An essential worker

His grocery store sits outside a rural suburb at the intersection of condos and soybeans; part of a small chain of such family owned stores.  Not huge – but not exactly a bodega either.    As I waited for him to finish chewing, I imagined he was going to say “call me Ishmael,” but instead he began with:

“People are stupid.  I got x’s in the aisle where they can stand.  But they don’t.  I got people wanting me to enforce when other people don’t give them their six feet. You can’t win either way ’cause people are stupid.  Every day they stand in line at seven am for toilet paper.  Every day.  And every day it’s gone. I have a limit on eggs, paper, milk, bread, wipes, soap.  It’s insanity…”

It’s nice not to talk to someone sequestered in their bubble out here but from a part of the country where the Trumpites routinely collide with pinko-lefty-snowflakes in line for generic toilet paper.  I won’t identify the state, but let’s say there’s an open carry law.

“I work and I sleep.  That’s it.  … I made the decision to let ___ have the kids because I’m around so many people, y’know.  I Facetime every night.  It’s hard… I don’t know if it’s the right thing but  … so yeah it’s me and the dog now, for as long as this goes…”

I ask him a little more about how are things at the store.

“Well, I mean let’s just say I have a police presence.  We’re probably a week behind what it’s like out where you are but… I get bitched out all the time, by people.  ‘You’re out of this.’  Yeah I am outta of it.  ‘When are you gonna get it?’  I don’t know.”

He ate and coughed once.  I didn’t say anything, even when he coughed a second time.  I thought of how hyper-aware it all makes us…

“I don’t have the thing.  Check my temp like six times a day.  Just so you know.  This is gonna change everything.  I mean everything, people don’t even know what it’s gonna change, but it’s gonna change everything… I don’t know.  Good thing is now a lot of people have a lot more respect for what we do…  when the flood gates opened up Friday – two weeks ago tomorrow, I was at a register from eight in the morning till nine at night.  We didn’t have limits then. I had one line wrapped all around the building almost.  Just trying to get in.  You couldn’t keep up.  You couldn’t keep up. We anticipated it, but you just can’t-  For more then twelve hours, I didn’t stop, I didn’t eat, I just checked people out.  At the end of it, we have a little office upstairs – you know where the managers can go – with the mirrors and they were up there with a case of Michelob Ultra and I grabbed a beer right off my boss’ desk. I had three of them and was… I mean – I couldn’t drive home, on three beers… cause I was so… It’s insanity.”

Insanity.

“I had a guy try and sell me hand sanitizer.  Made locally.  He said it was organic.  12.99. Plus twenty percent mark-up.  It smelled like – let’s say it was organic, for sure.  Definitely organic.  He gave me samples and I took them home because I was running low but I couldn’t sell it…not yet… y’know?”

I inquired a little more about the girls.

“I want my kids to talk about this time of the virus like an adventure – with good memories of all the fun stuff they did at home, but it’s hard …  ___ asks me how long it is gonna be like this as if I have any – a fuckin — cause she is worried about her work schedule.  I’m like, you work from home and for your fiance, I don’t know…  I can’t pay attention to all the news – not when you are where we are – I mean, I go to work, I have gloves on, my hands are bone dry – but I don’t have a mask.  None of us have masks.  But I show up.  That’s what I can do.  I’m losing workers left and right.  I get their concern, but there’s nothing I can do.  Technically, we are not a small business, but we’re not a corporation, one of these huge – we’re this middle – we can’t afford to pay four hundred people two week vacation, so we’re hiring temporary employees.  I say, when can you start? To this girl who came in to ask for a job the other day.  I say can you start right now.  I’ll pay you.  I even had ____ working for me.  He’s out of work with local 1065 (Ironworkers) and I can pay you cash, ten bucks an hour …. it’s crazy.”

Another cough and a laugh–

“I swear I don’t have the thing.  I had a guy come in who said, ‘my chest is hurting,’ I told him go home.  Till he gets a doctor’s note. I don’t want the whole place shutting down – but we can’t — how many small business are going to go under, I mean we can’t keep up…”

His voice trails off.  I think of asking something, but wait instead.

“Twelve hours a day, I’m fucking exhausted.  And I know I shouldn’t be the one bitching, I have a job, but it’s tough, tough for everybody.”

After a cough:

“I had a guy rip me up today, call me a racist, he wants me to put everything he bought and return it onto his food stamps, I said I can’t do that… I mean, Matt, I’m mobbed – right in the middle of being mobbed – I say I cant do it, sir, it will take an hour – I mean the amount of shit – he was so gaming the system and…  I can’t accommodate that at this point.  He starts swearing at me!  Calls me a racist.  And that’s when I switch off. I said I won’t take it back from anyone, sir – to refund – he had meat in there  and he wanted me to put it back on his food stamps- I had to call the cops.  They asked what our policy was and I said we had the right of refusal.  He walked out to his eighty thousand dollar car – yelling at me..  people are stupid.”

We talk about the stimulus package as I scurry to make sure my notes are caught up when he goes on:

“Do I want my twelve hundred dollars?  Yeah. Of course.  But I’m working, it should go to someone else, you know?   I can’t take that, but they’re gonna give it to me?  Makes no sense… I would just rather it go to bartenders, waiters, but who am I… I don’t know shit.”

I wait.

“I think the people who are suffering the most – not the most – I don’t even want to say suffering ’cause we know people who are – but people who this effects the most – not effect- that’s not the right word, but us who are essential workers, us, nurses, cops – I mean, I know I’m not a nurse or in a hospital,  but I’m out here –  my buddy across the street is a fireman, and he…. essential workers.”

Essential workers.

“I don’t know… I just make sure I got some Lysol and disinfect that shit – like I do every day – I get home, I take everything off, I got a can of disinfectant – then I put all my clothes in the washer.”

“Y’know, my sister says that thing Mister Rodgers says, that quote about people in crisis, ‘look for the helpers’ when things are tough… look for the helpers… yeah, so.”

We talk about the probability of him being able to still get the kids out to Disneyland in July.  It doesn’t look promising.  We were going to try and get to a Dodger game together.

“That’s the thing – it’s the unknown… you know?  That’s what’s got everybody all …”

I finish his thought: lined up at seven am everyday for toilet paper.

“___ got pissed at me,  ’cause I called up my ex and asked if her parents want some things dropped off- you know they both had surgeries, so I did that, twice.  I don’t care.  Just cause they don’t want to – you know, they think I’m some kind of … I’m not going to let that change who I am. After I dropped it off they asked if I could grab a few more things.”

A knock on my security door outside my apartment announces the arrival of a package of hand cream for A. and I to help combat all the sanitizing.

“I mean I don’t want to talk politics and anyway I don’t think anyone knows what’s the right or wrong thing right now… but  when numbnuts goes on the TV and talks, there’s no sense of relief – I mean, when Obama talked – you felt a sense of relief –  I did at least.  But I don’t feel that.  But yeah, ___ got mad I was being so nice to ___ after everything, and she’s on me about how long she has to keep the kids and I don’t know… I did what I thought was the right thing, dropping the girls off and keeping them from seeing me… I don’t know.”

No.  None of us do, friend.  None of us do.

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