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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Passerby - Chapter 3

The following is an excerpt from my first novel, "Passerby", in which one of the two protagonists reaches the end of his rope and gets fired from his awful grocery store job.  It's the distilled hatred of 6 years working for a company that, while it may not be maliciously evil, is certainly responsible for its share of negligent holocausts.  A lot of people have been mentioning to me lately how much they hate the customers at Whole Foods (where I now work, and things are slightly less shitty), and I've come to realize the problem starts with the way we approach the  business-customer relationship in our society.  Companies get away with scamming and lying and using employees as a result of the same systems that allow self-important overgrown children to behave however they want in public settings.  I don't have any solutions, but this is probably the most eloquent and concise I've ever been able to be on the subject of the problem, taken out of a greater narrative context.

The chapter before it was recently published in Knack Magazine, along with another short story.  Check me out and subscribe!



I didn't used to hate my job.  I really didn't.  For a while, there, I even enjoyed it.

I guess I can't say that was before they started lying to me and everyone else, but it was definitely before it got so blatant that it started bothering me.  It was before it felt like every other lie I'd ever been told about the world; just another clever game set up to buy, cheat and steal more of the world for one small group of trust babies and political insiders.  I guess you could say I was naive.

Ben and I both worked at a grocery store that's not really a grocery store.  You've probably shopped there.  It's that place where they don't sell everything you can find in a normal grocery store, but the stuff they do sell is either of slightly higher quality, cheaper, or just more unusual and therefore seems new.  Just enough of what they carry is labeled "organic" for at least 5 uninformed simpletons every day to walk past me telling other simpletons, "Oh, it's great!  Everything they sell here is organic!" without having the slightest idea of what that would mean even if it were true.  The fact that the city air we breathe every day contains enough pesticides, poisons, and carcinogens to make that "organic" sticker meaningless (a few of which aren't even controlled by the DOA and considered irrelevant to food safety, because "Who would ever put that on food?") seems to escape many people.  The fact that the Department of Agriculture allows for the use of several chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides in "certified organic" products due to heavy pressure from the corresponding lobbies doesn't seem to bother even the most hardcore "health-conscious" yuppies.  The meaning of the asterisk next to the "No r-BST" sign on milk and beef products - which denotes that, while the farmers pinky-swear they didn't pump their cows full of growth hormones, there's no available test to check if they're lying or not - isn't widely publicized. 

Sure, if you mention it to people they'll roll their eyes, saying, "Oh, God, I know, isn't it horrible what they're doing these days?", but that doesn't seem to stop them from buying without ever starting any kind of Parental Awareness Campaign like they do every time one of their inbred children wraps his car around a telephone pole.  I guess, as long as you're killing them slowly, it's OK with them.  As long as they have time to watch their investments grow and get their affairs in order while the cancer eats slowly through their digestive tract, kidneys, and liver, before spreading to their lymph nodes and brain, they can handle it.  It's what is thought of these days as a "dignified" way to go; shitting and pissing in a pan while your team of hired nurses shuffles around you - occasionally calling home to make sure their children are safely in front of the television eating their TV dinners - your kids counting your money they will soon inherit, chowing down on the same bioengineered, Monsanto soy cakes that put you on your death bed in the first place.  Nah, couldn't have been that.  Soy is healthy. 

Nobody seems to mind that the only thing separating the "organic" apples from the "conventionally grown" (HA!) ones is a thin plank of MDF, which moves daily depending on what we have more of.  Nobody seems to know or worry that if that's the only thing keeping the "organics" from being "contaminated", it might be a problem that nobody's washed any part of the produce tables since the store opened for business 5 years ago.

"I don't ask questions.  I just show up and do the math."
Once I asked a question.  A few years ago, I was in charge of ordering and organizing the bread.  This was when I thought the first of the seven listed "company values" actually stood for more than a brainwashing campaign to get us to give more of ourselves without expecting anything in return.  It says the most important thing to this company is Integrity.  With a capital "I".  Turns out they mean it more in the sense of "integrity", with capital quotation marks.

Someone from corporate headquarters saw a picture taken somewhere that showed a sign above the small table of local artisan breads we have in every store - which are delivered every morning from whatever small local bakery each individual store sources them from - that read, in big red letters, "Baked Fresh Daily!"  They decided they liked that and wanted to see more of it.  So much so that they ordered every store in our region to make similar signs and hang them over our main bread displays.  The problem was that the main bread display consisted of sliced loaves of bread and cakes and bagels and tortillas that, while baked every day - somewhere - were really only fresh for that day and the day they sat in the warehouse several states away after being packaged, and maybe even part of the 4 days they spent in the back of a semi truck getting to us, before we put them in our back room for a day before it was their turn to get on the shelf.  So they were baked daily - fresh at the time - but by the time we made them available to the customers...  The claim wasn't exactly the picture of Integrity, or even a distant shadow of the truth.  But, being silly, idealistic, and proud of the job I was doing, I brought this up to Miles, the main manager at my store, who without hesitation replied that it was a direct order from corporate directing us to hang that sign, and if I wouldn't, someone else would, and such an act of insubordination would come up on my review.  My mind boggled.  My heart raced.  "B-but.... Integrity...?" I stammered in disbelief.

He looked down at me coolly from within The Pit - the front customer service desk, where all the managers hang out, count money, answer emails, and generally try to make themselves look as busy as the rest of us, without ever actually having to do anything - and smiled his efficient, corporate smile, and then said one of the most amazing things I've ever heard a person say, even for money: "Yeah, but... 'integrity' doesn't necessarily always include honesty..."

I don't ask questions any more.  "I just show up and do the math."

