News and Commentary

CAMP: My Surreal Trip To The Drug Store In The American COVID-19 Epicenter
Frank Camp.
Frank Camp wearing N95 mask.

[NOTE: The following is a narrative op-ed about a typically routine activity of mine that has been altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. I believe it will shed light on the every day changes we’ve seen in our lives, especially for those who live in high-density areas such as myself. Everything that you read below occurred exactly as described.]

I need my medication. Unfortunately, that means I had to leave my apartment. I have to get to the pharmacy. Two months ago, that would have been an easy proposition – no fuss, in and out. Now I’m in a different world.

I exit my apartment building. Aside from my N95 mask, which I purchased from a local hardware store in mid-February, I bring with me only the essentials. Credit card, ID, Metro card, and keys. I leave my phone at home so I don’t have to use any of my disinfectant products on it later. I can’t replenish my supply, and I have little left to waste.

Everyone is wearing a mask. N95, surgical, improvised. It’s as if three-fourths of the population has simply disappeared. The streets aren’t barren, but the human traffic of New York City is lower than I’ve ever seen.

I walk down the metal stairs briskly. As I swipe my Metro card through the slider, the digital text reads: “Insufficient Fare.” Great. In a regular time, this wouldn’t be cause for frustration, but nothing about today is regular. The card refill machines are touch-based. Who might have touched this screen in the last few days? Has it even been wiped down?

New York City isn’t the cleanest place.

I refill my card, clink through the turnstile, and stand by for the elevator. A few people wait with me. We enter the large metallic elevator and spread out as much as we can. The operator isn’t wearing a mask. He trades a few jokes with a woman behind me who tells him he should be more careful given his job. Nevertheless, he’s jovial, telling us as we exit the elevator that laughter kills the coronavirus.

I smile behind my mask.

Eight minutes until the next train. As I lean against a tiled column on the dingy platform, an announcement crackles through the speakers telling passengers that the trains are operating for essential personnel only, and to stay home. The train finally approaches. It whirs by and grinds to a halt.

Only a handful of people are present in my particular car. We ride in silence for several stops.

I exit at my station, and begin walking toward the drug store. I know there will be a line outside, but how long will it be? As soon as I turn the corner, I see it. A row of twenty-five to thirty people stretching down the street. “Is this the line for the drug store?” I ask a short woman with a bandana covering a surgical mask. “It starts there,” she replies, pointing behind her to a separate line that has formed on the other end of the wide sidewalk.

I walk toward the end of the line. It bears repeating that we all wear masks. We all stand six feet from the person in front of us. Well, most of us do these things. Several individuals stand in closer proximity. One woman wears no mask or gloves. The odd one out, she talks on her phone and rubs her nose with her left hand.

“Are you kidding me?” I think to myself.

Her display reminds me to fold my arms tightly. I won’t violate rule number one. Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Because I don’t have my phone, I stand and watch the world around me, the people walking by. A drug store across the street acts as a mirror. A line extends down the sidewalk, hugging the wall of the building.

So many businesses are closed. The Dunkin Donuts is shuttered, as is a clothing store next to it. A restaurant on the other side of the road is boarded up. Are they protecting their windows until they return, or have they been forced to close up shop for good? An ambulance flies by, siren blaring.

“COVID or something else?” I think. “Are the EMTs adequately protected?”

I find myself wondering about the latest death toll, and if the city will continue to see a decline in hospitalizations and ICU admissions as it has for the past two days. “Will we stay in the high-500 range? Is that the peak? Or is this merely a lull?”

It’s troubling to have so little understanding of what’s happening.

The line moves in small bursts. The masked employees at the door are letting only a handful of people into the store at a time. They wave the next group in, and we all step forward.

Several men without face masks are walking by the drug store, their path uncomfortably close to the building, close to the waiting line. “There’s fifteen feet of sidewalk, and you have to be this near to me?” I think. “Take two steps to the left.”

Another ambulance whizzes by.

After several people exit the drug store, it’s finally my turn. My group is waved in, and just as I enter the building through the busted automatic door, the overhead speakers project a message I’ll hear multiple times over the next ten minutes. “Please keep your distance from the cashiers for purposes of health and safety.”

I walk slowly behind the woman in front of me in order to make sure the line order remains intact. She stops cold in the middle of the aisle, and I pause behind her. She notices, and lets me know with a wave of her hand that she’s not going to the pharmacy, and that I can move ahead.

As I approach the pharmacy, duct tape marks the floor indicating where each customer is supposed to stand in order to maintain appropriate distance from one another. A small paper sign above a sanitizer station gives us the same message.

I’m close enough now to see the front end of the pharmacy, which is draped from ceiling to counter in clear plastic sheeting. It’s sensible yet somehow still astonishing to see first hand. Wearing masks and gloves, pharmacists and customers slide medications, ID, and cash payments under the rubbery barrier.

It’s my turn. I step forward and tell the pharmacist that I’m there to pick up medication for myself. She makes me repeat my first name three times. Between my N95 mask and the heavy sheeting, it’s difficult to be heard clearly. The transaction is mercifully swift.

I finally have my medication.

Following our exchange, I thank the pharmacist, and detour down the aisle. I realize that I don’t have a thermometer at home. I’ll need one eventually. I’m also running low on a particular cleaning supply item. I ask an employee where the thermometers are located. He tells me that they’re out of stock. No cleaner either.

“Try coming back tomorrow,” he says from underneath a surgical mask. “We should be getting a new shipment.”

As I exit the store, I see that the line is as long as it was when I first arrived. I hear the siren of yet another ambulance a block or so over. It’s as if the world around me has petrified.

Trudging up the stairs to the subway platform, I am once again treated to the crackling message telling riders to stay home. This is for essential personnel only. I board the train, and sit down, hands firmly gripping my small paper bag. I arrive at my station, and make my way to the surface. Half a block from home, I carefully remove my N95 mask by the back straps, and toss it into a street corner trash can.

I’m home – but there are still more tasks to accomplish. I remove my clothes that were exposed to the subway seats, and throw them into the washing machine, and I wash my hands twice. “Better safe than sorry,” I tell myself. My credit card, ID, and keys must also be sanitized with an alcohol wipe.

Two months ago, I would have been home an hour ago. It took some time, but the tendrils of this new normal seem to have fully wormed their way across the city and wrapped themselves around the necks of all five boroughs. I don’t know when “new normal” will change, nor do I know what it will change into. What I do know is that this pandemic has brought the world to its knees, and brute-forced a mass behavioral change we couldn’t have imagined just a short time ago.

A simple trip to a pharmacy in the epicenter reinforces that surreal reality.