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Essay

Quietly queued: Thoughts in the coronavirus line at the supermarket

A reflection on grocery shopping during the COVID-19 era

It all starts when a woman isn't happy that there's a line, and immediately rolls her shopping cart into everybody's six-foot space on her way to the end while simultaneously proclaiming a concern for our children who, at this moment, due to the virus, are not being educated. The future, for that reason — she proclaims — is dire.

As I listen I realize another person is creeping up behind me. He's close, too close. Is he too close? And then I realize he's not too close. And I wonder: how much is this virus consuming me?

Above us people in the bending supermarket line is a blue sky—losing its shimmer and beginning to dim. Dusk in it its initial stages. There is a lingering spring warmth in Tucson and yellow, orange, and purple wild flowers (brittle bush, chuparosa, purple desert lupine) are on my mind. Earlier in the day William, my four-year-old, held four desert marigolds, two in each hand as he sat on the back of his bike. He picked them for his mommy who had the good fortunes of turning 40 during a global pandemic. But now I've gone to the store alone.

The rest of the line waits without a word. And this is when it happens. I begin to send my deepest respect to everybody around me.

At first it comes as a feeling of solidarity with an employee with a semi-anxious look on his face who gazes at the complaining woman with a hint of irritation.

He's the one who controls how many people go into the store at any given time. His look says it all: I'm here on the goddamn frontlines risking exposure for eight long hours so you can get your goddamn groceries and this is what you got? But in the next second the irritation evaporates as he tells the next person in line that they can enter the store with a smile. I want to say thank you but I am too far back in the line and instead focus on the kid who stands by the red shopping carts and sprays them down with disinfectant.

I watch him spray cart after cart until I realize he is in a rhythm that takes over people when they are in the middle of their shift, or making a work of art. From where I stand he is back dropped by the Catalina Mountains to the north, beginning a shadowy glow as the sun lowers. If I were a visual artist, (there was a grace to the mist, I admit, glittering in the sun), I would have liked to paint what appears to me to be an iconic moment of the COVID-19 era. Instead, I silently thank the kid.

"We are doing our children a disservice!" I hear coming from the back of the line.

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But now I am somewhere else, less annoyed. I thank all the people in line. If people are annoyed, it mostly remains concealed with shuffling feet and stoic looks, a few staring down at their phones, and nobody looking back at her.

I begin to wonder about people's lives, their experiences, what they did when things were "normal," what they are thinking at that moment, what they will do when this all ends. I begin to think about tree roots and how they connect with other trees through mycelium networks, even as above surface they appear separate, physically distanced. For whatever reason with that thought comes a wave of gratitude that spreads to everyone standing around me, including — to my surprise — the annoying, complaining woman.

I realize why quickly: I respect people who forcefully question the way things are. In that moment, in that line, that is her — she is the dissenting voice, regardless if I or anyone disagrees. I mean, I don't want to be standing here either. I don't want my kids to be out of school either. I don't want to be months on lockdown. I don't want to lose my job.

I don't know what this virus is, and I too am both terrified of it and not completely confident in the way it's being reported. Will I get it by walking into the supermarket? Who the fuck knows? Do I need a mask? Do I need gloves? Who knows? I honestly have no idea what's going on. And I know it's OK to howl about it, to the wind, to the mountains.

For me, there is a cathartic primal scream that has been trapped for too long.

I too believe there must be alternatives, that other realities exist, and they have been beckoning to us for decades, centuries. Even though the focus of her complaint is what I find annoying and disrespectful to those around her — the long line and the measures people are taking because of the coronavirus — what lies below her words, in her pauses, is what I resonate with. I hear a despair for the "dire future" for our children. And I have the same despair: not only about raising children during a pandemic that has already reached crisis proportions, but also about raising children during an environmental/climate/political/economic crisis of which the pandemic is but one aspect.

When all this is said and done, can we honestly continue on the same death march of vast inequalities and catastrophic pollution with the same vigor?

Or is there something in that dusky blue sky, in the silent spaces between the words of her rant, and the silent people in front of her. What about those brief stillnesses in a volatile world where other possibilities churn, as writer Bayo Akomolafe has elegantly written, possibilities that might not be recognized if we continue forward in the same way. Like a crab, is it time to step awkwardly sideways to the realms of new alternatives — the ones that are found between sentences, between words, just out of reach, the ones that if you dare bring them up they might be quickly extinguished as "impractical" or "stupid."

As Akomolafe writes: "You might come to see that forward movement is no longer possible in these moments, and that the way to go was never forward anyway - but awk-ward: into the blackness of catacombs, into the shadows of sanctuary, into the riven cracks signed with the pen of the trickster, into the heat of compost, into the position of a prostrated man who knows that when the storm roars the thing to do is to be still. In that stillness, entire worlds churn."

And in that line into the store, in that precise moment of giving thanks to all around me — to the employees still disinfecting the carts and letting people in, to the people in line, to the cashiers and stockers inside, to the drivers who bring the food, to the people who pick the food, to the people who plant the food, to the soil and rain and sun that gives rise to the food, to the sky and the mountains, to the loud dissent coming from the back of the line, and most especially to the thought from earlier that day of my four year old with four yellow desert marigolds in his hand for his mommy — in that precise moment I found, for a moment, that stillness, those other worlds.

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Todd Miller has researched and written about border issues for more than 15 years, the last eight as an independent journalist and writer. He resides in Tucson, but also spent many years living and working in Oaxaca, Mexico. His work has appeared in the New York Times, TomDispatch, The Nation, San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English, among other places.
Miller has authored three books:  Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World (Verso, 2019),  Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (City Lights, 2017), and Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security (City Lights, 2014).

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