The Inconvenience Store

“We’re out of oatmeal,” my wife tells me about every third morning before breakfast. “And I need more paper towels, and the dish soap is running low, so…”

“I’ll get it all. Anything else?” She thinks for a moment and adds another item or two. And then I’m out the front door to our tiny garage. It holds plenty of junk but has never held a car and lately has become…

…our Inconvenience Store. Ignore the t-shirts, the disassembled store fixtures, unlabeled plastic tubs, cardboard boxes waiting to be recycled, and so much more.

Because the left-hand wall is now our go-to resource for all our domestic needs. One the rude shelving sits pasta, oatmeal, grains, canned food in colorful variety, boxes of cocoa, jars of peanut butter and apple sauce, powdered milk, bottled water, household cleaning supplies and, of course, toilet paper. We just added teff to the inventory.

The vast oversupply of paper towels? We will not speak of it. It’s leaving soon. I swear. TP supply is holding at a 60-roll surplus. We’ll keep it there awhile.

We are no doomsday preppers. The Inconvenience Store is a pass-through surplus, not a cache. We restock our kitchen from it daily, making sure each week that the lumbering truck from the supermarket leaves just a little more than we require. And thus the surplus grows.

Someday we’ll let the stock dwindle. Someday the Inconvenience Store will close. But not today. We’ve needed it this past year. The coming year will require it as well.

You know about the pandemic — let’s just call it a plague. Supply chain disruption, panic buying, hoarding: many types of food were difficult to get, especially if you were old and wanted to avoid crowds of people who didn’t all wear masks.

Beyond that our state continues to suffer severe drought. The drought brought power cutoffs designed to avoid forest fires, and finally the forest fire itself: a giant that burned 80,000 acres and licked at the edge of town. It turned the sky the color of blood oranges.

Life wasn’t great, even if your house didn’t burn down; you could always sit in the dark for a days-long power outage while your food spoiled.

Actually, life was frightening. We stayed in our house, but we had to set up contingencies to evacuate beyond the river. The fire couldn’t jump the river — right?

In the end, we were fine. But the drought and fire risk remain. Even COVID-19, now in retreat in this country, rages elsewhere in the world.

A plague’s not unlike a forest fire: if you don’t extinguish it everywhere, it could well roar back. All those mutant COVID-19 strains: they could learn to evade the vaccines. Who knows what they can do?

It was when some journo published the phrase “the mutants will soon invade the United States…” that I knew we were living in a bad science fiction novel. The mutants are invading! Actual mutants! That they’re microscopic is of no consequence.

So life will remain science fictional and dangerous — inconvenient. The Inconvenience Store is here to stay: in the end, for who-knows-how-long. I confess that all my wife and I have suffered so far is fear and inconvenience. For others, it has been much, much worse.

And the author of this disaster novel is… civilization itself. For building a world where a world wide plague was absolutely going to happen, and not preparing for it. For spawning global warming, and droughts, and famines. For not allowing forests to burn naturally, so that when fires do take hold they are fierce and fast merciless and deadly. For favoring the privileged and leaving the poor in danger. And I admit that I am somewhat privileged: white, college-educated, a homeowner, a boomer, retired. We built monsters, or allowed them to be built — and took no responsibility.

Last August, Cedar Rapids IA was devastated by tornadoes — and nobody cared. The media ignored the suffering of a town of 130,000. Because it’s Cedar Rapids — important to no one on the coasts. I sent a donation to the Cedar Rapids community foundation, with the dedication “From your fellow disaster survivors in California.” Because we’ve been through a few.

And four days later, we were on fire. And the fires will burn until we all realize that our self interest lies, first and foremost, in the well-being of others and of our planet.

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