American Hero? Or, What It’s Like to Be “Essential”

I originally wrote this article back in April, right as the world was shutting down. Much of this still applies, but so much of it is so different now, for many different reasons. I don’t know why I didn’t publish this back then. Or why I am now, for that matter. I guess I feel I need to get back out there and I need to say my piece.

“Thank you for continuing to work” is a sentence that I honestly never thought I would hear while working this job. I mean, why would I? I deliver packages, not save lives or protect the home front or anything like that. When I started this job nine months ago, that’s all it was: A job. No more. No less. Nothing special.

And now, here we are, under work-at-home quarantine as the result of a global pandemic known as Covid-19. I won’t rehash the grim set of circumstances that have brought us to this point. (None of us need any reminding of that.) But it’s brought up an interesting byproduct, the concept of essentiality.

(Since that word is underlined with a red, squiggly line, I’m assuming it’s not a real word. But I’m running with it anyway.)

There are two groups of people currently: Those who are “essential,” in that they perform a job or function that is essential to keeping society functional, and those who are not. It’s a unique position for many of us who have, for so long, been deemed to be lesser, looked down upon by those who work in offices at desks behind computers, who make sales and deals and big decisions.

With unemployment expected to reach over 35,000,000, many of those not among that number are those who work these “lesser” jobs. In fact, many companies deemed to perform essential duties are ramping up hiring to meet increased demand in these dangerous and trying times. Amazon recently announced it was hiring 100,000 for its deliver network for this same reason. (Amazon is its own kettle of fish, and I’m not going to try to boil that down to a few paragraphs here.)

Anyway, since I am in logistics, I am very fortunate to still have a job, as logistics is an essential industry. As I conclude my third week as such, I’d like to share some thoughts on what it means to be considered “essential”:

  1. It’s fucking weird. I drive a van and put boxes on front porches. There’s not much to it beyond that. I don’t feel like I’m performing such a vital service (though I’m sure I am), and I don’t know if I ever will. I saw a graphic/meme online the other day thanking essential workers for their service. Among those thanked were those serving in the armed forces, first responders, medical professionals, and…service industry workers. To see someone in my line of work placed on the same plane as those incredible people is surreal, and I don’t think it will ever not feel weird.
  2. People have gotten dumber. Going beyond all the morons still gathering for church on Sundays, and the idiot college kids partying at spring break, people have lost their minds. In the absence of a normally operating society, people have forgotten all societal norms. I can’t tell you how many times a day I see people out walking their dogs down the middle of the street, completely ignoring everything else, such as perfectly-usable SIDEWALKS and two-ton I-could-easily-flatten-you-like-a-pancake AUTOMOBILES driving straight at them.
  3. I hate anyone who parks head-in on a cul-de-sac. Seriously, you’re scum. Harsh words, perhaps, but when I’m trying to do my job in a large vehicle with horrific visibility in neighborhoods where it’s best not to do any reversing, I thrive on the ease and simple joy of making a loop around a cul-de-sac. However, when I pull in and find five or six vehicles with their asses taking up valuable turning real estate, my eye twitches with rage. So, if you do this, when you had the clear option of parking along the curb like a normal human, you’re an asshole, and I want you to know that.
  4. I hate wearing gloves. I know they’ll protect me, but they make my hands clammy and incredibly uncomfortable. Plus, they make it difficult to work my devices for my job. Also, I love/hate hand sanitizer. Also, I apparently love touching my face.
  5. I’ve heard people complaining about how we don’t ring doorbells anymore, and I want you to know that we hear you and we don’t care. Not a bit. I’d rather not risk picking up any more germs than I already do on a daily basis by pressing on your doorbell/knocking on your door. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you’ve been doing. I don’t know where you’ve been. Frankly, while I’m performing this crucial task for you, I’d like to stay as safe as I can, thankyouverymuch. If your package is really that important to you, check your front porch often, check your email often, check the tracking info, or buy a dog (they will 110% let you know when somebody might possibly could be in the general, vague vicinity of your porch. You don’t complain about the mail like this, do you? (I know there are other reasons to complain about the postal service, but delivery alerts is not usually one of them.)
  6. People have become less considerate. I mean, I knew they were inconsiderate before this whole mess, but it’s glaring now. I used to receive a “thanks” from the majority of people who saw me on my route. Now, I’m lucky to hear more than one. I don’t think I’m asking for much here. It’s just that it’s nice to feel appreciated.

