John appeared from the stationery section in Aisle 3 and shuffled towards me at Register 1, holding a greeting card with arthritic fingers.
“Good morning, John,” I said as I reached out to take the card from him. “Only this today?” He smiled and said, “Yes,” in a quiet raspy voice. As I turned over the card to scan it, I saw that the inside read: To the woman I love. Thank you for being my wife. I thought of 90 year-old Eli Wallach, who played the Arthur Abbott character to perfection in the movie The Holiday, as a man deeply in love with his wife.
“It’s a Mother’s Day card for my wife,” John said, as he struggled to take out his wallet from the pocket of his crumpled jacket. Then he leaned toward me and whispered with a wink: “We’ve been married seventy-two years and she’s still getting used to me.”
It is moments like these that make my day as a “cashier of a certain age.”
We were living in London when Raja, my husband of 31 years, died in 2011 as a result of open-heart surgery to replace an abnormal heart valve he was born with. Three years later, I decided to take a couple of years off from my full-time job as a journalist and editor to go back to school to study creative writing in the U.S. It was a means to an end: the student visa afforded me residence so that I could be near our daughter who was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
With a semester more to go, I started applying for jobs. After being rejected from thirty-six executive and fifty-eight administrative job applications in nine months, I decided it was time to try something different, if only to have something to do. By then, I had completed my degree and was in a stupor on the couch most days, paralyzed by the lack of purpose. I ate snacks rather than real food because it was less work. I watched two seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in two days and reruns of other tv shows, and avoided the news channels because I didn’t have the physical, mental and emotional stamina to engage the wretched political scene. A diabetic, the sedentary life caused my sugar to stay high and I had to increase my insulin intake to cope with the highs. Then I read about college graduates who’d applied for more than two hundred jobs and were reduced to sitting on sidewalks with signs advertising their skills. If twenty-two year-olds couldn’t get jobs, what about sixty year-olds like me? Past my use-by dates.
Despite the naysayers among my family and friends, I decided to see what was happening in retail. I’d always wanted to sell things when I was a kid. Must be the money––people hand over money to the seller. Who wouldn’t want that? I finally got to live that dream when I was offered a cashier position at a nation-wide pharmacy close to home. I wasn’t aiming for the big time; district manager or communication director were not possibilities for me, a latecomer in the retail space. The store wasn’t a charming bookstore or a café where reporters and managing editors might like to languish between assignments. An associate position comes with the stigma for being at the bottom of the food chain: menial work with no authority, a thankless job. The working environment is not glamorous or prestigious. My daughter, also a journalist, was apprehensive about my working in retail. “Are you sure you want to do this, Mom? It’s hard work and the management style is not what you are used to.” “But I get to work the magical machine called a cash register,” I said gleefully. So I swapped my trusty laptop for a touch screen device at the Point of Sale.
It takes me nineteen minutes to walk to work from home, in the direction of the hills just outside of Boston. A course that takes me past Victorian and Colonial houses on the left and the high school on the right, the popular public pool, the beloved town library, and the bustling post office––usually with a dog tied to the railing at its entrance––before I turn right, away from the hills through the commuter rail underpass to the store.
It has a townie feel to it. I see the same people coming in at the same times of the day. Ronald comes in at 8:30 am for his Coke, two cheese sticks, a bun or a small pack of biscuits. Then Lorna stops by just before 9:00 am, plops her can of Red Bull on the counter before crossing the street to the liquor store where she works. Most Sunday evenings around 7:00 pm, a 30-something father comes in with a toddler and preschooler and lets them loose. The toddler heads for the 10-shelf display of miniature cars by the photo section and takes them all for a spin. The preschooler kicks the beach ball around the store, while the father reads magazines in Aisle 4 undeterred by the commotion his kids are creating. Half an hour later, he buys a pack of chewing gum and departs unapologetically, leaving me to clear the debris throughout the store.
Still, I enjoy working the weekend evening shift. Evening is my favorite time of day. It’s when nature changes her guard and the stars come out. It’s the ending of another day and being thankful for it. This mood sets in acutely between 6:00 pm and 8:30 pm when I am at the register. Families and couples drop by to pick up gum in the early evening or a tub of Ben and Jerry’s to finish their evening at home. They have all come out to eat in our one-street town center with its disproportionately high number of restaurants, and my heart aches for Raja. I miss the time we spent together, going to our “local” on weekends. In Paris, where we lived for five years in the sixteenth arrondissement, it was the nondescript corner brasserie on Rue de la Pompe––a two-minute walk from our apartment, for the humble but exquisite steak a point et un rouge. We had two tours of duty in London and both times lived in Chiswick by the river. Our local was The Black Lion five minutes away by the Thames Path––he’d have the shepherd’s pie and a pint, and I would have the Sunday roast. In Singapore where we lived in between tours of duty, we’d drive five minutes from our home to Changi Village and eat at the hawker center where we were spoilt for choice, and finish the day with a stroll on the beach. The memories are bittersweet and descend insidiously. Saudade. Portuguese for a deep nostalgic longing for someone who will not return. Inexplicably, I derive comfort from the warm, gentle sadness, a sweet walk into the past with Raja momentarily.
