By Felis Stella
Monday. 7am. Time to shop for mom and dad. Mask – check. Gloves – check. Sanitizing wipes – check. I open the door to a gorgeous sunny morning, greeted by a choir of birds. It’s springtime – nature is rejoicing for we are staying out of its way… I look up at the sky. In my 30+ years in Los Angeles I’ve never seen a sky so blue. My eyes are burning. Is it the bright sun? Or the lack of smog to protect me from the UV rays? Or the virus? Never mind. Must get groceries. Get in the car. Go!
I arrive at store #1. The line to get in hugs the long building, wraps around the corner, then serpentines within the parking lot. Six-foot spaced red tape markers are sloppily observed. I get in line. I step on the red tape. A young couple gets in behind me. The woman observes the mark. Her partner stands two feet behind me. My heart is jumping out of my chest. It’s not even 7:30 and I’m having a panic attack. “Sir, please observe the six-foot mandate,” I say as politely as I possibly can. He looks at me, then at his feet, then notices his girlfriend four feet behind him and steps back, begrudgingly. Crisis averted. I wish I could make him understand that I can’t afford to get sick. My family’s lives literally depend on my weekly grocery outings and deliveries. My diabetic dad barely speaks English, my hypertensive mom has dementia. I must stay healthy so my parents stay alive.
The line is frozen in time and space. Having grown up in the Soviet Union in the 80s I’m no stranger to endless lines. We stood in line for bread, milk, sugar, medicine. Forget about toilet paper. We proudly wiped with Pravda (Truth) – the daily Communist newspaper. Our utilities would get shut off often, sometimes all at once, sometimes for days, in the middle of winter. One summer, our water was shut off for a week. I was six or seven. I will never forget walking to the nearby forest with my dad, our pales in hand, waiting in line with hundreds of neighbors to get water from a fresh spring.
8am. The line is finally moving in spurts, 5-15 people at a time. “Ma’am, you can’t bring your personal shopping bags in with you for safety reasons,” the guard says to me while blocking my way as if I brought a loaded gun to the store. “We changed our policy.” I leave my bags at the door. Last week they insisted shoppers use and pack their own bags. The week before that no one wore masks (except me and a few other germophobes) and the week before that everyone huddled together in line.
I get in, run to the produce isle, dodging human obstacles Frogger-style. I grab whatever is available that’s on my list. Maybe they will have flour? NOPE! No flour, no yeast; don’t ask when. I get in line to check out. 30 minutes later I’m out. On to stores #2-#5.
Each store has a new batch of ignorant fools to contend with. Store #2 –a woman fingers every loaf of freshly baked bread…I read her the riot act and report her to the manager. Store #3 – a man wears his mask…on his chin(!) and coughs behind me in line… I tell him that masks only work when they cover your face; he tells me that he sneezed into his sleeve, like a child expecting a prize. Store #4 – an unmasked man(!!!) licks his thumb to count his cash before he hands it to the poor cashier while he declares that he doesn’t believe in this virus and that it’s all bullshit propaganda. She responds with silence. What could she possibly say to him? I watch her sanitize her hands aggressively as he leaves. I shoot a look of empathy to her. She says, “We get this every day. Every day I wake up in panic. I’m afraid to go to work.” I say, “Please know that what you do is important and greatly appreciated.” I see tears roll down behind her mask.
Back in the car, I wipe my gloved hands and everything they touch in the vehicle with sanitizing wipes, then hop on the 101. It takes 15 minutes to get from East LA to the Valley. When this is all over, can we keep the blue skies and empty freeways?
I arrive at the last store, a Russian deli. They stopped letting people in altogether because my people are apparently not good at social distancing either. “What’s the order name?” the clerk asks through security bars. I give him my dad’s name. He hands me the bag and takes my credit card. I sanitize it the moment he gives it back to me.
Pulling up to my parents’ building, I call my dad and tell him to unlock the door and step into another room. Then unloading begins: I move bags and bags of groceries into their kitchen, meticulously sanitizing each one and its contents. Suddenly, my mom is three feet away from the kitchen and getting closer. “Hello, my baby, let me help you unpack.” Her dementia keeps her blissfully unaware of our grim reality. I tell her that she can’t be near me right now. She can’t hear what I’m saying through the mask and keeps walking towards me. At the top of my lungs I yell, “Get away from me, please!!!!! You can’t be near me mom!!!!! I can get you sick!!!!!! Pleeeeease step away!!!” She stops, then sits in the dining room, eyes welling up. She doesn’t understand. My heart breaks. I haven’t hugged or kissed my parents in over a month. My dad rushes downstairs to keep my mom from walking me to the car. I open the door, sanitizing the handle behind me. “Bye dad, bye mommy. I love you so much. See you next Monday.”