Like a lot of people these days, I only go to the grocery store about every week and a half. It is really the only thing I have been doing in public since all of this began around mid-March. It has been interesting to see the changes that have occurred between trips. The last time I went to the store, in early April, things had dramatically changed. I had to wait in a short line to get in (limiting the store to 30 customers), there were lines 6 feet apart at the check-out to keep people socially distanced, and there was a large plastic barrier that had been erected between myself and the person checking me out. It was a bit shocking, although I assumed I would eventually get used to it.
I went again yesterday. Everything I mentioned above was the same. The store was the same. However, the changes this time were all in the people. Nearly everyone was wearing a face covering of some sort. They were also acting very conscious of their distance from others. I had worried going in that I would feel out of place with my ridiculous bandana-covered face, but I shouldn’t have worried about that at all. In fact, I would have felt like a social pariah if I hadn’t been wearing a mask.
This scene will be with us for a while: masked people efficiently grabbing their greens, spaghetti, and milk while warily moving around the 6ft bubbles of others. At the time, I thought of it as a bit of a glimpse into my future. Although right now it is quite striking in its novelty, it will eventually become quite mundane.
Though this isn’t quite right. This is the scene from the early pandemic: the slight nervousness, the varied rag-tag materials of the face-masks. This is a scene from a society caught off-guard, one that is trying to do whatever it can with the crap it found in the closet. It is the scene from the Summer of 2020, when people are just happy that they can go buy clothing again. It’s also a society still living off of the materials of pre-pandemic culture; the advertisements might remind us that something is wrong but the sitcoms don’t. That, of course, will change. Eventually we will have to figure out how to live our lives in the presence of the virus. This will leak into the products of our culture, much like the War did in the ’40s. There will also be a part of the culture devoted to trying to forget about the virus. Not every story can be about the war.
The scene from the middle of the pandemic will be a bit different. Those sexy n95s will make their debut at Macy’s in the Fall of 2020 (if it’s still in business). Everyone will have their favorite. Many will have a closets full, one for every outfit! After all, you have to have something to wear when you go out to that fancy restaurant. You won’t really care anymore that the host now takes a temperature measurement of your forehead before leading you to your seat, or that the server is garbed in a mask and gloves. You will start to settle into the environment and practices that at one time seemed dystopian. It’s like the heat in Arizona — it never gets any better, but you stop talking about it after a while.