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We Are So Glad You're Here: A Glimpse of the Good Society at a Hollowed-Out Kmart

What I saw and felt as I was getting my first jab.

"Covid-19 has (re)exposed so much about the ways in which this society is appallingly unequal, cruel, racist and indifferent. Millions without health insurance. Millions compelled to go to work in dangerous workplaces. Policies and policy makers who have responded to this pandemic (and the deep inequalities that are so pervasive in our society) with cynicism, indifference, opportunism and cruelty," writes Koechline. But, he adds, this society knows how to do better. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

"Covid-19 has (re)exposed so much about the ways in which this society is appallingly unequal, cruel, racist and indifferent. Millions without health insurance. Millions compelled to go to work in dangerous workplaces. Policies and policy makers who have responded to this pandemic (and the deep inequalities that are so pervasive in our society) with cynicism, indifference, opportunism and cruelty," writes Koechline. But, he adds, this society knows how to do better. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

I got my first shot today, in a sprawling space that used to be a Kmart, in West Orange, NJ. It was moving in some ways that surprised me.

It was moving, in part, because it was such a relief. The rescue ships have arrived! It is now reasonable to imagine a return to normalcy.  It is now reasonable to imagine being with people I love without worrying that it might be lethal. 

It was moving, also, because so much about the scene in this vast, seedy, hollowed-out Kmart was so good and so promising.

"This is what happens in a Good Society. We recognize and acknowledge collectively what we need—what our neighbors need—and we do our best to help them get it."

As I took the longish walk from "Area 2" (where my appointment was confirmed) to Area 3 (where we confirmed that I was there for my first shot), I had a surprising and sweet wave of emotion. I thought I might cry. There were scores of people at work – each one more welcoming, attentive and helpful than the next. During my 25 minutes at this site, five people asked if I needed help. And there were people of all ages, colors, genders, shapes and vibes here to get vaccinated.  People of all sorts moving at very different speeds, with very different gaits, making their way to safety. A wiry 18-year-old in a "Montclair" hoody and gym shorts, moving like an athlete, and moving like a kid who hoped he appeared to know what he was doing. An older woman with her middle-aged son - who had her, patiently, by the elbow. I turned around and caught the eye of a 50 something year old African American woman who nodded and gave me a thumbs up. She was masked, but I could see that she was smiling. And she could see that I was smiling too.

After I got my vaccine card, I said "thank you, very much!" The 35 -year-old-man who'd hooked me up said: "We are so glad you are here."

Me too. Hallelujah.

This is what happens in a Good Society. We recognize and acknowledge collectively what we need—what our neighbors need—and we do our best to help them get it. We treat each other with respect and empathy, not with suspicion or judgement. And we provide the resources we need to make sure that everybody gets what they need. 

I was choked up because I thought: this is what a Good Society does. The State, our communities, and scores of earnest, kind and well-trained neighbors providing what we need (information, guidance, empathy, comfort, and medicine). The State, our communities, and our neighbors providing something that will make each of our lives better; something that will make all of our lives better.

People saving other people's lives.

We are glad that you are here.  And there is enough for everyone.

As I looked across this boxy Kmart—scarred floors with the footprints of the shelving that was once full of uninspiring consumer goods… architecture without humanity—I thought this is a beautiful public space. This is a humane public space.

"We're so glad you're here." That's what a good public space says.

"What I saw at Kmart today is an example of how we can do better. It wasn't a spectacular reinvention. It wasn't a revolutionary new delivery system. It was a shabby Kmart full of good people with enough resources to do what they need to do."

I (re)confirmed my name and my birth date four or five times. (No one said, as I'd feared: "Damn! You were born when?")

I received the vaccine from two delightful women—nurses, I think—one (Elisabeth) with an Eastern European accent, the other (Karen) with a Caribbean accent. (My new friend Karen did the actual injecting.) As I entered, Elisabeth asked: "How are you feeling?" I said: "Um, good! I'm healthy. I have a job. I'm hopeful." And just before jabbing me, Karen said: "Yeah! And you're alive! We're alive. All of us here have much to be grateful for.") And I said: "Yes, I'm alive—for a long while longer, thanks to you all." Karen said: "We're glad to help." And, as I said good-bye she said: "You tell your friends to make an appointment!"

At my last stop, I got an appointment for my second shot. I was advised to take a picture of my card, just in case. The woman to my left—in her 80s, I'm sure—panicked a little: "I don't have a phone with a camera!" The person with whom she was dealing reassured her, and then agreed to call the woman's son, to tell him that he should take a picture of her appointment card.

That's what I'm talking about.

Covid-19 has (re)exposed so much about the ways in which this society is appallingly unequal, cruel, racist and indifferent. Millions without health insurance. Millions compelled to go to work in dangerous workplaces. Policies and policy makers who have responded to this pandemic (and the deep inequalities that are so pervasive in our society) with cynicism, indifference, opportunism and cruelty.

We know how to do better. What I saw at Kmart today is an example of how we can do better. It wasn't a spectacular reinvention. It wasn't a revolutionary new delivery system. It was a shabby Kmart full of good people with enough resources to do what they need to do.

Adequate resources and decency go a long way. What I saw was not "perfect," but it was wonderful.

We're glad you are here. And we have enough for everybody.

That's what happens in a Good Society.

That's what choked me up today at Kmart.

Tim Koechlin

Tim Koechlin

Tim Koechlin holds a PhD in economics. He is the Director of the International Studies Program at Vassar College, where he has an appointment in International Studies and Urban Studies. Professor Koechlin has taught and written about a variety of subjects including economic, political and racial inequality; globalization; macroeconomic policy, and urban political economy.

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