The Zombie CVS, A Late-Capitalism Horror Story

Shelves in the toilet paper aisle at a Target store sit empty in Vernon Hills, Ill., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. A surge of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. is sending people back to stores to stockpile again, leaving shelves bare and forcing retailers to put limits on purchases. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

There is almost nothing left to steal at the CVS in Columbia Heights, and that gives you an idea of which items have actual value.

Blank CDs, for example — the thieves don’t even bother with them. The greeting card section has been left alone. The good magazines like Vogue and GQ and Sports Illustrated are gone, but there are still a few copies of Traditional Home, some special issues of Life devoted to Willie Nelson, and a Woman’s World that declares: “Bye bye, jiggly fat!” No soft drinks, but three gallon-sized jugs of Arizona green tea are still on the shelves on one recent visit.

Everything else that remains in the store in Northwest D.C., which is not much, is under plexiglass: Dawn dish soap, L’Oreal shampoo, MiraLax, a handful of Clairol root touch-up hair dye kits, flu season combo packs of DayQuil and NyQuil. The diapers are behind the counter. The Cetaphil and Neutrogena face washes are under lock and key.

Other shelves, stretching entire aisles, are totally empty.

It has been like this since at least October, when the Legend of the Empty CVS of Washington began to spread beyond the District’s borders. It became a horror story of Late Capitalism. Tales were told on social media, and in the comments sections of local news stories, and they were full of spooky scenes (harsh fluorescent lights shining on bare shelves!) and jump scares (hordes of teenagers reportedly ransacking the stores!).

But the thing about scary stories is that they metastasize with each retelling. So by the time it got to the New York Post, and then the conservative British tabloids, and then Twitter accounts with names including “No. 1 Deplorable,” the empty CVS had somehow become a stand-in for all that is wrong with American cities — and liberals (and liberal democracy?) — in 2024.

In the meantime, the zombie CVS kept filling prescriptions, dead but somehow still shuffling along — until Thursday, when corporate shut it down, at last.

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