“How do you feel about being labeled, “An Essential?”
Lourdes* makes eye contact with me after I ask the question. Her eyes are deep brown, rimmed with eyeliner. It’s hard to tell with the mask on, but it looks like she’s a bit surprised — and it feels like I’m the first person she’s really made eye contact with in a while, despite the plexiglass shield and line of people at her checkout stand.
“No one ever asked. We were just told. I had no choice.”
She plops my bag of broccoli onto the scanner and keys in a code she clearly has memorized. She continues talking at the same time.
“If I want a job, I have to show up. I’m afraid to get my mother sick. I’m afraid to not be able to pay bills and buy food for my babies. If I don’t show up, I ‘quit’ so I can’t get unemployment. I’m between a rock and a hard place. So here I am.”
She scans the t-bone steaks. Safeway’s having a special on them, and that’s pretty much all there is in the beef case, aside from ground beef. She scans the ground beef next. Figure I’ll make some smash burgers again for dinner this week.
“How do you feel about the governor easing up on stay-at-home restrictions?” I ask her.
“I don’t like it. It’s too soon. People are still getting sick. It’s just going to make it worse. Instead of less people in here all day long, we’ll have way more people in here at once. And people still don’t wear masks enough.”
She nods ever so slightly in the direction of the line behind me. I look back and see four men. All are obeying the line spacing Safeway marked on the floor, but none are wearing masks. I adjust mine pointedly and try to convey my disdain at them in what I know is a useless gesture.
She scans the seltzer water. Then the Ding Dongs. Don’t judge me.
“My mother, she’s sick already with bad asthma. She’s been locked up in the house for two months now, and in her room all the time. I come home and I shower before I do anything so I don’t get her sick with Corona. ‘Cause she would die, I know.”
She scans the eggs and the shredded cheese.
“Is the pay worth it?” I ask. “Are they paying you better, I mean?”
She laughs. “Not really, but don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to have a job and not be out of work. I just wish I had a job at home and it was safer. I have to show up here every day no matter what, you know? Like, it’s just what we do. And there’s always someone else who will do it if I don’t.”
“It sounds like you feel expendable,” I say, noting a trace of exhaustion in her voice.
“Yeah,” she says. She stops for a second, still holding my avocado and regains eye contact with me.
“That’s it. Expendable.”