In Search of Steel-Cut Oats in the Time of the Pandemic The COVID-19 Chronicles: Adventures in Costco

Early morning queue at the Sand City Costco |


This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at

Story and photo by Joe Livernois

Let’s get this out of the way: There is nothing more discouraging than finding yourself eligible for early admission to Costco during the pandemic. But here I am, one of the doddering old coots, standing in line at the crack of dawn so that I might buy a seven-pound bag of steel-cut oats before the younger bastards can get their grubby little hands on it.

It’s bad enough that those of us of a certain age have been identified as “vulnerable” by medical professionals. Apparently we’ve lived very many years and we’ve developed many bad habits that make us more susceptible to virulent germs, stray viruses, body odors and nostril beards. So now we’re consigned to early shopping hours so we don’t infect the young people.

Anyway, when it comes to thinning the herd, the geezers are expected to sacrifice ourselves to COVID-19. It’s all for the good, though, since our demise will kick start the global economy. Perhaps it’s just as well. Let’s face it, we’ve been creeping around this planet for six or eight decades now, and just look at the shattered remnants we’ve left for our kids. Our generation broke things and we never fixed them. We broke the earth, we broke our institutions and we broke some long-lost notion of justice. The culmination of all this brokenness is embodied in the form of another wheezing geezer who emits daily dimwittery from a pulpit that holds the presidential seal. This was the best our generation had to offer.

So, sure, we deserve whatever bad corona mojo comes our way.

Having said that, forcing us to stand in line with our own kind so we can purchase our steel-cut oats and our resealable bags of dried plums only adds insult to injury. It’s not like we’re hoping to score tickets to the Eagles’ 65th Reunion Concert. Or waiting in a long Disneyland line to ride Dumbo with our great-grandchildren.

After everything we’ve lived through, after everything we’ve done in our lives and after all the mind-boggling breakthroughs our society has developed since our births, it’s only led us to this line outside Costco on a Tuesday morning during a pandemic.

If we’re so lucky, why do we look so glum this morning?

Perhaps the worst part about the wait is listening to the old dad jokes emanating from the old guy behind me. “You think this line is long?” the guy says to nobody in particular. “Wait until they open the doors and everyone rushes to the bathrooms.” A bathroom joke, because we’re old and our bladders are weak. Get it? His line neighbors shrug.

There are maybe 300 other old people standing in this line. We are keeping our distance, standing in a zig-zag in the Costco parking lot, grasping our carts like grim death. We’ve been conditioned to behave over the years, so everyone is polite and no one makes a scene. We are mature adults. We regard one another with the shared acknowledgement that we’re not getting any younger.

We are the lucky ones, really. Most everyone in this line will spend at least $100 at Costco today; some will spend much more. Tens of thousands of families in Monterey County can’t afford the luxury of stocking up. Bulk goods from Costco are generally cheaper than individual items at most grocery stores, but many people simply can’t afford to buy two gallons of milk this week, so they will settle for the higher-priced gallon at the corner store. Many hundreds of families are subsisting on bags of donated food they are picking up each day at local school parking lots during this global emergency.

If we’re so lucky, why do we look so glum this morning?

Now some other old guy is talking out loud in this line, distracting the rest of us from our silent existential dread. He is sharing fond memories of his line-standing experiences, speaking to a woman in front of me. Apparently he’s waited in a lot of long lines in his life. She seems genuinely impressed about all the line standing this man has accomplished.

The Costco portal finally opens and it’s 8 a.m. and the line moves in serpentine with the collective rickety-ratch of shopping-cart wheels on pavement. Have you ever heard the sound of 300 shopping carts moving across pavement at 8 in the morning? I have. It’s terrifying. We may have awakened every soul still slumbering in Sand City with our shopping-cart clatter and our gloom.

We file into the store, one at a time. The Costco gatekeeper is an older gentleman dressed to the nines, in a suit vest and a crisp tie, a red-and-black ensemble that slays. I don’t know this man, but I love him; he’s a gentleman who respects the customers he serves by taking the trouble to look sharp for them. When he woke up this morning, weeks into a pandemic, he consciously decided he would spend the time to look his best when he greeted us at the Costco door. Nobody else I see this morning put much thought into what they’re wearing, but he did. I want to shake his hand, but who does that anymore?

Say what you will about Costco, but its HR department consistently assembles the friendliest and most helpful workforce on earth. It’s a company that respects its employees and it shows.

