, as the basement has started to give me anxiety since the arrival of the pandemic. Once upstairs, my girls take over, critiquing the spoils, wiping down all the packaging with disinfectant, washing all the fruits and vegetables, and putting the food away. Of course, there's a brief debate over who's wiping and who's putting away. In the beginning, I'm assigned the task of removing the groceries from the cart and placing them on a safety zone on the kitchen table. By week 2, I'm no longer part of the routine. I head to my room for a short lie-down to recover. But as soon as I enter, I wake up the dog, and he insists I take him out. Every single time.

I grab his leash and my face mask and head for the elevator.

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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

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