EXCERPT of Virus City from Big Shoulders Books

Aaron Smith, BARISTA
Interviewed by Elle Evans

Twenty-year-old Aaron Smith has spent the last few years living with his mother and sister in their La Grange apartment, though it has never been home. His mother has long been prone to bouts of physical and verbal abuse. Smith described in sad bewilderment how she has even blamed him for the division of their family.  

After an altercation with his sister over his mother’s abuse, Smith was taken into custody by police. He soon found himself in holding alongside men who, to him, seemed all too comfortable in a cell. He was released, but he was not allowed to return to his apartment while the legal case was settled. Instead, he temporarily went to stay with his aunt just as COVID-19 hit. He is now living with his mother and sister again. 

Despite the sometimes grim nature of his story, Smith tried to laugh through it. He gestured energetically as he spoke, and when he reached a difficult memory, his legs became restless. During the interview, he eagerly showed me his living space, though he was anxious to leave before his mother returned from work. 

MY MOM DID NOT WANT a boy. I was told by people in my family that my mom literally cried—not tears of joy— when she found out I was a boy. When my mom left my dad, he was in a position financially where he couldn’t take us. So my mom kind of just took us and then left, and I had no say in it. I had nowhere else to go.  

My entire support system was fourteen hours away in Washington, DC, and I was with my abusive mother and my sister, who couldn’t care less about how my mom treated me. Maybe she didn’t want to deal with what I was going through. If she intervened, she’d probably be going through the same stuff.  

When I was in high school, I tried reporting it to my school. This is when she would physically abuse me a lot, and I was still a little younger, like 16, so I couldn’t really do much about it.  

They had an investigation, and she lied about the whole situation. She said that I lied to them because I was angry that she took my phone away, which didn’t even happen. They believed her for some reason, and it was dropped. 

And then I got more shit from my mom for that. So I was put into a position where I’m trying to help myself, [but] I can’t leave.  


Not only could I not get a job because I had this shit on my record, I couldn’t get a job because everything was shut down. No one was hiring. Everyone—the world—was freaking out because of COVID.  

Me and my girlfriend, Andrea, had to be quarantined together because she was over when everything was happening. We were in my aunt’s house for weeks, dude. And I was so depressed, I didn’t do anything. I slept on a mattress on the floor. I didn’t have a job; I couldn’t pay for a bed.  

After COVID, I dropped out of community college, I was so depressed. I didn’t want to do online classes. I was just existing at that point. My uncle got me in at a job. I thought I’d be working at Costco, like I’d have the vest on, be welcoming people in. You know, like, “Can I see that receipt, sir?” That’s what I thought I would be doing.  

He lied. It wasn’t at Costco. I guess that’s my fault for not really looking into the fine print of everything. I worked the horrible-ass night shift, 10 p.m. till 10 a.m. I would drive like an hour to Morris, Illinois, every day in my already-shit car.  

Instead of stocking stuff, like a normal, Walmart-type beat, I had a yellow-ass jumpsuit. I had a fucking hose, dude. They had me working as a sanitation person for the meat production facility. I was scrubbing down the conveyor belt, breaking down machines, power hosing. I was like, are you kidding me, dude? I’m 18 doing this shit? This is someone who failed at life. I should not be here.  

There [was] nobody around my age. A lot of them had kids. You know, I just couldn’t relate to them. I didn’t really get to know any of them. I just went there, made my money. It was horrible. All I did was wake up, go to work, come home, eat, maybe take a shower if I had the energy for it, go to sleep, wake up at 7 p.m. I had no social life, I didn’t do anything. I was just really, really depressed.  

For the first few days, I had someone showing me around, and I thought that I’d be working with a partner the whole time. It made it bearable that I had somebody else to work with.  

My third week, they threw me in a room by myself, and I had to clean the whole thing. That’s when I walked out. I was like, I’m not doing this. And on my way home, I called Andrea. I literally wanted to cry.  

It was like two in the morning, I was listening to music, and I had a moment where there was something telling me, really telling me, that I should go a hundred on this highway and shift into the next lane and just end my shit right there. 

After I quit, my aunt screamed at me and then cut me off. I guess she was disappointed that I wasn’t doing anything. I had to kiss my mom’s ass just to come back; I basically admitted to my mom that everything she did to me was fine, and it was OK for her to treat me like this, and that I was in the wrong, just so I can have a place to stay.  

And even while doing that, she didn’t give me house keys. I would have to sleep in my car or somewhere else because I couldn’t go into the house. When the door was locked, I would tell maintenance people, “Oh, yeah, I went out to get some groceries. I was half awake. Can you guys unlock the door? I won’t do it again.” I acted my ass off.  


I applied to Starbucks by my house. Applied off a whim. No previous experience. I didn’t even list that [other] job. They were hiring everyone, and I just happened to get hired.  

Whenever I’d come home from work, I would shower, try to be clean whenever I could. Sometimes I would have to stay in my car because [my mom] wouldn’t let me in the house past nine, even though I would get off work at 9:30, sometimes twelve.  

I was at Starbucks basically all day. I was like, “Who wants shifts taken? I can take shifts; I can work a double.” So I was usually working twelve-, thirteen-hour shifts. I felt a lot happier there. I even told my boss, “Yeah, I would rather be at Starbucks than at my house right now.”  

