Taking My Place at My Father’s Grocery Store

Chaos in a grocery store.
During the coronavirus pandemic, our neighborhood would depend on our store—I think I can say this without exaggeration—to stay alive.Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

When I come home from work each night, my husband greets me with a bottle of isopropyl alcohol. Holding me at arm’s length, he sprays me down with a solution. Then I remove my work clothes and shove them in the closet. I scrub my hands in the sink for twenty seconds with soap. I gargle a disposable cup’s worth of warm salt water, trying not to think of the pathogens that might be lingering in my tonsils and my throat. I don’t know whether gargling is effective or placebic, but I do it anyway. While I step into a scalding shower, my husband sprays my bag, keys, watch, phone, thermos, and wedding ring. Romantic gestures in these times take all forms.

I’m not a doctor or nurse; I’m a novelist and creative-writing professor whose parents own a grocery store in New York City. For the past two months, I’ve gone back to the summertime job that I’d had growing up—cashiering, bagging groceries, restocking shelves—and have unwittingly become a front-line “essential worker” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our mom-and-pop store, which is in a residential part of Brooklyn, is a full-service supermarket with a meat department and deli. When my parents started the business, almost forty years ago, the neighborhood was blue-collar, near a housing project. The projects remain, but, like much of Brooklyn, the whole area has gentrified immensely. Bags of Goya Spanish rice nestle beside Manischewitz matzo meal and free-range organic chicken-bone broth. Customers pay with everything from food stamps to weathered hundred-dollar bills to Apple Pay.

On the day that the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, I was a writer-in-residence at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires. (When Wharton wrote about social distancing a century ago—poor Countess Olenska!—I hardly think our present reality is what she had in mind.) Before leaving for my residency, my main fear of the coronavirus had been the racist attacks that my friends, family, and I received as Asian-Americans. In early March, a man had shouted, “Die, motherfucker!” at me as I descended into the subway. During my inadvertent quasi-quarantine in Massachusetts, I was oblivious to the needs at home. My father reassured me that things were fine, and that I should finish out my residency. Viewed from this safe remove, New York’s shelter-in-place order seemed to be an Insta-blur of funfetti-cupcake breakfasts, back-yard barbecues, and before-and-after pics of sourdough-bread starters.

On the drive back to New York, the staticky news stations came into crisper focus. In my two weeks away, the world had changed. Governor Andrew Cuomo was restricting all nonessential businesses and imploring everyone to stay home. Under the new state order, grocery stores were deemed one of the few essential businesses allowed to remain open. Our neighborhood would depend on us—I think I can say this without exaggeration—to stay alive.

吻胸口解内衣The next day, I went to work. My father is high-risk: he is in his mid-seventies, and almost died of undetected Lyme disease a few years ago. He reluctantly switched places with me. Our store would be busier than ever. After a fitful night of sleep, I set the kettle to boil and popped two thousand milligrams of Vitamin C, praying that the bottle would last us through however long this crisis will go on. Spring was breaking in New York, but I put on long johns and jeans, and an undershirt, T-shirt, wool sweater, scarf, fleece jacket, and knee-length wool coat: this is my uniform at the store. I tried to forget the literature that I’d read somewhere about virus pathogens thriving in cold, dry spaces. Our store is a very cold, very dry place. I brewed a tea of fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks, lemon wedges, and honey, and filled my thermos. Then I laced up my running sneakers and walked forty minutes to the store. It would be faster to take the subway, but riskier as well.

My first day back was daunting. Grocery work is very different from the “soft hands” work I’ve grown accustomed to as a writer and professor. Delivery trucks arrived late and with missing items. Customers asked for unsalted almond butter (Aisle 7), charcoal and lighter fluid (how I envied their barbecues!), and price adjustments on Raisin Bran, because they had forgotten to scan their club cards during checkout and only realized after they got home that they did not get the week’s sale price (a dollar off per box). The cash registers froze up at times because of all the disinfectant we were continually wiping them down with. Some of the stress of the day was inherent to retail—it’s the cost of doing business—but now everything was made more fraught owing to the coronavirus.

吻胸口解内衣Brooklynites, true to stereotype, are close talkers. People came flying at me, waving circulars and receipts and likely droplets of spittle. I backed up to put distance between us, assuming by this point that everyone had got the memo. But some kept drawing closer until, finally, I put my hands out to force space. By the looks on their faces, my actions read not as social distancing but as personal affront. That day, I was exposed, in a confined space, to at least a thousand customers, as I have been every day since. People have to eat.

The rhythms of the grocery store are erratic: a bout of slowness will suddenly be punctuated by a fast, fast, fast surge of customers, like an unrelenting jazz riff. As soon as an employee is assigned to monitor the flow of traffic—a luxury now that every spare moment is allocated to increased disinfection efforts and restocking bare shelves—she gets pulled away to help a customer find flour, and the whole system breaks down. In my first week back, one of our employees put up a handwritten sign: “Customers no socializing buy your items go home we are trying our best.” As I was sanitizing carts outside, I noticed people smirking and taking pictures of the sign with their phones, like it was some ironic joke. I took the sign down.

