Doing grocery in the time of Covid-19

Depending on one’s level of optimism there are many reasons one can be thankful about for having to go through the newly established daily rituals everyone is forced to have because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, my younger sister messaged me at 8 in the morning to remind me of our planned trip to the grocery. Gulping half a box of milk, washing my face, brushing my teeth, and putting on an ill-fitting surgical mask I dragged myself to a nearby SM Hypermart only to discover that the path leading to it from my condominium was closed, so my sister and I had to go to the direction of EDSA to get to the grocery. Upon arriving, I half-expected but still couldn’t help myself but be amazed by the sight of a line of people waiting for the grocery to open slithering several meters from the main entrance to the back facing Main Ave.

Meanwhile, the sun has begun its relentless ascent, unmindful of whether its prickly rays hit someone who wants to get a nice tan in the city or a woman who has just survived her first chemotherapy session for skin melanoma. Nobody appeared visibly bothered, not even the woman I suspected to be suffering from a kind of cancer.

It’s equality in the flesh, but equality is a myth. Some brought with them foldable chairs, others a plastic chair that when folded a certain way functions as an umbrella, still others have plastic carts sturdy enough to be sat on. I quietly sat on the floor with my shopping bag as the only thing that separated my buttock from the concrete floor that for all I know harbored Covid-19-laden particles.

Various iterations of face masks spat at the face of the myth of equality most of us delude ourselves into believing. There were those made from small pieces of cloth that on a regular days may be used as rags, most wear the run-of-the-mill bought-from-pharmacy variety, still others reinforced their masks by placing a roof-like structure made from clear, semi-hard transparent plastic just below their eyes for the purpose of keeping droplets that may contain the viruses from getting straight into their medical-grade face mask.

The author and his younger sister at 8:43 in the morning waiting outside SM Hypermart in Cubao.

We arrived at 8:10, two hours later we’re already inside the building that looks like a giant warehouse but not yet on the actual floor of the grocery. This I refer to as the pandemic retail purgatory whose length of one’s stay will depend on how much anxiety those on the actual grocery floor feel and the level of leisure in the way they approach shopping for basic needs. My sister, I, and those lucky enough to arrive early were seated on plastic chairs whose ghastly green color added to the cheeriness SM wants to see among its captive customers. We remained seated for another hour and a half.

People resisted this state-sanctioned, industry-supported enforced cheeriness by keeping that glum face the entire time or make the boredom the subject of the spectacle they want everyone to be an audience of, or as in the case of the woman standing behind the cash registry of Goldilocks, closed the registry with so much force that 10-peso coins are mixed up with the 25-cents. Some played their favorite music, unaware of the fact that their taste in music is not something many shared.

I never felt a proximity this close with people before. Whereas before the pandemic I could choose to maintain my distance from anyone whose presence I have this unexplained aversion for, this time, whether I like it or not I have to be with them, though maintaining a radius purportedly enough to keep the virus from spreading, hence my pithy contribution in flattening the curve. I never felt this isolated yet this close to them. We felt an almost grotesque same level of anxiety, and it’s now more than ever do I feel more human, more connected, yet more separated from everyone else, except of course my cat.

Stops and interruptions

I was holding a thick paperback of Borges’s collection of non-fictions on a train going to Boni, reading portions of some short articles when the ride is not too bumpy straining my eyes that have gone more fragile as the days go by, or during every stop. There is something about these short stops and interruptions that affects how I read a piece of literature. Because I very rarely find time to stay in one place for longer than an hour, except during my classes in grad school that stretch for three hours, I consider my time spent on these train coaches my only reading time. I take no heed of the population density inside these trains, have gone oblivious to the human stench, and have learned to keep my ears shut from trivial conversations that interest me no more.

To me, reading is an act of aggression, a war waged against a repressive environment that does its best to keep one from that intimate contact with the written language. I find it very ironic that while I teach reading Literature, I have always been at a lack of time to let the ideas I read simmer, reflect on their implications to my understanding, and in worst cases, read. And so, I have to set aside the limitations posed by my economics, academics, and the personal to somehow still find time to sit on a bench, or stand while one hand is holding a cold metal railing, and the other a book, and read as if books are as illicit as a cap of E. Assuming that the unlawfulness of books gives its reader a sense of power (diabolical or divine, it does not matter).

