What Will Be the Coronavirus Butter Tubs?

If you’re a member of Generation X your grandparents probably bore a few scars from the Great Depression. I don’t mean physical scars, though I’m sure there were plenty of those, but rather pyschic wounds inflicted by growing up during a time of scarcity. Jobs, food, money, shelter–unless you were lucky enough to be born into old money or a self-sufficient farm family, adolescence during the Depression was one long stomach rumble.

Many of those folks never quite got over those lean years. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s Gen X’ers had at least one grandparent (or by extension one parent, as some emotional wounds are handed down like heirlooms) who wouldn’t throw away a shirt without first saving the buttons in an old cookie tin, and why throw away a perfectly good shirt anyway? That material could be used for rags, quilt patches, toy and furniture stuffing. Newspapers had a number of uses beyond comics and coupons, everything from packing material to drawer liners to window cleaners, and that barely scratches the surface of their usefulness. Bread sacks were redeployed as snow boot liners, and speaking of sacks: One kitchen cupboard was always dedicated to the grocery bag collection.

Yes, and another cupboard overflowed with food containers: coffee cans, Cool Whip containers, margarine and butter tubs–if it could be cleaned and had a lid it wasn’t garbage but rather a reusable storage container, one of literally dozens jammed into an overstuffed kitchen cabinet or crowding the refrigerator shelves because no leftover was too small to throw away: “If you aren’t going to eat those last three corn kernels I’ll just put them away for later.” And there were plenty of leftovers because those old folks who were scarred as young folks by the Great Depression rarely ate at restaurants. The never developed a habit of overpaying for marginal food. My grandparents would be absolutely baffled that in the era of COVID-19 Starbucks is considered an essential service. Heck, they’d simply be baffled by Starbucks.

Their thrift was a learned behavior, and it was so deeply ingrained in them that no matter how financially secure they grew during their lives they just couldn’t bring themselves to throw out a butter tub. Our grandparents carried the Depression with them all the way to their funerals which, incidentally, would have involved Cool Whip containers if they had their way.

COVID-19 isn’t just a virus, but rather the biggest social reengineering experiment in the United States since both the Great Depression and the great war that brought it to an end. How we interact with each other, what we do with our spare time, how we work, what services we deem essential, even how we produce and distribute entertainment has changed in the few short weeks since the virus spread around the globe. Just this morning my local grocer told me that reusable shopping bags are no longer welcome in the store: Shoppers now have their choice of paying for paper or having their groceries packed in free, single use plastic bags. This is a complete 180 from a month ago, when shoppers who dared to ask for a plastic bag were glared at as if they’d just asked for zebra meat.

I wonder what the butter tubs resulting from the pandemic era are going to be, those deeply ingrained behaviors that will follow some of us for the rest of our lives. Time will tell, but here are my five early guesses:

The bro hug and the handshake will be as quaint as the curtsey. Not every Depression survivor saved Cool Whip containers and not every COVID-19 survivor will give up the handshake, but it’s going to seem stranger and stranger. Just wait until COVID-23 strikes: One more round of global pandemic and we’re going to limit contact to our immediate families.

Movie theaters are a thing of the past. We can sit next to strangers and eat popcorn that’s been handled by some pimply-faced teenager with the hygiene of a sasquatch, or we can watch brand new movies on our 987-inch 20K TVs with 64 channel Surround and Surround Again Sound ™ while we scratch ourselves and play with our phones. Once the movie theater habit is broken I predict many people won’t go back.

Buffets are anachronisms, too. Even if you personally enjoy a food delivery system that requires a “sneeze guard,” will restaurants be willing to accept the liability of potentially sickening hundreds of people? Of course they will–they do it now–but states and municipalities may not. Who knows? Buffets are gross under the best of circumstances. How many people will be willing to risk the nacho fountain when death is on the line?

We’re going to see a lot more masks in public… Some folks are simply never going back to a mask-free life. They’ll feel that while they dodged a bullet this time, only by remaining vigilant will they sidestep the next pandemic.

…And a rise in agoraphobia cases. Agoraphobia, of course, is the fear of agoras, but since they’ve all been made into sweaters we colloquially use the term to suggest “fear of leaving one’s house.” A better definition might be “fear of leaving safe spaces,” but given that there are millions of children being told right now that people (including them) might die if they leave the house, either definition works. Seriously, how we manage this pandemic is going to screw with a whole generations’ wiring. Hopefully those of you with children have handled the crisis calmly and artfully unlike, say, many of our leaders.

As for me, I doubt I’ll change much as a result of this giant experiment in social reengineering. I’m already borderline agoraphobic according to my headshrinker, and I wouldn’t touch a buffet on a dare. But I do worry about my young adult children. Before this is all over they may end up with more proverbial butter tubs than they can handle, and unfortunately they won’t be able to stash them in a cupboard.



Categories: op-ed

3 replies »

  1. Your observations about butter tubs is spot on. My grandmother would take extra creamers from the restaurant and reuse tinfoil all the time. Thinking about when this is all over has been on my mind of course. Not sure I will go anywhere anymore without my bandolier of hand sanitizers, even when the world returns to “normal”. I think the sense of safety we all have become accustomed to is over. That doesn’t mean we all become hermits, just that we now THINK about things differently. Be more aware. Stay safe James.


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