Encore: 19 Items Per Minute, or, How bagging groceries instructs my life - Sudden Write Turn Freelance Writing

Encore: 19 Items Per Minute, or, How bagging groceries instructs my life

 This post was originally published in April 2011, and, according to my WordPress statistics, is my #2 post of all time.

19 Items Per Minute is about my seven years working at a local grocery store chain. It was the only job I had all through high school and college (with the exception of a second job for two college summers at a local burger joint — another story for another day).

I don’t know why this post generates so many hits. Read for yourself, and let me know why you think this post is so popular with search engines. Meanwhile, I have a beautiful summer day to enjoy…

Paper or Plastic?

Never pack bread on the bottom.

In one of my earliest posts I mentioned that I would periodically discuss my various past jobs. Looking back over a littered landscape, each one did provide valuable lessons. My first job, at a large grocery store, by far taught the most lasting lessons.

I first put on the blue apron when cashiers were still required to ask every customer whether they would prefer that their groceries were packed in paper or plastic bags. Nowadays you are an ecological moron if you don’t have reusable bags.

Back then, paper was still a fairly regular choice. Of course there were the power shoppers who wanted double-bagged paper, or double-bagged plastic, or paper inside plastic (my personal favorite). Bags tied; bags not tied. Fill the bags; please don’t make the bags too heavy. You get the idea.

Over time I realized that the customers were, in fact, real people who were not intent on inconveniencing my teenage life. For example, paper-inside-plastic was popular among the senior citizens who arrived by bus each Thursday morning; the sturdiest choice for tired hands and I suspect that those Depression-survivor folks were reusing every bag before recycling was in vogue.


People have their reasons. Don’t judge.

Punch In

Cashiering in a large grocery store can be grueling. I was a teenager and it wiped me out, for a job I didn’t have to work (unless, of course, I didn’t want a social life or any of the personal products important to a teenage girl). There were people who needed that job to support their family.

Then there was the customer who at the end of her order pulled out the books of food stamp coupons that were issued before benefits cards were introduced a little over 15 years ago. She was sheepish. I had likely already handled hundreds of dollars in food stamps that day and thought, What’s the big deal?

She starts talking. Her husband has left. She is a single mother to two children and has gone back to school in preparation for a career to support her family. But she is falling short and this is her first time using food stamps.

In all the compassion I could muster from my teenage bones, I explain that lots of people use food stamps. I say that it sounded like she was working hard for her kids and that food stamps are for people in exactly her situation. I answer a few questions she has about food stamps, and then I never see her again.


Everyone needs compassion. Especially when it’s inconvenient.

People are strange

Every type of person imaginable visits the grocery store because everyone has to buy groceries. No one particularly enjoys it. I have been spit on (close talkers), bled on, proselytized, and yelled at. I have also been sought out for my bagging prowess, my apparently kind demeanor, and because some shoppers think I resemble their ethnicity (who then attempt to speak to me in a foreign language).

I couldn’t invent these scenarios if I tried:

  • I witness a heated argument between two adults over the number of items one has in the express lane (my lane). Aggravated, I yell, “HEY! This is NOT kindergarten! Stop acting like it!” They stop.
  • A shoplifter tries to make a break for it and is tackled about a foot from where I am standing, trapped in my little two foot square area. Fists fly, legs kick; they drag away the shoplifter to wait for the police. I Windex my scanner.
  • A clearly exasperated woman holding a fussing toddler abruptly grabs the child’s hand and bites it. The child screams even louder, and I say nothing. Is the customer always right?
  • I have smelled a family well before I’ve seen them. They look like they live wild in the hills and I feel badly for the shabbily-dressed, dirty children. And then they pay for two huge carts of groceries with the biggest wad of cash I have ever seen.


The world is full of all kinds of people. Generally, they don’t bite.

Except when they do.

 Punch out

That first job has been my longest at seven years – throughout high school and college. The current job will tie that record this year. At all the jobs in between, I constantly return to the lessons learned “on register.”

Basically, I learned how to deal with people. I also learned that I prefer NOT to work with the general public. But I can do it if I have to, and can for the most part remain calm when I encounter weirdoes. That comes in handy no matter what I do for a living.


Reader Interactions


  1. I think this is your most popular post because it’s “us” in the lane at the grocery store. I’m the lady that comes in with 2 cloth bags and two insulated bags that generates MAJOR eye rolling from every cashier in the joint. I’m the one who wants compassion and understanding at the…YES, the grocery store, and rarely get it. There are reasons behind everything I do at the grocery store, from the items I want on the bottom, to the help I need lifting the 40 lb packages of bottled water into my trunk. The reason this is so popular is because we all wish it was YOU doing our bagging. We all wish we could be shown respect and help because we hate grocery shopping and don’t need one more person coming down on us in the middle of it! I remember reading this the first time and thought, GREAT post, my favorite, because I was reading it through the eyes of the shopper and then you allowed me to be the cashier for a little while too.

  2. I think you have received so much popularity for this post for 2 reasons. One, it resembles “Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten,”. which is a very popular book. Two, Everyone has had a first job, or shopped at a store and can identify with this basic aspect of our American life.

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