I once mentioned to one of my bosses that our "raw" almonds were actually pasteurized, and therefore... not... raw.  I was told, "Yes, but they're only pasteurized quickly, to prevent bacterial contamination, so that's the company's definition of raw.  Just like all our raw cheese is also pasteurized," he added with a smile, as if that was anything other than a flat contradiction in terms.

"Just show up and do the math."  If the numbers on the paycheck all add up, I can probably make it through 'till the next one.  Or until they decide to invent their own system of math as well as their own language.

For a while I managed to enjoy it, though.  I enjoyed the fact that I was trusted, for a time, to make decisions independent of central management.  After doing a decent enough job with the bread, I was allowed to run an even larger part of the store in whatever manner I deemed most efficient, and I was given my pick of the crew as to who I wanted to have help me.  Even the fact that I had to be unabatedly helpful to every half-witted fool, brainless yuppie and senile grandmother that strolled through my aisle didn't bother me.  It was actually sort of fun having an encyclopedic knowledge of the availability, stock level, and shipping issues pertaining to 25% of our stock.  I felt like the Dungeon Master in this real life game of Dungeons & Dragons.  With my stack of spreadsheets, I held in my hands the future of your precious wasabi mayonnaise, and I was the only one who could assure you that case of chicken broth you so desperately needed to feed your entire extended family on your father's 90th birthday party would actually show up and be waiting for you one week from Thursday.  Even having the following conversation once or twice a week was somehow strangely empowering:

"Hi, where's your quinoa pasta?"

"We don't sell quinoa pasta."

"No, I'm pretty sure you do.  I bought it here last week."

This is where I'd smile, "That's not possible.  You see, here we have an entire shelf of 'alternative' pastas.  We have brown rice, corn... organic whole wheat, if you're not worried about the whole gluten thing..."  Of course she would be, as it was the new fad those days.  That's the only reason anyone could have for eating quinoa pasta.  "And on this shelf next to it, we have all our quinoa products.  So you see, if we sold it, it would either be here," I'd reiterate, waving my hand between the two locations, "Or there would be an empty space where it usually sits if we were out."

"So you're out, then?"

"No, we don't carry it.  There's no empty space."

"Oh, you carry it, I bought it last week.  It was right over there," she'd say, pointing over at the apple sauces.

"That wouldn't make any sense.  That section's all jams, peanut butters, and apple sauces.  If we carried quinoa pasta, it would be right here."

This is where she'd roll her eyes and sigh in annoyance, "Could you please just go ask someone who might know better?"

She had fallen for my trap, and this is where I'd get to meet the challenge without it technically counting as gloating, "Well, as a matter of fact, nobody else knows nearly as well as I do.  You see, I order every item in this aisle, and I spend 5 days a week walking up and down it with this list," I'd add, holding my opus of 20-some-odd sheets of paper up in the air and waving it with authority, "Making sure every item is accounted for and stocked to the gills.  I assure you, you could pick any page in here, point to a line, and, faster than you could read the name, I could show you where that product 'lives' and tell you how much is on the shelf and in the back room, and I'm not ashamed to admit it when I drop the ball and we run out."  Here I'd smile and give her my not-quite-threatening-but-still-damn-creepy carny smile, "I live here, lady.  I am the end of the road; the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  I promise you that we do not now carry - nor have we ever carried - quinoa pasta.  You're thinking of a different store."

She'd then look around nervously.  They're never very good at being proven unequivocally in the wrong.  She'd know it now, but couldn't possibly back down from this bearded, grungy-looking, possibly psychotic hippie who works at a grocery store for a living, even if he was in the right.  However, her argument would be critically weakened, "Well, I don't know..."  That's right, you don't know, now walk away.  "Could you go look it up on the computer?"

Lady, I am the computer, I wouldn't say.  And you know what?  I've been lying to you this whole while, because I'm getting something out of wasting my time spinning this tale for you, when you'd have been out of my face 10 minutes ago if I'd said we're just out.  I wouldn't say any of that.  I had my ace in the hole from years of experience, "Actually, I have to finish filling out these order forms, but if you go to the front desk," I'd glance up and shoot a look over her shoulder at James in The Pit, letting him know this one's crazy, "I'm sure they'll be able to help you out."  Out.  Out of the store.

She'd turn and leave.  8 times out of 10 she wouldn't even stop by The Pit, because I had just offered her a chance out of the confrontation without having to admit she didn't know what she was talking about, and she didn't want that confirmed by a machine.  Of course 99% of the time in those other 2 instances, proof from the machine still wouldn't be enough, "I know I bought it here," they'd leave the store almost yelling, sometimes leaving everything else they planned to buy behind, "I'm not crazy!"  The whole world is always against these people because it never seems to line up with their unreasonable expectations.  If I've ever seen a definition for "crazy", that would be it.  Every once in a while, you come across someone who finally breaks through the wall and laughs at himself, "Oh wow, I was thinking of CostCo.  Sorry, my fault."  I've never witnessed one of those in person, but I'm told it's very cathartic to hear a customer directly and openly admit that they're wrong.

Of course, even before I had a domain to survey, when I spent much of my time working the cash registers at the front end, I found ways of enjoying the job.  I have a knack for finding loopholes that work to my advantage or amusement.  You see, one of the main directives in the store is that it's to be like an amusement park for adults.  Part of this means that customers get to act like children and make ridiculous demands, and all we can do is smile and abide.  Another side of it means that we're there to distract people from the fact that they're shopping, and that there's no one right way of doing so.  It's much like that strategy when feeding a child where you pretend the spoonful of food is an airplane coming in for a landing.  The kid thinks he's having fun, and you get the food into him.  Similar idea.  It's like the beautiful women in Las Vegas casinos that feed you unlimited free drinks so you'll keep gambling.  We'd hang out with the customers, having a good time and joking around, and they wouldn't realize that they spent an extra hundred dollars on groceries they didn't really plan on getting, and probably didn't need.  People in good moods don't mind being robbed.  I guess I didn't mind being an agent of deceit, even after it became obvious that was the unspoken plan.  I discovered that horrible, badly-behaved people are also easily distracted and sidetracked from being complete assholes if you can confuse them, change the subject, and just generally refuse to play their game.

