In my favorite pre-pandemic work days, I kept myself busy managing the aesthetics of an old-fashioned department store. I’d hum along to my favorite songs on the repetitive bluegrass soundtrack as I organized wooden signs that said things like “An Old Bear and His Honey Live Here” or “Wish I Was Born with Skinny Genes!” When a song came on that I hated, I’d groan loudly to my coworkers. Then we’d chat about our favorite TV shows as we filled 1/2 pound bags of Tootsie Rolls, wrapping dark red bows around the tops. After rearranging the cookbooks and refilling the Burt’s Bees lip glosses, I might grab a bag of popcorn from behind the register pit and hide in a corner to munch, away from the customers’ sight. Eventually an elderly person might approach me, wondering how long this store had been here (over 4 years) and what it was before (an early 20th century hardware store, these are the original floors). And then they’d tell me it was just like the downtown stores from their childhood. Then a little kid might run by squealing, because they’d just caught sight of the south wing, lined with candy barrels and shelves packed with toys. Those were idyllic times.
And then in quieter moments, when there were barely any customers around and I’d finished all my chores, I’d pop a Mallow Cup in my mouth, stare down the long central aisle leading through the fashion department to the front doors, and think, “Sure is pleasant here. Wonder what it’s gonna be like when the economy crashes and this all falls to shit?”
Having grown up in the rust belt, I’m sensitive to the signs of an impending downturn. Like the cold chill of a Michigan winter, I sense it deep inside my bones. I couldn’t ignore the fact that there were some January days when I’d see barely any shoppers come in. Or how about our inability to retain young workers because none of them could afford to live on our wages? It all felt like a house of cards.
But the pandemic… my god, I could not have possibly anticipated how swiftly it would all dissolve in a pandemic. I switched to full-time during holiday season to get on my own health insurance plan, which went into effect March 1st. By March 5th I was asking my boss if company leaders were talking about potential fallout from the coronavirus. “Nah, not really.” Over the next two weeks, as I watched the virus spread rapidly in cities like Seattle, New York, New Orleans, and my native Detroit, I became progressively more disgusted by the prospect of going to work. Many of my male workers scoffed at the notion that this virus might be A Big Deal; meanwhile the women in the fashion department started wiping everything down with Clorox.
Those last couple shifts before we closed felt torturous. I couldn’t help noticing that this folksy atmosphere we’d cultivated was encouraging dangerous social behavior. Business slowed, but dopey deniers were coming in swarms, so excited to be out and about to spite the libs. They loved to linger, sometimes for hours. One morning our department decided to skip making popcorn. An elderly customer noticed this and tapped on the window of the popper, demanding an explanation. “Well, we decided because of the pandemic that it seemed unsanitary,” I explained, He stared me down with raw disdain. “Don’t believe the hype, young lady.” He said this to me, a 40+ year old mom with graying hair. I wanted to grab a “Crazy Cat Lady” decorative pillow and scream into it.
Management announced our closure on March 19th. For most of the following two months, I collected weekly unemployment checks that greatly exceeded my previous income. Being forced to not work wound up being one of the biggest financial boons of my life. My employers assured me that I could stay on my health insurance, and I would have a job once we reopened. But as the weeks passed, I knew that we’d be returning to work with a virus in full effect. We’d be reopening, not because anyone needs to shop for jigsaw puzzles, orange marmalade, or scented candles. We would reopen with the hope of possibly saving the company. We would return to work in an indoor space, with unmasked customers, for worse pay than we made when our only job was to stay home. And we would do it with the slight hope that maybe we’d be the ones who didn’t get laid off or see our store close permanently. I’ve been through this cycle before. Surviving a capitalist recession forces workers to compete.
I probably should’ve just stayed home and continued collecting unemployment. I could’ve said, “I’m not comfortable going back quite yet,” and stayed on that health insurance plan until someone forced me to either return or quit. But I had to know how if was gonna be. I couldn’t handle the suspense of wondering “What will my job look like post-quarantine but pre-vaccine?”
I lasted three shifts.
Everything I’d enjoyed about my job — despite the low wages, corny tchotchkes, and the constant soundtrack of adult contemporary banjo music — was gone. Here we were, a skeleton crew managing fewer customers than I’d ever seen before. I had almost no one to talk to, but didn’t feel particularly chatty anyway. Straightening shelves and building displays felt pointless. There would be no more popcorn. And now that the candy barrels looked more like petri dishes, I didn’t want any Mallow Cups, either. These are not appropriate times to invite people to slow down, chill out on a rocking chair, play a game of checkers, and enjoy the great indoors. And while business remained slow, I couldn’t help but resent every one of the unmasked customers who walked through our doors, silently wondering, “Are you ignorant or are you hateful?”
So I quit.
I’m in a fortunate position that I can choose to stop working here at the beginning of a depression. I can get back on my husband’s extremely expensive health insurance, and I guess we’ll just keep staying home and not spending money. We’re okay for now, but not forever. In the short term, I’m gonna take advantage of this opportunity to quarantine with my mom in Michigan for a bit. And then I will look for work, possibly on the electoral side of things. Or I might try to become a contact tracer. If I’m going to put my health at risk, it will be for work that has some social benefit. Until this pandemic is really over, I’m probably done with non-essential, customer-facing service jobs. This is the work I’ve spent most of my adult life doing. I was good at it, and sometimes really enjoyed it. But it’s time to move on.
In those pre-pandemic days, I felt the downturn in my bones. But I never expected that doing this work would put anyone’s health at risk.