I handled holiday orders at a grocery store. Trust me: The holidays are miserable.
If you’ve ever worked in retail, you already know what I’m about to tell you: Towards the end of October, a feeling of horror begins to develop that has nothing to do with Halloween. As the days get shorter and the wind cools down, coworkers start to whisper to each other, “Are you ready?” The background music changes, the scenery changes, everyone – whatever their place in the corporate hierarchy – takes on the grim affect of people preparing for the worst: the holidays are coming.
I’m not sure what the holidays are that make so many people behave so horribly. It could be the pressure to make the day perfect or the stress of dealing with family. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Christmas music activates some sort of sleepy aggression drive.
This year’s holiday season promises to be even more intense for service workers, especially those in the food industry. As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, people are more stressed than ever and are having fewer moments of kindness and joy to temper their worst impulses. This is one of the reasons why this year, as someone who has worked every holiday season for almost a decade, I urge everyone to stay home. You might think the holidays are a wonderful time, a time for people to come together and celebrate love, happiness, and joy. But I know the truth. The holidays become ugly.
Two years ago, I was removed from my job in the deli department of an upscale grocery store to be part of the small team that handled our store’s holiday orders. A year later, having proven that I was able to keep my head as absurd as the client’s behavior became, I was put in charge of the program. The two years I worked incredibly hard from the first week of November until Christmas Day, answering questions, taking orders, solving problems, and meeting countless people who in some sort of inconvenience related to vacation, had completely forgotten how to behave in front of others.
I got yelled at over pumpkin pies and Yule logs; I have seen grown men weep over the size of their roasted ribs; I was insulted by a woman who believed her fresh raw turkey, still in its clearly labeled packaging, was a big chicken I was trying to cheat on her with. I saw people go after the last turkey-shaped box of butter, and I witnessed a breakup that started with the simple question, “Green beans or casserole of green beans?” I had to explain to at least four different people that the reason their turkey didn’t taste good is because they put it in the oven without removing the plastic wrap.
My favorite holiday story, the one I used to tell at the holidays when the holidays were still sure, is this: Three days before Thanksgiving, a woman came and asked for a order for Thanksgiving Day. I explained to her that we were past the order deadline, but she insisted that she needed accommodation and could not have a good meal within three days. I took pity on her, moved some things and forced an order for a pre-cooked dinner for six. “Can I pick up the hot food for Thanksgiving?” She asked, and I explained, as patiently as I could, that we were filling over 1,000 orders and just didn’t have the facilities to pick up hot food. It was clearly not her dream scenario, but we agreed that her husband would come and pick up her order, cold, two days before the holidays.
On Thanksgiving Day, two days after her husband picked up his order, she called me. In a voice so loud that I had to hold the phone an inch from my ear, she shouted, “My food is cold!” I’m not sure how she imagined the food would be hot when she took it out of her own fridge, but she yelled at me for 10 more minutes before finally hanging up.
Maybe I should have suggested that he share the vacation with another client who hated the idea of reheating his already cooked food properly: the man who wanted instructions on how to reheat a pre-cooked prime rib in his mic -waves. When I carefully informed him that microwaving his prime rib (a piece of meat he paid over $ 100 for) would never yield positive results, he asked: oven? ”
People who placed huge orders and just abandoned them, fully paid, were even more frustrating in our store. An order for four trays of sushi was left to languish on Thanksgiving Day; At Christmas, a customer sent me straight to voicemail when I called to find out why he hadn’t come to pick up the five pounds of shrimp cocktail he had bought weeks before. (I’m grateful to this one – the shrimp were delicious.)
Then there were the emotionally fragile customers who were clearly going through it at home. My stand was set up where we usually kept the cheapest wine we sold, and that season no less than five people came in and burst into tears when they saw I was there instead. A poor guy came over on Thanksgiving day and told me his wife had a baby last week and she and his sister had been arguing for 10 years and now he and she weren’t invited to dinner. “She’s crying. A lot. Please… I need a turkey. (I managed to find her one.)
But the holidays are going to be different for many of us this year. As cases of Covid-19 climb across the country, the pandemic has reshaped our traditions of family gathering into deadly and dangerous events best avoided. I know how much it hurts, especially in such a difficult time. We all want a bit of normalcy. We all want a little joy.
But there is one group of people for whom vacations are always, always terrible: service workers. Every year we see the worst of humanity. Every year we are treated as if we are worthless, as if we are less than people. We work on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve and New Years Day, making us scream and belittle us while you make fond memories of family togetherness and love. Despite our unfairly low wages, terrible or nonexistent health insurance, and our desire to be with our own families, we stick a smile, take your abuse, and help you anyway, because that’s our job, and we don’t. have no other choice.
I no longer work at the grocery store where I spend so much time and effort (I am at high risk for Covid-19 and have decided not to do it this year). But my friends who are on the front lines of the holiday rush say things have been incredibly tough this year. People still order holiday dinners, although this year the hottest product is the smallest turkey possible rather than the large ones people once argued over. The cognitive dissonance these workers experience – being taken to the size of a turkey while worrying if their exposure to the public means they won’t live to see another holiday season – seems unbearable.
Stay home for the holidays this year. It is not just the right thing to do for your own safety, the safety of your family, and that of every American; it is also the only way to protect service workers who have suffered many terrible vacation spells and will inevitably suffer much more. And if you find yourself outside, then please: Be kind to every service worker you meet, wherever you meet them. As tough as the holiday season this year has been for you, it has certainly been even worse for them. They have probably worked day in and day out with constant risk of exposure, unable to afford the time, absorbing the frustration and aggression of clients who are also struggling.
Working on the holiday ordering team the last few years wasn’t bad. I still think fondly of Elizabeth, one of my regular customers, who a few days before Christmas slipped me a $ 25 gift card and thanked me for all my hard work. I also helped a new grandfather last year, a warm and wonderful man who was trying to do an early Thanksgiving job because his daughter, son-in-law and newborn grandson would be out of order during the holidays . I was able to organize a full dinner for him long before most of our Thanksgiving food arrived, and a few days later he returned to the store just to thank me and show me pictures from this wonderful vacation. . I was able to pull myself together with my help. Moments like this almost made the horror stories worth it – that is, until the screams inevitably start again.
So give service workers the gift of kindness – or really, just decency – this holiday season. I promise you it will be a pleasant surprise.
Dylan Morrison is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work mainly focuses on trans rights, food and kindness to service workers. He is also the author of the novel Juniper Lane (2016). You can find him on Twitter at @dylan_thyme.