Longtail cargo bike loaded with bags of groceries

Covid-19 diary: bodega

Published 2020-03-25

So far this week I’ve made three trips to grocery stores. The first two stores were mostly well stocked except each store was missing some key item. Trader Joes had no coffee or canned tomatoes but plenty of bananas and toilet paper. New Seasons had no bananas or toilet paper but plenty of coffee and crushed but not canned tomatoes. Earlier in the week some of those shortages were reversed. Heck I bet it changes during the day: at 8am they might have toilet paper but no coffee, but run out of TP by noon, and in the afternoon they get a shipment of coffee.

So they tell us to limit the number of grocery trips you make but clearly the superior strategy (if you want to avoid running out of something) is to actually make many smaller trips to grocery stores.

Simply going to a grocery store has become a kind of anxious exercise. I used to kind of like grocery shopping but like everything it has an anxious edge these days.

Trader Joes opened an hour late, not unexpected, and there was a 45min wait to get in. They only let in 25 people at a time. I was in the first group to get in because I got there 45min early (not by design, they were actually opening an hour late). We waited outside in a line that stretched more than a block because everyone was at least six feet apart. Inside the store it was eerie and jittery. I felt pressure to shop really quickly, because people were waiting. (Similar feeling to peeing really quick during intermission while there’s a line of dudes out the door.)

I got to New Seasons in the late afternoon, there was no line and the staff were trying to be really friendly. But everything was constantly getting wiped, and there was a lot of pressure to keep 6' away from everyone else. Edgy and low-key stressful. One of my favorite checkers rung me up, a friendly guy who grew up in Africa who my daughters in particular just love. I have never not seen him smile but this weekend he was not smiling.

This morning on my Social Distance Commute I stopped at a Green Zebra, a neighborhood store sort of like a bodega. More than a convenience store but less than a grocery store, in a walk-in space under a parking garage. Except Portland doesn’t have bodegas and this is actually a small local chain. Granted this was 8am on a Wednesday but they had everything. Bananas, coffee, canned tomatoes, toilet paper, everything. Better still was the vibe: not that different from any other quiet morning The staff were milling around the registers chatting, there were only a few other customers (one was a cop, another was a construction guy). The only signs of pandemic were:

  1. a sparse deli case
  2. those weird Twister stickers you’re supposed to stand on while you wait for a register (even weirder: we already know what those things are for and they seem normal now)
  3. no baskets

I loaded up my backpack with canned tomatoes and bananas (victory!)

I think there were a couple things that mellowed the Green Zebra experience:

  1. no baskets (and no carts, but then they never have carts). Because you couldn't pile stuff up at the register (the Twister stickers…) you were forced to carry everything you needed to buy in your hands. It was impossible to hoard
  2. no parking (ironically this Green Zebra is under a parking garage!) You couldn’t load a cart with two weeks’ of groceries and then push the cart to your car.

This is of a piece with the outdoor phenomenon I noticed at the parks this weekend. If you want people to limit their social distance, limit how far they can travel in a car. Everything about cars kind of pushes society toward hoarding — and toward crowding together. Cars hold a lot so it’s easy (tempting) to buy a lot. But they are big and require lots of space to park, so places oriented toward cars have large facilities, placed far apart. And because it’s a hassle to shop by car, you have to do it infrequently.

The (sub)urban fabric reflects this: instead of bodegas every few blocks we have big stores every few miles. So while ironically there’s all this open space (think of the greenery around office parks), the people themselves are forced by necessity into the same small space, because they can’t be very far from their cars. And the time experience is similarly (badly) distributed: there’s a lot of driving, and waiting, and then a mad crush to get things done. This is why I hate driving to the woods to hike. You spend two hours driving to a trailhead, then the trailhead is full of cars, and yet everyone is like half mile or less from the trailhead. You hike for two hours, then drive two hours home again! It’s not a continuously smooth experience, like our experience riding bikes to Powell Butte (or my social distance commute for that matter). Riding your bike somewhere…heck the destination is practically optional.

Thought experiment: How would such shortages play out in a place like Custer County Nebraska which is 50mi on a side and has basically one grocery store?