So, what can I say that’s constructive? Okay. I think I’ve got it. Here are some things that you, as a customer, can do to help during this time of crisis:

  1. Update your delivery preferences (if applicable). Stop asking us to deliver to your fenced-in rear porch. Especially since the pandemic, we’re not touching anything more than we have to, and that includes your side gate. Beyond that, it’s against company policies. Also, stop asking us to put it in your mailbox. That’s a federal crime, and I’m definitely not going to jail/getting a fine for you. The bottom line is this: Make things simple for us. We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances.
  2. Be friendly. I’m literally putting my health on the line so that you can stay home and help flatten the curve while still receiving the video game you so desperately needed to ignore the family you’re quarantined with for the foreseeable future. If you see a delivery person in your neighborhood, give us a smile or a wave or a “hello”.
  3. Thank/tip a service industry worker. Seriously, I don’t care who they are or where they work. If they’re doing a job for you during this pandemic, they deserve your honest thanks. By the same token, if you see someone deliver something to your door, and they’re within earshot, tell them “thanks”. And if they’re not within earshot, wait until they turn around and give them a wave. I can’t tell you just how much we appreciate that little gesture.

I think I’d like to close by saying one simple thing: Wear a damn mask, you selfish heathens.

Until next time, comrades.

– The Retail Explorer

Open or Closed: The Great Conundrum

Note: This post was originally published years ago on tumblr, and it’s best if you read it in the voice of a Victorian explorer.

I used to think that a sign stating that a business was closed was an unnecessary thing. After all there are clear indicators as to whether or not a business is open at a given time, such as the hours of operation posted on the door or whether or not there are lights on inside the business or people walking and working there. I used to think that was fairly self explanatory.

How wrong I was.

I should have heeded Bill Engvall’s warnings about stupid people. They are everywhere and have absolutely zero comprehension of, well, anything really. It wasn’t until I accepted my current position that I truly grasped this concept. A good chunk of this population is stupid, and that population is only growing larger. I fear that the future presented to us in the film Idiocracy is probably the most realistic view of our dystopian future that has ever been produced.

In the span of a few days, I was privileged enough to witness two remarkable examples of the tendencies of a stupid person. The first came inside of my own store.

I had just closed up shop for the day, done my end of day report, counted the drawer, totaled the receipts, and was heading to the safe with the report and the day’s deposit. I had to leave the darkened shop to reach the safe in the store room by way of a sliding glass door on the side of the shop. I flung it behind me but had to turn back to make sure that the door had indeed closed (it hadn’t). But it was now most assuredly closed.

So, I proceeded to the safe inside the store room to secure the deposit, only to emerge from the room no less than a minute later to find the side door wide open and a tall, lanky man inside asking for the person who worked there.

“I work here.”

“Oh! Good! The door was just open (no, YOU opened it). I need a map.”

Words were nowhere to be found. I was so taken aback by the whole situation, I honestly didn’t know what to do. The audacity of his stupidity literally left me in a stupor. So, I sold him what he needed, and added it to a new report since he paid with plastic and didn’t mess up my drawer count. It was the path of least resistance.

As he left, he asked what time I closed. By this time, it was 5:15 pm. I told him that we closed at five.

“Oh. Heh,” he said.

Get out of my store.

Two days later, on a lovely Saturday morning, a young man went to the shop across the hall from mine. During the week they are open before me, but on Saturdays, I opened an hour before they did. It was 8:40 am, twenty minutes before their posted hours of 9-12. The store completely dark. There was no one even inside the store. I watched as he approached the door, examined the situation, observed the posted hours of operation, and then checked his watch. Apparently he still needed more information. He gave the door handle a tug and found it to be locked.

Did you honestly expect a different result?

Now, I have a completely customer-first mentality, because they are the lifeblood of a retail operation. You provide the goods for which they give you cash money (Shout out to Grammar Girl for her podcast on the use of “cash money”). It’s basic economics. However, there are always good customers and bad customers. Stupid people fall into the latter category.

Still, I struggle to comprehend the logic here. What about a darkened store with no one inside says, “oh, yes, we’re most assuredly open and ready to serve your needs,”? Now, if there was a light on or an employee inside, I could understand the confusion.

I went to a drive-thru restaurant one night that had employees inside, lights on, and even the giant sign by the street still glowing brightly. I was unable to see the hours on the door, so I proceeded. No part of that image should give the indication that a business is closed. But they were. I sat at the order box waiting for any voice and found none to even tell me that they were closed. How much effort does it take to tell someone that you’re no longer serving? Zero. I received glares and scowls as I drove past. I have yet to return to that drive-thru. Yet I digress.

