Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chapter Thirty-Six

Over the last couple of weeks, Sissy has slowly returned to an outlook and attitude that is closer to her normal personality. She still has moments when she just wants to sit down and cry out of sheer frustration and fatigue, but those moments are becoming fewer.

Scott and the kids have certainly become more aware of just how much Sissy does every day. The fact that they are learning this during one of the longest black outs they’ve ever experienced made the point even more emphatically. The extra rest during the hottest part of the day helps, she has even managed to take a nap on a few occasions. Mostly it is just taking the time to stop and have some physical and mental quite time that is helping.

Scott has even come up with a plan to get Sissy out of the house for a bit. It isn’t at all what she was anticipating. And now that the time has come shi is unexpectedly nervous to the point that her stomach is heaving. It was far from her favorite activity before the pandemic, but Scott was so pleased to be able to get this opportunity for her that she hasn’t had the heart to complain. She was going to . . . [she can hear the theme music from the movie Jaws every time she thinks about it] . . . the grocery store.

Last week a manager from a local grocery store walked the two miles from his store to practically beg Scott to come do several repairs. The county code enforcement department, using sledge hammer tactics to deal with a dust cloth problem, is going around town shutting down soup kitchens, charitable food distribution points, neighborhood produce stands, and grocery stores for "health code violations." Scott’s personal opinion is that it is revenge for the slap in the face the department took several months back when they preciptated several near riots. Does bureaucracy never learn or is just the bureaucratic officials?

The strong-arm tactics are a response to an outbreak of shigella that has been confined to a small area in the furthermost southeast corn of the county. Instead of re-emphasizing hand washing and basic hygiene practices, or requiring sanitizing stations outside of food service locations, they are closing down businesses that are lifelines in many neighborhoods.

The store manager knows that the loss of his store will have disastrous effects, both for local customers and for his employees. The store has also become the center of his life. He now lives there full time after losing his wife and children to the first wave of influenza infections back in September.

It is a misconception on the part of the general public to believe that grocery stores are making a huge profit at their customers’ expense. Grocers operate on a very thin margin of profit even under the best of conditions. They are as affected by the concept of supply and demand as consumers are. They are also subject to the same shortages and quantity restrictions, not to mention distribution problems. Just because costs are going up for groceries doesn’t mean profits are going up for grocery stores.

The concern for the store manager is that there is no money to pay to have the repairs made. If the repairs are not made, the store will be condemned and forcibly closed. Most of the repairs are relatively minor, but there are a number of them.

  • A minor roof leak in an unused maintenance closet at the rear of the building.
  • An inoperable loading bay door at the rear of the store. The track in the roll down door was damaged during an attempted break in, preventing complete opening or closing.
  • One of the automatic doors does not work, even when the power is on.
  • When the power is off, customers aren’t supposed to have access to the coolers where freezer foods and meats were once sold.
  • Despite being empty and unused, coolers need to be re-sanitized after a small area of mildew was noted in the back corner of one freezer.
  • There is too little light when the power is off, making navigation of the store aisles difficult or dangerous.
  • Code enforcement wants the entire store sanitized especially the bakery and produce sections.
  • The boards over the front glass area, there for security reasons, need to come down.
  • Too many customers are allowed in the store at one time, violating social distancing recommendations.
  • The front windows of the store need to be cleaned, as does the front walk.
  • There are not enough trash receptacles outside.
  • The employee break area is ill lit and needs to be sanitized.
Scott agrees to go look and see what he can do. After looking everything over he finds that the leak is an easy fix. It will just be a minor roof repair. Same with the loading bay door. All that needs doing is to get the door and chain back in the track. The automatic door is a stupid violation, but to address it he can install a shock, similar to the ones found on screen doors or hatch backs of cars. The door can then be propped open if need be and will close slowly rather than swing shut with a bang.

The issue with the coolers is twofold. The store staff can clean them and the rest of the store to address the disinfection requirements. Following that a new floor plan can be designed and shelves moved to keep customers toward the front of the store. Since only about five customers are going to be allowed inside the store at any given time, they can remove all of the cash registers, except for the one at customer service, and replace them with stock shelves. Having products closer to the front windows will alleviate lighting issues.

