On Friday, I drove my trike over to Walgreens on Roosevelt Boulevard, the busy four shopping artery that connects Old Town with US 1. I said I’d never take my bike there, but it was a pretty evening and I had been inside all day. Earlier, I had a telehealth appointment with my ENT doctor, who gave me a shopping list of items to try for my clogged left ear. Unless I had something like ear cancer, he explained, he wasn't seeing people. Actually, I was kind of relieved to not have to go to his office.
The evening air was pleasant and hardly humid. I took to the sidewalk for my eastbound route, following the Gulf side of the road. At 7 pm, the water was silver and flat, mirroring the lowering sun, which still shone brightly as it dipped toward the horizon. Although I had traveled this road by car many, many times, I saw things I never did before: mangrove swamps, tiny houseboats with names like At Ease, a large community of pastel townhouses that I never realized was Section 8 housing.
There were occasional walkers, joggers, and small clusters of chatting groups, which were to be avoided at all cost. At one point, three girls on mountain bikes raced around me chatting up a cloud of human breath. I was wearing a mask, but hardly anyone else was.
I was glad to see a sign taped to the automatic door at the entrance to Walgreens stating all customers had to wear face coverings. Back by the pharmacy, I asked a salesperson, who had a mask but no gloves, for help finding the mineral oil that the doctor wanted me to try. She walked me to the spot, grabbed the item off the shelf and handed it over. I was horrified.
I did not want her to touch it, just show me it. How could she and all those other salespeople - including those in grocery stores, keep acting like everything was the same, as if six feet away meant nothing?
I took the bottle from her with my latex gloved hand but put it back as soon as she left. Then I selected the “clean” one behind it, knowing it probably had been handled, too.
The checkout line wasn’t long, but a woman was holding things up by chatting with the cashier and buying cigarettes and lottery tickets. As I waited, I grabbed a bottle of wine from a display near the checkout lane, whichhad been taped off in six feet increments. The cashier and customer kept talking in Spanish. Finally, the woman who had her paws on my mineral oil opened a cashier lane and called me over.
She got her hands on every item in my cart, including the bottle of mineral oil I exchanged for the one she handled. The she started to ring up the wine, asking for my ID. I laughed. “You want me take my mask off?” I asked her. “You won’t need an ID.” She stared at me.
I admit being checked for my ID was somewhat flattering (it’s been decades), but not worth the inconvenience of having to break into my wallet to pull out one of my “uncontaminated” cards. Whenever I shop now, I put the credit card I’ll be using in its own separate plastic bag until it can be cleaned at home. I had one card bagged and it was not my Driver’s license.
The license wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I began nervously digging through my bag, knowing my gloved hand was full of germs. I was glad to get out of the place and rip my gloves off. I used to love to shop. Not so much now.
On the way back, I ran into an aged Key West hipster (or homeless guy, couldn’t be sure) walking down the sidewalk carrying a huge American flag. He was naked except for red swimming shorts, a cowboy hat and flip flops. I say naked, because he reminded me of the naked cowboy on Times Square. Except with a flag. I saluted him as I passed. His face lit up with a huge smile. “Thank you,” he said. And he meant it.
I don’t know why, but that flag and that man made me feel better. Such a small, strange, man. Such bravery, making that flag his own. He was probably either drunk or crazy, but he knew what he loved. That flag.
And in the moment I saluted it, I did too.