I stood in the produce section of the grocery store and found myself staring at a banana bunch. They were bright yellow and ripe. I was hungry but could not afford to buy the whole bunch. I asked myself what would happen if I slipped one in my bag? Would they know if one was missing? Would they care? With so many people losing their jobs, myself included, and facing a bleak future due to the pandemic, here I stand, reduced to the moral dilemma of stealing a piece of fruit. If I stole it, could I live with myself?
I was emotionally exhausted and conflicted over much more than a banana. That night I went to bed feeling disillusioned from the despair of this virus—millions of people forcing to lockdown from an invisible enemy that silently spread destroying its prey. I cannot remember the feeling of what “normal” is now. I worry if it will ever return to us. I am afraid to start crying because I may never stop. I am over fifty, single, broke, and without healthcare. I am fighting ageism in a job market already slaughtered by Covid. And mentally, I am hanging on by a thread.
Was I being too naïve when I left a toxic job that promised nothing but a desolate future? Perhaps, but after twenty years as a Broadcast Traffic Manager at a local television station I was burnt out and weary. With no college degree could I create a new career at my age? The truth was that I thought my situation was different, and I was undefeatable. Besides, it is never too late to start over, right? I soon learned otherwise. Unfortunately, the virus, coupled with age discrimination, leaves distressed job seekers like me feeling defenseless.
I heard a news report that I am one of the 20% of workers that have experienced prejudice due to age in the job market. Of course, ageism is hard to prove, but it exists in the shadows like a dirty little secret. One day it suddenly dawned on me that I had fallen prey to being a stereotype. Having applied to various campus jobs at the school I attend, I landed interviews, but that was as far as it went. Slowly the positions I applied to ended up hiring graduates of the school from that same year. Even with years of experience in customer service and office duties, I was quickly passed over as if I were invisible.
Employers have misconceptions about the skills and proficiencies of the older population, and even though research negates these common stereotypes and we come armed with years of experience, we remain helpless and oppressed. As a result, we sometimes settle for part-time jobs, as I have, as a part-time administrative assistant at my college, or live off of their savings that is swiftly slipping away.
This new way of life feels like purgatory. I was fortunate to receive stimulus money, unemployment benefits, and food stamps, a humbling experience, as this was the first time in my life I’ve ever had to use food stamps. First, I volunteered in soup kitchens, and now it was me on the other side peering through a different lens and struggling to come to terms with how fast one can disappear through the cracks of society at any time. My assistance arrived promptly. However, others waited months for benefits to reach them, frantic for a lifeline.
Staying positive is a struggle. I am grateful that I still have a home, a sister who selflessly pays my mortgage month after month, a car, family, and friends. Unfortunately, my elderly mother, who lives with me, has compromised health from a recent heart attack. She worries constantly, and I live in fear of bringing this villain home to her. The guilt cripples me that I cannot take care of her right now as I should, or in the ways, she took care of me growing up. She was both my mother and my father. I was ten years old when my father suddenly died of an aneurism at forty-five years old. One night he went to work and never came home. It pains me that she sometimes uses her social security check to make our ends meet. I don’t want the regret of leaving my previous job to leave me haunted and hopeless. I fear that my forgotten dreams will become a ghost within me. Some days seem desperate, and other days devoid of even that. I usually pray, meditate, and concentrate on gratitude instead of dread while struggling with two battles now: ageism and a pandemic.
In a new world, where masks have become part of our daily wardrobe and hand sanitizer nourishes our physical bodies, I worry about people’s welfare, young and old alike. After all, we are united in this battle that continues to bring the world to its knees. If we learned anything on this journey, we all have a commonality and are lost. We need strength and unity to keep moving forward. This pandemic has taught me patience. I practice positivity and hope we can all be a little more empathetic because, behind the masks, we are all fighting a war with an unseen assailant. Most days, I may look like I have it all together, but below the surface, I am still that person standing in the grocery store, contemplating stealing a banana, even as I walk away empty-handed.
Written by Barbara Hughes – Orlando, Florida, USA
Feature photo by Anna Tarazevich
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