Sunday, May 24, 2020

To Bitch or Not to Bitch: Whole Foods Under COVID-19

Shopping by motorized cart is something I've never done, and I still have never done it. I'm only sitting in one at the moment, watching the bright blue sky and people go in and out the Whole Foods in Metairie, Louisiana. Cars cruise down Veterans Memorial Boulevard in the distance, and for the first time in my life, I'm pecking out a blog post on my cellphone. 

Black, 60 years old, and female, I live in New Orleans, but sometimes I shop at the Whole Foods in Metairie instead of the one in Orleans Parish on Broad. I am recovering from illness -- but not COVID-19. For half a week, I was on a clear liquid diet, then a mushy one. 

Finally, a few days ago, I returned to solid food, so this Saturday, I decided to rise early, shed my pajamas for street clothes, don my mask, and leave the house like a healthy person. I thought I'd take advantage of early morning shopping for seniors at the Whole Foods, something else I've never done. I figured I'd be done with that errand by 8:00 a.m. at the latest. 

Despite having to get a jump yesterday the first time I tried to run an errand, I thought my Saturday plans would progress smoothly. I'd driven the day before to Lakeview Grocery and back after the AARP contractor started my car. Never would I have guessed that at 8:00 a.m.Saturday, I'd be in my driveway waiting for a jump again instead of loading groceries in my car. 

I never thought that by 9:53 am Saturday, I would be sitting outside the Metairie store without so much as a pint of blueberries, edgy, and staring at the parking lot, but life is life. It doesn't care about my plans. Now an unplanned car repair bill loomed.

After my virtual doctor visit two weeks earlier and fighting a fever, I had jello, apple juice, boullion cubes, hard candy, and ginger ale delivered once via InstaCart the first week, and one meal delivered via Waitr 10 days later. Using those services was a first for me. 

I felt even guiltier thinking about that delivery now than I had when I saw how much using InstaCart costs. Its mark-up's a bit much, but I had no choice. I didn't want to ask friends and family to leave home and pick up groceries for me. I'd feel horrible if someone doing me a favor caught the virus while buying my chicken broth.

Having a meal delivered by Waitr hurt my wallet, too, but I felt less guilty about that expense. The Korma with chicken and rice from Nirvana Indian Kitchen was worth it. Maybe eating bland food for more than a week heightened the meal's flavor. After I finishing half of it, I justified the price completely and plugged the restaurant on Twitter.


At least I wasn't charged for the virtual doctor visit. Thank God for health insurance, but there's more to being sick than doctor bills and feeling like hell. How stupid of me to ignore the voice of my father, dead since 2012, advising me to just go out and rev my Toyota's engine every four or five days. That choice costs me unless it was just the battery's time to die.

I had to accept that my car definitely needed work when it didn't start Saturday morning, and I had to get an AARP jump again. So, my first full day out since my illness became all about the Corolla and navigating around the obstacles of missing services. 

After Sam's Club informed me that it was not installing batteries during the pandemic, I tried the dealership. The service department said it was on a skeleton crew and could not get my car back until Tuesday. I considered taking the car in anyway, but getting a ride from Lyft or having Enterprise pick me up once I got to the dealer would be iffy. I didn't even know which transportation was available. I also called three other car repair shops. No answer. 

Instead of driving off to pick up a few items at Whole Foods, hit the bank, pick up mail, and shop at the second grocery store on my list, I drove my old Corolla to Firestone across from Whole Foods, hoped they were open and could do the work. They could, but due to Coronavirus precautions, seating at Firestone had been removed, which is how I ended up walking across Veterans Memorial Blvd. in the midmorning sun to Whole Foods not to shop but to find a place to sit down.

As I entered the store, I observed masked shoppers with their carts meandering from produce to flowers and soap to prepackaged food. A few people braved shopping unmasked, but store employees were PPE-ready. Wearing a variety of plain and designer masks, clerks quickly checked out customers.

I noted as well cafe chairs lining the store's front wall. Some were neatly stacked. Most were tied together. Not a good sign, but no way could I wander around the store indefinitely reading labels and being tempted by bake goods. I really shouldn't be on my feet for too long. Shopping my grocery list was also not happening. How would I get the bags back to my car?

