Wearing a Scarf in the Grocery Store

I’m taking a writing class, and wrote a rant last week when I had to deal with the drama of paying out of pocket for my Epi-pen to replace my Auvi-Q. The rant kind of broke me, and maybe some day I’ll post a version of it here, but for now, I want to keep it tucked away in that spot in my mind where the realities of anaphylaxis live.

In the rant, though, I referenced having to wear scarves at the grocery store, and this caught the attention of my workshop peers. They wanted to know more about that experience, and their curiosity piqued my interest, because I’m not really sure what there is to say. You know when you do something that you find to be virtually mundane and someone says, “wow, that’s interesting?” and then you think about it, and you think, “oh, I guess it is interesting.” Like when someone is friends with a celebrity, and to them the celebrity is just their buddy but to the rest of the world, it’s Brad Pitt. (No, I don’t know any of Brad Pitt’s friends).

Me, in one of my scarves.

Me, in one of my scarves.

So, “Wearing Scarves in the Grocery Store: a decidedly curious exploration of what having airborne allergies is like” 

When I was younger, only one of my allergies was airborne, but I don’t think I ever used that word. The allergen was, of course, horseradish. My experience of its airborne-ness was that the one time a year we ate it, on Passover, I would leave the house when my mother would grate it. I was fine with it out and grated, but during the grating, no matter where I was in the house, I would get sick. It was the perfect time to do errands before the Passover Seder. It never once bothered me to the leave the house; I actually looked forward to it as my special break to go do errands and report back on what I saw in the ruckus outside.

When I was 15, I began to experience more airborne allergies. Specifically, to cabbage. I surmise, though there’s no way to verify it, that it was the stench of September 11 that affected my body. There were all sorts of FEMA indications that people with asthma and allergies would have worsened symptoms, so it was unsurprising to me that constant exposure to cole slaw that summer on my teen tour of the West Coast led to mild reactions. Mild meaning headaches, dizziness. Nothing too crazy by my standards, but my standards are, well, not typical.

In college, over exposure in the dining halls made my allergens worsen significantly. My list of airborne allergens grew to include all leafy greens. That was fun. When I went to the grocery store, I would simply avoid the section with the lettuce, and stay on the other side of vegetable aisle. If I was lucky — and I often was, as I tended to grocery shop in college with friends or at home with my mom — I stayed outside of the vegetable aisle all together and hung out in the adjacent aisle reading boxes of things. I didn’t always want to read boxes, and often insisted on trying my luck with the vegetables (“oh, I’ll just stand near the tomatoes…”there’s this thing called denial that’s really important) but my friends and family were really good at protecting me from myself.

And then I moved to LA, and lived alone, and had to grocery shop alone. Which was fine for a while. I could run through the aisles quickly, I could cover my nose and mouth if I ever had to pass the lettuce section. And then, it was 2012, and I started this blog because my allergies got crazy worse, and also kale and horseradish got more en vogue, and grocery shopping became harder.

I would go to the vegetable aisle and break out in hives, or have my throat swell. I would pop Benadryl in the supermarket, but then be all woozy while I shopped. It was totally unproductive. I was incredibly fortunate to have a friend offer to go shopping for me — really, N, you saved my life and my sanity a lot, and I am forever indebted — but sometimes I would forget I needed an ingredient and have to go myself. If it was between February and May, and horseradish was in season, all bets were off. I talked to my doctor about options. He suggested I wear a surgical mask. But since I don’t live in Singapore, I really didn’t want to. I have pride, you know? What was I going to do, go to the Whole Foods in Beverly Hills looking like I was scared of SARS?

But then I thought of scarves. Really, scarves are a genius invention. I often wore scarves to work because it was an easy way to dress up a T-shirt for the office, and I’d be damned if I was going to sit at a desk for 10+ hours in a fancy shirt. But scarves can also double as face masks. So, I would put on a scarf if I was planning to go grocery shopping, and in the vegetable aisle, I would lift the scarf to cover my mouth and nose. Not the chicest look, but less awkward than a surgical mask!

Sometimes, though, if I forgot a scarf, or had a last minute trip, I’d run into trouble. I broke down in tears a few times when I realized I wasn’t wearing a scarf and was really hungry and needed food and couldn’t decide what was a better option: eating less or worse food for dinner or braving the grocery store. How fast could I run in and out of the aisle? Six seconds? You should see me shop, by the way. I’m like the Flash. Lightning fast. In and out and don’t linger.

Now, though, I don’t need the scarf. That’s the biggest thing Xolair has brought to my life. Sure, it’s nice to eat spinach salad (usually I pick out the spinach), and it’s really nice to sit in restaurants, but it’s SO NICE TO GROCERY SHOP WITHOUT A SCARF. It’s nice to be able to go to this tiny little produce market with no windows or non-produce aisles and examine my fruits and vegetables before plopping them in my basket. Even with the scarf, I used to just take from the middle (less likely to cross contaminate) and run. I would still avoid shelves too crowded with allergens — like if eggplants, which are absorbent, were next to broccoli, I wouldn’t buy eggplant. Which was hard, because I can’t really eat that much to begin with, and my diet has to stay varied, and eggplant is really important structurally to my meal plans. That’s past Cindy’s problem, though. With Xolair, and its mitigation of my allergies, I can pop by a store on a scarfless whim and buy an eggplant no matter where its staged on the shelf.

