Our pandemic year: Lebanon Jake’s staffer has managed months of risk, and seen the best and worst in customers

  • Before the start of his shift, Andrew Clack, of White River Junction, disinfects the hand-sanitizer station and other surfaces at Jake’s Market and Deli in Lebanon. His background working as a medical corpsman and in a hospital operating room was good preparation for managing a high-traffic convenience store, according to Clack. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Andrew Clack, of White River Junction, has monitored alerts coming from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the governor’s office and became responsible for disseminating the information throughout the nine-store Jake’s Market chain. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Valley News
Published: 3/8/2021 7:10:48 PM

Every night during the early months of the pandemic, after Andrew Clack locked the doors to the Jake’s Market & Deli in Lebanon, he plugged his phone into the store’s speaker system.

As Clack swept the floor, emptied the garbage pails and gave one final disinfectant wipe-down to the surfaces, audio of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King preaching his sermon, “A Knock at Midnight,” replaced the reggae and rock tunes that blared during the day. The nearly 40-minute sermon, which King delivered at churches around the country during his career, is a call not to abandon hope in the darkest of times.

After a 10-plus-hour day on his feet with only intermittent breaks, Clack took repose in King’s words, meditating on the civil rights leader’s message of hope, strength, resilience — and peace.

“The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows,” King said.

“Weeping may endure for a night,’ says the Psalmist, ‘but joy cometh in the morning.’ This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.”

And Clack listened.

“I found solace in those words during the lockdown,” he said.

The past 12 months have often seemed dark for Clack, who as the employee in charge of running the Jake’s convenience store and gas station on Mechanic Street has been on the front line through the pandemic, interacting with hundreds of customers daily, many of whom he’s never seen before and knows nothing about, strangers who pop in to buy takeout at the deli counter or a six-pack, cigarettes or a lottery ticket.

Faces, tens of thousands of them, all masked. Or almost all. Some people flout the mask mandate and get in Clack’s face about it.

“I’ve worked in customer service all my life and I had never experienced a substantial threat,” Clack said.

But there was the time, unease still reflected in his retelling, shortly after New Hampshire ordered the mask mandate that an irate customer, fire-red in face, hinted at violence if he would have to wear mask.

Clack, a former Navy medical corpsman, said he quietly replied to the man, “You don’t have to come into the store. You’re free to wait outside.”

The man stormed off.

Clack said he’s gotten to the point where he can read faces — even ones half-obscured by masks — at a glance and reflexively “size up” the person even before a word is exchanged.

“You never know who is going to walk through the door. The last 5% of the population is no fun to deal with,” Clack said. “We’ve had the police involved. I can’t applaud them enough.”

Clack, 44, grew up in Montpelier, the son of a Grand Union butcher and a secretary. He enlisted for a stint in the Marines and then studied biology at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. He’s been a store clerk, a surveyor for an installer of septic systems, an administrator for an insurance company, a surgical aid at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, a counselor in the after-school program with the town of Hanover and a dry cleaner at the now-defunct Kleen Laundry in Lebanon.

“Give me something and I can do it,” he explained.

In 2017, Clack got a job making sandwiches at Jake’s Coffee on Mechanic Street, less than a mile from where he currently works. Despite his eclectic resume, sandwich-making wasn’t his calling.

“I made them too pretty but not fast enough,” Clack said. His supervisor asked Clack if he’d prefer being a cashier at the Jake’s Market up the street. He would.

Turnover is high at convenience stores, so it wasn’t long before Clack, the kind of employee who shows up early, leaves late and is available to work an extra shift a week, was running the store itself. As the manager, he does it all — jump in to help behind the deli counter during lunch, stock shelves and the coolers, order supplies, work the register, and clean the bathrooms.

And, since the pandemic, incessant cleaning and vigilant wiping of surfaces.

After every transaction, he wipes the debit card reader and the counter with an antiseptic cloth. His hands are red and raw from constantly rubbing them with hand sanitizer. For extra measure, he wears protective eyewear.

“I was indoctrinated in a health-care setting,” Clack explained.

His background working as a medical corpsman and in a hospital operating room was good preparation for managing a high-traffic convenience store, according to Clack.

A year ago, as news reports about the global spread of the pandemic increased before the national lockdown last March, Clack said he could “read between the lines” where things were heading.

So after Clack closed out his shift at night — he works four consecutive days from before noon until about 11 p.m., a schedule that affords him “daddy time” with his two sons, ages 15 and 11 — he’d go back to his extended-stay rooms at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction and go online to read bulletins and health advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I felt it incumbent to act based on my knowledge,” said Clack, who also monitored alerts coming out of Gov. Chris Sununu’s office and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and became responsible for disseminating the information throughout the nine-store Jake’s Market chain.

At times, it was a thankless task, especially when it came to “policing” mask-wearing in the store, which most customers initially resisted.

“I learned to ask politely, like ‘Would you mind terribly wearing a mask,’ or ‘I have a free mask if you need one.’ ... I learned diplomacy under fire,” Clack related.

He hates having to tell kids, always eager to tear into a bag of snacks or the hamburger they ordered at the counter, “you can’t eat and drink in here.”

The stress built.

“There were times when I wept daily,” he said.

Although Clack said he’s “a pretty good sleeper,” he’d pedal the nearly 4 miles after work at night back to the Coolidge — he hasn’t driven a car in 10 years and gets around “on foot” and a mountain racing bicycle — to work off the stress that accumulated during his shift. On his three days off, he’d go fishing, shoot his pellet gun, “get outdoors” and skateboard with his sons.

“It used to take me 18 hours to decompress from the week, and for a while, it took me an hour or two in the morning to talk myself up to come into work,” Clack said.

Since the summer, things have gotten easier. The city of Lebanon’s mask ordinance has taken a lot of pressure off Clack from requesting people to wear masks in the stores.

“There’s 5% who don’t, but mostly everyone does now,” Clack said.

Working in a convenience store — Clack declines to say how much he earns but said he’s had “upward mobility” since joining Jake’s three years ago — may not seem to some rewarding work, but Clack said he derives immense gratification from his job.

Asked the source of that gratification, Clack replied “he’s the reason,” as a familiar customer in a Carhartt jacket approached the counter with a six-pack of Budweiser.

Clack, for what must have the 200th time that shift, wiped the card reader and the counter with antiseptic before he bagged the beer in a plastic bag.

“The regular customers make it worth it,” Clack said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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