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?
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.
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 another 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 next to where I am standing, trapped in my little two-foot-square cashier 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.
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.