About an hour before opening, the crowd starts to grow. Shoppers edge in as close as they can to the entrance, their carts already poised for door-busting. But we aren’t offering half-priced smart TVs or impossible-to-pass-up BOGOs. We’re in the business of cheap canned beans and seemingly the only rolls of toilet paper in town.
I work at a grocery store that’s known for wacky Hawaiian shirts, tiny cups of coffee, clanging bells and super friendly cashiers. The COVID-19 pandemic has made every day at work feel like Black Friday during the Black Death.
In the last two weeks, our stores from Portland, Oregon, to New York City have experienced unprecedented business as shoppers prepare for self-isolation, restaurant closures and kiddos at home 24/7.
Inside the store, after clearing the floors of empty cardboard boxes and stacked pallets, we come together near a display of mandarin oranges for a morning huddle. We stretch, kvetch, air hug, sometimes cry. We give each other encouraging words as we glimpse the ever-expanding horde beyond the glass. I feel like I’m in “Saving Private Ryan”: “Gear up. Fall in.”
When the doors glide open at 9 a.m., frantic shoppers, many of whom refuse to follow the 6-foot radius advice, scramble to the canned goods and the paper products. I watch a masked man use his forearm to empty a shelf of refried beans into his cart. I watch a woman yank a package of toilet paper out of another woman’s cart. “Only one per customer!” she admonishes.
Every crowded aisle makes me panic. Every cough sets me on edge. “Stay home!” I want to yell, but instead I head to the backroom where I can take a few deep breaths with less fear of inhaling somebody’s mucosal mists. A co-worker calls our backroom “the screaming pillow.”
Until two weeks ago, this area was filled to the ceiling with back stock. It was bustling with employees pushing hand trucks stacked with merchandise, shoving hands into community bags of tortilla chips, flinging cardboard into the baler’s steel maw. Now it’s empty, as suppliers struggle to meet the current demands. The baler is quiet. Shared snacks are completely out of the question.
The backroom has become a place to cool off behind the scenes. To get nostalgic about events from three weeks ago. And to scream. “Fuck everything!” I yelled to anyone listening. My co-workers nodded. “Amen to that.”
Spending hours a day in this environment has me concerned not only for my physical health, should I fall ill or become a carrier of COVID-19, but for my mental health as well. I’ve been living with a base level of anxiety I can only assume is eating a hole in my stomach and weakening my immune system.
Every day I wonder if I’m sick. Are my body aches a symptom, or are they a result of doing that PopSugar cardio video the other day? Is my scratchy throat caused by talking to hundreds of customers each day, or is it the onset of the coronavirus? Am I fatigued from overstimulation and constant worry, or do I have COVID-19? Every evening I tell my husband that it’s my last day, that I’m not going in anymore.
And there’s no reason not to. My company is encouraging us to stay home if we’re feeling even the faintest suggestion of bronchial tickle. They will still pay us in full and our absence will not dip into our paid time off, nor will it impact our benefits eligibility or employment status. Yet each morning I dutifully rise at 4:30, throw on a fresh hibiscus-printed T-shirt, grab my boxcutter and head out the door.
I’m usually embarrassed to tell people I work at a grocery store. I still list my alma mater as my place of employment on social media platforms even though it’s been nearly two years since my graduate assistantship as a writing instructor and I’ve been wading in the cold water of the adjunct pool ever since.
Working in a grocery store is an invisible job. It doesn’t have the hipness of bartending or the hustle cred that comes with freelancing. It pays too well to be some temporary gig, yet it isn’t what many people consider a career.
“You still work there?” my friends with grown-up jobs ask. “That’s so cool. I’m addicted to their frozen mandarin orange chicken!” Suddenly, however, I’ve been promoted from hummus stocker to frontline aid worker. I’m being thanked for my service, my bravery even.
My usual at-work attitude is chipper, practically Disney. We used to have so much fun that half the time I’d be laughing from a breakroom joke when I signed in to my cash register. I no longer know how to conduct myself. I’m no good at pretending.
I’m frustrated by the obliviousness of the customer who wonders why our shelves are bare. I’m panicked by the patron who demands I glove up and wipe down before commencing the transaction. I’m angered by the entitled consumer who is outraged that his favorite pizza is unavailable. I try to maintain a patient, sober and compassionate face — the kind you would wear to a funeral. But I really want to be mean, to point out greed and privilege and hypocrisy. I also want to love, to hug those who are struggling because of this. I can’t do either.
The world has turned upside down in a matter of weeks. Many have lost their jobs and worry about getting unemployment checks. Small-business owners are uncertain whether they’ll ever reopen. The stock market is plummeting, the daycare centers are closed, vacations are canceled, and there are no social gatherings to look forward to. This abrupt topsy-turvy is quite possibly more disconcerting than the virus itself.
People react to and deal with uncertainty in different ways. We look for opportunities to reclaim a bit of control over our destabilized lives. For some, that’s buying all the tuna and shelf-stable oat milk. For others, it’s making cashiers sanitize their hands yet again.
Many of us shop to feel purposeful — buying enough for a two-week (let’s be real: two-month) quarantine, then going out and buying more (and ironically exposing ourselves to thousands of invisible germs) the next day. Maybe we’re bent out of shape over an out-of-stock pizza not because we’re entitled, but because we’re scared. That pizza was the familiar security blanket. Maybe we’re policing other shoppers as a way to uphold civilian order, not to be meddlesome and petty.
Every customer is an exaggerated personification of my own shortcomings. When I’m overwhelmed, I snap. Or I crumble. Or I worry my cuticles bloody and raw. Facing these ghosts of tantrums past at my most vulnerable, when I feel both resentful and guilty to be employed, when I fear anyone could make me extremely ill (if not kill me), is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.
So why do I continue to go to work day after day? I wish I could say that it’s out of altruism, that it’s an act of service. But I can’t take credit for my new crisis-responder classification. I never swore the Hippocratic oath, never enlisted in the National Guard. I can’t be compared to my brother-in-law, who willingly went to Sarajevo during the Bosnian war to work breadlines.
I return to work because I’m just as freaked out as everyone else. I find comfort in routine, in seeing the same faces day after day. My grocery store job is the only facet of my life that hasn’t completely changed in the last two weeks. Without it, I wouldn’t recognize anything at all and would probably sooner collapse with a nervous breakdown.
It’s 6 a.m. The parking lot is empty. The sun isn’t up yet. Inside the store, we listen to Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings at full volume. We dance our shoulders a little as we restock the bare shelves.
My co-workers and I talk about everything except the coronavirus: our new garden projects or our pets or what we whipped up for dinner last night. I hang packaged lunchmeat from pegs, spreading our thin inventory over several facings to give the illusion of abundance our customers will appreciate. Our goal is to keep our store from looking post-apocalyptic as long as possible. We want to be familiar.
I imagine many of our customers come into our store for the same exact reason I do. It’s one of the last vestiges of “normal” life right now. And though I’d like to think I’d never risk my life for a tub of ginger snaps or a bottle of cheap wine, I already have been.