I can now, with certainty, answer the question of how long it takes to form a new habit.
Answer: exactly one pandemic.
Walking into the Market Basket on Route 1 in Rowley is now completely disorienting.
Gone is the forbidding sign at the front door declaring in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS the MASK-WEARING REQUIREMENT.
Now, instead, there’s a delicate little page, taped to the glass, assuring you pleasantly that, if you’re fully vaccinated, you can come on in, just as you are, no worries!
It feels very weird, standing there on the sidewalk, contemplating the idea of walking through those automatic doors with your face completely exposed.
I do remember, in March of 2020, how awkward it felt to wear a mask into the grocery store. But of course, in March of 2020, I knew this strange new custom would only be necessary for six weeks, eight max.
Now, 15 months later, my face feels naked without the mask. My nostrils seem to burn as I imagine deadly little microbes floating in the air, just waiting for the moment when they can jet up into my sinuses like tiny Luke Skywalkers aiming for the Death Star of my brain.
Eventually, however, I summon my courage, and I walk into Market Basket full-faced.
At which point, it gets even weirder.
Where are the arrows on the floor, at the end of each aisle?
How do I know which way to go, if they don’t give me arrows?
You mean someone can be coming at me from the opposite direction, and I have to navigate around them? No more sullenly pointing to the directional arrow they stupidly failed to notice?
Life was so good back then, during the pandemic, everyone flowing in the same direction at Market Basket — up dairy, down lunchmeats, up dental floss, down deodorant.
Now, people can go whichever way they want, zigzagging all over the store. It’s freedom, sure, but freedom can be nerve-wracking.
I feel adrift. I’ve been to Market Basket three times since they pulled up the arrows, and I still bend left to start my shopping because that’s how we had to do it in the old days.
These 15 months have conditioned my body to look only in one certain direction for each specific item. Coffee to the left. Toilet paper to the right. How could it have ever been otherwise?
This afternoon I got all the way to barbecue sauce (on the right) before realizing I’d failed to pick up pickles (on the left). But instead of turning around, as we’re all free to do in this new era of liberty, I kept going, out of habit. I pushed my cart all the way to the end of the aisle, swung it around to the left, and rolled it down the entire cereal and syrup aisle, past the honey, the rice cakes, the granola bars, just to get back to the pickle side of the store. Only then did I realize I had made the entire journey unnecessarily, and even though nobody was watching me, I blushed at my own stupidity.
Still, I gotta say, after 15 months, it only feels right to pick up pickles on the left. If I had turned around in the middle of the aisle and come back to the pickles, they would have been on the right, and that just feels wrong.
So yes, I’m adjusting. Please don’t worry about me, however. If I keep struggling with the new Market Basket milieu, I’ll absolutely take appropriate action. I promise to speak to my therapist before I get to a crisis point.
In the meantime, though, there may be something to calm my nerves in Aisle 9. On the left, right?
Doug Brendel lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts, on the left side of outer Linebrook Road, depending on whether you’re coming or going. Follow Doug — same direction only, please — at DougBrendel.com.