Some day, 60 years from now, I will have my little grandchild on my knee and I will say, “Grandson, you are lucky to live in a time of plenty. Way back in ’20 (which is what we will call 2020 then), times were hard.”
And Junior will say, “Sixty years from now? That would make you what, 120 years old? Shouldn’t you be dead by now?”
“Shut up,” I will explain, channeling Ring Lardner. I’ll push him roughly off my knee and onto the floor.
“Did you have to drive three miles to school each way, even when it was snowing?” he will ask with a tenacity that I will not find endearing. I will ignore him.
“Back in ’20, we had a virus, COVID-19. It wasn’t like the malignant ranunculus virus we have today, which causes people to lose hair on one side of their head. This virus was unusually contagious and deadly.”
“Did you have it?”
“Not yet, knock aerogel,” I will say. “But people stayed home — they were ordered to stay home — venturing out only on rare occasions to buy necessities from the grocery store.”
“What did they buy, Grandpa?”
“Well, that’s my point, Grandson,” I will say, chuckling avuncularly. “The year 2020 was a time of both privation and deprivation.”
“Is there a difference?”
“Technically, yes, but no one knows what it is. It’s like ‘sewage’ and ‘sewerage.’ Two different things, but no one cares if you get them confused.”
“Can you get to the point, Gramps? I’m getting old here.”
Cursing what I hope is silently under my breath, I will continue: “They went to the stores in a panic, and they shopped accordingly. Even in the world’s richest nation, 2020 was a time of shortages.”
“What was hard to find? I mean, other than toilet paper. Toilet paper is obvious, it is what you always want to buy a great deal of in any time of crisis. By now, entire books have been written about the Great Toilet Paper Drought of 2020. But what else was hard to find?”
“Garlic, for one, at least in the first few days. Stores were sold out.”
“Garlic? Why garlic? I don’t understand. Was the virus in any way related to vampires, which we now know are totally real?”
“Not in the least, Grandson,” I will say, playfully ruffling his hair. “I didn’t understand, either, not for a long time. But then I learned that rumors were going around on what we called the internet that garlic could cure the virus. Garlic was known at the time to be mildly able to fight a few types of microbes, and people extrapolated from that the notion that it could keep you from getting the coronavirus.”
“What else was hard or impossible to find, Grandpa?” he will ask, eagerly.
“Yeast,” I will say with a sigh. “I was as guilty as anyone about yeast, and more guilty than most. For some reason, the thought of being stuck at home for a few months brought out in a lot of us the urge to go back to a simpler time, when people baked their own bread.”
“Did your favorite bakery close?”
“It did for a while,” I will admit. “But even after they reopened, I kept baking my own bread, a new loaf every two or three days. The supply of yeast was apparently finite, and the yeast companies could not increase their production fast enough to meet the demand. And so the shelves between the baking soda and the cornmeal, where yeast is usually sold, were bare.”
“That sounds tough,” my grandson will say. “Was there anything else that was hard to find at the time?”
“Yes there was,” I will say. “Back then, we had an artificial butter substitute called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. The name actually was a take-off on an early 1970s undergarment called I Can’t Believe It’s a Girdle…”
“What’s a girdle?”
“… but no one remembered that. All they knew was that I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter was essentially a yellow saline solution, a way of conveying salt to your mouth and pretending it tasted like butter. Your grandmother was terribly fond of it.”
“And stores ran out of it? Why on earth did stores run out of it?”
“I haven’t got a clue, Grandson,” I will say. “I haven’t got a clue.”
— Daniel Neman writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.