I used to be terrified of grocery stores. Nine years ago, when I suffered my first mental breakdown, I came to recognize the grocery store as the ultimate symbol of human failing. I didn’t understand how human beings could pride themselves on their self-proclaimed independence at the same time that they were completely dependent on third-party vendors for their quintessential sustenance. If they couldn’t grow or hunt their own food, then they were effectively helpless and infantile, yet at no point did they exhibit any humbled awareness of the precarious nature of their own situation. It was all so terribly distasteful, not to mention recklessly irresponsible: what could they possibly do if the market system on which they relied were to suddenly self-destruct?
After nine long years of speculation, I finally received a preliminary, unflattering answer on Friday night. Thitherto, I had done my best to disregard the hysterical anticipation of the coronavirus, and because I completed my weekly grocery shopping on the Sunday before, I hadn’t even been inside a store in days. I was woefully unprepared for a phone call from an anonymous associate who told me of an impending announcement from the Pentagon, one which would expand and intensify the panic that was already pervading the larger provinces. “Get a month’s worth of groceries, and get them fast,” she said, “because there won’t be anything left on the shelves tomorrow night.”
Suddenly, malaise crept up on me, and for the first time this year, I perceived a credible urgency. When the media swelled, overflowed, and burst with sensationalist stories of coronavirus, I scoffed and shook my head, as did the majority of Americans, I suspect. By now, you have probably seen the chronicle of apocalyptic menaces in the twenty-first century, including but certainly not limited to anthrax, West Nile virus, SARS, bird flu, swine flu, Ebola, and Zika, all of which failed to live up to the nihilistic hype. Coronavirus disease 2019 poses a comparably negligible biological threat, but an intense overreaction, be it public or private, to this pathogen could wreak destructive havoc, the least of which may be a raid upon the grocery stores. Ergo, I decided to venture into the night and collect what I could before the coming of the mob.
By the time this entry is published, doubtlessly you will have already heard the threadbare reports from the front lines of the supermarket: “There is nothing on the shelves! There is no food at all!” Well, this is not entirely true, and it certainly wasn’t true on Friday night. I made it into Hannaford at nine o’clock, just as an obscenely violent wind roared across a swarthy sky stripped of stars, and while it was undeniably clear that the store had sustained some heavy traffic, there was more than enough product remaining for customers to survive the week. The problem was not the absence of sustenance, for every aisle contained something; the problem was the markedly limited choice and variety. If you wanted vodka sauce, then you might have to buy the four-cheese or basil marinara; if you’re accustomed to whole milk, then you could be stuck with skim or lactose-free instead; and beggars can’t be choosers at the butchery, where consternation ensues as hamburger and chicken have been reduced to myth, replaced by the decidedly unsexy alternative of breakfast sausage. It’s an inconvenience, to be sure, but it doesn’t underscore our increasingly tangible fear of starvation. Are we really such a petty, simplistic people that our existential suffering is defined not by famine but by flavoring?
As I toured the shelves, some of which were pretty damned near denuded, I noticed a young couple, neither the boy nor the girl older than twenty, seeking out what remained of the macaroni. “Is there any left?” asked the former. “Might as well take it,” replied the latter, just before she nearly crashed into me. When she apologized, I insisted she had no need to be sorry, although it was likely I who had no need to take offense: the atmosphere within Hannaford, I wouldn’t describe it as tense, but it was remarkably nervous, and it is every sensible person’s responsibility to suspend emotionality until the unpredictable masses stop being scared. Accordingly, I might have erred when I answered honestly this young woman’s question of what was happening:
“This is the decline of the American Empire. Our country has been in a precarious state for a long time, you know. The government is more than $20 trillion in debt, the private citizens might have even more debt owed to the credit card companies, there’s no functional health care system, Wall Street is run like a drunken carnival . . . you name it! The train was bound to come off the rails one of these days, and it just so happens that today’s the day. Or this is the time, as the case may be.”
“Wow. So, what are we supposed to do?”
“Nothing. Embrace it. Enjoy it. This is a historical occasion, you know. Thousands of years from now, kids will be sitting in classrooms, reading about the decline of the American Empire. Who’s to say? Your testimony could become a classical document!”
At that point, she and her boyfriend backed away from me and turned towards a different aisle. If they wished me luck, I didn’t hear them, and in an instant, they were lost irretrievably to . . . to the pull. I don’t know what is pulling us, but everything appears to be pulling apart, disassembling so as to expose the fragility of its own structure. Are we witnessing the deconstruction of more, much more than a single, insignificant grocery store in the middle of nowhere? We can’t know for sure, not on this chilly March evening in a year of upheaval, but even if this should turn out to be another false alarm—and as I looked upon the few remaining cartons of eggs and milks, I remained certain that it was—our collective insecurity in the midst of this situation is a testament to our enslavement to the system of crony capitalism. If the system were to crash, naturally or deliberately, we really would be helpless to do anything but clutch our security blankets and suck our thumbs—the same thumbs which we may have to eat, if we cannot procure our own food.
I’ve never envisioned the breakdown of the system as a joyous, exhilarating, self-righteous act. I always expected it to be a terrifying, violent, and lethal experience—necessary, certainly, but not any more pleasant for that. I had that expectation nine years ago, and the accompanying vision, a vision that I may have forgotten at some point as my adolescence ended, became all too vivid, all too coherent, all too credible, as I left the grocery store with less than I wanted, and much less than I needed to survive the system’s fall. That last realization, that I didn’t have enough and that it was impossible for the system to give enough, ever . . . that thought was cold, colder than the wind that wouldn’t stop howling as I left the grocery store. That wind nearly pulled my hat from my head as I loaded my groceries into my car.
Once I was in my car, I laughed off my own melodramatic worry. Within hours, I had come awfully close to buying into the ubiquitous terror that I had rightly ridiculed up to this point. There was no reason to believe any of this catastrophic destruction would actually transpire, now was there?