The First Will Be Last
My father absolutely refused to wait in line for anything. “There’s something about it I can’t stand,” he said. “I don’t know what.”
I knew what. Perhaps you’ve seen the end of Goodfellas, when Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) says, “Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” That was the something about waiting in line that my dad couldn’t stand.
One of the ways Americans used to make fun of communism was to mock breadlines — what greater indictment of a society than people standing in line to buy bread? In the land of milk, honey, free markets, Gordon Gekko, and Martha Stewart, such a predicament seemed laughable. Of course, the proletariat were rarely standing in line for bread, but often for everything else.
I thought of those lines yesterday as I stood on a strip of orange tape outside Trader Joe’s, one of over a hundred people standing six feet apart waiting to enter. Hand-lettered signs warned us that the state required everyone to wear a mask inside the store. This was likely to prevent a certain segment of the population from going postal — a term we once used when the Post Office was the only place where mass shootings were routine.
Each time the line moved forward, we were effectively standing in the air space that had been occupied by the person in front of us a split second before. Fortunately, there was a freeway no more than 200 feet away, so the passing cars and diesel trucks created a gentle breeze of exhaust fumes to clear away our human breath.
As I looked down the line, I noticed that several of my fellow Americans were carrying at least 50 to 100 pounds of excess body fat, and in this way, the line looked nothing like those old photos from the Soviet Union. We still have an overabundance of food—much of it containing so few nutrients, a person can eat all day and still be nutritionally starved.
Of course, I reminded myself that there are very real breadlines all across America right now—people waiting for hours at food banks to keep their families from going hungry. More than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past 12 weeks. Schools have become food distribution centers for children who once received free lunch.
As I reached the head of the line, a Trader Joe’s employee wearing a face shield gestured for me to enter the store. I grabbed a cart, wondering if the handle had been wiped down, and walked in to be greeted by the fresh-cut flower section, which I passed without a thought.
I made a beeline for the bread, and began systematically adding items from the list on my phone. Over the past three months we’ve come to rely on delivery but, with Trader Joe’s delivery isn’t an option. They have unique items I’ve come to see as staples even though I could easily do without them. For instance, delicious yet inexpensive cheeses from certain socialist countries in Europe (where Americans are presently banned from traveling).
Limiting the total number of shoppers in the store helped us remain distant from each other. But I was also aware of the people waiting outside, so it felt wrong to linger over any decision. Gone too was the impulse to imagine how some dinner party guest might enjoy an item I selected. There would be no dinner parties.
My mom, born during the Great Depression, would often give me important insider surivial tips for such times. “The human body can live on oatmeal,” she told me on several occasions. “You might need to rememeber that someday.” I laughed it off. “There’s never going to be another Great Depression, Mom!” She looked amused. “Oh yeah? We’ll see.”
Along with oatmeal, I added multiple bottles of vitamins and the melatonin I’ve come to rely on for a good night’s sleep. Chewable vitamin C for my son. Omega 3s for my wife. All bought in triplicate, enough to forestall future shopping trips, but not enough to count as hoarding.
As I continued to move through the aisle, adding dishwasher and laundry detergent to the cart, I thought back to what it was like to shop before the pandemic.
In any well-written play, a dramatic scene has text and subtext. The main action might involve people eating oatmeal and commenting on how delicious it is, but their words are really about the emotional undercurrents between them. The ways in which they are in love or in conflict. Their efforts to appease or control. In emotional terms, the oatmeal is merely background action, though it appears to be the entire business.
Shopping was once like that, filled with emotional undercurrents, sexual attraction and repulsion, fashion judgements, genuine-if-brief connections, the occasional screaming fight—an entire spectrum of human behavior. Now, shopping is all text and no subtext, a dreadful march through the aisles marked by rising fear whenever a stranger moves closer with their cart.
An orange square of tape on the concrete floor marks the spot where I am to stand. It is here that I will dutifully wait, while allowing the cashier, who is shielded by plexiglass, to move my items over the scanner.
On the screen of the device that processes payments, the total slowly adds up. I take small comfort in knowing that my phone will facilitate a “contactless payment” so no potentially lethal cash will be exchanged. I will not feel her fingertips touch my palm as she deposits coins into my hand, makes eye contact and smiles. Nor will I collect my change from a tiny machine that dispenses coins as if they are casino winnings. I will not swipe my card and share that awkward pause as we wait for approval or denial.
The fabric of my mask presses against my face as I inhale, and relaxes as I exhale, like a small, silent bagpipe. It muffles my voice when I ask for a case of mineral water, the kind my mother-in-law recommends. A few years ago, she had a set of mysterious ailments that seemed impossible to diagnose. As it turned out, it was a magnesium deficiency. Thus, the mineral water.
At the time, my father-in-law Neil confessed, “I’ve come to realize during all this that if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” It was the epiphany I hoped more Americans would arrive at in their relentless pursuit of happiness at all costs. In the month that Neil told me this, my family had paid over a thousand dollars for bare-bones health insurance, just as we had done the prior month, and every month before that for the past several years. Health insurance has been our second largest monthly expense for decades, and the greatest impediment to our own pursuit of happiness.
Exiting the store, I passed the line of people waiting to enter. Surely some of them were among the millions who’ve lost jobs and, along with those jobs, access to our healthcare system, such as it is.
This Saturday is July 4th, and public health officials are seeing it as a make-or-break weekend for the continuing spread of the virus. Will our national desire for unbound freedom get the best of us? In celebrating our freedom, will we blow ourselves up in the process?
As I pushed my cart through the parking lot, I noticed a man walking away from the store in disgust. He reached his wife and young son and said, “They got people standing on a bunch of fucking tape waiting in line like it’s a fucking amusement park.” Of course, Disneyland is still closed, so the experience of waiting in line for two hours for a single ride wasn’t currently available. This family wouldn’t be waiting in any line today. Instead, they climbed into their lowered Chevy pickup and drove away—perhaps heading to a nearby levee to sing Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Back in my car, I took a moment to sanitize my hands and connect my phone to the stereo. The entire history of recorded music was available to me. I searched for something that would calm my nerves, remind me of days gone but not forgotten, infuse me with the effervescent happiness that comes from knowing you’re better than everyone else. Driving down the interstate highway, bread and fireworks in the back, unbounded. American to the last.