workzine

Suzy Eynon, 11/19/2012

Current Occupation: assistant at a life insurance company
Former Occupation: file clerk, cashier-slash-manager, author’s assistant, medical office assistant, work study student assistant, and maid (for a day)
Contact Information: Suzy Eynon graduated with a BA in English from University of Washington after years in and out of classrooms in the West. Her work has appeared on Airplane Reading. She writes on the bus, in her cubicle, and at holdinghandswithstrangers.com.

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Employee Talking Points for Store Closing

My mom saved the advertisement from the newspaper for me as a suggestion. I still have the clipping. A chain of natural foods grocery stores planned to expand to my home state. I attended the hiring fair, conducted underneath tents in the parking lot, the ground still simmering beneath our feet even in fall. Despite incorrectly answering one of the Natural Living (code for Vitamin Department) Manager’s interview questions, they hired me as a cashier. (“What would you do if you saw someone shoplifting?” “Uh…confront them?” She shook her head, and gave me the answer.)

    Later, one of the assistant store managers told me that she didn’t have much hope for me in the beginning because I was timid — they knew I’d be eaten alive. A customer once let me know that my seat in hell was reserved because I have a forearm tattoo. Unfortunately, my tattoo features a word common in the coupon world, which another customer found hilarious. (“Does your other arm say ‘Null?!’ Did you get that because you’re a cashier?”) A woman screamed in my face because I couldn’t understand that she was mumbling that “dried cranberries” were in her bulk purchase bag and she’d neglected to attach the tag with the code; a customer told me to “get a hearing aid!” in a less-than-helpful tone because I couldn’t hear her ask for the location of Italian dates; a man on an motorized scooter yelled that I wasn’t helping him by placing his fruit on the conveyor belt for him if I was just bruising it. “You didn’t like that very much, did you?” he said as I returned to my spot behind the register counter after his scolding.

    I’d never seen this phenomenon in my personal experiences at grocery stores, but a customer asked me to remove her carrot tops before placing them in the bag. I wasn’t doing it quickly enough or with enough gusto, so she took the carrot bunch from my hands, twisted the green clump off, and said, “There, now you can add that to your resume.” The mind games abounded. Customers argued over the verbiage on the credit card machine when I asked them to please push the button (“It doesn’t say ‘enter,’ it says ‘go.’”). They announced the name of each fruit or vegetable as I grabbed it from the conveyor belt, as if I had never seen green onions or romaine. When I was first promoted from assistant manager to manager, and my nametag still said the former, a customer refusing to leave the store after hours asked for the manager. “I’m the manager,” I told her.

    “That’s not what your nametag says.” Point.

As I faced the bread in the bakery one night, lining up each bag of bread so that its logo shimmered just so under the neon store lights, I had a conversation with a customer about school. I was completing my associate’s degree at community college in the mornings, and working the closing cashiering shift.

“What can you get with an AA degree?” he asked

“This,” I said, and we both laughed.

    An elderly woman accused me of stealing as she paid for her order, even though I stopped to count the drawer, the protocol for a discrepancy between the change the cashier gave and what the customer thought they should get back. “I know what you did,” she said so that only I could hear.

Occasionally, I was driven to angry tears, an activity — along with hangover vomiting on the opening shift and hiding from a persistent customer — reserved by employees for the sacred territory of the office. Cashiers would joke that the small plastic bin kept under each register for “go-backs” (unwanted, abandoned groceries found littering the aisles, or returned vegetables likely bought at another market, all accepted with a smile) was for pissing in because we weren’t allowed away from our registers with the exception of our scheduled breaks. If it was overwhelmingly busy and the check-out lines grew to be more than two or three customers deep, managers would get antsy and call cashiers back from break. I practiced writing my resignation on receipt paper as I watched free-wandering grocery clerks, holders of my dream position, walk the store kissing babies and making old ladies blush before barking that we were incorrectly ringing cases of organic soda. Nonetheless, I wanted to do well. I’m a natural people-pleaser, avoiding confrontation if possible, so I honestly wanted the customers to not be angry, and I wanted my managers to think I was a capable and enthusiastic worker. I took pitiable pride in rising to the rank of fastest cashier, and while the repetitive motion of scanning and bagging at a rapid pace was sometimes dizzying, it was also satisfying: accomplish task at hand, feel accomplished!

The store was a complex organism consisting of hierarchies and rife with drama. Everyone knew who was having an extra-marital affair with whom, and friendships were built and broken around firings and promotions. I went through the break-up of a long-term relationship, and my best friend, who helped me through that time and who became my roommate, was a co-worker first. A group of us closed the store together at night, and then went home together or attended the same parties. The store was the central social force in my life.

A small number of original employees remained employed in the store after two years, and I lasted through multiple changes in rank naming and organization to become a lower-level manager, perhaps by default of seniority. I was in charge of the cashiers and baggers, so I got to hire and fire for my department, write the weekly schedule, and close the store nightly. The store manager became a close friend, and taught me how to work in different departments, a rare “in” to the more desirable grocery department. I worked a short, forgettable stint in the deli as a clerk in my efforts to escape the drudgery of the front end ghetto only to nip off a bit of my index finger in the deli slicer. (For weeks after, co-workers brought me small chunks from a roasted turkey in the deli case, claiming they’d found my missing tip.) The deli clerk with whom I traded positions so that she temporarily became the head of the front end said she hoped they didn’t lower her pay for making the switch to the front of the store.

