There’s an epidemic of loneliness in the United States. It affects the young and the old. It leads to a multitude of health problems, and it has been suggested to play a role in things like extremism and the rise of fascism. Loneliness is a human feeling that fluctuates. But admitting you’re lonely is a difficult thing to do. You don’t want people to feel sorry for you or to picture you as someone who spends their days at home stewing in sadness and resentment.
Lately, I’ve been feeling lonelier than I have in previous periods of the pandemic. When I feel the emptiness on some weekends, I take my bag and head out the door to my happy place, the grocery store. Sometimes I walk there early in the morning, sometimes in the late hours of the afternoon; sometimes it’s an Aldi, sometimes it’s a Stop and Shop but never a Whole Foods (I need my processed brands). On the 20-minute walk to the store I pass the leafy streets and colonial buildings of the east side of Providence and the Providence river that leads out to the sea. I get to experience the truly American definition of walkable — over highway overpasses and along damaged sidewalks, dodging litter and broken glass.
When I finally get to the store, the overhead fluorescent lights provide a comforting grounding presence. Walking the aisles, inspecting produce and comparing prices — these activities are all enough to occupy my mind and feel like I’ve accomplished something for the day. There are the cherished products I’m familiar with — strips of imitation crab, Haribo gummy bears, Canada Dry seltzer and various brands of cookies and cream ice cream (Hood, Breyers, storebrand, whatever is on sale usually does it) — and the excitement of seeing new items. One favorite aisle for me is the discount bakery one; what new tasty wonders that will otherwise be discarded await me today? It always changes based on what’s left over; on a recent trip I bought Italian bread, soft-baked cookies and slices of frosted pound cake. Sometimes I walk out of the store with a box of Sleepytime tea, other times I walk out with pickles, two heads of cauliflower, and a bottle of hot sauce. My last trip produced five heads of corn, shredded cheese, milk, donuts, cookies and chopped broccoli — I only walked in knowing I needed the milk.
Beyond the act of shopping itself, the grocery store provides you with one of the few opportunities to be with other people while being alone.
Something that I’ve discovered as I’ve navigated my 20s is that loneliness is an integral part of growing into adulthood. Entering and leaving college, leaving your hometown, getting new jobs in new places — all these changes in life require grounding yourself in a new environment and with it, meeting new people. With each new change and move, you must start from scratch. Social connections require emotional and physical investment, which is why I’ve realized stability is something we crave in part because we don’t want to feel lonely. We might get married, have kids or get a pet and try to pursue the elusive dream of home ownership because we want to put down roots in a place long enough that allows it to begin to feel like home.
The pandemic has disrupted an already rapidly changing time in life. The past few years, I have been between my parents’ place and my own studio apartment. When you’re with your parents, you miss your friends, and you romanticize getting back into an active social life when you move back into your own place. But then when that social life fails to materialize, because some friends have moved away and the city feels a little less familiar, you start to miss your family again.
You may be physically alone, but emotionally you know you have friends and family across the planet who care for you — people you can’t see as often because of the ups and downs of virus surges and the precarious nature and cost of airfare these days. The roots don’t feel like they can’t establish themselves and so the isolation deepens — all of this leads to weekends in your apartment where you feel the void. But in a time when things feel like they can change so rapidly, the grocery store is a constant presence; the shelves and layouts do not change that often and you begin to see regular faces.
Beyond the act of shopping itself, the grocery store provides you with one of the few opportunities to be with other people while being alone. Unlike eating in a restaurant, or watching a movie, grocery shopping usually is not a social event; most people are shopping on their own. In this sense, you don’t feel left out — your being alone is not what draws attention to yourself but is the trait that links you to the dozens of other people in the store. Even if you’re not interacting deeply or at all with other people, you still feel the warmth of being with others. It's nice to make small talk with the cashier, see little kids bothering their parents, witness someone making the life-changing decision between two types of bread.
Loneliness is something we all experience — some days we feel it and some days we don’t. The grocery store, for me, is not only a salve for the days I feel it, but it also serves as a reminder of our common threads; that even when we’re lonely, we’re still together. I’m sure there are others who use the store in the same way.
Abdullah Shihipar is a writer and researcher.