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Community Diary 2: Virtual Ritual, Real Plow and the Groceries That Came in the Night

by on April 14, 2020 5:00 AM

Note: I recently asked friends, colleagues and readers to send me short items that chronicle this weird and scary time we are all living through. Here is the second batch. If you care to contribute, write to [email protected].

We’re hearing a lot about the ways in which people are staying connected with loved ones and making connections with strangers during this period of enforced isolation. In normal times, Pub Choir of Brisbane, Australia, organizes a live audience into a choir. A week or so ago, they asked folks to join Couch Choir. More than 1000 people from 18 countries, including my friend Martha Ezell in California, submitted videos of themselves singing, of all songs, The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” The individual performances were then melded into a virtual choir performance.

Gotta admit, it sounds amazing, considering:


Elsewhere, Esther Prins, a professor in the College of Education at Penn State, hosted a virtual baby shower. My buddy Rich Appel, a high school English teacher in Downingtown, Pa., joined his colleagues in a virtual happy hour. 

And speaking of happy hours, State College friends who hold periodic Scotch tastings organized a “Virtual Whiskey Summit.” I would have attended but I needed real whiskey and haven’t been able to get my hands on any.

That hasn’t stopped me from enjoying almost nightly mocktail hours with friends around the world. I’ve also “attended” two online birthday parties, participated in a virtual yoga session with family in Vancouver, B.C., and joined the Bagel Boys (aka the Matzo Men during Passover), who normally meet at Irving’s, for a group chat. 


Professor Prins tells me hers is one of four families in West College Heights that are participating in a grocery group to reduce their collective number of trips to the market. Whichever household is going shopping takes requests from the other households. They also report back on what’s missing (TP, flour, etc.) or well stocked.


My colleague Boaz Dvir says the emptiness of the streets while we all stay home reminds him of Tel Aviv in 1991 when the Iraqis fired Scud missiles into Israel during Operation Desert Storm. 

“The city lost half its residents during the day, as most families fled to other parts of the country believed to be out of Saddam Hussein’s range, and nearly all of its residents as night fell and workers rushed out to rejoin their loved ones. It was surreal. Empty roads, shuttered cafés and shops, barren beaches.”


Tara Murray, a Penn State librarian, bemoans the lack of broadband service in Penns Valley now that she’s working from home. Though she’s not able to stream movies or take online exercise classes, she says, the rural life has its charms: 

“Watching my Amish neighbor plow and seed his field from the window of my home office gives me hope. Physical distancing is easy out here, and I'm enjoying watching the progression of spring across the landscape on my daily runs.”


At the other end of the spectrum from the Penns Valley life are Manhattanites Heidi Evans and Josh Getlin. The couple ordered groceries online and were told they’d be delivered at 8 a.m. Then came a series of texts informing them of delays and new delivery times. 

Finally, Heidi writes, “the doorman rings us at 3:08 a.m., waking us from a deep sleep and scaring us half to death to say our groceries arrived (there were perishables, so he had to call). So there Josh and I were in a stupor, then sharp attention, putting on gloves to receive the cart off the elevator with plastic bags and then wiping down the plastic-covered cheddar cheese and half-and-half before placing them in the fridge. Ever vigilant.”


Michele Stine, who teaches in the department of biobehavioral health at Penn State, has been impressed by how warm and caring her students were when they made the switch to online instruction. During that first week, she says, “every email I got from one of my students asked how I was doing and if my family was OK…In my class meetings, I've seen pets and moms bringing lunch and dinner to their kids. They've seen my son coming in to ask me questions. There's a sense now that we're all just human beings fumbling through the dark together.”


Finally, with dining out off the table (so to speak), Steve Logue of the College of Agricultural Sciences made this irresistible offer on the Penn State faculty listserv: 

“I’m selling a gently used 2020 model Wegman’s submarine sandwich. This custom turkey and provolone beauty could be all yours. The meat and cheese are nestled in a well-seasoned bun. Also has delicious black olives, crisp & fresh cucumbers, sweet peppers AND pepper rings. Folks, this is one-of-a kind. Tomatoes and lettuce give it an amazing finish. No condiments are currently on it, so you can still add a personal touch with the mustard or mayonnaise of your choice. 

“I have some extra sub oil (10w-20 organic vegetable oil) that I’ll throw in for free.

“Selling it as my fiancée and I recently got another sub from Jersey Mike’s and we don’t have room (in our tummies) for both.

“There is a slight chip in the right bun, I’ll take that into account on the final sale price.”

No word on whether Logue found a taker.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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