Adventures in social distancing

April 15, 2020 12:01 am

Customers space themselves out as they wait to enter a Richmond Home Depot this month. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)

The sales clerk craned her neck to the right, squinting as she peered past about a hundred yards of aisles.

“I see a pallet back there. You should probably go check it out,” she said.

Standing six feet away on a large red circle (a social distancing aid) installed on the floor, I had asked, with zero expectation of success, whether this particular Richmond Target had any toilet paper in stock. I took the Easter baskets my wife had ordered in advance for our two little boys from the customer service counter to the car and made a beeline back inside the store.

I hung a right past the registers and, still not believing it could be true, walked to a back corner, past over-the-counter drugs, lotions, vitamins, toothpaste, curling irons and groceries and other shoppers in masks (homemade and otherwise) who were assiduously trying to avoid me.

At last I arrived at a partially empty set of shelves containing a few packages of bathroom tissue. That finding such a previously mundane product felt like unearthing the treasure of the Sierra Madre made me chuckle out loud in the empty aisle through my vacuum cleaner filter homemade mask.

I grabbed two packages, sure I would be greeted at home like a conquering hero, and made my way to another set of red circles at the self-checkout, where a young employee who was diligently disinfecting card reader keypads politely intercepted half my haul, telling me the store was limiting customers to one each.

Is there a German noun for a powerful, sublime combination of the banal and the surreal? Because that’s what washed over me in a massive wave as I surrendered my illicit extra package of toilet paper, paid and left. This, after all, was a store I’ve been in hundreds of times in three stints living in the Richmond area since 2002.

It’s hard sometimes to come to terms with just how fast things have changed in the past month or so. But, per public health officials and state leaders, for those of us who have the luxury of self-isolation, the social distancing is working.

While we now lead the world in reported deaths (though there’s good reason to be skeptical about China’s numbers) and despite our federal government’s myriad failures, we appear to be having success in flattening the curve to avoid overwhelming our hospitals here in Virginia, though they haven’t been so lucky in places like Michigan, New York and Louisiana.

Already, what should be heralded as a glimmer of good news in our deeply divided, seriously fact-challenged society — people are heeding advice, companies are transitioning to making masks and ventilators, etc. — is becoming fodder for morons mouthing off in your social media feeds, trying to use the changing projections as evidence the whole thing was overblown anyway.

But maybe, I thought, in the midst of all the horror, MAYBE there was an opportunity to sit back and appreciate the fact that we can still pull together and do what’s right for the common good.

That said, I’m not sure everyone still gets it.

A few days after my Target trip I was dispatched to a grocery store, where I parked, called a number and waited for our prepaid order to be loaded into our trunk. It felt like a debauched way to get groceries, but my wife had woken up at 3 a.m. to get her order in the online queue, so there was no backing out now.

I looked to my right. A driver in a van was wearing a surgical mask, waiting. To my left, another shopper was wearing a mask and gloves, hands on the steering wheel. I hadn’t brought my mask and a momentary spasm of panic hit me. I had not intended to get out of the car. Rather, I was told all I had to do was pop the trunk and let the employee put the bags in.

As I waited, I watched the lady to my left go around to the back of her compact hatchback and start pulling items out of bags as the store employee loaded them in, evidently trying to verify that she’d gotten what she ordered. The grocery store worker was two feet away, their heads both occupying the same small space inside the back of the car for what seemed an uncomfortably long period of time.

Then I looked to my right. The other driver remained in her car, popping open the back of her minivan. She had a mask on her face. But when the maskless employee came up with her receipt, she took her mask down to converse with her at a distance of about 16 inches.

Then, as she got ready to drive away, she pulled it back over her face.

When my turn arrived, the grocery store runner tried to hand me my receipt. “You can just put in one of the bags,” I said. “I trust you.”

Let’s all stay safe out there. For as long as it takes.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]