“I put a tp aside because we are out and it’s tos!!” Sean texts me. “tp” is toilet paper and “tos” is temporarily out of stock. He works at a Trader Joe’s in Pittsburgh. So far, we have not heard of any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pittsburgh but we all know it’s coming. After Carnegie Mellon and Pitt announced an indefinite switch to online classes, after the virus was upgraded from an epidemic to a pandemic, his store was flooded with shoppers. They were calm, understanding, there was no panic in the air—and yet they were all there for the same reason.
Sean always says that when you work in retail, you’re left to help everyone prepare for their own holidays well before you get to enjoy your own. In a grocery store, the holiday season starts weeks before Thanksgiving and slowly peters out in February (except for Valentine’s Day), March (except for St. Patrick’s Day), and April (except for Easter). You watch Christmas arrive on pallets, build displays of seasonal products, listen to customers talk about how they wait all year for this or that and “you really should carry this all year round.”
You talk to customers about their plans, who’s hosting, who’s traveling, what’s on the menu. They ask what your plans are, and you remind them, smiling like your paycheck depends on it, that you’ll be right there, stocking and ringing, until the day before. “You deserve more time off!” they say, and you resist the urge to inform them that you have to work on Christmas Eve because people like them will forget the stuffing mix or the herb packet or the cranberries and suddenly forget how much you deserve more time off. You resist the urge to say, “It’s because of you that I have to be here.”
I know that this is what you resist saying because I also worked at Trader Joe’s, for about two years. Two holiday seasons. Something like six to eight months total of talking to strangers like you care that their nephew went vegan last month and now they have to come up with a whole new menu, like you are deeply, personally sorry that the shelves are low on the Sunday before New Years’ Eve. And you sort of do care, and you sort of are sorry. It’s not a horrible time. The chaos is almost fun.
It’s just that when you finally get twenty-four hours to celebrate your own holiday, you might look at it a little differently. Like it’s not this magical time of year anymore, or at least that you’ve been on the other side of making that magic possible for everyone else and it feels a little stale. Like maybe you’re a little bitter or you feel a little robbed. Mostly, it’s just draining.
This is sort of like that, except that right now, people aren’t planning big meals for their families and stocking up on presents. They’re buying canned beans, frozen vegetables, dried rice, pasta, and yes, of course, tp. They’re preparing for the possibility of a quarantine, and people like Sean have no choice but to keep working, keep stocking and ringing, to make that preparation possible.
Sean and I are in very different positions and have very different perspectives on the spread of COVID-19 and what could be coming in our not-too-distant future. I work from home and find myself losing work hours to the pursuit of information. I scan the CDC website for signs that they’re working on increasing the rate of testing. I watch students plead for housing and refunds as universities across the country shut down and switch, indefinitely, to online classes. I note that a man in the infected Seattle nursing home has passed.
I hear from a neighbor that 150 people have been tested in Allegheny County, where we live, but that results are not yet available. I read about overcrowded hospitals and overworked healthcare professionals left with no choice but to turn away patients with heart disease, patients in need of surgery or vaccines, patients with problems other than the virus. I watch Stephen Colbert mock the Trump administration’s fumbling attempts to downplay the seriousness of the disease. Clips of FOX news anchors saying liberals are raising alarm bells on what is “no more serious than the common flu” because we all want Trump to look bad.
I read an article written by an American man caught in a quarantined Italian village discussing the books he should be reading in this time of do-nothing and how instead, he watches the streets empty. I participate in the cultural practice of texting everyone I know to say, “Did you hear? Tom Hanks has Coronavirus.” I read about the school children in Wuhan, China hilariously shutting down their homeschooling app by bombarding it with negative ratings. I take note of what we all find so mysterious about this illness, which is that it doesn’t seem to infect children.
I hope my grandmother’s retirement community has a plan of action.
I pretend like I’m not taking stock of the non-perishables we have in our cupboard, of the vegetables we have in our freezer.
I tell my panicked friends and relatives not to worry yet. I ask my remarkably calm friends and relatives if they wonder if they’re taking this too lightly. I walk the line between ignoring a pressing threat and giving in to the feeling that this is the end of the world. When my mother informs me that she is buying canned soup and frozen food at my dad’s request, I attempt to keep my voice level. When we hang up, I cry.
It feels like there are no answers. It feels like we’re all on our own, desperately trying to uncover the truth, swapping articles, exchanging statistics. It’s fraying my nerves. I’m not a hypochondriac and I’m not oblivious to the fact that, given my age and my overall health, I am not at risk of dying. I am not afraid that I am going to die. I am afraid that I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Sean returns from work and stretches muscles overwrought from constant restocking. He listens while I rattle off everything that I’ve learned that day. I wonder if he wonders how much work I got done. I tell him that I don’t know how to carry on like normal when it feels like we’re headed for dystopia. He tells me that he doesn’t struggle with that. It is what it is. We can only wait and see. He’s right but we both know that isn’t how my brain works.
I have to wonder if maybe we’re on different sides of this confusion because, as I sit in isolation, reading about catastrophe, he waits upon the people who, like me, have nothing better to do than worry. Two different perspectives, one built upon panic and one built upon watching panic play out.
“I ring up this shit,” Sean tells me, “and I’m like, ‘What are you gonna do with all of this?’”
My best friend, Alex, says similar things about her own store in Virginia, where confirmed cases of COVID-19 have already cropped up. We talk about the $400 carts she’s been ringing up and how people don’t seem to know how to buy strategically, how to make food stretch. She tells me that a woman with two carts full of groceries told her that her kids were out of school, that she was working from home. Then she asked the inevitable, “What are they going to do for you guys?” Like the jolly holiday shoppers, she doesn’t understand the irony of expressing concern for a worker’s health while that very same worker puts together fifteen bags of groceries for her to take home.
To the people in line with their frozen pizzas and ten pounds of pasta, it feels important. Justified. Necessary preparation for the unknown.
To the cashiers and stockers, it seems absurd. Poorly planned. Almost selfish or, more likely, blind.
I will say this. Consumers should think critically about how they act in a time like this. Buying all the soap off the shelf doesn’t keep you safe when there’s no soap left for your neighbors. Purchasing cases of water when you live in an area with drinkable tap water isn’t particularly logical or ethical, given that heavily quarantined areas still have basic infrastructural amenities (like water and electricity) and someone else may need that bottled water on a day-to-day basis. Think about how much frozen broccoli you can actually eat in a two-week period and put two of those four bags back in the frozen case.
Plan before you shop. Take only what you need. Remember that if you can afford to drop $400 at the whisper of a quarantine, you can afford to bring food to your elderly neighbors or donate food to a charity that services food deserts.
And finally, treat members of the service industry with kindness. Remember that they’re helping you get through this uncertain time and can only keep one eye on their own preparation. Before you snap at someone with a nametag about the empty shelves of canned beans, remember that they’ve been watching staples disappear off the shelves in the hours leading up to their own opportunity to shop. Remember that whatever anxiety they may feel about catching Coronavirus is weighed precariously against the anxiety of losing their income if their companies do close their doors. You can’t sell groceries from home. Remember that if your paycheck does not hinge on workdays in locations teeming with people, you are fortunate.
If our government isn’t going to help us get through this, we have to think of one another. Even if it feels like this is an every-person-for-themselves situation, we must act with our loved ones and our communities in mind. Stay informed but don’t panic. That last one is a piece of advice that I, too, must bear in mind.