Scenes from a mall

The only food court customer.

On Saturday, at great personal risk, I went to a shopping mall.

I know, crazy, right? Taking a risk like that? Am I insane or something?

No, just painfully bored. After walking around the block about a hundred times in the last few weeks, my neighbourhood has lost its allure. I know exactly which houses still haven’t taken down their Christmas decorations.

Now, I didn’t go to the mall to do any shopping. I’m not a shopper at the best of times; if Canadian retailers depended on the spending power of people like me, the economy would have collapsed years ago. No, I just went for a change of scenery.

What did I find? A giant, slightly eerie ghost town.

I didn’t go for a stroll in just any mall, but THE mall – West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America. I went there last week, before the Great Panic of 2020 was in high gear, and it was about 80% shuttered. The food courts were still open, but customers were few. But on Saturday, the mall was, by my scientific calculations, 99.242% closed.

I started at a food court, hoping to cash in on a free cup of A&W’s new coffee, which is a real improvement over their old coffee. (This is not saying much, however; I’ve always found A&W coffee tastes like stuff that was rejected by Folgers for being too crappy, which would make it the crappiest coffee in the world. But I digress …) The food court, however, was entirely shut down – with one exception. In a sea of shuttered shops, the Harvey’s/Swiss Chalet was open, with one sorta sad looking woman behind the counter, waiting for customers who will not show.

Walking through the mall, I could count the number of visitors on one hand, if I had a hand with eight fingers. Outside the skating rink (for out-of-towners, WEM has a regulation-sized skating rink), I saw two seniors sitting rather sadly, looking as if they were hoping that somebody, anybody, would come by to talk to them.

As I walked past shuttered store after shuttered store, there was still one olfactory sign of life; the scent from those stores that sell nothing but highly-scented soap still lingered. How do people work in those stores?

At about the half-way mark of the mall, I found an open store – the T&T Supermarket, which specializes in Asian foodstuffs. The store was cooking, literally; you could smell the Chinese food from metres away. (Insert your own ironic comment here.) They seemed to be doing a pretty good business.

Not far from T&T is the relatively new Louis Vuitton store, which sells the highest of high end crap to rich suckers. It, too, was closed, but Louis took it one step further – all of the merchandize in the store was gone, like it had been cleaned out by one of those heists they make bad movies about. Funnily, on the door of the Vuitton store there was one of those stickers you get when a delivery is made, but nobody is home. I’m going to hope that the UPS guy didn’t just leave the box outside the door.

I walked the length of the mall, and found six locations open out of the 800 or so stores and eateries – London Drugs, a Second Specs kiosk (great place to buy inexpensive glasses, by the way), the lone Harvey’s/Swiss Chalet, a supplement store, the T&T supermarket, and the Aurora Cannabis outlet. I went home about a brisk 45 minutes or so, only to notice for the first time a sign on the entrance that stated that the government had mandated an end to “mall walking”. That’s a lie. I checked the government’s website, and there is no such restriction. WEM just doesn’t want people aimlessly wandering their halls, unless they want to buy something.

Regardless, I’m done with mall walking. It was, if anything, even more depressing than seeing houses that haven’ taken down their Christmas decorations.

Since there is literally nothing else to talk about, I thought I’d share a story from the New York Times about how Sweden is handling this crisis. The ski hills are still operating, and restaurants and shops are still, in the main, open. The Swedish view is to mitigate the damage without shutting down society completely, as we have done here. (The City of Edmonton banned children from playgrounds this week, which struck me as the ultimate in over-reaction.) Here’s the story.

As promised last week, here are a couple of fascinating nuggets from The Body, A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson.

  • All penicillin in history is descended from the mold scraped from a single random cantaloupe.
  • There is a medical condition called cacosmia. For the “especially wretched” people with this condition, everything smells like feces.
  • In 1929, a young German doctor wondered if it was possible to gain direct access to the heart with a catheter. So, he experimented on himself by inserting a catheter into an artery in his arm and carefully pushing it until it reached his heart. Knowing he needed proof, he walked to the hospital’s X-ray ward and had some photos taken.
  • Each day, a kidney processes 190 quarts of water (which would overflow a bathtub), yet this workhorse of the body weighs just five ounces.

Next week, let’s talk TV and movies. Since we’re stuck inside with only our televisions and computers to keep ourselves occupied, I’ll share some of my streaming favourites. And I welcome anyone reading to send in a response about your favourites as well. It can’t always be about me, can it?

