During my first few weeks at a local ReStore of my state’s Habitat for Humanity branch, I worked in what felt like my own bubble of silence. On my first day at work, I felt like a tornado wound up inside a glass case. I barely said more than three words, my nerves giving way to an anxiety–induced muteness that became difficult to break.
It was January 2021 and I had just come out of a treacherous year in quarantine with little to no social interaction, hanging on by a thread by occasional zooms and even less frequent get–togethers with neighborhood friends. I’ve always been attached to my phone—like most of my fellow millennials and Gen–Zers—but the pandemic forced me to develop a new kind of internet addiction. I could spend days at a time without leaving the house, moving only from computer to bed, bed to shower, shower to bed, and bed back to computer. My life felt circular, endless. I was drifting through a hazy cloud of Chrome tabs, late homework, and Spotify playlists.
Then, after months of isolation, there I was with a part–time job at a donated housing materials and discount hardware store in Elysian Fields, New Orleans, that I no longer felt physically and emotionally prepared to handle, despite having volunteered there two summers ago.
At first, I worked in the warehouse in the back, unloading items as they came in, ferrying out furniture to customers’ cars on four–wheelers. Unloading the ReStore’s trucks, which carried loads of donated items, was a lot harder than I remembered. You’d never know what you would get each day. Some days, it would be about 150 chairs we had to roll to the floor. Other times the trucks would bring in a dining room table, its chairs, a couch, a bed frame, and boxes of miscellaneous books or old records, all from one donor’s house. The trickiest to move, however, were the doors. Companies from God–knows–where would donate them in bulk, filling the truck bed to the brim with white slivers of wood and glass. It was these doors that put the most strain on my untrained arms. Even with my co–workers’ help, I struggled to carry them the short distance from the yard to the door storage section.
My physical unfitness wasn’t lost on my boss and my colleagues, so I was ultimately moved to the register for a day. Flustered and woefully inept at quick mental math, having given at least three customers incorrect change, I was swiftly moved back to the warehouse.
For a period of time, having left the heavier stuff to my more able–bodied co–workers, I spent most of my days at the ReStore milling about looking for something to do, reticent and unwilling to ask for help. I was silenced not just by the mask I wore, but by the months of isolation I spent in 2020. For the first two months, I struggled to speak to my co–workers except when necessary, and even then my words came out stuttered and awkward. I felt uncomfortable and out of place, like Tinker Bell filing paperwork for a 9–to–5 office job. Was it the embarrassment of attending an Ivy League school and still not knowing how to handle myself in the “real world,” despite a year and a half’s worth of college education under my belt? Was it that my interests were so avant–garde and seemingly full of pretension that I’d rather be quiet than try and explain what was really going on inside my head? The truth is a combination of these two things.
Occasionally, a volunteer would arrive to help out. To my surprise, I found them easier to open up to than my other co–workers, thinking that their time was limited so whatever I told them would leave no real impression. I told myself that their judgement could only be transient as their duration of volunteering.
The first volunteer I met was a recovering alcoholic working with a local mission. He was tall, blond, and vaguely attractive. I guessed correctly that he was around my age, a little on the older side of his twenties. I did not anticipate, however, that he would be a college dropout. He and I got along well enough. He was the first person at the ReStore I told I went to UPenn and that I wanted to be a writer. He was unsure of his own direction in life, so I went quiet about my own ambitions, not wanting to seemingly flex my accomplishments or come across as overconfident.
Eventually, he and I began talking about music. It was a slow day, and we were both in the warehouse, trying to pass the time. We pulled up YouTube on the communal laptop and started exchanging songs. He was into EDM and country. I told him I liked pop and experimental. He introduced me to Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” while I showed him Arca’s “Time.” And that’s when our budding friendship took a turn for the worst.
Once he recognized Arca as a transwoman, nearly nude on the cover art, he said something to the effect that she was not “God honoring.” Immediately, my brain went catatonic. I gave him a blank look before fumbling over to another song that I thought he might like. I tried to explain that she was nonbinary and that her pronouns were “she/her,” as if that would mean anything to him. But the damage was already done, and the rift of misunderstanding stood in the silence between us. Wide–eyed and fragile, I went out into the empty courtyard to collect myself.
I love Arca—for her music, for her confidence and creativity, and for the way she champions LGBTQ+ rights. I stood there in the rain frozen with emotion, holding back tears and biding my time until my shift was up. When I came back to work the next day, the volunteer was gone. I never saw him again, but he served as a haunting reminder why I feared opening up to people.
Another month or so passed before I finally loosened up. It rained more often, so work slowed. I listened to music on my AirPods, content to vacuum up the puddles of water that leaked onto the sales floor or haphazardly organize boxes of cabinet doors. I came out to a co–worker, who high–fived me for being bi, to whom I nervously quipped, “Oh, I’m not bi at all!” I learned how to remove the blades of fans, wrap them with their screws together in cellophane, and store them neatly on a shelf. I spoke to customers more easily. Whenever a customer asked me something I didn’t know for sure, which happened much more often than I would like to admit, I became more confident admitting my uncertainty.
When the ReStore grew quiet on slow days, a spell–like hush settled among the second–hand furniture. Dream–like and gray, the store took on a new dimension, becoming something not unlike a daydream. Then, I would take refuge in my comfort zone: a little back area next to the lighting section where I could organize unprocessed boxes of items in peace, shoveling out the interesting stuff for the cashiers to come and price later.
There, I listened to the latest playlist I was making for Street and occupied myself out of everyone’s way, ripping boxes open one by one to see what was inside. I relished the chance to find a book or a record. Most of what I found was broken glassware and decor. But every time I cut open a box, it felt like I was on the verge of something new.