This blog parses the changes in my middle age–how I went from working as a columnist at a major daily newspaper and a leading cheesemonger to being a beer buyer at a fancy grocery store–and how I maintain hope of finding happiness. It’s underpinned by an element of confusion fatigue, frustration fatigue and fatigue fatigue, but it’s about life and downward mobility in New York City, which is never, ever dull.
Life on Aisle 2: This is What Plan C Looks Like, Episode 31: Attack of the Karens
It was the Sunday of a winter three-day weekend (New Year’s Day, the King Holiday and President’s Day all kind of smush together even in recent memory), and a coworker and I were chatting the back corner of the store that I use as my office space. We had just made an important discovery; we had both watched and loved Queens Gambit and were plotting our paths to follow in Beth Harmon’s chess master footsteps.
That can be a long conversation and somewhere in the midst of reveling over our favorite lines of the Slav Defense (2…..c6), we realized that we had been off the sales floor for about ten minutes and reflexively began to walk back to our stations, him to the front and me to Aisle 2. As we turned down the beer aisle, I was reaching into the distant reaches of my chess prodigy mind—territory that had gone mostly unexplored for decades–to explain the development of the middle of the board in that formation when I heard my coworker change his tone to address a customer. I heard him say, “ma’am can you please put your mask on.”
In an instant my mindset when from nerdy teenager perusing his dog-eared copy of Modern Chess Openings, to middle aged floor supervisor at a grocery store during a pandemic. I stiffened my posture a little to reinforce my coworker’s request.
“Oh, I don’t have to wear one,” the customer, a middle-aged white woman, responded.
“Fuck!!” I thought to myself as images of Anja Taylor-Joy and chessboards vanished suddenly. It isn’t too uncommon to spot a customer either with a poorly worn mask or none at all, but all of them are usually receptive to our rules and readily either fix their mask and take one out of their pockets and put it on. Resistance. This was new and not in a good way.
Over the next two or three minutes, the customer escalated the fight in utterly nonsensical ways. She claimed that she didn’t have to wear a mask in New Jersey, which was both not true and entirely irrelevant since the store is in New York City, where there are mask mandates and have been for months. She claimed that she didn’t have to wear one on her last visit, which may have been true if her last visit was in 2019, but you’d like to think she’d notice that the world is different now. Her voice rose with each silly contention; it was obvious she was trying to create a scene. I looked and saw no one filming the situation with their phones. In fact, the three of us were alone on the aisle as other customers, all wearing masks, of course, were avoiding the scene.
She had two bags of popcorn in her arms and asked why she wouldn’t be allowed to buy her popcorn. My coworker calmly noted that she had no right to put our cashiers well being at risk, at which point, at the top of her lungs, she screamed “this is discrimination!” I’m Black, my coworker is Asian. I wasn’t sure what I could say at that point that wasn’t confrontational, but my coworker found a path of least resistance. He directed her to pay for her popcorn at a particular register (it has the biggest plexiglass screen), and it usually run by managers. She did, and she left.
For the rest of the day, my coworker and I struggled to shake free of the exasperation. It was less that we had essentially resolved a conflict by letting the guilty party get what they want, but the ramifications of the Karen factor in a hip Manhattan neighborhood. Wasn’t this sort of thing restricted to the suburbs?
Evidently not. About a month later, I noticed a customer who frequented the store Mondays late in the evening using a flimsy scarf as a face covering. I was usually preoccupied around that time as it’s the final hours of my workweek. My schedule is Friday, Sunday and Monday, which leads to a bit of a reverse workweek. As my clientele are easing into their weekends on Friday late afternoon and evening, I’m hunkering down, and then something like the reverse happens on Monday except I’m not easing into a weekend, but rather consecutive days where writing is my primary focus and I don’t set foot in the store (I do take care of some emails and the like).
One evening I saw her, and after we exchanged pleasantries, I asked why didn’t she buy a mask? She was always fashionably dressed. I’m sure she could find cool masks to match her outfits. She explained that she had a medical condition that prevented her from wearing a mask. I’ve been at the store consistently throughout the pandemic. As have many of my coworkers, I’ve kept up with all kinds of news pursuant to COVID in New York City. I hadn’t heard that one before, but I figured, I should keep an open mind, and on the train ride home, I began Googling.
For the most part I came up empty. So, I resolved that if I saw her again, I would ask for specifics. Sure enough, I saw her again, and again it was on a Monday evening about half hour before I made my exit. She recognized me and asked how I was doing. I told her I was happy as I was about to finish a big story. Instead of factchecking her medical condition tale, we plunged into a conversation about my freelance journalism. She mentioned that she had a degree in journalism from Northwestern, a school I hold in very high esteem. Then she asked if I was going to write about the truth of what was going on.
A voice in the back of my head screamed “Run! Get out while you can.”
I have a bad track record of listening to those voices; they screamed the same thing about journalism 20 years ago and the cheese business eight years ago. In each case, I ignored the warning and soldiered on.
Instead of politely excusing myself from the conversation (I did have about 45 minutes of stuff to do in that half hour), I simply inquired what truth she had in mind.
Within seconds I was sorry that I didn’t listen to the voice in the back of my head. She dove headlong into a COVID conspiracists rant. In fact, she went further than I had heard most people go. When she began contending that 97% of intubations were unnecessary and that no one had really died of the virus, I began wondering if I could make a few calls to Evanston on Tuesday and have her degree revoked.
Instead, I opted for boundaries and explained that I had a lot of work to finish before I punched the clock at 10. She headed on her way, seemingly oblivious to my vibe of skeptical annoyance.
As I finished up, I began to wonder. I had long held out hope that New Yorkers would be the leaders in getting vaccinated and getting back to whatever the new normal is. With those encounters as well as a few with coworkers who were choosing not to vaccinate, my hope was beginning to fade. I thought about recalculating my hopes, but then I realized the music on the PA was Derek and the Dominoes “Layla.” I decided that rather than engage in philosophical algebra and my city and the virus, I should drift away for a few minutes admiring the slide guitar work of Duane Allman. The path of least resistance has its uses.
Martin Johnson is a freelance writer whose work on music, sports and culture has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Wine Enthusiast, Zagat, Jazz Times, New York Times, Newsday, New York, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Huffington Post, The Root, Slate, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications and websites. He also blogs at Rotations, and he can be contacted at email@example.com.