By Chase Duffy
As the train glides along, I lose myself in the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The armed guards’ walkie talkies at each end of the train car buzz with the same message, shocking me out of my reading rhythm. Something about a seventeen in progress on a red line train towards Shady Grove. Most everyone on the train, most Metro riders left in the city, understood what that meant; there weren’t too many of us left who hadn’t witnessed a seventeen on one of our daily rides. Robbery in the train system had become a common occurrence in the late stages of the pandemic.
I glance up toward the sound of the radio static cutting out on the walkie talkies, then look back to the novel in my lap. Two more stops, I think to myself as the world of Macondo and the Buendias encapsulates me once again. The train slows to a stop as the mechanical voice overhead announces, “This is: Georgia Avenue-Petworth” A couple of people stand up and make their way to the door.
One man near the back of the train coughs; the whole train breaks their necks, staring daggers back towards the man. The unspoken rule of a one cough allowance is clearly being observed, and the struggle in the man’s face is palpable. He and I lock eyes as he held his breath, straining against the second cough that his body craved so badly. My eyes plead with him to keep it down, and, gradually, he begins taking shallow breaths and regains his composure. The tension in the train car slowly dissipates as people go back to what they were doing, taking cursory glances back towards the man intermittently.
The doors open, riders file out and a new group of Washingtonians shuffled into the car. Since the government quarantine, the validity of anyone’s citizenship was hardly ever questioned. To do so was to endanger someone’s entire existence in the city. The accusation had been known to incite beatings and worse in retribution. It was like spitting on someone and having them arrested in one fell swoop.
The doors close on the train car and the driver accelerates on towards Columbia Heights. I look down towards Marquez’s masterpiece, but the tension of the last stop has taken me out of my reading mood. Dissatisfied and worried for the man in the back, I put my headphones in and turn Kid Cudi up. The rest of the trip passes without incident (or at least any incident known to me) and we eventually arrive at U Street, Kid Cudi humming to the rhythm of my heartbeat.
I stand up as the train pulls into the station, steadying myself in a wide stance on the train floor as I wait for the train to stop and doors to open. The train comes to an abrupt halt, and I grab onto the pole, something which warrants some sideways glances from the other people in the car. “Stand clear, train moving” the conductor says over the loudspeaker as we inch ahead about a foot and a half then come to a stop again. I let go of the handrail, but, as Kid Cudi implores me to not “fuck up the Feng Shui,” I am conscious of the stares that remain on me. Even those outside of the train, due to the stoppage and readjustment by the conductor, have seen that I grabbed the handrail and have moved to different entrances. Some even walk all the way to different train cars. The train doors open, and I marvel at the extent of the panic as the armed guard cleans the pole with a Lysol wipe behind me.
A train towards Greenbelt has just arrived, and I file in behind those walking up the escalators towards the exit, ultimately choosing to follow a man wearing a brown peacoat who was walking at a brisk pace through the turnstiles. As I walk up the second escalator, ascending to the city, I see the bleak effects this panic has wrought on DC. It is now September, we’re six months out from the initial escalation of measures and closures. Unemployment has reached forty percent, evictions are taking place across the nation after a failed rent strike; people are desperate and in the streets.
And yet, one institution remains: the grocery store. My job at Sailor Bob’s has not only kept me from feeling some of the effects of the massive economic shock. It has actually allowed me some opportunity. The company made it policy in the early stages of the social shock that each and every employee would now share in the company’s profits. This one single policy has turned some of my coworkers into wildly overzealous employees. Verbal confrontation and even physical violence by employees against customers thought to be thieves had spiked in recent months. Even more alarming was the fact that management and the hierarchy of Sailor Bob’s had decided that reprimands and termination over these incidents should be exchanged for promotions and opportunity within the company. Luckily, I am in a store where only three of the eight managers have been promoted on these terms. Some stores are operating a full staff of men and women who manage their grocery store like a WWE/Police Academy combo tryout.
