Written by Sherry AlHayek
It was during quarantine that I realized how much I needed to look into people’s eyes when getting a service.
It all started when my boyfriend made a comment about the sound of the broom on the hard floor of the sidewalk next to our house at 5:00 am. “He isn’t quarantining,” he said pointing to the street. We were drinking coffee under a cloudy sky, as the sun was coming up. We both sat there and listened to the rhythm of that broom hitting the floor over and over again. It was total silence, no cars, no humans, nothing, just some birds and the heavy sound of a broom combing out the sidewalk tiles. It felt like we were both saying the same thing, asking the same question about how safe that person was, as we knew very little about the virus and how it spread at the time. That was during the first two weeks of quarantine back in March. Then that sound became our daily morning routine.
I don’t know how we could have survived without frontliners. I don’t know how many people in this city knew the schedule of their street cleaners before the quarantine. I had never before seen his face, I still don’t know anything about him, but he is the reason why I open the door and step out everyday without having to worry about our streets being clean. Suddenly, our morning routine went from rushing out of the house - to get to a meeting, being late to a date, not wanting to miss this movie, and needing to see that friend – to a realization that we would never survive without him and other frontliners.
I took a Careem to see my doctor at the hospital. The driver struggled so hard to contain a cough, his eyes started to water and his face reddened. I wanted to tell him to cough and let it out but I was afraid too. What if he had Corona? Instead, he drove fast. For me, it was a car crash or the possibility of a Corona infection. For him, it was a car crash or the possibility of a bad review. Wordlessly, we seemed to have both agreed to take our chance on a car crash. Once at our destination, I stepped out and he coughed discreetly, before asking me if I could pay him in cash. It takes some time for the company to transfer the money to his account and he urgently needs the it to provide essentials for his family.
Quarantine came during a major financial crisis in Lebanon, no one could afford to not work. Most of us found ways to continue our work remotely. For frontliners however, getting paid meant being out there. They are typically paid the least while facing the greatest risks.
I’ve always struggled with service providers. They tended to ask too many personal questions. “Are you single?” “Where do you work?” “Why are you going to the hospital?” “You stay out late!” wink wink. “why are you going to Hamra at 11:00 pm? Do you party?” I still don’t like personal questions, but it’s less of a problem for me nowadays. They went from nosy people to nosy heroes.
A face I will never forget is that of the cashier lady at the grocery store. It was the first time I leave the house since the start of the quarantine. I picked my items and waited in line. There was a family with two kids in front of me. The kids were licking the handle of the cart, their pink small tongues racing back and forth on that red handle. I wanted to say something to the parents but they seemed too overwhelmed, buying everything in large numbers to lock themselves up until god knows when. When it was my turn, I looked at the cashier and realized that she too was my hero. I had seen that face numerous times in the past, but that day, I also saw the face of a hero. Mid forties, wrinkles covering the back of her cheeks as she smiles, light brown hair with split ends that goes down a little bit bellow her shoulders, light brown eyes, light brown skin. An ordinary face in more ordinary times.
I pointed to the cart and said: “The kids licked it, just so you know.”
“I am worried about my children, they are home alone and I have to be here for another hour,” came her reply.
“Inshalla they are safe.”
“We can’t stop working, you know. People need to buy their things and we have to pay bills.”
“Yes I understand, these are tough times.”
“The bread. It’s yours?” She asked pointing to something that was left on the counter.
“No, not mine”
“Okay, 62,000L.L. then.”
“Thank you, and take care.”
Back in college, a campaign was once launched to boycott self-service cash registers, in an attempt to maintain employment. For a few minutes that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about how little we appreciate daily service jobs that could be replaced by robots. As if it doesn’t matter who these people are.
My father, now in his early 60s, owns a small company in the US. He operates two trucks that transfer food and essentials, including toilet paper, cleaning supplies, canned food, etc., throughout the states and to neighboring countries.
I was too afraid to call and check on him. I worried he’d tell me he isn’t wearing his mask or that he can’t quarantine because his clients would find someone else to work with.
Growing up I didn't like many decisions my dad made about his career. He changed jobs often and never seemed to commit. If he was happy at work, he never cared for his rights, even if he was underappreciated or underpaid. It all changed when he started his own company.
Words fail me when I try to explain how I feel right now. My dad was the reason some people were able to eat and get other essential during quarantine.
It took me until April to finally call, almost a month after the start of the lock down. He was laughing, as usual. When I asked about his work and safety, he said with a heavy voice: “We have to feed all of America, imagine that and quarantine, haha. but I am wearing my mask and I only see the same four people everyday.
And just like that my father went from being an invisible service provider, a man irresponsible with his career, suddenly he’s a hero.
Sherry Alhayek, born in Homs-Syria, grew up in Chicago. Graduated from the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) with a bachelor of science in architecture, and a minor in communications. Certified journalist and a trainer with the Deutsche Welle akademie in Germany. Winner of the " Goldenen Nica des Prix Ars Electronica 2012 " for the digital communications category and the BoBs award for online blogging 2012.