• rita kueber

Well, this was fun.

Literary Cleveland is a local non-profit that's all about writing and supporting writers. They concocted a special project, to document one day in the life of Greater Cleveland - May 12, 2020 to create a shapshot of how people were handling the pandemic and shutdown. I had a chance to participate, and the results are here, a big project featuring over 500 entries and an interactive map. Parts of the project were just printed in the local alt-weekly publication, Scene Magazine, and several of my paragraphs were included.

I hope you have time to take a look - the result is fascinating, uplifting, occasionally heart-breaking, but it's all good. The link is here:

My entry is this: (Note, for editing purposes, entries needed to be submitted in the third person.)

For the crew, the day starts at 5:30 am. The mates (managers) have been at the store since 4:30 or 5:00. First, the truck. Pallets are removed in the pre-dawn stillness by trained crew working with jacks and rollers. The pallets come off the truck, bulky towers wrapped in plastic. They are wheeled onto the floor and broken apart by the crew. It used to work like an ant hill. Don’t just stand there – grab a box. Now only two crew members are assigned to a pallet, to keep the distancing.

Crew members wear masks at the request of the company. There was some back and forth about this in the beginning. Same for gloves. Now everyone clocked in needs to have a mask on, except when they’re eating or getting water. Gloves are up to individuals. Most people wear them as needed –cleaning but not stocking; working with chemicals, but not at the cash register.

The crew works to stock fresh produce, dairy, deli, meat until 7:30 when the floor is cleared of boxes, overflow and trash. The team huddles – everyone carefully six feet or more apart as the mate or captain ticks off updated information. A packing plant has shut down, so packets of chicken are limited to two per person. The store has plenty of paper products but the hand sanitizer is spotty. They sell it when they have it, again two per customer. If there’s a problem with someone not cooperating, get a mate to help. No one is alone in this.

This store was probably the first grocery story in Greater Cleveland to act on several (at the time) recommendations from the Governor’s office. Six foot distancing was marked out. Only 25 people were allowed in the store at one time. Crew had to practice social distancing from each other as well as customers. Difficult because so much the work is collaborative with people standing shoulder to shoulder, lifting boxes, passing product, looking at lists and searching computer screens. No longer. If someone approached a crew member a little too closely, the recommendation was to back up. People didn’t really get it at first. Maybe they just couldn’t believe it was happening at all.

By 8:00 am a line has formed. This first hour is for seniors and those with compromised immunity. The store doesn’t card people or ask about their medical status. The doors open. People are let in a few at a time so the first aisle doesn’t become over-crowded. Today closer to 30 are let in at any one time, as people have become better at keeping apart. Most wear masks. Some don’t. The store has no policy for customers, just employees.

The days go as smoothly as possible. The store cleans common areas/surfaces every hour – a continuous round of cleaning for over eight hours a day, plus a super clean at night with crew members assigned the task wearing yellow “fisherman” suits for protection. The crew sweeps only if needed, to keep the dust down. They do not pick up anything off the floor with bare hands. They empty trash only once, at night by the cleaning folks in the suits.

Additional assigned duties are created. The crew and mates work these posts one hour at a time. Someone stands at the door to insure the right number of people get inside. Someone works with carts to be sure they are cleaned after each use. One crew member, the Rover, walks the line of cashiers and baggers – ten registers but only half are used at one time – for distancing. “Does anyone need to wash their hands?” “Do you need a break?” A leaking packet of chicken or fish is a good reason to leave a register and wash. (20 seconds at least.) Handling cash is another good reason. The Rover takes over for the crew member, and then on their return, goes back to the line to repeat the questions.

After 17 years of encouraging customers to bring reusable bags, the store is not accepting them. The crew at the door suggests customers either return the bags to their car or shove them onto the bottom of the cart where they will remain unused. No, they cannot bag their own groceries in the store. Some, just a few will ask to have their groceries returned to the cart, en masse, and they will bag their items in their own bags in the parking lot. The store goes through a lot of bags.

Most people – most – indicate they appreciate all the hoops the store is jumping through to keep everyone safe. Many people sincerely thank the crew members for being here, for doing their jobs, for helping them find unfamiliar items as the customer is shopping for a parent/neighbor/friend. And what is arrabiata, anyway? The crew thanks them. They appreciate their customers. They have been trained to help. They wish they were busier. Collectively, they kinda’ love the madness a packed store brings.

If the word ‘hero’ is mentioned, there is a private eye roll. The crew is here to pile meat, organize greens and stack cans. The ideal of customer service is not gone, just modified. They cannot comfortably chat with their shoppers about the kind of dog they are buying treats for or the age of their children who love peanut butter snacks. Having a conversation through two masks is hard, especially with the seniors during the first hour – the people who would love a random conversation the most.

The store closes – the work continues. Pallets from the second truck are distributed onto the floor, broken apart, and the items inventoried and shelved. It’s only the crew but everyone wears their mask. No one talks politics or policy for the most part. There is some mild grumbling about the fit of a mask or the heat felt through the day with an extra layer on one’s face. Maybe they’ll be able to go back to the old ways soon. Maybe.

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