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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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When I volunteered to shop for an older friend with a lung condition in the early days of the pandemic, I was enthusiastic about my new assignment. His shopping lists, which consisted mainly of meat, were easy to follow:

“One thin slice of calf’s liver (anywhere between $3 to $4, as a hint for the thinness I like), two filets mignons of around $10 a pop, Charlevoix bacon, one box of dry shallots, one small blueberry pie – and don’t forget to check the ‘best before’ date with a leeway of three days …”

Brand, format, colour and firmness; everything was spelled out. Plus there was the odd perk. “On Wednesday, I intend to make Rigatoni à la viande and to give you two good helpings provided you buy the following …”

Shopping became a mini-orienteering challenge. The meticulous descriptions of item locations even took into account my anatomy. “Go past the deli counter, turn around 180 degrees and look high on the shelf, above your head, for one 750 mL jar of Planters peanut oil. Bingo!” On another occasion, I was directed to look for a “transparent package of Genoa salami to the right of the butcher’s section, at breast level.”

As the novelty of my endeavour wore off, the repeated reminders to check the best-before date started getting on my nerves. And I could do without his lessons on how to select produce. “When choosing mushrooms, the whiter the fresher.” Honestly! You would think I had been delivering a pile of mush. Once I was told to get Arctic Gardens Italian-style vegetables. “Make sure they are not frozen stiff,” he wrote. “You should be able to move the veggies around. If not, try the bag behind.” As I knelt down, thrust my arm deep into the freezer and began fondling bags, a thought flitted through my mind: Why am I doing this?

When weeks turned into months, with still no end in sight, my once-cheery attitude faltered. By this time, I was zipping down aisles, ignoring his nags about best-before dates. I felt that my charge was pushing it, asking me to go to multiple establishments in search of harder-to-find products, like tourtière spice, pearl onions and pizza dough. Still, I aimed to please, and delivered on foot these items along with several heavy bags of flour.

My disenchantment was not lost on my friend. “Service isn’t what it was,” he said, when I arrived later than usual with his order one day. Then he upped the ante, surprising me with extra and sometimes last-minute requests. “I was thinking tonight would be a nice night for lobster …” It was in the midst of these escalating demands that he decided to double down. In order to minimize his virus-exposure risk, wouldn’t it make sense if I were to take his clothes to the laundromat, too? I was aghast.

I decided to post one of the shopping lists to my Facebook page (naming no names). To my glee, it caused quite a stir. Readers loved my shut-in’s bossy instructions and imagining the kind of lifestyle that his lists evoked. “I would like a pop of smoked salmon, too!” wrote one friend. This new development gave me a boost. I began to look forward to the orders that arrived every Tuesday evening via e-mail and posted them to Facebook immediately.

Speculation grew about this gentleman with his finicky gourmet tastes and occasional appetite for Lay’s potato chips and beer. Friends debated his marital status and line of work. “Let me guess, he is or was an engineer,” one wrote. Some identified with the persona they perceived between the lines.

My pragmatic friends were his biggest fans. “Gotta love a man who knows what he wants,” one commented.

The health-conscious fretted about nutrition. “Throw some random vegetables into that order! It will do him good. And if he has a sunny window, consider a live chive plant.” One person detected incongruity in the kind of products desired. Whippets and Kraft cheese singles seemed out of place compared with the mainly foodie fare. “Could the shut-in be harbouring a stowaway?”

Last, but not least, were the critics, whose cheeky comments were a salve to my pandemic-weary state. “He seems VERY high maintenance,” wrote one woman. “Maybe he’s a serial killer. If he asks for fava beans and a nice Chianti, RUN!”

When products like his favourite sliders were out of stock, my friend was not a happy camper. “Ask the butcher about the mini burgers. He is the one responsible,” he said. I did this, and had to break the news that there would be none for the foreseeable future. Supply-chain issues.

The last shopping expedition was to retrieve a large order of boxed wine from the nearest liquor store. My pal actually accompanied me on this mission, because we planned to distribute the wine hoard evenly over two metal shopping carts borrowed from the lobby of his apartment building.

On the way, our spirits were high and the conversation light as our buggies clattered along the street. Coming home, the atmosphere was sober. My friend fell silent, all of his 28-per-cent lung capacity being reserved for the placing of one foot before the other. Concerned, I stopped and transferred his boxes to my own cart. We carried on like that, pausing periodically while he hauled on his inhaler.

Preoccupied by thoughts that we had bitten off too much, I failed to notice a critical cargo issue. The massive Jenga tower of wine boxes on the upper rack of my cart made it top-heavy. Weaving cavalierly on and off the sidewalk, I turned too sharply. Sixty pounds of steel and 64 litres of Cabernet Sauvignon were hurtled toward the pavement, whisking me along for the ride. The debris field spanned many metres.

Following the wine debacle, I gently informed my friend that he needed to explore other food-delivery options, after which he accused me of telling him to “go fudge himself.” At his request, I helped arrange home delivery from our neighbourhood grocery store. “Tell the manager I’ve been a customer for 35 years and am a sizable holder of the company’s shares,” he said.

A chill ensued in our friendship, but it didn’t last long. Gradually my friend started taking back his independence. These days, he places orders by phone and internet like a pro. And, after the mandatory mask law went into effect, he even started going to stores, joining the ranks of those feisty older folk who won’t be told to stay home.

Requests for specialty items are still coming in, usually for snails or some other sea creature, but I’m on permanent leave now. Free as a bird.

Joanne Tilden lives in Montreal.