After a visit to my neighborhood drug store for toilet paper, lightbulbs, and the correct coffee filters, I came back to my apartment as if in a fugue state and took stock of my purchases. I got everything that I needed, but, also, a few things I did not: nail polish, nail polish remover, seven large envelopes, and some Cadbury eggs plucked from a display near the cash register. I spent more money than I had wanted to spend, but the anxiety I had felt about leaving the house in the first place was gone, erased by the relief of consumption.
The drugstore in my neighborhood is a Duane Reade, a chain that is a suitable replacement for any other big-box retailers. A honking big suburban Target is my go-to respite for curing ennui or restlessness, but New York lacks the real estate for the kind of expansive, warehouse-esque experience I crave. A suburban Costco is truly the sweet spot—an airplane hangar full of free samples and jumbo-sized boxes of Cheerios, with a cheap hot dog as your reward. Getting out of the house—and by extension, my own head—for even a moment and going to a TJ Maxx for an hour kills time and lets me work out the issues of the day. Setting aside larger problems for the smaller, more manageable task of deciding if $24.99 is too much to spend on a blow dryer is one of life’s greatest pleasures, better than chain-smoking for an hour on a sunny beach with a beer in one hand.
The soothing nature of a big box store is undeniable. Corporations are evil and consumerism a scourge, but walking into a Target when restlessness strikes automatically makes everything feel slightly better, if only for a moment. It is an uneasy impulse, but it’s been my go-to in times of stress, and so seeking it out now tracks. But further interrogation of why a bottle of nail polish and an Aveeno foot mask that is a piss-poor imitation of Baby Feet revealed a more unpleasant truth: buying stuff I don’t need makes me feel better, more normal.
Like the zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead who mill around a shopping mall even in their undead state, my trip to the drugstore felt like an attempt at establishing a baseline of normalcy—doing the same things we would normally do, like muscle memory.
The promise of consumerism is self-improvement—that a Vitamix or a new notebook will improve your life in a demonstrable fashion. A new sweater isn’t an actual fix for an argument with an old friend, but it temporarily does the trick, creating a healthy-enough distraction that allows the mind to move on from the larger, more pressing issue. My natural reaction to change of any sort has been to bury my head in the sand for as long as is humanly possible, until it is absolutely necessary for me to acknowledge it. Leaning into denial is one way to face this crisis, but it is not necessarily the most sustainable. Denial is easier, though, because it makes the unwieldy more manageable.
It is remarkably easy to pretend that nothing is awry because plenty of superficial distraction abounds. Looking at Twitter for five minutes feels bad, but closing that app and opening Home Design, an iPhone game that allows me to pretend to buy home goods, feels better. One hour passes, and I’ve decorated a very nice bathroom and started plans for a farmhouse kitchen without thinking about the scores of corpses stacked like firewood, awaiting burial in mass graves in public parks. But leaning into denial right now will only work for a little while, because the bottom will eventually fall out.
The news is unavoidable, no matter how hard I try. On one of my infrequent grocery store trips, I stood in front of the pickle section, contemplating whether or not $6.99 for a jar of peppadew peppers was the correct amount of money to spend for an item I would consume in two days’ time. The news over the loudspeakers rattled off the latest death statistics for New York City, followed by an update on the overloaded and overwhelmed hospitals, the desperate need for ventilators, and a strident urging for everyone to stay inside.