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Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘Would you risk your life for a bagel?’ A New Yorker’s guide to surviving grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic

Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘Would you risk your life for a bagel?’ A New Yorker’s guide to surviving grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic
April 02
09:52 2020

NEW YORK — It’s not always easy to ask for help.

One of my best friends in New York is self-quarantining, and she requires a friend or two to shop for her. I am down with spending other people’s money and I like to be helpful, especially when the entire country appears to be waiting for the dreaded surge of coronavirus cases. For me, this is a win-win. Also, she has good taste, so her shopping list will have plenty of ideas for me. I just discovered homemade peanut butter. I will never go back to jars again. That’s a win-win-win.

Not bad for a couple of hours’ work. This task also gives me the opportunity to give people a snapshot of what it’s like living in New York City, the city that these days always appears to sleep. We are the national epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t have a yacht or a big pile in the country to retreat to. I love my adopted city, and I’m not going anywhere. I will ride it out. On that note, I have a 5-point survival guide for food shopping, which I hope is useful regardless of where you happen to live. So that’s a win-win-win-win.

So far, so good. We’re off to a good start. First off, here’s a little about my self-quarantining friend: she is smart, extremely well-read, and makes me laugh. We read long-form articles together and, afterwards, we discuss them over tea. We don’t always agree, which we like, but we do agree most of the time, especially on social issues, and we’re OK with that, too.

My friend recalled the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and how people would get up from a park bench if they thought a sick person sat down next to them. New York was one of the epicenters of that pandemic, and it is one of the centers of this one too. She did not even get around to talking about the many polio epidemics America has faced throughout the 20th Century. There are only so many pandemics a person wants to recall over a plate of cheese and crackers, I imagine. Still, perspective is good:

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST PANDEMIC. (Point No. 1).

We take tap-dancing classes together (her idea). At least, we did until the social-distancing policies prescribed by public-health officials came into effect. On Monday, we each vowed to practice 15 dance steps. She may be stuck at home, but she doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet. That’s more “dig, brush, toe, heel, paddle and roll, paradiddle!” for me.

It’s good to be cautious, but it makes sense to be careful and take your time.

She listens carefully, tells me exactly how she feels, and remains open to changing her mind. I learn from her, so I endeavor to remain open minded too. Before tap-dancing class, she asks me, “So, Quentin, what color is your tutu today?” I usually describe the most ridiculous-sounding tutu. “Pink,” I say, “with yellow ruffles.” My friend is 95, and she is now blind. Mostly, I feel grateful that we are both here in the same place, and at the same time, and that our paths crossed. She is one of my favorite people on the planet. She grew up in an Irish community in Massachusetts. I grew up in Dublin. She calls me “lace-curtain Irish.”

She needed a couple of weeks’ worth of groceries. There is so much that is out of our own control during this pandemic, but this I could control. I could go to the supermarket for her. That is how I found myself with another Irishman — who moved to the U.S. 30 years before I did — at the Fairway Market on Broadway and 74th Street on Monday afternoon, with a shopping list in one hand and a grocery cart in the other.

We’d both been asked to help buy our friend groceries — separately, it seemed — so we joined forces. I didn’t like him usurping my place as Sir Edmund Hillary on this potentially hazardous expedition. Nor did I want to be Francis Crozier to his Sir John Franklin. (Neither Crozier or Franklin returned from their last expedition to the Arctic.) But it’s a lot for one person to carry two weeks of groceries, so I shared the load. We made a good team.

I wore a balaclava I’d bought for a New Year’s Eve midnight run in Central Park.

“If we get coronavirus, a grocery store is where we’ll get it!” I said, surveying the food aisles, and giving the gimlet eye to the scattering of other cautious New Yorkers wandering around in masks, pushing their carts. He looked at me like I was about to rob a store, not shop in one. “What’s wrong?” I said. This is where I should mention that I was wearing a balaclava I’d bought for a New Year’s Eve midnight run in Central Park. He tried to muffle a laugh.

