On the Front Lines
HIV and Working in a Necessary Industry
by John Francis Leonard

For the past six years, I’ve worked part-time at a grocery store——most recently as a cashier. It’s not the most important or prestigious job I’ve held in my career, but like everything I commit to doing, I take it seriously. It’s not many hours, just sixteen a week, but it provides some much-needed extra income and gets me out of the house and out of my head. I do enjoy it; I’ve come to value the customers I work with and have even established much-cherished friendships with two in particular. Many customers whom I’ve come to know are people I exchange a warm hug or handshake with when I see them——that is, until recent events put a stop to such casual contact. For the month of March, I took time off to rehabilitate from a historically bad back that had grown problematic once again. I returned in April to a work environment that had changed radically due to COVID-19. It’s been a real challenge on many levels trying to provide the same level of customer service while limiting customer contact. To top it all off, I’m healthy, but living with HIV, which is in the back of my mind at all times.

I’m lucky in one very important aspect: the chain of supermarkets that I work for has been completely proactive in limiting contact between its employees and customers. At the checkout in particular, we clean and disinfect between each customer and they are asked to wait at the beginning of the line until we call them down to make payment. I’d like to say that everyone who shops is as patient and tolerant as they can be since we follow these procedures to keep them safe as well, but we spend a lot of time reminding customers to follow them and not everyone is happy about it.

A row of shopping carts at rest.

Still, in customer service, you accept that not everyone will be gracious, and there are always a few people who look for a problem. There are just a few more than usual as everyone adapts to this new normal. I tell myself often that I’m lucky to have employment right now with so many people out of work, but some days are more trying than others. The majority of people take the time to thank us for our contribution and I try to concentrate on those interactions and have as much fun as I’ve always had with my customers. I was out of work for most of March and really missed my fellow employees, as well as the customers. Well, the majority of the customers. I try to remember that everyone’s patience is thin. Traffic in the store is highly regulated now and people often wait outside in line when the store is too busy. When you couple this with the worry and risk you take upon yourself shopping and so many new rules, the best of us can grow impatient.

As far as my own health and risk of exposure, there are conflicting reports of how concerned I should be. I’m undetectable with the T-cell count of a healthy person, but still have read that the inflammation caused by my medications is what makes me more susceptible to various diseases. I have a friend who works in the store who is also poz, and his physician took him out of work for several months out of concern for his health. I don’t know his numbers, but it has given me pause nonetheless. Should I be working in such close contact with so many people? Sure, they’ve put up a Plexiglas barrier between the customer and the cashier, but people are very casual about keeping behind it. Others insist on still using cash, which if nothing else, puts me in direct contact. I try not to worry about it endlessly, but I’m left with questions. Last week I emailed my physician who is also the area’s leading infectious disease specialist; I have yet to hear back from him. He sees a lot of elderly patients in his general practice, so I’m sure he’s got his hands full. I don’t want to be like some of the worst customers I come across, only worried about themselves, but I’m eagerly awaiting his reply. How worried should I be?

So, I’ll keep doing what I do for now. When someone gets impatient or angry, I’ll take a deep breath and remember how new this is for all of us. For a gay man like myself, who came of age during another pandemic in NYC, it’s a little easier to stay calm. The nature of that virus was very different, but it took many lives. I lost many of my closest friends. If we all play our part, we will come through this and limit loss of life. It’ll just take sacrifice and remembering that we’re all in this together. Last week a very nice woman came through my line who had a beautiful way of looking at this pandemic. She remarked that if one good thing could come of all this it could be that this inconvenience of things slowing down in our busy, modern lives, that it might just give us an opportunity to be more conscious and thoughtful when the pace picks back up again——wise words for us all!

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.