More or less every morning I go into my local Tesco to pick up my newspapers and anything I might want for breakfast. In this way I have come to know some of the early morning weekday shift, some at the tills, and others whose tasks are done near my habitual shopping itinerary; I would not call them friends, but rather kindly acquaintances, who greet me pleasantly, ask after my health, and discuss the issues of the day. They do not wear name badges, but I have picked up most of their names, over a period of time. That period includes all of the months of the pandemic, during which some of them have had worries about family members or neighbours, although none of them have had the viral infection.
I have therefore been daily aware of their presence as people who have worked continuously throughout the pandemic, initially without significant protection. After a few months their protection, and the safety routines of the whole store improved considerably, but they remain, as they say, in the “front line.” They are seldom mentioned as heroes, either in the media or the casual conversation of citizens, yet they have cheerfully provided an essential public service, without claiming any special place in popular esteem. They know, as the public knows, that their employer has made record profits over the time of the pandemic, without making any commitment to increase their hourly rate of pay. They are not outraged by this injustice because they take it as given.
These are facts; what do they reveal?
1. That those often described as ordinary working people possess qualities which are seldom recognised even by themselves: courage, kindness and sense of duty. Of course they have also been encouraged by the continuation of their normal working routines, but that does not deny the qualities of character mentioned above.
2. These same qualities, shown in a place where the public are frequently present, set a positive tone for daily experience which may go unnoticed, but is an important contribution to customers’ welfare. Local supermarkets have become the equivalent of the village square or city forum, where civil values are expressed and shared.
3. Given that many people live alone, the conversations at the till are very important: for some people they may be the only conversations they have in a day. Most till operators initiate conversation, and continue it at a level appropriate to the customer; with some it remaIns superficial, with others something deeper is exchanged.
4. These exchanges contribute to good expectations of public behaviour. In so-called superstores I have seen instances of selfishness, stupidity, and dangerous disregard of Covid rules, but in my local, smaller, store I have not seen any of these, but rather a kind of good-humoured decency. This reminds me that social virtues are based on shared experience, and that goodness arises from interaction with good people. Jesus spoke of the city on the hill which cannot be hidden and urged his followers to let their light shine out for others. This is happening in my local store, led by staff who would not think of themselves as saints.