I arrive at my new job early. Usually at this time, a spring Tuesday morning at quarter to eight, the road is congested with buses and commuter traffic, everyone rushing to where they need to be. But today, two weeks after the stay-at-home order, I’ve seen maybe three cars on this road.
The parking lot at the grocery store closest to my home has a capacity of several hundred but there’s only a couple dozen cars today, each at least two spaces away from the other. Even our cars are socially distanced.
A woman exits her car into the gray morning. She’s wearing a red bandana over her mouth and nose, like a train robber from a 1950s Western. Seeing her reminds me of the mask my wife sewed last night from one of my old dress shirts. It’s on the seat next to me, lying on top of a letter I received yesterday during orientation. “Keep this in your car,” the HR director told me. “The cops aren’t pulling people over, but if they start you’ll need this.”
The individual in possession of this letter works in the Food and Agriculture industry … [which] is essential for the continued function of the economy in this time of crisis. It is essential to the nation’s food supply that this individual be permitted to proceed to or from his or her job or to otherwise perform his or her job function.
As such, the individual in possession of this letter should be considered exempt from local restrictions such as curfews, shelter-in-place orders, and other mobility restrictions when reporting to, returning from, or performing his or her work functions.
In times of stress, my imagination often retreats to the familiar comfort of pop culture tropes. For this reason, as I’m learning about my new job responsibilities a half hour later, I can’t help wondering if the abandoned streets I’d just travelled were an omen of Zombie Apocalypse.
“The handheld makes the job pretty easy,” Carmen says as she shows a device slightly bigger than a smartphone to me and two other new hires. Carmen is in her mid-30s and has worked in this grocery store chain over a decade. “It identifies the location of each item the customer ordered, and sorts the items so you only have to make one round trip around the store.”
Carmen addresses us in the Staging Room, a large storage area used by ExpressCart, the store’s virtual shopping and drive-up delivery service. A team lead in ExpressCart since the beginning of the year, Carmen has just demonstrated how to use the Staging Room’s lone computer to download an order onto the handheld. “So now you just go shopping,” she says as she walks out into the shopping area.
We reach the cereal aisle, and Carmen pulls a box of Frosted Flakes from the shelf. “The handheld doesn’t let you make mistakes,” she says, pointing the device at the box’s barcode. She presses a button, a red light flashes, and the handheld makes a thunk sound, like a door being slammed closed. Carmen puts Tony the Tiger back on the shelf, then shows us the handheld screen. “The customer ordered the Family Size, but I chose the regular size so you could hear the sound it makes when you scan the wrong item. Scan the right item and it sounds like you got the correct answer on a game show.” Carmen picks up a Family Size box and scans its barcode. da-ding!
One of the trainees asks what we should do if an item the customer wants isn’t available, and Carmen walks us through the substitution protocol. I don’t see the trainee who asked the question after this first day, and the other trainee I’m with will leave for an Amazon job a month later.
After finishing the order we return to the Staging Room. Carmen places each bin from the cart into its required storage area, prints the order’s documentation, and writes the location of each bin on the printouts. When the customer arrives for pickup, ExpressCart staff use the order documentation to locate the bins and place them on a pallet, which is then rolled out to the customer’s car.
“Any questions?” Carmen asks after she places the documentation in a hanging file folder.
“Yeah,” I say. The job responsibilities couldn’t be simpler, but I’m curious about order volume. “What’s the wait time between ordering and pickup?”
Carmen laughs. “Our system can only book five days ahead, and we’ve been at that limit for a month.”
When the lockdowns began, I wanted to do something that would help stave off social catastrophe, but I had few options. My application for a vaccine clinical study hadn’t generated a response. With no medical training, I couldn’t enlist in the service of first responders. I had no expertise to offer the utility or transportation industries. But people need to eat, right? So why not help make sure my local grocery store continued operating? And by working in ExpressCart, a service which limited the number of people coming into the store, I could reduce opportunities for spreading the virus.
As a contribution to the Greater Good, I realize working for ExpressCart is trite, a bit silly even. I’m gonna stop Zombie Apocalypse by shopping! But it’s the best idea I can come up with.
The job isn’t physically demanding; cases of bottled water are the heaviest items. The cart becomes difficult to push at times – I’ll never forget the order of 160 32-oz. bottles of Gatorade (yep, we had them) – but is sufficiently mobile for even the heaviest orders.
In the early days of the pandemic, most orders require multiple substitutions. Everyone knows about The Great Toilet Paper Panic, but many other items are routinely unavailable: flour and yeast; pasta; any cleaning product; canned items such as soda or soup, since manufacturers lack enough metal to meet increased consumer demand. Milk orders are limited to two gallons, eggs to a dozen, as dairy farms ramp up production.
