A Weirdly Normal-Feeling Day of Cheese

Yesterday was the first day since the March lockdown that it felt like a normal, pre-COVID day at work.  People were happy, asking questions about food, looking for fun things and not just commodities to tide them through 2-3 weeks so they didn’t have to venture out again. Probably it was due to Valentine’s Day so I don’t want to get too excited, but it was just really nice.

Mostly I think it’s people seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. A number of folks were wearing buttons saying they had been vaccinated.  I know a lot of people might see that as showing bread to the poor* but I think it’s great. Clearly it’s an attempt by some public health organization to encourage the folks who are wary of getting the vaccine.  To me, it was just good to see a sign of progress.  I mean we still have 100% mask compliance and people weren’t buying for parties, but it seemed like – for yesterday at least – people were allowing themselves to think we’ll get through this.

We pushed a three amazing cheeses all day and for the first time in a long time, people were really interested and receptive. The Phoebe from Briar Rose is an organic Ayrshire milk bark-wrapped cheese from Oregon. This cheese has improved tremendously since I last had it and we were lucky to get any wheels at all. Rich, creamy, meaty, grassy as the barkies tend to be but more forresty and less mustardy than the Harbison. Next was Eligo from Jasper Hill. Washed rind goat and cow milk blend. Texturally perfect right now, softer than a semi-soft, but not yet an ooze. Tang and butter and a smack of pungency. Then we got some Milton Creamery Old Style Reserve that I almost hesitate to mention because I don’t want folks who are reading to buy out my supply. This is a 15 month version that is much more classically sharp and less sweet than the Prairie Breeze. On top of that I got a great deal on a bunch of Comte over 15 month from distros that didn’t sell as many as planned for the holidays. Different affineurs and different ages but all that would usually retail at about 50% higher than we can sell ’em at for the next month.

And I say it was a fun day even though the first customer was another about-to-move-away old-timer who has shopped at the store longer than I have worked there. I’ve never had too many conversations with her but she was always there at 9:15 every Saturday morning and I’d see her at political demonstrations sometimes. I think all of us who work with the public attach things to customers that may or not be accurate but seeing her every week because kind of a ritual everything-is-right-in-the-world moment years ago.  Our short interactions continued to ground me even during the everything-is-getting-worse-in-the-world era we’ve been in since March.  I will miss her.

And it was a great day even though I interacted with my first real-life  COVID denier in a long time.  She did that fake sympathy tactic, trying to “empathize” about how confusing and arbitrary COVID rules are and how tough it must be for us to work in this environment.  She knew this well because she had been traveling most of the last year.**  I told her, and I really feel this, that although there are some rules I don’t think make sense I am glad to live in SF which has the lowest death rate of any big city in the US.*** She rolled her eyes at this and started telling me a hard-to-follow story about her friend in Reno who claimed the tests were being faked because by his calculations the car lines were too short to add up the total blah blah blah.

Happy, as always, to work in a worker-cooperative I cut her off and said, “You know…. that kinda sounds like bullshit to me.”

Whatevs. Those dumb theories are less and less potent as the vaccine becomes reality and numbers go down.  My tier can sign up for vaccines in about a week in SF.  Deniers and anti-maskers are still dangerous and stupid, but the day is coming when they can be re-categorized as sad cranks who deserve our pity rather than destructive sociopathic super-spreaders.
I still long for the day when it makes sense to offer samples to customers so we can talk cheese with the same flavors in our mouths, but everything about yesterday made me feel like that day will come.  After nearly a year of twice the work and none of the fun, I needed that vision.


*My old Berlin anarcha-feminist friends insisted this is a direct translation of a German saying about not being jerk bragging about things you have when others have less.

**The first red flag.

***Not sure this is still true because the last time I see this reported is October, but the logic is still true.

Missing ACS

I think most of us cheese folks are really missing the ACS conference this year. Not only because of the work that was already done — as a Judging and Competition Committee member, we did about 9 months of work for nothing — but because it’s the one time all year where we get to see each other. Wherever we go becomes Cheesetown, USA for the week. Having been to a lot of conferences over the years, I tend to use it as a week for inspiration: seeing what other folks are up to and thinking about where our efforts can really make an impact in the next year.

My first conference was either 1999 or 2000 so I thought about going back and doing a picture retrospective as a way to honor the conference and all the friends I am missing. However, my picture taking was sporadic and if I put up pics of people I know I would leave out important folks. It’s like the Thank You page in a book or liner notes… there’s no winning, only losing.

