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It’s a Dangerous Business Going Out Your Door: Lessons and Letters From a Trip to The Supermarket

For the last couple of weeks I, like many, haven’t been doing all that much.

I’ve been waking up late, doing home workouts to YouTube videos, binge-watching crazy documentaries about tattooed, hillbilly tiger breeders, and lying around the house braless, contemplating my purpose and my inevitable mortality. My hair has been in the same awkward bun on top of my head since day three. The days blur into one, and I find myself making frequent trips to the fridge, which often end in disappointment.

Then, after two weeks of the now five-week (at least) nationwide lockdown, I finally did something different and interesting:

I went to the supermarket.

After not stepping foot outside of my house for a full fourteen days, this seemingly mundane task had become a thrilling adventure, peppered with mystery and danger. What would the new world look like? Would much have changed? I imagined an eerie post-apocalyptic silence, customers dressed from head to toe in protective clothing, and a gapingly empty toilet paper shelf. Dramatic, maybe, but my musings in no way prepared me for what I faced when I arrived at the Woolworths and took my first steps through the automatic doors.

And that was that absolutely nothing had changed.

Despite recent recommendations from health officials that people who seem healthy wear face masks in case they’re pre- or asymptomatic, very few people around me were doing so, and many of those who were were wearing N95 masks, which should probably be with the health workers on the frontlines who need them most. Others, even older people who would be more vulnerable to the disease, were wearing theirs carelessly under their chins, or removing them in order to speak to people more comfortably (and more moistly, as Justin Trudeau would say).

I stood in the corner of the store next to the juice refrigerator and judged everyone, while my mother, just as nervous about the situation as I was, hissed at me to throw things in the trolley so we could get the hell out of what had now become, to our imaginations, a hostile situation.

Actual footage of my mother putting things in the trolley that weren’t on the list

We moved through the store (the toilet paper shelf was fully stocked) trying to check off the items on our list, cringing every time we had to touch the trolley, or calculate how to get past someone in a narrow super market aisle, while still keeping two metres apart. Encounters that previously wouldn’t have caused anyone to bat an eyelid now had us on edge. In one bizarre, coronavirus-era exchange, another shopper and I both reached for an item at the same time, came narrowly within each other’s personal space, and then lingered there, frozen for a while, looking at each other as if to say “I’m not infected, are YOU infected?”

“I’m gonna go to a different aisle now”

I rushed through the rest of that experience, hovering near the cashiers until my mother had completed her shopping (and out of distraction had forgotten to add half of the items she actually came for to the trolley). We joined the narrow queue. There were stickers on the floor beneath our feet reminding us all very politely to keep apart while waiting in line, which of course was ignored by everyone and enforced by nobody. It felt like we were in the line for an eternity.

When we finally emerged from the store, stepping back out of those automatic doors, I took a gulp of fresh air and sought refuge in the car, where I thoroughly sanitised my hands. I have since thought about, and come to terms with some of the things I learned during that less than pleasant outing, and I have only the following to say:.

To the Lady with the May-I-Speak-To-Your-Manager haircut: Why…WHY…do you have those masks if you’re going to wear them like that? They’re not created to hide your double chin. Please put it on your face and keep it there, or give your whole stash to someone who needs them and will use them properly.

To the couple who were basically in hazmat suits: Ya’ll look fly.

To the cashier: I’m so sorry that you have to work through this in such a stressful environment. I can only imagine how scary it must be. Thank you for serving us with a smile, and for helping my mom with the card machine because they get her every time.

To everyone I judged (Excluding the Lady with the May-I-Speak-To-Your-Manager haircut): I’m sorry for scowling at you and rolling my eyes impolitely. While this pandemic has certainly brought out a lot of the best in us, it’s also highlighting some of the worst. I realise that much of what I’m feeling is unreasonable, and that taking out that fear on other people who are just trying to buy some toilet paper is unfair. I’ll work on that.

To the South African Government: I realise I’m not actually going anywhere and that very few people will see me in the coming weeks, but I’d really like to buy a hairbrush. Please?

Would appreciate it if I could brush my hair for a change.

I never would have imagined that a trip to the store, that took under an hour, could be so terrifying and feel so long, but I know I’m not alone in that. This pandemic has so many of us on edge; fearing, casting judgement from our face-brick prisons in the suburbs. How unreasonable.

Those of us (hi, yes, that’s me too) who are privileged enough to have homes in which we can hide out in, and jobs we can do online, need to learn to chill and realise that so many of the things we’re complaining about are actually blessings. Can’t leave the house and keep wandering aimlessly through the same four rooms? At least you HAVE four rooms. At least you CAN hide out at home.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you deserve an award for how well you’re quarantining, especially when you go out for groceries and see people doing silly things (you know who I’m talking about by now), but we’re all in this together and this is a new experience for everyone. It’ll take a while for us all to adjust and learn how to manage things.

Just from observing my own feelings, I’ve learned that we need to be more compassionate towards everyone during this time and work together to get through it, without recoiling in horror when someone comes within our new 2-metre personal space bubbles by mistake, and without rolling our eyes so far into our heads we can’t get them back out (That one, again, is me). If that fails, just stay home and watch Tiger King.

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