covid-19 human behavior

A COVID-19 Tale of Three Women on a Quest for Food

I opened the cargo van passenger door and jumped down onto the sidewalk. My boots hit the concrete with a deafening thud. I paused to enjoy a deep, luxurious inhale of the crisp mountainous air.

Mother Nature finally decided to turn off the “snow” light switch and the skies were sweet and clear. A stubborn sunset kept hanging on—as if Montana was making a point for me to witness its undeniable glory.

After driving for hours across the country—through a late-March mixture of rainstorms and whiteouts—feeling my feet on the ground was life-affirming.

bozeman road trip

As I walked toward the restaurant for a food pick-up, my footsteps echoed through the empty streets of downtown Bozeman. The footstep rhythm changed, growing louder. I suddenly realized I wasn’t alone.

I turned onto Main Street and faced another woman, maybe a handful of years younger than me. Wearing a red flannel, light jeans, and hiking boots beneath her chic sporty winter coat, she embodied an effortlessly rugged beauty.

We arrived at the restaurant door, perfectly in sync. I wondered what she would do, with us accidentally violating the 6-feet distance rule that had become the COVID-era norm.

I shuddered as I remembered my final human interaction in Portland, Oregon on the departure day of our cross-country move. It wasn’t a hug from a friend or a friendly wave from our neighborhood barista—it was a grocery store show-down with a stranger in a green bandana face mask.

Mr. H waited in the van as I braved the grocery store for a few provisions that would last us until our first overnight stop. Dark chocolate was enough of an incentive for me to face the dystopian environment I used to call “the store.”

I was willing to wait in line outside, then give an awkward nod to the lanky 20-something associate calling all the shots at the entrance, like a rooky club bouncer: “You can come in now. You need to wait.” And, so on.

I was willing to smile back at the pale blonde-ponytailed cashier across the plexiglass barriers that separated protected us. And, I obeyed her not-so-subtle reminder to pump out the hand sanitizer after I completed my dirty credit card transaction.

What I didn’t anticipate on my dark chocolate quest was the show-down with another grocery store customer in the candy aisle. She had a green bandana over her face and I did not. She wore mittens and I did not.

prairie dog sighting

I waited for her to make her decision, standing a safe legal distance away. Meanwhile, Mr. H, my two traumatized cats, and all of our packed-up shit waited in the rented cargo van in the parking lot. This was merely the opening scene of an excruciating four-day road trip as we moved back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the Coronavirus pandemic.

I didn’t have infinite time to make chocolate purchasing decisions—I wanted the salted dark chocolate bars…easy-peasy. The green bandana woman moved to the side. I made a bold move to grab my chocolate in the strangest way possible. I lunged forward quickly to grab the chocolate bars, keeping one foot back so I could easily make an exit.

The woman leaped off to the side as if I had burned her with a cigarette. Her eyes were wide and her skin was flushed beneath her green bandana. I felt victorious and ashamed as I gripped my chocolate bars. She slowly backed away from me, shaking her head until she rounded the end-cap and disappeared.

prairie dog look

I paid for my groceries in a daze, trying to shake off my childish bullying memories of “cooties.” As the COVID-19 frenzy escalated each day, the feeling of having cooties and being shunned by the other children, has oddly surfaced again in my life.

Just like when I was a child, I thought of all of the things I should have said or should have done. But, I was too shell-shocked to do much of anything…except feel like an outsider.

yellowstone people

As I stood in front of the restaurant door in downtown Bozeman, I anticipated another uncomfortable show-down with the beautifully rugged woman in the red flannel. She smiled at me and went in, then hold the door for me. She didn’t have a mask or gloves on and neither did I. I smiled at her and thanked her in a small, shy voice I didn’t recognize as my own.

We both waited in front of the host stand. Next to the host stand were two tables, one table for paying with your credit card and another for signing your receipt. The signing table had two pen buckets, one marked “clean” and one marked “dirty.”

The smell of bison burgers and cleaning products filled the air. Three men slaved away in the back kitchen, two cooks and one host. The host came running over to help us and I was glad the other woman was ahead of me for the food pick-up.

It gave me a chance to pull myself together.

I had been to this same burger joint, Backcountry Burger Bar, in the summer of 2018. Mr. H and I had joined up with my family from Texas and embarked on an epic summer road trip—Bozeman, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole.

yellowstone family trip

yellowstone for kids

yellowstone sisters

old faithful yellowstone

group pic on the road

This COVID-19 experience was the antithesis of those bright, carefree summer days…culminating in this deserted restaurant with the cheap sanitized pens.

That summer, Mr. H and I sat at the bar, shoulder-to-shoulder with other laughing people. It was the beginning of our road trip. The next morning we were meeting up with my family for breakfast before moving onto Yellowstone.