Since the bakery can only operate when the power is on, that area will be shut off from customers completely. When the power is on and the bakery is operating, any baked goods can be transferred to baskets at the front of the store. The window area will be un-boarded and metal rebar left over from a construction site that Scott has plundered will be used to create metal slat work. The plywood will be recycled to build temporary walls behind the area where the cash registers were. With a few additional refinements the plan is finalized.

The hitch in the negotiations is payment for the work. It is eventually agreed that payment will be made in the form of food vouchers. The compromise is that not all of the vouchers can be spent in a single week. All of the vouchers are distributed at the time of job completion, but are dated to be "spent" over a six-week period.

Scott decides to include Barry and Tom on the job. Scott will get a forty percent cut and the other two men will each get thirty percent of the vouchers. Serena spends their first week’s right away as did Laura Cox. After putting it off for as long as she can, Sissy finally readies herself. The vouchers have nearly expired and she will just have to go regardless of her nerves. Scott was so proud when he explained how the vouchers worked. Its all Sissy can do to not let him see how different this is than what she expected. She understands it is a great opportunity most people would jump at, its just not what she had been at all anticipating.

Sissy leaves at first light to walk up to the grocery store. Scott wants to drive her, but she argues him out of it saying that it is a waste of fuel and that one of them really needs to stay home with the kids. She thought Rose would have a chance to get away from the house as well, but the girl dropped a #10 size can of dried beans on her foot the day before and it is now very bruised and sore. Sissy doesn’t want her out and about on it in case they have to make a fast exit for some reason. James has to stay home and help Scott in the garden and the other children are too young so it looks like she is on her own.

The day is already warming up and Sissy is wringing wet with sweat before she even reaches the end of her street. She adds the strap of a two-quart canteen over her shoulder. Wearing a facemask and gloves doesn’t make it any cooler. On her back she wears a makeshift basket cobbled together from an old backpack frame, palmetto sticks with their sharp edges removed and woven into panels, and wire lashing. James originally made it for working in the citrus grove. She borrowed it to haul the groceries home in because the store can no longer provide bags or boxes. Scott had asked why she didn’t just take one of their large backpacks. Sissy decided against it because she would have been forced to empty one of their bug-out bags.

As Sissy walks the two miles to the store she notices that she isn’t the only one out and about despite the early hour. There are a lot of people on foot and bicycles. There are even a few odd, rickshaw-looking bicycle taxis. However no one is congregating together. There are a few travelling by 2s and 3s, but no groups larger than that. At least this early in the morning everyone is pretty much following the appropriate traffic patterns. Keep to your right side – whether on the road or on the sidewalk – and everything with wheels must use the blacktop and leave the sidewalks, such as they are, for pedestrian traffic.

As Sissy continues up the highway she begins to realize that even though she works very hard every day and is in better shape than she has been in years – fewer calories and more exercise does have its benefits after all – she still can use some distance training. Walking around on a half-acre lot, or across the street on occasion, is no preparation for walking miles at a time. Thank goodness her tennis shoes are still in reasonable shape. Several people in her neighborhood have simply chosen to go barefoot which has resulted in more ringworm, stubbed toes, and minor infections. Foot care is no joke any more.

Eventually Sissy reaches the grocery store’s parking lot. On one end of the strip center, which is shaped like a capital L, is the Post Office and on the other end is the grocery store. Lines of about a dozen people each are already evident at both locations. All the storefronts between the two are boarded over and abandoned giving the center a look of desperate deterioration.

Taking a deep breath she goes and takes her place in the cue for the grocery store. An armed security guard is stationed before the door in case of "dissatisfied customers" or any other form of uncivil behavior. Promptly at 7 am they allow the first five customers in.