Welcome to Panicville. Population: us

Have you heard that Tom Brady has left the New England Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? This is HUGE news … at least it is right now. Normally, I wouldn’t care one iota about Tom Brady or the New England Patriots or the NFL, but these days I am desperate for news of ANYTHING other than the Coronavirus. (Also, in case you didn’t hear, country singer Kenny Rogers has died at age 81.)

The television news is literally nothing but COVID-19. Newspapers are filling all available space (and there is a lot of available space, as it appears advertisers have nothing to advertise) with COVID-19 stories. The New York Times website is roughly 80% Coronavirus-related, with non-scary headlines like (and these are all real): Mayor Warns of Crisis Akin to the Great Depression in New York City; Can City Life Survive the Coronavirus?; Stop Saying Everything is Under Control. It Isn’t; Germany Has More Than Enough Ventilators. Is Should Share Them. And those are all from ONE DAY.

In times like this, I turn to my most trusted source of comfort – The Simpsons. This whole panic reminds me of a great line from the show, when newscaster Kent Brockman asks a professor why “panicky hordes of people are leaving town”.

“Professor,” Brockman asks, “without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it’s time for our viewers to crack each other’s skulls open and feast on the goo inside?”

“Yes I would Kent,” the professor replies.

Panicky hordes of people are not cracking skulls open (not yet, anyway) to feast on the goo inside, but some are almost as stupid. Take a look at this insane video of literally hundreds of people waiting in line to get into a Costco in California. I can say with some certainly that every single one of those people is an idiot.

And speaking of idiots, gun sales in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent, here) have spiked dramatically. I can only assume that the gun crazies in the U.S. are anticipating panicky hordes of people storming private homes in desperate search of toilet paper.

There is no reason to panic buy grocery items. The supply chain – an economics kind of term for getting stuff from one place to the other – is working perfectly fine. There is no need to stock up on eggs, or chicken, or frozen pizza. For a while, grocery store shelves were starting to look like 1960s era Soviet government run stores – empty aisles everywhere. But when I took a trip to my nearby Safeway today, the shelves were well stocked, with a few gaping holes where non-essentials would normally be found. The Toilet Paper People, the idiots who stocked up on everything in anticipation of the Coronapocalypse, are now safely hunkered down behind their wall of TP, leaving plenty for us reasonable folks.

And now for some good news. Maybe not GREAT news, but good news, Or good-ish. It’s the best I could do.

I’m sure you’re all tired of the gloom-and-doom scenarios, so here’s a link to some hopeful news about cures and vaccines. I am confident that, with literally thousands of scientists and pharmaceutical companies with hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal, that a cure will be found sooner rather than later.

And, going out for a drive in a big city like Edmonton is a relatively non-aggravating experience. I did my usual blood donation thing on Saturday, and the traffic was about as busy as Christmas morning. (Speaking of blood donations, this is a great time to roll up your sleeve and donate a couple of cups. There is always a need for blood, and there is no more germ-free place in the world than a Canadian Blood Services clinic. Better yet, after giving blood you should take it easy for a day, which gives you an excuse to just lay back and watch TV. And speaking of which …)

Here’s a Netflix recommendation. There’s a new, absolutely bonkers documentary called Tiger King is the most addictive series on that channel since Wild Wild Country and Making a Murderer. I’ve made it through four of the seven episodes, and I every one of the shows gets crazier, with a cast of characters that can only be described as only-in-America types (and their even screwier subset, only-in-Florida). It’s all about crazies collecting exotic animals, and a vicious feud that developed between exotic animal people. It’s off-the-charts weird.

And while we’re talking entertainment, Shaw cable is offering free previews for a raft of specialty channels. Most of them are junk that are of no interest to me (here’s the list), but there are two gems – the Smithsonian Channel, and BBC Earth, a treasure trove of the best, most amazing nature docs.

And finally, in my copious spare time, I’m reading a book called The Body (A guide for occupants), by the wonderful writer Bill Bryson, one of my faves. Every week, I’ll offer up an interesting, often weird nugget of info from The Body. This week’s offering comes from a chapter called The Outside: Skin and Hair: researchers at North Carolina State University conducted a study called the Belly Button Biodiversity Project, in which they swabbed the belly buttons of 60 random Americans. They found 2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 which were unknown to to science.

Makes you want to pay a little more attention to your belly button, doesn’t it?

