If you’re heading to Trader Joe’s, go the first hour after they open or the last hour before they close. Any other time is asking for trouble.
During one ill-timed visit to pick up a few things, I glided in and cut an immediate right into the produce area. Even at Trader Joe’s, this section is usually less busy than others because even yuppies dislike vegetables on days when Dr. Oz hasn’t mentioned any by name. For someone with my personal space requirements, this was the area to begin. Here among the fruits and vegetables and empty space, I could maintain a wide enough berth around me to avoid the panic and claustrophobia of too many people and carts closing in. Emboldened by my success in the produce section, I’d have just enough stamina to brave the more crowded aisles.
While grabbing a bunch of bananas across from the floral displays, I sneezed once into the crook of my arm. In my peripheral vision, I barely registered someone an aisle or two over glancing up and not saying “Bless you.” I’d already learned that blessings were hard to come by at Trader Joe’s, so I didn’t think much of it. Probably allergic to something, but it didn’t matter as long as I didn’t plan on setting up camp by the bananas.
A couple of minutes and produce aisles later, there was a clearing of a throat and then a tiny voice behind me.
“Sir, hello? Excuse me sir?”
I turned to see a lily-white woman with a cherubic face. She looked to be about 30.
“This will sound strange, but… You don’t have a cold, do you?”
“No, not that I know of.”
The sneeze of a couple minutes before had seemed so incidental, such a passing thing, that it did not even occur to me what might have given her the impression of a cold. Hers was the head I had barely registered popping up in my peripheral vision, though I hadn’t made this connection yet.
“It’s just that I have an immunodeficiency disorder that makes me highly sensitive to any germs, where the smallest thing could KILL ME if I’m not careful. And a couple of minutes ago you sneezed ALL OVER my basket of groceries here (gesturing toward her full basket), so if you have any bug or anything I need to know about it so I can put all this stuff back and start over.”
Dumbfounded, I glanced around at the Trader Joe’s evening crowd to see if any of the people within earshot were sporting chunky hidden camera sunglasses. I remembered the sneeze now. The woman looked like she could be sickly. But if I took her at her word, there was the whole matter of why someone with a rare immunodeficiency disorder would put her life in jeopardy by shopping at this particular store during the evening rush. Couldn’t she have chosen a quieter time or worn a special protective suit or something? The contents of her cart suggested she had already been down other aisles, where she certainly must have encountered worse than a faraway sneeze into the crook of an arm.
A toddler rolled by in the top seat of a basket, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
“Wow, that sounds… tough. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sneeze ALL OVER your basket since there wasn’t even anybody else in the aisle at the time. (Believe me, I’d have noticed if any persons or carts broke my non-negotiable five-foot perimeter, I wanted to add.) But no, I don’t have a cold. I think it was allergies.”
She flushed a little but didn’t seem convinced.
“Okay. Sorry to bother you. I’m going to put all this stuff back just in case. Bye.”
Just like that, she was gone to retrace her steps and unload her basket. If the whole encounter hadn’t so taken me by surprise, I’d have mentioned to her about the store opening at 8 a.m. and how much more pleasant it was for people like us at that time.
I finished up in the produce area and rounded the corner to the freezer aisle, trying to map the most efficient route through the teeming masses ahead.
Holding my breath, I rolled in.