The stops and the interruptions at first functioned as wide, perilous voids I needed to cross in order to get  to the opposite end that promises understanding and multi-layered meanings, but, as in all other things that began as a debility, getting used to these stops and interruptions allowed me to use them to my advantage. Each of these I spend looking at the horizon, or at close-ups of people who are, like me, packed like sardines inside a nearly dilapidated train coach. These long shots and close-ups are observations, mental accounts of humanity in various contexts that are reflected, nuanced, critiqued, pitied, adored, laughed at, pilloried, worshipped, lambasted, but generally, celebrated in Literature, allowing me to get so close to what it’s like being human.

There is no such thing as a ‘perfect reading experience’, only experiences that give a book, that is, if it is truly great, as many intimations as the souls drinking it.

The commonplace and the routine

When one is confronted with the commonplace and the routine, he is also faced with a blandness so trivial it discourages him from writing. Boredom dominates our existence. Only in movies does life exhibit that ‘life-likeness’; in reality life is predictable and trite.

It is not to say, however, that I have altogether stopped writing these days. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true, I am writing like a deranged man meeting impossible deadlines. Grad school eats a big chunk of my time, writing term papers, proposals, and reports. But these are texts I myself find very uninteresting to read.

The irony of my situations sticks as hard as greenish phlegm on the walls of my lungs in rainy seasons. While I tell my students to write whenever they find time to pencil their thoughts into any surface, I cannot find time to sit and meditate like a member of the bourgeois, de-synchronize myself from the neurotic pace of everything, think about existentialist ideas I pretend I have in latency, and have these reflected in a readable medium.

I have none of these luxuries.

Last night, as we are wont to do recently, we lay next to each other in a single bed, exchanging stories, laughing at each other’s jokes, talking about our past and our future, waiting for sleep to visit us. These sweeping moments are my welcome excuse from the commonplace and the routine. These sweeping moments we spend together, in tight embrace, are just a few of those very few things that I look forward to at the end of the day. Although I do not have the luxury of time that will allow me to linger on the intangibles or be saddled by the frivolity of some of my pursuits, I find myself unable to negotiate these few hours before midnight and have it exchanged for something else, because the holding of each other’s hand, hearing each other’s hushed breathing, looking at each other’s eyes, make me forget even for a sweeping moment how commonplace and routine all else are.

A proclivity for the mundane

One is often left to wonder what has become of our world today. We are all parts of a system that goads us to look at the ‘bigger picture’ but often we end up nitpicking about the most banausic of topics and non-issue. Most of the time, our nonchalance in the face of most events occurring before us is rivaled only by our passion for the least germane aspects of the issue at hand. What is worse is that more often than not, the issues we chose to get ourselves involved in are those that matter to no one, not even to us, but which we chose to get involved in still because in this age not being a part of a fight, not being a member of an advocacy group, not being driven by something, not having an opinion on something are tantamount to letting go to waste the freedom we are supposed to be enjoying, for not doing so is an unforgivable ingratitude.

And so we’ll fill any space imaginable with all the refuse our minds happen to contain. The internet has become an open dump site for all the trash we cannot afford to bleed into our reality, but, as is inevitable, this bloody business we are a part of is hemorrhaging freely into the material world, all for the sake of the ‘freedom (of speech)’ which we all feel we’re entitled to. It’s not whether what we say is inspired by some noble motive or that it’s a product of careful thinking, the more pressing question for us is whether we have something to say right at this moment. And there is where the peril lies.

This is how we cope with the gnawing insignificance the world is making all of us feel, but which none of us will whole-heartedly admit; this is a very human response to something as dehumanizing as living in this point of our present. It is perfectly human.