“Would you risk your life for a bagel?” I asked him. “Or a jar of marmalade? How about a liter of oat milk, double-ply toilet tissue as soft as the fur on a newborn kitten, or a bottle of hand sanitizer?” He raised an eyebrow, and turned his head, as if to roll his eyes up to heaven. I presumed that he was about to say, “You are completely overreacting! Take that thing off your face! You’ll scare the other customers!” But he’s a gem, so he did a diplomatic 360-degree head roll, and he smiled, instead.

What about that jar of marmalade? Earlier this week, I faced that exact dilemma. I needed some comfort food with a nice cup of Campbell’s tea. (My self-quarantining friend introduced me to that.) I decided to go for it. I layered up and headed over to Barney Greengrass on Amsterdam Avenue and 87th Street. This is the Jewish deli founded by the man who shipped smoked sturgeon to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Ga. for Thanksgiving 1939.

I bought a jar of St. Dalfour French preserve, spinach pie, eggplant stuffed with chicken, and several other treats while I was at it. The staff was rushed off its feet with deliveries. I forgot they only accept checks or cash. I fumbled theatrically for stray dollars. “We’ll take your number,” the man behind the counter hollered, “and bill you during the week!” So I walked out the door without paying one red cent. That’s the New York I know and love.

After that, I got the idea for a D.I.Y. mask. The solution was staring me in the face all the time: my balaclava. Will it make a difference? I could be wrong, I could be right, as Johnny ‘Rotten’ Lydon sang. There are conflicting messages on whether anything other than the scarcely available medical-grade N95 masks help. With so many people milling about, however, I erred on the side of caution and pulled the balaclava over my face.

N95 medical-grade masks help filter viruses larger than 0.1 micrometers.

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s during the Troubles, and living in London during the 1990s, swanning around town in a balaclava with an Irish accent would have been a risky proposition. But during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic with my now transoceanic twang, I think I’ll be OK.

Research has concluded that masks have helped reduce contagion by reducing droplets being sprayed into the air during flu season; and infectious-disease specialist Anthony Fauci has said the White House’s coronavirus task force is considering giving the public the green light to wear them.

N95 masks reportedly filter viruses larger than 0.1 micrometers (a micrometer, um, is one millionth of a meter). The coronavirus is 0.125 micrometer. Still, I would not wear an N95 mask. They’re needed elsewhere. And if I am asymptomatic? For me, it makes sense to wear a balaclava. If I can avoid passing on one droplet while reaching for the chicken giblets, I will; and, in the meantime, I hope it will help me stay healthy too.

I also wore woolen gloves to Fairway Market and Barney Greengrass because studies have found that shopping carts are covered in all kinds of germs, just like subway poles and turnstiles, or anything else that lots of people touch on a regular basis. I constantly lose my gloves, alas. But I have adopted a wartime thrift: today, I wear odd pairs with pride.

I did not bring alcohol wipes to Fairway’s. Next time, I will at least bring a few Clorox CLX, +0.81% wipes in a Ziploc bag. This is what I told myself to do before and after I put the groceries away:

2. WASH YOUR HANDS. (That’s Point No. 2.)

Here’s the other reason I wore a balaclava to the supermarket: It’s not comfortable, it reminds me and other people that we’re dealing with a serious health emergency; it covers almost my entire head, and — here’s the science bit (if you’re willing to overlook this is a non-peer reviewed sample of one person) — I am constantly reminded:

3. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE. (That’s Point No. 3.)

If you take anything away from this, rather than becoming embroiled in a heated debate on face masks, take that. Coronavirus can survive longer on a solid surface like cardboard, steel or plastic than on a pair of gloves. That’s good news for my gloves, but I still act as if the virus could find its way onto my gloves, too.

As an editor, I play devil’s advocate with my writers, push back and ask questions. It helps to be a little paranoid. I’m putting a life skill to good use. The coronavirus pandemic is a time when germaphobes (check), quirky paranoid types (check) and workaholics (check) come into their own.

I took my time, and I stayed 6 feet away from others whenever possible.

But here’s the other thing I learned during My Day at the Supermarket: Shopping can be stressful under these conditions. It’s good to be a cautious — and a smart — shopper. I usually want to get in and out in double-quick time, but on this occasion I decided to be careful and take my time.