Business was great. My family was great. The restaurant was great. Everyone everywhere was great.

romantic yellowstone trip

Seeing the restaurant now was like a slap in the face. All of the chairs and tables in the middle had vanished. The booths and the bar were dark, shiny, and empty. The front of the restaurant was roped off and blocked by tables. It was quiet, except for the soft sounds coming from the kitchen—no music, no cutlery…just the hum of electricity.

Through it all, these three men left running the deserted burger joint were doing their damndest to cook delicious food and bring some much-needed comfort and sustenance to people like me and this local.

The host miraculously made us both feel welcome. The woman in the red flannel gave the host encouraging words and gratitude to pass onto the cooks and the restaurant owner. I overtipped and clutched my warm doggy bag. Me, the host, and the woman paused…savoring the last few seconds of face-to-face human interaction before we went our separate ways.

I held the door for her this time and she thanked me. “Have a good night,” I said.

“You too.”

We turned in opposite directions and walked down Main Street. The sunset sky had turned a rich navy and stars sprung out in the sky. Our footsteps moved in unison, growing softer and softer as we separated.

The cargo van door screeched in the quiet night as I hopped in.

Mr. H said: “How was it?”

“It was surreal. Surreal, but good.”

14 thoughts on “A COVID-19 Tale of Three Women on a Quest for Food

  1. I can only imagine… How incredibly odd it must feel after being on the road on your own, to re-enter a world where everyone is wary of one another but meet people who still know how to give a sense of confort and a smile.
    I miss going out. I miss seeing people. Other than that, those eery days are particularly interesting to witness…

    Hope the end of your trip was good. Settle in nicely.
    Take care xoxoxo

    1. The roads were so empty. On top of that we were in the middle of nowhere for days. In some ways it was good, because we couldn’t stay attached to the news. We had no signal and we were driving.

      Anyway, it was good to see people being kind out there! We’re all humans…we all want the same thing.

  2. Surreal is right, it must have been even stranger to be moving in the middle of it – moving from one reality to another while feeling like the world has also done a flip! Good luck with settling in and take care.

    1. Thank you, Andrea! People we knew were pretty much horrified that we were moving in the midst of the pandemic. But, we didn’t have much of a choice.

      Glad that we went through with it and decided to move back to Milwaukee (instead of an unfamiliar place. This is certainly a place we call home. One day we’ll get to see our family and friends here!

    1. Cooties was pretty much all I could think of. Especially when that woman backed away from me in the grocery store. Reminded me of something a child would have done. Such odd behavior!

      Yes, we are so glad to be here in Milwaukee. And though we can’t see our family and friends, at least we are all within a mile or two of each other.

  3. Nice story Britt, to be continued no doubt. I wonder if we’ll ever quite feel comfortable with strangers in close proximity again. The thought of standing at a crowded bar right now, for example, is surreal in itself.

    1. I have no idea, Roy. I imagine bars, restaurants, gyms, and hopefully (for the love of God)…airplanes…will need to retool their operations to allow people to coexist with a bit more personal space.

      I was still going to ballet class into mid-March and we are all very close to one another—with our hands on the barres. It started to get weird right until the lockdown.

      Someone would sneeze because of allergies and anyone near that person would jete (leap) the other direction. It was pretty wild!

  4. The contrast between Bozeman then and now is what impacted me the most from your ‘story.’ The imagery in your writing is perfectly chosen, and that’s why I love your writing. Your resistance novel, Beneath the Satin Gloves, will hopefully not be the lesson we have to learn from all this. The scary triplet with the health and economic impacts is what rights we’re willing to continue ceding to ‘authority’ when this is over. I’m sorry, but I grew up in the 60’s & 70’s when Liberal thought was far more skeptical than today’s version. Which reminds me of the wonderful and positive aspects of the heroines in your other novel, Nola Fran Evie. Such great role models. So many virtual hugs for you!

    1. Bozeman, then and now, was unnerving but also beautiful in some way? I can’t really explain it. We took the northern route to avoid weather, and we knew some of the stops from that Yellowstone road trip. Seemed like a good move.

      It was haunting in many ways, but at least we knew where the good food was in Bozeman. And we were able to support one of the few restaurants that was open.

      I feel especially weird about having wrote Virasana, which is still unpublished. It’s startling how relevant that became, with love, affection, and community vanishing.

  5. If there’s one silver lining to all this, it’s the fact that we’ll never complain about too-crowded restaurants again.

    Well, at least not for a while…

  6. I’m glad you made it through safely! I try to smile as much as possible to people, despite my mask, knowing that it makes a huge difference. But so many people aren’t avoiding physical contact, they’re avoiding eye contact. That’s the part that disturbs me the most. As though we’re all suspicious of each other. It’s sad, and I’m looking forward to getting through this!

    1. The suspicion is what concerns me. How long will this last? Even when things open up again, people will be acting weird around each other for a while.

      When I go for my long city walks, I get a mixture of reactions. Some people smile, make eye contact, and pass at a reasonable distance—and others cross the street before I approach and hurry away. We’re all ready for this to be over, but I do wonder what the next phase of this really looks like.

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