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OPINION

Behind the scenes of the supermarket front lines

‘Excuse me,’ or ‘Can you help me,’ aren’t usually a customer’s way. To be on the receiving end of that ‘have vs. have-not’ schism is to recognize that people talk at us, not to us. We are the invisibles.

A supermarket worker applies hands sanitizer for a person waiting in line to enter a supermarket in Santiago, Chile, May 13.
A supermarket worker applies hands sanitizer for a person waiting in line to enter a supermarket in Santiago, Chile, May 13.Claudio Santana/Getty

“Do I have to measure it for you?” His tone was insolent as he motioned me over.

I was outside, instructing the line of socially distancing customers about the procedures in place in the grocery store where I work as a clerk. Working the waiting line, along with deep cleaning, is one of our new responsibilities during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Excuse me?” I said, wishing for once that I was trapped on the register.

This is 6 feet,” he said, extending his arms outward. “The law is 6 feet. Do I have to measure it for you?”

His outrage was not because customers were standing too close to each other. Rather, it was because people were queued up too far apart for his liking.

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My humiliation and his arrogance were in a dead heat. For most of my life, I was a writer, editor, and high school literature teacher. “Whatever they offer you, just take it.” That’s what my friend Jill said two years ago, when I was 57 and had been job hunting, which felt more like swimming in seaweed. “Even if it’s $11 an hour.” Desperation brought me to the sliding doors of a grocery store. Hardly romantic. Certainly not heroic.

Now, stocking shelves, ringing people up at the register, and helping people, I’m considered essential and courageous. Go figure.

I understand people’s need to buy food, their desire to control at least one thing in this menacing COVID-19 universe. But let’s be clear: I hadn’t ever put myself on the front line. That’s reserved for doctors, nurses, and other critical personnel who are surrounded by tragedies on all levels. I am surrounded by canned goods and produce.

The students from nearby schools made us pins that said, “You’re our HERO, Thank You.” While I kept the pin and appreciate what the kids created, I don’t feel comfortable wearing it. I also appreciate customers who look me in the eye and say, “Thank you for being here.” Still, I don’t feel brave or courageous. I go to work because without income, my floundering checkbook would completely sink my financial health.

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“No, sir,” I said to this man, who looked to be in his late 60s. "I don’t need you to measure.”

He said something like “This is ridiculous,” or “Look how far apart they are.” I’m not really sure, because I was distracted by thoughts of wanting to shout creative combinations of expletives. Instead, I walked away.

When you work retail, you are always selling, so you understand the Cardinal Rule: Don’t say anything that can get you fired.

But let’s face it, if I were a surgeon with a mask, he wouldn’t talk to me that way.

Prior to the pandemic, it wouldn’t be a shocker to have one of the well-heeled client base talk to the back of your head as you shelved bags of organic arugula or arranged avocados. “Olives,” then “OLIves,” then the full-throttle: “OLIVES,” each time growing louder as if you were hearing impaired or just not that bright.

“Excuse me,” or “Can you help me,” aren’t usually a customer’s way. To be on the receiving end of that “have vs. have not” schism is to recognize that people talk at us, not to us. We are the invisibles. My ranks include former business owners, college-educated professionals, and professionals who were downsized due to outsourcing.

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We are the people who clean up when customers have a change of heart and leave the ice cream in the bakery section. We are the people who find ripped open chips or protein bars hidden in the back of a shelf because a shopper got snacking. We are the people — even now — whom customers reach over, moving well within 1 foot, much less 6, to get to a bag of pasta, a package of cheese.

We cannot Zoom for work. We show up every day and do the work that allows the doors to remain open.

“So I think we have to reimagine an economy that rewards real work, real products, real services, and get away from this notion that they’re the people who are expendable in this society,” said Walter Isaacson, the best-selling biographer of Steve Jobs, in a recent interview.

Driving home that night, I played out all the things I could have said to that man had I not been so flustered. What I came around to is this: “Sir, if people standing on this line want to leave 100 feet between themselves because that’s what makes them feel safe, I will support them in any way I can. If you don’t like how I am handling things, you can certainly complain to a manager. But it is people like me who show up every day, exposing ourselves and our health to hundreds of people so that you can eat.”

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After I pulled into my driveway, with the plastic bag of used masks beside me on the passenger seat, I walked toward my front door, anticipating the ritual: leaving my clogs at the mat near the door, scrubbing my hands before petting the cat, stripping off the clothes I’ve worn all day, and heading into the shower. But for a moment, as I put my car keys in the wooden bowl where the students’ pin rests, I felt the hero.


Mary Ann D'Urso’s column appears regularly in the Globe.