During a Lockdown, What is “Essential?”
Recently, at a friend’s suggestion, I acquired a $20 cotton face mask from a local tailor. Although it’s a pain to wear any mask, this one’s well-made: washable, relatively comfortable, and breathable. Soon after, my employer mandated face masks for all workers and supplied its own version, but I prefer my own. Almost all of our customers now show up wearing masks, which makes it harder to hear people’s comments and read their expressions. Still, the eyes convey emotions: warmth, gratitude, frustration, amusement, fear. Often a bit of each.
Here in New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus, I work for a popular grocery-store chain. In recent years, my employer has woven itself into the social fabric of our neighborhood, and in the current crisis it’s become something of a community lifeline. Like all food stores and pharmacies, it’s an “essential” business (thankfully, liquor stores have also made that short list), and thus employees are on what I call the “second line” of public service—behind all those brave souls in hospitals and clinics and emergency rooms, but out there working nonetheless.
I’m kind of glad for it. Glad to get out of the house, to do something useful, to earn a paycheck. I went through the unemployment wringer after the crash of 2008, and it was no fun. My heart truly goes out to the millions who’ve seen their jobs instantly vanish; some will return, but many won’t. I’ve also read the sad stories of essential workers who now feel trapped or coerced into working when they don’t want to. Fortunately, I’m not one of them. While my part-time gig does provide health insurance and a cash buffer against the vagaries of my work as a freelance journalist, I could just walk away, or (like many coworkers) take a leave of absence, though financially it would be difficult. But so far, I’ve chosen to stay on.
Am I scared of COVID-19? Of course. For workers and customers alike, fear of the virus constantly looms in the back of our minds and the forefront of our actions. I’m not terribly worried about my own survival: I’m not in one of the high-risk groups; I’ve been lucky to have a strong immune system that’s kept me out of hospital beds my whole life. But I am concerned about being a carrier. I figure a guy like me, who rarely gets sick, could easily pick up the virus and never know it, passing it on to others in public or my family at home. I do not want to be part of the problem—and, of course, COVID-19 is not selective about its hosts.
So each day breeds fear and caution. Along with my coworkers I’ve become a handwashing and antiseptic-spraying maniac, constantly wearing either latex or rubber gloves; when I get home my wife enforces the drill: shoes off, wash those hands, strip, and change and load the washer! (With my daughter home from college and taking courses online, and my wife working at home, I’m rightly considered the “weak link” in our household defenses.) At work, the store has installed plexiglass shields and, by way of outside waiting lines and taped markers for standing, instigated valiant attempts at social distancing. We’re all trying our best to help flatten that curve.
Still, the hubbub of an urban food market churns on, in stark contrast to the surrounding streets, where empty storefronts, boarded-up windows, and apologetic closure signs backdrop an eerie quietude. During my other main “essential” activities—dog-walking and running, both of which go well with social distancing—I see more people in Central Park than on the usually vibrant streets. This is weird stuff in New York, which, like any great city, is all about people. People talking, gathering, interacting, commiserating. We choose to squish into crowded buildings so we can be near the action. We choose to live close-yet-far from our own neighbors. We choose to shop at a marketplace without a parking lot because we know we can carry out our goods and take a subway or a cab or a bus. We thrive on density. Unfortunately, the virus does, too.
Within that dichotomy, the market doubles as a social scene. It’s where people get not just food, but also company. The initial store rush for supplies has died down a bit, but folks are still, understandably, buying huge cartloads of groceries. It makes for some long, therapeutic conversations at the register (masks notwithstanding): How are you holding up? Working at home? Oh, so sorry about your layoff. Kids OK? And, often, a simple comment that never grows old: Thank you for being here!
Each night at 7:00 p.m., our employees briefly take to the sidewalks carrying colorful placards to join in what’s become a city ritual: the “Thank You!” shoutout to emergency workers, when neighbors cheer and clap, holler and wave out of their windows and on rooftops and balconies, pots banging and cars honking to a rousing chorus of gratitude. It’s a daily reminder of New York’s gritty spirit, the same one that picked us up and dusted us off after 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, and so many other crises.
At home, my wife and daughter and I have been joining with friends and family on frequent Zoom and FaceTime chats, virtually commiserating and celebrating the ties that bind. One night we had a Zoom dance party featuring tunes for the times (“Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), which we clumsily tried to sync on our own Spotify devices.
As we danced in our own homes with our partners, each in little Zoom squares gridded across the computer screen, it reminded me of a lovely song by the late, great John Prine, whom we’ve sadly lost to the virus:
There’s a big old goofy man
Dancing with a big old goofy girl
It’s a big old goofy world
All images by the author.