Coronavirus Chronicles will feature occasional essays or works of art by Islanders who want to share their experience during the pandemic. Please mail submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I find nothing funny in this indescribable plight of ours, but I have made a distinct and unusual observation at the grocery store. No, not the silly toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, hoarding thing. It’s about my stuff — my foodstuff in the aisles and frozen food freezers of Cronig’s. My stuff has suddenly, without warning, gone missing! The not-so-common, off-the-beaten-track foods I eat, I had assumed were being eaten only by me. These tasty morsels, which had taken me years to discover among the hundreds and hundreds of choices, were mine and mine alone. And without my knowledge or permission, they were being scooped up by unseen alien forces.
At first I was baffled, then pissed, but after a week I became intrigued and amused. This insignificant but interesting tidbit of information reminded me of something. An elusive familiarity kept nudging itself into my thoughts, then bingo out of the blue it came to me: This seemingly pointless missing foodstuff thing shared the same type of revelation I had the morning after a quiet night’s snowfall. Yes, really.
My favorite activity in the morning after a light snowfall is to go poking around my yard and guess what animal prints belonged to what animal. Maybe secretly I’m a detective or a closeted voyeur at heart, but I always found hoof prints from deer exciting. Just to now know these magnificent creatures ventured into my yard at night was a thrill. Raccoon’s prints were surprising but I figured the rascals were out there somewhere and of course the townie turkeys; squirrels and skunks prints cluttered the pristine new snow. The prints I could not identify were of the most challenging and fun to figure out.
Call me crazy, but I find a similarity with prints in the snow and this new bizarre grocery store phenomenon. The similarity is this: Until a sudden abrupt change occurs in our normal, run-of-the-mill day, the sometimes mundane, the sometimes wonderful, subtleties going on right under our noses go unseen. Of course they may be unimportant in the grand scheme of things and are useless information unless you run a grocery store or have your garden trashed by critters at night, so why notice, and why care? I find it fascinating, so why not?
So bravely I took the risk of being thought a kook, and set about asking friends and strangers if they had had the same kind of observations and frustrations at their grocery store. Occasionally, it would take a few rephrasings of my never-before-asked question, but for the most part the person I was asking knew what I was getting at. Patience was the key.
One of the ladies at Shirley’s hardware store, after a little prodding and me sharing one of my food-stuff-gone-missing stories, offered up one of her own. She said “Lorraine, I love the six pack little cans of V-8 juice, not the low sodium V-8, not the hot V-8, the regular six pack cans of V-8, those are mine. She went on to say her regulars were not to be found; only the other crummy cans of messed-with-V-8 were on the shelves. The more she talked the more upset she became. And as simple as it may seem, these cans of V-8 were one of her favorite treats in life, and they had gone AWOL in the pandemic crisis. I realized then that when small certainties become uncertain, our personal proclivities take on even greater importance, especially when their disappearance is undeserved and sudden.
A friend of mine from Katama told me of a clam chowder anomaly at the Edgartown Stop & Shop. The clam chowder shelf became bare of all the New England white but a plethora of Manhattan red chowder lined the shelf. She decided there are just some things New Englanders will not eat! Another day she noticed the bread department, which is sizable at this particular store, had been cleaned out of all breads except a big pile of cheap sliced wheat bread.
Admittedly, these times are getting to me physiologically, but I found myself feeling sorry for the unwanted cheap sliced wheat bread. It was the same ridiculous pity I had for the Pink Dawn dishwashing liquid at Cronig’s one night. Two tiers of shelves that must offer fifteen varieties of dishwashing soap were devoid of all but three rows of Pink Dawn. I rescued one and brought it home, betraying my years-long relationship with my preferred clear Ivory, which I like because it’s clear and doesn’t look so tacky on my kitchen counter.
This new peculiar syndrome of mine, and I bet I’m not alone here — I call Lockdown-Brain. So I’ve decided that if I find myself bringing home stray inanimate objects like Mr. Clean erasers or a lonely bottle of Tidy Bowl cleaner, I’ll just chalk it up to my newly developed empathy gone wild, Covid-19 Lockdown-Brain. Works for me!
Another friend of mine, when asked about a possible foods-gone-missing story, didn’t think she had one. But on second thought, she told me her little cans of white sardines in water could no longer be found. (I never knew sardines came in colors). She said there were plenty of white sardines in oil which she will not eat, but none in water. She had thought all along that few people shared this same food fetish, until now. She said who would have thunk it? Precisely, who would have thunk any of this.
A few days ago while writing this story, a woman from Oak Bluffs called. I had forgotten, but apparently I had asked her days before for a food-gone-missing tale. After she had thought about it for a while, in my opinion, she came up with the quintessential “Hey, that’s my stuff!” grocery store story.
This woman has eight children; you read that right, eight children. Every one of them loves Campbell’s chicken noodle soup — not Campbell’s chicken barley, not Campbell’s chicken vegetable — Campbell’s chicken noodle, period. What came to my mind when imaging all those dozens and dozens of empty soup cans — it might be time to fire up the ole cauldron in the backyard and make a few vats of it herself. This advice mind you, comes from someone who rarely cooks or knows how.
Anyway her favorite grocery store on the Island is Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs. And until this bull-run on food, her children’s preferred chicken noodle soup inventory was abundant. This family favorite was always perched in its rightful place on the shelf day after day, year after year. Then this common little soup she had innocently taken for granted abruptly became scarce and was nowhere to be found.
Upset by this but determined, she got in her car and began an Island-wide chicken noodle soup run. On to Vineyard Haven’s Stop and Shop she went, nada; then up the hill to Cronig’s, nada. She said she found this kind of interesting because all along she had been sure tomato soup was the soup company’s front runner. There are all kinds of wrong assumptions being brought to light during these dark, but revealing days. Miscalculated soup favorites being just one.
Look, I know I could rig up a GoPro in my backyard and see my cast of nightly visitors without a snowfall. And yes I could risk my life and ask Steve Bernier at Cronig’s for a sales printout of my favorite foods versus their counterparts but the fun is in the surprises you may find in doing it the hard way. And in these bizarre times, it’s the unexpected answers to the unexpected questions that I find interesting and without a doubt, most entertaining.
Lorraine Parish is a writer and clothing designer. She lives in Vineyard Haven.