It came to me when I was grappling with the direct order that, while operating a cash register, you were expected to have a conversation with every person that went through your line.  Every last one.  The first problem there arises when you realize that 30% of people don't want to talk to you - they simply want to buy their shit and get on with their day - and another 50% don't have anything to say.  This limits many of your conversations to, "Hello.  How are you?  Did you find everything you were looking for?"  In a store of small capacity, where after 4 PM we'd often run out of much of the product on the shelves - especially the more popular stuff, and especially on weekends and holidays - asking those questions generally amounts to getting off on the wrong foot with most of the people you talk to.  What I realized is that there was nothing in the rulebook that said I had to have a normal conversation.  I realized one day, when I was hung over, that if I stumbled the words in "How are you?" or even purposely scrambled them - coming out with something along the lines of "How you are?" - it often started a conversation about how unconventional or unexpected the question was.  This is how my experiments in social interaction were born. 

I began starting conversations with lines like, "How do you feel?" and "Where are you headed after this?" - things people were never expecting to be asked because they didn't think anyone cared.  It's not that I really cared; I'd just rather talk about almost anything than get the standard, "Oh, I'm fine," followed by a blank stare.  "How do you feel?" was especially effective.  It's the kind of thing your doctor asks you, and when you hear it from a normal person behind the counter at the grocery store (or, stranger yet, some tattooed hippie kid who's young enough to be your child), it has the effect of a strong shot of straight espresso.  It shakes you out of your fog and suddenly makes you wonder, "Wait a minute, how do I feel?"  That moment of actual contact between two people can start some really interesting conversations, and in a place that most people aren't used to having them: the checkout line.  Before long, I was developing even more interesting and probing questions and ways of deflecting and defusing the standard pre-packaged answers that would usually dead-end our exchanges.  One of my favorites was for when someone would mention how they had forgotten to bring their reusable shopping bags - another fad, which, however widespread in the public's awareness, never spawned as many active participants as it did fakers who regularly complained about having conveniently 'forgotten'... again...  Between 3 and 10 times an hour I would hear, "Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot my bags.  I was only coming in for a few things..." from a hopefully apologetic puppy-dog face.  Of course these people wanted me to absolve them of their sin of repeated neglect; St. Jimmy of the Sacred Grocery Altar.  I didn't play that Catholic guilt game.  I took a more Zen approach.  "Well, you know," I would intone, grinning slightly, but never looking up from what I was doing, "When I was only about yea high," indicating with my hand around the height of the counter where I was stacking their groceries as I never stopped scanning, "A much wiser fella' than myself sat in a swamp... strummin' a banjo..." at that point they'd be staring at me in confusion and disbelief, "Did you really live in a swamp?" a lady once asked me.  Only then would I meet their eyes, "He was talkin' 'bout how... 'It's not easy... bein' green...'"

I became like the wise man on top of the mountain at the end of your day of errands for a few people.  I had regulars that would stand in my line even if there were open registers all around me, just to get their 5 minutes of aphorisms and honest human interaction in the midst of a chaotic orgy of money being traded for food.  The fuel of life being traded for the only thing many people seemed to care about any more - and I sat in the middle of it, reminding people that, as one of my heroes put it, "It's all just a ride." 

As an added bonus, the relaxed style of all my conversations made it especially easy to hit on cute girls as they filed through - generally in the evenings after all their classes were done, on their way back to their dorms and apartments.  There was one in particular that would come through pretty regularly, though I think she was a little too old to be a student.  When she came by in the evenings, she was always well dressed, like she was a legal aide or something.  I liked her because when she laughed at my jokes, it wasn't like she was just being nice.  She always seemed to have as much fun connecting with me as I did with her, and we fed off each other's energy.  I still remember the first time we met; it was early afternoon on a Sunday, and she looked like she'd had a rough morning.

"Long night last night?"  I've found that the checkout line is one of the few acceptable places to comment on someone looking hung over, like an elevator or standing on a crowded bus.

"Oh... God, yes, I think my friends were secretly in league to kill me," she replied, brushing her long brown hair out of her face.  She was wearing sweatpants and an oversized plaid collared shirt - I think it's to this day the only time I've seen her wear anything but a suit - the kind of thing a girl puts on in the morning when staying over at your place for the first time, when she doesn't have any of her own clothes handy.  Could have been the power of that suggestion, but she looked unbelievably sexy.  Of course, it probably also meant she had a boyfriend.  Or maybe she had just thrown some comfortable clothes on before leaving the house in her haze from the previous night's party.  No point in making assumptions.  I pushed onward.

"So what're you up to today, just taking it easy?"

"Ugh... I wish.  The week's laundry won't do itself, though...  And I've got some paperwork and stuff to sort out... Pay the rent...  You know...  Life..."  She smiled.  People love it when they can vent even a little bit about the silly little stuff that bothers everyone but nobody ever really talks about.

"Yeah," I grinned; the setup was complete, "Kinda like how on the seventh day, God just told all his friends he was resting, but instead, he vacuumed his apartment, called his mother, renewed his newspaper subscription, took out the trash, caught up on emails..."

She laughed with her entire body.  It's one of the sexiest things a person can do.  "Yes, exactly!  It's like you read my mind."
"Yeah, well, you do this long enough, you become kind of like a shrink.  You hear enough of the same problems over and over and you start to see patterns.  If I've learned anything in 3 years of doing this, it's that people are fuckin' funny like that, man..."