Early on, some of our part-time cashiers quit. They and their families did not think that working was worth the risk. But most of our employees remain unfazed, despite the crisis—not that there is much time to dwell. Each day is business as usual, especially for those who have been with our store since I was a kid. These longtime staffers have weathered it all: blizzards, blackouts, 9/11, the Great Recession, Hurricane Sandy. The facts remain: there are shelves to stock and orders to place and customers to serve. Most all of us are people of color; most all of us are immigrants or children of immigrants. Each day, we communicate in a jumble of English, Korean, and Spanish—like when one of our Mexican workers says, “Bap mukja!,” which is Korean for “Let’s eat!,” when he’s going to lunch, or when the delivery guys and I exchange regalitos (“little gifts”) of empty shopping carts to put away. None of us are quite fluent in one another’s native tongue, but still we try to cobble together meaning with the handful of words that we do know. Or maybe I have it wrong—maybe these little, light-hearted moments are a way of forgetting that we are putting ourselves at risk every day when we show up to work.

Advertisement

One customer tried to buy a whole case of paper towels; he got to the case before we had a chance to unpack it and restock the shelves. When I told him that paper towels were limited to one package per customer, he threw a fit. Later, he came up close to me and said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. I didn’t even need the rolls. I just wanted to stock up.” Then he clamped his hand on my shoulder, by way of apology. Moments like this are a continual negotiation: Do I risk the exchange of respiratory vapor to tell him that he’s violating the six-feet-of-distance mandate, or do I just let him say his piece so I can quickly get on with cashiering, and packing, and directing the growing swell of customers, and spraying down the baskets and wagons and everything else? I got on with it.

There are customers who come shopping every single day: they buy their daily bread, their daily milk, their daily banana. They are usually elderly customers who shop the old Brooklyn way: buying only what they need to last them until tomorrow. Even a pandemic does not make them waver from these routines, developed out of habit or financial necessity, or likely both. Two young guys came shopping together but checked out separately. I rang up their identical and respective purchases of instant-ramen-noodle packets and energy drinks. They socially distanced from each other, but one stood less than a foot away from our employee who was packing their bags. They continued their roomie conversation right over the bag-packer’s head, as if he wasn’t even there. Some customers shop with their reusable bags and can only start packing after they have finished paying. This increases our contact time in the cramped register area and slows down each transaction. A father and his daughter come into our store every day to buy one or two things, a couple of times a day. They do this out of boredom, I suppose, and I wonder if they realize they are exposing themselves, and us workers, with each trip.

I have my favorite customers—not for the banter exchanged but for their speed and efficiency through the whole shopping process. There is the couple who come in and quickly tag-team shops, and when they get to the checkout the husband methodically loads items from their cart onto the conveyor belt—heavy items first, then lighter things—while the wife packs the items immediately after I scan them. As soon as the husband is done unloading his items, he goes to the end of the register to help his wife. By the time I finish ringing up all their items, the husband finishes off the packing while the wife pays up. Everything is done by the time that I hand them their receipt. This couple has to shop several times a week because they have four sons, home from college, who are eating them out of the house.

My least favorite are the customers who think that they are the exception to every rule. One screamed, in a haughty English accent, that she should be allowed to wheel a shopping cart all the way to her home (wherever that is). We’ve had to put a limit on eggs—which, due to unexpected demand, have gone up in wholesale price—to one package per customer. When I gently reminded a customer with two dozen eggs of the policy, he grew irate: “Go get your boss. I fucking spend six hundred dollars here a week, and you telling me to limit my eggs? Nuh-uh.” (For the record, his total came to thirty-five dollars, and I had not seen him in the store any other time that week, but perhaps I missed him.) Then he called out to someone, “Anthony, you hear that? They trying to limit my eggs. Unbelievable!” I knew I would get nowhere with this man; I let him have his eggs.

There have been moments of utter humanity. Like the couple that comes in and sprays down their basket not only before but after use, in this era when rubbing alcohol is like liquid gold. I almost cried as I thanked them. The nurse who thanked us for our service—when it should have been the other way around. Many, many customers come in thanking us for our work and for being open. Some shop with bright smiles on their faces, even as they battle the picked-over nut-butter landscape, when who knows what’s really lurking behind their expressions: the loss of a job, a family member testing positive, a general uncertainty about their futures. Our futures.

After our “detox” routine, my husband and I settle down to dinner. I mix myself a hot toddy made with, appropriately enough, a whiskey called Writers’ Tears. I don’t know whether whiskey as a disinfectant is effective or placebic, but I drink it anyway. As we eat, I’m thankful for each day that I come home relatively unscathed. But I worry about when I get sick—given the rate of spread, it seems only a matter of when, not if吻胸口解内衣—and what to do if I get my husband sick. As the owner of a craft-beer brewery, he is also considered an essential worker. (In this crisis, people need to drink almost as much as they need to eat.) Self-isolation is impossible in our one-bedroom apartment, where we would continually cross paths somehow. Our first wedding anniversary is this month, and who knows how we will get to celebrate it. Then I lie down to sleep, and the day starts over again.


A Guide to the Coronavirus