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Danehy: Life in the Age of Coronavirus

Tom goes shopping for toilet paper and reflects on life in the age of coronavirus.

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Last week, I found myself leaning on a shopping cart, standing in line outside a supermarket at 4:20 in the morning. This was a situation that nobody my age—or half my age or a fourth of my age—could have imagined even a month ago. But there I was, near the head of a line that would soon stretch for half-a-block, waiting in the pre-dawn chill to buy some over-priced and under-effective toilet paper. And not even for me.

I have a friend who coaches high-school basketball on the Navajo Reservation. He texted me and told me that, in that part of the state, toilet paper is in critically short supply, even more so than elsewhere. Just this week, with schools closed, he made futile trips to Flagstaff and then Albuquerque in search of the precious commodity. I told him that I was going to go to the store anyway to pick up a couple food items; I would see what I could do.

My wife, noting that I am of a certain age, "suggested" that I go participate in the early-morning AARP Stampede that we had seen on the news the week before. It looked like they were opening the gates for a Grateful Dead concert with festival seating. And shopping carts.

Despite my having arrived 40 minutes before the store would open, I was still third in line. I'm always amazed at how, in certain situations, people will talk to each other about anything and nothing with ease and grace. In this suddenly bizarre time, people just seem to be more polite, more understanding, less political. It feels good

Within minutes, without having asked a question, I knew that Guy #2 needed to shut down his business temporarily because of the situation. Then he told me a horrible story of how he and his wife had been talking about retiring in the near future but had recently taken legal custody of their four grandchildren, all four of whom had been abused by their mom's live-in boyfriend. I had no idea why he would tell that story to a complete stranger; maybe it's easier to tell it to a stranger than to someone you know. All I could manage was, "Well, if he goes to prison, he'll be reminded of his atrocities on a daily basis."

...and I'm bummed out because there's no basketball on TV?...

He then said that he was just there to buy toilet paper for his new-sized family. Since everybody could only buy one package each, I offered to buy some and give it to him on the way out. He politely declined my offer, saying that getting out to different stores everyday gave him something to do.

By then, a line was forming. People would just grab a cart and head to the end of the queue. A woman walked up, dressed like a medical assistant of some kind. Guy #1 looked at her and said, "Hey, hi!" She looked at him somewhat quizzically, and he continued, "You helped out with my dad when he was in your (facility)."

She smiled and said, "Oh yes, how is he doing?"

Guy #1 said, "Not well. We had to move him to another place. We can't go see him..."

His voice trailed off and he just shrugged.

...and I'm whining because I have to use the old StairClimber in the garage instead of the elliptical at Planet Fitness?...

The door eventually opened and we walked in. No hurrying, no boorish behavior. Lots of smiles and excuse-mes. They didn't have the food items I wanted (I'm running dangerously low on El Pato Mexican hot tomato sauce.) I got the off-off-off-brand of toilet paper and left. A couple hours later, I went to the Post Office and sent off the package. I texted my friend and told him to hold on for a day or two; help was on the way. Then I went home and hunkered down.

I hate to admit that I had allowed petty and selfish thoughts to creep into my head, mostly about the amount of time that it's going to take to get through this. I shared some of those thoughts with an old friend, a guy I've known since 1989. He sent me an email and after I was done reading it, I felt like Nicolas Cage after Cher slapped him and said, "Snap out of it!"

And I have. Compared to most people, we've got it great. My wife is a teacher and has taken over the dining room with her desktop computer and her laptop for conducting her daily lessons online. It's going OK, but she worries about her students.

All of a sudden, I want to go play tennis. (I'm not yet so desperate that I want to go hiking.) But I'm going to stay at home and not be a part of the problem. The only doubt I have in my head now is, "How often do I support local businesses by ordering take-out meals?" My son and I had El Molinito the other night. When I went to pick it up, they had a big table across the entryway, keeping customers from entering the eerily empty dining room. It was quite sad, but also delicious.

And now it's on to another day.

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