Those who panic about the snow look like us

February 13, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Thursday night I entered the food store and got out, I think, sometime Friday morning. The weather forecasters were calling for snow. My refrigerator and my pantry were completely empty (as these things go) with barely enough essentials to get us through next August if, God forbid, the ice didn't melt by then.

This is our universal mind-set every time a new Age of Shovelry arrives. Fear of starvation becomes a byproduct of each passing cloud. We head for the food stores and line up like Russians waiting for something to make into borscht.

Were the forecasters right this time? Did we get dumped on? Yes! But we do our religious pilgrimages to the food stores at the merest hint of trouble. At the height of the political Cold War, people didn't stock up their fallout shelters the way Baltimoreans stock up their kitchens every time there's a threat of meteorological cold war.

By 8 o'clock Thursday night at the food store, the shelves were filled with nothing where once there had been innocent loaves of bread, kidnapped before their time by wild-eyed shoppers with visions of having to eat their young if they didn't stock up abundantly for the predicted 3-inch onslaught from the skies.

In shopping carts, there were mountains, entire Mount Everests, of toilet paper and kitty litter. Some said the kitty litter was for spreading over sidewalks, giving a little traction. But who could explain all this toilet paper? You're expecting cabin fever, you stock up on booze and old Humphrey Bogart videos, maybe, but what is this fetish Baltimoreans get for toilet paper in snow?

In the checkout line, there were 14 people in front of me and, quickly, five more behind me. I drifted away from my cart and counted the people in the line next to mine: 21. Next to that: 17 people. There were half a dozen lines this long and longer, stretched from the cashiers most of the way down the various food aisles. People had edgy, red-rimmed eyes, as though they had been standing there since the previous weather pattern. Or maybe they'd been there since last March's Storm of the Century, not wanting to get caught short of toilet paper again.

In bad moments, people cursed the cashiers, cursed the weather gods, cursed each other for panicking. All through the long wait, people exchanged glances that said, "Can you believe all these stupid people shopping like this? Why do they always act so stupidly at every prediction of snow?

Nobody quite made the connection that "they" are "we."

In such moments, we tell ourselves lies. It's not the threat of snow that's brought us. No, no, of course not. It's just that we needed a few items. It's just that, this week, with the snow being predicted, for some reason we each seem to need shopping carts filled with the vital necessities of life (such as capers, Tabasco sauce and hearts of palm. Heaven forbid, we should have a hearts of palm dearth).

"I've got cashiers working 12-hour days today," said the store manager, looking bleary-eyed. "They want to go home. We all want to go home."

"If they moved a little faster," said a shopper with a voice like an ice pick who seemed to have stood in line for much of those 12 hours, "we could all get home." He was standing with a shopping cart that had enough food to last him for the rest of the decade.

The problem is, in weather like this, everyone thinks we'll have to stay home, not just for a few days, but forever. Something primitive comes over us, some ancient instinct passed down from caveman days, or from Russian grandparents, to build a nest and protect our loved ones, to protect what we have, to sit in front of warm, glowing objects, such as fires or television sets, with our bodies wrapped around the heat of a pot roast. It's not that we need all of this food, of course. Spring will eventually come and, long before that, the roads will be clear enough to make it back to the food store. The shelves will be filled once more. Nobody seriously thinks in terms of famine. It's not our needs, it's our wants. We want what we want, and we want it now. We blame our children for wanting instant gratification, but grownups aren't much better.

We're entitled to our desires. It's just that, next time we hear the weather forecasters predicting snow, and we find ourselves standing 14th in line at the food store, when we wonder where all these panicky people came from, we should check the address in our own wallets.

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