LESLIE MCBRIDE WILE
This morning I started my little Fiat for the first time since 19 March and went shopping for necessities. I went armed with a mask, several pairs of disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes, carrying the requisite self-declaration of my purpose in leaving home. During the 15-minute drive I counted two men on foot at different points along the roads, but no carabinieri and only two other vehicles until I reached the mall near the autostrada.
Ipercoop is a vast hypermarket with wide aisles and soaring ceilings, not quite on the scale of IKEA but more like an American supermarket than any other in Mondovì. At 9:15 there were few other shoppers as I wheeled a cart through aisles of groceries. I saw only individual shoppers, no couples; no empty shelves, few shortages (certain types of pasta, canned tomatoes), and no displays of temper or anxiety or even impatience. Some non-food items were cordoned off—only shopping for necessities is allowed—but for some reason the small electronics were not off limits and I bought an electric tagliacapelli (hair cutter, literally) to barber my husband’s shaggy head. Breathing behind the mask made my face sweat and the gloves were a bit large; I grew increasingly warm under the hat and coat I wore, but the few shoppers without mask and gloves looked shockingly vulnerable to me. I managed to fight off most impulses to buy anything not on my list, except for two packages of batteries, AA and AAA, and some sheets of fresh lasagne. In retrospect I wish I’d not resisted the temptation of a packet of corn tortillas. I stood in line at the checkout, well behind the man ahead of me, not moving to the counter until the cashier signaled me. The total was twice our normal weekly grocery budget, but I won’t shop again for some weeks except to buy fresh produce online from the farmers’ market.
A friend has written, describing how he wipes down every item he brings from the grocery store into his home. This sounds like a nightmare to me. I shopped in a supermarket yesterday, and although I wore a mask and gloves, wiped the cart and all surfaces of the bancomat (cash machine, ATM) and took all precautions while inside the store, if this virus really is everywhere, including on boxes of eggs and toothpaste, bottles of hand soap and olive oil, then I may as well resign myself to my fate. It took me all morning to do the shopping and I wasn’t willing to spend the afternoon swabbing cans of tomatoes and packets of coffee. Maybe in smaller stores or more densely populated areas, items in the grocery could be contaminated by a high concentration of shoppers, the way tourists’ exhalations damaged the cave paintings at Lascaux. But shoppers were sparse in my supermarket, most were masked and gloved, and I heard not one sneeze or cough. So those are all my tidy rationalizations for failing to wipe. **
I barbered my husband’s hair this afternoon, and he’s kindly said the result is every bit as good as the cut he got regularly in Freetown from a professional barber. The user manual for the electric razor says it is safe for use by “children over 8 years old as well as persons with reduced physical, sensory, or mental capacities or lack of experience or knowledge if they have received instruction or supervision in the use of the appliance,” so I’m not overly impressed with my own abilities.
Now that protective face masks are becoming widely accepted as effective in slowing transmission of the virus, I wonder whether this will be a new feature of 21st-century life: will we all go masked each year during flu season? Will different varieties of masks become symbols of status and wealth or political affiliation; will they carry advertising, personal manifestos, messages subtle and overt? So far I’ve seen no signs of commercialization, branding, or messaging, but suddenly instructions for making masks at home are everywhere online. My WhatsApp group devoted an hour to the topic on Saturday, prompted by a public notice about how to request home delivery of free masks from the Protezione Civile. This morning my news feed carries two articles about masks and masking, with links to instructions and templates.
Our nearest neighbor, who lives with his partner and their 18-month-old daughter in the house where he spent childhood summers with his grandfather, came this morning to plow our vegetable garden (orto). With great skill he maneuvered his small tractor, avoiding my precious rhubarb plants and leaving behind a deeply tilled patch of earth. He’ll return after three days, once the soil is dried and aerated, to re-till with a finer blade. He won’t accept payment, never does, even though he’s done everything over the years from stacking firewood to shoveling snow to re-starting our furnace after a power outage during a blizzard.
** After reading this article in The Atlantic I may take the time to wipe my groceries the next time I venture out: