Testing Crunch

I knew my daughter didn’t want to miss Thanksgiving with her cousin Nicki, holding her brother’s golden doodle puppy Cooper.

Getting a rapid Covid-19 test around the holidays is like trying to be the 9th caller in a radio station contest.

Except instead of the phone, you’re camped on your laptop, ready to strike if you’re lucky enough to find an open slot. I know because I had to get my daughter rapid-tested after she came home from college on Amtrak, and needed to be tested before attending a small Thanksgiving gathering.

I thought it would be easy. After all, readily available testing was touted as key to controlling the spread of Covid-19 when the virus emerged last winter. Yet eight months into the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to find a place to rapid test my daughter in the entire state of Connecticut.

Part of it was my fault. I assumed that I’d have no problem getting her tested. There is, after all, a drive-thru Covid-19 testing tent at the foot of the road leading to my house run by Yale-New Haven Hospital. There’s also CVS, where she was tested before she went to college in August, as well as DOCS Urgent Care 20 minutes away.

It didn’t seem like a big deal until it was. We went to DOCS, a rapid testing facility, three days before Thanksgiving and were told that we needed an appointment even though the website said drop-ins were OK. I told my daughter to relax, that I’d make an appointment for her when we got home.

But two hours later, I was still scrolling the Internet for an appointment. I couldn’t find an open slot between Greenwich and Mystic. Believe me, I tried. I even entered the names of some of the most rural towns I know, figuring their smaller population might yield a slot.

This tactic works well when going to the Social Security Administration. I avoid long lines in New Haven by going to a tiny third-floor office in Middletown. And even though SSA employees argue that I should go to New Haven because of where I live, I know that I can go to any office I want. It says so right on the SSA website, so don’t let anyone tell you differently.

But my rural strategy failed miserably for a Covid-19 test. There was a place where I could drive up and wait in line 20 minutes away, but the results wouldn’t be delivered for 5-7 days. That wasn’t going to work.

When I became frustrated, my daughter said that she’d stay home for Thanksgiving. But who was she kidding? She wanted to go to my sister’s house to see her cousins and their golden doodle puppy Cooper. And finding a testing site became a challenge: I slipped into my old reporter mode, determined to keep at it until I found a spot.

On a lark, I returned to the DOCS website about three hours later. Miraculously, there were four open spots on Wednesday. I moved faster than I have in months, typing in her information and searching for my phone so I could type in the texted confirmation number before it vanished.

And there it was: a confirmed test for Wednesday at 1:27 p.m.

The whole testing process took less than three minutes from the time we arrived and my daughter’s nose was swabbed. Less than an hour later, a DOCS nurse called to say she was negative.

We were happy: she could attend Thanksgiving dinner. But the question remains: why is it still so hard to get Covid-19 testing? I realize Thanksgiving created an unusually high demand, but shouldn’t Covid-19 testing sites anticipate and adjust?

Photo by Business Insider

And isn’t is unreasonable to expect people to wait for hours to get a test? The lines snaking around testing sites in the days leading up to Thanksgiving were incredibly long. Some New Yorkers were even paying people up to $80 an hour to hold their place in long testing lines.

Getting tested shouldn’t be an ordeal or money-making proposition. It should be a quick and simple process, like getting a flu shot at the local pharmacy.

Of course, this is the first Thanksgiving since the pandemic began, and testing sites clearly underestimated the enormous demand for tests, particularly rapid ones. But hopefully they’ll adequately prepare for the Christmas and New Year’s rush.

I can’t write about testing without mentioning that I think some people are monopolizing available time slots. I know of one person who had three Covid-19 tests in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, as did everyone in her family who planned to attend an over-sized gathering. Not only did this violate our state’s recommendations for small gatherings, but it prevented others from getting a single test. Not cool, at all.

As for me, I’m learning from Thanksgiving and scheduling a test for late December in hopes of attending a small New Year’s Eve party in Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t know if we’ll be able to go – everything is so up in the air these days – but I don’t want to do the pre-holiday testing scramble again. I’m pretty sure no one does.

Deli Line

The eponymous G Sandwich.

I was that person in the deli line at Stop & Shop.

When my number 38 was called, I approached the deli counter and began ordering the ingredients for the G Sandwich, one by one:

“A pound of Boar’s Head ham sliced very thin,” I said. “A half-pound of Genoa salami. A half-pound of Pepperjack cheese.” (Instead of American or Provolone.)

It was taking an awfully long time and the middle-aged woman behind me looked peeved. She sighed when the deli clerk disappeared into the walk-in refrigerator to pull out a new slab of ham. I could almost feel the daggers piercing my head.

What was taking so long? I have no idea, but I began to feel guilty about the wait. I was the idiot holding up the line. I’ve been that person a lot lately.

The last two times I went to the drive-thru at CVS to pick up medication for some older friends, it took close to 15 minutes. I was mortified, but there was nothing I could do. The last place anyone wants to be these days is inside a pharmacy.

I was heartened that I live in a community where people almost never blow their horn, and it’s common for folks to buy coffee for the person in back of them at Dunkin’ Donuts. This has happened to me twice, and always restores my faith in humanity. (Yes, I’ve returned the favor, but I need to do it again. We could all use a lift, particularly now.)

When the wait in the deli line seemed interminable, I did something I’ve never done before. I turned and told the woman in back of me, “That’s my last item, I promise.”

She smiled, possibly because people rarely apologize for holding up lines. We may start flushing and sweating, but most of us bear the burden in silence. We know how we feel about the person holding up the line, and we don’t want to be that person. We can only imagine what the people behind us are thinking.

Holding people up is worse today because of the pandemic. People are anxious about being in public places, and want to get in and out as quickly as possible. When people hold us up these days, we get particularly edgy because we fear our health is being put at risk. Every minute we’re waiting, we’re thinking, “I hope I don’t get Covid-19 because of this.”

So imagine how much better things would be if people acknowledged they were taking a long time instead of ignoring us?

“Sorry it took me 20 minutes to fill up the four tires on my car at this air pump, but I haven’t a clue how to use this machine.”

“Sorry it took me 5 minutes to check in at Quest Labs when it should have taken one minute, but I’m technology challenged.”

That’s a lot better than pretending you don’t see us, or being completely oblivious to people in back of you. Acknowledging people lets others know that you know their time is valuable, that you realize there are other people around besides yourself.

The supermarket deli is always a dicey proposition because you never know how much people are ordering or how long you’ll be there. A short line can turn into a long wait when the person in front of you orders 10 subs, or 1/4-pound of six different lunch meats.

This explains why some supermarkets allow customers to order cold cuts and pick them up at the end of their shop. Supermarkets are also pre-slicing and packaging cold cuts and cheeses, placing them on refrigerated shelves so customers can avoid the deli line.

I admit I’ve resorted to pre-sliced meats when I’m in a rush, but here’s the thing: they’re often not as fresh and rarely sliced the way I like them. I once bought ham that was so thick that no one would eat it. I ended up throwing it away.

Going the pre-packaged route seems like a good idea until you get home and discover the ham is marbled with fat, or the turkey looks a little slimy. So when I spied my deli compatriot inching toward the pre-packaged section, I tried to intervene.

“Almost done!” I said.

But she’d had it, and I couldn’t blame her. We were the only two people in line and my order was taking forever. To make matters worse, only one person was manning the counter and he was taking his time. Another deli worker was slicing pre-orders and pre-packaged items, but refused to make eye contact with her.

Six minutes turned to seven, then eight.

“That’s it, I give up,” the woman said, grabbing her cart and heading for the pre-packaged section. “Look, it’s not your fault. I just don’t understand why they don’t have more people working. The wait is absolutely ridiculous.”

I agreed with her. My order was clogging things up, and I wasn’t happy about it either. So the next time we needed deli meat, I let the Curmudgeon do the dirty work. I told him he didn’t have to run an errand with me if he’d go to the store.

He jumped at the opportunity, and I avoided being the deli line blocker for one week. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Breaking Tradition

A painting of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, 1621, in Plymouth, MA.

Our huge Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family is off.

After debating whether we could have it for weeks, it’s off the calendar because Connecticut resumed its limit of 10 people per gathering to stop the spread of Covid-19.

My son pointed out that it’s a recommendation, not an order, but it makes sense. The virus is spreading like wildfire here, and we all need to make sacrifices and double down efforts to contain it. One day of celebration isn’t worth the potential disastrous consequences.

Though I know it’s the right thing to do, I’m not happy about it. It’s been my holiday for about 25 years, ever since my father decreed that my mother would no longer be hosting it. I naively said, “I’ll do it. How hard could it be?”

I quickly learned that hosting the year’s biggest food fest is an awful big deal. Of course it’s the food: people look forward to feasting on turkey, trimmings and pumpkin pie all year. But more important is the emotional element: it’s the consummate family get-together and everyone has childhood memories of their own family’s gatherings.

G and the Gang.
The Curmudgeon is always in charge of cleaning.
Wrestling the turkey neck. My grandmother would be proud of me wearing a hair net.
My daughter, left, and her turkey-clad friend at the annual Turkey Trot, which is virtual this year.
My brother-in-law, who began bringing his own knife and apron after he had to wear one of mine one year.
My cell phone rests on the finished turkey. I have no idea why.
G is always in charge of gravy.

As a hostess, you want to make sure you live up to people’s expectations: the turkey must be moist, not dry and tough, and you must include side dishes like creamed onions and turnips because they’re part of someone’s family’s Thanksgiving tradition. Thanksgiving hostesses don’t want to disappoint because they know a lot is riding on the day.

I’m now well past the age that my mother was when my father issued his edict, yet no one thinks it’s too much for me. Then again, I’m not like my mother, who tries to do everything herself. I learned early in the game that it’s best to delegate, and that people like to contribute to the Thanksgiving meal.

Over the years, one of my brothers-in-law has become the designated turkey carver and stuffing guy, bringing two types to satisfy everyone’s taste. Another brother-in-law handles sweet potatoes and green beans, while my nieces are known for their decadent desserts.

My mother is in charge of the gravy, willing to cut short any conversation to mix the pan juices with flour, turkey broth and Gravy Master and whisk over a hot burner. After all these years, I’m still intimidated when it comes to the gravy so I’m happy to pass it on.

I planned to have my own tiny Thanksgiving with the Curmudgeon and our two kids, but the idea made me sad and I began to get very sentimental about my long streak of hosting the holiday. My nostalgia for the old days got worse as I looked at photos of Thanksgivings past and realized how much fun they were.

And then one of my sisters invited us over to her house, where we’ll share the holiday meal with her family and her in-laws. What a relief! I didn’t have to host Sad Thanksgiving.

If things go well and the weather cooperates, we’ll all meet later at another sister’s house for socially distanced dessert and coffee outside on the deck. We’re breaking tradition, yes, but hopefully we’ll all see each other from a safe distance of six feet.

It’s not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got. And if we’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that we all need to be flexible.

The Line Forms Here

Unlike most modern men, the Curmudgeon doesn’t cook.

He enjoys baking chocolate chip cookies, particularly for summer family picnics and holidays, and has whipped up the occasional birthday cake for yours truly. But for the most part, he leaves the cooking to me.

I don’t mind cooking because it gives me a nice measure of control over what I eat, but I don’t love it like some people. I’m not a foodie nor a gourmet cook, though I cook more than a lot of people with so-called gourmet kitchens.

On average, I cook dinner six days a week, reserving one weekend day for take-out pizza. When you live within spitting distance of New Haven, CT., the pizza capital of the world, you feel justified having pizza often, even if it’s only New Haven-style pie from the pizza parlor down the block.

The exception occurred last weekend when my sisters and I ventured to New Haven’s famed Wooster Street for Sally’s Apizza for a birthday celebration, though our experience reminded me why we never go there. We ordered three large pies, and were told they’d be ready at 1:15.

I looked at my watch, and it was 1:13 p.m. “Wow, that’s fast,” I thought. “This is awesome. No wait at all.”

And then I realized that I hadn’t changed my watch to Daylight Savings Time. It was only 12:13 and we were looking at an hour-long wait. No matter. We were together with my mom for the first time in several weeks, and would make the most of it in the parking lot turned dining room next to Sally’s.

Still, our wait was a bit of a surprise to some of my siblings.

“Who eats pizza at noon on a Sunday?” one of my sisters asked. “Where are these people coming from?”

Apparently, a lot of people eat pizza for lunch on Sundays. There were license plates from New York and New Jersey lining Wooster Street and a knot of customers on the sidewalk waiting for take-out orders. This is why I don’t like going to Sally’s under normal circumstances. There’s always a line, and people stare at you while you eat your pizza.

I don’t like to be watched while I’m eating because it makes me nervous and self conscious. I think this is a pretty universal feeling, even among animals. My dog steals away to another room when I give her treats or bones to relish them in privacy and thoroughly enjoy them.

Within a few minutes, the early November chill gnawed at our bones, and two of my sisters left to buy hot coffee at a pastry shop down the street. Those of us who remained at the picnic table stayed masked, noting a nice side benefit of masks is they keep your face warm.

White clam pie.
Pepperoni pizza.

Just as my sisters returned with the coffee, it started to drizzle. As the first drops fell, people at adjacent tables scrambled for cover, snapping up every table under a tent lining half of the parking lot. I didn’t think people could move so fast. It reminded me of musical chairs where people find seats as fast as possible, leaving their competition in the dust.

I don’t begrudge people taking the tables under the tent. Well, I do. We were there before almost everyone else, and had the horrible luck of being furthest from the tent. But what was most galling is that a pack of teen-agers swooped under the tent, without considering that a group of elders was getting soaked.

Worse, three of their fathers observed their actions, and commandeered another table for themselves. They could have sat with the kids, but apparently wanted their space. Apparently, the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

As we took cover in our cars while the pizzas baked in the wood-fired brick ovens, the birthday girl and I shook our heads, saying we hope we’ve taught our sons better. I assume that my son and his brethren would give up their seats for a group of women, including an 86-year-old grandma, but who knows? Maybe I’ve dropped the ball too.

To my mind, there’s nothing that says more about parenting than good manners. With the at-times regrettable help of Barney, I taught my kids to say “please” and “thank you,” as well as the other intricacies of living in a world with other people.

I wasn’t surprised that those three fathers missed the chance to school their kids on kindness and consideration because they were leading by example. And that’s perhaps the most disappointing part of our experience.

We didn’t say anything to the kids or the fathers, though we did grumble about them under our breath. I noted that if people are rude enough to take two tables for themselves when one would do, they might not be receptive to a lecture on manners by strangers.

The good news is that we finally snagged a table under the tent, and wolfed down several slices of plain, pepperoni and white clam pizza. The wait – and the aggravation – was worth it. It really is the best pizza around – sweet sauce and thin crust with black soot that covers your lips and fingers.

Still, I’ll probably be like my old friend John S., who lives on Wooster Street yet never goes to Sally’s or its equally famous counterpart Pepe’s because he can’t stand all the fuss. I understand, I really do.