Empty Shelves

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Most of my colleagues have been staying home and teleworking, just as I have been for the past week. It’s been a strange undertaking for all of us. “I’m right here,” I attempted to reassure one of my team members over the phone. “I’m just at the other end of the keyboard.”

We keep in touch by text message, by email, over Skype and on the phone. And then there are the endless conference calls, some of which have lasted into the evening. I’m fairly sure that I have been on more conference calls in the past week than in all the years of my professional life combined.

“No one is allowed to get sick,” I tell my team. “I need each and every one of you. Go wash your hands. Do it now!” In my mind, I see hot water faucets being turned on and hand soap being lathered. I can only hope that my imagination squares up with reality.

One of my coworkers ventured out to the supermarket a few nights ago. Next day, I asked her how it went. There was no chicken, no ground beef, no milk, no toilet paper, she reported. “How about canned goods?” I asked. Not much, she told me. The shelves were picked bare.

“What are things going to look like in two weeks?” I asked my wife. I could almost hear the infrastructure disassembling. Does it take a virulent microorganism to prove to the world that the foundation of our society is not love or faith or duty, but supermarkets and toilet paper? And does this mean that we need to start a new religion where all of us pray to Sam Walton?

I try to remember to check in with my elderly parents regularly. Mom is hunkered down for the duration and is dead set on preventing Dad from wandering farther than the mailbox across the road. On the phone with Mom, she admits that her pantry is starting to look rather bare, although they still have plenty in the refrigerator. She estimates that they have enough food left for ten days.

Holy mackerel, do you know what that sounds like, Mom? Like you’re marooned on a desert island or lost in the Antarctic. Better ration your comestibles now, or in ten days you’ll become polar bear food.

Sigh. I tell Mom that I’ll try to have some food delivered to her house, but that I don’t know whether anyone will deliver way out there on the wild prairie, or even if there’s any food to be had anymore. Amazon is taking orders to be delivered 30 days from now, Mom tells me. Oh, yeah? And what are people supposed to eat in the meantime? She asks for bananas.

In my dreams, I am speeding 200 miles down the freeway to rescue my starving parents, when I am pulled over by the cops for violating the “shelter in place” order. They drag me out of my vehicle, haul me off to jail and impound my vehicle.

I start perusing websites and making phone calls, looking for a grocery store willing to deliver out to the sticks. I quickly become frustrated. One supermarket tells me I have to contact DoorDash. When I ask for their phone number, I am placed on hold and listen to the same tune over and over until I am finally disconnected.

I go back to work and my wife takes over our mission of mercy. Instacart to the rescue! After several false starts, she finds that we can order groceries for delivery from Save Mart.

We start to make a list of items we think my parents would like. Bananas, cottage cheese, sour cream, French bread. White tuna in water? Sold out. Canned salmon? Only one can left. How about the packets? Not sure if they’ll eat that. Stuff for salad? Lettuce, yes. Beefsteak tomatoes? All out. How about Romas? Cucumbers? How about the little English ones? Marie’s bleu cheese dressing. Dad’s favorite Honey Bunches of Oats.

We close out the order: $160. The price of some items have mysteriously doubled.

Not long after, the store emails us. Bad news on the fruit. I call Mom again and sing a painfully off-tune rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

We order a box of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts for my parents. Okay to substitute the variety pack if necessary? Sure. They end up delivering a bag of donut holes.

At least the delivery occurs. We breathe a sigh of relief as Dad reads off a list of the contents of the boxes. He is particularly thrilled with the bleu cheese dressing.

1,224 people have tested positive for coronavirus here in California. Far less than, say, New York, but still a lot. Will this number triple or quadruple in the next few weeks? Will the supermarket employees and delivery people start to get sick and disappear from the scene? What if the truck drivers can’t deliver food to the supermarkets? Thinking about these things makes my head hurt.

My wife and her sister head out in search of groceries. They hit up one supermarket after another, finding many bare shelves and picking up what’s still available. They hope to score lettuce and tomatoes to make sandwiches, but no luck.

After coming up empty-handed at five supermarkets, my sister-in-law was sauntering down an aisle when she spied both lettuce and tomatoes in a shopping cart. She looked around, didn’t see anyone, and transferred both items into her own cart.

Salad, anyone?

Escape from California

BLYTHE

The city limit sign lists the population of Blythe as over 21,000.  My wife finds this hard to believe, and I remind her that the count includes the inmates of Ironwood and Chuckawalla Valley state prisons, some 20 miles outside town in the desert sands, amidst the rattlesnakes and scorpions.

When we pass the “do not pick up hitchhikers” sign, a plea to avoid inadvertently abetting prison escapees, my wife confesses that she always wanted to stop and take a photo of me sticking out my thumb in front of the sign.

The weird feeling in the pit of my stomach when we exit Interstate 10 at Lovekin Boulevard betrays my discomfort at even being here.  I don’t belong here anymore.  I’m not sure whether this is more return of the prodigal or return to the scene of the crime.