So, instead, I am sharing my collection memorable pics from ACS conferences past. Unfortunately 2006 and earlier is pre-cloud for me and those pics (including the last Portland conference) will probably remain on that broken computer hard drive forever.

Which is your favorite conference?

At the 2007 Conference in Vermont, some of the 40# blocks were sculpted in heads. I bought one for my friends who I visited in Pennsylvania after the conference. Glad I didn’t get pulled over.

In Chicago the Skyline of cheese in 2008 was epic. (This is the only photo with people in it.) We actually got to the conference a day early that year and had a Teleme party in our hotel room.

In Austin, 2009, I started my annual tradition of taking pics of the carpet at the conference hotel. Vibrant!

2010 was this Seattle? If so Seattle, your carpet was underwhelming.

2011 Where were you? Montreal? That was too $$$ for me.

2012 Raleigh. Your carpets were substandard but my technical judge Luis made this adorable cheese animal.

2013 Madison, your carpet took a backseat to fried cheese curds. I ordered fried cheese curds every night and photographed all of them. The Old Fashioned had the prettiest ones.

2014 Sacramento, you look so deceptively lush in this photo.

2015. I just kinda ducked in and out for Providence to do a book event. The only pic I I took was a room selfie to see if my shirt looked stupid.

2016 Iowa, your carpet game was tight. I actually had to choose from a few carpet photos.

2017 Denver, actually Iowa 2016, Denver’s floor game was stronger. here’s a carpet and a tile shot!

I don’t think this was a bathroom, but it could have been.

2018 Pittsburgh. I got to visit Jenny! Unfortunately I also had to spend a lot of time at the airport. This is from the airport.

2019 My best pic of carpet was also of my laundry because I was in Richmond extra early to help set up judging. No way was I going to pack for 10 nights!

2020 Boo hoo.

2021 Looking forward to visiting the Verb Center next time I go to Des Moines!

Diary of an Essential Worker (Entry #8) What’s Up Dudes?

I’ve told this anecdote many times before, but it bears repeating at this time of pandemic and interest in public health.  I never truly realized how bad men were at washing their hands until I was first asked to judge cheese.  The men’s room at that hotel bathroom in Vermont was the first time I ever had to wait in line –not for the toilet –but to wash my hands. At an event filled with dairy scientists and food handlers,  no one was skipping the sink and no one was  just dribbling a little water on their hands and walking out.  At a full twenty second minimum hand wash per person  — most people were even more thorough — it was clear that bathroom architects do not expect everyone to wash their hands when they figure out stall to sink ratios.  There was no place to wait!

I had forgotten this was in my bio until Anne Soffee reminded me. Thanks Anne!

I looked into this after I left the conference and, sure enough, it was actually a fairly well established observation that men wash their hands far less than women (different observational studies seems to mark the difference between 15-34%).

Why the difference?  Undoubtedly there are many factors related to the way society socializes people and, you know, the patriarchy, but the study of cheese lead me to this historical tidbit… The late 1800s – at the time when best practices, including hygiene, was making larger scale production of cheese possible – was a time when public health was pushing women to take responsibility for family health by using the newest hygiene theories.

“Women were always at the center of hygiene improvement efforts. The public health workers who went to tenements and farms to preach this “gospel of germs” as visiting nurses, social workers, and home economists were often women. And under this new way of thinking, mothers were supposed to be the role models for the entire family—teaching hand-washing, stopping men from spitting in the house, and keeping anyone from kissing their babies.” (This info is likely drawn from Nancy Tomes book The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life)

Why am I mentioning this now?  Because of the gender gap I am anecdotally observing in mask wearing (and the incredibly dumb “idea” that being required to wear a face covering* is somehow a violation of “freedom,” a show of weakness, or even, LOL, unconstitutional.)  I’ve asked around and others are seeing the same thing: of the unmasked people in public places, probably 70-80% are men.  Many friends observed heterosexual couples where women wore face coverings and men didn’t.  In the grace period before we made masks mandatory at the store I would say it was 90% men that I had to tell that they needed to wear a covering the next time they shopped.  When you consider that, traditionally, more women than men do grocery shopping, it’s even more striking.

So when men, including elected officials, refuse to wear face coverings, what is it about? It’s hard to remember sometimes that taking precautions is a sign of weakness for some people. It’s even more baffling when you remember that face coverings are primarily meant to protect others, not yourself (medical professional-quality level aside). 