She kept smiling as she slid her card through the machine.  The attractive ones never buy much; never give you much time to talk, "Well, we're all after the same things, I guess."
I finished bagging up her groceries and retorted coyly, "Are we?"
Our eyes met, and her smile broadened a bit before she looked down and picked up her bag of breakfast food.  Sometimes all it takes is one beautiful girl to look at you like that in a day, and everything else is totally worth it, "It was really nice talking to you.  Maybe I'll see you around sometime."

"You know where to find me..."

Of course, that was only about a month before I met Danielle, and while we saw each other every week or two after that and flirted subtly, it never went past that.  I never even got her name.  She probably had a boyfriend, anyway.  I hadn't seen her in the last few months since my life started falling apart and I switched to working exclusively in the morning.  Maybe that was a good thing, though.  As my enthusiasm for the job waned, so did my style at the cash register.

There's something about when your mood changes that also changes everything around you for the worse.  Everything becomes more irritating, and it all feeds back into your bad mood.  When Dani left me, working with or even around her was like Chinese water torture.  This is why they advise you not to date people you work with.  Every time I heard her from across the store it became a crushing weight on the middle of my chest, like a panic attack.

Especially when I heard her laugh.  She had a laugh like nobody else I've ever met.  She was like a 5 year old in the body of an adult.  It would start with almost a shriek that mutated into sounds most other people would be embarrassed to reproduce.  But she never cared.  She laughed from the bottom of her soul and loved every second of it.  And so did I.  But now, whenever I heard it, I would just remember the times when it was me that was responsible for causing that laugh.  And it would never be again.  And I wanted it to be so badly it hurt. 

I used the excuse of everything else that was going on to get moved to mornings so I'd only ever have to see her for an hour or two once or twice a week when our shifts overlapped.  It also meant I worked with Ben less, but he understood.  Of course, that still left days like today.  Days where I was still a little drunk from the night before, having only slept for about 3 or 4 hours before coming in and stumbling like a zombie through the morning, only to end up on a register for my last 3 hours as the Friday afternoon crowd began to roll in.  And tomorrow was a holiday.  By an hour before my quitting time, there were lines extending into the aisles, and the cacophony of voices sounded like an ocean.  And yet, even if Dani had been on the opposite end of the store from me, I would still be able to hear that laugh.  But when she came into work that day, they put her on the cash register right across from me, so that any time our customers would move left or right just a little, our eyes would inevitably meet, sending my lungs dive-bombing through my colon. 

And then came the Bastards. 

There are certain customers that make you question if humanity itself deserves to be sustained.  They make you wonder if maybe the world wouldn't be better without us.  And they come in packs, quickly making it obvious, if you had any doubts, that they are not the minority.  Even if you let your morals slip to consider some kind of personally tailored final solution, you realize quickly that it wouldn't help.  All you'd do is spend a lot of time and effort wiping out most of humanity, and what would be left wouldn't have the resources or know-how to support itself, soon either dying out or becoming like the Bastards you worked so hard to destroy.  It's the whole reason doctors use broad-spectrum antibiotics.  Better to just level everything and start fresh.  Today had all the ingredients of a day of reckoning.  I wish I'd known that before I dragged myself, stumbling and reeking, out of bed.  I would've called in sick.  But that would have probably just delayed the inevitable.

The first was a 5'3" blonde woman who was almost as wide as she was tall.  She was concerned about the health of her children who were currently playing tag, weaving in and out of the lines of annoyed customers, "I love this place.  Everything you sell here is so healthy."  I was in no position to comment on that without starting an argument, so I kept my mouth shut.  As I scanned things from the front of her overloaded cart - mostly packages of frozen microwavable meals - she scrutinized some of the other contents, "I'm trying to get some healthy stuff for the kids' snacks," she began, holding up a bag labeled, "Veggie Chips", "These are healthy, right?  They got veggies in 'em and stuff, right?  That's good..."
Here we go.  "Uh... Well, actually, if you read the ingredients list, those are just potato chips with veggie powder added for coloring."

She looked at the bag and furrowed her brow.  Not the ingredients.  Just the front of the bag.  "Where does it say that?"

"In the ingredients list.  On the back."

She turned over to the back and snorted a little bit, as if trying to more closely resemble a pig than she already did, "Well, what about the 'Veggie Sticks'?"

"Those are the same thing, just pressed into a different shape."
She looked back at the bag, commenting, "Well veggie powder's still pretty healthy, right?"  Before I could respond, she had already turned to where the kids were now destroying a display of cookies, "HEY!  You guys still want these veggie chips?"  The brats scampered over babbling incoherent pleas, "They're not that good for you, so you can only pick one," she pretended to bargain.  I saw the tubs of ice cream in the bottom of the cart already, and knew full well how quickly that decision would be made when the time came.  I had already scanned through a normal family's month supply of frozen lasagnas, pizzas, and stir-fry meals, all of which sat glistening in frozen crystals of grease and salt.  Even Ben and I - a far cry from the picture of health - didn't consume that much instant garbage.  She turned back to me, "They really like these," she translated, pushing the 5 or 6 bags of chips toward the front of the cart, along with another 4 or so bags of popcorn I didn't want to start a debate about, and the box of cookies her spawn had brought back from the now-teetering display.

I smiled my fake, tolerant smile and just kept scanning.  The faster I get through this, the faster she'll be gone, I kept reminding myself.  As I got to the army-battalion-supply of frozen mac and cheese, she commented, "Those are good though, right?  They have reduced fat.  I looked on the back, and it's only got like 25% of the daily value or whatever..."

