Our neighborhood, the furthest north in Manhattan, has been among the least devastated by this pandemic. The fear is everywhere, though, and the precautions we take have to remain rigorous. In our six-story building, we no longer share elevators, nor are we permitted to enter the cramped laundry space while another tenant is there. Our neighborhood grocery store gets mobbed during normal business hours; a handful of shoppers is permitted to browse the nearly vacant aisles at any given time, while there others wait in a socially-distanced line that stretches down the block. Like most establishments that have remained open, our C-Town limits customers and requires those inside to wear masks.
The biggest change besides all of the above? Newly-installed plastic shields loom at every checkout station, ostensibly protecting the cashiers from the rest of us. Does that make these workers lucky?
Right now I’m remembering visiting Charleston, South Carolina, with a white friend who’d grown up down the street from me. My trust in her was about to be the source of great pain–but to be as fair as possible, I must admit that what I witnessed was so stark as to be alien to me as well. We were tourists in that city, and among the many other tourists packed into restaurants, bars, and shops that sweltering day–their laughter rollicking along the street, the brightly patterned sundresses, the denim and khaki shorts, their clamor as they pushed through the Historic open-air market strangely devoid of any mention of slavery–all of them were white.
Throughout our meal, the server simmered with contempt my old friend completely failed to note. Nor did she see what I did, as darkness crept over the town: The workers who moved smoothly and soundlessly into town after hours, once the tourists had retreated, were, to a man, black. And silent. Only now that the glossy, picturesque version of the town was closed for the day were black people invited in, to sweep the streets and floors, cleaning up after the revelers’ feats and parties.
Perhaps, if the color line had not been so absolute, I wouldn’t have noticed the problem, especially; after all, it’s simply a more extreme version of the segregation of jobs up North.
In a similar way, the extreme circumstances of our current plague have forced us all to consider whom among us are forced to work throughout these dangerous circumstances. With the exception of doctors, most people deemed “essential workers” are blue collar, many are POC, many are young, and few have anything genuinely resembling a choice. Today we call them heroes. How long will we remember to view them from this new perspective?