Empty shelves and food rationing. More ominous signs.
Grocery store workers were considered at high risk of infection at the start of COVID, as we pass hundreds of customers each workday and are constantly touching surfaces – boxes, cans, shelves, counters, carts.
When the Centers for Disease Control deemed fomite transmission of this coronavirus was unlikely, I stopped wearing gloves at work. The CDC later stated that airborne transmission required up to 15 minutes in close proximity of an infected person, making the threat to employees other than cashiers and baggers seem less significant.
If any of us were to get infected, it would likely occur in the Staging Room. One computer for downloading orders, with the receipt printer, customer phone, and handheld charging stations immediately to the left. Congregating around the computer is unavoidable.
We do our part to keep ourselves and each other safe, but we’ve also been a bit lucky.
Carmen is promoted a few months after I start and assigned to a different store. There’s no goodbyes when she leaves, no farewell card to sign, no cake in the break room. She was there one day, but not the next. Gone.
Tamika tells me about Carmen’s promotion. Hard-working and cynical, Tamika began working ExpressCart two years before me and becomes my go-to person for questions after Carmen leaves. “How’s it going Tamika?” I ask when passing her in the aisles each morning.
She typically responds with hyperbolic exasperation. “This shit keeps coming, but never goes away.”
Tamika and I are among the few ExpressCart employees over 30. Most of our co-workers are in their early 20s, making a few bucks until they find a job with better wages. Turnover is very high. There’s not many opportunities for team building; people mostly keep their heads down and focus on their job. Team leads don’t go out of their way to make friends with employees, probably because they expect us to leave at any moment and are too busy dealing with the latest crisis.
Reece becomes the third (fourth?) team lead after Carmen. Outside of work, Reece takes virtual classes in database administration. He works mostly in the Staging Room, usually at the computer. “How’s it going Reece?” I ask whenever I see him.
“Good.” Reece is always good.
Seven months after I start we receive upgraded handhelds that allow us to text a picture of proposed substitutions directly to the customer. Each of the new handhelds comes with a linked label printer that generates a barcode sticker identifying the storage requirement. We place the printed labels on the green bins and on return to the Staging Room scan a barcode next to the shelf location.
Tamika hates the new handhelds. “Why the hell did they change this?” she barks behind her mask as I pass her soon after the upgrade. “All this texting bullshit slows me down.”
“But it’s nice not having to print paperwork,” I reply. Reece also likes the new handhelds, as they make finding customer bins easier.
Tamika rolls her eyes, pushing her cart past me.
My shifts are eight hours, and I’m alone with my thoughts most of the time. A perfect environment for an overactive mind.
Download an order to my handheld, push the cart out of the Staging Room. Every job I see here is a candidate for automation, mine especially. Oreos, thunk. Double-stuffed, da-ding! Three boxes, da-ding, da-ding! If we can’t build a robot that can take over ExpressCart in five years, we officially suck. Cracked Pepper Wheat Thins, da-ding!
Another order for Cherry 7Up Zero, hasn’t been in stock since I started. I’m fortunate enough to not feel financially threatened by robots. Send a picture of Diet Squirt Citrus to the customer. “Flatbreads? No, don’t look in the bread aisle. They’re on a shelf in front of the deli counter.” Earn enough from my other part-time jobs to only need to work ExpressCart one day a week and satisfy my half-assed sensed of social responsibility. Customer texts back, doesn’t want the Diet Squirt. Ruffles, 10 oz., da-ding!
La Bandarita Taco Tortillas. Don’t think I could do this job full-time. Prego Homestyle Alfredo. Especially if I had to earn a living at it because that doesn’t seem possible at these wages. StarKist Chunk Light Tuna. Looked up the poverty level for Ohio last night. Rice-A-Roni Chicken flavor. “No ma’am, you won’t find breadcrumbs in the bread aisle, they’re with the baking supplies.” Bush’s Black Beans, two cans. Working my hourly wage for 40 hours each week wouldn’t get me out of poverty. Progresso Italian Wedding Soup, thunk. Low sodium, da-ding! Even if I worked all 52 weeks, I’d still be 10% under the poverty line for the year. Libby’s Whole Kernel Corn.
Don’t even have to look at the poverty level. Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing. My son’s looking for an apartment, so I know what rents run in this area. Heinz White Vinegar. Over half my full-time paycheck would go just to rent. Pepperidge Farm Hearty White bread, two loaves. Glad my son’s got a better paying job. McCormick Montreal Steak Seasoning. He’s doing deliveries, another job the robots will take over.
Tamika and Reece told me they make the same as I do. Five bananas, 2.12 lbs. Not surprised they live with family. Two green peppers, 1.02 lbs. “Yes we sell naan. Look in prepared foods, not the bread aisle.” Three Fuji apples, 1.42 lbs. Del Monte Superfruit. Rick James’ estate should commission a jingle off of “Superfreak.” It’s a superfruit, superfruit, it’s super frooootay now.
