I went online to a site called findaflushot.com. They had clinics all over California, but bold red print announced that all were canceled after Oct. 16 because of a shortage of vaccine, including the one scheduled at the Safeway supermarket in our small town.

    I found an Oct. 16 clinic at another Safeway in Santa Rosa, 2 1/ 2 hours away. I called. The clinic would be held. At what time should we start lining up? The woman at the pharmacy suggested that we spend the night in our car in the parking lot. I said, "You're kidding." She said, "I spent four nights in my car to get my house, and I would have stayed longer if I needed to."

    Put firmly in my place, I called my husband, Les, at the shop and told him that this was our only chance. He was incredulous. "I'm not doing that."

    Time for the ultimate guilt trip: "When I'm on my deathbed from flu and I look up at you and say: 'If only we'd spent the night in the Safeway Parking lot.' . . ."

    "Okay, okay, whatever makes you feel better."

    Friday evening, we packed pillows and blankets and at 8 p.m. started across the coast range. Our plan was to sleep in the parking lot for a few hours and, when the line formed, get in it. We arrived at 10:30 p.m.; there was already a line.

    The first 30 people got inside the store; the rest would wait outside. We were Nos. 16 and 17. No. 1, an elderly lady with a builtup shoe and an assistance dog, had arrived at 5 p.m. with a cot for herself and a bed for the Australian sheepdog. She slept, head covered in blankets to shield her eyes from the overhead fluorescents.

    We took folding chairs and got in line, taking turns going to the car to sleep from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

    The store was in a shopping center with a late-night club. It was Friday night and young people clustered outside, drinking and laughing. At 2 a.m. the club closed. Several patrons, in various stages of inebriation, made their way inside the 24-hour grocery. They stopped and stared at the line of us, crouched on our metal chairs, wrapped in blankets. Who were these huddled masses? Yeah, I wanted to say. One decade you're up until dawn dancing and drinking, then you're up waiting for a flu shot.

    One young man pulled a chair up opposite, ready for a debate. Who was for Bush and who for Kerry? What did we think of the health care system?

    "Have a good one," the chemistry professor with a compromised immune system said.

    The worst thing about spending a night at the grocery is not the lights or the Muzak, to which you can close your eyes and ears, it's the announcements. You know, in the store when you hear what sounds like the manager's voice offering grape juice, two for one on aisle 9? That's a tape and it plays on a loop, loudly, all night, beseeching shoppers to buy bread or pork chops or Pepsi - chirping cheerily to a store empty of everyone but us and one checkout guy.

    But Safeway was good to us. It offers these clinics as a service. In addition to the chairs and a clearly marked space to line up, this one provided a bin filled with water bottles and a sign instructing us to take only one. In the morning, free doughnuts and pastries appeared. Along with our shots, we got $10 gift certificates for groceries. Best of all, when things got rough, security appeared.

    Several people in line were under 65, holding places for parents too infirm to wait all night. Every time the automatic door opened, a blast of cold air hit us. They shared blankets and coats. The area inside Safeway reached capacity, and the line outside began. It was cold and damp. At 6 a.m. the line was already a block long. Recent arrivals sidled into our area - to get warm, they said, to use the bathroom.

    Security arrived. "Police your area. People in line out there are getting nervous. They say folks from the back of the line are breaking in here." A young man holding a place for his mother turned out to be a police officer. He fixed the automatic doors so they wouldn't open. He directed people to the store's other doors. The stubborn few who insisted on hanging around the edges as if they'd been there all night he threatened with security.

    An imposing lady with a place just outside made herself our leader. She told us to count down. We were 32. She checked with store management to see how many doses of vaccine would arrive - from 70 to 200. A ripple of anxiety outside, where the line stretched the length of the shopping center, around the corner to the back.

    A frail woman, holding a place for her 97-year-old husband, tripped over the now-empty chair pallet, and fell - hard. Emergency rescue was called and she was carried away, protesting, to the hospital. We promised to hold her place. At 7, she returned, to much applause, with the husband and a big lump on her forehead.

    At 9 a.m., the nurses arrived and began to set up tables. Our lady leader was given a badge by Safeway and began handing out numbers. Everyone after 200 was told to go home. People wept and refused to leave. Police arrived to provide extra security.

Security said everyone with a number needed to be in a chair. The parents of people holding places began arriving - on walkers, in wheelchairs, hauling oxygen tanks. One handsome white-haired father, 85, erect on a cane, wore a three-piece black leather suit with fringes and stars and a matching black cowboy hat: clothes he'd bought a quarter of a century before in Las Vegas.

    A surge of tension erupted when it appeared that the head nurse - pink-cheeked after her night's sleep - might not take us in the order of our arrival. There were rumors of people who'd phoned in and received lower numbers. Only rumors it turned out, and we relaxed back into our chairs. But the anger was palpable, and you could see how quickly the halt and the lame would riot.

    Bright-eyed, officious young women handed out paperwork for us to fill out. If we claimed asthma, they demanded to see our inhalers. People had been cheating. Some of the frail parents couldn't remember their Social Security numbers. "Make one up," a daughter commanded.

    At 10 a.m., almost 12 hours after we arrived, we lined up for shots. Well-dressed latecomers edged up to the table for a little chat with the nurses. "Back to the end of the line," we shouted. "We've been here all night." The French Revolution could have replayed right there next to the liquor shelves in Safeway if they hadn't obeyed. All we lacked was the guillotine.

    At 10:30 a.m. we walked out into the cold gray morning. The people in line, with caretakers, unable to walk or breathe properly, waited patiently. A man tried to register people to vote. "I don't think some of these people will live until November," he said.

    A young reporter from the local paper stopped us. "This is a scene you'd expect to see in Haiti," Les said. "It's a national disgrace."

    My sermon:

Tommy Thompson, the country's health chief, tells us to go home, that the flu season has not even arrived. We don't trust him. Half of the available vaccine, which is half the amount ordered, has already disappeared, much of it into the arms of perfectly healthy people. Shipments of the remainder are slow and erratic.

    The government spends millions of dollars to protect us from smallpox and anthrax; but 200,000 people go into hospitals each winter with flu and 36,000 of them die. Like the rest of our health care system, it's a disgrace.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.

A long shot

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

It's flu season, and I have asthma. I'm  in a high-risk category and get a flu shot every year. Not this time. I began asking at my clinic in September. Not yet, the nurse said week after week, until the day she said never. No  vaccine had been allocated to our county. I called my lung doctors in Miami and San Francisco. They were sympathetic, but helpless. Neither had vaccine. It was mid October. In two weeks, I'd be flying cross country to Florida, breathing recycled air for six hours. Find a grocery or drugstore,  they suggested, an odd thing to hear from your doctor. I was on my own.