As I walk up U Street past the crowds of homeless people that now populate the main thoroughfare, I think about how all of this has probably contributed to the increase in robberies of Sailor Bob’s and other grocery stores nationwide. In D.C. alone, four Sailor Bob’s had been robbed in the last ten days. An article in the Washington Post said reports of a “Robin-Hood-Mad-Max-esque character” at the scenes of the crimes. The store used to pride itself on its reputation as a friendly neighborhood grocery store, one that valued its customers and treated them with respect. Now, you were liable to get bodyslammed (or worse) simply for shopping like a regular American. Everyone was poor, and because everyone was poor only the visibly rich were now treated with respect. Everyone else was perceived as a threat to the lucrative bonuses the company now regularly gave out. I started this job because I needed to pay for school, I think to myself. I only need a couple more weeks to do that, then I can quit this B.S., something that started as usual labor and had since escalated to an occult, Mafia-esque operation.
I arrive at the door and flash my nametag to the armed guards stationed at the front of the store. We used to have one security guard, Sammy, who I liked very much. But the company let him go after he was knocked out by a shoplifter with two bottles of Veuve Clicquot and $200 worth of salmon back in June. Now, two of our highest salaried employees were these muscly pricks standing at the door. One of them was an ex-marine, the other secret service or something. A lot of buzzwords were thrown around at their introduction to the crew. The ex-marine grunts and I shoulder past them through the door, finally peeling off my hoodie to reveal my Sailor Bob’s t-shirt. The uniform was too risky to show anywhere but the store ever since the New York Times had broken the story on our bonuses and equity in the store’s profits. Now, rich or poor a man was like to get stabbed in the street for wearing one of these t-shirts around. It wouldn’t matter how dirty you looked, how rank you smelled, how destitute you claimed to be; if you had a Sailor Bob’s uniform on, you were a rich man.
I just needed the checks for school, which put me in a bad place in those kinds of encounters. About 10% of my checks came to my actual bank account. The rest went towards my tuition at UDC and rent. Though the school had not yet reopened its physical campus, online classes were still available (to those who could pay). As for my apartment costs, landlords increased rent exponentially following the pandemic. They capitalized harshly on a vulnerable renter after the failed rent strike. I am now paying near $4,000 for a four hundred square foot apartment in Fort Totten near the Maryland border. If someone were to rob me with my uniform on and I pulled out whatever $5 or $10 I had on me, they may feel so offended as to kill me. You see, the people who were being promoted at Trader Joe’s were making anywhere from a half a million dollars to more than two million in any given year, especially in major cities. Some of the store managers at the busiest stores (mine included) were raking in close to three million dollars in a calendar year. These employees and managers, with their Bentleys, police escorts and rockstar lives, created an image that made it hard for the average worker to not get robbed.
I hang my backpack and hoodie up in the back room and walk up towards the clock to punch in, thinking about all of this all the while when suddenly I hear gunshots far closer than I usually do. I duck behind a register near the bananas right next to the front door and hear heavy footsteps approach the inner door. The sensor opens the automatic door and a man and a woman in paramilitary gear and facemasks walk through.
“This is a stickup, nobody move. Just because these two rent-a-cops had to die doesn’t mean anyone else has to.” The woman on the left says through her mask, voice booming throughout the store. “That’s right. I don’t wanna see any of you sons of bitches tryna play hero” the man on the right booms in a voice to match his compatriot. I look down at my shaking hand and take a deep breath, steadying myself.
“We’ve got the store surrounded” A voice came from the back as a man emerged from the cheese section rifle in hand. His dress and mask matched his two comrades at the front, I notice as I exhale my second deep breath. Their voices might have been amplified and deepened by some sort of technology in the mask, I think as my head clears of the initial shock. A fourth and fifth member of the crew announce themselves at the back of the store.
“Alright, enough” I hear from my right towards the “office,” an exposed cube from which the managers run the store. My heart drops and I know exactly who it is who has spoken. Our new manager Kevin had been promoted because he thwarted not one but two robberies in a week down in the Tyson’s Corner store. In the second incident, the assailant apparently tried to shoot Kevin. Instead, his gun backfired and burnt his hand as Kevin pounced on the man and beat him senseless. For that amazing dual feat, he was rewarded a manager position at one of the most profitable stores in the nation. Because of all this, Kevin felt untouchable (and voiced this opinion often). Sitting back, enjoying lunch in the break room, one was liable to be interrupted by a Trumpian speech from Kevin about how he could shoot a customer in the bread aisle and get promoted instead of going to jail. This was the unreal reality in which some Sailor Bob’s employees lived in though, and this was the reality which got Kevin killed.
