But there I was, with my mask and my recyclable bags. She might even have seen me pull up in our Prius, just to complete the portrait. And I think I was a convenient target for more generalized resentments and hostilities.
I went food shopping this weekend and when I presented my recyclable bags to the check-out person, she told me that they’re really not supposed to use customers’ bags because it’s not safe. She was not wearing a mask or gloves when she told me this (I was wearing a mask). Nor did she say anything to the dozen or so people who entered the store without masks while I was there.
Fine. I took my groceries, in their store-supplied, eco-nightmare plastic bags, and I left.
But I’ve been pissed off about it ever since.
To be clear, I am not angry with her for telling me that they couldn’t use my bags. I understand the concern – she doesn’t really know me (although I see her every week) and she doesn’t know where those bags have been. What bothers me is the lack of consistency, the fact that she professes concern enough to make me use those plastic bags, but she doesn’t take the time to protect herself with a mask or gloves. She scolds me for trying to use the bags, but doesn’t bat an eye at the customers who refuse to wear masks.
We live in a small, progressive college town in the South. This grocery store is in the next town over, which is not at all progressive. Many in the surrounding communities resent the university and the people it brings to their part of the world, precisely because we are “liberal” and “elite.” They resent our privilege, and I get that. They resent the privilege and obliviousness of many of the students, and I get that, too. They tend to ignore the fact that the university is far and away the largest employer in the area and that many in their conservative communities seek and secure employment at the school in a variety of positions. I tend to ignore the fact that the university and the outsiders it draws to their area intrude on every element of their collective existence, forcing them to live and work in ways that they likely wouldn’t choose to if we weren’t here.
There are legitimate grievances on all sides.
But I think what bothered me most about the incident at the store is that it probably had nothing to do with safety, or with policy. It was all about politics, about the ever-deepening divide between the left and right. In other ways, my interaction with this woman was perfectly pleasant. But there I was, with my mask and my recyclable bags. She might even have seen me pull up in our Prius, just to complete the portrait. And I think I was a convenient target for more generalized resentments and hostilities. I don’t think there was anything personal about it.
And in a way that makes it worse, not better.
I heard a story on NPR the other day (yes, I know: more ammunition for the right-wingers who hate me and all I stand for) about a guy who had been vocally and obnoxiously anti-mask, who then contracted the coronavirus and died. Members of this guy’s family are now putting up with trolls on the left who are saying that he deserved to die, that he got what was coming to him. Really? Yes, I will agree that his death is the very definition of tragic irony. But did he deserve to die? Do the people who loved him, who are now mourning him, deserve to be mocked, to have their grief compounded by the self-righteousness of those who see the world differently?
Should I be angry with that woman at the checkout counter, or should I feel badly for her? She works in a grocery store along the interstate. She interacts with strangers every hour of every day. She might have refused to touch those canvas bags I brought in, and she might have gotten some small satisfaction out of our interaction, but she has to work a job that has become as risky as any first responder position. She’s still going without a mask, without any real precautions. She is at much greater risk of contracting the illness than I am, and I would bet every dollar I have that her health insurance isn’t nearly as good as mine.
For those of us on the political left, particularly those of us who are as privileged and fortunate as I am, it’s all too easy to express contempt for the people protesting at state capitals across the country. I know, because I’ve done it. And I do think they’re putting themselves at risk. I do believe that their threats of violence against governors – both explicit and implicit – are utterly inappropriate, bordering on criminal. But I also understand their rage. They are, most of them, low income workers who are screwed either way. They are most vulnerable to an economic calamity AND they are probably in jobs that are most likely to expose them to the virus. Sure, their beef ought to be with the Trump Administration and its failure to address this crisis promptly or competently. But the Administration is a remote target for rage. Governors less so. And the progressive “elites” in their communities even less than that.
This is the point in the essay when I ought to have some fitting platitude at hand. I don’t. Yes, our leaders have failed us, deepening our national polarization by word and by deed. But we’re grown-ups and we ought to be able to act like it, even if our President can’t. Given the chance to go back to the store and speak with that woman, I honestly don’t know what I would say. Everything that comes to mind would sound patronizing and judgmental and defensive. We are in the midst of events that will shape our politics and society for years, perhaps even decades, to come. The numbers of casualties – of the disease and of the downturn – are staggering. We ought to have come together as a nation. Instead, our divisions have grown more pronounced. I fear that the histories written about these weeks and months will judge all of us harshly.
I have no remedies to offer beyond those I give each week. Today, they seem especially apt.
Stay safe, and be good to one another.