And a lot of this public refusal to wear a face covering though is just straight up posturing and bullying. I feel the twinge when I see dudes in the store or the street looking at me with challenge when I am wearing a mask and they are not.  I know they are, intentionally or not, giving me the look where I should question my strength, my opinions and, most of all, whether or not I am a “real man.”  It’s all so pathetic yet it’s a well-worn path.  I know how I am supposed to react – act tough, stifle emotions, dumb-down – but luckily I’m 52.  I don’t really let this kind of stuff affect me any more. But, if I am being honest like I am asking you to be, it still takes some effort to tamp down that urge to conform.  Not nearly as much as when I was 18, but it takes a moment to identify and dismiss the bullshit. But that’s what we need to do. 

There can be absolutely legitimate disagreements about health and safety policies and protocols –including when to wear a face covering — but there is an active element trying to dumb you down and make you feel that things like mutual aid and empathy for others is not only unobtainable but undesirable.  Don’t fall for it.

Laurie bought these “I was washing my hands before it was cool” t-shirts for the whole department.

*As I was finishing writing this, this academic study came out which includes data gathering of gendered responses to COVID-19. Check it out:

“Finally, we also find gender differences in self-reported negative emotions felt when wearing a face covering. Men more than women agree that wearing a face covering is shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness, and a stigma; and these gender differences also mediate gender differences in intentions to wear a face covering.”

Diary of an “Essential Worker” (Entry #7): The New “Normal”

I keep forgetting that I should be on vacation right now.  We were going to head down to San Diego for Laurie’s B-day, catch a Giants game or two, and just have a mellow little road trip.   I probably could have taken the time – cheese is still solid on workers – but even though I haven’t had a vacation in a long time, it’s just not the right time to leave work. 

Yeah… not happening.

Day-to-day work things are continuing to normalize in the new normal that is defining our lives right now.  I feared that once the novelty wore off, people would start complaining about the lines, take their (valid but misdirected) frustrations out on us, make it harder for us to keep going but –while there has been a little of that – we’ve been spared the reactions that we’d expect if anything like this happened at a pre-March 2020 normal time.  “Normal” becomes relative pretty quickly, eh?

I am on an emergency committee at work and yesterday -– hopefully this won’t jinx it – we went 24 hours without texts/email for the first time since the committee was formed.  I really thought by now that we would have lost half our workers and be deciding whether we could keep our doors open.  We have talked contingencies for that and worse, but so far, so good.   Social distancing is working. I give a rare thanks to our elected officials for doing the right things at the right times in the Bay. Every time I talk to my friends in NY I think about how light we are getting off right now and I’m grateful, even as I am enraged and saddened at what is happening there.

In the first couple of weeks I was working pretty much every day and now I have settled into a 4 day a week, 10-12 day schedule.  But the days are getting closer to 10 hours now.  And yeah, I am doing some committee work at home on the other days, but not too much.  As I have said previously, I am glad I have a job, a paycheck coming in, and work at a democratic workplace.

This is just a randomly beautiful cheese rind here to break up the text.

We started requiring all workers to wear face-coverings last week (customers, you are next!) and it’s been killing me to read reports from other grocery workers where workers are being discouraged or prohibited by their management for doing the same.  While it sucks wearing a mask – oh, how many times I have already picked up cheese to smell it and realized I couldn’t! – it’s an obvious thing to do for the protection of “essential workers” and to prevent grocery workers being a vector in spreading the virus.

I wonder at times if it’s the right thing to do to keep working, and not being on vacation gave me another chance to reflect on that.  I think every single unexpectedly “essential worker” has had these thoughts.  Helping bring food to the community is crucial as well as morally important. So is doing what I can to support farmers and cheesemakers who might not make it through this shut down, economically-speaking. Still, every day I go to work I think of the number of people I am in contact with and the critical control points where I could be exposed. We are not healthcare providers or first responders — even if we are filling a need –these are fairly new thoughts to us. The saving grace for me is working at a place where I know that worker safety is important. I think if I worked at a different kind of place, coming in to work would be a lot harder. And I might well have taken that vacation even if it just meant staying home.

This week’s links:

Do you need help doing errands in San Francisco? Need something from Rainbow or elsewhere? Know someone who does?  Want to volunteer to help others. This is a great organization trying to put folks together.

Buy California Cheese online

Also, I am working on a cheese project at work.  Hopefully more details next week.

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

Diary of an “Essential Worker” (Entry #6) Cheese Talk

I stumbled for words.  I racked my brain but it was frozen.   I knew this is a simple question, but nothing would come to mind. It’s a question I am asked ten times a day on a normal weekend but I was stumped. 

