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I work at a grocery store, and people keep thanking me. Am I a hero now?

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/SeventyFour

It was a customer — purchasing dry beans, avocados, honey wheat bread and a $2.99 bottle of wine — who notified me that "some states are designating grocery workers the same as emergency personnel now." From there I picked up slivers of the media mentioning grocery employees in the same breath as EMTs, hospital health-care workers, law enforcement and firefighters. "America's grocery store workers are on the front lines." "For stay-at-home rules in Connecticut, Illinois, New York and California, exceptions exist — such as for people traveling to or from working at groceries and hospitals." "Minnesota and Vermont will classify grocery store employees as emergency workers."

This changes everything. For people like me, anyway. Not long after moving to Nashville, Tennessee from South Florida a few months ago, I began working at a grocery store. A typical day was simply stocking shelves and waiting on customers. Then disaster hit. I've often thought the path to heroism can be happenstance and a lot of us never get to prove our bravery and dedication to humankind. And I was right!

All of a sudden I was lumped into "first responder" territory. The other morning a customer said, "Where's your cape?" Huh? "You are a superhero, you know." Or one will wait for the right moment to say, "I really appreciate what you're doing." The tone they take is so sincere and downright reverential, it's startling — the equivalent of showing gratitude to veterans with a "Thank you for your service."

It has been hard for me to respond without kidding about it: Yeah, I'm going to start wearing my grocery chain uniform down on Main Street, and people will be waving, pumping fists and honking horns. Eventually, I'll go out to bars and patrons will be buying me drinks until the end of time.

My dad was a true war hero, full out — Silver Star for heroism in combat, humble and silent on his war experience — so I know about real sacrifice and bravery. I know my current feats are not the same. Still, I don't believe one has to have a wild imagination to compare the elation of the townspeople in Lyon, France, upon seeing waving GIs atop U.S. tanks of liberation rolling down the street and, say, shoppers' joy at my coming around the corner of Aisle 7 with a pallet full of extra soft toilet paper. Jubilation is jubilation.

From my pedestrian perspective, I think heroism is more about character or instinct than the act. The way some of us carry ourselves every day with a certain sense of dedication and responsibility and even a down-to-earth nobility is sort of the base of anything that might be mistaken for courage or bravery or heroism in any situation. If we're assigned to do the work, we do it, no matter what. I am a hero only because being a hero is now one of my job requirements.

The serious connection with community began before the coronavirus pandemic had even swelled. It started in early March, when East Nashville was ripped apart and devastated by bombastic night tornadoes. I walked to the store at daybreak, stepping over wires and climbing over toppled trees at every turn. Homeowners stood on their lawns surrounded by eerie quiet and the stunned expressions of their neighbors' awe and pain, the midnight sirens still ringing in their ears. Before East Nashville could barely begin rebuilding, covid-19 took hold. For some residents now, the only place they see their friends and neighbors is from six feet away in the aisles of our store.

A day ago, two nurses stood before me at the checkout. It was their first break from 14-hour days. Masks and ventilators be damned, they needed their own supplies now. It's such a simple exchange, isn't it? People desperately need food, and we provide it, whatever the obstacles. So simple, but my own life and the lives before me have become so complicated. I can't fathom what each person might be going through — a roofless home, a sister with respiratory problems hibernating in the basement. So, we make our exchange in goods, and then we reinforce each other to keep going. There is something quietly precious about that and I believe all the mutual appreciation and admiration is certainly part of the cure.

After I dropped the organic peanut butter, ice cream sandwiches, canned chili and a half-dozen tuna kits, among other supplies, into their carts, I thanked the nurses for everything they're doing. They were gracious, and just huffed that huff of the tired, the overworked and the "this is just what we do." Then they turned it on me with that reverential tone. "How are you doing?" "Are you OK?" "We appreciate you being here so much." When I started going into my spiel — yeah, I'm on the front lines now, in the first-responder club — they cut me off. Made me drop the silly stuff. "Don't kid yourself," one said. "You're making just as much a sacrifice. No one's going to forget how you guys have been here for us."

"I'm one of you now," I said, trying to break the weight.

"Yes! You're one of us," one of them said, before they both began laughing.

I have great perspective on the level of courage it takes to feed the masses, but it sure is nice to be on the front lines doing what I can to help us get through this. We are taking our role in all this seriously and responsibly. I see the pride and sense of purpose of my co-workers, and it warms me to no end to hear them acknowledged and celebrated. I mean you, Deon and Channon and Amanda and Dylan and our faithful leader, Kirsten (can't forget the boss). I am proud — no, honored — to serve beside you.

I used to think my obit would begin with "He once rode an elevator with Donna Summer," but now that claim to fame takes a ride down to paragraph three to make room for the real glory of when people slipped the binds of quarantine for food. "He was on the front lines, supplying townspeople who mostly hid in their houses learning how to play the ukulele."

Silly, I know. And yes, words like "valor" and "gallantry" are too big and out of context for most of us. We're too down-home for that nonsense. But we all deal with tragedy differently, so let me relish this moment as a member of the "essential workers" during unprecedented times.

As Lyle Lovett once sang, "I love everybody, especially you." So, when I see you all again, whenever the virus subsides, we'll be shoulder to shoulder at our favorite spots downtown. I want my uniform hanging from the rafters, and I truly expect to never have to pay for kombucha in this town again. Aside from that, it's quite enough to simply know that, at this moment in history, I am essential. Here's to you, my comrades. To the essential ones!

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