I want to go out again! I want to go back to doing all the things! More personally, as a musician, I used to be publicly celebrated for doing something I love, and yeah, I’d sure like to get back to doing that again! Adding insult to injury, I have a large, unfinished tattoo that annoys me every time I look in the mirror. Unfortunately, none of those are reason enough for me to go back out.
Why? Well, aside from feelings of personal responsibility involving society as a whole, my elders, my audience, and the fact that as a Black Mainer I am 25 times more likely than a white Mainer to catch COVID-19? Not sure I need another reason, but if I do, here it is: the public.
I worked customer service jobs most of my life, so I’ve dealt with the public in many capacities. Coincidentally, the extremes were at two different video stores. The first was a soulless corporate entity that thrived by maintaining an adversarial relationship between itself, its employees and its customers.
For example, whenever a movie was overdue, we would call the customer to remind them to return it. There were rarely fewer than a hundred calls to be made, and every third call went something like this:
Me: Hi, this is Movie Gallery calling to …
Customer: I returned it.
Me: Well, I just checked the shelves before calling and …
Customer: Go fuck yourself/You’re a fucking liar/I’m gonna come down there and kick your fucking ass! [Hangs up]
No one ever followed up on their threats, but as you might imagine, 30 of those calls a day made that job uninspiring.
The other extreme was at a store called Videoport. Instead of being a soulless corporate entity relying on adversarial relationships, the opposite was true. Videoport was independently owned and it created a community around itself and its employees. It was truly a beautiful and wonderful place. During my first Videoport shift, every third call went like this:
Me: Hi, this is Videoport calling to see …
Customer: Oh, hey! Right! I forgot all about that! Thanks for the reminder!
Me: [Laughing in shock/openly weeping at my newfound glory]
Yes, I have seen the grand heights and vicious depths of service-industry employment, but even at its grandest height there were pitfalls. For instance: the turnstile.
Videoport had a turnstile at its entrance and another at its exit. As is traditional, they each only went in one direction, and they revealed more about the public than any other inanimate object I’ve ever happened upon.
Occasionally someone would attempt to exit through the entrance. Because of the turnstile’s unidirectional spin and its mid-to-low-waist height, these attempts could spell disaster. Naturally, we employees would warn anyone seen making this mistake. The vast majority of customers never attempted this at all, and those who did could often be warned away. But not every time.
Anywhere from one to 20 times in a single shift, an employee’s warning would somehow go unheard as a customer briskly walked their groin straight into an unmoving metal bar. The warnings were irrelevant. It didn’t matter if we calmly asked them to walk around the other side of the counter or frantically waved our arms, emphatically shouting the exact thing that was about to happen. Anywhere from one to 20 times, we Videoporters would watch as a customer’s expression turned from one of friendliness to disbelief — for reasons of distrust, or perhaps a personal sense of exceptionalism, but always resulting in pain. I can still hear the guttural sounds coming out of their mouths. Some would collapse onto the floor. I remember one particular customer moving with such velocity that he vomited on impact.
Occasionally it was even worse than that. At least once a week I would see a customer disregard a warning and brutalize themselves on our turnstile, only to watch them back up, shake it off, and immediately do it again, but harder, somehow expecting a different result. But the result was always the same.
This is all to say that even by the metric of the best possible version of “the public,” there is still a small and yet overwhelming number of people who, due either to ignorance or hubris, take such offense at the mere suggestion of momentarily considering their own personal well-being that they would rather charge dick-first into an immovable steel pipe. Twice.
Once again, our lives are in the proven-incapable hands of a very few. So, yeah, #staythefuckhome.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.