I stood in the pet food aisle at the supermarket and gazed upon two sparsely stocked shelves. Empty spaces stood where, once, Milk-Bone products were on display. My heart sank. I needed dog treats, and the darn supply chain boondoggle had struck again.

As my eyes searched feverishly for a random package of Soft & Chewy bites, I thought for the millionth time, “We are not back to normal yet.”

We faced down the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students are back to graduating in person, going to dances and performing plays. Families are gathering. More people are traveling.

But our lives have changed. Life is not the same. We are not the same.

As I scan the shelves, I am wearing a mask. I have been vaccinated and received two boosters. Got my flu shot, too. But I don’t want to get sick. So far, so good, and I want to keep up this record.

Mostly, I mask up in the supermarket. There are just too many people darting around near me. But my husband, Paul, and I eat indoors occasionally. We gravitate toward cavernous places where we can maintain a reasonable distance.

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In smaller stores, I’ll usually just carry my mask and put it on as needed. I was at a shop the other day and saw no need for a mask — until a group of five arrived and suddenly it was crowded.

Even though I’ve relaxed some over the past year, I’m still wary of being in groups inside. My aversion is deeply rooted in my subconscious. I can be watching a TV show, completely relaxed. Then, the actors go into a conference room. My body stiffens. They are inches apart from each other. They are sharing unwrapped candy from a dish. I think, “Don’t do it!” Or did I shriek that aloud?

I am especially amused by my reaction when I’m watching a program or film from the 1950s or ’60s — eons before the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of my earliest memories of that era is taking a bus into the city with my mother to shop. I might have my feet measured and shoes fit by a courteous and attentive clerk. Our purchases would be neatly wrapped and placed in decorative paper bags. If Mom had any questions about sizes or colors, there was an employee (usually several per department) on hand to answer them, and to accompany her and wait outside the changing room.

Now, at venues from fish markets to appliance stores, I see signs reading: “Like the rest of the world, we are experiencing staff shortages. Please be patient. Thank you.” I always am (my parents ran a small store, and I was raised to respect salespeople), but others are not. Our veterinary practice recently posted an appeal on social media in response to what must have been a verbally abusive incident — again, asking for patience if pets cannot be seen immediately.

In June, I called to see my primary care provider. I was having surgery in August and wanted to clear up a minor issue before then. Her next available date was in August. Luckily, someone else at the practice was able to see me.

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It’s not like service in any sector in 2019 was comparable to 1962 (when doctors still made house calls). But we have gone from bad to worse. I once railed against self-service checkouts. Shopping is my job, not packing it up. More important, as a proud union member all of my adult life, I saw it as a slap against labor. As more self-service units were installed, fewer people were employed.

Now, I’ll use them if I only have a few items because, usually, fewer registers are open. Lines can be long. Jobs go unfilled.

If Paul is shopping with me, and there is no bagger, he takes over. He’s getting pretty good at it.

Most of the time, I am finding what I need at the supermarket. I can have a sense of humor about what’s not available, although I almost had a breakdown when I couldn’t find frozen pepper strips. I was planning a stir-fry. I needed those peppers. Don’t do this to me, universe. Oh, there they are.

I managed to remain calm when the evaporated milk supply (needed to make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving) had been ravaged. There was no way I was going to use fat-free, but I managed to find a low-fat tucked in the back of the display. Pie turned out fine.

The cream section had been similarly ransacked that day. There were barely any cartons of any size left, and those were low-fat. What is the purpose of low-fat half-and-half, I ask you? It defies reason.

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But I am simply observing, not complaining. Cranberries were plentiful this year. There were two packages of Soft & Chewy treats left. I am eating out again.

Someday, I will be able to watch a movie at a theater, and not cringe when two people who haven’t seen each other in years embrace in the middle of a crowded train terminal.

In the meantime, I recognize that I have been through something, that I am not the same. My world is not the same. I do not dwell on it, but I don’t brush it away, either. I simply think, “This is the way we are now.”

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]


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