When we’re confronted with the uncertain, we talk endlessly, in gibberish, to drown any suspicion that this reality is a mirage. And so, to remind us of our corporeality, we talk, using a language only we can decipher. And the others, yes, they’re our conspirators. Of course, they also talk using a language, theirs, but certainly not our language. And, we talk, mimetically. What is interesting, however, is that there is a semblance of comprehension, a constructed reality existing in a vacuum, a phantasm perhaps, deluding us into thinking that communication has occurred when in fact what has only transpired is a useless exchange of meaningless but intelligent-sounding, grammatically correct, syntactically appropriate arrangement of words we all refer to as our opinion. Verbalizing this is the be-all and end-all of talk. After all, this is a time of unbridled liberty, where one man’s rubbish is as significant and as worthy of our precious little time as the other man’s puke.

Slew

My absence here for the past days, unlike the not a few times I went on a hiatus before, was not because of some complications I’ve gotten myself entangled into but because I found it more and more difficult to secure even a mere thirty minutes to reflect and write my thoughts down. My weekdays are jam-packed with responsibilities at work and my studies; my Saturdays, woefully, are barely spared.

Fortunately, however, because of some levels of criminality in me that I have successfully kept in latency, in between breaks (or classes), I’d clandestinely let go of my unexpressed resentment, happiness, frustrations, ennui, and sadness on pieces of papers that I always keep. I think that by writing them down I am purging myself of excess emotions that do nothing but keep me from accomplishing my tasks, or violence that I would, in very rare cases, manifest, although not completely because I am a good citizen of the state.

Silence, in addition to rest, has also become impossibly elusive; in fact, it is beginning to have that illicit feeling to it whenever I get hold of it in especially rare and fleeting cases, such as when I am sitting on a toilet bowl or when I am beginning to sleep and having REM. Either the metro drowns me in ceaseless, diaphanous noise, or I hear the monotonous sound of my voice, which can be very irritating at times, but quite often, as among narcissists of my kind, I’d find myself listening to its cadence, quality, and idiosyncrasy with furtive conceit. It was a mistake choosing to live on this part of the planet, but I’d be more mistaken if I think that there was a choice to begin with.

What makes this generation of young people unique (and superior) is that we think that noise is a given, that it is necessary in the unobstructed marching of time. We survive despite it, and even thrive in it. It is a surprise that we have not all gone mad, that we’re able to take hold of and keep our sanity quite impeccably. Silence is an underrated, if not a forgotten, virtue (?) of this generation. The more we talk (and hear ourselves talk) the more we think we are intelligent and that we matter.

I talk endlessly, and , on these days, seldom write.

Cynic

My long absence from my blog allowed me time to reflect about the entire idea of cynicism, and why people in this part of the world are so adept at cloaking their mistrust of their fellows by feigning happiness and careless abandon. Now I have a clearer understanding why the guy seated next to me on a train straddles his backpack in front of him, choosing to look ridiculous than having his possession snatched from him by me or that guy with a suspect stare standing right in front of him, clutching the bacteria-strewn stainless bar.

My optimism about anything and everything that this city stands for has been totally demolished, confronting me with a cold reality of my insignificance and of everyone else’s who lives in this place. I want to spray sharp invectives at the first, second, third, and so on person I meet every time I leave my room darkened by the shadow of gloom of the building beside it.

It used to be easier to steer myself away from this cynicism before, but as I age, I found it more and more difficult to keep myself unconsumed by it, unscathed by it.

I’m back to writing now.

But I am not the same man.

This night I lost my bed

I arrived in my room at 10 this evening and found that my bed is missing. My heartless broker removed my old bed without replacing it as she promised me. So while I am typing this post, I am on the floor, thinking how miserable life is, trying my best to contain the resentment I feel for her.

I sent her several messages earlier this evening asking her to show me the Meralco bills where she based the approximately 4000 pesos I pay for electric bill every month. 4000 pesos, that’s how much I spend for electricity alone living in a very small room that has in it a less-than-a-horsepower air-con, a small lamp, and a laptop. This shoebox of a room which I only get to occupy from 11 in the evening until six the following morning costs a fortune, an amount that scandalizes anyone who knows that I am an impecunious working student.

But I do not want to feel contempt, sulk, and think that I am the most pitiful twenty-something in the world this evening. Instead I shall sleep my soundest sleep on the floor tonight and be thankful for the beautiful view outside, the cool air coming from my overworked air-con, and the beautiful song playing.

I am tired, and to feed on this bad feeling about my situation and contempt for that woman is a luxury I can hardly afford.