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Mature oaks obscure the rolls in the ground and hide the brick houses from each other, while privacy fences hide their backyards. The houses are mostly about 30 years old but don’t look it from the street. Where I live, in the Redland Oaks neighborhood in the Redland Road area, it’s truly a bedroom community – and people don’t leave their bedrooms open. 

People leave in the morning and return in the evening. The only thing approaching the status of a business is the local school. There is a neighborhood association with rules, but enforcement has not had the rabid quality I’ve seen elsewhere. (I encountered one neighborhood association that was ruthless enough to impose a $15 fine every time you left your garage cart outside.) Basically, the neighborhood is a series of interconnected cul-de-sacs. You’re most likely to meet people while walking to the community mailboxes, but even there socializing is optional.

A few years ago, my twin sons had temp jobs in two successive Christmas seasons, making local deliveries for UPS. A truck would unload a mound of boxes into our garage every morning, and my sons would sort them, scan them, load them on a UPS-supplied golf cart, and deliver them around the neighborhood. I wondered what the neighbors would say about us turning their cul-de-sac into a branch of a multinational corporation. One man came by to intercept a gift package before it was delivered to his house. (I didn’t ask why he was hiding things from his wife.) Otherwise, there was no evidence that anyone noticed anything.

On the other hand, after I bought a new pickup and left it parked in the driveway, men who I barely knew kept coming by to ask how it compared to similar models. When my aged mother had to move in with us, my neighbor insisted on paying for a new fence gate (to match his adjacent new fence) since he figured I faced enough expenses.

But lately, I’ve felt a deeper appreciation for my neighbors, having gone through a crisis with them – the one that started in March, on Friday the 13th.

Overnight, you could barely get into the parking lot of the local H-E-B at Bulverde and Classen. Inside, many staples were gone and the checkout lines extended back to the middle of the store. Those in line griped but behaved.

It took management only a couple of days to impose order with purchase limits, social distancing, plastic shields at the checkout lanes, and masks. But milk, paper towels, wipes and many cleaning supplies, yogurt, and eggs were all gone. As an advantage of being tall, I found a lone box of Kleenex, overlooked on the top shelf. Dog food was decimated. Cereal was gone except for kids’ sugary stuff. Soup cans were gone except for a few mainstay flavors. The meat was gone except for a few items on the very top shelf, apparently beyond the reach of the average shopper. Okra was the only surviving frozen vegetable. Checkout lines still stretched deep into the store, but now that was because of social distancing.

Yet no one lashed out. No, they were too busy studying their lists and gossiping (mutedly, through masks and distance) about which store still had sought-after items. Shopping had graduated from a chore to an expedition, requiring cunning and flexibility. A relative on another side of town reported shoppers brawling over bags of chips. I saw nothing like that, only intense application.

The H-E-B at Bulverde and Classen supplies groceries to a large swath of Northside neighborhoods bordering Loop 1604. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Toilet paper was a special case – you had to get in line before the store opened, ignore the rumors sweeping the line about the supply being wiped out already, and then take what was handed to you after reaching the front (assuming the rumors weren’t true). And so, for the only time in my life, I paid for lavender-scented toilet paper.

Today, months later, toilet paper again sits unguarded on the store shelves. But the social distancing markers that date to those days remain on the floors, and are respected. People wear masks as if there was never any political posturing around the practice. Yes, they kept their eyes on the prize (otherwise known as survival) and didn’t quibble.

The new normal also includes a lot of take-out food, doctors’ waiting rooms without virus-trapping magazines, minimal socializing with strangers, and not walking up to people to talk in their faces.

Out on the street, people no longer smile and otherwise acknowledge you as you pass – they’re more likely to cross the street when they see you coming. This is not because they’re snubbing you, but to maintain social distance. They may still be smiling, but their masks cover it. There are exceptions, of course, such as the elderly couple who take walks with a (rather self-conscious) cat in a covered, scaled-down baby buggy. But even the children who gather around to ask about the cat keep their distance and wear masks.

Hopefully, the time will come soon when we can revert to the old normal and people can just walk up to each other without wearing masks.

But that cat, I’m positive, will still be self-conscious.

Lamont Wood is a San Antonio-based writer who does the family shopping.