There’s no easy answer. Two T-bone steaks, not available. Strip steak on sale, same price as the T-bone, send a picture to the customer. Some people are talking about a national $15 hourly minimum wage. Pound of hamburger. Text from customer, wants the strip steaks.
Raising wages at grocery stores would increase food prices, putting more economic stress on the poor. Gallon of 2% milk. And how many small businesses would collapse? Two dozen eggs, open the carton and inspect for cracks like Carmen trained us. My brother-in-law runs an independent coffee shop he’d have to close by raising hourly wages to $15. Stouffers Spaghetti with Meat Sauce. Six? More than enough in stock. A Starbucks would probably take over his shop.
Hanover Broccoli Florets. But the math doesn’t add up for workers. Tyson Chicken Nuggets. It’s economically impossible to live on your own at these wages. Cool Whip. And when the robots start taking jobs away from grocery store workers and truck drivers and line cooks, the value of human labor will go down further. Edy’s French Silk. This problem’s going to get worse.
Eggo Buttermilk Waffles. Working ExpressCart is pretty easy, so low wages are understandable. Popsicle Tropical Flavors. But the letter I got during orientation says my job is essential for the continued function of the economy. Ore-Ida Golden Fries. An economist might pick apart the assumption, but designating work as essential while paying those who do it like they’re disposable doesn’t seem to make sense.
Head back to the Staging Room. Reece tugs a pallet out to the curb, asks “Sup?” I nod. Wonder how long he’ll be here. Tamika will do this job until the robots escort her out, but Reece should get out before then.
Check the time – 2:52. One more order should take up the last 68 minutes of my shift.
Order volume in ExpressCart began decreasing a few months after I started, and dropped sharply when vaccines became available; go online in the morning now and you can select a pickup time for that afternoon. Fewer orders and the efficiency of the department make the high turnover rate manageable. If I turn in my handheld and walk away from the Staging Room for good, ExpressCart customers would continue driving up for their pre-shopped orders as easily as they do now.
But I’ve continued working at ExpressCart, because while COVID hasn’t become a Zombie Apocalypse novel, it’s reading like an unfinished first draft.
The zombie-as-virus metaphor has become cliché – nearly every contemporary Zombie Apocalypse begins with a viral outbreak – but like that shirt you’ve worn for a decade that’s too comfortable to throw out, a trope can remain perfect despite its overuse. The metaphor endures because zombies and viruses are nearly identical. Alive but unintelligent, constantly spreading, ferocious and predatory. Insatiable, unstoppable.
Zombie Apocalypses often depict a handful of human survivors hunkered down against the living dead, and the equivalent response for COVID is to obey the stay-at-home order as literally as possible. Work remotely, attend meetings on Zoom, have everything delivered. I fault no one for choosing that response.
But rather than making me feel safer, barricading myself in my comfortable suburban home would have only fed my clinical depression. I didn’t realize this at the time, but working at ExpressCart was my way of living with the uncertainty rather than cowering from it. Facing the risk, taking reasonable precautions, defying the threat rather than waiting for the metaphor to come bashing down my front door. Working in ExpressCart has kept me steady, provided a distraction from the unending tide of grim news, given a structure to each week that’s prevented the days from blending together.
The following statement will seem hopelessly out of touch with the bitter reality many have endured during the pandemic, but here goes: working in ExpressCart has been relaxing. Escaping the confinement of home, engaging my muscles in light manual labor, laughing along with Tamika’s profane exasperation, asking Reece about his classes, composing inane song parodies during my shift, feeling useful when informing customers that cooking oil is located in the bread aisle.
In times of crisis, we often find peace in odd places. During the pandemic, I stumbled across serenity while pushing a blue shopping cart and zapping barcodes with a handheld scanner.
While COVID remains a threat despite a massive vaccination program, there aren’t as many visible omens of doom now. The aisles I cruise during my shift are stocked to their pre-pandemic levels, and the streets between work and home are as congested as they were in 2019. We even had a temporary pre-Delta variant reprieve from mask wearing at work, which somewhat disappointed Tamika because she couldn’t hide her cussing anymore.
After my first day, I put the letter I received during orientation in my glovebox and haven’t looked at it since. I’ll probably toss that letter the next time I clean out my car, but I’m going to keep the scan I made of it, an electronic memento of a time none of us thought possible, when our lives seemed bound in an overlong draft of a Zombie Apocalypse novel, one we can only hope the author soon abandons.
Note: "Essential" is based on my work experience during COVID. Although I consider it an essay, it does contain fictional elements, many of which were added to respect the privacy of my co-workers.