I was more shocked she could read than that she was honestly asking me the question.  I flipped over the package to find one of the oldest tricks in the company's "We Sell Healthy Food - Wink, Wink" book.  You see, the fat content she was talking about having seen was listed (as indicated at the top of the nutritional information chart) in amounts per serving, a serving being conveniently defined as 1/3 of the package.  No human being has ever consumed just 1/3 of a microwavable dish of macaroni and cheese and stopped there.  It simply doesn't happen, and if it did the other 2/3 would be inedible by the time you got around to finishing it.  The store is full of things like that, where normal human portions are halved to make the sodium and fat content of the suggested serving (especially among the prepared, frozen products) seem acceptable to the vast majority of customers who don't know how to read nutritional information.  These people wonder aloud every day how they can make such healthy pre-packaged meals that are so delicious.  That's how.  Simple math.  Fat and salt make everything tasty; it's just how they sneak them past you that's clever.  It is, however, not my job or duty in life to teach grown adults to read and feed themselves - despite the growing trend of obesity - and I wasn't about to begin explaining the scam to this woman, so I just sighed and scanned the boxes.

Further down the pile - past the microwavable boxes of ramen noodles and the "fruit" juices that contained more sugar than juice concentrate - I got to the ice cream.  Remembering the earlier threat to her kids and wanting to test my theory, I picked up two of the tubs and benignly inquired, "You want these?"  The kids immediately stared daggers into my heart.  Fuck 'em.

"Oh, well, those are organic, aren't they?"

My jaw hit the ground. "No.  No they're not.  They're ice cream.  I think we have an organic sorbet, but I'm fairly sure none of our ice cream is organic.  Maybe some of the soy ones..."

Her eyes almost popped out of her head, "I thought everything you sold here was organic!!"

Wow.  Just...  Wow.  "No, the only things that are organic are the ones with the special little price tags that say organic on them."  I waited a beat before asking, "Do you still want these?"

"Well... yeah, I don't want to go somewhere else now just for ice cream," she stammered, still getting over the stunning revelation that not everything was organic here.  She picked up the bag of pre-sliced apples that made me want to scream every time I looked at one, "What about these?"

"We have an organic version of those.  It's about 70 cents more expensive, but I can get someone to grab one off the shelf and exchange it for you, I'll just have to call a manager to get these off your bill."

"No, forget it!" she scowled, grabbing her kids by the arms and pushing them through the thin lane between registers and standing them up against the glass wall to scold them now that she was pissed off and needed someone to take it out on.  I finished ringing up her stuff and bagged it as quickly as I could move my arms.  She came back over and paid.  "I'm really disappointed," she said, as if I had anything to do with deciding what we stocked or how she spent her money, walking away, dragging her now sobbing children behind her.

I breathed a sigh or relief, but it was too soon.  Two freaks of plastic surgery slid their way into the "I'm next" position in front of the credit card machine.  I knew all about them before they opened their mouths.  These Real Housewives of Orange County rejects were "Canadians".  Probably not actual Canadians, mind you.  I have it on good authority that actual Canadians are nice people.  I'm talking about rich suburban housewives (the kind with maids who are to actual housewives as the Queen of England is to the actual ruler of a country) from Vancouver, who likely moved there from Southern California when the economy crashed (or right before); the trophies of lawyers or dentists or real estate agents who represent everything that's wrong with Western society today. 

Their skin is usually a bright orange and their hair so treated it looks like a wig.  Their nails extend almost an inch past their fingertips, and they've clearly never worked a day in their adult lives, unless you consider blowing their hubbies when they visit home after golfing with their buddies on the way to their mistresses.  These are the people my sorority girl neighbors aspire to be.  It doesn't stop at appearance, either.  Canadians - at least the representatives I got to deal with - don't have a very broad understanding of conducting business transactions in another county.  Perhaps it's because it's so physically easy to cross the border, they almost don't seem to notice they've done so.  It usually comes up in little quirks, which I would under other circumstances be able to overlook, but it's the demeanor with which these people expect to be served and catered to hand and foot that has always rubbed me the wrong way.  When someone was polite, I had no problem pleasantly helping them out.  But when the very first look they gave you exuded an air of entitlement and superiority, like an 18th century noble might look at the guy who opened his carriage door for him, with utter disdain for the idea that this person might think of it as anything less than their lot in life...  That woke the class warrior in me.

When I returned to the register from loading up the fat woman's bags, the dark haired one was already holding out a chocolate bar in the space my face usually occupied in front of the computer screen, looking away and talking distractedly to her platinum blonde companion assuming I would get the message.  I simply dodged it and started scanning their other items that were precariously stacked on the shelf where people unloaded their carts, teetering and about to create a mess of yogurt, eggs, and oil on the floor, which every person behind them would stampede through regardless of whether someone was trying to clean it up or not.

"I'd like to eat this right away," she snipped in an annoyed tone, shaking the chocolate bar at me.

"Go right ahead," I replied calmly, "I'll get it when I'm done with the rest of this stuff."

"You won't forget?"

"Never have before, but if I did it would be to your advantage, so you have no reason to worry."  I was always excessively reassuring with these people, because I felt it made them even more suspicious and uncomfortable.  How dare I be good at my job?  "Kill 'em with kindness."  With a "harumph", she tore into the chocolate and recommenced chatting with her friend.  I finished scanning the rest of the items and moved over, doubled a bag, and began to fill it.

"Could you double the bag, please?  I don't want the bottom to fall out."

"It's not the bottom you have to worry about, it's the handles," I lectured, not looking up, "But, as you can see, I've already taken care of that."

"We forgot our bags," said the friend in a thick So-Cal accent that made me want to slap her for inventing vowels that didn't exist.

"I can see that."

