The deliverer didn't want to go upstairs.
Driver Zhang Sai hovered in front of a residential building in Wuhan, the central Chinese city in the heart of the coronavirus outbreak. He was instructed not to bring groceries to customers' doors to minimize the risk of infection.
But the woman on the phone pleaded. The food was for her mother who couldn't meet him.
Mr. Zhang gave in. He would place the order and sprint off. When he put the bag on the floor, the door opened. Startled, he hurried away. Without thinking, he pushed his finger on the elevator button and touched a surface he feared could transmit the virus.
In this way, 32-year-old Zhang hurried back to his delivery station with one finger held up, taking care not to touch the rest of his hand – a miniature quarantine.
"I was very scared," Mr. Zhang recalled. "Because I ride the scooter, I felt that the finger is like a flag."
For many in China, delivery drivers like Mr. Zhang are the only connection to the outside world. Once an ubiquitous but invisible presence on the streets of almost every Chinese city, drivers are now being heroes.
Across China, at least 760 million people – almost a tenth of the world's population – are some form of Residential lock. The restrictions are particularly stringent in Wuhan, where government efforts to contain the virus have barricaded most of the city's 11 million residents into their homes.
Each household can only send out someone for the essentials once every three days. Many residents do not venture outside at all for fear of infection. Of the more than 2,100 deaths and nearly 75,000 infections related to the new virus, the majority were in Wuhan.
But people still have to eat – that's why Mr. Zhang and legions of delivery drivers are on the streets every day. As Wuhan and the rest of China huddle together, they have become the country's vital arteries, ensuring that fresh meat, vegetables, and other supplies flow to those who need them.
It is tiring and dangerous work. Mr. Zhang, who works for Hema, a supermarket chain owned by technology giant Alibaba, only crosses the city with the face masks and hand sanitizers his company delivers every morning.
His company uniform, light blue with a hippo logo, informs the local authorities that he is allowed to be out and about.
At night he tries not to think about the epidemic. He listens to pop songs and searches for good news on TV.
The dozens of trips he makes every day have arisen not only from Wuhan's need, but also from his own. His wife, four-year-old twins and father rely on him to get financial support. He never thought of taking a break, even after the danger of the outbreak became clear. When his family asked him to stop, he also ignored them.
Mr. Zhang's family lives outside of Wuhan and cannot visit him because of the outbreak, but he chats with them daily on video.
If he walks fast and works long days, Mr. Zhang could make about 8,000 yuan a month or just over $ 1,100 more than in his previous job as a post courier. The average monthly salary in Wuhan in 2017 was about 6,640 yuan, according to the data provider CEIC.
Mr. Zhang and his colleagues offer each other constantly updated advice. It was one of Mr. Zhang's colleagues who told him to press the elevator buttons with one button. Another afternoon, someone in the group's text said that a suspected coronavirus patient had died in neighborhood 125. Do not enter this area of Wuhan, the message said.
"So damn unfortunate," said a colleague. "These orders have been assigned to me."
So far, none of Mr. Zhang's employees have fallen ill, he said.
The epidemic has brought some unexpected bright spots. Previously, said Mr. Zhang, he sometimes ran red lights during rush hour to meet his delivery targets for that day. Now the streets are empty. He has no problem getting around.
People are nicer too. Some customers barely opened the door or avoided eye contact. After the outbreak broke out, everyone said thank you.
"There is a saying," A man's words are kind when death is near, "said Mr. Zhang." Everyone is very tired. Everyone has suffered for so long. "
These interactions are now less common. This week, the Wuhan authorities ordered neighborhoods to set up “contactless delivery points”. When Mr. Zhang has a delivery, he takes it to a certain checkpoint in the customer's neighborhood and leaves.
By far the best change, however, was Mr. Zhang's routine after work. He usually watched a movie or spent time with friends. Now he writes in a diary every night. Then he sends the entries to various online publications, which – much to his delight – have started to share them.
He writes that he calls a friend to ask him to support his sons when he gets sick. seeing two older men playing chess outdoors without a mask; spending a crisp Wuhan day with few to share.
"Usually you see more people sunbathing, playing chess, shopping, doing nothing," he wrote in this January 30 entry. "Usually I think they are too loud. Only now I discover a city without people who scream is boring."
Mr. Zhang said that he has always had literary aspirations. He has written novels, poems and fairy tales, but none of these earlier writings have been published.
He only has a middle school education and thought that would put the editors off. But they published his posts after making only a few grammatical changes, he said.
He reads every comment on his posts. Many people say they can't believe a delivery driver wrote them.
"I think people like me because I'm just one of them," he said.
Mr. Zhang plans to continue writing after the outbreak has ended. He has already started accepting fewer deliveries to have more time to write.
When the outlets stop publishing his work, he continues to deliver to make money. But he won't stop writing.
“The epidemic has caused many people to shut up. Many unfortunate people have shut their mouths forever, ”said Zhang wrote in a post. "I want to talk now."