“I’ve heard enough of this shit” Kevin’s last words carried over the registers from his throat as he reached for the immense Colt 45 handgun he had kept on his waist since his promotion. The shots rang out swiftly from multiple angles; it seemed to me that every single bullet hit Kevin either in the chest or the throat. His body, literally stopped dead in his tracks, convulsed and fell to the floor as his Colt 45 clattered to the floor, loud and abrasive in the tense silence that was palpable in the store. “That reminds me” said the first bandit, breaking the silence as she walked up to Kevin’s body and picked up his handgun “Let’s get all the weapons right now so no one else gets any ideas.”
I had made a decision when the world was regular to never risk my life for Sailor Bob’s, and that resolution has not changed since the world went crazy, I think to myself. I carried a small blade on me at work in addition to my box cutter, nothing crazy, but I only kept that for cases of self-defense. The bandits round up the customers and workers, separated them, and collect our boxcutters and whatever other weapons we had. I hand over my boxcutter to one of the more than fifteen individuals, all masked up and dressed in paramilitary gear, who had emerged since the initial shooting of the security guards. They had accurate intel on many of the worker’s concealed weapons. Thankfully, they miss my knife (most likely because I try not to talk about things that other people have no business knowing at work). They confiscate David’s pistol along with a bevy of other weapons. After all this, the lead bandit steps forward and asks for the managers to come with her. Dress code for managers in Sailor Bob’s is a full kimono, so there is no point in any of the managers trying to hide. She leads the kimono clad group of managers back to the office area, away from the frozen and snack aisles where the workers and customers are being kept. Much of the lead bandit’s speech to the managers is inaudible to us as she begins quite calmly. She realizes the stubbornness of many of the managers before long, and becomes enraged, allowing her voice to carry back to us.
“Do you sons of bitches not understand who I am? I’m the fucking Robin Hood of D.C. Right now, we have trucks backing up to your loading docks to take away every ounce of food you rich sickos have been hoarding. We’re taking your ill-gotten gains to the needy and homeless of D.C., the people you bodyslam, vilify and kill in your stores. But that’s not enough for us. The food is sweet don’t get me wrong, the food is life. But the people are hungry. The people want more than just a meal. We want justice. If we take your stock, you’ll reorder, bury whoever this sorry son-of-a-bitch-wanna-be-hero manager was and reorder again. You’ll rehire some new secret service rent-a-cop and be back to business as usual by the end of the week. This robbery will be a blip on your profit margins. I know how Sailor Bob’s operates. I’ve been robbing your stores for four months now. No, we need you to open the safe right fucking now. It’s not an option, this is not a game, and I’m not fucking around. Look at your friend the hero if you need inspiration but open that goddamn safe in the next fifteen seconds so I don’t have to kill another rich man today.”
She finishes with a chilling drop of her voice. Though her back is turned to us, it looks as if her shoulders are both entirely tense and completely relaxed, poised to act on the drop of a dime.
“Who says it has to be a man.” A voice booms from the group of managers and I cringe. All of us in the employee group know who has spoken as soon as the words ring out. Rainstorm, the store manager and only person not promoted on violence who was still an active participant, is a fiery woman who cared about Sailor Bob’s long before the bonuses were available to employees. A ten-year employee with the company, Rainstorm had already put three customers in headlocks and physically thrown one woman out of the store on her shoulders within a week of the first reports of violence (and subsequent promotions) for Sailor Bob’s employees. And yet, despite a resume that would shame The Rock and The Undertaker, she had yet to get the promotion to outside of the store. That promotion was worth about seven million in bonuses; it had only been given twice since the Covid-19 panic began, but Rainstorm kept chasing it. It looks to me like she’s chasing it to an early grave right now.