“What’s good today?”

It’s the most basic question one can get at the cheese counter along with, “Where’s the brie?” and “Do you sell Parmesan?”  On a regular day it’s just a big softball being thrown to a monger, an opportunity to suggest your most ripe cheese, your cheese you have to sell quickly, or your pet project cheese.   Yet, four weeks into the current crisis, I didn’t know how to answer the question.


There is a crisis happening for artisan cheesemakers right now and it is dire. It is possible that in twenty years, those of us still around will be talking about the era of amazing American artisan cheeses that spanned (roughly) 1999-2019 and was an era you had to be a part of to believe.  And people won’t believe us.

Some beauties from Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Company

For the first time since the pandemic buying started, I did a sales movement report for cheese and it is just what I thought I would find, and what I mentioned in an earlier diary post. Hard cheeses, commodity cheese, and cooking cheeses are way up. Well-known local cheeses (for us Mt. Tam, Wagon Wheel, Pt. Reyes Toma,  Pedrozo Black Butte, etc. ) holding more or less steady. Cheeses that are expensive, less well-known, or need a story or a sample:  way, way down. (Vegan “cheese” is also way, way down, for the record.)

The way that new cheese from unknown producers becomes popular is through people tasting it.  That may sound obvious, but how it plays out is not.  As a buyer, one of my jobs is to select and schedule the promotion of good but lesser-known cheese.  I have found over and over that knocking a couple of dollars a lb off and expensive, unknown cheese does really nothing to promote it.  However, taking that promo money and designating that special cheese as a cheese we have behind to counter to offer to customers can sell a lot of cheese.  It gets people excited.  It’s the entry to telling the story of the producer and why the cheese is important, why what they do is unique and can break down the walls between producer, retailer and consumer.

So, that’s where we put our promos for more obscure cheese.  And that’s what we haven’t been able to do for the last four weeks.  I have not cancelled any orders – I tend to schedule these type of deals a month or two out — but I sure haven’t placed any more.  And yet I read the news… <strike>Capriole is shutting down for the duration</strike>.  (Just heard from Judy Schad and Capriole is making cheese again. “Capriole did shut down for 2-1/2 weeks, paid all our milk bills, and then came the plea from our 2 farmers, “please reconsider, we can’t keep our goats if we have to keep pouring milk down the drain.” We did reconsider, and with a hefty inventory of aged cheese, we decided to get milk every 2-3 weeks to make fresh and ripened cheeses—until we can’t pay our bills. I don’t know where this is going, but after 32 years I have to know we tried everything.”) Jasper Hill is making cheese but getting rid of their home herd… there will be more of this.

The amazing Alpha Tolman Black Label from Jasper Hill. We don’t actually have this in stock right now but we do have Harbison, Winnimere, and Moses Sleeper. Ginnimere is coming soon.

So how do we help the small producers?  I am seriously asking.

Obvs some part of this help should be lobbying specifically for government support that targets small producers.  Be ready to be politically active around this issue. But for now – with all the restaurant sales gone and some distros out of business – what’s the plan?

Oldways Cheese Coalition suggests the following (Thanks Carlos!):

I was thinking something helpful would be for all the cheese workers at home right now to talk to your producers who are hurting and help them make *short* videos about what they are going through. Post them and re-post each other’s videos with links on how to buy direct or where to find the cheeses at stores in their areas. We all have so many friends on our social media who follow us because they love cheese. Let’s put that to use!  And to be honest I would find it helpful because it’s work I cannot do right now because I am too busy trying to keep our store running.

Everyone should read this great article in The Counter – which is much better than the blog post you are currently reading – by Alexandra Jones which is very thorough in detailing the dangers to small scale cheese producers in this time. Janet Fletcher also interviewed a couple of cheesemakers recently which really brings the message home. Other people have also probably written great pieces, but I am behind on my reading.


As for the customer who actually wanted to buy and talk about interesting cheese?  I recovered and sold him a few cheeses from producers I have actually met and know are struggling.  It feels like so little, but it’s something I guess…

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

Diary of an “Essential Worker” (Entry 5) Senior Hour

One bright spot every day in this new retail reality is Senior Shopping Hour.  Like most grocery stores in the area, we have set aside the first hour of the day for seniors and people in high-risk groups.  Despite everything else going on, it is the best hour of my day. 

