At the end of February I was terminated from my new job. 24 hours prior I was told, “You have my permission to relax. Your job is secure here, we’re just working through details.” Incorrect; I was told that I was “irrelevant” after the person I was hired to replace decided not to leave the company.
I cried a little and apologized to my family a lot.
I wanted to learn something new; expanding my skills (and justifying those student loan payments) fulfills me in a way that nothing else can. I like to think. I like to know stuff. I like to work.
After a week of day-drinking my way through a hardback book and surfing an emotional hangover from that trashcan party punch of denial, misplaced trust, anger, and depression, I filed for unemployment for the first time in my life.
I was denied.
After 19 consecutive hours of refreshing, and re-filling in my info, the constantly crashing site coldly notified me that “employees who received wages in lieu of notice are ineligible for assistance”. I wondered if I was simply ineligible whatsoever. LinkedIn went radio silent, I accused my Gmail app of being hacked — zero notifications for over 24 hours?! — and absolutely no one called me back.
When I heard suspicious talk about shortages and trouble getting necessities, my instinct said “Go to the source.” Working at the grocery store, I reasoned, would be an easy way to keep some cash flowing between freelance gigs and I’d know immediately if there were any issues in the supply chain. I applied online. Within 12 hours they called for an interview; less than 24 hours later, I was hired on the spot.
I was not prepared.
Your butter comes in 18 or 36 pound boxes; your milk in 36 pound crates. Cheese cartons are up to 40 pounds each and eggs come 15 dozen to a crate. I have 30 minutes to stock each trolley of products. If they stay out of refrigeration any longer bacteria can start to grow. Most trucks require 4 people working for 4 hours straight to get everything onto the shelves. That’s a minimum of 8 trips back and forth into the 36-degree cooler. If I’m stocking milk/juice/coffee creamers/tea or rearranging 450 dozen eggs (yes, literally), I work in that same cooler for at least 3 hours without stopping. We don’t wear gloves; it’s too hard to prevent possible cross-contamination.
Scanning a $300 buggy-load of groceries is physically tiring; nodding and biting my tongue while shoppers treat me like a free therapy session is mentally exhausting. There are more than 100 tobacco products that I need to learn on the fly. Two weeks ago, a man threw a $1.86 worth of quarters, dimes and pennies at me because I couldn’t find his brand fast enough. It was 7:30 in the morning. He overpaid and I used what was left over to help other people even out their payments. I spent my 32nd birthday pushing carts in the rain and sanitizing every surface a customer may have touched (standard QA policy). A woman yelled at me for being slow because I asked her to please wait while I cleaned up a raw chicken explosion from a previous customer. “You don’t need to sanitize everything! That’s just stupid. COVID isn’t transmitted through chicken you idiot.” Fortunately, my face mask hides much of my expression.
No one reads a damned thing anymore and everyone thinks they’re special — yes, the one-way aisle signs, two-per limits on products, and six-foot rule applies to you. If COVID-19 were a comic book villain, it would thrive on the misplaced sense of privilege and insatiable appetite for misinformation. I’m told by shoppers that wearing my face mask is stupid (it isn’t) and that they don’t care if I get sick. My immune system isn’t in tip-top shape; I take two prescriptions for my non-functioning thyroid. At $7.65 an hour after taxes, I have to work 10 hours to pay for a remote office visit to get a refill for those meds. One monthly scrip costs me another 10 hours of work; I put the other on a credit card.
This was supposed to be easy.
My forearms are bruised and scraped; not from rock climbing, working my garden, or playing with our dog. These bruises are from unloading pallets and stocking shelves. My thighs burn like the days of suicide runs during cheerleading practice. My elbows feel like your stretched-out scrunchie at the back of the bathroom drawer. I’m too tired to enjoy my downtime. My body is alert but aching. I sleep deeply, and dreamlessly, for the first time in years. I don’t know if this is the feeling of “being grounded” that so many people seek — or if it’s just the physical truth that 32 gets off the mat much more slowly.
Last Sunday morning I was cussed out, accused of being a hypocrite, and called a “f-ing a-hole b***” by a customer for asking her to please follow the one-way aisle sign while we were stocking. She bodychecked me while her friend cornered my 17-year-old coworker. It was the first time my managers saw my “Yes, ma’am” mask fall to the floor. A few days later, I’m grateful for the catalyst it provided to have honest, adult conversations. I’m proud of the strong leadership we have at the store.
In the last 37 days I have reevaluated everything that was so certain at the beginning of this Britney-shaved-her-head year. I took control over my anxiety the only way I knew how. I went out and got a job, for $7.65 an hour after taxes, at which I have been:
heartbroken and in tears because a woman couldn’t afford her food
hit with a cooler door because a shopper insisted on pushing her cart the wrong way while I was stocking (she didn’t apologize)
coughed on and shoved aside
told I’m stupid/gullible/idiotic/slow/irresponsible
told I’m what’s wrong with America right now
I’ve also been thanked profusely, hugged, prayed for by strangers, and told many times that our grocery store is the only place they feel safe because we wear masks and clean continuously. All it takes is one customer to make the day worth it.
Since March 30th I have prayed harder, and more often, than I ever have in my life. I am acutely aware of how strong my marriage is and just how many resources we have, especially when I sit down to a hot meal after being upset that our income is slashed and playing “What if…” in my head. During that time I have also baked two quarantine birthday cakes, sewn and mailed 53 face masks, worn the exact same clothes for 30+ shifts, and rearranged the living room where I rarely get to sit. I have wondered aloud if I’ll ever get another freelance job — and whether or not I even want one. I graduated college in the middle of the last recession. My idealistic goals were not an option at the time when very few people were hiring. Much of my career has felt like a detour on the way to something that matters. I’ve done work I’m proud of and I’m determined to be proud of myself for doing that work. I’ve also produced much more stuff that will never, ever take up space in my portfolio. The big question nibbling at the base of my skull right now is: does the writing define the writer or does the writer define their work?
At 2:30 this afternoon I got an SOS call to help on a stars-have-aligned project. It’s not an extensive gig but I’ll think about it all day tomorrow while I’m stocking another truckload of food. My body is heavy and tired but my heart is alive with the tingling fear that somebody out there still knows who I am … something I’ve questioned daily since COVID became a hashtag.
The people I’ve met, the questions I’ve asked, the sleep I’ve lost, and the realness we’ve all rediscovered — none of it would have been possible before. I’m glad you fired me.