It was supposed to be temporary, my job at The Grocery Store.
In 2011, time moved on without my permission, and I had a car payment and a dog to feed. Scraps of my life to pick up and papier-mâché back together. Being in my mid-30s and back in my high school bedroom in my mother’s house (see: “The Rabies Bat”, blog entry numero uno) was supposed to be temporary. Master’s Degree and past, real money-making professional career be damned! I’d run away from Florida with Mr. SoHo (see: “My Dog’s Infected Butt”, blog entry numero dos) one early Gulf Coast morning and ended up back in suburban California with no plan, no money, no direction. So, I took a job selling cheese and salami, beer, chocolate, and wine at The Grocery Store in West Hollywood, CA. I used some fancy words to sell said product.
“Well, that’d be like two badgers fightin’ in a tater sack,” I said to a guest who asked me about pairing a low-end Irish cider with a high-end French sheep chèvre.
It was West Hollywood. A town full of actors. The lovely girl who asked me about the pairing was new in town and from Georgia. And a Peach at that. I wanted to connect with her, provide exceptional guest service, create a real buying experience for her. Because that’s what we were told to do. I wasn’t an actor but if I’d learned nothing from graduate school, it was to just fake it. Also? I know a whole lot about character development.
So, I slow-spoke in a kind of toothless Southern dialect. Which may or may not have been totally bigoted. Whatever. I read a whole lot of Flannery O’Conner in grad school, okay?
I graduated summa cum laude, bitches. I know about character development. Once upon a time, I taught that shit. In an actual classroom. At an actual university. Or two. Plus one junior college.
Two years later, I’m still working for The Grocery Store, but just outside of Seattle now. I still use my mad character development skills, though it’s more about Canadians and the rampant skinny-jean wardrobing ’round these here parts. Also? Microsoft jokes. Lots of ’em. And none of ’em are funny. ‘Cause they’re Microsoft jokes.
It’s a great grocery store, as grocery stores go, and we’re kind of a big deal. For realsies. Ask anyone. We’re all natural and organic and we’re all non-GMO all over the place and we’ll take your entire two-week’s earnings if you let us. But, before we do, we’ll offer you free samples until you split. You’ve been warned.
Speaking of free samples.
Every summer, we feature cheeses with peppers. Not on the side, but, rather, inside of the curds and the whey. Cheeses with peppers. Habanero Cheddar. Pecorino with red pepper. Pecorino with black pepper. Chèvre with cracked green pepper. Cheddar with Hatch chiles from New Mexico is a big one. Proper peppers are seasonal. And for all of the guests who are all, like, “Hey. Do you have a spicy cheese?” we’re all, like, “Yeah, try the Habanero or the Hatch or the cracked green pepper.” And they do. They stuff their gaping, salivating, pie holes with all that we will give them. Simply because it’s free. Also? We at The Grocery Store have conditioned our guests to expect free shit. So, they take it, all of it, without even thinking about what it might be.
I’ve seen parents shove burn-y pepper cheese into the mouths of their babes, totally ignoring the sign that says “Habanero Cheddar! Spicy!”, ignoring the Habanero Cheddar labels pasted onto those hunks of cheese set up right next to that free sample, and ignoring the eye-level neon sign placed just above that gratis queso as it flashes, “THIS HABANERO CHEDDAR IS FROM THE SEVENTH RING OF DANTE’S INFERNO! IT’S GOING TO BURN THE TASTEBUDS RIGHT OFF OF YOUR TONGUE AND IT’S GONNA HURT YOUR HINEY ON IT’S WAY OUT, TOO! DO NOT GIVE THIS TO YOUR INFANT!” And when the babes cry, half-chewed gobs of Fromage del Diablo dropping out of their drool-y, ouch-y, frown-y mouths, first onto the shopping cart handle, and finally onto the polished cement floor of The Grocery Store, the parents are all like, “You know, you really should warn people about this cheese!”
Yeah, we totally should.
Like, with a sign or three.
The habanero pepper is a little, waxy, kind of plum-shaped fruit, the color of the most perfect orange, with a thin stem a’top it. Much like a cherry stem. I mention this because I feel like there are many people out there who don’t know what a habanero pepper looks like. And I only feel that way because on Habanero Cheddar Sampling Day, I found several sad, partially-chewed Habanero peppers discarded along the aisle moving away from my department. It was like a spicy trail of breadcrumbs navigating the cookie aisle of The Grocery Store.
Picking up those lonely cast-away peppers that day, I imagined all of the pepper-red faces of the habanero-eating shoppers and, my own face turning red due to asphyxiation due to extreme laughter, I may or may not have imagined them running to the water cooler looking for some kind of relief only to learn that water just makes the fuego worse.
With every re-play of this imagined scene, I laughed harder. And, I’m pretty sure that I Facebooked a pile of those half-eaten peppers lying dead in a discarded toothpick bin that day.