In fact, I haven’t worn most of my scarves in a while. Except on airplanes. I don’t want to be caught with stale air on a flight where someone decides to eat wasabi snacks (now sold in LAX!) and tempt fate. But my grocery scarves are now travel scarves, and who knows…some day they might just be scarves…

And side note: the writing group is a Muslim/Jewish writing group, and it’s really interesting to me that I’ve found ways to incorporate scarves into my wardrobe for a totally non-fashion related reason, and many of my Muslim friends do the same to cover their heads for prayer. While I was thinking, “I can’t leave my house without a scarf today” I’m glad to know I had friends-to-be-made that were doing the same, creating a kind of retroactive kinship.

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I Have An Airborne Allergy…And It’s Not To Peanuts

Grocery shopping is tedious. But it can also be fun; sometimes it’s cool to go to different cities and wander through the supermarket to see what different places sell. My family always stops by a local supermarket when we go on vacation both to get provisions and because my dad loves discovering new products. Like interestingly-flavored Triscuits or cool oreos or whatever’s new. So buying food can be an adventure.

Sometimes, it’s not a great adventure. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland instead of the awesome Indiana Jones (no offense, Pirates fans, but the ride is mediocre).

For instance, tonight I went to the Santa Monica Co-Op. A lovely place with lots of organic fruits and vegetables. Unique products. I go there because I know I’ll get organic stuff (which I have to these days) and they have so many kinds of squash, and it’s right near my office. It’s a delight.

Except when they have horseradish. They don’t always. But this was the second time I’ve noticed fresh horseradish there, and of course, been sick.

Yup, I have an airborne allergy to horseradish. Not peanuts. Not treenuts. Not eggs. Not the “usuals.” But horseradish. That food that almost no one uses.

So yeah, it’s a lot more simple than managing an airborne peanut allergy. People eat peanuts a lot. Though, people also get it when you can’t be around them.  I must look like a crazy person run away from the fruits and vegetable aisle. Literally, run.

Luckily, this time wasn’t so severe. I just got dizzy, lost most of my voice, got cloudy thoughts, and some ear itching. My throat is swelling a bit now. See, you can’t take benedryl when you have to drive home from the grocery store. I’m not dying, just uncomfortable and I guess sick, but a car accident could be a lot more fatal. (Don’t worry, I’ll take the benedryl as soon as I finish writing this. At this point, time doesn’t matter).

It got me thinking, though:  you never hear people talk about doing adult activities with an airborne allergy. What do you do when you’re grocery shopping and you suddenly can’t anymore? Or you can’t buy the foods you needed to because they’re too close to your allergen? The last time I ate food that was near horseradish — an apple that was in the fridge with the horseradish we were going to use for Passover (yes I’m stubborn and don’t want my family to use a different vegetable for maror so I used to just leave the house when my mom would grate it and we’d keep it in another room for the whole seder except when people would gulp it down, and yes, now that I’m hypersensitive we won’t use it again) — I went to the ER. So I don’t buy anything near it anymore. I run.

The solution, I guess, is for someone to grocery shop for me. Once, my friend J came to visit me in LA and we were going to cook for Shabbat together. I had a cold at the time, and she asked me to stay away from the vegetable aisle in the supermarket while she shopped there because I’m always more allergic when I’m sick. I refused. Then I started uncontrollably coughing. She sent me to the cereal aisle and told me to wait there while she picked out the foods we needed. I told her I didn’t need to.

“Cindy, you can’t be in the vegetable aisle.”

“But you’re not always here, sometimes I have to be in this aisle.”

“And then you don’t buy most vegetables because they are too close to things you can’t be near. I want to cook with these vegetables and you can eat them, so let me buy things you otherwise couldn’t. Take advantage of my being here. Stop being stupid and go wait.”

And she was right. I almost never bought fresh produce. If I did, it was whatever came in plastic boxes and was kept far away from everything else. But I can’t eat processed foods right now so I have to buy everything fresh. It’s delicious, but hard. Because I can’t just wait in the cereal aisle while I astrally project my non-allergenic self to the produce aisle.

J, wanna come back to LA and help me grocery shop? And make delicious soups from peeled carrots and celery? Because that’s the other thing – I can’t touch the vegetables that touch the things I’m airborne allergic to (horseradish, and I’m guessing the bacteria on leafy greens [I’m not allergic to leafy greens themselves, apparently, but I can never be around too many of them without getting sick and I’m allergic to the xanthan in xanthan gum, which is the aforementioned bacteria]). So J peeled, washed, and chopped everything we made that time.

But I wonder…how can one be truly independent when one can’t even be around certain foods? It’s not like we can ban any allergenic foods from grocery stores. And even so, who else is allergic to horseradish to my degree? Not enough people, that’s for sure. Food delivery services don’t let you pick, and everything is cross-contaminated. Friends are nice, but I could never accept that help on a regular basis. A food nanny? Maybe that’s the solution.

For now, I guess I’ll wait for the dead of summer so horseradish season will be truly over.