Raising Phoenix: Dispatches from the Mart

Amy SilvermanApril 30, 2020
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Illustration by Laura Best
Illustration by Laura Best

Our columnist sweats the small stuff in this reverie from the early days of the coronavirus outbreak – all of four weeks ago.

I stood in the middle of Safeway on the evening of Thursday, March 12, simultaneously Googling “how long can coronavirus live on a greeting card,” digging through my purse for a container of homemade hand sanitizer, yelling at my kid to stay where I could see her and trying not to touch my face. I stopped everything and swallowed. Once, twice, then again. Was I getting a sore throat?

Clearly, I had lost it.

To be fair, so had pretty much everyone else. A couple aisles over, 20-somethings were photographing the shelves that had once held toilet paper. All the chicken-flavored ramen was gone, and most of the pasta. I grabbed yogurt for my husband and Goldfish crackers for my daughter, tossing three boxes of Kleenex – the good kind with lotion in it – into the cart, figuring that if we were going to get sick, we’d need that, as well as four boxes of matzo ball soup mix. I made a mental note to cancel our annual Passover seder.

My father’s 80th birthday was three days away. As far as I was concerned, getting together was out of the question. I held a stack of carefully chosen, goofy greeting cards and did some mental gymnastics, wondering if I could mail them tomorrow and ask my mom to leave them in the mailbox an extra day. That way if I was carrying COVID-19 and didn’t know it, there would be time for the virus to die. Or maybe I could stick the cards in the oven, since heat kills the virus. Never mind that my parents, like just about all my friends’ parents, took great offense at the suggestion that they were among the older, vulnerable population most susceptible to the virus.

I’d deleted the Twitter app on my phone a few hours earlier. The news was coming too quickly. Broadway was dark, Disneyland was closing. Schools were shutting down in Maryland and Ohio, and I couldn’t bring myself to click on the stories about Italy.

My phone rang. It was my older daughter, calling from college. Her school was closing early for spring break. Should she come home, she wondered? Or stay in Oregon? “WHAT DO YOU MEAN SHOULD YOU STAY IN OREGON?” I wanted to yell. But I was in the middle of Safeway, and it was crowded. “What do you mean should you stay in Oregon?” I asked, only a little loudly, immediately regretting the panic in my voice – then wondering if I’d sounded too nonchalant. We decided to talk in the morning and hung up.

Earlier in the day, the superintendent of Arizona’s public schools had announced that the state was not recommending that public schools be closed. With my younger daughter’s spring break ending in three days, I was panicking. Should I send her to school on Monday? What about dance class?

There were still only nine diagnosed cases of this new coronavirus in the state of Arizona, and I had been texting and talking with friends and family for days. Are we overreacting? Are we underreacting?

If COVID-19 didn’t get us, the anxiety certainly would.

I wasn’t in the mood to take any chances. I had unloaded most of my groceries onto the conveyer belt at Safeway when I heard the checkout clerk cough. Not a delicate, throat-clearing cough. This was deep and phlegmy.

“Did you just cough?” I asked, trying to sound casual as he picked up a bag of split peas – an item I’ve never bought in my life but somehow felt compelled to purchase this night.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, scanning groceries. “But I coughed into my elbow.”

“Are you sick?”

“It’s just a sinus infection. I took my temperature. No fever.” He grabbed the pile of birthday cards and started to scan them.

I looked at the cards, then I looked at the clerk’s red eyes and nose. He sneezed. And something in me snapped. “Come on, we’re going,” I said to my daughter, and we walked out of the store, leaving at least $200 in possibly tainted groceries behind. I wondered how long coronavirus lives on grocery items and made a mental note to Google it.

As I sit at the computer, I can feel my hands itch from eczema brought on by using hand sanitizer every three minutes. There’s a giant stress zit forming on my chin. I am writing this as a time capsule, a snapshot of what might have been one of the last semi-normal days for a while – or the height of an absolutely ridiculous frenzy. If I had to guess at this moment, I’d say things will land somewhere in between.

All I know for sure right now is that I really, really want to touch my face.

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