As a grocery store clerk, I get to take the temperature of the country daily. These days, the fever is going up.
Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, with requirements to wear masks and practice social distancing, the grocery store has become a microcosm of the country, the Wild West of behavior.
People aren’t bringing only their reusable bags. They are packing their rage. We are not all in this together — not even in the land of milk and peanut butter.
My friend texts me a Facebook message: A man walks into a California grocery store and begins shopping without a mask. The manager approaches him. When asked to put on a mask, the man throws a box of toothpaste at him.
Or how about the man in Lansing, Mich., who was urged to wear a mask by a masked grocery store employee who said it was for both their protection. The shopper snapped back, “I don’t give a damn about your health.”
Several weeks ago, we grocery workers were lauded as heroes, essential front-line workers, people deserving hazard pay for our work in the COVID-19 coliseum. But the winds are shifting. We are being stripped of our knighthood, our valor.
If you were paying attention, you could see it coming like the Saharan dust clouds making the transcontinental trek. With each measure that imitates normalcy — outdoor dining or the use of parks, the opening of nonessential businesses, the softening of head counts — there seems to be a relaxing of protocols.
Used to be, if you wanted to know what Armageddon looked like, you could go to a grocery store when a snowstorm was predicted. People hurriedly shopped, tossing in the usual staples of bread, milk, snacks. Shelves often looked scant.
But the coronavirus pandemic is like Armageddon cubed.
In the weeks prior to sheltering at home, Americans stripped typically well-stocked shelves bare. I worked in the middle of the frenzy and was often stopped by customers posing frantic questions or just needing to say something as a way of processing the overwhelming panic and anxiety sweeping over them. It was exhausting to restock product that evaporated within minutes.
Also exhausting: keeping ourselves shiny, happy, and mentally together as panic revealed a range of people’s fears. We were a whipping boy one moment, sympathetic listener another. One woman forcefully requested that I sanitize my hands three times during her transaction and demanded I line the floor with paper bags to protect her additional bags, since there wasn’t enough room in her cart or on the counter.
Vendors and suppliers are recovering so that our inventory is more like the days of plenty. But customers are not restocking. They are not recovering.
Their anger and fear at all that is happening outside the store — and there is plenty to be alarmed about — is now creeping into the aisles and to the register.
How did a mask translate to a muzzle? Wearing a mask, the sound bite goes, represents a loss of civil liberties. Somewhere, American individualism has come to mean that public health and safety are nothing compared to whatever someone wants.
Our American egoism can only go so far. And then we become just plain reckless, particularly as we want to resume more of our lives, our rituals, our normalcy.
Anecdotally, I hear from my mechanic and the young man who plays sentry at our local Bottle King liquor store that people are getting mouthy. I hear about the rudeness or disregard, the resistance to following policies. I hear it in the lunchroom from my colleagues, and I experience it myself.
“I don’t need the cart,” a woman snarled at me during checkout as I took one of the sanitizing wipes and ran it over the cart handle, then the keypad for the credit card reader. “You don’t have to wipe it,” she said, waving her hand dismissively.
Looking her in the eye I replied, “Oh, this will save me a minute for the next customer.”
“Well, I’m kind of in a hurry,” she said, annoyed, as I rang up her order: two boxes of frozen blueberry pancakes.
“Well, I do this for you and for me,” I said.
We grocers show up at work most days, though anxiety sometimes gets the better of us. We stock the shelves, sanitize the carts, wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands. We do this for us. We do this for you, for you who would be outraged to receive the mere $2 an hour we get in addition for hazard pay — $70 before taxes for a 35-hour workweek. This is how essential we are. And whenever the extra $2 is mentioned, we are meant to applaud, to show gratitude. To smile.
We work in a grocery store. Any quarter that is thrown at us is needed. And we do appreciate the extra. Still, is it a proportional response? And when it ends, as it has with some stores and services, what is that saying? I envy the Danes who work as hourly employees at McDonald’s, starting at about $22 an hour, and who enjoy a bounty of benefits. I envy the value placed on that work and the people in service to it, even without a pandemic.
Grocery workers across the country are exhausted. We are scared of contracting this cunning and efficient virus. Many of us have stories of co-workers or their families who have suffered at the hands of COVID-19. In one day, we are exposed to more people — and, potentially, more of the virus — than most of you in a week, maybe even a month. I don’t know anyone who isn’t going home and pouring something.
In his poem “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry,” Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown begins:
I don’t know whose side you’re on,
But I am here for the people
Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning
And close down for deep cleaning at night
Each time I read this poem, which hangs on my refrigerator, I weep. I say “Thank you, Jericho Brown.” To those in our communities who say “thank you,” who practice social distancing and wear masks, I say, “Thank you.” And to the country, I say: We are not all in this together until we are all in this together.
Mary Ann D'Urso’s column appears regularly in the Globe.