Waiting her turn, Sissy finally takes note of the personal appearance of the people around her. Not surprisingly there are more women than men, but regardless of sex, everyone can use a shave. The men all have either closely cropped beards or several days worth of whiskers. The women appear to be going au natural with bare, unshaven legs and underarms. There is a darkly sarcastic voice in her head telling her she can mark shaving cream off her list of things to buy. Sissy is glad she chose to wear jeans and short sleeves despite the heat. She would have probably gotten some fairly curious – or contemptuous – looks otherwise. She doesn’t shave as often, but she does shave which probably would have made her stand out too much. It was bizarre to se all the cans of shaving cream and razors under their bathroom sink prepandemic, but it sure has come in handy. Toothpaste too. Those are some of the items that are most difficult for people to come by these days.

Everyone’s clothes look well worn as well with most people half having at least one item on that is either quite rumpled or threadbare. One man even has on sandals that look like they have been made from car tires. And everyone is wearing a hat. There isn’t a child in sight. This makes Sissy really glad she didn’t get desperate enough to bring Johnnie with her. She could have pushed him in the stroller but the risk of infection outweighs any nerves she might experience.

What a change from the last time she had been here, that last scramble for supplies before the pandemic was declared. Well-dressed older ladies in pantsuits sporting blue hair, wearing jewelry and matching shoes and purses. Burly construction workers stopping by the deli, loudly debating the merits of a Cuban sandwich vs. the fried chicken and potato salad. Businessmen with a couple of canned energy drinks in one hand, their wallet in another, and a cell phone glued to their ear. Young mothers pushing children in buggies, looking harassed as their kids beg for cookie samples from the bakery. Now everyone looks like a refugee. This isn’t supposed to happen here, in her city, in her country.

It reminds Sissy of an episode from the Twilight Zone, all too surreal to really take in. Even more changes await inside as it becomes her turn to enter the store. Scott told her about the changes so she is somewhat prepared, but hearing about it and seeing it for herself are quite different.

Only one register is in evidence and it is an old manual one that was pulled out of a long unused cabinet in the store’s upstairs office. It is old enough that it could easily have found a place in a display cabinet in Tampa’s Historical Museum downtown. There is a wide series of shelves fronted by a very long counter top. People she recognize from before as former cashiers and stockers go back and forth pulling items for the customers they are serving. The whole set up reminds her of the old General Stores you see and read about from before the advent of the modern supermarket.

"Any bread today?"

"No, I’m sorry. The power is still off. Maybe tomorrow. How about some olives?"

"No. Got any corn?"

"Yes, but there is a two can limit."

"That’s fine. Got any tomatoes?"

"Not canned. We’ve got some fresh. They are a little green but you can have three pounds."

"Give me one pound and what is the price for those snap beans?"

And on it goes, people looking for one thing but leaving with whatever they can get. As Sissy walks up, the store manager recognizes her and comes over to work up her order personally. She picks up fresh carambolas (aka star fruit) and papayas that have just come in from down south. She gets a jug of peanut oil and five pounds of honey, both of which have obviously been packaged locally and costs far more than they did prepandemic. She picks up a five pound bag of new potatoes. She figures to try and save some of them to plant next month if she can get the eyes to sprout. She asks for bleach, dish detergent and vinegar but only gets two of the three as the store used its stock of bleach for its own disinfecting. Maybe next time. The last thing she picks up is the most expensive and the one thing she debates the most about getting. She gets three pounds of what the store manager says is locally prepared and cured Chorizo sausages.

One of the local families of Italian decent, with ties to early 20th century Tampa, still had a large number of cattle on their acreage in Odessa when the pandemic was declared. Using business sense and bravado inherited from their immigrant grandparents, they are turning a profit making beef sausages and jerky. She knows this family by reputation – their ancestors had been members of the old Trafficante gang. They are still a bunch of goons, but these days they are relatively honest goons.

Sissy places her purchases in the backpack, heavy items on the bottom and produce on top, at the check out. She pays with her vouchers and because she has gone slightly over, has to add some change that Scott insisted she bring just in case. After paying she begins to make her way home, the backpack weighing her down.

As Sissy steps outside she notices that the line for the post office has doubled, but the line for the grocery store is now wrapped around the building. A few people ask if there is any bread. At her negative answer several sigh, get out of line and depart. Others are obviously juggling their list of other items they hope to get; counting pennies to get the most for the least.