During my first week at work, I was taught “facing,” which is the act of straightening the items so that the shelves look smart and welcoming. I enjoyed arranging the cereal or multivitamin boxes in a straight row, and moving the milk cartons forward as they were being sold. Walking through the aisles, I picked up “drop-off” items that were left throughout the store when customers changed their minds. I also learned to use the Symbol, a device made by a company called Zebra. It is the size of a cell phone and identifies products and manages inventory. In 2011, when I was covering the Bloomberg Businessweek European Leadership Forum in London, I interviewed Anders Gustafsson, CEO of Zebra, and learned about RFID and inventory. RFID takes information and puts it in an electronic format that makes the information versatile and accessible. This helps to automate and drive efficiencies in supply chain logistics. I was fascinated by the technology in the store. Is what I am doing RFID in action? I wanted to know more about how it actually works and the extent to what it could do. But my coworkers could only show me how to use the Symbol to find where the item was located.
The store’s FM radio has an upbeat, addictive playlist that includes my favorite artists such as John Legend, Adele, Michael Bublé, and Carole King. I tap and sing along in my head to Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” as I insert new item labels for sunscreen in the seasonal aisle. The music makes work light and so much more fun. The DJ just needs to add in Ed Sheeran and it would be perfect.
I know my regular friendly customers by name. Barb was very kind and patient when I messed up her transaction during my first week; I always look forward to seeing her in the store when she brings her mom to do the weekly shop of chocolate and magazines and monthly hair color. Romeo owns the Italian cafe across the street and waits patiently in line to get change for his register or to get ice when he runs out. Late one busy evening, he sent over a large pizza with four different quarters of pies.
The acerbic ones approach my counter with a churlish tone before I even have a chance to greet them and ask: “Find everything you are looking for?” Interaction with these folks is guaranteed to be unpleasant and I often have to bite my tongue and smile like a fool because I’m on the wrong side of the cash register. In a predominantly white affluent town, it doesn’t help that I am Asian with a non-American accent and communicating according to script, as though I had learned it on the boat coming to America. During training, my manager taught me this drill: Wish the customer “Good morning” when they come up to the register. Then ask “Do you have our Rewards card?” When I am completing the transaction, ask “Is there anything else I can help you with?” And then say “Thank you.” After a month of working like a programmed robot and gaining confidence in my job, I decided I wanted to be human. That morning, a 35-ish woman in a red shift dress with a black Kate Spade work tote on her right arm, walked up to the counter.
“Good morning,” I said.
“I don’t need a bag,” she said without making eye contact, as she pulled out her crisp striped Kate Spade wallet.
“Okay,” I said. I scanned her Rewards card, followed by a mini can of Altoids and thinkThin chocolate mint protein bar. “Pity about what happened to Kate Spade.”
“Yeah,” she said. She stopped texting on her iPhone, encased in a candy-striped Kate Spade cover, and looked at me. “And also the other guy….uh…” she said, squinting her eyes, “I forget his name.”
“Bourdain. Anthony Bourdain,” I said. I hit “Charge” after she slotted her credit card into the machine.
“Yeah. Him. My mom loves his show. She’s going to be so sad.”
“Me too,” I said as I handed her the receipt. “Have a good one.”
“You too,” she smiled at me. She dropped her purse and phone into her tote, took out her car keys, and turned towards the door.
I had totally deviated from company script and was afraid of being scolded for it in a place which did not seem to allow autonomy, but I felt I met––no, exceeded––the spirit of the Standard Operating Procedure: I had delivered good personalized customer service by engaging the customer who wanted to engage, while meeting their retail needs efficiently. And that must be good for business, I reasoned. More importantly, it felt human and organic. For some other customers, the company script is perfect, though I might sometimes add something personal. “Take care of that arm,” I said to Mrs. Clarke who came in to get an arm sling after she fell the previous day.