I come to work every day with mixed feelings, few of them good. People who have worked with me know that’s not my usual thing, but nothing about getting to work is usual these days.  Parking is easy, when it’s usually a fierce fight at 6 AM. When I walk, I used to see the city waking up and busses full of groggy people, now it’s pretty much just me. 

Troubles start appearing in my mind the closer I get to work. As I walk the last block to work filled with worry about the health of me, my family and friends.  I think about all the bad things that can happen when I get to work:  How long will the wait to get into the store be today?  Will customers be abusive to me or the line workers? Who won’t be at work today and why?

I came in last Saturday about a half hour before we open. The line stretched from our 13th St. door around to Folsom and then halfway down Folsom to 14th, all seniors.  It was starting to rain. I felt terrible for them. I started to dread my shift even more.  This will be awful, I thought.

But then I realized that the seniors on line didn’t feel that way at all. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a party.  But they weren’t down.  They planned ahead.  They had rain gear.  They had umbrellas and a very smart co-worker had already bought every umbrella Target had last week so we could hand more out to line-waiters who didn’t have them.

When people started getting into the store, even those who had waited an hour, they were almost all appreciative and friendlier than the average apocalypse shopper.  Even the crabby ones has some personality to their crabbiness, not just generic entitlement or using retail workers as targets for their own anxieties and fears. More like, “Twenty years ago a worker here did X so I am going to explain to you – as I have to every worker for the last twenty years – how I want this done.”  They got a right to that.

Plus, I like what they buy.  I spent ten minutes talking with a super nice guy who was trying to rearrange his cart so he could fit in the special-ordered case of his favorite wine, refusing my offers of help. Interactions like that couldn’t happen these days without the customer metering.  The store is calm and the folks shopping don’t feel rushed except for a community duty in the back of their minds to the folks they know are outside waiting in line.

But more than any other group they thank us.  Thank us for the senior hour, thank us for limiting the amount of people in the store, thank us for being open so they can come shop and have a little bit of normalcy while they get the things they need.

By the end of Senior Hour I am in a good mood again, pretty much every day. I thrive on human interactions and community, which is part of the reason grocery work works for me.  The only place I get that from relative strangers these days is that hour of the day.  I am thankful for it.

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

Diary of an “Essential Worker” (Entry 4) The New Normal for Now.

It’s been ten days since San Francisco announced the Shelter in Place order and there’s a weird settling in that’s going on.  A few media-moments aside, almost everyone has changed their behaviors.  I even walked past the Dog Park yesterday and was all, “WTF?  Why is everyone playing hackey sack?  Did the Dead re-form or something?” Nope, just a bunch of neighbors out with their dogs and standing in circles six to ten feet apart.

It’s only been ten days of “stay at home” but it’s been about 4 weeks since the store felt normal. Our metering of customers gives a false sense of calm to the store during the workday.  Inside the store it feels slow and peaceful.  It’s like a normal day, albeit one where many people are wearing masks, gloves and the cheese workers cannot stand next to each other in our small prep area.  Well, technically, one person can price while another does dishes but that’s stretching it…

There is plenty of cheese.  I mean geez, just last year or so the US hit records for cheese in cold storage.   But make no mistake, this is a crisis for (among many others) small production cheese makers, stand-alone cheese shops, and distributors, especially ones who serve restaurants.  I have been getting many calls and emails from folks knowing that we are open, essential, and busy but I just can’t help many of them.  Customers are only buying certain cheeses right now.  Even with a long history, loyal customers, and (if I say so myself) a good cheese reputation,  big blocks of Parm, Cheddar, Jack, and Mozzarella are what is selling.  Pre-grated tubs and shredded packages. Lots of ricotta too.  I think a lot of lasagna is being made.

(Weirdly, the one cheese I didn’t expect to sell at such an astronomical level is paneer. Was there an “Indian Food for the Apocalypse” article I missed?  We always sell a lot of paneer but we sold three weeks worth in four days and I got shorted on my re-order.  We should be fully stocked again on Friday afternoon though!)

Things are so weird we ended up buying the ricotta that usually goes to Chez Pannise. I mean, we always carry the same stuff in retail, but still.

We haven’t sampled cheese to customers in over three weeks.  Initially (way back in another lifetime four weeks ago) I thought we could sample on pieces of parchment paper and keep things safe but after the first two customers licked their fingers I knew we had to stop. In a grocery store environment, it is next to impossible to sell higher-end, artisan cheese that is not well-known without giving samples.  I mean, everyone knows Cowgirl Mt. Tam in this city and its doing fine, but the new, amazing small-scale cheese we were going to promote in March?  It’s hurting.