By the way, have the authorities authorized the shooting of hand-shakers yet?

I have my shopping list of provisions that will get us through the next several weeks. Steel-cut oats, bags of dried plums, blocks of cheese, sacks of flour, 18 gallons of vodka, etc. etc. It’s a pandemic list, with only a few frills.

The Costco staff is lined up along our route as we enter, motioning us to continue down the wall aisle. Someone is barking orders. The gestures of Costco employees are familiar to me. I had seen the same waving motions behind the chutes of the California Rodeo. The cowboys there were directing herds of roping calves with those motions.

The Costco people also inform us that Costco has no paper products available for sale this morning. Too bad. The young bastards probably hoarded all the TP.

The old customers are each on our independent missions, focused on our shopping lists. I beeline it to the dog food section, but a friendly Costco employee stands in my way. He is offering a six-pack of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, one to a customer. I didn’t think I needed them until I was informed that quantities are limited. So now I have enough disinfecting wipes to eliminate a nation of termites.

I fill my basket quickly, except for that one missing item. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the Costco item that simply can’t be found. It happens to every Costco shopper at least once during every excursion they make  to Costco. In my case today it’s the steel-cut oats. Where is the seven-pound bag of Bob’s Red Mill steel-cut oats? It’s oatmeal, right? Wouldn’t it be located in the cereal section?

So why isn’t it in the cereal section?

I clamber about aimlessly with my cart, hoping to catch one of the friendly Costco employees. They’re all busy helping other customers. So I move up and down each aisle of Costco’s cavernous food section yet again, deliberately inspecting each item like the old geezer I’ve become. I feel like Barton Fink. The steel-cut oats must be here somewhere in this joint, right?

I eventually find an unoccupied Costco employee. And this is the conversation we have:

Me: “Could you direct me to the steel-cut oats?”

Friendly Costco Guy: “It’s down that aisle. The cereal aisle.”

Me: “You would think. But I’ve looked there twice and I can’t find it.”

FCG: “It’s there. At the end of the aisle, next to the hearing-aid kiosk.”

The hearing-aid kiosk. But of course.

Getting old is a bitch.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

4 thoughts on “In Search of Steel-Cut Oats in the Time of the Pandemic The COVID-19 Chronicles: Adventures in Costco

  1. Getting ready for my first foray out into the world in over two weeks. I am not brave enough for Costco. Besides, I lost my card six months back and haven’t gotten around to replacing it. If you haven’t heard from me in a week, send out a search party. I’ll be wandering the aisles at Albertson’s in Morro Bay trying to stake out the delivery of tp.

  2. I got up early on Monday and got in the seniors line at Whole Foods at ten minutes to 8. There were about 13 other oldsters in line. A young woman arrived and stood behind me. I didn’t say anything. Then a man came out of the store and informed her that this hour was for 60 and older. She looked embarrassed and said “I don’t fit in that category” and as she was walking away I said, “I was going to ask what face cream you use, because you look great for 60!” No response… Anyway, they let I think 45 into the store at a time and I walked straight back and scored a pack of paper towels which we were low on. I cruised the store and found all of the regular stuff we buy. I bought enough for about a week of dinners including some teriyaki salmon, fresh produce, the chips and salsa Charlie likes… It was rather civilized. Then I popped into RiteAid for Cheetos, gummy bears and other non-Whole Foods essential including Kraken Rum. That store is generally fairly quiet. I think we’ll get through this. Breathe in. Breathe out.

    1. That’s not bad, Peri. There were probably 150 people in the line when I showed up about 7:20 on Tuesday, and it doubled by the time the place opened. Everyone was civilized. As I mentioned, we’ve been conditioned over the decades to behave ourselves.

  3. Damn, I forgot the steel cut oats! But I got the vodka and the dried plums. When I went last week they had some paper products (but no Kleenex) and after the senior’s line to get in the door, you could get in another line for milk, eggs, TP, paper towels and bottled water. At each station there were friendly Costco workers to toss their product in your cart. I didn’t need TP because I went to Costco in February. But what the Hell, toss a bundle of that precious commodity in the cart. I will trade TP for Kleenex, can’t find that anywhere except the kind treated with Vicks at CVS. It’s the only thing left on the paper aisle. I used to get my oats at Safeway but the entire self-serve kiosk has been double shrink-wrapped in plastic. The aisles at Safeway are now one way only. Santa Cruz is arresting surfers. It’s crazy.

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