The walk home is even more fatiguing than her walk to the store. It is hotter, there is more traffic, and she is carrying more than thirty extra pounds on her back. She still feels the effects of the malaise she had been suffering that culminated in her fainting spell. Getting out has been invigorating, but the adrenaline is now wearing off and Sissy is beginning to run down.

Even though the wreckage on the highway from the train derailment has been picked over several times, there are still people wading through what remains of the mess in hopes that something useful or valuable has been overlooked. The rails themselves, warped in the fire, have been replaced so that the trains can run again. The remaining debris has been pushed to either side and it is there that most people are wandering.

Sissy is nearly run over by cyclists several times in areas where there are no sidewalks. In these stretches she is forced to alternate her travel between parking lots and the curb of the road. She could have walked closer to some of the buildings lining the highway but Scott has admonished her to say in plain view at all times. It is too easy to be suddenly pulled into a darkened storefront and get mugged or worse. It is a risk she prefers not to take.

Finally she turns into her street. Her steps pick up speed as she realizes that Scott has stationed himself at the end of their drive and is facing the direction she is coming from. It is both a physical and emotional relief to walk into his arms and let him lift the pack from her back.

"Now I know how you feel when I leave with the guys," he says as they walk into the house with their arms around each other.

Sissy replies, "Yeah, shoe on the other foot and all that. Life sure is different than it was last year. But, if we can just hold on, things are bound to get better. "

With a smile and a smooch, Scott says, "If we hold on to each other, I don’t doubt it for a second. Did you enjoy getting out?"

"It was … educational. I’ve heard the stories. Even seen the changes taking place on our block. But getting out into the thick of things brings it all home."

"But did getting out help? Do you feel better?"

"Yeah, I do appreciate getting out. I know it wasn’t easy to get these vouchers or for you to let me go on my own. It was good to get out. It just also brought it back home to me how well off we are comapred to a lot of people."

What Sissy doesn’t say is that in a sense that also made her feel bad for acting so depressed when she should actually feel very blessed about how well their preps have worked out. She knows she needs to find her way out of this confusing emotional maze she is in, but things like this still set her off.

"You know we’ve got these other vouchers to spend as well. If you feel up to it, you can go each week to stretch your legs and get away."

"I’m sure I’ll do that," Sissy says and then sighs a bit before continuing. "Scott I do appreciate everything you’ve tried to do recently – and even before – to take care of me, and the kids. I don’t want you to ever think that I am ungrateful. I’m sorry if I might appear that way. I’m getting a handle on all of this I really am, I just may not always seem like it."

"Honey, relax. If you can put up with the crap I dish out when I come home from a bad day at work, I can put up with anything you have going. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the last week or so. It’s a wonder you didn’t bean me with a skillet or plant me head first out in the garden. I didn’t realize at the time that you were under just as much stress as I was. I only saw my side of things."

"You had reason to be angry. I’ve gotten angry with some of the stupid stuff you’ve been forced to deal with. Don’t suddenly treat me like you need to wear kid gloves or I’m going to fall apart."

"I’m not honey, I just think maybe we are both so wound up with what is going on around us, we aren’t dealing with what is going on inside us. We’ve taken the time to get the kids to talk about how they feel and to deal with their feelings. We haven’t taken the same time to do that for ourselves. I know we don’t have much privacy with things being the way they are but maybe we can figure out something even if it is just going out in the corner of the yard to have a drink or something. Man, I don’t know …"

"Scott, I think that is a fine idea. Don’t beat yourself up over this, OK? It makes me feel bad to make you feel bad."

"That’s not what I mean honey. I don’t know exactly what I do mean, but that isn’t it. I’m just glad you aren’t feeling as bad. You would tell me if you still were?"

"I said I would and if I get to feeling as badly as I was before I will. I’m feeling more … maybe balanced or something. It’s helped that everyone has pitched in and given me a bit of a break. As far as the rest goes, I’m hoping time will put things back into perspective. Either way, I’m beat. Let’s go inside so I can show you what I bought and have lunch. I’m actually feeling hungry."

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