Grocery worker finds a reservoir of kindness and humanity in crisis
Seniors wear masks while grocery shopping in Southern California during the coronavirus pandemic. | Richard Vogel/AP

SAN FERNANDO, Calif. – I watch frantic eyes scan the store for potential threats. Hands clad in latex pick away at the last few cans of beans we have on our shelves. Somewhere at the end of the store, a person coughs, and I see half a dozen heads turn, twitching, alert for contagion.

It was March 21, a Saturday, and the second week of the COVID-19 crisis. The situation had gradually evolved from hordes of consumers descending like locusts on retailers across the country, buying up lifetime supplies of toilet paper and canned food, to a kind of ordered panic. We had lines now, and we rationed our products to ensure that even if people couldn’t buy everything they wanted, they could at least leave with something. By now, it had become routine to see people shopping wearing surgical masks and latex gloves. People settled into a new routine, even if it was one tinged with fear.

“Stay safe” is the new watchword of America. It’s an almost mystical mantra, used in place of “Goodbye” and “Have a nice day.” The atmosphere of the store had gone from meandering consumerism— “Why, your eggs are a dollar cheaper than that store just across the street!”—to silent fear. I see a mother clutching a boy with shaggy brown hair close to her breast. He looks no older than ten, certainly not old enough to understand the scale of the pandemic, or why his mother is making him wear a surgical mask, but old enough to know that people around him are deathly afraid of something.

The boy will grow old in time, and his memories of our store and perhaps even the pandemic will become a half-dreamed mush as all memories eventually do, but he’ll remember the fear. He’ll remember the feeling of his mother holding onto him, panicking that every wandering step he’d take would lead him toward oblivion.

It’s not just the customers who are afraid. I smile and greet my customers in that steady, bourgeois-confidence-inspiring manner that comes with wearing a work uniform; “God’s in heaven, all is right with the world.” But in the lull between customers, my heart begins to beat and I worry. What if I’m next?

I spritz my hands with an industrial-strength hand sanitizer as I work; by the end of the day, my knuckles are raw and cracked, they tear open, and I have to bandage them.

Names disappear from work schedule

No one talks openly about the fear that comes with working during a pandemic, but we see it. The fear is in the quiet phone conversations we hear management having, always ending in “I understand, take some time for yourself,” followed by their name disappearing from the work schedule. The fear is in those glimpses we catch of our coworkers hiding out in their cars and quietly taking a moment to cry. The fear whispers beneath that everpresent mantra of “Stay safe” and text messages from friends— “My neighbors are stocking up on ammo” and “Los Angeles is a ghost town,” to reference a few.

It would be easy for me to say that the fear is all there is, but in between that, I saw something greater: empathy. I’ve worked retail for six years now; in all that time, empathy was the rarest thing I ever experienced. I was used to being shouted at and insulted even. Often enough, customers would treat us like we weren’t even there, avoiding eye contact and navigating around us as though we were just part of the background. American capitalism reduces its retail workers into machines—robots with fake smiles—and they, in time, develop a hostile view of customers as animals at best, and insatiable eldritch horrors at worst.

Empathy in retail uplifts our spirits

In the past few weeks, however, it’s as if the whole nature of my work changed. I’ve had more people thank me just for working during this time than at any other point in my employment. I talk with my customers, and they’re happy to talk to me. I’ve seen people wait in a half-hour queue just to shop for their elderly neighbors, buying absolutely nothing for themselves. I witnessed dozens of people give up their own place in line to let a frail older woman go ahead of them. Sure, there are still angry and belligerent customers, but for the first time, they’re outnumbered by a wave of genuine human kindness and concern for our wellbeing.

Class consciousness and community emerge

Perhaps most exciting is the rise in class consciousness that’s come with the corresponding collapse of the stock market that’s followed this pandemic. In the breakroom, my coworkers talk freely about Trump’s bungling of the epidemic. As I work up what little backstock we have left, my coworkers discuss a renters’ strike. I talk about COVID with a new hire, and he tells me that he hopes this disease proves why we need socialism.

Just a few days ago, employees from a completely different grocery store stopped by ours to drop off some rolls of toilet paper. They wanted to make sure we could get some too even as one or two people are trying to hoard it all for themselves. These are people I’ve never met before, but they understood our struggle as fellow workers. After all the stress we’ve dealt with, that one small gesture was almost enough to make my manager cry.

Eventually, my shift ends. Like every other day, I walk to my car sore in body, but for the first time in ages, my spirit’s uplifted. I take a detour on my way home, to soak in this place that I’ve lived and worked in for years, but never really considered my community. An old man is walking with his granddaughter, she waves at my car as I pass, and I wave back. I slowly drive my route home so that I can take in the evening. People are out on the sidewalks strolling together, talking with each other. A man in a tracksuit runs laps down the sidewalk while a woman times him. Teenagers are out skating or, failing that, playing basketball in their parents’ driveways.

People are afraid, but beneath that fear, is a reservoir of human kindness and community. While this crisis has brought out the worst in a few people, it’s brought out the best in a lot. As for myself, I intend to keep working throughout this crisis and hoping beyond all else that I can prove myself worthy of the immense kindness people have shown me these last few days.


Thomas Hart
Thomas Hart

Thomas Hart was born and raised in Southern California. A grocery store clerk and amateur writer, he’s interested in the topic of community in the “canceled future” of Late-Stage Capitalism. His two biggest inspirations as a writer are H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson. A videogame, anime, and horror geek, he can usually be found nose deep in a book in his local coffee shop.