Listening as Dave Morello spoke early this past Saturday morning, my mind immediately wandered — something that happens with increasing regularity as I grow, uh, more mature.
What came to mind was the opening scene of the 1970 film Patton that sees George C. Scott, portraying the title character, address an unseen audience of American troops on the cusp of battle during the Second World War.
The four-star general’s monologue is brimming with typical American bravado, the intent being to motivate his troops.
Morello is very much in the motivation business these days.
At 7:45 a.m. daily since mid-March, when the severity of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak first became clear, Morello has rallied his troops: the men and women who work at Morello’s Independent Grocer in Peterborough — many of them for several years now and myself among them.
How I came to be employed part-time as a produce clerk at the Lansdowne Street East grocery store is a story unto itself.
When my corporate media bosses determined I was no longer useful to them back in January 2016, Morello told me I was useful to him, giving me a much-needed sense of purpose that lifted my spirits while I established myself as a freelance writer.
More than four years later, I’m still lugging bananas and the like. Why? Plain and simple, besides putting a few extra bucks in my pocket, I like the people I work with. It’s as simple as that. Nearing 62 years old, my days of playing workplace games are well behind me. This is a perfect fit.
So it is I’m now an “essential” worker, with my work — and that of my Morello’s colleagues — deemed much too important to society not to carry it on. People have got to eat, right?
When the severity of COVID-19 was first made clear, I considered requesting a leave of absence or, if necessary, turning in my name badge and trimming knife for good. Like you, I don’t want to get sick. But then I saw and experienced, firsthand, the extensive and decisive measures that Morello has put in place to keep his customers, staff, and suppliers safe — and I was all in.
The daily morning huddle, as Morello terms it, sees him review those measures and remind all within earshot to be vigilant. Most all of those measures are related in some way to the maintaining of physical distancing. He also updates staff on new steps he’s considering, as well as hammers home the renewed importance of near constant cleaning and sanitizing.
But Morello does something else still rare in all too many workplaces: he says thank you and means it, his tone and body language speaking clearly to the sincerity of that sentiment.
Regarding the intensified store-cleaning measures, Morello’s was well positioned to take that to the next level. If I had a dollar for every shift that saw me clean produce shelves, counters, and the like, I’d be in a higher tax bracket. Cleaning is nothing new. The reason for doing it more, and doing it better, is and it is absolutely vital.
So as I now play dodge ball minus the ball with customers and co-workers alike, I’m developing a greater appreciation for all those who remain at their jobs so our community can ride out the COVID-19 storm.
That includes the management and staff of all grocery stores in the region, as well as other retail outlets deemed essential. Like at Morello’s, each has stepped up in very big ways to keep all as safe as possible.
That said, I’m not at all comfortable with the “hero” tag that’s applied all too loosely to grocery and retail workers. Where I come from, heroes have been, and remain, doctors, nurses and front-line emergency responders who put themselves in danger to the benefit of another, not just now but always.
I don’t carry a water hose into a burning building. I take apples from a box and stack them in a way that they won’t fall victim to gravity. That’s tricky for sure, but hardly heroic.
Morello would never admit it or show it but he’s tired — a combination of quite longer than normal hours at the store, combined with the responsibility he bears for all who enter the front doors. His response to the heightened anxiety he does admit to feeling is to remain outwardly calm — to, as he did well before COVID-19 emerged, lead by example.
His morning huddles, he says, serve the purpose of providing information and updates that are as accurate as they can be. The sharing of information with his employees that is wrong would only make a very tough situation tougher.
I sense, and Morello agrees, that some of the COVID-19 related measures put in place — such as the plexiglas dividers separating cashiers from customers — will be a permanent fixture moving forward. As well, the heightened sanitizing is likely to stay remain in place.
Morello is not a four-star general leading soldiers into military battle. But he, like all of us and like open grocery and retail store owners and managers everywhere, is at war against a stubborn foe that shows no sign of letting up any time soon.
Aided in a big way by his store management team, which includes his wife Kim, Morello has taken charge and fought back.
No one can say with any certainty when the COVID-19 crisis will abate. But it will end at some point.
My hope is that the experience will have served to cast grocery store and retail workers in a new light; that the value of their service will receive the attention it has always deserved.
When the chips were down, they showed up and did what they do to the best of their ability. Not even Patton himself could demand more than that.