Because, listen: if you’re going to go around and just indiscriminately shove shit into your big ol’ gaping maw, you deserve to learn a little lesson every once in awhile. And I’m not going to feel sorry for you because you decided to bite into a habanero. In fact, I’m going to laugh at you. Further, and this is really the kicker, those habaneros were part of the display: they weren’t for eating, they were for decoration! You people ruined my display!
The best part of my job, aside from gleaning inspiration to write stories about what ridiculous consumers do everyday, is the people that I work with. I love my co-workers at The Grocery Store. I really do. I work with the best bunch of folks that you’ll find from miles ’round. And we all have a story.
One guy that I work with was a teenaged Olympian. Another one of my co-workers? She was in the Air Force. One woman, Anna, is from Latin America and, before she moved to the states, was married to a drug lord who had been gunned down in front of her and their children. One of the meat cutters that I worked with used to be a woman named Elizabeth. The beer guy grew up in Compton, CA and once wrestled bears in Russia. One of our weekend cashiers is currently battling breast cancer and refuses to take time off of work to recover from surgery. She likes to tell me stories about her first wedding, where she had “all the Indians on one side of the aisle and all of the bikers on the other side.” Me? I’ve got my own story.
More often than not, though, we never get asked about our story. And we don’t tell it unless asked. We’re pierced, tattooed, war-vetted, broken, from somewhere else and trying to do something else, and mostly quiet about it. Because we’re busy working. Sometimes, though, we go for beers after work, if our shifts coordinate, and we tell stories. There’s the occasional story about one or another of us. Mostly, though, we tell stories about the people who come into our departments and through our lines at The Grocery Store. Those stories provide belly laughs and inspire additional rounds of beers, with a side of fries.
Yes, we laugh about you, Sometimes Shopper.
Because some of you people out there? Have no manners. It’s about 10% of you–and you’re probably the once upon a time kids who kept the rest of us in at recess–but you 10% keep us connected and entertained.
“You don’t have any samples out!” said the 8- or 9-year-old little girl standing defiantly in front of me, her angry little fists planted firmly upon her hips. “I want a sample!”
“Are you alone or is there an adult with you?” I asked.
“My mom’s here. Over there!,” she pointed. “Where’s my sample?!” she demanded, her mom browsing the organic, free-range, non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan, grain-free bread aisle just 5 feet behind this little, virulent, pigtailed monstrosity.
“No samples right now, honey. All of the other people just finished them. I’m so sorry.”
She huffed and she puffed and she pulled her iPhone out. She may have angrily Yelped or Tweeted or Four-Squared or whatever about my service at The Grocery Store in those few seconds when she walked unhappily away from me.
But I don’t care.
The last thing I’m going to do is positively reinforce that kind of snotty behavior. I refuse to encourage that kind of jerkery. Because when I’m, like, 80, it’s possible that that huffy little girl will be passing health care legislation that will effect me. The least that I can do is teach her a “life is hard”, sorry-I-don’t-have-anything-free-for-you, Sweetheart, lesson.
I figured that going home to eat that terrible “bread” that her mom bought that night might be punishment enough, but I wanted to throw in a little something extra for good measure. Maybe she’ll grow up loving gluten and start being nice (fact #1: doctors correlate gluten absorption with niceness) (fact #2: that’s totally not a fact but it probably could be if we swayed the statistics enough).
Seriously. Bread is bread. Either eat it or don’t. Don’t pretend that you’re eating it. Also? Don’t ask me for vegan cheesecake. Ever. That shit’s an oxymoron and you shouldn’t put it in your mouth unless you’re being literary. Vegan cheesecake is like the Mona Lisa minus the smile: a blasé canvas with some neutral color slapped onto it.
When I was a little girl, we didn’t even have bread, forget free samples! We put our sandwiches–were we lucky enough to have some meat and cheese and a dollop of Miracle Whip–between cardboard box flaps and then celebrated our great celestial fortune with three hand-held circles around the Great White Oak before chomping at that fibrous shit! And we would eat them graciously. Going up hill. Both ways. In the snow. Barefooted.
The new generation of sample-askers frightens me. Generation Y is scary enough with their Everyone Gets an Award mentality and their Smartphones and their somehow-baggy-skinny-jeans. I mean, in my day, jeans were baggy because they were four sizes too big. And that shit was gansta! More West Coast Gangsta than East Coast Gangsta, that is.
Generation Z frightens me even more. (Yes, they are called ‘Generation Z’.) Not just because they represent the Zeta, but because they are all wardrobed straight from Nordstrom. Full-priced Nordstrom. Which makes me shudder.
Also? Once upon a time, the only children who asked for free food were starving. Literally, starving. Little street urchins a’la Charles Dickens. They could barely speak the words, “Please, Sir”, so tired and hungry they were. And they were so cute, in an emaciated, cast-off kind of way, with their little sideways po’boy caps and patched trousers and such. Pink Floyd wrote a song about them. It includes a lyric by a man who says, literally, “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!”
And I think this whole new generation of small, entitled people could take a lesson or two from Pink Floyd.
If not, I’ll be happy to give them samples of burn-y cheese whilst their mom’s off buying non-bread or non-cheesecake and talk to them all about oxymorons and how to handle a non-career.