Fear in Bulk

This is the best way to describe the feeling in Sam’s club last week.

The day I visited the store – Wednesday, March 25 – Michigan had the fifth most common case of Covid-19, a nationwide disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. as well as the sixth highest number of deaths. The vast majority of these deaths occurred in Wayne County, the home of Detroit and its immediate urban area. That makes sense: The largest population center in the state is also the most densely populated area. Where I was in neighboring Washtenaw County, the virus hadn’t entered the same number of disasters. But it was only a matter of time before it migrated from cities to suburbs, suburbs to suburbs, suburbs to rural areas.

On Carpenter Road, a buzzing artery that runs north and south on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Sam’s Club in Ypsilanti is usually a circus. There is no parking space on a soccer field in front of the entrance. Dozens of cars wind around the adjacent petrol station and often wait half an hour for a turn at the discounted pumps. A visit after 2 a.m. is a recipe for long lines and short fuses.

How strange it felt to drive into the parking lot in the late afternoon and only see 20 or 25 cars; walk through the doors, past the gloved welcome and disinfection station, and find no one at the cash registers; to stroll through the once busy corridors, whose shelves are now sparse, and to meet more employees than customers.

With much of the country under government instruction to stay at home, grocery stores offer a remnant of bourgeois life to a suddenly isolated people. No joy can be seen in these fleeting moments of community. Perhaps this is because the most banal activities, shopping, now appear daring and even defiant. Whatever was the case, if their escape from the doldrums brought relief to the resident, it certainly did not show. The megastore patrons I met were physically and mentally marginalized and knew that the monster could show up at any moment.

I spent almost three hours at Sam’s Club. From a respectful distance, I spoke to customers, young and old, black and white, rich and working class. We talked about the corona virus. We talked about their families. We talked about their jobs and their finances and their 401 (k) s. No matter who I met, no matter what politics or belief, the discussions were animated by a common feeling: fear.

This was not the fear you read about in the headlines on the front page or heard on the evening news. None of us was at the door of death. None of us were hospitalized in overcapacity. None of us tracked infections through dozens of family members and friends. Our fear was a step away. We have waited. We read the headlines, like the vast majority of Americans, watched these news programs, and wondered when it was our turn.

“I check every box. I am in all risk categories. ” PETER MOLLOY told me. “I’m over 60 years old. I had pneumonia twice that affected my lung capacity. I need oxygen every night before bed. I have ARDS [Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome]that is part of the progression of this corona virus. And I broke my spleen in a ski accident. So, yes, I’m a little bit compromised. “

Molloy stood in the pharmacy aisle, wearing blue jeans and a green flannel shirt and a yellow medical mask wrapped around his face. He sighed heavily. “If I’m infected, I’m a goner.”

Molloy said he and his wife, also in their sixties with a history of health problems, had been under self-imposed house arrest for almost a month. You only venture from home if absolutely necessary. This was one of those times: Molloy had recipes ready for pick up, “and I thought I could stock up just as well while I’m here,” he said, pointing to his shopping cart. (He grinned and recognized the mixture of frozen food and chocolate bars.)

There will be no return to normalcy for the Molloys – at least not so soon. Covid-19 is far too threatening. Until a vaccine is available, they remain locked and pray to avoid exposure during their rare emergencies. The hardest thing, said Peter Molloy, is that her 24-year-old son lives in Georgia and can’t visit. It would be too risky. “We won’t be seeing him for a while,” he said, his voice choking on his voice. “Maybe a long time.”

Molloy understands why people want to go back to work, school and back in life after two weeks of country-wide time out. He also understands that as a retiree with some savings, he can afford to wait for the pandemic in a way that other people cannot. He only wished the country had a little more patience, a little more perspective.

“I actually understand it, this conversation about the economic compromise is unacceptable because more people die of the flu and addiction each year and we don’t slow down for them,” he said. “But that’s different. Forget the economy for a minute. I would not exchange all the money in the world for my wife. We are also the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We will come back from this. The economy will come back from this. But let’s not kid ourselves. And the President, that’s how he treats us: children. As if we don’t know what’s going on. He has to treat us like adults. We won’t flip a switch at Easter. Give me a break.”

Molloy, of course, referred to President Donald Trump’s comment on the afternoon of March 24: “I would love it if the country opened up and it rarely went until Easter.” Incredibly, just 24 hours later, every single buyer I spoke to quoted the President’s quote – completely unsolicited. It was a testament to the power of the bully pulpit. It also suggested that the Americans listened carefully for a specific marker, a hint to the endgame, and an appearance of a date to look forward to.

For Molloy, a Trump voter who had already started to become disillusioned with the president, this was an unforgivable mistake. “He sends mixed messages all the time, and that’s totally unacceptable,” said Molloy. “It was the story of his administration. His behavior, his tweets – he just doesn’t behave like a commander-in-chief. And with this crisis, it got worse.”

I asked if he could vote for Trump again. “There is no way,” replied Molloy.

They were less at risk than the Molloys: a little younger, healthier, with more room for error and less reason for existential fear.

Yet nobody in Sam’s club shared the panic – or moved with the goal – of MARK and BETH CLANCY.

Their faces were choked under medical masks. Her hands were wrapped in latex gloves. And her shopping cart overflowed so Beth started throwing items into a shopping bag she had brought with her for security. When I asked if we could talk, they looked at me as if I were holding a loaded gun to my own head. Why did you come to Sam’s Club? Speak?

“Two million deaths! Two. Million. Deaths. We’re going there, “said Mark, his eyes emerging from behind his black rimmed glasses.” America will make it worse than either of them – China, Italy, each of them. Two million deaths! “

The Clancys stood in the cold aisle, pillaging egg racks against a threatening backdrop, and explaining how their family had recently moved to DEFCON 1. Her son, who lived in Ferndale outside of Detroit, went into bunker mode with his roommates. Her daughter, who lives in Manhattan, had fled to New Hampshire for quarantine. It was the first time in two weeks that Mark and Beth had left the house – and only because of poor planning.

“The last time we came, we got two weeks’ worth of supplies,” Beth said, shaking her head in disgust. “This time we get two months.”

Mark stacked a box of drumstick ice cream cones on his cart, which was already squeaking under the weight of bottled water, frozen meat, and all other essentials, and declared that he couldn’t go anywhere. His employer, whom he did not let me identify, gave most of his workers “indefinite leave”. He said the money would run out sooner or later, but he was relieved for now.

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