Existential Essentialism? (Or, Trying to Sound Smart in a Time of Idiocy)

It’s Spring 2020. The world is in the midst of a global viral pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people have filed for unemployment benefits due to social distancing and the necessity to prevent the spread of infection.

I’m in an area of the U.S. that’s very close to what’s been called the “epicenter” of the American pandemic. Mine and surrounding states have been put on strict orders to stay away from others and, in so many words, “STAY. THE. FUCK. HOME.” Recently, we were told that masks, (PPE type, not Halloween type,) and protective gloves (ideally medical/surgical/sterile and not you know, ski mittens,) were to be worn at all times when interacting with other members of the public, (i.e.: If you’re going to the grocery, don’t sneeze all over the buns in the bakery and don’t grope the cantaloupes with your bare hands please and thank you.)

That being said, being the massive introvert that I am, aside from looking like a child playing doctor, what with my handmade PPE mask (it has sloths on it and is adorable,) and vinyl gloves that are about 3 sizes too big, life hasn’t changed much for me. To be honest, things have been going pretty well. I still talk with my friends online, play video games, read and listen to the same Lo-Fi Hip Hop streams on YouTube, (Chillhop Music is my favorite.) If I’m being truly honest, I’ve been happier and cozier the past month and a half than I’ve been in well over a year.

However, I do have to say, because of the coronavirus pandemic, life has still changed. My full-time work hours have been cut in half, as the retail store I work at was shuttered about a month ago by our local government for being non-essential, despite protests and legal threats from Corporate. Corporate even went so far as “declaring” itself “essential” in a vain effort to remain open and make money off of people being bored at home/needing an electronic babysitter for their children. (There was a whole big thing about it and Google will tell you everything you need to know if you look hard enough.) I’ve picked up a shift or two at other stores that are either still open for curbside/”Delivery @ Door” service, or just to cover the remaining few hours of the work day, but for the most part, I’ve been at my own store, stuffing bubble mailers with totally “essential” online orders of 10-year old video games and Funko Pop! figures.

Before we were completely closed to the public, people from neighboring states were traveling hours to come to mine in order to shop for these “essential” (see previous paragraph) items. When these items weren’t available, or when we inevitably had to deny them entry into the store or their form of payment, (no, I will not take the $20 in cash that for all I know was used to wipe up bat guano and dead bugs,) we were threatened, because I guess it just be like that sometimes.

But seriously, yes, threats were made – threats of violence, threats of death, all the fun stuff. One guy even threatened to smash the store windows and come in because his need for a Nintendo Switch was so great, he couldn’t fathom the thought of not being able to walk right in and get one. (It should be pointed out that this man was so enraged about not being able to come into the store, the associate on shift that day didn’t even get the chance to tell him we’d been sold out of Switches for weeks, as he wasn’t able to get a word in during this [grown-ass] man’s temper tantrum.) I personally was called a racial slur (N-word with the “hard R”) over the phone, for the very first time, so I guess I can cross off “Be Racially Insulted Despite Not Being that Race Because My Store is Sold Out of Nintendo Switches” from my Bucket List.

Eventually, once the store was closed and our phones were turned off, I got to thinking – why? Like, I get that people are bored, being stuck at home, with people they’re rapidly finding out may not be people you want to spend 24/7 with. I remembered back to when I was covering a shift at a different store a couple weeks before serious lock downs happened. A customer said to me that humans are social creatures. You can impose all the rules you want, but it won’t stop them from doing what they instinctively want to do – be with other people. The idea of being kept away from a thing that has always been so natural is a huge blow and people will do what they feel they need to do in order to maintain the status quo, even if it negatively impacts others. For example, someone who’s been stuck at home for a week will be bored and stir crazy and frustrated to the point of taking out their frustrations on someone else, simply because they’ve not found or can’t do what they normally do as their outlet. When given the opportunity, they may not be thinking rationally and get even more frustrated when they don’t get their way. Entitlement.

As an introvert, I only have one or two people I talk to regularly and even then, I don’t see them every day, so maybe it’s harder for me to understand this, but I get it, I think, maybe. I understand that businesses need income to stay afloat and my heart goes out to all the small businesses who may not survive this pandemic. But what classifies as “essential”? Are video games essential? Are awkwardly positioned, large busted anime statues essential? Am I essential?

All I know is that tomorrow, (or later today, if you want to get technical,) I’ll go to my “essential” retailer, that’s closed and currently being used as a de facto online warehouse, and stuff bubble mailers and boxes with “essential” items such as vinyl figurines, video games for consoles long since discontinued and “Star Wars”-themed stationary sets. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll watch the number of outbound orders decrease as we rapidly run out of sellable product. In the darkness of the store, I’ll look around at all the “essential” items that I can’t afford or don’t need, that aren’t at all necessary for my immediate survival. I’ll wonder why I do this; why is it “essential” for me to sell luxury items and get threatened, verbally abused, insulted and degraded in return.

Could I decide the risk of staying isn’t worth it and ride it out on unemployment until this all blows over? Sure, but I’d rather not, as part of me doesn’t feel it’s fair to those small business employees and owners who need it more. Am I currently getting supplemental unemployment benefits due to a (hopefully) temporary cut in work hours? Yes, because I also need to survive. I’m not proud of this, but as silly as it may sound, my cats depend on me for food and shelter and those are two little lives who’ve helped me more than their little walnut-sized brains will ever comprehend.

To them, I am essential. To me, they are essential. And that’s what matters.