It wasn’t as bad as it sounds because I was making money, and I had stuff to keep me busy. I was at Starbucks from open to close, and it didn’t feel bad at the time. Now, I’m like, I did my time already. I’m not struggling no more; I don’t need to work no doubles.  

I wasn’t really deterred by the fact that I was up for fourteen hours on my feet, and then I did it again the next day. I was tired, you know, but I wouldn’t complain. I was happy to be there because really, it was so much better than the alternative. And it’s so crazy that I’m saying that like it’s a normal thing. That should not be normal.  

I just wanted more for myself, you know? I didn’t want to be content with the life that I was living. I was like, Is this really all there is for me? I had a really shit hand dealt to me; I didn’t want that to be the legacy that I left. I wanted to stick it to people who have their whole life handed to them and they do nothing with it, where people like me have to work for basically everything.  

I got nothing handed to me. My car was a gift, that was the one thing that I didn’t have to work for. And the only reason I had that car is because a family friend from the Philippines was not here legally, and ICE102 was looking for her. She had to go back before she was going to get deported, so she sold me her car for five hundred. It was really sad, but it was also a blessing.  

If I did not have that car, I would probably be dead in a ditch somewhere. I would have nowhere to sleep. That car, that’s my freedom right there. That was my wings, you know? I could go anywhere.  


During peak COVID, we didn’t have any chairs in the café. It was like, you get your drink, you go. Put your mask on or we’re going to yell at you. We have masks to give to people.  

[Customers would come in] like, “Oh, I forgot my mask.”  

“Oh, we have one for you,” or whatever.  

This guy came in. He didn’t want to wear a mask, refused to wear a mask. And we were like, “Sir. If you want to be in the store, we require you to wear a mask.”  

He’s like, “Fine. I’ll take your stupid mask.”  

So he took a mask just to run over to the trash to throw it out. And then he went back and got another one and just kept doing that.  

We’re like, “Dude, this is the third mask we’ve given you. Wear it or get out.”  

And he was like, “Well, I don’t fucking want to be here anyways.”  

What is the point? You’re protesting at a Starbucks, really? You’re doing this in front of a bunch of teenagers who are just here to work for college or support themselves? Like, we don’t care. Literally just be considerate of other people, please.  

I couldn’t afford to get COVID, so I was really anal about the whole thing. I was like, bro, please put your mask on, because if I get sick, then I’m done, you know? I was living out my car, and I have asthma as well, so I didn’t want to get sick.  

During the peak of the coronavirus, there was a rumor that started that corona doesn’t affect Black people, and there were fake statistics to back that. So I was really going into that, like, I don’t give a fuck, this doesn’t affect me. I’m half Black, why do I care? And then my aunt got COVID, and I was like, I don’t know if I can believe this rumor anymore; this is too close to me, bro. 

It’s just crazy that was a rumor. And a lot of people, including myself, believed that at first. It’s so racially motivated. Of course they said that, so Black people walk unmasked and catch corona.  


I like my job. That’s the one thing that saved me during the whole pandemic. I feel like my coworkers I don’t even see as coworkers. I haven’t worked that many jobs, so I had the idea that people don’t get that close to their coworkers. I don’t walk into a McDonald’s and have them know me by my name or by my order.  

Almost everyone in our store knows the majority of the customers’ names, order, and even random shit about them. Like, oh, this person is a yoga instructor, or this person’s a science teacher, or this person does real estate.  

And the coworkers are super supportive as well. When I legit lived out of my car for almost three months, they were super supportive about that. No one was making fun of me for wearing the same clothes or smelling bad or anything.  

And they were giving me resources. My one coworker, Jalen, was like, “I can help you come up with a plan to build your credit and manage it, so you can get a new car.” It was super helpful. I’m like, wow, you guys literally went out of your way to just talk to me or do this shit for me.  

I really worked my ass off at that job. I never called off. I worked almost forty hours a week when I first started. My hours are more chill now because I’m more financially stable. I don’t want to say 100 percent, but I have income coming in so I can spend stuff and not feel like I’m stressing, you know? I’m paying for my own phone.  

Just being in that positive environment gave me the energy to work on myself and figure out who I wanted to be in life. It’s a job that I never thought I would work, and it wasn’t anything like I thought it was going to be. It was really fun making drinks and connecting and talking to people, getting to know my regulars and being a positive influence on some people’s lives, you know?  

There’s literally a review, if you look up the downtown La Grange Starbucks, where someone’s like, “I had a really, really shit day today, but the barista at Starbucks talked to me and made me feel a lot better about everything.” And I’m pretty sure I talked to that person, so that really made me feel good.  

You just don’t know what people are going through. You could be sitting right next to a person who could be having the worst day in their life, and you’d never know.  

There’s not a lot of compassion in this world. I feel like if everyone was a little bit kinder, if everyone just cared a little bit more, the world would be a better place.  

102 Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Source: https://www.ice.gov/ 

The interview above is an excerpt from Big Shoulders Books’ Virus City, a collection of interviews that capture the oral history of Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the above cover for more info!

BIG SHOULDERS BOOKS and SLAG GLASS CITY are projects of the DePaul Publishing Institute.

SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8  · November 2022
Header image— Electron Microscopic Image of a Coronavirus: Original Image Source— U.S. National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases