By Buck Sexton
Someone coughed in the aisle next to me.
Walking into the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle this weekend felt like entering an encampment under siege in wartime. The place was packed. At 59,000 square feet, it is supposed to be the largest supermarket in Manhattan. It’s set in the opulent (even by New York standards) Time Warner Center.
It is a monument to bourgeois capitalism, gluten-free largesse, and dozens of flavors of almond butter.
And everyone was on edge…
Shoppers were filling their carts as if a hurricane was going to hit within hours. Everyone was tense, frenzied, and – worst of all – packed in closely together.
“Do you have any whole chickens?” I asked one of the haggard Whole Foods employees in the meat section. He said he didn’t think so. Steaks, burgers, and chops were all gone. Faced with a plummeting market and an unprecedented freeze in economic activity, my fellow New Yorkers wanted to make sure their freezers were full of red meat for the long weeks ahead.
The same thing was true in the picked-through canned goods section. There was nothing except for a few dented cans of minestrone, probably because it is calorically almost useless, but which I also took as confirming my long-held belief that is it the worst of all soups. The good stuff – refried beans, New England clam chowder, beef chili – was all long gone.
The areas assigned to dry pasta were completely barren, too. Many of my fellow New Yorkers would face the future – come what may – with ample supplies of orecchiette and linguini. Even though New York believes its tap water is superior, there were also plenty of people stocking up with gallons of bottled spring water. I couldn’t help but think that if things get so ugly that the water gets turned off, that last jug or two of Deer Park probably isn’t going to make much difference.
The empty shelves were a visual manifestation of the panic that has been shooting across the country in recent weeks. If the stock market’s decline wasn’t terrifying enough, the emergence of long lines just to get into grocery stores made it all feel real.
America is the richest country in the history of the world. And in the Big Apple, our largest metropolis by population, the masses are hording toilet paper as though we just went through a socialist coup and Nicolás Maduro is now in charge.
I did finally manage to find a whole chicken…
It was the last one left in a bin that must have held dozens just hours before. As we are all under a form of “social distancing” guidance that is just a step away from “self-quarantine,” I decided to tackle a homemade roast chicken with tarragon sauce recipe for the first time ever. I certainly had the time. Restaurants here are shut down, as are Broadway shows, gyms, movie theaters, and bars. Cooking is a diversion from the chaos, but it is also my little attempt to maintain some normalcy in this stressful and bizarre era.
On my way out of the Whole Foods, I stood in a long line of New Yorkers who had made it through the produce maze. You can tell that their sentiment changes minute to minute, and ranges from “we’re all in this together” to “keep your distance, buddy.” Even a stifled sneeze raises alarms. It’s a good thing your average New Yorker can’t send their sniffly neighbors to a far-off quarantined island somewhere, because I’d bet a lot of them would gladly do so.
I swiped my credit card and was told to push the green “OK” button on the electronic keypad… Then push it again… then again. And of course, to scrawl an illegible signature with a plastic pen that hundreds of New Yorkers also used, probably after coughing in their hands or sneezing into them minutes earlier.
The futility of some of these epidemiological precautions that we are all told are the difference between life and death right now weren’t lost on me, or anyone else I was crammed into that line with.
These are challenging times. I’ve spent more than 30 years living in New York City. Almost never has the city been so eerily quiet, confused, and on edge.
After 9/11, we were hit badly, but there was immediate action to take. We had to look for survivors, then search for the culprits. This country mobilized and went on offense. Against a pandemic, we are always on defense… mostly locked away in our homes.
Nobody has been through this before, and nobody knows what will come next. Terror attacks can be devastating, but a human enemy can always be defeated. Financial panics can be catastrophic, but history shows that a robust society will rebound.
With a pandemic disease in the modern era, nobody knows what’s next. It could be weeks before we finally exhale. It could be months. The mayor of New York City is considering a mandatory “shelter in place” declaration. The San Francisco Bay area already has one. The next steps will be more severe, and nobody knows how long they will last.
Yes, New York will get through this. America will make it to the other side of the crisis. But that’s cold comfort to the businesses in collapse and the people who face financial ruination. And looming over all of this is the worry about mass casualties from a pandemic that is still poorly understood and for which there will not be a cure anytime soon.
Still, everything seems to ride on the next 30 days. Strap in, buckle up, and pray.