By Jo Longley
A month ago I became an essential worker. I’d been a substitute teacher for a few months before the orders came from our state to shut down schools. I figured I’d ride it out for two weeks then get right back to it, but two weeks turned into a month, turned into the rest of the year.
A family friend who manages a local grocery store reached out and asked if I’d be interested in working.
I arrived on a Sunday at 8am, signed forms, zoomed through a powerpoint, and by 10 I was on a register. My new boss explained, “Normally we don’t do this, but we were given special permission because it’s been so busy.”
I believed her. When customers weren’t crowding the register my line spilled into aisle seven—the paper products, cleaning products, and laundry detergent aisle.
I’d seen pictures of sold-out grocery stores in places where hurricanes happen, and I’d heard everyone was panic-buying toilet paper, but I’d never seen an empty shelf before. It scared me a little.
Elizabeth, my trainer, said, “You should have seen it when it started. We had a line that looped around the store.” That was her first day on the job.
“They called me about an hour after I left my orientation to ask if I’d come back in. When the schools shut everyone went nuts.”
The manager walked past in a huff and whispered to us, “Did you see their cart? Twenty bottles of ketchup. In what world do you need twenty bottles of ketchup?”
We started placing restrictions: only one package of toilet paper, only one gallon of milk, one carton of eggs, two bottles of bleach, two cases of water, two hand soaps. So on, so forth.
On my third day Abbie taught me how to ‘face’—spruce up the aisles so everything looks full and pretty. She joked that being seven months pregnant it was good they finally got someone to help her. Getting up and down off the ground to fix the lower shelves was becoming more and more of a struggle.
We were straightening cans of cat food when we heard yelling from the front. A grown man was yelling at another new cashier; she and I trained together. She’s an eighteen-year-old art student at one of the local universities—her signature look is consistently perfect winged eyeliner. She told me in passing that this is her first job.
On my fourth day I tell a man there’s a limit of one on cartons of eggs and he threatens to send in his ninety-year-old mom in to buy a second carton.
On my fifth day a man says to me, “Look what socialism does, eh?” and points down aisle seven. Without thinking I say, “Sir, this is capitalism.”
On my seventh day Abbie’s father comes in and speaks to the store manager. I’m told I’ll be picking up her shifts because her family didn’t want her “coming down with this thing.” I didn’t realise Abbie still lives at home and I start asking around about people’s ages.
Two of my shift supervisors aren’t even twenty, the other two are still younger than me. At twenty-three I’m the oldest cashier; Rebecca and Justin are still in high school.
On my thirteenth day a veteran wishes me a good rest of the day then turns back to say, “I’m gonna tell you what people tell me: thank you for your service.”
Elizabeth tells me she has lupus, and I ask if she shouldn’t stay home. She says, “Yeah, but Mom has cancer, my husband has a heart condition, and we have bills.”
A gentleman comes through my line and thanks me for being there, then asks if many people were thanking us for our work. I tell him yes, but I never quite know how to respond.
He says, “With grace and humility and grateful that you have a job.”
I tell a coworker how odd I find it working with and being supervised by so many people younger than me. They say, “It’s because young people don’t mind a low hourly pay.”
A quote bangs around my head from a nurse on the ‘frontlines’ in the UK who says, “Calling us heroes just makes it okay when we die.”
I don’t want to die, nor do, I think, any of my coworkers.
The last hour of my shifts I face the store, wheeling a cart down aisles and chucking in any out of place items or empty display boxes. I face cans to the front and pull items forward; I dance to Stevie Nicks and Air Supply. Elijah, my eighteen-year-old supervisor, passes by and makes fun of me for knowing all the words.
When our store closes and all us young leave to our homes, the shelves look beautiful. In the morning people tap at the sliding doors, grasping for the things they need, and so many things they don’t.
They go through our lines with their half-dozen goods, thank us for our lives, and think everything is just fine. God, they say, I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.