ON RETAIL AND RELIEF
April 27th, 2020
Words by Rosie Accola · Illustration by Maria Contreras Aravena
It’s startling to realize that I used to exist in the fringes of my own life
How many times have you cried during quarantine? I find myself crying at least twice a week. I’m reminded of how versatile my reasons for crying can be. I cry because I’m enraged by the reports of healthcare workers scrambling for protective equipment. I cry because I’m stressed about filing for unemployment and uncertain about when my job will be able to open back up, if at all. Sometimes, I cry because the only thing more depressing than living with your parents is being unemployed and living with your parents. But the most grating aspects of my anguish are the simplest: I miss writing in coffee shops and drinking out of mugs large enough to be bowls. I miss thrifting and going to poetry readings. I miss going to shows and singing karaoke. I miss my friends and coworkers.
I work at a bookstore, and before COVID-19, my coworkers and I existed in a gentle, grateful orbit around each other. We forced each other to take teen magazine quizzes when the days were slow and tried to make each other laugh while the other person answered the phone. We held ladders for each other while we changed massive halogen light bulbs and shelved books side by side. We took collective offense whenever customers spoke rudely to us in the store or were particularly short with us over the phone. It was a rock-solid routine - so solid that I thought even an apocalypse couldn’t shake it.
Then the extra sanitizing wipes showed up at the store, along with additional containers of hand sanitizer. We canceled book clubs and children’s storytime. We had to force the elderly ladies who played bridge in the back to put their turf war on hold with the other elderly ladies in the back, who played Mahjong. The master cleaning list arrived to help us keep track of when we cleaned each surface in the store: the tables, the phones, the railings, the bathroom sink handles. We cut water with bleach. The skin on our hands began to fissure and crack from the amount of hand sanitizer we were using.
Some customers reacted to the crisis in casual disbelief, while others responded by wearing latex gloves to avoid contamination when handing over their credit cards. One of the regulars insisted that “everyone [was] overreacting.” Others thanked us for staying open so they could buy books and puzzles for their kids, especially once the schools closed. We started a tally for how many times customers reminded us that the public library was closed.
One frazzled mom asked me where to find a title and then looked me in the eye and said, “I’m losing my mind.” I agreed with her; I, too, was finding it increasingly difficult to regulate my emotions. Here we were, facing a pandemic that thrived on human contact, and I was working with the public on a daily basis, taking handfuls of grubby cash that were fished out of pockets containing used tissues. Every time someone coughed, I flinched.
Working during the beginning of the crisis felt so unsettling because even the smallest, most inconsequential parts of our daily routines disappeared within the course of a week. The intersection near the bookstore, normally busy, emptied of cars at an alarming pace. We set up a curbside pickup system so customers could pay for their books over the phone and have us run bags of books out to their cars. Eventually, people started buying puzzles over the phone, too, telling us to pick out “whatever you think would be fun.” I spent hours putting people on hold and shredding credit card information, then running out to the parking lot and slipping books through the open slits of car windows. My coworkers and I were free to play whatever music we wanted in the store, so we streamed endless hours of “self-isolation bangers” on Spotify, lip-synching to “Welcome to the Black Parade.” It was one of those experiences that felt bizarre enough to bond us for life, like kids in an ‘80s slasher movie about summer camp who accidentally find a dead body in the woods. The world was closing in on itself, and we were dancing to The Veronicas while we bleached down all of the railings.
My anxiety lessened as the store emptied of customers, but what I remember most of the days leading up to the governor’s shelter-in-place order is the overwhelming feeling of my body being on edge, feeling so panicked that I actually thought I might crawl out of my own skin — the kind of sensation that makes you want to burn your life down just so it will stop. So when he issued the order, I was relieved. And it felt selfish because I knew that there were people who were still working minimum wage jobs without paid sick leave. I knew that the rhetoric framing grocery store employees and food service workers as “heroes” was missing a key point: heroism implies the freedom to choose, and these people weren’t free to choose. When my job was still open, my bouts of panic were interspersed with feelings of powerlessness, because although I was terrified, I couldn’t afford to miss work. In the end, I lucked out by not qualifying as an essential service and becoming eligible for unemployment as a result.
