Missing Strangers

Life has been moving through this uncharted COVID configuration for, oh, six months and then some. 

The *crazy* is starting to feel regular, routine. Bringing mail into the house without letting it settle in the garage feels negligent. Bringing groceries in without wiping them down feels blatantly erroneous. I haven't stepped foot into a Target or Walmart or any other commercial building with bricks-and-mortar walls since March. (Thank god for this new drive-up, curbside culture.) We are very much in the habit of avoiding public places as a rule, especially with our four-year-old who still chews on her shoes.

There was one exception. I actually went inside a Whole Foods a few weekends ago to return an Amazon package. The experience was wild, verging on psychedelic. Of course, the time that worked best for me to go was Saturday when Jesse could hang with the kids, so it was quite busy. There was a vent just above the sliding doors, so my entrance—along with my overwhelmed, what-IS-this-place facial expression—seemed overly theatrical. It all felt unreal and deeply unfamiliar. (Similar to the feeling I had when I studied abroad and went to the local grocery where everything was misplaced and in a different language.) 

While there, I figured I'd grab the creamer and the waffles that every other store has been out of. (Particulars of food feel exceedingly important right now.) The shopping bit was quick and concise. But the line to pay was the entire length of the store, front to back. I have never in my years of shopping seen anything like it. It took me a few minutes to register that they were not a wall of people (were they protesting? watching a performance?). They were, in fact, in line. The number of bodies seemed to have multiplied since everyone was six feet apart, standing on red tape like school kids lined up for recess. I could have turned around and gone home. I heavily considered it. But I had come so far, plunging into the abyss of a public space without a shopping basket, juggling five separate grocery items in my arms as if they were sentient beings. I was staying.

The graveyard of what used to be a salad bar was to my right, the empty silver tubs looked clinical with nothing in them. There was a laminated sign that read, "The Salad Bar is Closed. Please see prepared foods." To my left was a wall of refrigerated plastic containers with plain words typed up on labels— potato salad— with no punctuation like a speedy text message. 

People were too separated out for small talk, and that made everything feel slightly distant and off.  I love chatting with strangers. But it goes beyond that. Chatting with people, strangers in particular, provides a life-affirming nutrient. So when I finally got to the checkout guy, I was surprised by how enthusiastic I was to talk to him, even for me. I squeezed as many words as possible into the amount of time it took him to ring up two creamers and three boxes of Power Grain waffles. I'm not sure what I talked about or if I even made sense. He was warm and gracious. The laugh lines around his eyes deepened, indicating a smile had formed under his mask. I'm sure he sees this sort of thing all the time.

The experience was at once invigorating and exhausting. 

I realized, oh wow, I have indeed been out of practice in this particular social realm, the realm of being out in the world and interacting with strangers throughout the day. Pre-COVID days were peppered and nourished by interactions with strangers. The old ladies behind the front desk at the rec center. Servers at restaurants. Workers at the book store and the coffee shops. Other parents at the library to chat with while our young kiddos played in the fake kitchen. The couple sitting one row down from me in the movie theater. The homeless guy on the corner. People. Just people, ambling about in the periphery, doing their respective lives. 

And providing a continuous reminder that we are not ever, in fact, alone.


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