What’s more, I enjoyed it. Everything I could have done to minimize my chances of picking up COVID-19, I did. I stayed 6 feet away from others, whenever possible, including my shopping partner. We did not go at rush hour. I talked to staff and other customers.

Everyone is freaked out. I get it. I decided to leave my “cranky pants” at the dry cleaners, which closed its doors shortly after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (N.Y., D.) social-distancing policy came into effect. Friendly banter puts me and, I hope, others at ease. A nice woman recommended the London broil. “Thanks for the tip,” I said. “It looks delicious. Give me half a pound!”

I have a pretty good idea where the most vulnerable gateways are for the virus. I just have to keep my cool. I make sure to read peer-reviewed studies — not mysteriously sourced Facebook FB, -4.32%  posts. Most importantly, I choose caremongering over scaremongering because (brace yourself):

FEAR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. (That’s Point No. 4.)

So I take the studies at face value, but I don’t let them drive me crazy. There is still no evidence linking coronavirus transmission with food and food packaging, despite the virus being able to survive on cardboard in a laboratory setting. Furthermore, Juan Dumois, a pediatric infectious-diseases physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., suggests that viruses would survive better on “artificial fibers” — polyester over wool, silk or cotton.

Viruses survive better on hard surfaces such as plastic, cardboard and steel.

This, too, might help put your mind at ease: Sarah Fortune, a professor who chairs the department of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that while health-care workers might have to worry about their clothes, we should not.

As my self-quarantining friend told me the other day, “Quentin, I’m 95! Do you think I’m scared of coronavirus?” But that doesn’t mean she’s standing in line at the supermarket, either. So here’s the deal: If you want to change clothes or wear a mask, change your clothes or wear a mask. If you want to wear a goldfish bowl on your head and space around Manhattan on a pair of rollerblades, believing you have been possessed by the spirit of David Bowie, be my guest. I’ll be the first to tip my hat, and wish you a shatterproof day. In other words:

TRUST YOUR GUT. (That’s Point No. 5.)

If you are concerned about going to the grocery store, imagine what it’s like for those who work there. I told every staff member I spoke to at Fairway, “Thank you for working today.” They need to hear that. New Yorkers have seen or read about the naval ships that have been turned into hospitals on the Hudson. Customers must be frazzled, and a frazzled customer is often not a gentle or happy customer.

I also got something I couldn’t buy at any store or pharmacy. Getting out of the house for a couple of hours was a great tonic. It was like magic. You see, my friend was doing me the favor, and I didn’t even know it. I did not see Yoko Ono rummaging through the vegetables at Fairway — I did see her there once, and I left her to it — but I did meet another friend outside, from 6 feet away. He works in a salon and he has been furloughed. That is, without pay. I am grateful that I get to help my friend, be of some use, and get paid to write about it. Love and gratitude is all around.

If you’re nervous about shopping, imagine what it’s like for the staff.

But back to my New Yorker’s survival guide to grocery shopping. We had two weeks’ worth, maybe more, of groceries — including bottles, cans, six-packs of kitchen roll, liters of milk, jars of this, that and the other — and they were heavy. I walked one block, and we had a few more to go. I spotted an abandoned cart on the street corner. “We’ll return it,” I said. “Later!”

You have to think on your feet during a pandemic, and I wanted to get these goods to their destination without doing my back in. (That’s my excuse, anyway.) I quickly piled the groceries into the cart, and pushed it across four traffic lanes on Broadway. “Go! Go! Go!” I shouted, as we hurtled along. This was not a time for reticence. We’re in the middle of a national emergency, after all; if the cops stopped me, I’d simply tell them the truth. Thank you, NYPD, first responders and health professionals, and thank you, Fairway Market.

As I headed down Amsterdam with the speed of a clanking — yet nutritious — bullet, a man ran out of a jewelry store in pursuit of another man. “People are dying, and you try to steal something from my store? You motherf—!” Ah, yes. There are always folks with bigger problems than mine. I kept moving: This was a good day in Manhattan. To quote that opening line from Jules Dassin’s postwar film noir, “The Naked City”: “There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” My 95-year-old, self-quarantining friend would have been about 23 when that film was released. She, too, has more stories to tell.

This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’

MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto

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