Last Monday, as I stood in line at the checkout counter at Smith's, I started choking on a drop of saliva. I had to keep coughing and my breathing was labored. It passed in a moment, and then I looked up and saw two Smith's employees, one who was packing my groceries and the other processing my order.

The young man asked if I was all right, and when I motioned to him, he guessed right, "Went down the wrong pipe?" and never stopped being chipper and helpful. The woman, always kind and efficient, told me the total amount and how much I had saved that day. Nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary.

But in that moment, I got a sense of just how precarious their situation is, day in and day out, how vulnerable they are. What if I were sick and coughing? What if I had COVID and had made it all the way through to their line? I looked at my cashier and said "You must be so frightened every time someone coughs." Droplets, millions of droplets left on the counter, on the credit card pad, that would stay there all day.

"Sometimes," she said. "Especially if they're not wearing a mask."

I tried to imagine what it might be like for these essential workers preparing for work, showing up to make sure we get the food we need. Do they think about the risks they take? Or can they not afford to think too much about it? I don't know if they are on the list of people first in line for the vaccine, but they should be.

I have pared down my food shopping to once a week and that took some doing. I get in and get out as fast as I can. What if I had to go to work there 40 hours a week? What if my family depended on that job? What if I brought the virus home to someone I love or was afraid that I would?

It's been 10 months. In the beginning, I remember thanking the employees at my favorite stores for coming to work, and I remember them saying, "I don't really have a choice." I still thanked them for showing up and helping me, but after 10 months I don't always remember to.

This week I want to tell them all, the ones whose names I know like Knyah and Christine and Richard, Loretta and Josie and Jimmy, and the ones whose names I still don't know, thank you for all that you do for all of us, every darn day. We appreciate you. We owe you so much. The least we can do is wear a mask and stay home if we're sick. I trust we're all doing that by now.

Eileen Wiard lives in Ranchos de Taos.

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