I’m a university grad working at a grocery store. When can I check out?

As published in The Globe and Mail on September 20, 2016.

“You look lonely. I’ll give you some business!”

My days tend to involve a lot of that. If I’ve learned anything from working in retail, it’s to avoid going for the cliché comments such as, “It’s not scanning? It must be free,” or my personal favourite, “I hope you like change, ha ha.”

Every summer since high school, I’ve worked at a grocery store. Glamorous, I know: painful cuts from spiky pineapples; milk down the front of my shirt (after a bag ripped open, think the elevator-door scene from The Shining but with milk); the way I smell of rotisserie chicken at the end of every shift. I can just feel the job envy radiating. It seems as though everyone else my age is out in the world with “big kid” jobs or internships, things that will eventually take them to a more notable position. Meanwhile I’ll remain, scanning the grocery orders of the public and wondering what I should eat for lunch. Currently, lunch is about as far into the future as I go.

When I was 16, I started working at a grocery store in a predominantly Italian area, where reserving 16 barrels of tomatoes is not considered ridiculous (“I’m sorry? Did you say you want 16? Are you sure?”). A lot of the cashiers were Italian as well, which for a newbie who for the most part didn’t have a clue what she was doing sometimes posed a problem. Such as the time I accidentally charged a customer for 18 mangoes (vote Emily for employee of the month!) and he came back outraged, declaring: “It was the blond one!” Blending in wasn’t the option I’d have liked it to be.

The job is monotonous, but sometimes you’ll get a person who livens things up. I call this “cherry rage.” During my five-plus years as a cashier, I’ve learned to dread the sight of cherries as they innocently meander down the belt. Whenever I see them coming, I’m already picking up the phone, ready to call for an override (a.k.a. backup … just kidding, it’s a card that needs to be swiped when you void something over $10). The customer will see the price and panic. It usually goes something like this: “$13 for cherries?! No, definitely not. I’m not paying for those! Take them off! Take them off!”

If you’re lucky, they’ll forget about the entire ordeal and let you get back to the thrill of the scan, but most often it ends with a rant about the company’s pricing. They are, of course, speaking to the right person. As a cashier, the power there is just endless.

After a year, I was promoted from simple cashier to customer service representative. Instead of calling someone to take the cherries off, I could take the cherries off. Just one of the little job perks I got to look forward to. With my new title came new problems, though. Like the day a man came over to me with his receipt and points card to make a complaint about the ratio of points to dollars. He asked for a piece of paper and a pen and began demonstrating the fault in our system with calculations scattered across the page. I felt like I was watching John Nash from A Beautiful Mind write on the window.I nodded empathetically, saying: “You’re right, that system is just atrocious. I’ll tell the store manager.” I learned early on that agreeing and uttering the words “I’ll speak to the store manager” would fix a majority of problems that came my way.

I’m 22 now, and graduated from university with an English degree earlier this year. This summer, I felt embarrassed to be in the same job I’ve had since I was 16.While most of my friends were preparing to continue their education with master’s degrees, I was stuck in the same spot despite my newly obtained piece of paper declaring me to be a university graduate.

Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), I appear much younger than my age, so I was able to avoid criticism from strangers about what I was doing working at a grocery store. Some would even ask, “So, what grade are you in?” I would then have to sheepishly admit that I’d finished school, which on an embarrassment scale of 1 to 10 is a strong 15.

I would try to cut myself some slack, reassuring myself that no, this wasn’t my forever job. Then my alma mater would call me, asking for donations since I’m so wealthy now, and I would revert to my comfort zone of eternal shame.

Recently I’ve begun working at a construction company as an administrative assistant and work at the grocery store occasionally. The admin job is lovely and comforting, an experience for which I am grateful. However, one day I would like to be a writer. I’m still not sure of my next steps, but I am content with knowing that some day I’ll get there.

While I don’t make the greatest case for retail professions, I realize there are people who definitely make things much easier, and even – dare I say it – actually enjoyable. Like the lady who tells you what a great job you’re doing after someone tells you off in front of a line of customers. Or the man who buys you a packet of Halls after hearing you cough.

But mostly it’s a lot of:

Emily: “Is that debit or credit?”

Customer: “Visa.”

 

 

 

 

Image by Irma Kniivila for The Globe and Mail

 

 

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