At the Greenspring Shopping Center in Pikesville, I come out of Shoppers grocery store still blinking from the empty shelves that once contained acres of toilet paper and tissue, chicken breasts and meatloaf, and bump into a woman who runs a local bank branch.
“I haven’t seen so many empty shelves,” she says, “since I left the Soviet Union 30 years ago.”
I head over to the Pikesville Giant on Old Court Road, in search of the stuff missing from Shoppers, and head straight for the shelves that once held meats and poultry.
I find more empty shelves.
“You expecting any deliveries?” I ask the man who runs the meat section.
“Already had ‘em,” he says.
“Where’s all the stuff?”
“Gone,” he says, holding up his hands, palms up. “Gone. Soon as the stuff comes in, it goes back out.”
We’re not used to such emptiness, of course. It reminds me a little of the gas shortages of the 1970s. My old newspaper sent me up to some small towns in Western Maryland, considered too small and too far away for trucks to deliver food stuffs.
Those shelves out there were empty –- not just of meat and poultry, not just paper goods, but everything.
But there’s a memory that goes even further back. At the height of the Cold War, and our anxieties over nuclear annihilation, there was a book called “Alas, Babylon,” written by Pat Frank and then made into a TV movie with Don Murray, Rita Moreno and Burt Reynolds. It was a fictional account of all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The bombs have started dropping on both countries, and major cities are getting obliterated. The scene is a small town in Florida. A guy’s gone to the local Western Union office (remember those?) to send a telegram (remember those?) to his bank in Boston.
But Western Union can’t get through.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the man is told, “but there doesn’t seem to be a Boston anymore.”
There’s that kind of desolate feel at the food stores now. There doesn’t seem to be any more of so much stuff we’ve always taken for granted. It feels like a war’s taking place.
But just as “Alas, Babylon” was fiction, so is this notion of some sort of oncoming famine, of food shelves remaining empty for the foreseeable future.
Reliable reports say there’s plenty of food across America, and plenty of functioning delivery systems. It’s our own anxiety that’s sending us into even deeper anxiety. The more we buy in unnecessary quantities, and the more we hoard, the more we create the illusion of “America the Plentiful” running aground.
This coronavirus has everybody feeling as if we’re in an old “Twilight Zone” episode. We’re in uncharted territory. But we’ll get through this, if we don’t scare ourselves to death first.
At the Giant, one of the fellows behind the deli counter offered a little ray of hope. There was a small backup there around mid-day Tuesday, Mar. 17, but the shelves were full and there was no sense of desperation in the air.
“First time we’ve had a chance to breathe in the last five days,” he said. “Maybe people are calming down.”
Maybe it’ll stay calm long enough to restock a few empty shelves at grocery stores everywhere.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
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