Web Exclusives #6: “The Same”

*For our recently published special issue, “Food in the Time of COVID-19”, we received more submissions than we could accommodate in the print version of the issue, so the following article forms part of a series of submissions which will be published as Web Exclusives which speak to the theme of Gastronomica 20.3.

By Tess Nissen

March 22, 2020: New York, New York

A smile and a wave from me,

A term of endearment from Diana,

A “Hey, how you doin’?” from Ali.

This is how you know you have arrived in East Village Organic (EVO).

Since March 12, things have been different in the store located on First Avenue between Seventh St. and St. Mark’s Place.

“How are you?” 

“How are you holding up?”

“This must be stressful for you…”

“Are you washing your hands?”

And before we were wearing them, “Why aren’t you wearing gloves? Or a mask? You should be wearing gloves or a mask?”

Figure 1: Unmasked in March, featuring Sinna Nasseri. Photograph by Daniel Bowman Simon © 2020

Customers are concerned about me today. They ask how I am doing as if they have known me for years. They look at me closer, to make sure I am being safe.

I do most of the same things I normally would, but first I ask for permission.

If a customer brings their own bag, “I can bag your groceries if you are okay with it,” I say to the middle-aged woman wearing latex gloves.

She says, “Oh yes, that is fine with me.”

Others say, “No, that is okay, I can do it.” And I wonder if they are saying no because they think I could hurt them, or if they think they could hurt me.

So, we do this dance at the counter. Trying to help each other, without touching each other, despite the irony of me touching the food they will carry back to their apartments and into their homes and feed their families and nourish their bodies. 

The irony of these interactions includes the performance of natural hand sanitizer with 62% ethanol rubbed between my fingers after each customer. Lysol on the countertops every 30 minutes, crossed off on the white board, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, don’t cough, don’t forget to take your allergy medication, don’t lean over the counter to hear the elderly person, don’t accidentally brush hands… with… anyone. We are all learning new choreography to formerly rote tasks.

I am reminded of an elderly customer named Asher who has lived on St. Mark’s Place for the last 60 years. He comes in every other day to buy the same thing, whole milk, and he pays with his EBT card, which doesn’t swipe and requires the cashier to manually insert the card numbers on the keypad.

***

An update from May 23, 2020: Plexiglass separates the customers from us now. Masks hide our smiles; occasionally it is hard to hear what they’re saying. Sometimes I don’t feel like smiling so I am glad 3/4 of my face is concealed behind my blue mask. Those moments seem to intertwine when I witness a kindness toward the elderly woman with the cane. Kind gestures of the past have evolved to kind words from a six foot distance now.

Figure 2: EVO essentials. Photograph by Tess Nissen © 2020

The burden of change is upon us. Absolutely nothing is the same anymore. EVO is still a happy place to be, just not the same.

Tess Nissen is a master’s student in food studies at NYU and works part-time as a cashier at the East Village Organic grocery store. Tess has found herself as an essential worker while studying food policy, food systems, sustainability and waste.