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Flour, potatoes and priorities

Seniors are allowed into the Smith’s grocery store in small groups to make it safer for the older shoppers during senior shopping hour Wednesday. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

At sunrise, shoppers file into the Smith’s grocery store on N.M. 528 and Meadowlark Lane in Rio Rancho for senior shopping hour in small groups. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the first light of dawn, the line outside our local grocery store in Rio Rancho extended along the strip mall to the local cross street. The parking lot was full and it was 20 minutes until the store would open for senior citizen shopping hours: 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.

It wasn’t an undercover assignment. I’m at full Medicare age now – a senior despite my objections.

As I found a parking space, I had grim black and white images of Depression-era bread and soup lines. But those were quickly dispelled once I got into line where people were using shopping carts to help with this social distancing thing.

There were the Boomer jokes: “I haven’t been in a line this long since the gas shortage in the seventies.”

And toilet paper hoarding jokes: “They won’t be able to park their cars in the garage.”

But there were no jokes about the coronavirus. The first news reports that elderly people who caught the virus were more likely to die than younger people is still very real to the seniors in this line.

These are people who know hospitals and their doctor’s office. They know how much their copays are for their prescriptions.

At this age, death is real. In many cases, people my age have buried their parents, siblings and even children.

Many of us are old enough to recall the polio epidemic and how their parents considered the vaccine that ended it as a miracle – either from God or science or both.

No, there were no jokes about the coronavirus in this line.

And for some, buying toilet paper was no joke. It was their main goal in this early morning trip to the grocery store. There are people who are running low.

The store’s general manager came out and walked down the line assuring people the store was well stocked.

He asked people to be patient with the store employees who have been working a lot of overtime with no days off.

He also reminded us the store had a limit of one package per customer for toilet paper and paper towels.

There were cheers – only some in jest.

He told the people in line that the “blitz” shopping seemed to have ended and people were buying less.

Everyone seemed to be relieved by that.

These were veteran shoppers, trained by their parents who stood in those bread and soup lines.

But they are not used to empty shelves.

After the general manager left, folks began talking about their shopping priorities.

They had their grocery lists in their hands – short lists of specific items. They had coupons in their purses and pockets.

One woman said she really needed to get some flour; that she couldn’t bake without flour.

Flour was on the top of my list – for my daughter. She bakes. Her parents don’t. The baking gene skipped a generation in our house.

Number two on my list was potatoes. You can’t make stew without potatoes. That would be like making enchiladas without chile. Impossible.

The line began moving promptly at 7 a.m. – 25 shoppers at a time were let into the store. When customers started coming out, more were allowed inside.

The first customer out hoisted a package of toilet paper over his head. He got a mock cheer from people in line.

Inside, customers walked purposefully. Like I said, these are veteran shoppers. They know what’s on every aisle.

A young store employee was still stocking flour onto the shelves. The woman who needed flour so she could bake got two bags. I scored one for my daughter.

Then to the produce. There were some – not many – potatoes. It was the only part of the produce section that was on the skimpy side.

At the checkout line, things moved quickly. There were no rookies asking for a price check on some obscure item. These are folks who knew exactly what they bought and how much it cost.

And if they have a flaw, it is that they spend too much time bragging about their kids and grandkids while in line at the grocery store.

Every customer thanked the hard-working cashiers and baggers. If they could have, they would have thanked the truck drivers who deliver the items that stock the shelves.

When I came out of the store, I knew things could get worse but the sun was coming over the Sandia Mountains, there will be stew on the table and the grandkids will have cookies.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to investigative reporter Mike Gallagher at 823-3971 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.


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