By Adam W.
Originally published in De-Bug Magazine # 16, December 2006
Working at a grocery store is a world to its own. Although the customers strolling through the aisles may not see it, the workers at a store can be like a family brothers and sisters, older parent figures, crazy Uncles. And just like a family, there can be generation gaps. At my store, we had mainly two kind of folks, the 20-something-workers, many who were slowly working their way through community college, and the older workers we called the “lifers.” It wasn’t just how the young folks saw them, but how they saw themselves — stuck.
In the break room was where I would chop it up with the lifers. When the managers would do their paperwork in the early mornings, Gary, a lifer with words of wisdom, would sit across the break room table from me.
“You gotta get out of that credit card debt, start saving money right away. Are you going to school?” he would lecture. With a stern look and a pointing finger covered by a rubber glove, he would talk straight to me like an older uncle. He would tell the story about back in his day, working at Safeway was like being a teacher, nurse, or a firefighter. It was a respected job that you could buy a house and send your kids to college with.
But not anymore. Over and over, Gary and the other workers would tell me how it wasn’t like how it used to be any more. They would sigh and say, “Get out as fast as you can.” They wished they could, but they had worked there so long that they couldn¹t even think of doing something else. Most of the younger workers brushed it off, as they would be moving on. But a few would wind up staying, like the ones who were getting married and needed the benefits, or those who just couldn’t get themselves through school.
To the lifers, buying a house seemed out of reach. They couldn’t afford to send their kids to college and they would always try to catch the occasional overtime or holiday shift where they could make double-time. Each of them had different strategies to get their own piece of the pie – their way of trying to get ahead when they were being pushed behind.
The kick-back produce department was where Gary worked. If you
planned on sticking with the supermarket job, then this is where you wanted
to wind up. The produce section was its own little castle. Unlike the checkstands where management was always hawking over you, all the workers at the produce section had to do was meet their quotas, keep the stands looking
clean and the manager didn¹t ever mess with them. While most of the departments were on lower wage scales that topped $15/ hour, all the produce people were on the highest wage scale that went up to $20. But you couldn’t just walk off the street into produce. You had to work in the store for a couple of years and be approved by the older guys who worked there.
A middle-aged white guy, Gary started working at my store as a bagger straight out of high school in the 60′s. Now, he has a mortgage and two kids in college. His thing was day trading. Every morning, the phone in the backroom near produce would ring and someone would say, “Hey Gary, it’s your broker.” You could tell when the market was hot because you could hear him arguing about which ones to buy or sell through the whole backroom. That’s how he was trying to make up for his lack of savings.
Then there was Jack. We would always talk when we worked in the
checkstands together on slow mornings. He always looked completely exhausted with his coffee cup in hand. He would drink five cups every shift and sometimes eat nothing for lunch, except more coffee. His hands were calloused and sometime blackened because every morning at 3am, he would wake up to deliver newspapers to vending machines around the city in his VW bus. He was married, though I got the impression he was never really able to spend any time with her.
The person that everyone loved to talk smack about and hate on was Debra. She was a single mother who dropped out of college while studying
chemistry some years back. Something told me she probably had her share of
fun then. Her strategy was pretty clear: she was trying to impress the managers so she could move up the Safeway ladder and become a store manager or work for the corporate office in Pleasanton. Everyone knew she was working off the clock and on her days off. After she was promoted to supervisor, she would write everyone up for the slightest thing, even for being a minute late coming back from break.
Anytime the jackpot would get really high, say $80 or $100 million, Brenda would organize the lotto pool. She was a short Filipina who worked in the cash room that none of us were allowed into. Her husband worked at another Safeway too. When she would come by to give more change, count our drawers or refill our change machines, she would talk to all the checkers, especially if it was a slow day.
When it was lotto week she would come around asking everyone to pitch in $5. Part of this ritual was everyone dreaming up stories of what they would do if we all won the money. Some would say we could all retire
together in Hawaii, never having to work again.
While a few people would talk about being able to buy a big house, one guy would always talk up how he would buy the store up so he could burn the whole place down and laugh. He was a white guy who wore jerseys and ported his tattoos on the back of his arms on his days off. About 21 years old, he was always trying to act like a thug, and his attitude always got him into arguments with the customers. While I was sure that he would get fired one day for another argument with a middle aged housewife, he always thought his way out was his hiphop T-shirt business that he swore would take off.
One of my favorite co-workers was this older, light skinned, Argentinian checker Alex. Having been the longest running checker at the store, he had a following of customers that would only go through his line. He checked so slow other workers would make call him “Mr. McGoo.” But he didn’t care. He only had a few years until he retired with his pension, and no matter how many “Productivity Training Sessions” management made him attend, he knew they couldn’t touch him.
Checking began to make my back and wrist hurt all the time and
sometimes, I would even hear that “beep” sound in my sleep. But I loved talking with the customers everyday. I worked there for a year, and never ended up as a lifer.