By Jeffrey Shaffer
I recently took a job that is often ridiculed as menial and mindless. But I have found it to be interesting and rewarding: I work in a grocery store.
Hollywood hasn’t been kind to this line of work. Anyone who has seen the 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption” knows what happened to inmate Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore). After decades of incarceration he was finally paroled but couldn’t adjust to life outside prison walls. One major source of disillusionment was his job at a local market filling grocery bags, and before long he gave up and hanged himself.
The hit Netflix series “House of Cards” includes a snappy putdown in the first season when Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) is forced to cut the staff of her nonprofit organization, including the 59-year-old office manager. Claire offers to write a letter of recommendation but the woman angrily replies, “To do what, bag groceries?”
Well, I’m past 59 and my résumé includes stints in radio, television news and print journalism. Turns out the skills I learned from those job are a big help in my new work place. For me, life in the aisles is much like being in a movie, except there are no cameras to interfere with the action and I get to write my own lines every time a customer asks for help.
The store is owned by a Northwest-based company that emphasizes friendly service and looks for opportunities to carry products made locally.
This is an interesting time to be in the grocery business, when millions of Americans are becoming seriously interested in food production, nutrition, diet regimens and cooking styles. My fellow employees and I are all active participants in the collective conversation.
I was hired as a “floater,” so I work in all departments, which is fine with me because it provides a range of opportunities for making personal connections. That’s probably the main reason I took the job. Writing is often a solitary process, but I’m not a solitary person. I like direct engagement with people. Doing interviews was always my favorite part of producing news stories, editing them much less so. Now I’m in a spontaneous, edit-free environment—and it comes with a nice benefits package.
The shoppers are a snapshot of America. I’ve talked with teenagers, parents (married and single), and elderly women who decided that having purple hair would be a fun new look. Some customers have tattoos and body piercings. Hearing true-life stories told in person will always be my favorite form of social media.
Long visits by shoppers aren’t unusual; the store has a salad bar, kitchen, deli counter and dining area. Sometimes we have live music featuring local talent. On busy days, I feel like I’m in a community center that also offers groceries.
The bakery is the most enjoyable department. Bread is elemental, and seeing the process that brings it into existence is compelling. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at selling it—my mantra when I’m behind the bakery counter is “No loaf left behind.” I want the shelves empty when I leave at night. Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m making progress.
One request I’d like to make of all supermarket customers everywhere: Next time you’re in the parking lot and a delivery truck blocks your path as it maneuvers toward the loading dock, don’t get mad and honk. That truck is carrying items you want. Keeping the product pipeline flowing smoothly and on schedule is a crucial element of the free-enterprise system, not to mention the means by which most of us stay fed.
Sometimes I look toward the store’s front entrance and imagine Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” peering through the window. That’s another film that slams my job, in the scene where Kurtz expresses his utter contempt for Captain Willard ( Martin Sheen ) by telling him, “You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.” If only Kurtz could spend some time working in a supermarket these days—maybe a stint at the bakery counter would cheer him up.
Source: The Wall Street Journal