Every distro in the Bay has contacted me trying to sell product they suddenly have no outlet for.  In a normal week I would be jumping at these offers.  But these are not normal weeks.  I just got off a conference call organized by the fine folks at The Monger where I was asked, among other things, how should reps or cheese companies approach buyers right now to sell the product they need to sell and can’t.

I didn’t answer as fully as I could have so I will write what I should have said. San Francisco was the first city to go on lockdown. I have no idea how many emails I have gotten in the last week that I haven’t even responded to.  I don’t plan to ever read them, really.

To be fair, I am in a unique position as a buyer, floor worker, and a member of the emergency committee set up to respond to the crisis, but I have had no time at all to deal with extras. I have been underwater and, until recently, without real days off.  Vendor deadlines and out-of-stock products change daily and I have missed more deadlines (that I didn’t see had changed) in the last two weeks than in the last 25 years. 

So my advice?  If you don’t have a previous relationship, don’t contact buyers for a week or two into their lockdowns.  We are creating dozens of new procedures and policies that all needed to happen yesterday in order to safeguard our health and the health of the community. We may have at-risk or sick family.  We are likely saying goodbye to some co-workers for the duration because they need to stay home to care for their kids or because they have underlying health issues.  My reaction to a sales pitch from a stranger that isn’t taking that into account is likely to be hostile.

But now, nearly two weeks in, I can start to see things stabilize in their own weird ways.  We will soon start to brainstorm how to support cheesemakers who need support, likely starting with the ones we already work with.  But I/we will also be open to other possibilities, assuming that we don’t start to lose a significant percentage of our workers.  Also, tbh, many of our cheese workers, unable to work in pairs as usual, are doing duty in cart sanitizing, customer metering and crowd control shifts that we have not previously had.  

I saw the first scale-scale family cheesemaker shutting down for the duration yesterday.  They are well-established, make fairly perishable cheese, and sell to a lot of restaurants.  There will be more.  It’s a very hard business for the small-timer in good times, so some won’t be back.  That thought haunts every monger right now.

(If cheese workers have any questions about safety procedures feel free to email me directly at gordon.zola.edgar at gmail dot com. I will respond when I can.)

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

Diary of an "Essential Worker" (Entry 3) Quiet

I got up at 4 AM the other night.  My dog Schnitzel is off his regular schedule too and needed to go out.   He’s actually, oddly, been practicing social distancing himself by refusing to go to the park during the day for the last week.  At 4 AM though, that’s what he wanted.

4 AM is just about the most quiet time in San Francisco anyway, people are home from the bars and restaurants.  Most people haven’t gotten up yet for their jobs. I thought I would be the only person out at that time.  But no… there were a few walkers.  I live near a hospital so I thought at first they would be healthcare workers going to or from their shifts but when I got closer (not too close!) I saw they were just regular folks, just out walking.  People afraid to go out during the day?  People so full of anxiety they couldn’t sleep?  I don’t know.  We didn’t talk.  I didn’t recognize them. We gave head nods from a distance.

I get up at 5 AM for work most days. That’s not a busy time either, but usually as I make my thermos of tea, I see other lights going on in the houses I can see from my kitchen window.  This week: nothing.  I am the only one. It’s quiet in the way the city never is.

It hasn’t even been a week (it will be later today) since Mayor Breed gave the stay-at-home order.  It’s good to remember that because it feels like a lot longer.  This has been a grocery crisis for about three and a half weeks, but societal countermeasures only started six days ago. This is not meant to be a blog about details of COVID-19  –others will do that better and I cannot keep up with the news on a daily basis when working– but that means that even if everything we are doing is working, we will still see a huge rise in illness this week and the week after.

That one light is always on. Usually most floors of most buildings have at least one light on at 5 AM.

Societal activities have stabilized a little in their particular weirdness of the moment. It took a few days for people to get it but most people understand the concept of social distancing now.  I know everyone has anecdotes where people have violated personal space, but look at how far we’ve come.  These concepts are new to everyone outside of public health.  Not all of it is obvious.  Even though I have been working on this for the store, it took another worker to point out that our paired cheese workers, myself included, were working too close together.  I was working on the big problems: customers in the store, customers outside the store, our break rooms, etc. and hadn’t even thought about some of the smaller work programs that we have done forever. That’s not a fault.  That’s an acknowledgement that we all need each other’s help changing our patterns.

