A peculiar thing happened in the produce aisle at Fred Meyer on Monday. In some respects, the incident hardly seems worth mentioning. But it has stayed with me nonetheless, a moment I may remember for some time.
First, some background: Remember those first apocalyptic-feeling days of the pandemic when people emptied the shelves at grocery stores? Who knew what was going to happen in the weeks ahead? When I went to Three Bears with my list and a homemade mask, the place was packed with people pushing overflowing carts. It was strangely silent. Few people spoke and even fewer made eye contact. I remember the pit in my stomach to find the only thing left in the vegetable section of the freezer was a single bag of peas. I put it in my cart.
Looking back, it marked the beginning of a shift. The competition to get the last package of toilet paper that day made us all strangers and competitors rather than neighbors and friends. I left the parking lot with my bag of peas feeling strangely alone.
In the coming days, my mask became a shield to social contact. For one thing, those of us with glasses couldn’t see through the fog of our breath. Then, after social anxiety about toilet paper abated, the raging (and absurd) mask debate made ideological adversaries between those who wore them and those who did not. For me it just became easier to inhabit the space of my small personal bubble. Get groceries and get out. For awhile we ordered online for curbside pickup.
Fast forward to Monday this week. I went to Fred Meyers, masked as always, looking for fresh rosemary. The package on a shelf was blocked by another shopper, who was pondering her choices. I waited a bit but she was clearly going to be there a while. Finally I said, “Excuse me, would you mind if I reached around you to grab something?”
She looked startled at first. Then we made eye contact. Her eyes smiled behind her own mask, and she stepped back.
“I’m sorry. Yes, of course!”
“No problem at all,” I smiled back. “Thank you.”
“Have a good day.”
And we actually meant it.
I momentarily had trouble seeing, not because my glasses were fogged this time, but because tears sprang up in my eyes. Our exchange of pleasantries felt like rain on parched ground. How long had it been since I talked to a stranger with kind eyes and a spontaneous smile? Eighteen months, give or take.
I read recently that just as a baby needs human touch to thrive, adults need social interaction. I was a kid when I watched a documentary about experiments in the 1950s where rhesus monkey infants were given surrogate mothers of either bare wire or wire covered in terrycloth. In a series of ever-sadder deprivations, scientists studied the fear, aggression, and neurosis that developed in these babies who lacked the nurture and touch of their mothers.
Leaving Fred Meyers that day, I realized that our self-imposed seclusion has come at a price. We’ve been living in a world of wire monkeys. No wonder everyone is angry. I have a wonderful husband whose company I adore, so I never considered our isolation a deprivation. It has surely saddened me not to see our kids or grandkids as much as we used to. Even so, I never thought I would miss an exchange of pleasantries with strangers.
The woman standing in front of the rosemary proved me wrong. We need connection like we need food and water. We have a long way to go to bridge the chasms that have opened up around politics, the pandemic, and past societal transgressions. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe the healing of these painful rifts could start small, in a grocery aisle, with words like “excuse me,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry.”