“Well sister, I was gonna let the men die first. If you insist on being the one, though, I can’t stop you. You got ten seconds to open this fucking safe before I blow your brains out.” The woman bandit retorts, looking Rainstorm directly in the eye.
For a couple of seconds, her body quivers with all the rage of a capitalist losing all of the fruits of hers and her employees’ labor. She strains against this rage for a moment; she shakes her head as the bandit counts to seven, and a shot rings out. “AHHHHHHHH” she screams, grasping at her foot. Her hands come back into my view slick and crimson as her tears stream and she hops on her one good foot. “I told you I’m not fucking around” the bandit says, softly and with extreme menace. “Okay” Rainstorm whimpers, swallowing the gutwrenching cries from a second ago. As she limps over to the safe, Rainstorm scoffs over her shoulder “You’re lucky you singled me out. None of these men know the code to this safe,” looking back towards the bandit, whose rifle butt was placed squarely in her back, as she did. It amazed me that Rainstorm was still talking shit even after all that had happened. “And you would have let them die rather than open the safe?” the bandit asks incredulously. A blush comes over Rainstorm’s pale face as she turns back towards the dial. Her hand quivers so intensely that the dial rattles as she turned it, rattles so loudly that I can hear it in our confinement in the frozen aisle. And yet, she gets it open on her first attempt, unlocking the heavy door and slowly swinging the heavy door open with her bloody hand.
The bandit behind her grabs her arms and zip-ties them behind her back, and her compatriots do the same to the rest of the managers. The leader of the crew pulls out a duffle bag from her backpack. She sticks her hands into the safe, drags them along the bottom, and lets the stacks of cash cascade into the duffle bag between her feet. “Alright y’all, time to recruit.” She says as she picks up stray bundles of cash and zips up the bag.
She half walks, half skips over to the group, and Malcolm mutters something about police response time begrudgingly. One of the bandits glares over in his direction to silence the chatter. Malcolm, and everyone else, knows the police aren’t coming. 95% of the force had been quarantined for months now. Response time was nonexistent as police didn’t leave the Capitol, National Mall and Metro system for anything short of double-digit bodies or a call from Georgetown. To do so, the police chief had said, was “to risk pandemonium in our most important sites around the city.” Important, I blow air out of my nose in a half scoff. The rest of the group of bandits moves over to the frozen aisle. As they walk up, the woman who had been speaking the whole time begins again.
“You as workers are the only people left that can truly be saved in this store. These customers come in here to buy ten-dollar loaves of bread that your managers profit off of. It is an environment of the uber rich and the super privileged. But you started here, most of you, in an hourly position with meager means. Even with these recent bonuses, we understand that you are not the bourgeois we are fighting. Not yet at least. Now is your chance to join the right side. Don’t continue on this path, on the path of your manager with the Colt. Join us. You have the inside knowledge of policy and procedure that we need. And we need workers. We need teachers. We need chefs and we need fighters. We have three trucks loading your stockpile of food in the back to be taken to the needy. Come with us.” Murmurs spread throughout the workers. Some people spit on the ground at the idea, others seem intrigued. Ten seconds pass, then fifteen, and still no one speaks. Finally, I can’t take it.
I say, breaking the silence as I take my nametag off and step forward. Another voice rises from my right and I turn to see Isaac smiling next to me. Voices rise from each corner of the group as more and more workers decide to join. All in all, twelve of us thirty workers head to the back with the bandits, helping to use to forklifts to load the trucks with the produce, dry goods and grocery. As we finish loading the last pallet, one of the bandits offers me his hand. My stomach quivers. I look at the bandit’s weapons and tell myself its only necessary for robbing Bob’s. Kevin’s quivering body falling to the ground, his gun clattering on the tile, flashes through my mind. It feels like butterflies with razor wings all jacked up on Red Bull are going crazy in my gut as I take a deep breath, grab his hand, put my foot on the back of the truck and get pulled up into the box. We lower the back door of the truck and I take my place near the back door, back resting on the side of the truck. I stare into the darkness of the truck, listening to the eerie quiet of the truck and marveling at this decision I have thrust myself into.
Then, I cough.