Thursday, February 13, 2003


[on location, in fairfax, va, approximately 20 minutes from washington, d.c., sans traffic]

i'm sitting next to a heavy cardboard box and a giant tub of pretzels. i'm eating gummi savers that were on sale. you know what i did when i saw that bags of lifesavers were on sale? first, i considered the humor. second, i bought them because i figured candy could keep your blood sugar up high enough to stop you from getting sick if you don't have food.

i have been listening to npr for at least two hours a day for the last three days, which resulted in my having to purchase more rolaids at the grocery store. earlier, i was considering what i view as the idiocy of purchasing massive amounts of duct tape and plastic. what are you going to do, seal all your vents off as well? stop breathing? no, clearly, this will not do. and today a bioterrorism expert on the radio pointed this out. he went on to recommend, however, that you have: at least five days of food in case you are trapped in your house, batteries, flashlights, battery-operated radios, water, a bag of clothes packed in case you have to leave immediately, contingency plans for your family and loved ones. who will pick the kids up? where will you go? how can you reach other people you need to get in touch with?

i had been toying with the idea of at least buying food for a few days. after work today, i drove to the grocery store, somewhat embarrassed about my intended activity. shopping in case there's a terrorist attack. getting prepared. just in case. i took my cart and walked into the store to find at least a dozen men meandering around the roses that were out for valentine's day. i walked past the women picking out steaks for tomorrow night's romantic dinner. i went to the canned food aisle, and began putting vegetables in my cart. i felt like an absolute idiot. i was convinced someone would look at me, realize what i was doing, and begin to snicker. so i tried to hide the cans without blatantly hiding the cans. i put some noodles and frozen mozzarella sticks on top of them. yes, just shopping, like normal, why do you ask? i always buy four cans of mixed vegetables, two cans of green beans, three cans of yams, two jars of applesauce, a giant fruit cocktail. i am consistently on the lookout for nonperishables, like cans of nuts and jars of pickles.

by the time of my canned food experience, the only thing out of the ordinary i had seen, besides men buying flowers (which in this case is an explainable phenomenon obviously), was a virtual tractor load of bottles of aquafina drinking water at the end of the aisle, just left there. i caught glimpses of hurried people walking by me with one of these packs underneath their arms. i shoved on, thinking i would just get those gallons of water.

so eventually i come to the aisle where the water would be. normally it takes up half of one side of an aisle. it was all empty. this obviously explained the hastily provided aquafina and the people eagerly scooping it up. and it isn't like the thought that maybe they had run out of water hadn't intellectually occurred to me; it had. but i stood there, with my cart full of cans and jars, in front of the empty shelves. i wish i could say i started crying as it would make the story better. my eyes did grow moist, that much is true. i did find a wave of emotion run over me, and it wasn't fear of the allegedly impending terrorist attack, and it wasn't nervousness over supplies: it was loneliness. a breaking, soul-stopping impression of the loneliness that we live with constantly, but the more brutal and disturbing loneliness of shopping in case of a terrorist attack. every man for himself. no one talking with each other. disturbing silence and resignation to simply "being prepared."

but i didn't want to talk. i was ashamed of being driven to this activity. who's to say everyone there wasn't battling the same emotion? can you believe this is us now? and not in the "how can this happen to americans" sort of way, more in the "how can this state of things just exist" sort of way.

i went and got my aquafina bottles, and got in the checkout line. i looked around. a married couple, one cart full of water, the other full of cans, the wife's head on her husband's shoulder, the husband's hand rubbing her back. mothers with young children, two or three shopping carts full of provisions. a middle aged man, with bottles of water, three loaves of bread, and a 40 ounce of beer.

the man in line in front of me made small talk with the checkout girl. "guess everyone's getting ready for the snowstorm tomorrow, eh?" and she nodded politely, as i thought, "yes, for each snowstorm, the population of northern virginia goes out and buys up all the water in the stores and practically empties the canned food aisle. being snowed in for a day and a half is enough to warrant such activity."

although, tonight, maybe he'll sleep better than i will.


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