It is Guy Norris's last day at work and he steps out of the Starbucks kiosk inside the Safeway, having just served a pair of iced lattes, leaving behind a spotless, organized workspace and a masked colleague saying, "He's funny, I'll miss the humor. But we're happy for Guy. Dude gets to follow his dreams."
Such dreams were nearly shattered a few months back when the tall 22-year-old tested positive for COVID. It was a harrowing time, for a moment, even if his symptoms didn't amount to much more than a sore throat. His roommates, parents and girlfriend were terrified. He shut himself off to the world, no one else in his circle got sick, and nearly three weeks later, after waiting on three different health groups for clearance, he was back at work. He needed the work to survive and to save money to get the hell out of the work, and so he considers himself somehow charmed.
"I never had to go to the hospital," he says, "but the whole ordeal was pretty disorganized, just getting HR people to call me back. My symptoms were mild but I felt like a leper, was treated like one when I returned to work. I most definitely got it here [at Safeway], I had customers not wearing masks coughing on money, but this was before the mask protocol was put into place.
"The mask protocol? Still some customers refuse to wear them. You can't call the cops, you call a store manager instead, let them deal with it.
"One family, two children and parents were here without masks and I asked them to put them on. They said, 'Can't, health conditions.' And I thought, if you and your family have a health condition, why are you here?"
He moves upstairs to the Safeway employee break room and takes a seat at a small lunch table, a refrigerator and posted COVID safety precautions highlight the workaday space. "That's it," he says, and looks around the room as if he's already resigned it to memory, his co-workers, moving in and out, anecdotes to it.
The man who often unironically addresses customers "ma'am" and "sir" is out of here.
The Las Vegas-born, Tucson-raised Guy is a theater kid, recalls a My Own Private Idaho-era Keanu Reeves; young, wide-eyed, filled of confidence without the arrogant side. No trace of cynicism, yet. He sports thick dark hair and a Van Dyke crushed beneath his pandemic mask and he comes off well-mothered, courteous and organized, a self-assurance that could lead him from dark turns in life.
Stands to reason. The studious trombone-playing Catholic high and UA grad (acting with a business minor), magna cum laude on a Wildcat Academic Scholarship, is set to move to California with his actor girlfriend to perform anywhere and everywhere on stage and in film, during a crippling pandemic, with film and theater ecospheres shuttered, when about all his friends lost their jobs. Working on a more interesting life is a tall order for anyone lately, and he will have to find a day gig in Los Angeles before his saved $6,000 is spent. He is already logged in at temp agency and he'll likely man a cubicle at a call center.
The kid who began acting in 9th grade says he'll dig ditches if he must. Anything but service work involving the public. That has so far been too life-threatening.
"I'll scrub toilets at Adult Swim just to say I worked there," he cracks.
* * * *
On the east side of Tucson, Marian is inside her well-kept three-bedroom rental, a vaguely Santa Fe-styled house in a community of identical ones situated in a lovely mesquite and creosote forest.
Marian's trajectory is wildly different than Guy's. While both hail from the grocery industry, the mother of two works at Whole Foods where she has moved up the ranks in prepared foods, is now a culinary team trainer. To say she is thankful for the employment and to Whole Foods would be an understatement. Even dealing with the threats of anti-maskers.
It shows. Her home's interior is carefully considered, sans the blandness of manufactured objects and portraits of suburban adulthood. It is a collection of artifacts to self and maternity and even horror films, equally droll and profound in celebrations of life, past and present and future. A human skeleton wears a bejeweled Tibetan headdress and occupies a high-placed windowsill over the dining table. One painting, a gray-blue bull head encircled by actual animal skulls, is her own, and it seems to embarrass her. "I used to paint," she says.
A hand-carved fish from some far-off land faces a metal whale, nods to transformation, rebirth. Hand-woven camel blankets cover things, a metal love-seat rocking chair fashioned from airplane parts invites sitters. A framed sketch shows a much younger Marian with her two children, keeps watch over the living room, and a Buddha holds peace on the outdoor terrace under a mesquite tree.
She sits on a bench behind her blond dining table she shipped over from Belgium, via Germany, years ago, where she lived with her now ex-husband, an Air Force fighter pilot. Hair pulled into a bun, a striped tank top, black ear spacers and colorful sleeve-tatted arms show winged and fire mythologies of her children's namesakes, Gryphon and Phoenix. A punk-rock DIY rebellion aesthete shaped further by world religions, parental duties and motherhood. She's created her own belief system, what punk rock was always supposed to teach.
She watches a lizard seek shelter under the patio Buddha and laughs, "Tucson has not been easy."
She's been here eight years, moved to co-parent with her ex-husband after their divorce 12 years ago.
The chuckle produces tears, and she apologizes.
* * * *
Marian nearly died in her mother's womb when the car flipped.
Her dad, a 'Nam vet who did his second tour there because he didn't want his brothers to go, was killed. 'Nam didn't get him but the car accident in Seattle did. It started on an argument between the budding parents and ended when the seven-months-pregnant 19-year-old girl yanked at the wheel.
Dad manned Navy recon gunner boats, "like in Apocalypse Now," the film Marian scrutinized over and over to get an approximation of a side of her father. She has few photos of her dad, taken when he was in 'Nam. When she was old enough to drive she got to know her father's parents, bridging some deep family resentments, and, she says, "it was really good."
