Near the end of March, we went from normal customer volumes, calmly shopping, buying a reasonable amount of groceries, to this:
The change was almost overnight. The shit show that ensued over the next couple of weeks was like a sci-fi/horror novel made real. And it hasn’t stopped. Sure, the masses of panic shoppers have dwindled to manageable levels, but each day brings a new nightmare.
As a horror writer, I try to understand fear and ignorance. It’s a big part of what I write. I thought I understood how it would feel to be in a situation like we’re all in right now with this virus, and what others might do/say/think, but I had no idea. A lot of it is indescribable. I mean, I’ve written this post a dozen times at least, and I can’t find the words to convey what it’s been like. Definitely one of those “you had to be there” things, but I’m still going to try to describe what life as an “essential” worker has been like.
The tension emanating from customers coming into the store I work at is palpable. Even when people are being pleasant, you can almost taste the unease and fear lurking just beneath the surface. It seeps into your pores. You don’t even realize it’s there until long after you’ve gone home, and you’re trying to sleep, and just can’t. I’m a champion sleeper, kids. I mean, if there were a prize for the best person at sleeping, I’d probably win. Go to bed early? You bet. Sleep in? God, I miss that. Naps? Yes, please! I love sleep and it loves me, but I haven’t slept more than a few hours at a time in at least a month. Forget naps. Too much anxiety bubbling in this brain to relax “too” much. It attacks when something minor happens or when something (god forbid) happy comes along. You can’t quite enjoy yourself, because this little thing in the back of your mind keeps poking at you, reminding you the other shoe hasn’t dropped yet.
You dream about the manic eyes of people fighting over toilet paper. You remember insults/slights at the strangest times. While you know it’s not personal, it still leaves a little scar when someone calls you a stupid cunt or a lazy bitch or a liar, a cheat, a thief, etc. And I try to be positive every day. Yes, I have rants and tantrums, but I try to make them quick and private. I say good morning to my coworkers and to customers. I ask how they are, and I genuinely want to know. I try to inject humor whenever possible and I find every opportunity to see the bright side. I treat my Sunday shift (which is mostly teenagers) to treats like lunch or donuts and coffee to thank them for all of their hard work and patience. I do this intentionally because I think it’s important to keep smiling. But it’s hard. There are so many negative people around me that sometimes the barrier crumbles and I almost let it devour the bit of light I try to keep burning.
Mostly, I just want to be able to rest and stop worrying. I’d like to look forward to going into work instead of preparing myself mentally for the shit show I might have to deal with. I’m mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. My writing is suffering and so is pretty much every other thing in my personal life. I’m glad to be working, but I’m also terrified and resentful. Yes, I said it. I’m resentful. We’re essential, but we sure as hell aren’t being treated as such. That $2 raise? I’m grateful someone, somewhere said, hey, let’s give them a little cash for their trouble, but let’s be real here, that $2 an hour doesn’t make up for the bullshit we’ve put up with, and it’s temporary.
The most frustrating thing, I think, is hearing things like, “You work at a fucking grocery store. That’s hardly frontline. Get over yourselves.” Why don’t you come do my job for a few days, sweetheart. Remember, you can’t tell anyone off. You can’t be aggressive. You must remain calm and pleasant at all times, no matter what the person in front of you says or does.
No, we’re not in healthcare, we aren’t saving lives, and these are the jobs we chose, but we are here, smiling and being polite no matter what, making sure everyone has food and whatever else they need to get through this shit. Yes, healthcare workers are putting their lives at risk to help everyone and they deserve everything and more for their superhuman efforts to contain this nightmare, but those of us working minimum wage jobs that ensure you have what you need don’t have protective gear and we DON’T KNOW WHO IS SICK AND WHO ISN’T. We have surgical masks, sometimes, and gloves. Those are worn to protect our customers just in case we’ve encountered someone who is sick. And we get verbally and sometimes physically attacked for wearing them or for not wearing them. It’s anyone’s guess which thing we’ll be doing wrong.
As I mentioned before, I have been called every name you can imagine, from a cunt, a bitch, an asshole, to a fucking retard, and more. I have had people get in my face and I’ve had more than a few talk down to me, as though I’m either a child or someone who can’t understand plain English.
For several weeks, those of us working essential jobs (that are not in the medical field), have worked long hours and have had to adapt to new rules/recommendations every day. First, it was making sure people stay six feet apart. Then it was gloves at cash. Wash your hands every hour. No returns. No outside bags. Sanitize debit machines and belts after every customer. Plexi-glass enclosures. No outside gloves allowed in the store. No drinks or food. Now, sanitize the ENTIRE store and the shopping carts and shelves every hour. Put arrows on the floors. Make customers follow said arrows to avoid running into each other. Police the store. Make sure all customers are maintaining the proper social distance. Stock the shelves, but don’t go into the aisles with people in them. (WTF, right?) Limit people in store to 10… no 15… no, 10. Only one person per household. No children whenever possible. Screen everyone who enters with that awesome list of symptoms that almost no one is honest about answering. Did I mention no outside gloves or bags? Because you all don’t seem to get that one.
