The C-Word: Class

I don’t talk about politics here because a)  I don’t follow it in enough depth to be able to debate people online (who does, really?); b) it falls under the aspects of life over which I have virtually no control and thus don’t want to spend a lot of time on. Yet, learning about political economy in my youth was one of the most influential educational experiences I’ve had, and even in my relatively apolitical approach to life, every so often it blows my mind to what lengths people in the US will go to avoid discussing the issue of class. I know that’s by neoliberal design, and I said I didn’t want to debate people online on politics…

Instead, I will share a story with you.

When I first moved to this city over fifteen years ago, I started going to Grocery Store A that’s a mile from where I now live and was maybe 2-3 miles from where I did then. It was a solidly middle-of-the-road place, with reasonable prices, reasonable selection, and reasonable cleanliness. A few months later, I discovered Grocery Store B that’s a couple of miles farther out. That store was a bit higher tier. Cleaner, more expensive, with better meat, deli, and with artisanal bread. My family is very particular about bread, and so we were sold and slowly moved all our shopping to Grocery Store B.

A few years later, Grocery Store A went out of business and the building was abandoned. A new, upscale chain moved in and completely redecorated it. It became expensive, but they have heavenly bread, cuts of meat and cheeses, as well as a great selection of local produce and healthy hot foods that I often (in quarantine-free life) grab on the way home from work.

At the same time, Grocery Store B stayed with the same owner but was rebranded as a cheaper, lower-tier place. First all the luxury items went the way of the dodo, then the good bread. Then their inventory became unreliable: they’d go weeks between restocking an item, so much that I thought more than once that they’d discontinued something, only to see it come back a month later.

Slowly but surely, I moved most of my daily shopping to the fancy, taking-itself-a-bit-too-seriously, new-and-improved Grocery Store A. There are still a couple of items that Grocery Store B carries that A doesn’t, so I go to B (in non-pandemic times) once every few weeks. I don’t think I’m a snob (does anyone think they are?), but discontinuing the bread we liked and being inconsistent about restocking were the nails in Grocery Store B’s coffin for me.

Why am I telling you this? Because today I went shopping in both (an anxiety-ridden ordeal that left me unable to sleep the night before), as I hadn’t been in Grocery Store B in a month.

The two stores have different selections, different prices, different employee demeanor, different music (guess which one plays Vivaldi and which one Top 40 Hits?)… Different clientele.

Most importantly, the two stores protect their workers and their shoppers from COVID-19 very differently.

Last week, all employees in Grocery Store A wore gloves. You could pick up a pre-sanitized cart. (Most shoppers wore gloves, too, me included; some wore masks.) Everyone was mindful of the six-foot social-distancing gap. Nobody was working at hot food, deli, or meat, but all the favorites were available prepackaged. This week, in addition to all from last week, Grocery Store A had Plexiglas installed in the checkout lines to separate the cashier form the customer; it made me feel better about not wearing a mask.

Then I went to Grocery Store B and I was shocked. There was no change whatsoever with respect to pre-corona. Nobody was sanitizing carts. Nobody was wearing gloves. There was an open salad bar. The deli worked and the meat was out to be served, as always. The bread was out, open. Employees showed no intention to evade customers or one another. Nothing was different. It was scary.

This is the last time I am going to Grocery Store B in a long, long time. We will just have to make due without those items.

I really feel for these people who have to show up every day to work in this situation. Why can’t they wear gloves? They obviously have them on hand for people who work at the deli counter. Why can’t they wear masks? Why isn’t something being done about people staying apart from one another? Is this the store manager’s issue? Corporate?

I’m not naive enough to think that the owners of A love their employees any more than those of B love theirs, although I suppose one could hope. No, the difference in the clientele. Grocery Store A is for affluent people; B is for the poor. Nobody gives a $hit if poor people get sick, be it employees or customers. It is maddening and heartbreaking. I wish I could actually do something about it (other than vote pro-labor, but end up having some flavor of neoliberal at the helm regardless).

How was your socially distant Tuesday, blogosphere? 

8 comments

  1. Sounds like there will be a lot more poor than rich people infected in the US…. Here everything is more egalitarian. In our supermarket, almost nobody wears facemasks, nobody wears gloves, the bread is out in the open and there is no glass to protect the cashiers. At least they restricted entry into the supermarket so that is does not get overcrowded and there is free hand sanitizer if you want to use it. Also, since we do not have a car, my husband has to go shopping 3 times a week, and he always has to go, since I can’t carry as much as him…. What is also maddening is that home delivery is totally overbooked. We wouldn’t use it, since other people need it more, but my mother (with my father being 90 and with many preexisting conditions…) still needs to go shopping herself. We can’t help her since we are not living close enough. I guess in the US as a richer person you are safer than we are here, and if you are poor you are more at risk.

  2. Absolutely! Contrary to our self-mythology, class is everywhere in the US. Heath related issues are exhibit A of this phenomenon. Even in good times, the health care you receive in the US depends almost entirely on your wealth and/or the quality of your job.

    I’m sure those calling to sacrifice lives in order to reopen the economy would be singing a different tune if access to ventilators and ICUs was done on a strict lottery and they had no better a chance of getting one than the homeless guy in front of their building.

    Hopefully, everyone is tipping generously (assuming you can afford to do so). People doing deliveries these days are putting their health at risk so we don’t have to. Rather like how you used to be able to pay someone to take your place in the army during wars. The least we can do is pay them well.

  3. I feel like I should post this to my class discussion board. (But I comment too much and they’d be able to figure out my secret online life, so I won’t.) But this person who teaches a class on the economics behind this topic says you are 100% right. We talked in class today about why some companies are behaving well (Four Seasons, HEB) and why some are behaving poorly (Hobby Lobby, Instacart, Amazon) and why we can’t trust companies to do the right thing even when it directly affects public health.

  4. All the stores I’ve shopped at (even the tiny corner store closest to us) are more like store A than store B. They each have had different responses.
    For example, discontinuing bulk purchases, bulk purchases walled off with an employee to fill bags for you, no bulk purchases to begin with.
    Also, no bags brought into the store and customers sanitize carts, no carts—using one-use cardboard boxes, carts sanitized by employees.
    All have gloved employees and the corner store has plexiglass or acrylic shields for the checkout counts. All are limiting number of people in the store at a time.

  5. You speak the truth. So help me god if dick Cheney gets covid and gets to go on Ecmo I’m effing quitting medicine.

  6. You are absolutely right. I am using online ordering right now including the so called worst offenders like Walmart and Instacart. Someone called me out on it (Walmart) saying she won’t use them unless they protect their workers better. However she is Ok with Amazon. If anyone knows of a good grocery delivery employer, I would lovw to know. I am trying to do pick ups or tip well for deliveries.

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