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Opinion: Seen And Remembered: Our Essential Workers

Janitors clean in a hallway in Wheeler Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley, Calif., on March 11.
Jeff Chiu
Janitors clean in a hallway in Wheeler Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley, Calif., on March 11.

Nurses, doctors, paramedics, technicians and other hospital workers earn the gratitude of the world right now. They risk their lives for others — what genuine heroes do.

But, there are many other people we might overlook who are also essential in these extraordinary times.

I took a run the other morning. It was still and quiet, but I was surprised to see how many people were up, about, and still working in a city in which "nonessential workers" have been told to stay at home.

I saw bus drivers and taxi drivers, who may have taken some of those hospital workers to their 14-hour shifts, along with stock workers and cashiers who work in stores, so we can still buy food, milk, bread and coffee. I saw truck drivers steering rigs with pictures of fruits, vegetables and meats painted on their sides. Long trucks pulled up at pharmacies to bring in medicines, soap and candy. Delivery service vans, their drivers balancing boxes in their arms.

I passed a few stores that weren't shuttered, and saw bakers and cooks in the windows, rolling out pizza or pita dough, slicing sandwiches and stirring soups to be picked up or delivered to people who have been stuck inside, and may feel anxious, edgy and hungry.

I saw security guards on patrol in front of office buildings and theaters, and maintenance workers, wearing dark green, gray and blue informs, often with their names sewn over their hearts, in masks and gloves in front of buildings, ready to unplug toilets and unstick elevators. I saw sanitation workers, in dark blue uniforms, roll out trash bins to lift them into the backs of trash trucks. I waved at the people at work in convenience stores and, yes, the liquor shop. I saw police officers on the street, and construction workers, in boots, masks and gloves, still digging into those streets to keep the city's power and plumbing running. I heard a rumble from under a grate along the street from the subway, and thought about people riding those trains to many of the jobs I'd just seen.

Essential workers are all around us, including those people who have disinfected the very studio I'm in today, and the remarkable engineering crew on the other side of the control room glass.

These days, we are surrounded by essential, extraordinary people.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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