Everything I Learned In Life I Learned From Working At A Supermarket
When I was 16, I secured a position as a cashier and bagger at Stop and Shop, a chain supermarket located in a renovated plaza in Warwick, Rhode Island. It was an eight minute drive from my house, and a two minute drive — pretty much across the street, actually — from an all boys high school – the brother school to my all girls high school — where I spent most of my after school hours doing theater.
By all accounts, it was a pretty terrible experience. I worked there for just under a year, from the start of my senior year of high school through the summer before college. I made minimum wage, worked until 10 or 10:30 pm on school nights (school nights, Jesus) and wore a long sleeve polo shirt and name tag. One of my coworkers was named Donna. I still think of her every time I smell Menthol or see a 40-something in a leather jacket with an adjustable waist belt. My manager Nancy thought I was a huge dumb ass, and treated me like a huge dumb ass. I was.
Here’s what I learned.
Don’t ask for permission to do what you need to do. Don’t invite people to make your choices for you.
It was around Christmas. I was on register, and I had the flu. Anyone who’s ever experienced being sick on the job in some service role (restaurant, retail, whatever) knows how unbearably shitty it is to stand for several hours, usually near a clock/register/receipt with a timestamp, counting down the hours until you can go home and not shiver standing up. Or cough on people. Or their food.
You could end your shift early, but here’s the thing. Once you’re at work, clocked in, it’s pretty hard to go home. It’s partly a fear of sounding like a liar to your manager, who makes the schedule; partly that you think you can make it (the clock is there, just a few more hours); and partly that since your job is so terrible, you start to second guess yourself on the severity of your illness. That is, since most of the time you spend at a service job feels like bullshit, you question whether you’re just exaggerating how sick you feel to yourself to justify punching out early. You decide you are making too much of it.
So at some point over the course of a checkout during this particular shift, I realized: Jesus. I am definitely going to vomit. So I hit my help button. You hit the help button (located directly below the service light indicating whether your lane is open) when you screw up a sale, need a manager key, or have to go to the bathroom.
I hit my help button. I hit it again.
One of my managers told me to hold on, they would get Joel, a junior manager, to cover me.
Just hold on.
I could not.
I remember it almost going black, but not going black. Instead of blackness, I always come back to this image of a Foxy brand cabbage, sealed in plastic, rolling in slow motion down the conveyer belt. I remember the cabbage — that robust, Foxy cabbage — seeming beautiful, but useless.
Check out was still happening, but I was not.
I ran to the bathroom.
I entered a stall and crouched on the floor by the toilet.
I threw up.
When I came out of the bathroom, Joel approached me and asked if I had to go home. I said, I’m fine, in the way kids with good parents say it. Like, I’m fine in theory, but I want you to make the decision for me that I’m not.
Joel looked at me and said, Okay.
I went back to my shift. I hated myself. It was shitty.
No one cares about your fucking birthday.
Your birthday is not a national holiday. It’s not an occasion for people to be nice to you, or give you special treatment, or ask you fun questions about yourself, your plans, and your day. It’s a day of the week, part of a month, part of a year. To everyone other than your mother, it literally means nothing. When people wish you a happy birthday, they are either your friend or acquaintance, and are marginally interested in the prospect of a party where they can drink/meet people to fall in love with/seem interesting to, or, they work with you in a white collar job and don’t want to seem like an asshole.
Jobs that don’t involve Excel are not like this.
My first week or two of work, as a bright-eyed and chipper young asshole, I wrongly assumed that since I was scheduled on my birthday, I was entitled to not work on my birthday. I said to my manager, Nancy, something stupid and hilarious and open-ended, like, I noticed I am scheduled on my birthday, assuming she’d be like, Oh. That’s fine. Switch your shift with someone.
It was not fine.
When I worked on my birthday until 10 p.m., as I was leaving, Nancy looked at me and said:
Oh yeah, happy birthday.
It was more about the first part.
There is a gender divide. There are also outliers.
I’m a progressive enough person. I live in New York. I have a cool job that I work hard at. I have vague goals related to intellectual progress, alternative entertainment, and inserting myself into the new American intelligentsia. I have brilliant female and male friends, and measure each of them equally on the merits of their work, character, and intellect. They are impossibly impressive to me. They are women and men, and in my eyes, they can each as individuals do anything.
Here’s the thing: in the scope of the world, and the scope of possible jobs, that’s only sort of true.
That is, at a grocery store, there are things men can do that women cannot do. Men are capable of things there women aren’t.
Cart duty is one of those things.
In my understanding of the role, cart duty is pretty much a subdivision of the bagging shift, with a few produce guys also participating. Male baggers or produce guys would take turns on cart duty, which meant going outside to the parking lot, usually in a Stop and Shop branded vest or sweatshirt, to organize the shopping carts people left by their cars, in parking spaces, and around the general area.
This was a man’s job, because it literally meant pushing several carts, sometimes 20 or so at once, inserted into one another, and depositing them at an appropriate location (those metal bar-like structures in the parking lot).
I am not strong. Donna was not strong. Nancy was a bitch (and a manager) but also, not strong. So we could not do this.
Male grocers had the upper body strength cart duty required.
There was one girl, Liz, who was occasionally on cart duty. It was literally because she was strong. True, it could have partly been based on perception (she wore a thick leather strap bracelet and worked in deli). But apart from her in-group behavior, Liz was included in carts because when Liz did carts, carts got pushed. In the narrative of Stop and Shop, she was someone who could handle heavy lifting, so she did heavy lifting.
You can’t talk people into believing you’re more than what you do, because you aren’t.
When you’re behind a register, you are literally a step in the process of a consumer making payment for a good or service. Even if someone (the consumer) is looking at you, and smiling at you, and talking to you like a person, they don’t actually care. They are completing a step (making payment) toward some end. You are part of it.
This isn’t about Marxism.
One time, around early fall, a man came through my line wearing a Georgetown sweatshirt. I was extremely, intensely excited to mention to him that I had just completed a summer program there. It was called the Junior Statesmen Association, I said. He nodded and looked away.
I felt embarrassed. Not for him ignoring me, or because of the content of what I had said. But for both of those things, and for what I meant. And most significantly, for where I was when I meant it.
Here’s the thing: If I were somewhere else, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it. It would have seemed unnecessary.
For one, yeah, I love talking, and I was really bored. But I wanted something from him. I wanted this guy to make it seem like I wasn’t exactly where I was, working the job I was. I wanted to express: I just work here as an after school job. I am smart. I am going to be a great American writer.
Or, worse, I am not this.
I gave him his receipt.
There’s this thing that you do when you’re young, and it’s stupid. I did it. I’m 24. I still do. You include yourself in a culture just enough to separate yourself from it. You stay on the surface. It makes you feel like you’re not what you do. You’re what you think. It makes everything you’re not doing seem so possible, and it’s because you’re not actually doing it.
Don’t do that.
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