Volume 12, Issue 42 ~ October 14-20, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Beats Five Days in Bed

The last time I was in a line like this was to get my uniform when I was drafted in ’44.
—Elderly man in a winding procession at Giant, Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie

Friend, I know what you’re talking about. Come to think about it, I’m in the same boat. I can’t recall a line like the one I’m in, and I’m beginning to get concerned about my chances of getting what I came for at the tail end of this snake-like procession.

I’m not lined up for military duds, tickets to a rock concert or a chance to get on Oprah’s show and take home a new Pontiac. I’m in line to get something I’d have never thought I’d wait more than a few minutes for. What’s at the other end, somewhere in this big and busy Giant, is a shot: a vaccine needle for flu protection.

Normally, I get my flu shot in November when I have my periodic cardiologist visit at Baltimore’s University Medical Center. But this year, as we all know, things are different.

Suddenly, there’s a dramatic shortage of vaccine; one of the two big companies making the shots, Chiron of England, was ordered by the British government to cease distribution. So only 54 million shots will be available from the other leading factory. That’s about half of what’s needed in this country.

Last year, supplies became a bit tight, and I got one of the last shots at the hospital. This year, I didn’t want to stretch my luck again. I believe in the shots. I’ve taken them for many years, and only once over that time have I come down with a nasty flu. A fellow in the line about a dozen feet ahead of me said he missed a shot only one year. He got the flu.

I’m eligible for a shot in this year of virtual rationing. First, I’m more than a decade older than the 65 years set as the age after which you need a shot. I’m diabetic, and I’ve had bypass surgery: two more reasons why I qualify for a needle. But I figured rather than ask that a shot be reserved for me at the hospital, I’d do as those around me are doing. Stand in line. Take my chances.

Move along with me at a snail’s pace heading for the other end of the line in the warehouse section of Giant, where we’re told, shots will be given come noon. The line curves down three full aisles already — and that’s not counting those lined up down a long corridor unseen in the back. It’s 11 o’clock, so the first shot won’t be given for another hour.

With me is Denise Albrecht of Pasadena, my daughter Heather’s best friend. She’s expecting a boy in January, so she qualifies, and I have a friend in the long wait. For the next hour and 15 minutes, Denise and I will be in front of a big freezer crammed with ice cream.

I haven’t seen a queue like this since people lined up in front of a shop during WWII, when word spread of the arrival of cigarettes, ladies’ stockings or butter.

I’m getting concerned that maybe the wait will be in vain. There are already hundreds in this line that isn’t moving, just getting longer behind us. Will there be enough shots? Most everyone is a senior citizen; one woman in a stylish gray suit says she’s 97. Then, there are others like Denise, waiting for a shot while waiting for their babies.

A woman comes along and issues us a number, which she says will be needed at the other end of the line; it’s to assure all in line that their wait will be rewarded. When all the numbers are passed out, newcomers will be told to try again at another date. I’m beginning to wonder if Giant is second-guessing itself for hosting a flu-shot distribution.

In our area, the aisles are full. Shoppers don’t even try to get at the ice cream in the freezer next to me; there are too many of us to allow pushing a shopping cart through. Outside the big parking lot is packed, much of the spaces taken by those here for shots. Already, some in line are asking others to hold their space as they need food or beverage. I’m thankful I made my bathroom stop before arriving. You know how it is: You never have to go — until you don’t want to go.

The line is starting to move, barely. It’s 12:30, and I’m at frozen pizzas, probably 15 feet from where I started 90 minutes ago. Lines are breeding grounds for rumors; word is that only one person is administering shots. One woman says she has a hair appointment at 3pm. She can’t miss it; she’s going out tonight. (Later, she opts for the shot; her hair as it is will have to do.)

Cell-phone chatter is everywhere, mostly appointments and meetings canceled. Denise uses her phone to ask her husband, Phil, to bring us folding chairs. Down the line, a lady is plunked in a lawn chair.

At two o’clock, we’re still in the same aisle. A young mother-to-be finds a plastic crate that will serve as a seat the rest of her wait. Denise goes to the deli and returns with cokes and sandwiches, Phil arrives with our chairs. We feel guilty and offer them to others, some of whom are stamping their feet to shed cramps.

Those who bought paperbacks have quit reading. A woman comes back into line with a box of Cheez-Its and passes them around. One fellow keeps his diet Pepsi cold by putting it in a frozen pasta showcase between sips.

It’s 3:30, and I’m standing in front of a tank of live lobsters at the entrance to the warehouse section.

Now those who have had their shots, begin to pass in the other direction, wishing us luck and grumbling about their waits. By now the expectant moms are sharing stories as if they have been friends for years; the many grandmothers in line offer them advice. We still can’t see the business end of the line.

At four o’clock, down the hall we can finally see the end of the line. There are two ladies administering shots, another collecting the $20 fee and checking health records to be sure only those eligible are served. It’s chilly, for alongside us are the big warehouse freezers where ice cream is stored. The line plods along.

At 4:20, I put my money down, sign waivers and stand alongside a lady who has punched a needle into my upper arm before I know it. “Is that it?” I ask. She only nods. Already a fresh needle is in her hand, and another man has rolled up his shirtsleeve.

Your Turn
Five hours and 20 minutes, but supposedly I’ll be flu-free this season. Now it’s your turn. Check for distribution centers, wear comfortable shoes and bring something to sit on; also a snack, a beverage and something I never thought I’d advise: a cell phone. Be patient: five-plus hours in line beats five miserable days in bed. Enough said …

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.