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This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Robert Holmes
As I ring up my last customer of the day, I smile at them (as best as you can through a face mask) and say, “Thank you for shopping with us and have a nice day.” The customer smiles back and says with a hint of relief in their voice, “Thank you for being open.” I nod and go about my business of closing the store once the customer has left but that phrase, “Thank you for being open,” sticks with me. It’s a common refrain I’ve been hearing a lot ever since cities in the Bay Area went on lockdown because of COVID-19.
I’m what the government refers to as an essential worker. A retail service expert who supports commercial industry mostly because the place where I work sells a lot of paper, printers, technology and ink, and with so many folks working from home these days, that’s worth its weight in silicon.
The irony in this season of social distancing, where people are forced to treat each other like lepers (and give each other that uneasy smile and nod as they walk by that says, “I’m not avoiding you because I want to”), is the value being placed on the heads of people in positions that are traditionally viewed as “low skill labor.”
In my case there are only so many places where you can go to buy office supplies, and business has seen a slow but steady increase over the last month. With that increase has come the aforementioned expression of gratitude, “Thank you for being open.” I’ve heard this refrain so much now it’s starting to sound like, “Thank you for your service,” which feels like a strange wartime sentiment.
Now mind you, it would be easy to become bitter about all the sudden adulation that is being flung at service professionals. Depending on what you were doing before the pandemic, people might have looked down their noses at you based solely on the job you held. Now that there’s a risk associated with being in public, those same people are lauding service workers as “heroes” working on the “frontlines.”
It reminds me of the line from the song Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer: “then all the reindeer loved him.” Even as a kid I always envisioned a rightfully angry Rudolph saying at that moment, “Oh, now you love me? Now you wanna be my friend?”
Some service workers are justifiably bitter at the hypocrisy, but does that really help in these weird and anxiety inducing times? No, it doesn’t. Me? I prefer to look at the situation as the first time you realize how important janitors are to the health of a civilization. The only reason people can live to 100 or more is because someone is always cleaning up after us.
When I realized that "Thank you for being open" really meant "Thank you for giving me hope," it became my personal mission to step up my service game.
But that phrase, “Thank you for being open.” It took me a hot minute to realize how pregnant with meaning that statement is. Bizarre and trying would be understating how disorienting life has been under shelter-in-place orders. People are looking for any feeling of stability in their lives right now — any sense of direction, and sometimes a person asking, “So, how are you holding up in all this craziness?” might be all it takes to help someone relax and smile. So when I realized that “Thank you for being open” really meant “Thank you for giving me hope,” it became my personal mission to step up my service game.
Maybe it’s my personal faith, maybe it’s my nature, maybe it’s both, I dunno, but I felt a strong urge to serve my community and shine what light I could into a murky space where none of us know where we’re headed. COVID-19 is forcing people to get creative about their daily routines and all that added stress of trying to figure out new ways to get things done can be like turning the heat up under a pressure cooker.
When I talk to my customers, the thing I find that most people want is somewhere they can vent. Somewhere to let off some pressure and commiserate with someone about how strange everything is right now or a place where they can feel like they aren’t alone in their discombobulation. Yeah, you get those occasional people whose coping response is to be mad at everything and everybody in an effort to exert some semblance of control, but most folks are taking a wait-and-see stance and looking for someone to talk to in the meantime, and I don’t mind talking to people.
Maybe I am at greater risk because I work with the public, but I chose service work because despite my efforts and aspirations for building a writing career (a very solitary profession), I like people. People are frustrating, messy, and irrational, but people are also compassionate, endearing, and funny; and the interactions we have with each other because of our conflicted human nature is what I live for. It’s what I write about.
Robert Webb Hunter Holmes is a freelance writer and short fiction author who is trying to change the world one mind at a time. If it were left up to him, five hugs a day would be mandatory.
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