Valuable New Skills

Phil Goldstein

Life with COVID-19 has challenged all of us to make the best of a difficult situation. For me, that’s meant interesting new experiences and valuable new skills, and the proving ground for both have been my weekly visits to Walmart.

My wife Amy previously handled the grocery shopping. However, since I qualify age-wise for Walmart’s thoughtfully accommodating early opening for seniors, Tuesdays at 6 am (one of the few times getting older is advantageous), and she doesn’t, I got drafted. The following are my observations:

The zombie walk: The first early opening happened in late March, still very dark and cold. Picture about 50 carloads of seniors, all arriving at least 20 minutes early, like me, hoping to get inside the store ahead of others and score scarce supplies. Then, when the first person left their warm car five minutes before opening, everyone left their cars, and like something out of The Walking Dead, slowly converged on the entryway. Perhaps anticipating the new normal, nobody said a word, at least until the doors opened and the scavenging free-for-all ensued—it was both disconcerting and creepy.

Casing the joint: I learned a valuable lesson on the heels of that ruthless mob that day (not entirely true, as I did meet a nice octogenarian named Ruth). Specifically, the people at the front of the pack grabbed up all the good stuff. I also experienced the further problem of not knowing where everything was located, so I returned the following day, notebook in hand, and mapped out locations based on priority (wipes ahead of wafers, gloves ahead of guacamole) and the best routes to and from.

Forego the cart or forget about the good stuff: I also learned the first day that if I stopped for a cart, I’d miss out on limited supplies to those who hustled cartless straight for the appropriate shelf. So on my next visit, I forewent the cart and went straight for the biggest package of toilet paper available. Unfortunately, as anyone who has done the same knows, when carrying something that size, one can’t hold much else. I’d obviously need another plan.

The great cart races: So I applied Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory (although I don’t feel good about it). Thanks to my competitive distance running experience and regular exercise regimen, I’m able to grab a cart yet make up for the delayed ingress by outracing everyone else. This often involves tactical zigs and zags, especially when some spoilsport won’t let me pass. All the important products are in the back anyway, so with more aisle distance, I’m easily catching anyone who thinks that merely arriving earlier than me will win the day.

Cue the queues: Around the first of April, Walmart set up barriers to force an orderly queueing for entry, negating some of the drama of the mass zombie walk. They also prominently posted one-way signage for all the aisles. The former is fortuitous for yours truly because early arrival means head of the line, hence less aggressive cart racing; the latter is irritating because sooner or later I’ll surely make a scene with someone (and there are many) who ignores the directions. Come on folks, it’s for your own good (although I notice the wrong-way carters also buy a lot of cognition-enhancing products, which perhaps explains their oversights).

Wipeout: Capping off my shopping experience is always the uncertainty regarding what I disinfect with wipes. Do I pull out my wallet to remove the credit card, thus contaminating everything in it (including my prized Bill Mazeroski baseball card), versus pre-isolating the credit card in a shirt pocket? Then, must I disinfect the credit card after swiping, and if I don’t, what about the pocket to which I returned it? Next, what did I touch in the car on the way home? Did I punch radio buttons three and six only, or maybe five too? The dilemma came to a head when I awoke in a cold sweat late one Tuesday night because I realized I forgot to disinfect the little button that opens the garage door. 

Meanwhile, other challenges and opportunities for personal betterment have arisen but been conquered during this crisis, including: finally replacing my rotary dial telephone with a touchtone, since it’s impossible to dial with one’s elbow; taking my drum lessons virtually, although it’s humbling watching myself because I thought I’d look cooler than I do; using some of my 25-year collection of hotel soaps, thus rationing the store-bought bars for Amy; and breaking the habit of stirring houseguests’ drinks with my index finger (at least without disinfecting it first).

Be well, everyone, and value this opportunity to learn new skills while you can.

Phil Goldstein writes Tales from Timnath periodically for North Forty News. Phil is a 10-year Timnath resident who serves the Town of Timnath as chair of the Timnath Planning Commission. Phil is finally using his journalism degree after getting sidetracked 47 years ago. The views expressed herein are Phil’s only. Contact him with comments on the column or suggestions for future columns at NFNTimnath@gmail.com.