There is a professional class of heroes which typically includes teachers, emergency workers, and the military. But another, less noticed group, deserves mention: service workers. Those customer-facing, often minimally paid people whose work keeps communities humming.
Service workers are everywhere, the gatekeepers to the things we need and love, the gas stations and grocery stores, the movie theaters and museums. With them in mind, I share this story:
Last weekend, as I was scanning the aisle at my local pharmacy, my foot grazed something on the floor. It was soft, mushy. Reflexively, I turned my gaze from the shelves to the floor where I found that most iconic of all emojis staring up at me. So cute and brown in its graphic form, this real version left my moral core feeling violated.
Limping over to the nearest available staff person, I choked out in a forced, nonchalant tone: “Hey! Can I…There’s a…It’ll be easier if I just show you.” The young man, in turn, notified his boss. As she went in search of a makeshift hazmat suit, he must have expressed some guilt over not cleaning it up himself. With casual confidence she called back to him: I’m a mother. Vomit. Poop. I’ve had to clean it all. Reassuring words for a young man whose experience with poop probably did not extend beyond his own production.
From there, word spread to the pharmacy counter staff. Is that what smelled?, asked one person. Can you look at the video?, asked another. No, came the reply, there is no camera covering that aisle. There is no way that came from a diaper, I overheard one woman say.
I had been clinging to the diaper explanation for self-preservation. Sure, I know this stuff, and far worse, happens, but there was no filter to help me intellectualize it. The tactile and visual memories reverberated in my brain. I lacked the processing power to compute this as a deliberate act.
As I was trying to scrub those memories from my brain, the capable boss was scooping the mess off the floor. Her subordinate, the young guy, followed up with a mop and disinfectant. They did not do so because of a higher calling or to save lives. They did so because, well, it had to be done.
So, as we all run errands and visit our favorite restaurants and bars, it’s worth remembering that the people serving us aren’t just metaphorically responsible for dealing with our shit, they are literally responsible for it. Saving people from other people’s shit? Yeah, I think that’s hero-worthy.