Marian, an only child, guesses her mother, who was physically and emotionally abusive, was never the same post-accident. They moved a lot, lived in poverty. "I don't think she cared or considered, or wasn't capable, to understand how her choices affected me. Her choices were bad, especially in men. One was a coke dealer who beat the crap out of her."
As if searching for a way to talk motherhood without ripping her own mother apart, she pauses, says, "I think I came out unscathed. My mother went through abusive shit herself growing up." A self-mocking laugh erupts, and she adds, "Her side of the family is like a V.C. Andrews novel. I learned what not to do."
She honed what-not-to-dos working as a nanny, before and after her children were born, "the positive redirecting that is so important." In Tucson, she also worked with children at Jewish Community Center.
She went years not talking to her mother, but did recently, and it was not easy, old resentments live hard. Her mom found AA, began running an antique operation and a trailer park somewhere in Arizona.
Marian had moved away from mom at 16, Seattle to Salt Lake City, working odd jobs, and found family in the punk-rock scene there, a familiar story to many wayward kids with tragic backdrops. That's where she met her husband. He soon made a career of the Air Force. Marian was in Germany and he was in Afghanistan, flying an A-10, air-to-ground support. She hushes, "I'll never forget the time he called me the first time he killed somebody."
"Their dad is a good man," she adds. "Co-parenting has not been easy but we do the best we can."
A post-divorce relationship several years ago ended in pain. And then she was raped. Here she gathers herself to work up nerve to tackle that subject, sips from her water and their cat Ella, who is splayed on the bench beside her, lets out a mild yelp, the only sound she makes in my presence. Marian wipes wet from her eyes and visibly relaxes, as if the terrifying part of who she was has yielded to the far less-terrifying part of who she is now, a dark abyss crossed.
The rape defined her life's lowest ebb. A suicide attempt and a DUI ensued, what she labels her "dark period." She got the DUI asleep in her parked car when she knew she was too drunk to drive and would've taken a cab home had she known the intricacies of the law. She went to jail, paid the DUI price. When she got hired at Whole Foods more than two and a half years ago—just after Amazon took ownership—her life began improving, with help from a trusted therapist.
Children are not self-contained, or neat and organized like rattlesnakes. They roll with defiance. The punk-rock mom hasn't had the easiest time, her daughter is with her dad, and they are not speaking at the moment. Her 15-year-old son, who suffers severe ADHD, was bullied at school.
That son steps into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, disagrees with mom about how old he was when she took him to see the Dead Kennedys, a milestone in both their lives, and steps back into his bedroom empty handed. He seems painfully shy but is shockingly good-looking, like some animated archetype designed to swoon hearts.
Marian talks about her daughter. She is 19 now, but the fret of parental concern can overwhelm, and mom is not excited at the prospect of her moving back to Tempe for school in full-on pandemic time. Other concerns too, of course. "We are going through a lot."
She comes off like a fierce mama bear who would do anything for the betterment of her kids, and has done work to keep things afloat she'd probably leave off a resume. If nothing else, she is emerging with certain wisdom: How one embraces human wounds and fragilities and pushes them into a love. How it is the only way to step forward.
Marian has been known to grow tall too. On stilts, eight hours at a time.
"I never thought I'd see myself on TV chanting in Japanese, stilt-walking in front of a huge crowd," she laughs. "Or leading bagpipers in downtown Tucson at Christmas, ten of us on stilts and a Santa Claus."
The "dark period" saw her gain unwanted weight, which makes the stilt-walking difficult, at the moment. She'll be back up, a giant again.
Before saying goodbye, she adds something she thinks about often after work: customers are lax with masks. "I'd hate to catch the virus and be sitting in a hospital bed and dying and not have spoken to my mom and daughter."
She recites the soothing Buddhist mantra, "Om Ma Ni Padme Hum," and follows up with new instincts: "I'm just a happy, earth-loving pagan. Look, I'm healthy and employed, I feel blessed."
* * * *
If Whole Foods patrons are easily cast in more permissive and left-leaning stereotypes, Safeway is more sundry. When the virus first hit, one employee in Guy's store was carted off by ambulance after toilet-paper hoarders trampled her.
In that Safeway employee room, Guy talks his acting, his schooling, his one sibling on a military path, his joy at leaving grocery work behind. And from professors and those with film experience, he listens intently, absorbs advice like a sponge. Whatever handicaps to self-belief he may harbor are outwardly non-existent. It is never easy being around one whose career conviction is so unwavering, whose ideas of structure within the walls of normality is so precise. He talks his supportive parents, his adoration of them, and his dad, a career military man, who at first was hardly keen on the acting, more interested in his kid's career stability.
That all changed when Guy was ready to bail for Hollywood at 18. His parents, who attended his various productions and shows in high school and college, will help his move by covering his phone bill and car insurance until he is on his feet. If nothing clicks in L.A., and after the positive COVID test Guy is adamant about eschewing food and drink service, the last thing he would do is phone up Hey Dad Productions for help. Guy's own system hasn't failed him yet, the entrances of his chosen field are breaking, as are all chosen fields for recent grads. He will be on his own, albeit with a dedicated partner with similar aspirations.