It was only yesterday that it felt like San Francisco really understood social distancing. People got the idea of standing in line 6 ft apart pretty quick but changing the smaller things took more time.  Having no real traffic makes it easy for people to step out into the street to avoid getting too close to each together.  Since we were among the first cities to do this, I hope the learning curve is accelerated elsewhere.  Not that it’s time to think about this, but we are learning a lot for the next pandemic too.

I worry that once these new procedures become regular, people will start becoming more irritable.   When things are new people have a tendency to pitch in and excitement carries you forward.  When you start settling in for a siege, morale can be in trouble.  Remember everyone, we only have each other.  You might need a 4 AM walk alone,  but remember to stay plugged in as much as is healthy for you and pitch in where you can.

Today is the first day in a long time (probably seems longer than it is) I am having a second day off in a row and it is doing wonders for my mental health.  We need our quiet moments to recover from the uncertainty outside. I’ll be up at 5 tomorrow to carry on.  Stay safe everyone.

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

Diary of an "Essential Worker:" (Entry 2) How Are You?

Many, if not most,  folks I work with have cried at least once at work this week. I know I have. We are all exhausted and emotionally raw.   I cried when a regular who is a senior told me how much she appreciated everything we have done to make shopping more safe. Co-workers and I have quickly walked away red eyed after sharing appreciations of each other because we needed to go back to work and couldn’t break down.  I fucking sobbed at my desk when I saw (on break) that my neighbor’s schnauzer died.  I loved that dog and I probably would have cried anyways but it unleashed a torrent of pent up anxiety and fear and sadness.  I then cleaned off the keyboard with the isopropyl alcohol solution now on every desk.

In scary times, emotional reactions don’t come out in clear ways to appropriate targets.  It’s good for all of us to remember that.  Overwhelming reactions, inappropriate anger, the urge to police the way others are handing the pandemic knowing that you don’t have full knowledge of other people…. We’re going to see a lot more of this as the stay-at-home order goes on.  We’re going to see it in ourselves as well.

We have had very few upset customers considering how much things have changed and how fast.  Of course, not everyone had heard of our senior/at-risk hour before it started and were not super happy about having to wait an extra hour to get into the store.  Others hadn’t heard that we had to reduce hours to close at 7 PM. However, almost everyone has taken the changes in stride.  Some, even though inconvenienced, expressed support for which I am grateful. The joy of working at a community institution maybe… I have heard horrible stories, anecdotally on the internet but while we have a few angry people every day so far our community has risen to the challenges. Some of the yellers have even returned after shopping and apologized.  Looking for inappropriate reactions within yourself and handling them is one of the ways we will get through this.

It’s almost unbelievable how quickly things have changed in day-to-day reality.  Ten days ago I was crowd-sourcing info on how Italian grocery stores were handling the situation.  I saw pics of people standing in lines six feet apart, heard they were metering customers into the store, read the phrase “social distancing” for the first time.  My first thought:  This just won’t work here.  Ten days later it’s the norm.

Limiting customers in the store has decreased the work stress 50% at least.   In effect what we have done is transferred the check out line to outside the store.  People wait outside (6 ft. apart) but, much of the time, can walk straight up to a cashier when they are ready to check out. We have the other stresses – our family, our friends, our community, our health —  but at least our work environment is more peaceful and manageable than the previous two weeks.

A little bunched up in places, some of those folks are walking by,
but mostly 6 ft apart.

I mean aside from the fact that every ache, pain, cough, or sore throat causes a minor panic.  No matter what the actual symptoms of COVID-19, the excess monitoring we are doing on ourselves also breeds anxiety.  The day we introduced metering I came home sure I was getting sick because my throat was sore.   Still, something in my mind was all, “this is familiar.”  I wracked my brain and realized my throat felt like it feels when I return from a tense Giants game.  Right.  I was yelling through a mask doing crowd control at the store for a couple of hours.  I’m fine. So far.

We don’t know what the future will bring.  Will 50% of our work force be out at some point?  How can we further do harm reduction for worker safety? We have changed so much in a week, what will we be doing in two weeks from now that we never imagined? All this uncertainty is kind of my weakness, to be honest which is why I have felt especially emotional and teary. There’s a reason I have stayed in the same apartment and job for 25 years!  I’m not super into change. But I am working my way through it and doing ok.

