My life as an essential worker: a photo essay

Jackson Rudoff, Staff Reporter

Being deemed essential wasn’t nearly as validating as I anticipated it would be.

In all honesty, I thought it was a joke that I was considered essential at all. The only reason I still had my job was because they furloughed the less-experienced part-timers, and then everyone else took time off out of fear. And with quarantine measures in place, my job at the original Jeni’s in Columbus’ North Market felt insignificant, at best. 

Delivery order comes in. You reach into the pint freezer (after washing your hands and using gloves, of course) and fill the order. Wait for Grubhub to show up and then leave it on the counter for them to pick up. The most difficult part is remembering any of the vaguely arbitrary steps in-between. 

Yet, the meniality and inconsequentiality of this job soon became one of the few remnants of old life that I had. With nobody in line to order, you still had to do the off-hours cleaning tasks, but now there was no time crunch. Taking your break in the cramped back space remained a daily highlight especially when you were able to score some free food from one of the neighboring stalls. You could still run down to the catacombs-esque basement for some easy spookiness to spice up your shift.

But unlike slow days in the real world, these shifts were spent surrounded by unlit neon signs, roped off storefronts, and empty displays. When I would look out into the deserted parking lot, the reality of my situation stared right back.

I remember something that happened to my co-worker one of the days she was filling orders. Somebody walked by the register and abrasively said to her: 

“How does it feel to be essential?”

Not at all, actually.

Working at the North Market during a pandemic is equal parts lonesome and surreal. In high school, when I worked afternoon shifts frequently in the winter, even the deadest days weren’t as morbid as they had become under shelter-in-place. Driving to work and finding the parking lot empty was just a grim reminder of how aimless life had become.

Customers that did come in tended to be clued out, or somewhat jarred by the fact that almost none of the stalls were open. Many of them would walk up to the counter, look directly past our six signs saying we were delivery-only and attempt to make an order. Some of them figured out you could do in-store pick-up, which led to awkward moments of me showing 60-somethings how to navigate our website without getting within 6 feet of them. They would grow increasingly frustrated until our register “Dinged!” to indicate the order had gone through, and they would gleefully walk away with their $10 (plus service fees) pint in hand. 

In between these encounters, time chugged along. When I wasn’t scrubbing down every surface or spot cleaning a part of the cabinet glass that someone breathed on, I was mostly just pacing around. When my coworker showed up, we would just sit in silence—6 feet apart, thanks to the tape Xs on the floor—unless we had something to say, which became more uncommon as the days went by.

That’s the thing about life with coronavirus. If I hadn’t been working the day before, I had been doing homework. If I wasn’t doing homework, I was helping my parents in some way. If I wasn’t helping my parents, I was FaceTiming my girlfriend, only to report the same old stuff when she asked what I had done that day. 

There simply isn’t anything new. And there likely won’t be, until we no longer have to cloister ourselves in our increasingly stuffy rooms.

The best non-health benefit of shelter-in-place is the peace it’s brought to some of the busier areas of the city. After one shift, with some gloves and a mask hand-sewn by my mom in tow, I walked up and down the Short North Arts District. 

The first thing you notice is how much you can see. No more cars or obnoxious beer trolleys to clog up the streets, and far less litter scattered along the sidewalk. There are no obnoxious rich people revving the engines of their BMWs or buskers playing Oasis covers. A few people are out for runs or walking their dogs. Walking down the side streets, you see a lot more rabbits and songbirds, which now roam beyond the backyards of the old Victorian homes in the area.

You could easily forget that these atmospheric improvements were the result of a pandemic. But if you spend enough time wandering, the vacuous energy and quiet become less appealing. The ghost town character becomes more apparent as you notice the empty lots and closed signs. It started to feel like you were strolling through the downtown strip of a rural Ohio town that, maybe in its heyday, once bustled and boomed.

It remained nonetheless foreboding. All around me were shuttered businesses or bars open for carryout. And as with all the places I used to frequent, my first thought was what the employees were up to, and how unfair it felt that I was still getting to work while they didn’t. I wondered how they were making ends meet. I wondered if their jobs would still exist in a few weeks.

And of course, I wondered if they were sick.

As weeks passed and infections rose, the feasibility of my job remaining dwindled. But I still found myself going into the Market every Saturday and Sunday.

The only other times I would go out were to walk or gather groceries. Sometimes, if my dad was feeling brave, he would send me out to support a local business in some way. By the end of March, these trips disappeared unless it coincided with my once-weekly outings for groceries or other provisions. This meant that, by April, those excursions were all I really looked forward to. 

Getting out of the house, either on my bike or on foot, was beginning to lose its novelty. Beyond going out to get some photos, or maybe take a phone call to catch up with friends, being outdoors was becoming less of a relief. 

The magic of noticing all the places and things I took for granted in my neighborhood had worn off. The anxiety over how long this would last, and what would happen when we got over the hill of “the curve,” substituted for the dread I typically felt when on campus with impending finals.

I worried about returning to normalcy, only for everything to be turned upside down again in the fall. With classwork beginning to feel arbitrary, its importance and urgency diminished. Even if we played Quiplash over Zoom a couple times, I missed my friends. Every once in a while, the reflex for me to drive up to Toledo and hang around the art museum with my girlfriend pops back into my head.