So, what is there about a darkened, empty shop makes a person think that the store is open? The only stores I’ve ever been to that were dark and empty like that were ones I’ve opened for business. And that’s when I realized it: since stupid people don’t wear signs, as Engvall wishes they would, our places of business must wear them instead. We must inform everyone one as to whether or not we are in fact in operation at a given time. Subtlety is a lost art and semiotic questions have answers which are completely unknown to some people.

“The store doesn’t have lights on or people in it. What does that mean?”

If you don’t know the answer, it means you’re stupid. But apparently, nowadays, it means, “Yes, we’re open! Come on in!”

-The Retail Explorer

A Disney Holiday; or, What We Can Learn From the Mouse

I recently got to do something I had never before (and probably never will again) experienced: Walt Disney World during the holiday season. Having done that, finally, I can safely say that I will never do that again. This isn’t because I had a terrible time. Quite the opposite, in fact. WDW will always have a special place in my heart, and I don’t know if anything could ever change that.

And I will return. There is too much to love about WDW to never walk its grounds again. The next time I do return, however, will be during a much less busy time of year. I have never seen such ridiculous crowds. It was truly remarkable.

There was one plus to being stuck in such seas of humanity: Seeing customer service at its finest levels during the most trying of times, a sight that I would describe as inspiring.

Similarly to how Disneyland is referred to as “the happiest place on Earth,” WDW is dubbed along the same lines as “the most magical place on Earth.” The greatest threat to destroying that magical experience is allowing your patience to be eroded, a common issue among customers.

And I saw it at WDW in spades. We had lunch at a restaurant in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom, just outside of the Haunted Mansion, and the line was, literally, out the door. Hunger and long lines are a perfect recipe for customer grumpiness. And when that is combined with the fact that EVERYTHING has a line, that grumpiness will continue unabated.

That’s the thing that customers either fail or refuse to understand: This is the busiest time of the year, for not just theme parks, but for all walks of the service industry, from delivery companies to retail establishments. It’s just that time of the year when the demand for these services explodes, and a little understanding into that fact will go a long way toward improving your experience as a customer. Prepare yourself for the wait, and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised if there isn’t one.

But what can the service industry worker do to not only make things more pleasant for the customer but also survivable for themselves? Look to the Disney Cast Members.

First thing, keep a level head. Find some way to remind yourself that you can only control so much of a given situation. When you service tens of thousands of people a day, stress is going to come into play. Yet, they are among the most friendly, accommodating, and helpful people you’d ever hope to find. Finding some place of peace will aid in that.

Here’s the caveat: I know this is going to be the most difficult thing to do, since customers will not make that easy. A customer who feels he has been wronged or merely inconvenienced can be the most vile, inhuman creature on the planet, and having to deal with them in that situation is miserable. So, while not impossible, it will be incredibly difficult.Secondly, be as friendly as you can be. I know many of these customers will not deserve your kindness, but sometimes all you can do is grin and bear it. Now, I’m not telling you to just be a doormat for them. All I’m saying is it’s illegal to slap them. I’d rather fake politeness to a jerk than spend a night in jail.

Thirdly, do what you can for them within the scope of your job (and what you think they deserve, without harm to your job). Again, I’m not saying to bend over backward for a customer who’s just being a jerk because they can. Just remember it’s illegal to hit them. And it’s good to have a job.

Whatever leeway your job affords you is valuable tool at your disposal to be used at your discretion. If someone needs directions, you can give it to them and it might mean the world to them. But if they ask you for something that you are, for whatever reason, unable to provide, don’t feel bad about it, even if they give you grief. That’s one thing my current job has taught me: You aren’t a fireman and it’s not your job to put out fires. If someone has a problem, I apologize and direct them to someone who can do something. Cast Members do the same thing.

My biggest takeaway from my trip was how to deal with the stress of volume. I can’t imagine what it’s like dealing with that many guests on a daily basis. But I know what it’s like dealing with twice the normal number of packages in the same window of time as normal, and you have to find a way to deal with it. You can’t control the volume of customers or items, but you can control how it affects you. Can it overwhelm you at times? Sure. It definitely has overwhelmed me before.

The key is finding a way to push through and keep forward momentum. My method is to bite off small chunks at a time, finish one neighborhood before worrying about another. Package by package, house by house, street my street. Forget about the whole stone, deal with the chips. That avalanche can bury you so easily if you allow it. Take breaks as often as you can and allow yourself to ability to process and refresh, or else you will crumble under the weight.

My other takeaway is blue milk is delicious.

Stay strong this holiday season, comrades!

-The Retail Explorer