“No offense to people who sometimes forget things, but forgetting your mask a year into a pandemic? I don’t think there’s a reasonable excuse for it”
If you’re a friend of Jon Latham’s and you run into him after the current pandemic is over, be prepared to be lavished in love. “I’ve told all my friends, I know when the time comes that they say I can and that it’s safe, the next time I see that person, there’s gonna be a prolonged hug, prolonged to the point of awkwardness,” he promises. “I’m a hugger by nature.”
Most Eastsiders know Latham from the neighborhood music scene. A regular at The 5 Spot, The Basement East, and other venues, this Cafe Rooster recording artist and one of Brian Wright’s Sneakups desperately misses performing. But that’s stating the obvious. What’s less so is the fact that Latham has a side gig working retail, specifically as a clerk at a Walgreens on the south side of town. He’s been doing that since he arrived in Nashville in 2013, transferring from a Walgreens store in an Atlanta suburb where he’d worked for years before that. In fact, he’s done the Walgreens thing for 15 years. It’s what’s keeping him afloat financially right now.
“All the folks at Cafe Rooster, we’d all kind of decided 2020 was going to be a really good transition year for me. We were going to update my online stuff, we were gonna find me a booking agent, we were gonna get me out on the road, and out on the road was where I was gonna be. Ironically that’s not what happened,” Latham says, laughing a little.
He’s grateful for the Walgreens job, given the current circumstances. And the company started taking measures to keep people safe from the beginning of the pandemic — plexiglass shields for the cashiers, social distancing, a mask requirement. “There was a sense of extra dread going into work those first few months because everything was fresh and so scary. Nobody knew anything.”
For many people now, pandemic behaviors have become routine, and the majority of customers at Walgreens mask up before entering says Latham. Still, not all shoppers wear face coverings, which can make for some uncomfortable confrontations. “It’s a living example of the polarity we have, even in Nashville,” he observes. “There are a lot of progressive thinkers out there, creators, people who follow the science, but if you’re out there working retail you encounter big groups of the population who either don’t believe the science or just don’t care.” Sometimes bare-faced shoppers just shrug and say they forgot their mask. “No offense to people who sometimes forget things, but forgetting your mask a year into a pandemic? I don’t think there’s a reasonable excuse for it,” Latham says.
At one point, early on when scarce COVID tests were administered only to people with symptoms, Latham learned he’d been exposed to the virus and had to quarantine. He was asymptomatic, so couldn’t get a test. Thankfully, he didn’t develop COVID. “At the time, Walgreens didn’t have any infrastructure in place for how to deal with COVID-based absences, so that time that I was off from work wasn’t covered by the company; it was covered by my PTO,” he says. He lost much of the year’s vacation time.
The hardest thing for Latham, though, has been the isolation and accompanying depression that comes from not having regular contact with his tribe of musicians. He’s also not able to get around town, not just because of the pandemic, though. Latham doesn’t drive; he’s legally blind. “If I could just get in the car and go for a drive, get out in nature whenever I wanted, that would make things easier. But I can’t.”
His roommates happen to be musicians, and that’s a help. But losing the opportunity to perform live, to gather with other musicians in studios, backstage, on the road, has been a heartbreaker. “I had nightmares that over the course of 2020, every venue in Nashville would close,” he says. “Thankfully that hasn’t happened. And maybe finally, with the vaccines, we’re beginning to see some light on the horizon.”