Robert Kirby: Quarantining our quarrels

Robert Kirby

I try to stay home. It’s not hard. I’ve been working from home for years. I’m also old enough that being quarantined isn’t as unbearable as it must be for younger people.

But eventually we have to go out. Groceries, medication, ammunition — when supplies get low, you got to go.

I take care to employ the basic health requirements. I wear gloves, a mask, maintain social distancing, and try not to touch my face (or anyone else’s) while I’m out.

These infrequent forays into the death zone are instructive. The necessary precautions make conducting important business problematic.

For one thing, when a checkout clerk is a shy female teenager, wearing a mask, and talking from behind a plexiglass snot screen, it’s impossible for a partially deaf old guy to understand a damn thing she says.

The fault isn’t hers. I can’t hear her, lip-read her, or tell her to scream at me so I can hear what the hell she’s saying. And if I try talking loud enough for her to hear me, I run the risk of scaring her.

It’s not my fault either. I detect a soft sound, the mask moves, and there’s eye contact (sometimes), but we might as well be trying to have a conversation from opposite ends of an airport runway.

After struggling for a time, I came up with a brilliant communication device. I call them COVID cards.

Here’s an example:

I show up at the pharmacy counter where I’m well known. I slap a hand-lettered card against the sneeze guard. On it are my name, birthdate, phone number, and a demand:

“Give me my damn meds.”

This usually works. But some of the techs know me and have taken to making COVID cards of their own.

“Go away, Kirb. We’re out of crystal meth.”

We have a laugh, I get my real meds, and we all feel better. Well, most of us. Last week, an older woman behind me in line demanded that I hurry up so she could get her medication.

Yes, tempers are growing short out there. I’ve begun asking clerks, techs and other counter types if they’ve noticed a decline in manners during the pandemic. They all say customers have become increasingly surly and sometimes even threatening.

It was the answer to the next question that surprised me. I asked which customers were the worst. Without exception, they replied: older people.

Really. I thought for sure it would be the generally accepted ill-mannered and self-centered younger set. Nope. Not even close.

One clerk told me that he had been subjected to profane outbursts more times in the past two months than the entire 13 years he’s been working in customer service — and all of them from the over-50 crowd.

I know I’m old and going to die sooner than later. I would think that the group of people with the least to lose would be the most understanding in the current crisis. I guess not.

Best COVID card in my stack: “Thanks for doing your job. Be safe.”

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.