Tag Archives: diary of an essential worker

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.)