“Ma-ma-ma-my Corona …”

Two things concern me about the Coronavirus, a.k.a. COVID-19, a.k.a. We’re All Going to Die!! They are hoarding, and the stock market. Oh, and I suppose the virus.

First, let’s talk about the panicked hoards of sheep stampeding through the toilet paper aisles.

People (and by people, I mean idiots) are stockpiling toilet paper. I have yet to see an explanation – ANY explanation – why toilet paper has become the item of choice for the panic stricken. Coronavirus might kill you, but you won’t crap yourself to death. I’m guessing that the thinking behind toilet paper stockpiling has something to do with the possibility that you may have to self-isolate for 14 days. I’m guessing that the greatest fear of the toilet paper people is that they will be caught short in their own homes, but still. Of all the things we need to live – say, water, food and coffee, definitely coffee – toilet paper isn’t even on the list. Others are stockpiling bottled water, in the event that, what, the public water supply will shut down?

This panic/crisis has brought out a certain breed of entrepreneurs, whom we shall call scum sucking bottom feeders. Here’s a story from the New York Times about a guy who bought 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer in order to sell them online at grossly inflated prices. Closer to home, here’s one from CBC about a Canadian douchbag who cleaned out Costco stores of Lysol wipes. The happy part of the story is that these scum-preneurs have been shut down by Amazon, and are now stuck with tons of useless product. The unfortunate part is that thousands of people who would have bought the product are now without.

My second, and greater concern, is the impact Coronavirus is having on the stock market. I’m into my last year of non-senior citizenship, and in a very few years I will need to tap into my RRSP so I can buy things like, well, toilet paper. My RRSP is heavily vested in the markets, which has served me well. But Corona craziness has caused the markets to lose hundreds of gazillions of dollars (a couple of them mine, I assume) as panicky investors sell their stocks (and a loss, to be sure), and put their money in someplace safer. Perhaps under a mattress.

What to do? In my view, you only lose money once you sell. Until then, the losses are hypothetical, so I’m going to hold tight. My only regret is that I didn’t invest heavily in the two Ps of the Corona-crisis – Purell and Purex.

I am somewhat disturbed by the loss of sporting events. For the first time in years, the Oilers are worth watching, and now they’ve taken that away from me. I feel badly for people, particularly seniors, who watch a lot of sports on TV – hours of golf, followed by hours of hockey, etc. My sons are devoted fans of the English Premiere League; watching games on Saturday morning is part of their weekly routine. Worse yet, they play soccer as well, and that has been taken away from them.

Thank the good Lord for Netflix.

But what about the virus, you ask? Am I not worried about it?

Not really. I’m taking the precautions that the experts tell us to take (washing your hands, avoiding anyone coughing up blood). I won’t shake hands with anyone I don’t know, which is very easy since I generally avoid physical contact of any kind. I’m just that kind of guy. And I am way ahead of the curve in embracing this new trend towards “social distancing”. I have always distanced myself from people, and it seems most people don’t mind.

And, in the extremely unlikely event I get the virus, I feel pretty confident I will ride it out. The death rate from the virus is difficult to calculate, but some place it at about 0.5%. You have a better chance of being murdered in Alberta than dying from COVID-19.

Is this a problem? Of course. Here in Canada, it seems the public health authorities are taking a measured, intelligent, panic-free approach to the virus. Elsewhere, however, there is flat out panic.

My guess (and I hope this doesn’t come back to bite me) is that by the summer, the virus will be all but forgotten, and the same news media that is running giant “IT’S HERE!” headlines will be writing stories about The Great Coronavirus Panic of 2020.

At least I hope so. I don’t know how long I can live without toilet paper.

In other news, you may have noticed that it’s been a long time since your humble correspondent has corresponded humbly with you. Where did I go?

Well, to be perfectly honest, I just got lazy. I was doing a weekly news recap, then I lost my enthusiasm for it. I was content to pontificate in my monthly column in Edmonton and Calgary Prime Times, the publication for the senior set that I edited for most of the last four years. But last week, I was relieved of my editing duties, and the new management at the paper decided to “go in a different direction” that apparently didn’t include me. (“Go in a different direction” is weasel speak for “we have no reason to do this, but we just don’t like you.”) So now I am a free agent (well, not ‘free’, but reasonable) and I need a writing outlet now that I’ve been forced into a premature retirement. So, I’m back. I’m sure all 12 of you are delighted.