Unmasking the Virus: A Retail Diary of the Plague Years (Volume 6)

July 8, 2020

There are currently four positions at the store. Register, shelver, buyer, greeter. Every employee rotates between these four positions throughout the day. Greeter is the worst.

The greeter stands behind a counter/partition next to the front door, and when customers come in, they say, “Thank you for wearing a mask! We are also practicing social distancing! Please stay six feet away from other customers!” The exclamation points are essential. They indicate the excitement, positivity, and willingness (nay, heartfelt desire) to make the customer’s every wish come true!!!

If you are a customer, please know these are not the exclamation points we want to use. The exclamation points we want to use are thus: “Hey, asshole! Yeah, you! I work here eight hours a day, forty hours a week, because some dickwad government official decided to open up our economy early during a pandemic and I’m not wealthy enough to afford health insurance and rent without this job, and that thin little piece of fabric you’re wearing over your face is the absolute minimum you can do to ensure that I don’t contract a virus that could cause me to die by choking on my own fluids! So keep it on! And I do mean ON! That means over your mouth AND nose! Don’t make me follow you around the store and tell you over and over again to pull it over your nose! I don’t want to be here, and I resent you for participating in this process!!!”

Yesterday, I was working as the greeter when a small, young Asian man walked through the front door. I gave him the usual spiel about masks. He nodded and said he was with the Austin Health Department.

I immediately assumed he was going to talk to us about COVID-19 regulations. I’ve been back to work for a month now, and we have not heard from a single government official during that time. Not a phone call, not an email, not a pop-in. Nothing. Of course there have been ordinances and mandates passed by the nation, state, and city, but no one has contacted us directly about what we can and cannot do. Or, more importantly, what our customers can and cannot do. Sure, the city requires citizens to wear masks in public, but if customer refuses to wear a mask in our store, what exactly happens? We don’t know. No one has discussed it with us.

So when a man walks into my bookstore during a pandemic and says he’s from the Austin Health Department, I just assume he’s going to talk to us about the deadly virus killing thousands of people all over the state. So I nod and tell him to go ahead.

He tells me there was a complaint filed by a local citizen a month ago about people smoking too close to the front door, and he’s here to follow up. In Austin, there’s no smoking allowed within fifteen feet of the front door of a business. I cock my head and ask him to repeat himself. There’s no problem with my hearing. He’s here about a smoking complaint CALLED IN A MONTH AGO.

I page the store manager.

Our manager is a wonderful 50ish-year-old woman with long, gray hair pulled into a haphazard bun, thick glasses, partial deafness in one ear, and a general attitude of “I will accomodate all reasonable requests…as long as you’re not a dick, in which case I will politely and repeatedly tell you to go to hell.” In other words, everything you’d want in a boss. She refers to herself as the Book Witch.

Anyhow, the Book Witch arrives, and the man from the Austin Health Department repeats his reason for being here. She nods and says, “Okay.”

There’s a long pause, and the he says, “So I need to write you a citation.” Another pause. He shuffles nervously. “For the health-code violation.”

“No,” says the Book Witch.

“Excuse me?”

“I remember the woman who made that complaint,” says the Book Witch. “She was an elderly woman who came into our store to browse. She was upset that we didn’t have any chairs for her to sit in. When I told her there was a bench outside, she said there were men smoking there, and she was going to report it to the Health Department. That bench is almost twenty yards from our front door. So there was no health-code violation.”

The young man cleared his throat, and then he said he would go outside and investigate. The Book Witch nodded and followed him out the door.

They were outside for about ten minutes. The young man reached down to a crevice in the sidewalk and picked up an old cigarette butt. There was a verbal exchange that I couldn’t hear, and then the Book Witch came back inside, grabbed a tape measure, went back outside, and began to measure the distance between the front door and the place where the cigarette butt was found.

It turns out the young man had found a cigarette butt outside the store, and he decided it was evidence someone had been smoking less than fifteen feet from the store. Never mind the fact that it was an old cigarette butt that could have blown there from across the street two years ago. In response, the Book Witch decided to measure the distance between the front door and the cigarette butt. It was seventeen feet, not fifteen.

They came back inside. The young man started scribbling furiously on a piece of paper. When he got through, he asked the Book Witch to sign it. She looked at it and said no. He told her he needed her to sign the paperwork to indicate he had investigated the claim. She said no. He said her signing the paperwork did not indicate that the store were responsible for violating the health policy. The Book Witch said he should write that on the form. He did not want to write that on the form. The Book Witch said she would not sign the form unless he wrote on it that the store had not violated any health policy. The young man repeated that the form did not indicate the store was responsible for violating the health policy. The Book Witch said in that case it shouldn’t be a problem if he wrote on the form that the store had not violated any health policy.

There was a brief silent stand-off, accompanied in my mind by a lone harmonica (a la The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and then the young man wrote on the paper that the store had not violated any health policy. The Book Witch signed it.

A man walked into the store. I said, “Thank you for wearing a mask! We are also practicing social distancing! Please stay six feet away from other customers!”

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