Months ago I accepted that for most people living in this country, COVID safety precautions no longer mattered. The virus is still here. Many of those who catch it are dying or developing long term disabilities. But we’re no longer expected to distance or mask up, so most people don’t bother. I’ve made my peace with this state of affairs, even as I’ve continued avoiding indoor crowds while keeping the KN95 industry afloat. Guess I’ve grown used to living in a pandemic under late capitalism in the richest, most socially negligent country on Earth. I do my best to keep my family safe. And I don’t judge anyone for abandoning safety measures that our government no longer mandates.

I wasn’t always so understanding, especially when safety mandates existed and so many fools just ignored them. I also think about the era before vaccines, when some people would post social media pics of their maskless, smiling faces in restaurants or brag about their pleasure travels to faraway places. They weren’t breaking rules necessarily. But it seemed as if they’d carelessly given up on their personal commitment to community protection and just gone back to normal. How could they?

Now that we’re about three years into this thing, I derive an odd comfort knowing that just because people have abandoned precaution doesn’t mean they’re “back to normal.” I barely remember what “normal” looked like before the pandemic, but I know it definitely didn’t look like this. For example, I never worked from home before this mess started. I always assumed that WFH was for professional managerial class people with advanced degrees, not college dropouts who work in customer service. Now I get paid considerably more to do odd political organizing gigs over the internet, compared to the retail job I worked three years ago. These gig hours are limited, but I don’t have to work as much to make the same amount of money. I’d have to be paid well over my current wage to even consider working retail again. This pandemic has obliterated my desire to toil on my feet all day for company bosses who sit in offices and own nice houses while I lose time with my family earning a pittance toward the rent. 

Assuming you’re employed, how do you feel about work? I bet it’s pretty different from how you felt pre-2020. Do you have the same job you had then? What changed? What new boundaries have you established? What illusions have dissolved? If it’s been a rocky road, I hope you are more rooted in the understanding that most work is bullshit and most bosses maintain too much power over our lives. If you’ve reevaluated what really matters to you in your life, I hope you’ve landed on the understanding that work is mainly something we do to make money to survive under capitalism. If your work has little or no social value, and it doesn’t bring you a strong sense of personal satisfaction, I hope you are at the very least “quiet quitting.” Even better, I hope you and your coworkers are unionizing.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled to see unionization on the rise. Starbucks workers organizing hundreds of stores across the country would not have been “normal” in 2019. Sucks that it took a pandemic to push workers to the edge, because this union fever is long overdue. But even for someone like me, who was pretty cynical about work before this all started, it’s wild to reflect on just how little I valued my own labor in the old days. $15/hr used to feel like an impossible dream for someone working retail in a midsize Southern city. Now it feels like an insult — almost twice the minimum wage and still impossible to live on. I cannot go back to believing $10.50/hr was the worth of my labor. That was what I once called “normal.” 

This new normal — wherein so many of us are salty about work — may not always be a pleasant place. Sometimes I miss the comfort of old illusions about work, just like I sometimes miss going out to eat in a crowded diner on a Saturday morning. But on the rare occasions I do dine out, I can’t help noticing how different the vibe is. Every restaurant seems perpetually understaffed. The forced cheerfulness service workers once considered part of the uniform has given way to a more brittle honesty. Their manner makes clear that new standards are in play — you’re gonna have to pull the menu up on your phone, the options are fewer, and it’s gonna take twice as long for the food to get to your table. I take this all in stride and tip even more than I did in the past. I’m no longer paying for theater. I’m just looking out for a fellow worker doing one of the hardest, most thankless and precarious jobs in these dangerous times. It all feels starkly different from how it was before 2020. But in many ways, I prefer this level of realness to that old normal.

Milton, the awkward, mumbling, forgotten worker from the film OFFICE SPACE (1999, Twentieth Century Fox)

One thought on “Thank Goodness No One is Back to Normal

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