"How much do we owe you?" asked the first, the sound of her voice now clearly growing agitated, as I had a short answer for everything.  People of their imagined social status don't like being predicted or reminded that they're much more like everyone else than... well, anyone else.

"Can I see that chocolate bar?"


"The chocolate you were eating.  I need to scan it before I can give you the total."  Gotcha, bitch.

She half threw it at me in a huff, as if I had asked for her ID to verify her age to sell her alcohol.  I calmly scanned it and slid it back across the counter next to her hand.  "That can go in the bag now," she snapped.

I grinned.  I was really getting to this woman, without even doing anything.  And the real fun hadn't even started.  Our beer guy, Cody Winkler, had transferred down from the Bellingham store.  About 70% of their customers were from Canada, as more and more of Vancouver found out you could save more on your groceries than it cost you to get there in gas if you were willing to put up with the 3 hour wait at the border.  He said there were plenty of nice Canadians that came through with the bigger crowds - folks that never made it this far South just to go shopping at the big department stores - as well as a lot of rednecks and idiots like these, but the one thing they all shared across the board was a question that would forever ring in the nightmares of his coworkers:

"You take Canadian, right?"


"What do you mean?"

This was going to be entertaining, "Well, I'm pretty sure I mean 'Nope'.  We don't take Canadian cash."

"But we take American cash up in Canada..."  It was like someone at the border had been handing out scripts like those guys who work in call centers selling insurance get on their first day.

"...As is your prerogative.  We don't accept Canadian cash here."

"Walmart does."

"Walmart has stores on your side of the border.  This is one of the few stores we have that's even within a few hundred miles of the Canadian border.  Our systems just don't have the programming to convert the currency, nor would we ever have the ability to spend it on anything, since we don't do business in your country."

"But the Canadian dollar is stronger right now."

I leaned over the counter a bit, dropping the volume of my voice from one suited for professional recital of rhetoric to a more personal, anecdotal tone, "You know, a guy told me that once when he only had Canadian cash, and I took pity on him.  Figured I'd save him the trouble of finding a bank.  I traded him $20 of my own American money for $20 Canadian.  When I went to the bank to exchange it, you know what they gave me?"  She just stared at me.  "$17.42.  Because it costs more to exchange the money than it is stronger.  Besides," I returned to my original posture and tone, "The currency market fluctuates daily, which is another good reason we don't accept 'loonies'."  I smiled a little at the nickname I knew she probably thought sounded as ridiculous as I thought it did.
She fumed for a minute, out of excuses.  "Well how am I supposed to pay for this?  Will you take a check?"

"Not even from Oregon or Idaho."

"Well what do you accept?!" she hissed, as if I was going to take offense over a policy I was doing nothing but getting a kick out of enforcing.

I smiled all of a sudden, putting on my helpful flight attendant voice, "Any major credit or debit card."

"You mean indirect?" 

The first time someone called it by its Canadian name, I had no idea what they were talking about, but had learned since.  "Yes, a debit card," I grinned, feeling sassy now, "You know... the one that says 'debit' on it."

Her friend had spent this whole time holding the handles of the bag, ready to lift it up and leave, "Just use your indirect, Heather, and let's go."

She sneered at her friend, letting out a huff, "I don't know how much is in there right now," she half whispered, venom edging further into her voice.  It was amazing.  Watching the "upper class" admit they had no liquid assets was like watching a politician trapped in his own campaign-trail lies from months earlier.  It took a concerted physical effort to keep a straight face.  She turned back to me, fishing through her purse, "Do you take Visa?"

"We'd be in a lot of trouble if we didn't.  I don't think it gets much more major than that."

She held her card out 3 inches from my face.  This was my favorite bit.  I just leaned past it and tapped the machine in front of her that said in big blinking letters, "Swipe Card Any Time".  She scowled.

"Do I swipe?"

Holy shit, I don't think I'm gonna make it.  WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK IT MEANS BY "ANY TIME"?


She ran her card through the machine, jabbing angrily at the unresponsive screen with her fingers (I wasn't about to tell her it worked better with the stylus.  I'd had too much fun already).  When she was done, she didn't wait for her receipt, simply spun around on a heel and stormed for the door with the blonde trailing with the bag of groceries in tow.

"Miss?" I called after her, "You forgot your chocolate..."

She kept walking.  Her friend backtracked to take it from me and add it to the bag, even giving me a quick grin as if to say, "I'm sorry my friend is such a bitch sometimes..."

When they were gone, I felt like I'd won a small victory for the little man.  But my mood was short-lived as, the moment I turned back, I saw Dani looking at me over a bag she was filling.  My heart sank again.  I turned to the next customer only to be greeted by a thin man, nearly 7 feet tall, with a light brown head of hair cut like the legendary lost fifth Beatle, and dressed in what looked like a maternity frock, holding out a slip of paper and smiling.  As I read the slip of paper, I thought, Oh Jesus, not you.  I'd heard of this guy from a few coworkers before.  He was something of a regular.  He never spoke.  Printed in the handwriting of a 6 year old on the post-it note in my hand were the words:
No.  Fucking.  Way.  You're real.  I looked at him, then back at the note.  I looked at his cart overflowing with one pound bags of pre-packaged organic lettuce, spinach, mixed herbs... basically a sampling of the entire refrigerated produce section.  I looked back at the note, and then back up at him.  He was frowning now.  He pointed emphatically at the slip of paper again.  I sighed.  The scanner was an infrared laser.  There are no X-rays.  In fact, the same type of sensor triggers the automatic doors as you enter and exit the building.  The same type of sensor was probably on the machine that filled each of these bags.  Explaining any of these points would do nothing for him.  The dude was a total whacko.  Who takes a vow of silence while living in a metropolis?  Does he do this same act at the post office and the DMV?  This is why they have places like ashrams.  If you're gonna tune in and turn on, DON'T FORGET TO DROP OUT.

