Essential: Working Through a Global Pandemic
Tales from the front(ish) lines.
In the spring of 2020, I got to be a part of history.
In the spring of 2020, I finally had the chance to be one of those poor bastards you read about.
In the spring of 2020, I became an essential worker. It was one of the most fascinating experiences I hope never to repeat.
Let me say from the first that my experience did not rank amongst the great horror stories from the pandemic. I was not a nurse, a doctor, a tech, or any one of the thousands of health care workers whose roles are too quickly forgotten. I worked at Trader Joe's, far from the front lines but still in close contact with hundreds of people every day. While the actual heroes dealt with actual patients, my fellow sufferers and I endured what I like to think of as Pandemic Lite.
I Can't Believe It's Not Pandemic?
But I digress. Those of us in essential positions were tasked with keeping the world running while everyone else either stayed inside or went off to the various circles of Dante's Inferno, Hospital Edition. (At the time of this writing, they're still there, in case anyone has forgotten.) Telling the full tale of that year-and-change would take more time and grief than I care to muster, but it was an experience that stuck with me.
It's nagged at me for long enough, and now I want to tell some small part of the story, if only to get it off my chest.
Heroes, Wolves, and Empty Streets
The howling began at 8:00 pm on the dot. The sound would fill the air, slowly at first, then growing over a few minutes to a crescendo that echoed through the city; A thousand people, howling like wolves from their windows in a mournful chorus. They were howling for the members of the pack that went every day into the jaws of danger, howling to help them remember that they weren't alone.
Those were the heady days of high drama, before an unprecedented global pandemic became a matter of interminable tedium. An invisible killer stalked in our midst, a killer we knew almost nothing about. When the lockdowns began, those of us in positions deemed essential became heroes. There was a strange mystique to it; a patina of bravery settled on the simple act of going into work, of being around people, of keeping things running. We were a breed apart, revered for being on the front lines but irreversibly contaminated by it. While those in lockdown worried about minimizing their exposure, essential workers became a class unto themselves. Our exposure made us at once privileged and poisonous, like the village executioner whose work carries a spiritual stain. We were absolved of quarantine in exchange for getting our hands dirty.
Still, there was an undeniable appeal to it in the beginning. I walked to work every morning through deserted streets, a lonely warrior going to fight the battle that no one else would. My simple work keeping food on the shelves became the responsibility of keeping society afloat. In a civilization one roll of toilet paper from complete collapse, we happy few, we essential workers, held the line.
Of course, nothing lasts forever.
The Days of Madness
The bright sheen of heroism was bound to wear off. Life moves on, and the old annoyances creep back. What begins as novel and spectacular fades into dull predictability. As it became clear that we were in for the long haul, the appreciation that had been lavished on us curdled into resentment. We became the face of the disruption that had upended life, the embodiment of all that was abnormal. What had once been a profound act of public service became a grim necessity, the sacrifices made in the name of safety nothing more than another inconvenience.
What began as mild annoyance blossomed into full-on rage as we instituted mask mandates and social distancing. According to a particular subset of Trader Joe's customers, I am responsible for many heinous crimes: I have stripped god-fearing American citizens of their constitutional rights, simultaneously supported Nazism, communism, and socialism, persecuted religious minorities, and worst of all, asked people to put up with mild inconvenience. All of these crimes were committed in the course of my work stocking shelves, unpacking boxes, and walking people to the cookie butter.
We averaged three incidents a day in those spring months, ranging from mild arguments to full-on assault. There is a certain amount of abuse one expects in any customer-facing role, but these went beyond the pale. It was one thing to be working amid a pandemic, another thing entirely to do it while enduring insults and scorn from the people you're supposed to be helping. Doubtless you've seen some sensational footage of people flouting mask mandates and hurling abuse at exasperated workers. What those clips can't convey is that, for a few months in the beginning, it was constant. If I had my way, my coworkers would be canonized en masse as the patron saints of patience for enduring those early days.
