Saturday, March 14, 2020

Panic, hoarding, and profiteering in the time of the plague

One of the techniques used to discourage a range of crimes from
collaboration with the enemy to black market profiteering during WWII
I first noticed it Thursday night when I went to my closest supermarket, around the corner and just down the block, here in Manhattan. 

I was looking for a quart of milk that I could use with my breakfast Cheerios and my coffee the next morning. And a loaf of bread so that I could make sandwiches for lunch. And a bottle of Shout, the laundry stain remover, so that when I did my laundry again, I could get out the splotches I’d accidently caused on one of my polo shirts when I distractedly waved a spoonful of tomato soup.

“Social distancing” 
for the hungry

I stepped into the supermarket, one of the many in the D’Agostino chain here in New York. It looked like the day before Thanksgiving in there. The lines stretched roughly ten shoppers deep at each of the five checkout counters. Social distancing to avoid catching the Corona Virus? Hah! Not if you want to get food here in New York.

I picked up the last of the available shopping baskets. All of the others were evidently in use. Then I started making my way up the crowded aisles. They were crowded with people, not products.

Fortunately, I wasn’t shopping for meat, because there didn’t appear to be any. When I got to the milk refrigerator, I discovered there was no milk. Well, there were a few containers of pricey New Age-y stuff — oat milk, almond milk, soy milk. But real milk? 

Gone! All out. Not a quart, not a half gallon, certainly not a gallon of the real stuff. (A gallon jug would overcrowd my own refrigerator anyway.) There was no whole milk. No two percent or one percent or fat-free. Nothing. Nada.

Bread? Also gone. This particular D’Agostino has two bread sections — one for artisanal stuff like brioche loaves and uncut loaves of crusty whole wheat, and one for what the French call “industrial bread” — you know, the mass produced stuff from places like Pepperidge Farm.

Bare shelves and old symbols

Didn’t matter. The shelves were empty. Bare. All you could see was naked enameled steel, resembling the shelves I used to notice in photographs when I was a kid back in the 1940s and 1950s. They depicted supermarket shelves on a typical day in the Soviet Union, where workers stood in line for hours in the hope of finding a loaf of bread. Our own politicians and propagandists waved the photographs about, almost gleefully. 

Empty shelves were the symbol of a failed system overseen by an uncaring and incompetent government, like a Communist government. But this was the good old U.S. of A. Couldn’t happen here!

But I figured I’d at least pick up a spritz bottle of Shout. Even if I couldn’t eat my cereal or make a sandwich, I’d be able to get the stains out of my shirt.

No such luck. In the household products section everything was gone. The hand soap was gone. The bar soap was gone. The laundry detergent was gone. The bleach was gone. The toilet paper and paper towel and even paper napkin shelves were empty. And yes, the Shout was gone, too. We may all die of the Corona Virus Plague, but at least they’ll be able to bury us in spotless clothes. Whoops! Correction on that. At least they’ll be able to bury the lunatics who grabbed up all the Shout in spotless clothes.

The giant milk
storage conundrum

Will somebody please explain something to me? Where the hell — especially in the city of New York where most of us are living in fewer than 450 square feet per person and a 12-cubic foot refrigerator is borderline humongous — where the hell are these people going to store all that milk? And even if they’re living on Park Avenue with a kitchen big enough to house a Sub-Zero, stainless steel, walk-in closet of a refrigerator, how the hell are they going to drink it all before it sours?

Friday morning I got on the Internet and went to Fresh Direct, the big grocery delivery site in New York. I spent a half hour "shopping" items. Then I went to the checkout page, where I was asked to pick a delivery date. The first available date was in seven days. Seven!

So nuts to that. But seven blocks away from where I live there’s a big — no girnormous — supermarket called Fairway. Whenever I’m in there, they’re constantly stocking the shelves. And they always seem to have everything, from luxury brand soups in exotic flavors, to prime rib, to at least ten varieties of artisanal bread baked on the premises. So later on that day, I went to Fairway in search of a loaf of bread.

I might as well have searched Mars. At the artisanal bread counter, I asked where all the loaves were?  The baker shrugged. “Sold out,” he told me, walking away. The commercial bread shelves were also completely bare. 

I did notice a woman who had six one gallon jugs of water in her cart. I stopped her. I asked her, “Why are you loading up on water like that? Even if the stores run out, tap water’s perfectly safe in New York.”

“What if the virus gets into the water system?” she said. “When things get real bad, they’re gonna turn off the water.”

First of all, in order to get this particular virus into the water system, they’ll have to start drowning infected people in the reservoirs.

“What makes you think they’re going to turn off the water?” I asked her.

“Oh, I heard,” she said. In other words, who was I going to believe? Science and common sense, or her lying ears?

So much for the sophistication of my fellow New Yorkers.

Meat was nearly gone at the same Fairway. Hallelujah — there was milk! So I grabbed a bottle. 

Yes, we have no eggs

“Looking for eggs?” one sympathetic shopper said, smiling wanly. “Forget about it. They’re out of eggs.” Fortunately, they did still have a few containers of liquid egg white. I bought one.

This morning I made myself an egg white omelet and ate my last slice of bread, while reading the New York Times online. I happened to stumble across a story about some guy in the South who drove around two states buying up all the hand sanitizer a he could get his hands on at every Dollar Store and convenience outlet he could find. He emptied out the shelves. That way, nobody in his area could buy hand sanitizer at retail. Then he started selling dollar bottles of the sanitizer on Amazon for as much as $70 each, until Amazon dropped him.

“They shoot black marketers
   don’t they?”

During WWII, people like that in the United States were called black market profiteers and went to prison. Meanwhile, in parts of Europe, partisans lined them up against a wall and shot them.

There’s a lesson in there for what has to start happening in this country. While the plague lasts  people should be limited to buying a loaf or two of bread at a time. Issue ration stamps, if necessary, for everything from white bread to Clorox to toilet  paper.

As for the profiteers who are doing this stuff? Well, this isn’t wartime Europe. We can’t put them in front of firing squads.

On the other hand, where are all those defenders of waterboarding now that we need them?


Comrade Misfit said...

I concur.

Kaleberg said...

My niece lives in New York. She too was trying to figure out why people were hoarding water. She figured that maybe others knew something that she didn't. We couldn't explain it either. She bought two cans of soup instead of one.

Mark Evanier, on his blog, noted that he is hoarding water because his tap water is foul. He can't bring himself to drink it, and he always uses bottled water. As a backup, he bought a spare Brita filter which makes his tap water endurable.

We aren't too sure what the hoarding is about. How much toilet paper do people use anyway? Are there more assholes out there than one might suspect. Don't answer that.