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.

What Happens In Vegas…Teaches Us Valuable Lessons

Okay, so there are a ton of things you can learn in Vegas. Like, how a lot of people are shady but awesome at the same time. How casinos have their ceilings painted like the sky so you forget what time it is. How craps actually works. What the Venice canals kinda sorta look like. The list goes on and on. Vegas is the best place, ever.

But what I learned on my most recent Labor Day trip to Vegas is that being able to roll with the punches is the most important skill a person with food allergies can have (that and a steady hand for injections, but hey).

Traveling with my allergies can be difficult, especially now that I’m not eating out in restaurants outside of LA (and even most LA restaurants) and that I’m limiting my processed foods. I used to head to Vegas for a weekend and stop at the kosher restaurants or the supermarket and grab some bread and sandwich meat and baby carrots and call it a day. But now I have to bring my food with me and cook in advance. Whatevs, no bigs. The good thing about Vegas especially is that I typically go for a day, mayyybe two. I haven’t been on a vacation longer than a weekend in a few years — unless you count an AMAZING work trip to Sundance, but then I had a full kitchen in the condo — so I can’t really say how I’d deal with that scenario. But for these overnight trips, I just cook in advance, pack a cooler, and get a fridge in the hotel room.

This time, though, the fridge was broken.

And of course, I had no idea until 12 hours after it was delivered and supposedly keeping my food from rotting.

So here’s the scenario. We arrive at the hotel, I eat lunch, throw my food in the fridge, the room service guy says it’ll get cold in 20 minutes, but I have 24 hours in the city so I run down to the casino. Gamble, look at art, grab a bag of chips bc that’s what Walgreens sells that I can eat, shop, gamble, see David Copperfield, gamble, head back to the hotel for dinner…and the fridge is warm.

Like, WARM.

In a desert.

In August.

I freak out. What can I eat? The hard boiled egg, string cheese, grapes and roll I had for lunch isn’t going to cut it. I can’t get another bag of chips.

I smell my turkey. Smells fine. Taste it. Not fine. Spit it out.

Realize it was dumb to start with turkey since I keep kosher and wait between meat and milk. Consider that since I didn’t swallow any turkey, maybe it doesn’t count. Look at the cheese. It’s floppy and mushy.

Can’t eat an egg or I’ll overdose.

The carrots smells disgusting.

Need a break from the grapes, can’t repeat from lunch.

And then I look on top of the fridge. And notice, in all its glory, a can of corn.

A can of corn I packed as a backup, in case.

In case of what, who knows? Not in case of a fridge breaking (though that would have been smart). I got tired of cooking, really, and thought, “What if we’re stranded on the side of the road and I get hungry, I could cook more or just take this can of corn.” Thank god for laziness!

Then I realized I didn’t have any utensils. Room service said there was an hour wait and a charge of $3.25 for silverware. No thank you. Too lazy to go down to the buffet or restaurants — when the front desk clerk asked if we were ok with the rooms farthest from the elevators, I had laughed, but in that moment, I wished I’d said, “put us in the lobby, please.” (Ok, maybe laziness isn’t that great).

So I did what any sensible, mad, hungry person trying to make the most of their day in the glorious city would do.

I stuck my hand in the can and ate corn like it was finger food.

I got through half a can, grabbed some chocolate (I’m not sure where I learned this habit, but since high school, with the exception of last year’s chocolate abstention, I don’t leave my house without chocolate in my purse, and yes, I think that’s the best idea ever), decided to cheat with wheat and have a few more bites of  my roll (it was Sunday after all). Satiated enough, I returned to the casino. But not before I replaced the fridge, with the hopes of salvaging the grapes and egg for the next day (I did).

I was so proud.

I could have cried. I could have gotten sullen. But I realized that this was not the first time in my life my food plans had gone awry, and that bucking up and making the most of it — even if that means finger corn — is not that hard. We take food for granted sometimes. Even I did when I packed for Vegas and relied on the fridge. But it’s not. It’s special, it’s necessary, and we’re lucky enough to have enough of it. In my moment of realizing I had nothing to eat, I decided not to feel sorry for myself. I had something to eat. I wasn’t going to starve. I just had to be creative. To improvise. Which isn’t that new for me. I improvise in the kitchen every day. I make do. You get what you get and you don’t get upset, you know?

I can get upset about my allergies from today til tomorrow, but the fact of the matter is, I had a can of corn. And bread. And chocolate. And not terribly spoiled food. People have lived on worse. They’ve survived on worse. I was lucky. Was it the vacation dinner of a lifetime? No.

But I don’t go to Vegas for the buffet.