After leaving Lehigh University due to the pandemic, I have been spending my quarantine in an affluent Minneapolis suburb with my partner’s family. Families ride their bikes down the sidewalks and kids play in their front yards and driveways, while keeping their distance from other passersby; older folks sit on their front lawns and chat. It can feel far removed from the crisis of the pandemic. In March, the “thank u” signs pictured here began to spring up in yards. As I walked past these signs, I was inspired to consider what desires for communication they are expressing. Now that public gatherings are dangerous, these remote acts of speech stand in for a visible public response. In suburbs like this one, where the available public spaces – parks and shopping centers – are not designed for public speech, yards have always been sites of expression. Contrasting to the political yard signs we’d expect in an ordinary election year, the “thank u” signs speak of a desire for unity, a collective response of appreciation. This sign pictured above stood out particularly because it is paired with a hand-made child’s sign accompanying the mass-produced item. As tangential to the current crisis as the sentiment may be, I was touched by the child’s desire, clearly nurtured by their parents, to contribute positivity to a public forum. This sign replaced another, similar sign, which read “believe in unicorns.”
The sentiment of gratitude expressed by the mass-produced signs is an admirable one and it is important to honor and appreciate the people symbolized in the sign’s iconography. Yet I have always been somewhat dubious of gratitude. It sometimes presupposes that the person being thanked is doing their job out of a sense of civic duty (“thank you for your service”) and with full knowledge of the consequences. Many of the workers invoked by the sign hold their jobs because of economic necessity and never could have imagined that going to work would put their lives at risk. I am glad to see the sign acknowledging the extraordinary labor of these workers who have found themselves in such an unexpected position, but I also am unsure of how many of these workers will see them. I have no doubt that this suburb houses many medical professionals and teachers; I am less sure about grocery store and restaurant workers. I also worry that gratitude may feel like enough. Another handmade sign pictured below tacitly acknowledges both the expected audience and the value of compensation, encouraging delivery drivers to “please help yourself” to an unseen token of appreciation. It seems every day I read a story about a failure to truly value this labor: a nurse who faces deportation; the doctors, delivery drivers, and grocery store workers who lack protective equipment; workers who do not have paid sick leave; parents whose children are home from school but who still must go into work; workers without adequate health insurance. All of a sudden, some of our most undervalued workers have become our most essential laborers, and the discrepancies in how we value people’s labor and lives are laid bare.
My mother, who just celebrated her sixty-first birthday, has worked at the same grocery store for nearly twenty years. Happily, it is locally owned by a couple who have worked alongside and care deeply about their employees. The store is extraordinarily diligent about cleaning, far beyond any other grocery store I’ve seen or heard about. They supply gloves for customers as they walk into the door and set up delivery and curbside pickup entirely from scratch. They limited their hours, so employees have time to clean and spend less time close to customers. The store owners do this despite living in a rural area where cases still number in the tens – I am immensely proud of this store and the people who work there for being proactive and taking the needs of their employees so seriously. I learned this week that my mother is receiving hazard pay, as should every employee who is forced to put their body in peril during this pandemic. But, too few can expect hazard pay without a fight. When we talk on the phone, my mom regales me with tales of her customers, sometimes irate, sometimes grateful, and the new safety procedures that have been put in place. She tells me how when she comes home, she changes into new clothes and washes her hands before greeting my father, who will turn sixty-five this June, and who until last week was still going into work (to my immense relief, the university lab which employs him has told employees to stay at home). These “thank u” signs reflect for me the gratitude and admiration I feel for my mother and her coworkers. If they embody, as they hope they do, a mass desire to express our gratitude publicly, I hope that desire will take many more forms.