Here’s a slightly pathetic, but deeply pandemic note. I order my groceries online and pick them up first thing on a weekend morning. I use the store app to let them know that I am “on my way.” When I arrive at the store, I pull into a designated parking space and let them know “I’m here.” I wait a few minutes before a clerk wheels out my order to put the groceries in the trunk of my car. Often we just exchange a few words: “Did you check your substitutions?” “Yes, they’re fine.” “OK, then, thank you!” “No, thank you.” And I drive away, put my car back in the garage, carry the bags into my house, and put the food away.
But sometimes, I get the same grocery clerk. Young -- maybe in his 20s -- tall, very long dark hair. I can’t see his masked face, but his tone is always cheerful -- even in the early morning, at the start of what, for him, will probably be a long day. I don’t even know his name, though he always calls me by mine. (And, yes, I know he has a clipboard with my order on it, but still.) Lately, he lets me know that he remembers me. Today, I thanked him not only for bringing the groceries to the car, but for his polite, good humor.
“Oh, I love this job. I love bringing people their groceries,” he said. “It makes them so happy.” I was stunned as my mind filled with images of essential workers and then, immediately, by how poorly they are paid -- even as the pandemic reminds us of how necessary are their jobs.
“I wish you got paid as happy as I feel,” I said, all understanding of grammar and syntax flying out of my head. His turn to act surprised.
“Now Nancy, I am a crier and right now I am just going to load up your groceries so you can go,” he said with a slight quiver in his voice.
“Me, too,” I admitted to crying at the drop of a hat. He loaded the food into my trunk.
Driving home, I thought about how lucky I was. I have family members and friends and plenty of opportunity to talk to people from a safe distance or on the phone as this virus has so many of us sheltering in isolation. But these few words with this clerk -- I must ask him his name next time -- reminded me how much I miss personal encounters with strangers of good will. I miss that warmth-tinged-with-embarrassment feeling when someone I don’t know well acts in my interests with cheer and respect and then coaxes those emotions out of me. I hope that’s part of the “new normal” that lies ahead.
And now, some notes from the real world:
-- My grocery chain is closing stores rather than give workers a raise in this pandemic.
-- My alternative grocery chain is raising pay during the pandemic.
-- Last time I picked up groceries, I was heckled by a passerby, "What a f---in' lazy way to buy your groceries! Why the hell can't you shop?"
God help us.