She’s perhaps the one who best described the pain of life under quarantine, telling me: “For once, there’s nothing really preventing me from seeing you. And yet … I can’t.”

I remember during the early stages of life shutting down, I still had occasional bouts of optimism. I could still work shifts at any of the shops in the city, and people were still permitted to come in and get take-out orders (no online delivery app required). Customers that did come in tended to be on top of things, and would do what they could to limit exposure not only to themselves, but also us in the shop. This included politely obeying when we would kick them out when they lingered in the now closed dining space.

Talking with my coworkers, we all grasped the vague dystopianism of the entire situation. In general, they were far more concerned with the situation, and a lot less trusting that the public would be able to take the pandemic seriously. And I’ll admit, I didn’t really get it. I thought Columbus, where it seemed like 50 percent of my customers worked at a hospital, while the other 50 percent went to a major college, would be smart enough to take care of itself.

The wake-up call for me was the customer who came in and spent the entire transaction complaining about our precautionary measures. Explanations, offers of apology, none of them seemed to really matter. Apparently, the world had “gone crazy” over this mess. 

That same day, Italy hit 3,000 deaths.

Those kinds of interactions were hardest to restrain yourself over. You want to shake some sense into them, not necessarily for their sake, but out of your own personal preservation.

As that customer left, I gave the usual “Thanks for your patience, stay safe” as they walked out our heavily-Cloroxed door. Immediately afterwards, I grabbed the heavy-duty cleaner to wipe down our cabinets. At the same time that they were critiquing our efforts to preserve public health, they also found plenty of opportunities to touch their mouth, nose and a number of our customer-side surfaces.

As difficult as it has been for me to learn to live under quarantine, my dad has taken it in relative stride. Only a few months ago, he had open-heart surgery, which, combined with his history of corticosteroid use, made him extremely high risk. Much of the first week was spent trying to convince him not to go out to his favorite hang: The Market District grocery store in our neighborhood. A few well-placed, intimidating messages from my sister in Philly got him to stay in. 

Given the fact that he’s usually busy and/or bouncing off the walls, I was expecting this homebound lifestyle to drive him crazy.

Instead, he dove headfirst into his work, finding ways to make it not only fun for his students, but also himself. As a cello professor, I expected the added burden of teaching an instrument over Zoom to frustrate him. Yet, I still hear him every morning practicing away and shouting congratulatory remarks at his students when they make breakthroughs. At night, he’ll break out the off-brand GoPro and studio mic I helped set him up with to record his practice sessions to put on his fledgling YouTube channel. 

The interactive and holistic elements of his teaching method may have waned, but his enthusiasm hasn’t.

I’ll admit that his relative exuberance during this time can sometimes be off-putting. Good moods are becoming difficult to come by, and when he gushes about his latest pizza dough, I struggle to muster anything more than lukewarm interest.

But the fact that these are my complaints also reflects just how lucky I am. The fact that I can list off a number of accommodations he’s offering for his students reflects how lucky they are. 

He remembers life outside quarantine, and hasn’t given up on life within it. And I think his attitude shows he doesn’t want us to, either.

As I’m writing this, Ohio is in the middle of what we believe is our infection peak. There are plenty of indications now that we’ve flattened the curve. All because we were one of the lucky states with a governor who, out of optics or actual concern for citizens, depending on who you ask, actually did something about it.

It was just over a week ago that I found out my shop would be closing down. At that point, the company had been forced to furlough people in the main office. Those of us still clinging to work in the shops, unfortunately, weren’t far behind. I had the option to continue picking up shifts elsewhere until they closed everyone down, but I decided to let the other last few blips on the payroll sheets take them. I also turned down an offer to fulfill online shipping orders, which would’ve had me loading pints into boxes at the warehouse down the block.

For me, that was when I realized my drive to keep working was a mixture of desires. One of them was, of course, the desire to be able to keep up with expenses. Another was loyalty to keeping the shop afloat and not abandoning my friends who ran it. 

The last was that working in the shops was my last resort for preserving normalcy in the midst of a pandemic. Since I was 17, I have been slinging fancy ice creams when home. Even when I got a job in a different part of the company, it still felt like the same old gig. I can recall the ingredients and profiles of flavors that haven’t been in buckets since 2016. This job is something I was fairly proud of, even with the inadequacies that come with any hourly position. 

During that last shift, the worst part of clocking out was realizing I wouldn’t be back for a while. Not because I was busy or going back to school. This time, I had nothing else to really do on  Saturday besides watching time pass through the bay window in my living room or staring at my computer screen for upwards of 8 hours a day. 

Working was just no longer a possibility. People like me, who’ve spent upwards of six years in and out of school being told to never slow down, would have to tap the breaks for the first time. And let me tell you, I absolutely hate it.

At the tail end of my last shift, my boss (no, not Jeni herself) came in to do inventory. She was decked out in a bandana covering her mouth, and had me help her count the buckets we would likely be tossing in a month’s time. When we were done, and I re-sanitized the shop and closed down the register, she was sitting in the back where I needed to grab my coat.

You don’t usually remember, or even ever really think about the end of a shift. Usually, you’re on your way out of there so fast that you barely have time to mentally catalog what you did. But in this case, I can distinctly remember the last thing I heard on my way out of there. 

“See you on the other side.” 

I really hope I do. I’ll just have to wait until we get there.