Working retail is exhausting. Sometimes, when my coworkers and I were stocking bags or grabbing more books to shelve, I would fantasize about everyone leaving me alone so that I would have time to write. I’d plan the whole day out in my head: I’d call in sick for a mental health day (something I always talked about with my therapist but never had the guts to do), go to my favorite coffee shop, and finally take the time to transcribe the poems scribbled hastily into my journal.
Customer service norms mandated that I was always alert and attentive to the needs of others. Retail spaces leave no space for the generative contemplation which feeds a writing practice. Even my most pedestrian register daydreams were interrupted by a dad in Bermuda shorts slapping a pile of John Grisham mysteries down in front of me and joking, “You look like you’ve been waiting for me your whole life.” These interactions always bugged me; even though they were supposed to be friendly, they felt reductive and damning. After that, someone would need help opening a CD or finding a new title, and by then it was somehow already 9:00 p.m. and I felt like I could barely form a coherent thought, let alone write. But now, I am no longer defined by what I do, or what I think I have failed to do.
Since quarantine started, my anxiety has lessened significantly, except for when I watch the news for more than thirty seconds. Then I feel like I’m about to have a combination of an aneurysm and a panic attack. I miss my friends and coworkers more than I can say. When I see them again, I am going to vault myself into their arms. But there is some core, phantasmic part of me - my truly authentic goblin self - that is deeply satisfied with the fact that all I need to do right now is work on the queer romance novel I’m ghost-writing, and walk my large, elderly dog. My wacky sleep schedule is no longer a problem because, technically speaking, I don’t have a schedule.
Most days, I spend my days writing about first kisses and dates gone awry. I collage. I make myself brunch. The idea of a life that involves the grandeur of lounging, punctuated by 2-3 hours of being carried away into a swift current of prose, is what made me want to be a writer in the first place, and in a way that’s exactly what’s happening. I sit at my little blue desk and I stare out at the woods behind my parents’ house. I wear a tank top with no bra underneath, and for the first time in years, I feel stupidly serene. On a macro level, this pandemic has forced us to reevaluate our systems of care, but on a personal level, it has made me realize that while I spent my days taking care of others, I never really took the time to establish a sustainable system of care for myself.
Every day, I woke up late for work, somehow always too late to prepare breakfast for myself. I grabbed whatever clean clothes I found on my bedroom floor, brushed my teeth, and resigned myself to shoving a granola bar and a loose antidepressant down my throat on my way to work. Now, whenever I wake up, I take the time to make myself breakfast. I’ve learned that people weren’t lying when they said that avocado toast was obscenely easy to make, and I take supreme pleasure in making myself a coffee and scraping out the last bit of ripe avocado onto a bagel. Now I know that it is actually worthwhile to give yourself some time to adjust to the world as you start your day.
It’s startling to realize that I used to exist in the fringes of my own life. Granted, I’ve always operated at a semi-frantic pace, always eager to start the next project or go somewhere new. I always met even the slightest hint of boredom with the mania of a trapped animal, overcome by a desire to get out and go somewhere. I’ve never liked to sit with my feelings, but this pandemic has helped me realize that sitting with yourself doesn’t need to be a confrontational act. Existing doesn’t need to be revelatory. Sometimes you really can just make coffee and bake brownies and watch movies, and that’s enough.
Rosie Accola is a poet, editor, and bookseller, based out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her first full-length collection, "Referential Body,"was published with Ghost City Press in 2019. She misses mall food courts and holding hands with her friends. You can follow her on Instagram @rosieaccola
Maria Contreras Aravena is a graphic designer and illustrator based in Chile. You can follow her @mariajesuscontreras