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Mike Rose’s Blog: Risk and Everyday Heroes

In the terrible and constant flow of images related to the coronavirus pandemic, the pictures of grocery clerks at their stations have been catching my attention. The images are so familiar and benign: the clerk tapping keys on the register, or, hand extended, passing packaged meat or a box of soap over the scanner, or leaning over to help a customer insert a credit card. How many times a day is this commonplace human-commercial drama repeated?

But these are not commonplace times, for while countless businesses are shuttered and we are told to keep our distance from each other, and in some cities and states to stay at home, grocery clerks are doing their job face-to-face with a stream of their fellow human beings. Depending on the store, the clerks have as protection gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, marked boundaries, and, as I write this, the promise in one grocery chain of a plexiglass barrier. But in most cases, these protections are inadequate. Still the clerks are at their stations. And, it seems, the nation sees them. And acknowledges the risk they take. And thanks them. 

In terms of occupational rankings, grocery clerk is relatively low in status. One woman in a long radio interview stated flatly that she’s aware being a grocery clerk is considered a “low-status job,” so walking to work she never wore her apron but carried it folded over her arm, in a manner, I assume, that hid the company logo from view. Now, she says, she puts the apron on when she leaves her house. She appreciates the gratitude she receives for the work she does. 

But she and all the other grocery clerks I’ve heard interviewed also express ambivalence, worry, and anger. “We’re lucky to have work,” one clerk told a friend of mine, but as her customers’ isolation and economic distress intensifies, she continued, “people are getting grumpier.” And day by day she worries about exposure to the virus. “I’m just trying to keep my spirits up.” “It’s the same old job,” another clerk says, “but now it’s scary.” Efforts of clerks and their unions to gain more protections and compensation are increasing, with varying degrees of success. Still, grocery clerks show up. One woman poignantly expressed what most must feel in some way: The work is risky, but she has a family to support, so what can she do? An awful dilemma. 

We rightly praise first responders and front-line health-care workers during a crisis. They save lives and put their own lives at risk —a number of them are testing positive for the coronavirus. But as NPR reporter Alina Selyukh keenly observes in a recent profile of a grocery clerk, “in times of crisis, some of the lowest paid jobs become essential.” Though these jobs are not adequately protected or rewarded, they do become visible. And thus, perhaps, we, for a time at least, value the everyday work of the world. 

Let me close by reprinting a related reflection I wrote about my mother, a career waitress, for the Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Mind at Work. It is a tribute to her and to all the other workers who, as the poet Marge Piercy puts it, “do what has to be done, again and again.” 

 

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When my mother Rosie came home after a long day waiting tables, she would spread out on the bed an old white kitchen towel turned gray from years of coins and dump her tips on it. As she told my father and me about her day—a fight with the cook, a regular’s troubles at home—she would count and separate the coins. I had a weird fascination with that towel. Old, dirty, but the grime had a silver cast to it, the color of money. “If it wasn’t for the tips,” she told me many years later, “we wouldn’t have made it.” There was a front and back counter in the restaurant, and she described working with her sidekick, Ann, another career waitress, how they’d listen—when they could slow down enough—“listen real hard” for the sound of the tip and know if it was a dime, a quarter, a half-dollar, “or no sound at all…you either got stiffed, or they left a dollar.” I don’t remember many dollars on the bed.

I take some coins out of my pocket, close my eyes, and give each a short toss onto the table. She was right; they have distinct sounds, a tink, a thunk. The sound of groceries, of rent, of school supplies, of gas for the car. 

There is a direct line between those tips and me being able to sit here and write about my mother’s work, and my uncle’s, and all the other people who make so much possible through their labor. There are about two million waitresses in the United States. Through a combination of physical and social skill and the ability to think on their feet, they support families and put kids through school, or pay for their own school, or help aging parents. They make restaurants function at the point of service. They contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhoods where they work.

There are roughly two million home health care workers in our country, tending to those who are too sick to care for themselves. There are somewhere around one and a half million plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, daily clearing the flow of water, completing a circuit, building and repairing our shelter. The list continues, outward and across the country: ranch hands and farm workers, long-haul truckers and local drivers, firefighters and miners and welders, the untold numbers of people who work in factories, canneries, and meat-processing plants.

Collectively, these men and women form a massive web of skill that makes our country function, that maintains and comforts and, at times, rescues us. They are so present, their mental and manual abilities so woven into our daily lives that their skills are taken for granted, at times slip out of sight. 

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Mike Rose

The son of Italian immigrants, Mike Rose was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and raised in Los Angeles, California. He is a graduate of Loyola University (B.A.), t...