Cleveland • For the last two years, I have worked two jobs: one full-time position in food service at a grocery store, and one part-time as a receptionist at a hair salon. I took five days off in October to get married, and I haven’t had a vacation longer than that since 2017. I’ve worked every major holiday since then, too.
Mostly, I love my job. The customers were often kind, one of them going so far as to bring me a gift this holiday season. My co-workers formed their own little community, offering rides, sharing food and listening to others vent.
Even on the worst days, I still got to help people. These were small things: talking a mother through allergy-friendly meals for her child’s birthday party, or pointing a teenager with culinary aspirations toward the right type of pancetta.
Now, with the coronavirus, the job is entirely different. I can hand customers the chicken salad they ordered, or show them where the rice would be if it wasn’t out of stock, but it’s clear that no one’s day is being improved, even minutely, by these actions.
The time for finding joy in routine, everyday exchanges with one another is gone. Co-workers, some of them coughing, try to stand six feet apart in spaces too cramped to do it properly as they talk in low voices about their concerns.
From behind the counter, I watch customers greet each other by bumping elbows, nervous frowns tugging down their forced smiles.
Everyone keeps saying, “This is all so crazy, right?” as if through reassuring one another that yes, this is crazy, it will stop being so crazy, and life in the supermarket can go back to normal.
Last Sunday, a man ordered two containers of tuna fish salad and, while I packed them up, grinned at me. “I’m a former Marine,” he said, “so I know what to do. I bought a pound of weed, a pound of magic mushrooms, all the liquor I’ll need, and a thousand bullets. I’m all set for whatever comes.”
That Monday was my weekly day off, which is itself a luxury, something some of my co-workers don’t even have. The next day, I called my bosses and told them I needed to step away for the next few weeks, a decision that was only made possible by donations from generous strangers who encountered a Twitter thread I wrote about food safety that went viral.
This was incredible kindness, and, for me, incredible luck. If not for them, I would be at work right now, getting ready to clean down deli slicers, change my gloves and hope desperately for my own safety, and the safety of my spouse, friends, family, co-workers and customers.
Now I sit at home and think the same things, knowing I’ve more or less certainly been exposed. I feel guilty but at least slightly safer, while my brave co-workers (most of whom have no other choice) carry on without me. I start work again the week of March 31, assuming I feel safe enough to do so. I’m trying to take things a day at a time.
The human beings who are helping you — at supermarkets, at gas stations, at whatever stores are still open — are people too. We are exhausted. We have already been working for so long, for so little, afraid or not allowed to take sick days, afraid or not able to afford a vacation.
Service workers have families and friends we are concerned about. We are scared for ourselves and for each other. We are here, working, while you enjoy what may be the last good days for a long while, because the crisis is almost certainly going to get a lot worse.
A good day for me, before the virus, was one where no one screamed at me over rotisserie chicken, or when a salad they were under no obligation to buy didn’t suit their tastes. A bad day was one where customers screamed at me more than once.
Now, as things get harder — as our collective stress level rises — I beg you to show kindness to service workers. I beg you not to take out your fear, frustration and despair on the courageous people who show up every day to help you. All of them would surely love to be at home but most cannot, despite their years of hard work, afford to step away for even a moment.
Don’t let the weight of your grief and anger fall on the shoulders of service workers. They are already carrying enough.
Dylan Morrison, the author of “Juniper Lane,” is a food service worker at a supermarket in Cleveland.