I wouldn’t want to be a grocery checker right now. They’re the infantry, the poor sods that the generals send in first to get mowed down by gunfire. I hole up at home watching Netflix and eating too much cheese.
However, I do know a Vons checker. His name is Miguel, and he has some tales to tell from the front lines.
Miguel remembers quite clearly the day the COVID panic hit. It was Friday the 13th of March.
“All of the sudden, a flood of people came in and we were overwhelmed,” Miguel said. “We were running all of the checkstands, plus all of the new self-checkout stands. We started running out of things, but whenever we brought out a new palette, people were just grabbing things off it before it could even get to the right aisle. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. We usually close at 1 am, but that night, we decided to close at 10. We just ran out of supplies.
“On Saturdays, we usually opened at 5 am, but it soon became obvious that that wasn’t enough time to get all the products restocked, so we waited until 7. When we opened the door, it was even crazier than the day before. People were in a state of buy buy buy. It turned out being a record sales day.”
That was over a month ago, of course, which seems like a lifetime ago. In general, people have been calm and polite to each other, says Miguel, even more now than before the pandemic. However, there have been exceptions.
“My manager tried to enforce the limits on toilet paper on this one customer, and he threatened to beat him up,” Miguel said. “On another occasion, he received a death threat. Those people haven’t been back to the store.”
Every morning at 5 am, there’s a line waiting outside the store, because that’s when the store is fully stocked. Generally, it’s about 10 people deep, usually maintaining a 6-foot distance from each other. By 7, they begin their 2-hour window for seniors, pregnant women, and the disabled.
One day, a guy appeared in that line who obviously didn’t fit into the required categories, and the manager questioned him about it.
“Well listen, my kids gotta eat, too!” the man said in a belligerent manner.
The manager let him in. They’re grocery clerks, after all, not paramilitary forces.
A few days ago, I talked with Miguel again. He hadn’t seen his girlfriend in five weeks. He was working long hours. The anxiety was getting to him. Fortunately, the crowds have slowed down considerably. In addition, corporate is treating them extremely well. However, there are still incidents.
One day, a female clerk was standing at the front door making sure that people were wearing masks, and a man objected.
“This is not a prison!” he yelled. “We have rights!”
Another customer who was stopped for not wearing a mask yelled: “I fought in Vietnam! I can do whatever I want!”
Did I mention that most customers have been extremely kind and polite?
Every time I go to the grocery store, I take all the precautions. I put on my face mask. I seal it up on the edges with medical tape. I put a playing card in the pocket to physically block the virus. I don’t even take a shopping cart; I just hold my bags. I rush through the store, picking up products quickly one after another, trying not to pass through anybody else’s exhaust, so to speak, avoiding close contact. But Miguel has to work in that environment eight hours a day, five days a week.
I mentioned to him that to many, food workers are heroes.
But Miguel would have none of it. He launched into a monologue about heroes, that nobody at Vons is patting themselves on the back for being a hero, that when you see it in the newspapers, it’s all just hype from the unions, that the employees have all the gloves they want, all the masks they want, extra hand sanitizer, and blah blah blah. Finally, I just interrupted him.
“Look, that’s what heroes say,” I said. “Somebody rescues a little kid from a burning house, and they say that say they’re not a hero, that they just did what anybody else would have done. Some soldier saves 15 buddies who are pinned down by enemy fire, and guess what, he says he’s not a hero, too, that his 5 other buddies who died are the heroes. Dude, that’s what all heroes say! Accept it! You are a kind of hero!”
That shut him up.
[Miguel is a food clerk at a Vons in the north San Fernando Valley.]