“Looks like the chicken really did come first!” I exclaim, as I slide the organic chicken over the scanner, followed by a free-range carton of brown eggs.
“I found everything great, thanks,” the frantic suburban mother responds, head swiveling as she corrals her children.
I mutter a laugh to myself – this is a very typical response to the nonsense I ask customers. For some reason asking ‘did you find everything okay?’ makes me hate myself. And, honestly, it’s fun to see who is actually listening. Usually none.
“So, how’s your day going?” I cheerfully inquire, trying again, as I begin to grab bunches of bananas, Joe-Joe’s and several bottles of Two-Buck Chuck from the mini-red shopping cart.
Many of those carts have connected with my ankles as I walked the aisles of Trader Joe’s during my shifts. Small aisles and reckless children pushing carts was never a good architectural plan for Americans.
She glances at me, standing there, monotonously sliding through her groceries. My arm sporting a tattoo, my body a shirt with grease stains on it from my bicycle chain outside and my face sprinkled with adult-onset acne. We make eye contact and I can tell she disapproves of the haze covering my blue eyes that are currently traced by a faint hue of red.
Beep, Beep, Beep.
“I’m doing great,”* she responds, while a boy whines at her hip, begging for a fruit strip.
*“I’m an exhausted 32-year-old stay at home mother of three. Coming into this store sucks the life out of me, to be honest with you. I have three kids nabbing at every contour of my once-perfect body. I’m stuck in a loveless marriage that is covered up perfectly by our two-story house in the south suburbs of town. Every night I cook dinner for my family, the standard meat and potato fare, while I myself am a strict vegetarian. I eat my share alone while watching re-runs of Law and Order over a glass of wine while my husband watches golf two rooms over.”
“How are you?” She asks back, robotically, like society has taught her.
“I’m still alive – and the weather is perfect today,”* I tell her, as a sharp pain ignites my frontal lobe. There’s the tequila from last night.
*”I’m so hungover. Last night, after getting off at 11 p.m., me and several of the cashiers ringing all of you up – the ones with smiles plastered on our faces – smoked weed and drank until we didn’t remember how pathetic our silly lives were. Each morning I wake up alone in my one-bedroom apartment with alcohol lingering on my breath and dirty dishes piling up in my sink. I’m a recovering anorexic who finds herself face deep in cinnamon graham cats (near the frozen food section) most nights while rom-coms lull me into a numb state of unconsciousness.”
“You’re right, the weather is great – hopefully the children and I will get out for a walk later.”
“Walk a few miles for me!” I beam, keeping up the stream of cordial chit-chat between us.
I bend down and grab a handful of stickers, they are the cool ones: scratch and sniff. In this store, a place of unique culinary creations and crew members with vivid personalities – the stickers let others know that you shop somewhere “different.” They are also lifesavers for parents, as they provide a brief moment of contentment for the children.
I finish bagging her groceries, eggs on top, nestled carefully in place so they won’t crack.
“Would they like some stickers?”* I ask, smiling from ear to ear, exactly like I was trained.
*“I can see my boss watching me from the corner of my eye, so I’m going to be extra nice to you.”
The sigh is subtle, but noticed nonetheless. “Yes, please, they’d love some.”*
“Oh good god, those stickers again? If I have to peel one more of those off my Gucci purse I may just hang myself.”
Three delicate hands appear over the counter, barely able to connect with my large, calloused one.
“Don’t forget to give one to your mom,” I encourage, as I tear off a strand for each of them.
Six little eyes gleam with orneriness. The mother peers downwards, clenching her fists.
“Make sure to thank the sweet lady,”* the mother instructs.
*”I hate you.”
Three squeaky voices mutter ‘thanks’ under their breath.
“I double bagged the wine,”* I highlight, as I place the six bags of groceries into the regular sized cart, pushing the mini-carts off to the side. Immediately two more eager rugrats run up to grab them.
*”Our bags are complete shit and you look like you need this.”
She scoops up her littlest child and places the other two in the cart with ease, like she’s done it a million times.
The store suddenly erupts in dings of “one-bells,” signaling the need for more cashiers. As I prepare myself for loaded carts and rushed civilians, the customer taps my arm lightly, my wrist barely visible beneath the layers of bracelets from haggard nights in hostels abroad.
“The chicken always came first,” she utters, “no matter what anyone else says.”*
*”I caught your joke, didn’t think it was funny, but you look like shit – seriously fix your hair – so I’ll acknowledge you tried.”
I smirk and she totes her goods out of the store – leaving a trail of (insert trendy mom perfume here) in her wake.
I take a long pull of cold-brew and turn to the next customer, ready to do it all again.
“How are you doing today?” I say, reaching for the six-pack of Stella Artois, a frozen margherita pizza and dark chocolate covered cherries.
“Found everything great.”*
Cover image by kitschkitten