I would have to ask to sit down, a minuscule request, I thought. Maybe they would let me wait quietly in a corner. I am an Amazon Prime member, after all, and as soon as my car was ready, I'd return with my grocery list.

I walked to the prepared foods section. Two women worked behind the counter of the temporarily closed cafe near the empty hot bar. Glancing at yet another line of tied chairs and spotting one off by itself, I explained my situation to the first woman who looked up. 

“Ma’am, we’re closed,” she said then hesitated.

With faces half covered these days, it's all about the eyes. Maybe mine relayed fatigue.

“But - - if it’s only for a few minutes to catch your breath," she said, "then okay.”

Grateful, I sat down, knowing I'd need more than a few minutes chair time. Shortly afterward, I left, heading to guest services, pausing only for a moment to look at the rotisserie chickens, an item on my list. I hoped a manager would hear my plight and decide it was better to let me sit and wait for more than a few minutes rather than seem insensitive. My hopes were soon dashed.

A young black woman listened to me at the guest services desk.

“I have a grocery list," I said, gesturing to my phone. "My original plan was to shop here first early this morning, but my car battery died and . . . ," I continued explaining my predicament, and then went for the ask, “May I sit until Firestone calls? It should be about an hour before they call about my car.”

Uncertainty in her eyes, she told me to wait and walked away to get a supervisor. I watched her in conversation with a thin, clean-shaven young, black man. He soon came over and apologized, stating Whole Foods policy about customers sitting during Coronavirus, I guess.

“But we’re not allowed to let anyone sit down, ma'am.”

I imagined their staff meeting on the store floor, envisioning a stern-faced, probably more mature manager pounding into employees, "Under no circumstances are you to allow anybody--I don't care how old or how long they've been a customer--to sit down anywhere in this store. Hear me?"

In unison, "Yes, Mr./Ms. Somebody."

"Now, wipe down those chairs and tie them up!"

Back to my reality I, nodded weakly at the young man. "Okay," I said, trying not to panic behind my mask and struggling to hide distress and irritation in my tone. My right ankle was already throbbing.

"I understand," I said, "but this is pretty crazy.”

Turning away, I remembered seeing a gray-haired woman earlier rolling past me in a motorized shopping cart. As I headed to the exit, I thought, I'll get in one of those and tour the store, but I couldn’t see myself riding aimlessly around Whole Foods for long. When I stepping outside onto the portico, I looked up at the whirling ceiling fans then over at the baskets. Three motorized carts sat idle right next to the door. They called to me, "Come. Sit. Rest that ankle and weary behind."

Ahhhh, I thought as I planted my wide hips in the first cart's comfortable seat and scanned my new environment for potential problems. I thought about reading from Poetry:  A Survivor's Guide by Mark Yakich, the book I'd tossed in my crossbody bag before I left the house. I unlocked my cellphone instead and settled down.
Fortunately, the Louisiana heat is not as hot as it could be this morning. Things could be worse. I viewed the store’s parking lot crowed with SUV's, BMW's, and assorted compacts. I took in the well-tended greenery and trees Whole Foods had planted. Not a bad fate for a Saturday morning given the first half of May. So, here I am, sitting and pecking out these words.

I am not outraged at Whole Foods' inflexibility, merely a tad peeved. I tell myself that some skirmishes are not worth the short time I have left on this planet. Who has the energy to fight illness and argue with giants at the same time?

Now and then the Whole Foods employees sanitizing the shopping carts glance at me. Now and then I glance back. Masked shopper after shopper enters the store. Others exit, holding paper bags of luxuries to their bosom. They cross the shaded portico into sunlight and onward to their vehicles.

Whole Foods delivery staff push out over-laden carts of bagged and thermally protected foods on their way to people hooked on Whole Foods or who refuse to pay InstaCart's mark up.

As I write, I stretch my neck and peep around warily at times. I probably look like one more baffled old woman. What if the manager comes out and sees I've figured how to defy store policy and sit anyway?
Someone goes by with an Amazon box. Its logo, the half-dimpled smile, passes me like "Hey, lady. Jokes on you." 

An Amazon Prime membership plus special privileges for seniors can only get one so far in the age of COVID-19 even at the Whole Foods.

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