Oh well, I thought, as I began grabbing bags of salad and typing in the 8-digit barcode on the back of each one before tossing it to the other side of the counter.  I couldn't help but feel for all the people behind him in line.  They may have been mostly assholes, but there had to be at least a few decent folks in the bunch who would now have to stand there and wait while I treated this grown man like a child throwing a tantrum in a preschool.  I looked back down and kept punching numbers.

About halfway through, Cody showed up carrying a drawer full of money.  "What the hell are you doing?" he asked me incredulously.  I picked up the little slip sitting on my scanner and held it up for him.  As he read his eyes got wide.  "Oh, wow... Uh... wow.  OK, guess you could use a hand with this then, eh?"  He stowed his till and started filling bags.

"That would be lovely, Mr. Winkler," I said, shooting an over-exaggerated fake grin at the crazy man on the other side of the counter, who was watching with the contentment of a toddler getting his sandwich cut into bite-sized pieces.

As we reached the end, he transferred his attention to Cody's packing, looking with alarm at how many packages of greens he was fitting into each bag (though, knowing Cody, every bag was probably filled with perfect structural planning, so that it could be carried 2 miles before the cheap paper handles tore off, and even then the things on the bottom would simply bounce off the ground and, magically, not a leaf of lettuce would be bruised).  Bet you wish you could say something now, eh Baba Ram Dass? I thought to myself vindictively, taking the opportunity to roll a pomegranate through the laser beam in the scanning area, exposing it to the imagined radiation.  As I did so, finishing and hitting the total button, a manager stepped up behind me, "I'll switch you guys out and take care of your till.  Miles wants to talk to you up front."

Wonderful.  Exactly what I need at the end of a string of Bastards: an audience with the King Bastard.  I pulled on my hooded sweatshirt and faked a dutiful march up to The Pit.  As I left, Cody slapped me on the shoulder, "Your provisions are in their usual place, buddy."  I gave him a knowing smile and a thankful bow, shooting one last hexing glance at the high-maintenance holy man as I walked away.

Miles was typing something (nothing) into the computer as I approached.  "Sir, you wanted to see me, sir?" I mocked, knowing he liked to fake a relaxed management style, and consequently always acting overly official when talking to him.

He frowned as he turned, "A pair of young ladies stopped by about 20 minutes ago saying their cashier was very rude to them."

I shook my head in ignorance, "I haven't helped any young ladies since this morning, and they were all by themselves."

"These were two Canadian women who said they were treated with hostility by their cashier who had a scraggly beard, curly hair and tattoos on his arms."

Dammit, looking like a hippie really can be incriminating.  But I had an out.  "I've been wearing this hoodie all day, Miles," I replied, waving my long sleeves in the air, "No way they would've seen my tattoos.  Must be someone else.  Sorry."  I turned to leave.

"Mr. Doseman," he continued gruffly from behind me, "I understand you've had a hard month, with all your personal and family problems, but your attitude of late has been increasingly unbefitting one of our employees.  I suggest you work on that, as it will likely come up on your review."

"It's pronounced Doze-man, Miles, as in, 'to sleep'.  And if this is an issue regarding my review, I suggest we discuss it when that time comes."  If you want to bait me with the promise of more money if I put my own pride and interests beneath your company's and then never deliver, citing the few times that I fail to and calling it motivation to do better, you can pretty well fuck yourself, asshole.  I'm not playing that game any more.  Of course I didn't say any of that.  I just walked out of The Pit, heading toward the time clock, turning at the last minute to ask, "Is there anything else before I clock out and go home?"

He didn't look up from the screen, "You were 7 minutes late today.  This is your only warning.  Next time you will be written up."

I looked down at the time clock, which read 3:12 PM.  "Funny, I'm leaving 12 minutes late.  Whose fault is that?  Strange how it balances out, isn't it?"  I punched my numbers in and walked away toward the back room.

Getting there was a challenge, dodging and slaloming through a mob of carts and families; little old ladies dragging themselves along at a snail's pace, reading every label on every shelf; oblivious couples holding hands and blocking entire cramped aisles to both directions of traffic.  A woman with frizzy blonde hair and bright red lipstick that looked like she'd just stepped out of electroshock therapy stopped me by the dog food.

"Excuse me, young man, can you help me?"  I stopped, but didn't answer her.  "I'm trying to look through these puppy treats to find the ones that are the reddest," she continued. 

I have to admit I was interested, "I beg your pardon?"  She was digging through a shelf that contained only one kind of dog treat.  There was no difference except the slight inconsistencies in shape and color between each strip of dried animal flesh packed in a clear plastic wrapper.

"I need the ones that are the most red.  My puppy only eats the reddest ones because they're the nummiest."

"The 'nummiest'..." I repeated.

"Yes, would you help me find the nummy ones?"  She was looking at me, smiling as though this was the most reasonable thing anyone had ever asked, and in fully rational, adult English.

"I'm sorry," I said, turning, not thinking it would do any good to explain her dog was colorblind, or even that I had finished my shift.  I put it in the simplest possible terms, true or not, "I'm on my lunch break."

I ducked and danced up the aisle I had once been in charge of and walked up behind Ben, who was putting up the contents of a stack of boxes.  "How late are you stuck here?"

"8 o'clock, dude, you know that."

"Alright, I'll grab some food.  Your turn for beer though."

"Dude, I've got that date tonight, remember?  Probably won't be home until pretty late," he shot a shit-eating grin at me over his shoulder, his arm buried past the elbow in the shelf, rearranging peanut butter jars, "If at all..."

"You son of a bitch," I muttered at him, "It's St. Paddy's tomorrow, y'know.  What're we gonna do without beer?"

