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I Had To Get A Job At The Grocery Store In My Affluent Town. Here's What I Learned.

Friday, January 17, 2020

When I spent $100,000 earning two degrees, I never imagined I’d end up working as a cashier at my local grocery store but I needed the job.

A year earlier, I’d left my corporate marketing job. While working there, it seemed as if I was working to pay for child care and little else. I also struggled to be there for my kids’ sick days and school events. But my year off had nearly broken our family financially, and I needed to return to work.

I needed to find a job that I could do at night once my husband came home. That way we’d eliminate our child care costs entirely and I would still bring in some extra money to help ease our other financial burdens. That’s what I was offered by a grocery store located in the affluent town we could barely afford to live in.

The store hired me the same day I applied, and a week later, I began working as a night cashier. Simple, I thought as the training supervisor showed me how to greet customers, find produce codes and ring items.

But it wasn’t.

Two weeks after I started, the shift supervisor came over.

“Hey, your ring times are a little bit low but we’re going to get them up,” he said, pausing before adding, “But you’re great with the customers.”

He was trying to be kind, but I was mortified. The idea of being corrected by a 19-year-old kid I was old enough to have mothered stung. I managed to convince myself that ring times didn’t matter and then I cried the whole drive home.

“Nicole?” I heard a customer say at the beginning of my next shift. The tan woman placed her groceries on the black belt, a mix of party goods ― drinks, paper plates and snack foods.

“I didn’t know you worked here,” she continue

Months before, we’d greeted each other in the checkout line as we discussed a school fundraiser she was organizing. She didn’t need to work. Her family appeared to live well as a single-income family. I remember that day I’d pushed a couple of coupons I intended to use under a bag of rice, hiding them, when I saw this woman approach. I hated that I had moved to the other side of the register and was now serving her. 

I stopped listening to what she was saying and instead focused on ringing up her purchases, while I listened for the beeps. I didn’t want to double-scan any items or go too slowly. I could be friendly or I could be conscientious ― I wasn’t capable of both. This, I realized, was the reason for my slow ring times, so I’d have to give the customer less of me and give the scanner more. I couldn’t believe how awful I was at this.

“Well,” she said, “I guess I’ll see you at drop-off.”

I waved without explaining that this job was not a way to escape my kids, but a necessity. It allowed me to work nights and make money I desperately needed to pay bills. Like many of the affluent customers we served, I don’t think she could understand.

As the next few weeks went by, I did my best to bring up my ring times and even tried to memorize some of the produce codes. My co-workers helped, including the young supervisor. But I still found myself hiding when mothers I knew walked by. While I couldn’t shut my light off and pretend my lane was closed, I did other things.

“Can I run to the ladies’ room?” I’d ask the supervisor on duty. I tried to flag down another shopper so they’d get into my line before the lawyer mother I knew who had just returned from a weekend of skiing did. I didn’t want to ring up her organic dragon fruit or imported cheese.

If all else failed, I’d offer to wipe down the registers or handle returning items to the shelves, which, of course, was also risky. There was always the possibility of running into someone I knew in the aisles. Then I would be forced to listen as they droned on about their latest vacation, or worse, asked me where something was. I’d have to admit I often didn’t know because I worked at the front of the store instead of in the center.

“I’m a writer,” I told a random man one day, though he never asked. He was purchasing an expensive bottle of liquor. “Please don’t put the bread on the bottom of the bag,” he said and returned to his phone call. He never looked at me, not once, throughout the entire transaction.

I was capable of more than ringing and bagging his groceries, I wanted to shout, hopefully jarring him from a call too important to allow him to acknowledge a fellow human being ― me. Instead, I looked at my growing line and thought of my ring times. I’d just have to make the next customer understand: I was not just a cashier. This was not a real job for me. I pushed the button to move their items down the belt and allowed myself to get lost in the hum of the store.

She did know because I’d mentioned it the last time I dropped my son off at school. Maybe she’d forgotten.

“What a great way to get out of the house and away from the kids for a bit,” she said.

Months before, we’d greeted each other in the checkout line as we discussed a school fundraiser she was organizing. She didn’t need to work. Her family appeared to live well as a single-income family. I remember that day I’d pushed a couple of coupons I intended to use under a bag of rice, hiding them, when I saw this woman approach. I hated that I had moved to the other side of the register and was now serving her. 

I stopped listening to what she was saying and instead focused on ringing up her purchases, while I listened for the beeps. I didn’t want to double-scan any items or go too slowly. I could be friendly or I could be conscientious ― I wasn’t capable of both. This, I realized, was the reason for my slow ring times, so I’d have to give the customer less of me and give the scanner more. I couldn’t believe how awful I was at this.

“Well,” she said, “I guess I’ll see you at drop-off.”

I waved without explaining that this job was not a way to escape my kids, but a necessity. It allowed me to work nights and make money I desperately needed to pay bills. Like many of the affluent customers we served, I don’t think she could understand.

As the next few weeks went by, I did my best to bring up my ring times and even tried to memorize some of the produce codes. My co-workers helped, including the young supervisor. But I still found myself hiding when mothers I knew walked by. While I couldn’t shut my light off and pretend my lane was closed, I did other things.

“Can I run to the ladies’ room?” I’d ask the supervisor on duty. I tried to flag down another shopper so they’d get into my line before the lawyer mother I knew who had just returned from a weekend of skiing did. I didn’t want to ring up her organic dragon fruit or imported cheese.

If all else failed, I’d offer to wipe down the registers or handle returning items to the shelves, which, of course, was also risky. There was always the possibility of running into someone I knew in the aisles. Then I would be forced to listen as they droned on about their latest vacation, or worse, asked me where something was. I’d have to admit I often didn’t know because I worked at the front of the store instead of in the center.

“I’m a writer,” I told a random man one day, though he never asked. He was purchasing an expensive bottle of liquor. “Please don’t put the bread on the bottom of the bag,” he said and returned to his phone call. He never looked at me, not once, throughout the entire transaction.

I was capable of more than ringing and bagging his groceries, I wanted to shout, hopefully jarring him from a call too important to allow him to acknowledge a fellow human being ― me. Instead, I looked at my growing line and thought of my ring times. I’d just have to make the next customer understand: I was not just a cashier. This was not a real job for me. I pushed the button to move their items down the belt and allowed myself to get lost in the hum of the store.

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