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I wanted my daughter to go to college, to discover her passion and make her mark in the world.

But it turns out she knew where she was needed.

She works at Target.

Normally, she’s stationed in the beauty section, keeping the shelves stocked and dispensing advice. Lately, she’s been selling a lot of hair color and nail care products for people who can’t get out to the salons.

While the coronavirus has made shut-ins of most of us, she ventures out nearly every day into an environment we’ve been told to fear, where one careless sneeze in her proximity could imperil her health or make her a danger to all those she loves.

She still comes to dinner on her days off. Given our history, I forgive the wary look in her eyes as she greets me, uncertain if the night will end with a thinly veiled lecture about life choices.

In normal times, she can deflect these efforts with anecdotes from work. Most are stories about obnoxious customer behavior that she collects like currency to dish out over spaghetti and garlic bread.

Now, the store she described sounds familiar, but altered in ways reminiscent of the dystopian young adult novels she grew up with, like “Hunger Games.” Her stories remind me of the grizzled veteran in war movies who frightens new arrivals with tales from the front. I half expect her to say, “You can’t know what it’s like unless you’ve been there.”

Instead, what she said was: “It feels like Christmas, but everyone is terrified.”

Signs and messages broadcast through the store’s public address system gently remind customers about the need for social distancing. Cashiers wipe the credit card machine with a disinfectant after every transaction. Two people do nothing but clean shopping carts. Another staff member circulates through the store and wipes down anything a customer might touch.

For Isabel Catron, 20, stocking shelves at Target became a front-line position in a pandemic.Handout photo

“The first week we were flooded with people,” my daughter recalled. “Groups of 30 to 40 people waiting outside when the store opened at 8 a.m. They rushed in to grab all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, frozen food, water, milk, eggs, butter and meat.

“Now there’s a limit on many things you can buy.”

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Customers seemed panicked but understanding, at least at first.

“There were rude people, but they could still see hope at that point,” my daughter said. “After two weeks of hearing ‘maybe tomorrow’ – people start to get more exhausted. More desperate.” She recalled the experience of a friend, a young woman of Asian descent who worked the self-checkout line the day the store put purchase limits in place.

When my daughter asked how her day went, the woman’s eyes started watering. “I’ve been having to take things away from people,” her friend explained. “People have been calling me names.”

Hoping to elicit a smile, my daughter said, “Who’s been calling you names? I’ll go beat them up.”

Her friend shrugged. “People just don’t like Asians right now.”

My daughter, blond and about as white as bed linen, is spared the animus of racial prejudice, yet it’s hard enough to get through most days without the customer-service smile wearing thin.

Once, a fashionably dressed older woman stood directly over her while she restocked shelves. After my daughter moved 6 feet away, the woman apologized for getting in her way.

“No, you’re fine,” my daughter said. “I just don’t want to get too close.”

The woman’s face pinched with indignity, as if she’d been accused of casting an odor.

“It’s not anything against you,” my daughter hastened to add. “I work with the public all day. No telling what I’ve been around.” She managed to keep the smile in place until the woman moved on.

Such incidents normally would set off my daughter, not in the moment, but later, when she unloaded her frustrations over tacos and guacamole. Now, showing new depths of empathy, she demonstrated a responsibility to put the actions in context.

“People are more irritated in general,” she told me. “A lot of people are losing their jobs. They’re having to be cooped up in their homes, a lot of them with their families, who they don’t want to be cooped up with. Then the overall anxiety of a pandemic and a lack of supplies. Finding the supplies you need but being limited to buying only one or two. I understand that would be frustrating.”

Before my daughter finished her shift that day, a woman in her late 50s came into her area. My daughter looked up and smiled.

“She gave me a little wave and said, ‘Thank you for working.’ I said, ‘Of course.’ I didn’t know what else to say to that.”

Over years of reporting, I’ve met many first responders whose work I admired. They are here for us on our worst days, offering aid when we need it most. If we’re lucky, most of us won’t need to call on one of these heroes. But as we brace for weeks, if not months, of social distancing and self-isolating, how many of us can manage without a grocery store or pharmacy? Their low-wage workers are redefining what it means to be a hero to our communities.

“I’m not running into a burning building or saving a kid from under a car,” my daughter said after I made the analogy. “But I understand that it’s important to have workers at these places because people have very limited options for feeding their families and getting medicine.

“It’s just my job. I wake up and I have to go. ‘OK, there’s a pandemic. Let’s do what we have to do and just keep showing up on time.’”

I looked at her across the table as if seeing her for the first time in weeks. It’s easy to forget how quickly the world has flipped upside down. Even with the extraordinary precautions the store is taking, the daughter I’ve spent two decades feeling a need to protect from the world is putting herself out there every day to help the people in her community. The greatest risk my wife and I have faced are the occasions when we open our door to her and share a meal from across the table.

After dinner, my daughter retrieved her keys and readied to leave. She had a morning shift the next day and wanted to get to bed early. An awkward moment passed as we looked at each other, neither moving forward for the usual farewell embrace. She knew after she left that I would be wiping down door handles, light switches and anything else she had touched, but we did not speak of it while we made plans to see each other again and said goodnight.

My 20-year-old daughter works at Target.

I couldn’t be prouder.

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