Undervalued, Overworked, Underpaid: The Dreadful New Normal
There is a colorful term I often use to describe the experience of the summer of 2020. It's a bit too graphic for this tender medium, but suffice it to say it involves a marital aid and 60-grit sandpaper. By summer, the store had settled into a new routine and most of the insane idiots that made the spring the most exciting on record had finally stopped darkening our doorstep. We were left with the great mass of blessed regular people who bore the vicissitudes of the new normal with a minimum of complaints. The uncertainty and fear never left us; we still went to work, not knowing if today was the day our luck would run out. But the fear became a dull roar in the background, and we were able to get on with our lives.
Then came the stimulus. The unemployment assistance. The mountains of cash.
I'll admit that my view on this is hopelessly biased. With the world shut down, everyone needed some way to pay their rent. Still, the greatest financial rescue in a generation left much to be desired from my end.
It all came down, as it usually does, to the money.
In many ways, I was one of the lucky ones. Our Trader Joe's had been providing us with hazard pay almost from the start. When other grocery stores were giving their employees a hundred dollar bonus and a nice pat on the back, we were treated like actual human beings with some kind of value. Those on the enhanced unemployment insurance, however, were receiving the most extraordinary windfall of the decade. Some of my friends and loved ones in lockdown were making quadruple what I was for the heroic act of staying home. Some bought cars with their free cash, others paid off their credit card debt, and some even put down payments on a house. I shouldn't begrudge them their good fortune, but while my coworkers and I were going in every day and putting our lives at risk, we had the great delight of watching people strain under the weight of their newfound wealth.
Surely, I thought, the powers that be would throw us a bone. Surely someone would realize the injustice of it all and do something to even the scales. There was talk of the government giving bonuses to essential workers, of mandated hazard pay or some kind of tax break. I read the news every chance I got, waiting for the announcement that those of us on the front lines would start making the same as those in quarantine.
It never came. The best we got was a fighter jet flyover one cloudy afternoon. In the two and a half seconds I could see them, streaking across the sky like thunderbolts, all the resentment and anger at the injustice of it melted away. I was reborn with a sonic boom, and all was right with the world.
(I'm lying, of course. It was more like being slapped in the face with the aforementioned marital aid.)
I settled into a predictable routine in those months: I would wake up angry, go to work angry, and go to bed angry. Anger became my constant companion, disappointment and resentment my bosom friends. It made a fine addition to the cocktail of fear and stress we partook of on the daily.
To this day, nothing has ever been done to rectify it. Those of us who worked through the pandemic are still just as far behind. Only the passage of time and copious amounts of liquor have dulled the sting of it.
The only thing that made those months tolerable was commiseration with my wife. She was working as a medical assistant at the time, and we spent night after night raging about it together.
The Language Barrier
By fall, It had become difficult to talk to anyone outside work.
Working amid a pandemic is not an experience you can explain to someone who didn't go through it. The irrational anger at stories from lockdown, the scorn for worried friends, the fatalistic carelessness about safety measures, how does someone explain the changes wrought by daily contact with danger? We were the damned, beyond help, bound to catch the virus at some point. The relatively feeble safety measures at our disposal stood no chance against week after week of close contact to potential carriers. What, then, did it matter if we socially distanced or wore our masks right? Who cared if we gathered in groups of more than ten? We only saw each other, and we were all infected anyway.
No description I can conjure will ever do the feeling justice. Coming home and listening to the woeful tales of quarantine was like discovering you and your best friends no longer spoke the same language. The whole world was sharing this moment of loneliness and isolation, but we were cut off from it, just as isolated as those in lockdown. We didn't get to have too much time on our hands or grapple with loneliness or suffer the soul-crushing pain of actually learning to live with someone.
While the rest of the world watched from inside, we went out to work in death's long shadow. We learned how to go about our daily routines with a gun pointed at our heads, how to ignore it move on.
It's not an experience you can really explain.
A Thousand Tiny Kindnesses
Despite it all, when I think back to that terrible year and a half, the thing that stands out is not the fear or resentment, but the hundred little acts of kindness I witnessed every day. The sheer weight of human decency that surrounded me still astounds me. People in our store were brought to grateful tears by things as simple as a chocolate bar, a terrible joke, or a kind word. People came to us for a dose of comfort and interaction, and we did not disappoint.
For those who don't know, Trader Joe's hires their employees based on their ability to be friendly and engaging. There is a difference, however, between professional friendliness and the genuine kindness that I saw during the pandemic. We were all at the end of our ropes, but my coworkers never failed to be decent human beings.
