Unmasking the Virus: A Retail Diary of the Plague Years (Volume 4)

June 28, 2020

There’s an old adage in retail that I learned from an overweight boss when I was a teenager: “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” I have always hated that saying for three reasons: 1) it’s annoyingly passive-aggressive; 2) it suggests the employee should be dedicating every waking second on the clock to the needs of the employer, and if they take a moment to rest or take a deep breath after dealing with a surly customer, they are taking advantage of the employer’s precious time; 3) I hate sayings that rhyme. They’re annoying.

But like all cliches, there’s a smidge of truth in there, too.

In normal non-plague times, retail work is an exercise in monotony. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It matters not what you’re selling or how well you’re paid (although, let’s be clear, you will never be paid more than a subsistence wage). There is a mind-numbing ritual to the job that sinks into your bones and becomes part of your nature. You clean, you service customers, you balance the register, you clean. Then get up the next day and do it again.

Most retail workers learn how to shut off their brains. The job requires very little thought, so your mind is free to wander wherever it pleases. As a writer, this is one of the perks for me. I think about plots and characters and dialogue. To the untrained eye, it might appear that I’m scanning a shelf of books to update our inventory, but in reality, I’m a thousand miles away, battling aliens on a spaceship or watching two people fall in love on the subway. I’m there but I’m not there, if you know what I mean.

During a global pandemic in which you are forced to return to work at a time when health experts agree everyone should be avoiding contact with strangers, the retail job becomes a surreal exercise in what I have been calling panic-boredom.

Panic-boredom is a state of mind in which the retail employee performs the mundane acts of their job that usually produce an almost zombie-like state of mental torpor, except underneath every register transaction and pricing shift, there’s a layer of existential dread in which the employee imagines they are lying on a hospital bed because the customer in front of them refuses to pull his mask over his nose.

The job is still boring, but now it’s also dangerous. The space in the back of your mind that used to wander outside the workplace is now occupied with visions of death. You can’t relax. You can’t mentally escape. It’s exhausting.

Last week, a customer asked me how I was doing. She was a perky blonde in spandex yoga pants and a t-shirt that said It’s Wine-O’Clock Somewhere! She was buying a stack of self-help books with titles like Think Your Depression Away! and 7 Ways to Build a You That’s Better Than the You You Always Wanted to Make Better!

I told her I was fine because A) I didn’t want to have a long conversation with her about anything, and B) if I told her how I was really feeling, I imagine her head would have opened up and a bunch of little sad-face emojis would have floated out…and then I would have stabbed each and every one.

“You know,” she said, “it must be nice to have something to do right now. I mean, I’ve just been stuck in my house for the last three months, ordering takeout and doing puzzles with the kids. I mean, there’s nothing to do at my house. Nothing at all. We just watch Netflix all day. Can you imagine? I’m going bonkers! At least here you can be around books and people! Right?” She reached through the plastic partition dividing us and touched my arm. “Maybe I’ll apply for a job here! What do you think of that? We could be coworkers!”

She laughed, delighted with herself, and then bounced out the exit.

I nodded and slathered my arm in hand sanitizer.

If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.

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