After another day operating according to the pandemic protocol — longer hours, less efficiency — Stacie Dagostino, the head certified ophthalmic technician at Philadelphia Retina Associates, received a text from her three college-aged girls.
They wanted hot open-faced turkey sandwiches for dinner that night, April 7.
“Naturally, we didn’t have any of the ingredients in the house,” Dagostino recalled, laughing.
Exhausted, Dagostino drove to the PJP Marketplace close to their Holmesburg home. Mask on, gloves on, still dressed in her work scrubs, Dagostino grabbed the few items she needed and settled into an “express line,” the 20th customer in a line of 20.
With everyone in line appropriately social distancing, the line snaked up and down aisles. As the last person in the queue, Dagostino had made peace with her spot far from the registers.
“I’m thinking I’ll put my headphones on and just play around on Facebook for a while,” she said.
After a minute or two, the man in front of Dagostino asked her where she worked. He spoke of his mother’s recent health scare and how appreciative he was of the health care workers who’d taken care of her.
Then, he offered her his place in line.
“He said, ‘I know it’s just one person, but really, it will make me feel better,’” Dagostino recalled.
Dagostino reluctantly assented, but as soon as she did, the next man in the line followed suit, thanking her for working during the pandemic and offering his spot in line.
“So by that point, I’m looking around for a camera to see if I’m being ‘Punk’d,’” she said, laughing.
Soon, everyone in the line had ceded their place to her, most out of gratitude, a few, possibly, out of peer pressure.
“I’m sobbing at this point,” Dagostino recalled.
Once she got to the front of the line, Dagostino noticed even the cashier was crying.
As everyone stared at her, smiling and clapping, she wondered: “How am I the only one in scrubs here? There’s got to be somebody else!”
As she unloaded her cart and swiped her credit card to cheers, she realized there was nowhere to hide, no way to escape the adulation. Once more, she broke down.
The cashier, winking through tears of her own, offered something even more meaningful than a tissue in that moment — the first responder discount.
The applause carried Dagostino into the parking lot, where, too shocked to drive, she texted everyone from work. She wanted her colleagues to live vicariously; she also wanted them to understand the real extent to which their efforts are admired by ordinary people.
“Everybody in that office felt like a superhero for the next two, three days,” she said. “Something like that just made it like, ‘OK, we can get through this.’”