When I first set out to learn more about who America considered “essential” I did not know who or what I would encounter. For nearly a month I allowed myself to be guided by instinct, chance and friends who knew someone who wanted to share their experience. And so it quickly became a monthlong journey not able to be fully articulated for it was felt as much as it was seen or heard. Nearly everyone I approached was eager to share, many thanked me for listening and one woman began to cry after explaining she had not been able to tell anyone about the stress and fear that kept her awake at night. It felt right to be on the road, connecting with people and photographing a nation as it grappled with fear, uncertainty and a competing desire for “normalcy.”
In this second dispatch you will meet Michael, Jeremiah, Lyn, Beverly, and Lakenya and see some of what I witnessed while traveling through the South.
In a few days I will put my belongings in storage and return to the road. My aim is gather at least 100 voices in the hope that collectively they will tell us something about who and what we value as a nation. It is an exceptional time to be a journalist. And though we do not know what the next year will bring it is of present-day and historical importance that we preserve this chapter in American history by documenting those who have become the fabric of our society as well as how we as a country are responding to the impact of the coronavirus.
Michael, 23 // Biloxi, Mississippi
"The role of journalism is as important as it’s ever been. I tell people, read your local paper, watch your local station. Read the national news. I know the news can be a polarizing topic for people, but I believe it’s important to be informed. Even though it’s been months I feel like so many still don’t have an understanding of what is going on and that is kind of alarming. I want people to take what the experts are saying seriously, to understand the process and the rules and after that I hope people make their own decisions based on information.
I believe my job is essential, especially now. This is a time nobody alive right now has been through. It’s important that everyone knows what is going on and why it’s happening so they know what to do and what not to do.
What I hope for is a world where people are more aware. More aware of everything but in this case, more aware of spreading germs, getting sick, respecting distances … a world where people are more aware that their actions have an impact on others."
Beverly, 50 // Augusta, GA
“They hired me as a cashier, but right now I make sure the buggies and baskets are clean. I’m sanitizing every one of them. When a customer comes in we have six buggies lined out for them. I’ve been here 6 months and make $13.50 an hour. It’s good money. They gave us a 50 cent raise I think, but I wish we got hazard pay...I think it’s crazy that some people on unemployment are making more than people out here risking our lives everyday.
We’ve been a lot more busier for sure. People are coming in and hoarding. It’s not as bad as it was at the beginning, but people are still taking all of the toilet paper; it’s pretty crazy. People are coming in here without masks and you just don’t know. I pray every day, but I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. If everything opens up we’re just asking for it to keep spreading.
I pray everyday. It’s just part of my routine. I pray my family don’t get this, that I don’t get sick, that my thirteen-year-old daughter doesn’t get sick.
I do fear the virus. I worry about it. Y’know though, I can’t sit and focus on it all the time. I gotta work. I have bills to pay. I just pray every day and say 'God be with me' and do the best I do.”
Lakenya, 34 // Mobile, Alabama
“Sure, I’m scared, but I need the money. I had been drawing disability, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. I needed to start saving for retirement and be able to file a tax return. I’d rather work.
I make $9 an hour here. Sometime it’s 20 or 30 hours, but I dont get benefits because they say it’s just part-time.
I think I’m doing pretty good. A year ago I wasn’t doing so good, but I’m better now. And this job, like it really brings happiness to me for real. When I was on disability I wasn’t able to afford a lot of things for my kids. Now I’m able to give them allowance, something I’ve never been able to do.
I have four kids, a boy and three girls. I love waking up in the morning and telling them I have to go to work, getting in my car, listening to the radio all of the way here and saying to myself, wow I have a job.
I like this job because I like to help people. I mean, a lot of people don’t have places to go and I get to help them have somewhere nice, somewhere clean to stay. So yes, I do think it’s essential."
Lyn, 62 // Mobile, Alabama
“I always thought this looked like a really interesting job. It took me a long time to get into it, but now I get to meet people from all over the place. I make $15 an hour, which in Mobile is good. Y’know minimum wage here is $7.25? I don’t know how anybody can survive on that.
I don’t think it’s over yet. And, to be honest I don’t think the states are concerned about getting people back to work. I think the states are concerned about paying the unemployment. I think they’re concerned about the tax revenue they’re losing. I don’t think it has anything to do with people. It’s all about money. For the people out there protesting, I think it’s a way to get attention, like the preacher in Baton Rouge. He was telling everyone to come to service, give us your stimulus money because we are not getting any donations. So you’re risking your congregation so you can continue to live a lifestyle you’ve become accustomed to?
I have acquaintances that don’t believe in it because it hasn’t personally touched their families. We live in a society that until it hits you in the face it’s not important, it’s not real.”
This is an excerpt. Visit Maranie Staab's website to see the complete dispatch.