As the months dragged on, many came to rely on our Trader Joe's as their social outlet. Our role slowly changed; we became therapists and confidants, conduits for the emotional burdens of a world gone mad. It was only then, months into the pandemic, that I felt my work to be truly essential. More than everything but the bagel seasoning, people needed to feel normal again. To have another human to talk to, to look someone in the eye and know that somewhere under that mask there was a smile. We became guides, shepherding people through the unknown. Be not afraid, we told them with our presence; we're going through this shit with you.
I did my part. When we began limiting capacity inside the store, we stationed someone at the door to control the flow in and out. When it was my turn to stand guardian at the gates, I considered it a sacred duty to make sure the people waiting in literal breadlines were entertained. I juggled fruit, I did tricks with shopping carts, I told jokes and stories to my (admittedly captive) audience. I learned names and faces and even struck up a few running gags with our regulars. I was determined to force some levity into the unrelenting grimness, to remind people that even in a world turned inside out, you could still crack a smile.
Most of all, we were there for each other. We were all in it together, the only ones who could truly understand. If not for my coworkers, I'm not sure I could have made it through.
One incident among hundreds stands out, forever fixed in my mind as the Day of Dockside Decapitations. Near the end of April, most of us were dancing on our last fraying nerve, myself included. Around lunchtime one day, I received a curious summons. One of the mates (managers to the uninitiated) told me to stop what I was doing and go to the loading dock. There, hung from the rafters with baling twine, were a few piñatas. We'd been gathered on company time to let off some steam, and we passed around a push broom handle, taking turns to vent our pent up emotions, whacking those piñatas as if we could kill our fear and anger and frustration if we hit them hard enough. We beheaded four of them that day, mounting their heads above the baler as a warning to our enemies. They hung there for months, a comforting reminder that there was still some sanctuary to be found in our sea of troubles.
I cannot express the gratitude I feel for everyone who suffered through it with me. They were next to me in the trenches, sharing my burdens, sharing the horror and hilarity and everything else that was thrown at us. We're forever bound by what we shared, and there's no one I would rather have shared it with.
The Long, Slow Forgetting
Eventually, things return to normal. Time heals all wounds, or it kills you.
My time as an essential worker came to an end so slowly it was almost imperceptible. Perhaps it was the emergence of vaccines or the gradual re-opening of the world, but the day came when I realized that the pre-pandemic status quo had returned. It came as both blessing and curse: while it was a great relief to no longer shoulder the world's burdens, it wasn't long before the appreciation for essential workers faded back into the familiar contempt our society reserves for the people at the bottom of the pile. Slowly but surely, we forgot who kept us going through the hard times.
Let me be completely honest: All I wanted was a parade. I wanted some recognition of the ones who bore the brunt of the trauma, some small gesture to honor those who were forced to look the pandemic in the face and learn to laugh. But it never came. There has been no acknowledgment of those once deemed essential; they are just as disposable now as they were before the pandemic.
In a way, it is a mercy to be forgotten. It's allowed me to move on with clearer eyes, to know that the only reward our society will ever give the ones who keep it running is a juicy thumbs up. Expect nothing, and there can be no disappointment. Because of my time as an essential worker, I've been able to disengage from a lot of the nonsense that makes up most our lives. There is bitterness, of course; a deep well of it that comes splashing up at the most unexpected of moments, but with it comes a silver lining of acceptance and understanding.
Something Like An Ending
The pandemic as I knew it is over.
As of this writing, I no longer work at Trader Joe's. Life continues, paths diverge, we move on to new and different things. Still, I can't help but think of my time there as the dividing line between before and after in my own story. I was dragged kicking and screaming onto the historical stage to play my small role, to bear witness to events that shook the world. I did what I could, tried to make people's lives a little easier as we all suffered through the history we never wanted to be part of.
Leaving Trader Joe's was not an ending, but something like it. The defining moment of a generation had passed, and so, it felt, had my place in it. But I will never forget when destiny came knocking.
For better or worse, I got to be a part of history.
About the author
James Miller is a Colorado native who recently discovered his love of writing (or, as the case may be, banging his head against the table desperately trying to fill the page) And is trying his hand at doing just that.