Work the door. Be a security guard/health expert while screening. Not qualified to do it but fuck it. Needs must, right? Sir, you must answer each question, or you can’t enter the store. Sir, if you keep interrupting me, I can’t let you in. Sir. Sir, back up. You’re too close. Just answer the questions and you can go in. You’re six inches shorter than me and about fifty pounds lighter. Hardly as intimidating as you’re imagining. Okay, don’t come in. Thank you for finally answering the damn questions. Now, you can go in as soon as someone leaves. Sure, it’s annoying. You think I enjoy asking every single person this shit? Do I like standing in the rain, cold, wind so I can tell you what you should already know? Fuck, no. I don’t like it any more than you do, so suck it up and stop whining.
Ma’am, please follow the arrows. It’s one way down this aisle. If it’s so stupid, why is it so hard to follow? Go around the next aisle. Please don’t pass the man ahead of you. I don’t care if he’s too slow. There’s not six feet between you. Oh, so you’re gonna just do it anyway. Awesome. Yep. Fuck you and your stupid mask that doesn’t even cover your damn nose.
Sorry, we’re out of toilet paper. Out of yeast. Out of flour. Nope, no Lysol this week. Potatoes? Hahaha. Good luck. No cash back at the register. Bank machine is just across the road. No canned vegetables. Maybe tomorrow. Limit on meat. Limit on potatoes is two. You have four. No, you can only buy two bags of potatoes. Because you asshole hoarders cleared our fucking shelves last month, that’s why. Lots of toilet paper now. No, that’s the regular price. It’s not price gouging. There are no sales right now because you guys keep buying it all up. Yes, regular price. Okay, don’t buy it then. I’m sure you’ll be fine with the thousand rolls you bought last month.
No, we can’t allow you to use the restroom. It’s in the receiving area and we aren’t allowed to let people back there. The gas station across the road has a restroom that’s open to the public. Oh… You’re shitting your pants right now…? (This actually happened)
One of our managers was assaulted by a customer because she wasn’t wearing a mask. Another employee was shamed on Facebook for wearing a mask that “should” be reserved for medical professionals. (It was a dust mask you might use when hanging drywall or sanding floors, by the way. Totally useless for anyone in healthcare) We can’t win on that front.
People work extra hard to bend the rules or find a loophole. Instead of just doing as asked, they connive and scheme and feel like they’ve won some kind of contest for “fucking the system” or something. They hide their dirty gloves in pockets, discard the ones we provide, and put theirs on once in the store. They move items we’ve placed to block areas they can’t go, and go in anyway. They don’t follow the arrows. They touch EVERYTHING. They socialize in the aisles, preventing others from doing their shopping. There’s a lineup around the building, kids. Move it along. And listen, finding a way to disobey rules that are in place for your safety and for the safety of the most vulnerable members of our community isn’t sticking it to the man. It’s sticking it to yourselves.
I should add that we have fantastic customers too. For the most part, the troublemakers aren’t even from Tweed. They’re from neighboring towns or they’ve come from the cities to open their cottages, despite being told not to do that this year. The problem is, no matter how hard you try to remember the patient, kind people you encounter, that one asshole that threatened you or called you a stupid cunt is what sticks in your mind for the rest of your work day.
And yes, you’re totally right; we could quit. No one’s holding a gun to our head. But if we quit, we won’t get paid. We won’t get unemployment or emergency benefits either. So, we have to go to work. We come home to our families not knowing if some idiot gave us the virus or not. Some of us have elderly or immunocompromised family members we haven’t seen in weeks, or who live in our homes. Some of us have young children. Some of us have health conditions that could be life threatening if we become infected, but we still have to work, because we can’t afford not to.
This is what it’s like to work in a grocery store right now. When I hear people bitching and moaning about wishing they could go back to work, I understand. It’s tough. Money is tight. However, if some of you would just do as health experts are asking, we wouldn’t still be where we are. Things would be better. Restrictions could be lifted.
I’m don’t want pity or sympathy. I’m a big girl and I’m paid to do a job. It’s changed drastically, but that’s fine. Roll with the punches and all that. What I’m asking for is patience and cooperation. What I’ve just described, aside from allowing me to vent a lot of frustration, is intended to make you all understand we’re all in this. We’re all struggling somehow. So, be sensible and stop being selfish. No matter what happens, it costs nothing to be kind or at least civil. Being an asshole won’t change your situation. It won’t end this nightmare. It only makes life that much more difficult for someone else. If making someone miserable makes you happy, then I hope Karma really is a thing and I hope it comes for you hard.