For three years and three months, I lived and worked in this remote outpost on the Colorado River, managing a branch of the county court located 90 miles across the desert from anything approaching civilization.  We stuck it out by spending weekends in Phoenix or in the Coachella Valley or in Nevada.  Those years were particularly hard on my wife, who wasn’t working and was a twelve hour drive away from her family.  Even though we were in the middle of nowhere, at least I was employed and was able to pay the bills.  Until suddenly I wasn’t, caught in a spate of layoffs resulting from the court’s budget shortfall.

There was one restaurant in town that we particularly enjoyed back then, and we stopped to have lunch and reminisce.

“How long have we been gone?” asked my wife as we munched on chips and salsa.

I had to go back and count.  “It was six years at the end of September,” I finally announced.

We saw no one we knew in the restaurant, but the waitress said she remembered us.  Indeed, nothing had changed.  Same line of customers waiting for tables at lunchtime, same amazing food, same servers.

Blythe is one of those places where time stands still.  When we arrived in 2010, the movie theater was still open.  My wife attended a matinee the first month we lived in town.  And then the theater promptly went out of business.  Ten years later, the movie theater sign still stands, advertising the arcade and ice cream parlor that once were inside this air conditioned oasis in the desert.  On the marquis by the road, instead of announcing the movie currently being shown, the sign still reads “theater available.”  After a decade, the space remains empty and unused.

Blythe is such a sad little town.  The Foster Freeze is boarded up; more storefronts are now vacant.  The cool 60 degree temperature in January hides what residents know all too well, that 100 to 120 degrees is the norm every day for seven months out of the year.

We get back on the freeway and head east over the Colorado River and into Arizona.  We take Exit 1 in Ehrenberg, just one mile from Blythe, but in another state where the gasoline at the Flying J truck stop is a dollar a gallon cheaper than it is just across the bridge.

The clocks on our phones jump ahead an hour.  We are on Mountain Time now, having finally escaped California.

Desert Dreams

INDIO

Residents of the San Francisco Bay area often describe their location as “northern California,” thus distinguishing themselves from the Los Angeles area residents of “southern California.”  Nevertheless, I would suggest that the real “northern California” consists of the forgotten one-third of the state stretching from Sacramento to the Oregon border.  For those of us who call home somewhere between the redwood coast and the Sierra Nevadas, southern California doesn’t seem quite real, particularly during our cold, rainy, snowy, decidedly un-Californialike winters.  The drive from the piney north to the Inland Empire and the Sonoran Desert beyond seems like a journey across multiple nations to a distant part of the continent.  The map’s insistence that I have not left my home state is incredible, some sort of tall tale that necessarily involves the suspension of disbelief.

I once lived here, in the bleak emptiness beyond the enormous windmills of the Cabazon Pass that invoke images of Cervantes by day and blink their red lights in unison, like so many Christmas tree toppers, to warn off low-flying planes by night.  A quick gust of wind blows sand across the freeway, while out of the corner of an eye, I barely detect a jackrabbit scurrying out of sight.  As Michigan did to Simon and Garfunkle, the desert seems like a dream to me now.

I awake from the dream in a Motel 6 in Indio.  Being away from home in a strange bed often leaves me sleepless, but after a twelve hour drive, sleep quickly overtakes me until I open my eyes with a jolt at three in the morning.  Having slept deeply, I don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell me that the dream I remember hails from somewhere deep in my subconscious.
Back in 1970, we lacked even an inkling of the technology we take for granted today.  Still, I dream that, back in elementary school, I text my teacher what I am too embarrassed to tell her in person, that I am ashamed that I have no clothes that fit me properly.

I have been obese since early childhood, a situation that proved far more challenging decades ago than it does now.  Then, we didn’t have a Wal-Mart in every town where you can purchase size 4X and 5X shirts right off the rack.  If you needed huge pants to accommodate tree trunk legs, your only hope was the local Army-Navy store, and even then, you might be out of luck.  For fat kids like myself, everything you wore was always too tight.  Boys with incipient man-boobs well-outlined by too small shirts would be taunted as really being girls.  Sooner or later, you knew you’d bust a seam and your pants would split at school.

I dream I am reading our hometown newspaper in my parents’ living room, where I learn that the township has allocated funds to purchase tent material and tentmaking supplies to provide poor families with rough-hewn clothes large enough to properly cover their fat children.

No doubt this improbable dream is based on the fact that my father, taking me clothes shopping and coming up empty-handed, would often laughingly  tell the salesperson that he would need to visit Ahmed the tent-maker to order custom garments large enough to fit me.

I begin to see a theme coming together here.  Despite ordering clothes online and having them altered, even today most if what I wear fits poorly.  And so, as I head east on I-10 into Arizona today, if from somewhere across the sand beyond the roadside saguaros I spy Ahmed approaching on camelback, I will surely stop and submit myself to his measuring tape.

Keep an eye out for me, Ahmed.  I’ll be in the red Kia Soul.  

Just tell me you take Visa.