"Is that so?  We'll think of something," he chuckled, as I started to leave, "Hey, how was it today?  You finally a little less high-strung?"

"How was it?  Oh, well, lemme show you," I said, turning back and grabbing a box of jam off the top of the stack he was standing next to, and, with a loud "Woops!", dropped it from eye level to a sickening shatter on the concrete floor.  "Hey, clean that up, dude; this is an unsafe working area."

"You're a fucking asshole," he punched me in the arm before bending over to try and salvage the case before sticky goo started leaking out of the torn sides.

I walked on toward the door to the back room, yelling back over my shoulder in the voice Phil Hartman used to use to parody Ed McMahon on Saturday Night Live, "YOU AH' CORRECT, UH-SAH!!"

When I finally got to the back room and my locker, I gasped a sigh of relief and leaned against it for a moment, terrified of having to go back out there to get to the front doors.  I collected my things and, before plunging back into the chaos, popped open the door to the walk-in freezer.  In the corner by the door, as on every day that we worked together, sat a six pack of beer, placed there by Cody 30 minutes earlier to await my departure.  We didn't sell beer refrigerated, and this was the only way to get home with anything but room temperature refreshments without having to make an extra stop on the way.  Many a time customers had asked me if they could buy cold beer, to which my standard response was, "Not unless you know a guy..."  I closed my eyes and looked upward in prayer, "Thank you, Winkler, you beautiful bastard!"

I stuck the beer in the reusable bag (It's really not that hard to remember, folks) I had pulled out of my backpack, along with several frozen pizzas and a box of popsicles I gathered from the containers sitting around the chilly room, and made my way out.  Popsicles are one of the best foods in the world for when you're stoned, right up there with watermelon.  The sugar cures the munchies while the water content hydrates your cotton-mouthed tongue.  Plus they come in a variety of flavors, whereas watermelon only comes in one.  As I walked out of the freezer and towards the swinging doors that held back the chaos of the main floor, I noticed Ben's date, the new girl, having something explained to her by a coworker in the deeper recesses of the room, and thought for a second I should go introduce myself.  Somehow we hadn't crossed paths yet that morning.  Then I thought better.  What are you gonna say? I thought to myself.  I'm Jimmy.  I'm pissed off.  Always.  You don't know me but, how 'bout ditching my best friend and getting a drink with me tonight instead?  I guess I'm just not quite that much of an asshole.

As I approached the front of the store, I was reminded of the lines at the registers, still pushing back toward the aisles.  There's no way I'm getting through this with my beer still cold.  Rage began to bubble in my abdomen again, at which point I noticed there were a few empty registers at the far end of the row.  It was a few seconds later I saw my beacon of shining light.  Mikey Moustaches, a dirty-looking hipster, was walking down the far end of the registers, clearly headed for one of the empty ones at the end.  I immediately began to shadow him down the row, through the lines of people, like a lioness stalking her prey.

"Come on, man, are you really gonna be like that?" he asked rhetorically, as I beat him to the register he was headed for, referring to the unfair advantage my being in the know had given me over all the other people who had been waiting in lines around me much longer.  Mikey was a stout guy, with the standard issue wide, black, plastic-rimmed glasses all hipsters wear.  He had greasy black hair and a sleazy thin black mustache that was always changing, but somehow, always for the sleazier, garnering his nickname.  He always looked hung-over and unwashed, but only because that was the reality of the situation.  In true hipster form, he wore tight T-shirts and pants 3 or 4 sizes too small that occasionally cut off circulation to his legs.  I remember hearing a few years ago about a report from area hospitals that said there was an alarming number of young men between the ages of 16 and 30 coming into the emergency room, having collapsed because their pants were too tight. 

I still wonder if maybe he hadn't asked me that question, the rest of the day would've gone any differently.  Maybe it was just my time.

"Be like what?" I mocked, looking up at him with an evil conceit in my eyes, "Do you think I give a damn about these people?"  There was no going back.

Behind me a woman with long, curly grey hair and a child in her basket had pulled up.  She asked with a smile, "Wow, did you really just say you don't care at all about the customers?"  I was still wearing my uniform.  It was obvious I worked there.  I had even brought my own bag.  She might have been a perfectly nice woman for all I know.  She might have been joking.  But she just spoke up at the wrong moment, and I was primed and on a roll.

"Lady," I said, taking a step closer so that I could look her dead in the eye, "I've been here since 7 in the morning," as I spoke, Miles came around the corner to turn his key and let Mikey into the register and presumably to authorize my employee discount as well.  "If you had been here for 8 and a half hours, even you would hate you about as much as I do right now," I finished, slowly and with relish.  As I turned, Miles was scanning my groceries, having heard everything, Mikey standing next to him with a look on his face that almost made the whole thing worth it.  It was somewhere between a frozen mortified grin and the look of a deer caught in the headlights of a 747 crashing into a mountainside.  He would later describe the event to me as feeling like watching a train run over a baby in slow motion.

Miles finished scanning and told me my total, as I refilled the bag on the other side of the counter.  I'm like the perfect customer.  I even bag my own groceries.  I paid him and turned to leave.  As I walked from the register to the exit door, Miles caught up to me.  "Don't worry about coming in tomorrow.  We'll call you to come in to sign your papers."

It was that easy.  In a flash of not even extravagant rage, my career in shit-peddling was over.  I can't say I wasn't the tiniest bit relieved, though my immediate next thought was to wonder whether or not Dani had been close enough to hear the exchange.  I looked up at Miles as he passed me and headed on to The Pit, and called after him in a taunting psychotic voice, like Charles Manson at a sentencing, "What?  Me?  Worry?  Come on, Miles!  Think about who you're talking to!"

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