I used to barely notice them. I certainly did not think of them as friends, care-givers, or my relations at all.
Take D. She is young. She cuts my hair. Last time she cut my hair much shorter than I like it. I have always hated a ‘short, back and sides’. The trouble is old men (and I am old) with long hair do not look good. So, I know I need to have the right person to cut my hair – not too short, not too long. D has always been good. The new lockdown in the UK was likely beginning the next day and I was lucky to get the appointment. I had made one before Christmas, but they had had to close because she and one of her colleagues had got COVID-19.
Why had she cut it so short I wondered? I had joked that at my age you didn’t want too much cut off: it is falling out of its own accord. She laughed. Then the electric clippers zoomed around my head. Perhaps she was fed up, having a bad day? Had I said something? You can overthink things.
But you can also underthink them. She had been kind. “Your hair is very long”, she said. She also thought that they were likely to close the next day. Perhaps she was thinking of me and what I might look like in three months’ time. She certainly insisted that I pay the pensioner’s rate even though I could afford more.
Hairdressers are interesting. Especially now, during the pandemic. For some a haircut would have been our most intense personal contact that week or month. I suppose that’s why people talk about hairdressing as a form of emotional labour, and hairdressers as support workers or even therapists. It is not in the job description, but it is what they do: Like counsellors, they nod and listen and seem not to judge.
Now I notice this pattern more widely. I bumped into S by chance. I had last worked with him 15 years ago. His children grew up with ours. We were never close, even suspicious of each other. But I knew that now, nearly 80, he was on his own and his family far away. So, I said hello.
“It’s remarkable what people are doing”, he said.
“Yes”, I said, “and those outside the medical profession too.”
“That’s who I mean”, he replied. “The rubbish collectors are wonderful. Out in all weathers and always cheery to you.”
A typical binman (they are still largely men) will start his shift early. They have to work outdoors. J is a binman in our family, but until S said that to me, I had never thought of them as a fleeting point of human contact during the pandemic.
These fleeting forms of contact also include delivery people. Tall and thin, A delivers for an international company. He qualifies as what we in the UK call “BAME” – Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic. The first time he came, we watched his progress on a tracking site. He arrived at 7 o’clock in the evening. “How many more to go I asked?”
“Eighteen.” he said.
“So, what time did you start?”
“Five-thirty this morning, I am the manager.”
“A fifteen or sixteen hour shift? Funny manager” I said.
“Yeah”, he said, smiling.
He has been back several times. “Still a manager?” I ask, “Yeah”, he says, “still 5:30!” I don’t want to delay him by asking about his background and education, but without prompting he says “There are no unions any more”. I hope he realises how much I value these 60 second meetings beyond the boxed acquisitions they involve.
And what of the minicab drivers? Like being at the hairdresser’s, it is hard to take a ride without talking to the driver. Where I live, probably like most places, they are also often “BAME” too. I see them zip around in their masks calling in to low-income council estates to pick up elderly people. They are a lifeline to those with transport problem, all the more so if buses are expensive and few and far between.
I could go on, but I want to get to M. I think about M a lot because I often pass her while walking or riding my bike. She is out a lot. Probably not as old as she looks, she usually walks miles every day delivering the local free paper, but that is now suspended. She still walks around shouting hello from across the street while attending to odd jobs. In fact, she shouts even if she is close to you. It can be disconcerting. But it’s uplifting to see her so upbeat.
I know she does care work in her own family as well as cleans several places. I see her talking through the window of the bungalow to the housebound person who lives there. M is probably vulnerable herself. She certainly is in socio-economic terms. If I believed in OBEs, I would suggest one for her. Instead, sentimentally I think of George Elliot’s words, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
But I am also sad and angry. I expect the government to ignore these people. I also expect the usual suspects to attack the government for it. Instead, my progressive left-wing friends seem just as blind. I see them calling for lockdowns for themselves. I see them saying we are not cannon fodder for this government. And I see them offloading their risk on to others. As I write, I see that even some university lecturers are now claiming to be “key workers”, even though they are able to work from home and have their children looked after by others.
My purpose is not to advance a “pro-” or “anti-” lockdown position. I have no idea what is right and wrong to do. Whichever way we turn there are harms. But, I do know that minimising harms means thinking about, understanding and confronting inequality and injustice politically, professionally and personally. Inequality is not just about who loses but who gains. What does it mean that the working class women and men, many racialized (BAME), are not only delivering food but also human kindness? When David Graeber died in September 2020, someone who I respect a lot said that one of the best things this (once) working class public intellectual ever wrote was a piece suggesting that “the curse of the working classes” is that when it comes to human relationships, they “care too much”. Members of the middle class may think that “they” vote the wrong way, or even that they are blind to their own interests, but perhaps, at the most basic level of human solidarity, the casual care of workers reflects ways in which working class experience actually makes people nicer.
West Midlands, UK
Mike Haynes is a retired academic who taught at a Midlands university. He blogs and tweets as the Jobbing Leftie Historian. Having had a good salary, he retired on a good pension. The biggest cost of the pandemic to him and his wife has been the inability to see children and grandchildren. Due to his inability to cope with Zoom, he has also lost the possibility of giving talks to organisations like the University of the Third Age, one of the hidden social networks that help older people (primarily professional and female) survive.