I went to H-Mart today to buy rice. As I drove down South Tacoma Way, I listened to a swirl of dizzying news about the looming pandemic.
I will be the first to admit that I am not a prevailing “cool head.” I am not stoic. I am not my mother despite what my wife, Megan, thinks.
I was voted “Class Clown” by my high school class, which means in every situation I’m hysterical. Humor has always been my defense mechanism and right now, in the middle of all this shit, I’m goddamned hilarious.
When my friend Colleen described the coronavirus as “a tiny organism that kills you by having sex in your lungs,” how did I respond? “Maybe we should call them organasms.” Boom. Comedy gold.
Riding with me in the car were my favorite work gloves, Fred and Barney. I don’t like the smell of gas on my hands, so they always tag along in case I have to fill up.
There’s also a 3M particle mask named “Shasta” which I acquired during a previous crisis: the forest fires of Northern California.
I will never forget Redding. It was an apocalyptic war zone. The sky was burnt umber and the world squirmed inside a hellish glow. Everyone was wearing protection and no one was talking to each other. I pulled into a gas station and filled up. The smoke was so thick it burned my lungs.
Next door was a small hardware store so I popped my head in.
“I don’t suppose you have any smoke masks?”
They pointed to a huge wooden crate in the middle of the floor. At the bottom there were two three-packs. I bought one for five bucks. Since the freeway was closed, I had to take a 300-mile detour around Lake Shasta. To my surprise, 10 minutes out of town I found nothing but blue skies, green trees, and white wind turbines for five hours. The weird thing is I enjoyed the ride because I knew hell was behind me.
I wish I could give everyone a glass of that feeling right now.
As I sat in the parking lot today I asked myself, “Is this the day I start wearing Fred, Barney and Shasta to go shopping?”
I looked around. No one else was, so I left them on the front seat. The market wasn’t crowed at all. In fact, it was quiet. I heard that Tacomans were staying away from Asian markets, either out of an irrational fear of Chinese rice or a nostalgic sense of xenophobia, so I pounced on the opportunity.
My shopping list consisted of the usual suspects. Baby bok choy. Ginger. A tin of Joy Luck Jasmine Tea. Ramen. Yes Chips. And two bags of rice, one brown and one white. We like to mix them.
Upon checkout the cashier looked into my cart and said, “One bag.”
“What?” I said as I fumbled for my Alaska Airlines credit card.
“You can only buy one bag of rice,” she snapped.
Without missing a beat I questioned the legitimacy of the policy. “But they’re different,” I asserted. “One is brown and one is white and we like to mix them.”
She flatly rejected the logic that different rices deserve different treatment. “One bag.” She insisted.
Without fail, my defense mechanism kicked in. “Do you have a problem with the mixing of the rices?”
Blank stare. “One bag.”
“But I have a nose for both brown rice AND white rice. Maybe you should pick it.”
Nothing. “One bag!”
I reluctantly chose the brown.
A young man behind me overheard our conversation and snickered. “I’ll buy you the other bag,” he said softly.
My brain played the final scene form Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
I looked at the cashier as if to ask, ‘You good with that?’ ‘She shrugged her shoulders, shook her head, and sighed, “It doesn’t seem right.”
I couldn’t have agreed more. Nothing seems “right.”
When I was in Redding and the world was on fire, there was terror and sadness in everyone’s eyes. Yet no one was dropping dead. There wasn’t a silent killer lurking on every doorknob. No one was building field hospitals on soccer fields. But today I was in an Asian grocery in Washington State in the middle of a deadly hot zone and what did I find? An eerie calm and a gentle voice. How am I supposed to work with that?
Perhaps it’s true that in the worst of times we find the best in ourselves. But tonight, in the safety of my home, with Basil Hayden Bourbon melting away the tiny glaciers in my glass, I must be honest, I feel an unsettling ambivalence. A tenuous balance between heaven and hell. And it’s all because I went to buy rice and came home with something for which I did not bargain: hope.
And of course by “hope” I mean, “I hope I didn’t contract COVID-19.” Boom.