Mike Anthony: The grocery store in the age of coronavirus is an uncomfortable maze of rushed confusion

Tribune Content Agency

Wandering peacefully and even aimlessly was always part of the therapeutic joy that the grocery shopping experience offers, shuffling up one aisle and weaving down the next, forearms to the carriage with time essentially halted, the stress of the outside world irrelevant while moving from deli to bakery.

Nowadays, though, the doors slide open to a world of great tension and a charted course that eventually leads to an exit that can’t be reached soon enough.

The sanitizing solution available upon entry has barely dried by the time aggravated panic kicks in, the exasperation of wondering how and why that first approaching person isn’t even following the damn arrows. C’mon now!

That’s a valid complaint until the realization that you’re not following the arrows, either. Oops. Excuse me. Some people are confused, others are just careless and together at grocery stores across America we’re stumbling over one another for eggs and boxes of pasta if any remain.

The grocery store used to be nirvana, especially when arriving with the little pangs of hunger that subliminally convince you that those chips and that tub of ice cream are absolutely needed. Now these essential places of business are less enjoyable than the DMV. It is a strange gathering of masked humans, eyes darting in different directions, some people barely understanding how to conduct themselves.

I avoided all of this for the longest time, living the delivery life of Instacart, Peapod and Amazon’s Whole Foods Market through March and April and into May. I’d spend parts of days developing a list only to realize there were no delivery windows available, clicking to submit at checkout time and again until — bingo, victory! — confirmation that my groceries would arrive in, say, six days.

All the while, though, I’d see my next door neighbors just about every day, this dynamic duo, walking toward their car, off to work shifts at Stop & Shop, returning hours later holding their masks and maybe a bag of goods.

Their names are Christian Maher, 23, and Kelsey Junious, 22. They have been on the job in South Windsor for about five years — Maher ordering and stocking produce, Junious working the deli — and a happy couple since they first spoke during a shift about four years ago.

There’s something special about great neighbors and we’re lucky to have that in our Windsor neighborhood, separated by a patch of grass from Maher, his mother and his stepfather. Junious, the unofficial daughter-in-law, spends much of her time there, too.

As the rest of the world has spent months figuring out how to go about activities once routine and now uncomfortable, these kids keep coming and going from the house, to and from the front lines on that store floor. Grocery store workers are heroes, seriously. Most of them are probably scared like the rest of us, and still there for all of us.

“When it first started it was definitely stressful because we were just getting slammed every day,” said Maher, who was recently promoted to assistant produce manager.

They have worried, of course. About getting the virus. About bringing it home. It has, and continues to be, an unsettling situation. Stop & Shop and the union representing its workers were right in recently calling for employees to be considered first responders by the federal government, a designation that would prioritize access to protective gear, testing and more.

“I feel like it’s better now because most people who come in are wearing their masks and they’re conscious of not getting too close to you,” said Junious, a building substitute teacher at Oliver Ellsworth School in Windsor who is applying for full-time teaching positions. With schools closed, she has taken on additional hours at Stop & Shop.

“We’re only doing grab-and-go (at the deli) right now,” Junious said. “So I’ll put stuff out and I can just sense someone standing there, waiting for me to move, off in the background while they wait to grab their stuff.”

Maher and Junious, thankfully, were recently provided with N95 masks by Stop & Shop. Social distancing is next to impossible at a grocery store, no matter how much urgency or information or how many arrows. Moving in the wrong direction isn’t always intentional, though that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting.

“I even have trouble following (the arrows) sometimes,” Maher said. “Some people just don’t (care). I’ll be loading something and they’ll come right next to you and just start grabbing stuff. So I step back. … But I’m getting asked a lot fewer questions than I used to.”

At least there’s that. More people are being less intrusive, more respectful and aware.

Not everyone, though.

I finally took part last week in Windsor and again this week in South Windsor, mask pulled tight.

It’s no fun, of course, not anymore. Forget improvising or considering recipes on the fly, matching this item with the one you passed on a few aisles back for that crockpot concoction you saw on Pinterest. There’s no time to consider brand comparisons or deals or nacho cheese vs. cool ranch.

It’s a grab-and-move-on world and if you don’t see it right away you cross it off. The most important objective: Get out ASAP. Because shopping these days is one within-six-feet nightmare after the next.

Toward the end of one of my trips a guy came through the frozen food section without a mask. If you’re not wearing a mask at this point you’re just reckless and selfish and you should be shamed all the way out of the store. Get lost while you get a clue.

At another point I stopped to pick produce and one of the trailing humans kept creeping until he was right behind me, looking at the same produce as if we were in competition. I probably would have felt his breath if it weren’t for his mask, the type of disrespect for personal space that doesn’t fly even in a world without a pandemic. Gross.

“Pardon me, hun,” one woman said as she squeezed by, almost rubbing shoulders. Apparently my efforts to stay single-file didn’t match her required pace.

There’s little cooperation among shoppers. Much of it is unintentional because so much of the experience is so unnatural, like following those arrows. I was occasionally guilty there. Heck, I take wrong turns while driving sometimes, despite the signs, despite GPS.

The employees, though, are on point. They’re out there on the front line, stocking the shelves and slicing the meat and putting up with everything and everyone so the rest of us can eat and live and act like morons in every aisle.


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