Pandemic-era traffic has dwindled to just a few cars moving in any direction, but the five-way intersection at Woodfords Corner remains the greatest test of a Portlander’s patience.

It’s around noon on a Saturday, and I’m stuck at that infuriating light, where I always seem to be when I head north on Forest Avenue. I start to wonder if Sartre ever worked as a city planner. But then I realize that even he couldn’t have programmed this stoplight with such diabolical, machine-grade passive-aggression.

While I wait (and wait), I catch myself staring at the neon sign in the window of Little Woodfords. After a successful fundraising campaign to stave off its landlords temporarily, the quaint coffee shop stopped pulling shots in March. I know I’m going to miss sunny May mornings seated at the corner table, listening to the creaky squeal of the screen door’s spring.

Woodford F&B’s brisket burgers are easy, too easy, to devour. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Ahead of me is Woodford Food & Beverage, still serving takeout in the building whose jagged roofline now reminds me of a pedestrian I passed last week near Maine Medical Center — a scrubs-sporting hospital staffer who had decorated her homemade cloth mask with several jaunty rows of rickrack trim.

Perhaps she is one of the dozens of beneficiaries of Woodford F&B’s cheeseburger-powered charitable initiative, Feeding the Frontline. Owners Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer started the program last month to help provide “a dash of immediate, tangible good for people on the front lines of this lousy thing.” I’ve devoured more than my share of chef Courtney Loreg’s burgers; I understand their power to brighten a very dark day.

Right now though, it isn’t burger time for me. I’m on a dual errand, simultaneously keeping my car’s battery charged since I haven’t driven in more than a week, and making a much-needed excursion out for fresh produce.

My first stop is Veranda Market, where I stock up on bags of holy basil and cilantro for a dollar apiece, then up the street to Haknuman Meanchey, where I grab cue-ball-shaped eggplants to add bulk and a little astringency to the green curry I have planned for that evening. “You have curry paste?” the masked cashier inquires as she bags up my purchase. She cackles as I dash back into the shop. I knew I was forgetting something.

Back in the car, I continue up Forest Ave., glancing over at Ameera Bread, whose fiery, garlicky shattah and cooling, aromatic Iranian shirazi cucumber salad would provide ideal fuel for the following night’s tandem Netflix viewing with my niece, trying to puzzle out which character in Tiger King is supposed to be sympathetic. Is there one?

At this point, I also realize I’m talking to myself. Sure, I’m planning future dinners as I drive, mentally adding Thai Esaan’s lush, chili-perfumed khao mun gai and sweet-crispy pork krah pow moo grob to an imaginary order. But I’m also saying the names of the foods aloud. In normal times, I’d be a little concerned, but these days, normality seems overrated.

When I pass RSVP Discount Beverage, I hear myself wonder aloud if I shouldn’t also order some more Belgian beer from them on my next trip out to charge the battery. It was there, after all, that I first fell in love with Chimay Blue, a maltier, more savory version of their Red or Gold brews.

The decision is made for me when I hit my turn indicator to make a right on Walton St. and spot Luis’s Arepera on the opposite corner. Through 2DineIn, they are still serving crisp-fried yucca and pabellon criollo arepas, overstuffed with cheese, shredded chicken and sweet plantains. If I’m planning to drink beer, why not do it with an arepa?

Before I make my turn, I am briefly tempted to change course and continue up Forest Avenue to grab a few quarts of frozen gumbo from Po’ Boys & Pickles. Then I remember that my freezer can barely hold another ice cube. So I head toward the water.

And while it’s one of the season’s first luminous days, by some miracle, I have managed to hold off any springtime yearning to be outdoors with friends. That is, until I reach Tipo and think back to last year, when glorious weekend afternoons lured me out to the restaurant’s orange umbrellas for Aperol Spritzes and gooey slices of blistered, wood-fired Prosciutto Di San Daniele pizza.

“Maybe this summer,” I suggest (out loud) as I turn left, then speed off to keep myself from tearing up – something I’ve done far more of this past several weeks than I care to admit.

Passing Payson Park just makes things worse. The ball fields are empty and silent, the tennis courts (my favorite part of the park) padlocked shut. I spot just three people on the grassy hill, exercising their dogs 50 feet apart from one another. None of this feels real.

Things take a turn for the better at the corner of Washington Avenue, where I make the executive decision to postpone that night’s green curry, and instead pull over to collect a curbside pickup order of a bake-at-home pizza from Monte’s Fine Foods. While I’m there, I grab some crunchy taralli crackers and a clamshell of house-made giant white bean hummus. I’ll just have to make my own Aperol Spritz.

Come to think of it, a bittersweet cocktail would work well with the tangy banana peppers and garlicky salami in a to-go order of antipasto from Anania’s Variety, so I make another quick detour along Washington Ave. When I do, I also discover that Anania’s and Botto’s Bakery a little farther down the road are both supplying the city’s growing population of home bakers with hard-to-locate staples like bread flour and yeast.

Stocked up for that evening’s dinner (and ready for my green curry, whenever it happens), I decide to hang a right onto Baxter Boulevard, rather than left, to pay a visit to Other Side Delicatessen in hopes of procuring a package of their rabbit ravioli – perhaps the best frozen pasta I’ve eaten in Maine.

For much of the meandering, waterfront journey back toward town, mine is the only car on the road. A few defiant runners zip past, dodging and weaving around pedestrians along Back Cove, but even this prime outdoor real estate seems like a creepy abandoned stage set.

I am officially ready to head home.

But before I do, my phone chirps a reminder to me that I’m running low on coffee beans. And because I am still close to The Proper Cup, I swing a right onto Belmeade Road, past the explosively green park on the corner, and up to Forest Ave. once more, where I’ll collect my two-pound bag of freshly roasted, high-altitude beans from the Guji Uraga region of Ethiopia — enough to last a couple of weeks.

The “Hopeful” sign, which sits atop Speedwell Projects on Forest Ave., has special resonance now. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Back in the car, I’m immediately distracted, wondering how things are right now for the coffee growers on the Horn of Africa. Even with all the dysfunction and depressing carelessness that has ushered us into another month of lockdown here in Maine, we are all still incredibly fortunate. Surely, we are better off here, I think as I pass by the Speedwell Projects Gallery – its “Hopeful” sign buoying my spirits.

A few seconds later, marooned again at that exasperating stoplight at Woodfords Corner again, I don’t grumble.

I recognize how lucky I am.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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