A rumor, spurred by the fact that managers could no longer order packaging with our logo on it and originating with the bakery manager, claimed that our company, owned by another, larger natural foods company, was shutting us down. Before Thanksgiving, just over two years from our store opening, management called an all-store meeting, a rare occurrence. The store manager, my friend, promised to call me at home that night to let me know what was going on, since he planned to talk to regional management in the interim. I never got a call; the next day, when I arrived for the 7am meeting, he avoided me. At the meeting, we were informed that the company was “withdrawing” from our state, closing the four local stores operating under our name. We would close our doors in a month, and our regional manager, whom I had only seen on rare and terrifying occasions, said he expected us to “keep a clean store.” He distributed a handout of “Employee Talking Points for Store Closing,” to assist in answering customers’ questions.

“Let the looting and pillaging begin,” said my favorite bagger.

    We sold all products from the shelves at a discount. Employees were laid off in groups of ten or so over the next few weeks, beginning with the lower-ranking of each department. Even though we were all in the same situation, I hated sitting in the small manager’s office with each front end employee to let them know their time was up. When the numbers dwindled, I asked to please not have to let go of a good friend yet, since we were to keep a few select employees until the last day, to assist with cleaning the store. “It’s either your roommate or your friend, pick one!” My store manager used this opportunity to teach me a managerial lesson, despite my position’s end-date.

In the last weeks, customers plundered our shelves as we watched from our perch in the front of the store. What was inevitable was no less surreal. Some were kind: a customer who knew that some of us had worked there for the store’s lifespan gave us each a twenty dollar bill, and brought in pizzas for the closing shift, which we ate at our registers. I was offered a job lead by a former community college professor (which sadly never materialized) and by one of our vendors. Some were less helpful, wondering if they’d have to buy their weekly grape purchase at another store not as conveniently located. A customer tried to purchase the dirty broom and dustpan that we used to clean the floor by our registers; others asked if the shelves or carts were for sale.

    When few employees remained, and the once majestic shelves of the store decorated to look like a farmer’s market sat empty, and there wasn’t a customer in sight, the closing shift of the end of days devolved into playtime. What more was there to do? There was no glory in standing stiffly at our posts. We knew, by then, that what we did didn’t matter. The store no longer appeared or functioned as a store. Grocery clerks dodged packed boxes on forklifts in the middle of the store. We re-wrote the Weekly Special Code List, posted at each register, with items like “Dandruff Flakes: 5678.” The manager’s office door read “I sleep naked.” A produce clerk chose an Angels & Airwaves song for his dramatic exit song on his last night, which we played through the store’s hijacked, formerly untouchable stereo system. The Muzak tunes wouldn’t cut it for his final stand. A few of us started the café: a table and chairs dragged in from the ill-used entryway at which we ate our Mexican take-out dinner in full view of the non-existent customers, mid-shift. I was managing this shift of the sinking ship, and we were getting our dinner breaks.

As Christmas and the store closing date drew near, former employees had already started new jobs or had gigs waiting. A co-worker warned me to not wait until the end or to rely on the other managers to let me in on something, like a lateral move to another store. I was let go one day early, a reminder that I was still not quite within the small circle of leaders.

As a manager, I was allotted a month’s severance but decided, at the last minute, to pursue employment by a store owned by the same company because I didn’t see any other obvious option. Since I was technically not leaving the company, then, I wasn’t allowed severance, though the corporate office mailed me a single check by mistake, which I cashed. My more-clever friend let his clock run out, and was then hired by that same store, so he got to keep his payout. At the other store, where I was a newbie again but with a darkened viewpoint on the company, I held a lower-ranking position and subsequent pay decrease. (The parent company was openly anti-union, it might be noted.) I quit three months in, after I found out that a fellow cashier, another refugee from her original store, whom I trained years prior, made more money than me. My parting gift, won in a raffle at my first and only Christmas party with the company, was an inflatable raft leftover from a store contest, which I thought was hilarious.

I tried working at two more natural foods stores for different companies, both of which are, ironically, now owned by the same parent company (unlike the previous two companies at which I worked, which no longer exist) before realizing that I was too bitter to start over again as a bagger or cashier shamed away from taking bathroom breaks, and to do it without attitude. I like to think that I’m on a hiring blacklist for these stores, if there is one. I re-applied at one of the still-existing companies during a stint of unemployment a few years later, and didn’t get a call back. On job applications, I write “no longer in business” or “try calling this 800 number, maybe,” and offer a short explanation of who bought whom, who owns whom now. My own resume is a history of the bastardization of the natural foods retail scene. I read an article recently about the family who started the first store, and bought and sold many others — about the “retail saga” of their family, as the article called it. Of all the stores and companies bought and sold, opened and closed, they said: it didn’t do any good to hang on to the past.

In some of my retellings of working at the store, I say I hated it; in others, I say I loved it, that it was my life.  In desperate moments of office cubicle hatred, I get a winsome longing to return to retail. Sometimes, when I’m checking out at the grocery store and a cashier is searching for a produce code or verbally sparring with a hysterical customer, I want to smile knowingly and roll my eyes and say, “I used to be a cashier,” but I know they don’t care — they’ve probably had to use the restroom for the past three hours.

I still remember the code for bananas. It was the first code they taught us.

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