I think one thing that is really tricky for us  – especially in a cooperative where we are used to talking to each other in person a lot – is the lack of a culture of distance.  Usually it’s our strength.  What most people want to do right now is just what we cannot do – get everyone together for a membership meeting to talk about our feels and hash stuff out.  Social distancing can become social control and authoritarianism (a.k.a. a conventional workplace) if you are not careful.  We will need to develop new procedures internally as quickly as we’ve developed them externally. On the plus side, old grudges are falling by the wayside.  I have newfound respect for people who pissed me off a decade ago.  We need each other.  Old grievances seem petty.

Also, another thing that helps – both on a perspective level and to fight xenophobia – talk to immigrants. Co-workers from other countries can provide a much-needed perspective. Sometimes you just need to hear things like, “Eh, I lived through a coup.  This isn’t so bad.”

 The last time I teared up at work yesterday was when a customer who I have never talked to came up to me already crying.  She said we were heroes. I don’t accept the “hero” label – save it for the medical folks and first responders on the front lines – but she meant it and I heard she meant it.  That was enough to keep me going for another day.

All you grocery workers reading, just remember, the work you are doing is important.  The community is important.  You are important.  Be proud of this.

Stay safe people.

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

I prefer the black gloves when available.

Diary of an "essential worker"

I thought I’d dust off this ancient-looking blog and start to keep a diary of this time of virus and anxiety from the perspective of a grocery worker.  While most people I know are off work right now, fearing for both their health and their jobs, we are working all the time.  In fact I have been wanting to write something for days but haven’t had the time or energy. It seems important to document a little of this to remember later.  If there is a later…

Six foot distances marked for safely waiting in line. Pic taken at 6 AM.

It’s nice to be officially considered an “essential worker” for once.  I mean, I’ve always considered the big picture of what we do – bringing food to the people – essential. And I always knew that in the back of my mind, because I like reading history, that grocery workers have had a special place in times of turmoil and trouble:  wars, disasters, general strikes, etc.  People need to eat.

One of the reasons I like working with food is because it is such an essential need for everyone. But that has never been more clear than the last few weeks when reaction to COVID-19 has made our store busy in an unprecedented way.

Three weeks ago I was comparing it to Y2K, but we surpassed that a long time ago. 

Two weeks ago I was joking that this is all the work of the food holidays with none of the fun.  It was fun to say that at the time.

This week, after it was clear that a shelter in place order would be given, things amped up even more.   I have no comparison for it at all.

Stay a cart away from each other, please!

I’ve worked at this co-op for almost 26 years.  With holidays, it may be extra busy for a while but there are breaks.  As a buyer of cheese – a less perishable perishable – I am used to a pattern of buying where you usually put on the brakes after a certain amount of days because you can predict a slowdown.  After two solid weeks of solid busy all my experience told me that it couldn’t keep going like it was… Instead of braking I have my foot jammed on the accelerator.

On a micro level – a level I still have to operate on in my daily work life — I get itchy when I have less than three whole wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano in stock.  Right now everything we have is on the shelf. We are doubling the amount of commodity blocks we cut at a time and still running low or out before we can replenish. Because of the nature of cheese in cold storage, we have less out-of-stocks than other departments but the nature of distribution these days is “lean” and “efficient” which means more disruption in the supply chain right now.

This may be different in other stores and other places – a large-scale worker-owned co-op is a special place —  but I am seeing people stock up and buy a lot, but not seeing hoarding. I am seeing co-workers trying to figure out the safest ways to do things in an unknown environment. I am also see us working way too much to try and meet demand. I am seeing regular customers here on unusual days, their patterns disrupted. Mostly, I am seeing people be extra caring to each other, even if in fleeting and physically distant ways.  I am also watching people trying to interact without the familiar touching or even facial expressions when people are trying to stay 6 ft. apart and half the folks I see are wearing some kind of mask.

There are still moments of beauty.

We have instituted measures that even a week ago I didn’t think we could implement.  We are only allowing a certain number of people in the store at once.  We have a line to get in where people are waiting six feet apart. We have shortened our hours (for a list of like 10 reasons). We are trying to reserve 9-10 for seniors and most at-risk members of the community. We are offering gloves to every customer.

But we are making these things up as we go.  Some won’t work out and may cause more hassle before we get them worked out.  Everything right now is on a trial basis and a social experiment.  There will be lines and the few things open will take longer. That’s our (temporary) reality. We’ve come a long way in a short time

And let’s not kid ourselves, this is intense. There is a frenetic energy because of the crowds and the multiple legitimate anxieties everyone, including those of us still working right now, is holding right now. We are all pretty exhausted.  Essential, but exhausted.

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)