I came to the job with no expectations. I had an idea of what it entailed, having been in many of its stores before but I never internalized what it would mean for me. I was at rock bottom, purposeless in my life, so I wanted to make this work. Work is physically demanding especially when it is busy. It’s a small store and I am usually the only one on the floor, manning the register and stocking the shelves when there are no lines. I move nonstop for the six or more hours during my shift. And I love it. I feel I am doing something meaningful––interacting with customers and serving them by walking them to the product they are looking for. Stocking the shelves helps to meet customers’ needs. To me, stocking is like assembling a puzzle where I find the missing pieces and make it complete. My favorite activity of all is when the truck comes in on Wednesday nights after the store closes. The young chaps from Ghana and Haiti unload the shipment. As we bring in two-wheel trolleys precariously stacked eight totes high and place them in specific locations throughout the store, I’m entranced by their accents and witty observations of daily life in a new country. They remind me of Brussels, Jakarta, Manila and all the places where I’d been a stranger in a strange land at their age––at once terrifying and exciting. Then we each take a section and start stocking the shelves till past midnight. It is wholly satisfying that I can concentrate on one task and see it through without being interrupted by the ping of the bell (again) at the counter when someone is ready to check out.
I enjoy being with my co-workers. I feel a sense of community as we share parenting and pet stories, exchange recipes, and commiserate over burst pipes in winter. However, sometimes I miss the repartees and exchange of ideas with fellow writers and editors, the satisfaction of problem solving and putting an issue to bed. I couldn’t ask my co-worker, in between lines at the register, what she thought about Trump’s latest conspiracy theory or Kavanaugh’s nomination because she doesn’t read or watch the news. My son-in-law, a political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, tells me my town votes Democrat but I suspect my white colleagues belong to the demographic group that seem to go overwhelmingly for Trump––some of them have never even been to Boston, only eight miles away. The twenty-somethings who work in the store do not know who Sandra Bullock (“Yes, I think I’ve heard of her…isn’t she the one who acted in Mamma Mia?”) or Ed Sheeran is (“Edshee who?”). Nor that Ocean’s Eight is now playing in a theatre near us (“Is it the one about the boat?”). I always offer to put the day’s newspapers on the stand in the morning so that I get to linger over the headlines on the top half of the folded Boston Globe and The New York Times while putting away The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Herald. During my fifteen-minute break, in between bites of low-carb cheese biscuit and gulps of bottled water, I try to scan the day’s headlines on my phone or The New Yorker, if it has already come into my inbox. To get my fix of world news and life, I do a WhatsApp chat late into the night with my friend, Heather, who lives in Perth, Australia, and is twelve hours ahead of me.
A month after starting work, my muscles attuned themselves to the new normal. I felt a sense of wellbeing. There was energy in my step. Initially, the constant walking and heavy lifting during each shift caused my blood sugar to drop and stay way below the normal level of 120mg/L. A diabetic, I tried to bring the sugar up with glucose tablets that I had stuffed in my pockets, but without much success. My body was using it up extremely fast. My endocrinologist cut my basal insulin dose by one-third. The intense physical activity and losing three pounds in the first week alone had improved my body’s sensitivity to insulin. I started cooking again––baking low carb snacks like coconut flour lemon cake and almond flour cheese biscuits for work and preparing meals, instead of lumbering to Burger King or the convenience store up the street.
Not only that, I had started writing and reading again. I wanted to do mundane things like weed out my books and papers that had gathered in piles the past year and reorganize the kitchen and basement––activities which felt to be too much for me when I didn’t have a job. My days off were fun and enjoyable, whether I was reading in a café with my flat white and bacon sous vide, watching Black Panther or The Incredibles 2 at the cinema, or taking the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. The quiescence had thawed and I regained my joie de vivre. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, was right after all. The primary purpose of life is the quest for meaning and is derived from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. Unexpectedly, in retail, I’d found everything I was looking for.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we at Pangyrus reached out to Grace to see how she is handling life on the front lines in retail. Her words:
As a person of a certain age with an underlying condition, I’m in the high-risk group. The job at the retail pharmacy puts me in contact with hundreds of customers per shift and I needed to be responsible for my health. So three weeks ago, as the COVID-19 was beginning to take hold in the US – and no, it’s not a hoax, I handed in my resignation. My store manager was sad about it but understood, and says he hopes to work with me again soon. Checking in with him recently, he said sales have been unbelievable. He sent me a photo of the empty shelves. I was very happy to hear that, knowing that my friends are employed and the store is going to survive the crisis, and that I can return to work when it is safe.
Image: Cash Register by Aranami, licensed under CC 2.0
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Such an uplifting story of finding the positive in our everyday encounters and work of all stripes. Thank you, Grace.
What an amazing essay! It is enjoyable to read not only because it shines a light on ordinary details–from straightening products on the shelves of a pharmacy to figuring out the exact right words to use with customers–but in finding the significance of those everyday details in our hard and unforgiving world. I love that it is this particular job, so different from what you had been accustomed to, that turned out to be just the thing to lift your spirits. (Who knows but a high powered manageriaI position would have had the opposite effect.) I think it also speaks to the losses the majority of people are experiencing and the complete failure of “normal” social/economic structures to help them (I am referring to before covid-19, not the crisis we are in today which has only exposed the systemic failures all the more). And of course your essay has a particular relevance for writers and artists. Thank you Grace.