By Calvin Turner
Special to The Communitarian
I don’t like going to stores. Even several months ago when the world was “normal,” I avoided them like the plague. But now, despite America being on lockdown, I found myself inside the Acme in Havertown’s Manoa Shopping Center.
While I waited near the customer service counter to speak to a manager about a job opening, I didn’t have to go out of my way to remind myself why I disliked stores, as a masked man nearby dumped some random store items on top of a stack of boxed Coca Cola’s.
Employees and employees bustled around as usual, but a tense and gloomy atmosphere of caution and worry was as obvious as the masks covering their faces.
I watched the masked and gloved cashiers carefully bag groceries. I watched the people shopping. Some had carts full of everything, and some had a few items clutched in their hands.
The air was filled with the sounds of heavy breathing through masks, banging shopping carts, and the nearby automatic doors opening and closing again and again.
Not even chatty seniors dared to hold up the line for any small talk with the cashiers or neighbors they recognized; it was all business. Everyone got in, got whatever they considered essential, and left.
But I wasn’t there shopping. I was there for an interview. While I waited, I received glances from some passing by. Some seemed curious; others didn’t hide the glares poking out from above their masks. I could feel them probing, “Why are you here?”
I had been asking myself the same question but still couldn’t answer it. Why did I, a 16-year-old, want to work during a Covid-19 pandemic that, according to the CDC, had already killed almost 45,000 Americans alone?
Maybe no one had the coronavirus, but stories had been coming out all over the place—all confirming how quickly and easily COVID-19 can spread. What if one person came in with COVID-19? What if he touched something and then I touched it?
Why was I exposing myself to potential danger? Why was I doing this?
The easy answer would be money, for I certainly could use it. Not to pay for food and bills, but to save up for whatever potentially expensive college I would attend in a couple of months.
IF I went to college in a couple of months.
Really though, it was more than money. I had time on my hands, time that was wasting away. My nature told me to do something useful, not to waste the spare time that made up one of the few positives of the pandemic.
It was easy for me to sit at home, doing school and being left with time aplenty to do whatever I felt like, but if all I did in a day was a little school and a lot of nothing, I couldn’t help but feel I needed more.
Before the pandemic, at least I had a schedule. For whatever reason, it helped maintain my sanity — my belief that I was doing fine. I needed something. Without anything to make me do anything, I found myself doing nothing, and I needed to do something about it.
So I found myself at the Acme, wearing a pink mask, the only one I could find.
I felt alone, and somewhat alienated from the “get in and get out” mentality surrounding me. With thousands and thousands of people filing for unemployment, some of them must have been trying to get new jobs, but it didn’t seem like it.
A loud but fuzzy voice over the store’s speakers reminded people to focus on the essentials.
Was it essential for me to get a job? Again, I didn’t have a family to feed or bills to pay.
Certainly others could use it more than I.
But for my own sanity, I couldn’t shake the desire to do something useful with my time. So as everyone in the store hurried about, I didn’t budge. I waited and waited until the manager stuck her head over the counter and beckoned me over. She ushered me into a room and glanced over my resume and back at me.
“When can you work?” she asked.
“Whenever you need,” I replied.
I was hired at $9.50 an hour.
Walking back to my house I felt a rush of excitement and lingering worry. I would be starting soon, but now that my desire to work was becoming a reality, so did my fears.
What if I got the virus?
As I was young and healthy, it probably wouldn’t be as serious a problem for me, but what if I made someone else sick? What if that individual spread it to someone else? Someone’s mother or grandmother?
Was I willing to risk so much for a little money and sanity?
I didn’t answer my own questions, but when I got home, I felt a sense of relief. Soon, I will start training. I was told I’d first be assigned to one of the entrances — counting everyone as they came in and out, making sure the store was under the maximum occupancy of 200 people.
I would watch tired and worried people silently walk back and forth, glancing nervously over their masks while the store’s mechanical doors open and slam shut, again, and again, and again.
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