We were never the most efficient planners of grocery-store trips. In the old days — not all that long ago — we might go to the store every couple of days to replenish our inventory of this or that item. But no more. All our interactions with the world beyond our doorstep are now thought through ever so carefully.
After some awkward initial missteps, I have begun to refine my shopping-trip protocol. My car’s interior and its exterior door handles are to be kept clean, which means they may not be touched with hands that have touched dirty surfaces. Dirty surfaces, by definition, are those which may have been touched by someone other than my spouse or me in the last 24 hours.
When I go to the grocery store, I take two clean nitrile gloves with me — and now a mask, hand-sewn by my spouse. After I park the car and turn off the ignition, I put my car keys, my supermarket courtesy card and my credit card in the right pocket of my slacks, a detail that will prove relevant later. Then I put on my gloves and mask and head into the store.
As soon as I touch the shopping cart, or a product, with my gloved hands, those gloves are now dirty. I may no longer use my gloved hands to push my eyeglasses back up my nose or get a wisp of hair off my forehead — those tasks are now reserved for my elbow. If the mask makes my eyeglasses fog up, well, I will have to put up with that until the trip is over.
The gloves I wear are not so much about protecting my hands or the items that I purchase than about reminding me not to touch anything clean with them, especially my face.
In the old days, not very long ago, I would enter my shopping list into my phone — just by speaking into it, can you imagine! — and then I’d take my phone into the store, prop it up on the upper shelf of the cart, and go about the task of ticking items off my list. But now, before I leave the house, I write out my list on a disposable piece of paper that gets dirty in the cart while my phone stays clean in the left pocket of my slacks. Hopefully, no one will call me while I am shopping, because I will have to ignore them until my gloves are off.
Fresh fruits and vegetables present a challenge. Although supermarket produce must be presumed to be dirty, I really don’t want to add to the dirtiness by handling the items with my dirty gloved hands. So I yank a cellophane produce bag off the dispenser and use it to grab the potato or tomato or apple or onion and stuff the item into another produce bag, the one which will be weighed and taken home with me.
I should note that my most recent trip to the grocery store got moved up on the schedule because the supermarket chain announced they would have senior shopping for one hour from 7:00 am to 8:00 am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I was skeptical but went ahead and drove to the store about 7:30 am this past Wednesday. The parking lot was packed. At the checkout area, I saw plenty of cashiers but the lines stretched all the way back into the food aisles. Most shoppers (not all but most) were my age or older, but why have them all show up at the same time? Is it so seniors can get sick in solidarity?
Interestingly, when I left the store about 8:20 am, the parking lot was much less crowded. I may be getting ahead of the story, but that’s the last time I will go shopping during the senior hour.
The self-check station is the way to go these days. Yes, even if you have produce. You just take the time you need to find the PLU number, or you ask the attendant for help without feeling guilty about holding up the show. Older people would feel a lot better about life if they didn’t worry about holding up the show, which we so often do. Maybe that is the one good thing about senior hour at the grocery store — we can be pokey, and we accept it.
The self-check station has a scanner gun, which means that you don’t have to swipe your dirty item on the dirty scanner window and make it even more dirty. Instead, you just aim the gun at the barcode and then lay down the gun and figure out how to bag the item in the least bag-contaminating way. Because those bags are coming home with you, in the interior of your car, they should not be allowed to get too dirty. Probably best to bring your own bags, actually.
My protocol calls for scanning all grocery items first, no matter how often the self-check robo-voice asks me to scan my supermarket courtesy card. That waits for the very end. When the last item has been scanned, I take the dirty glove off my right hand, carefully, and put the glove in my cart. I then use my bare hand to retrieve (a) my courtesy card, which I hold a few inches over the dirty scanner window until I hear the beep, followed by (b) my credit card, which I insert into the payment slot until the screen says APPROVED. For the rest of the trip, my bare right hand will be my designated clean hand.
I use my dirty left hand to pull the receipt from the printer and put the bagged items back into the grocery cart. I hold my clean hand away from my body to remind me not to touch anything with it, as I use my dirty hand to push the cart out of the store and to my car.
I use my clean hand to take my car keys from my pocket and unlock the doors. I open the back door with my clean hand (I assume no one else touched my car while I was shopping) and then I put all the grocery bags into the back with my dirty hand.
The next step of the protocol depends on whether I will be checking our mailbox before I pull into our driveway. If I will not need to get our mail, I carefully remove the glove from my left hand and lay it on the floor of the car. Then I use both clean hands to get into the car, take off my mask, buckle up and drive home. But if I intend to check our mail, I leave the glove on my dirty left hand and drive home with my clean right hand, resting my dirty left hand on my knee during the trip home.
Note: I would use my dirty left hand to grab the steering wheel if both hands were needed to make a maneuver. I’m not going to drive dangerously. But that means I would have to wipe down the steering wheel when I got home.
To check the mail, I drive up next to the mailbox, put the car in park, reach over with my clean right hand to roll down the window and then open the mailbox and remove the mail with my dirty left hand. I toss the mail on the floor, close the mailbox, roll up the window and head up the driveway to the garage.
In the garage, I use my dirty hand to take the bags out of the back seat and carry them to my workbench, which is now the grocery decontamination area. Non-perishable items are quarantined in the garage for 24 hours before I bring them into the house. The perishable items, however, need immediate processing. With my dirty hand, I put all the perishables in a bag and enter the house, using my clean hand to operate the doorknob.
Inside, I take the perishables to the laundry room, which is right next to the garage. There, I spread out the items on the wipe-down counter next to the sink and throw the bag away. Unpackaged produce, like scallions, cannot really be wiped down, so I carry those items to the spare fridge and put them on the quarantine shelf for 24 hours.
Now I am ready to process the other perishables. I remove the remaining glove and wash my hands for 30 seconds. I also wash my face.
I have a bottle of 91% isopropyl alcohol sitting next to the sink. I create my own wipe by dampening a paper towel and then putting some alcohol on it. I wipe down the packaging of items like butter, milk, lettuce and carrots. I let those items dry off a little, then I wash my hands again and put the items in the fridge. Then I wash my hands again.
Oh, I almost forgot — the mail. Before I bring the perishables inside for wipe-down, I get the mail out of the car and carry it to the mail-processing station next to the recycle bin in the garage. At this point, I have one dirty and one clean hand. For junk mail, I use the dirty hand to toss the item right into the bin. For important mail, I open the envelope with my dirty hand, then I carefully extract the contents with my clean hand and set the contents aside. The dirty envelope gets tossed into the recycle bin.
Netflix DVDs present a challenge. Since the DVD is returned in the same envelope it was mailed in, the envelope has to be processed at the laundry room wipe-down station before it is brought into the house, along with the packaged perishables.
And that does it for grocery shopping and getting the mail. It’s all the excitement I need for one day.