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Over the Rainbow with Brian Burns: What Aisle is “Go to Hell” In?

Photo: Juliette Luchini

Photo: Juliette Luchini

When not living at school, I work at a supermarket. And it’s just as depressing as it sounds. I was hired during my senior year of high school and, for whatever reason, I have yet to be fired. My official title is “center store associate”: grocery store jargon for stocking shelves, telling customers where the breadcrumbs live (aisle two) and terrifying little children as I stock eggs from the inside of the fridge. It may sound simple but don’t be fooled: a single four-hour shift could involve following instructions, interacting with humans and appearing approachable. Rough, I know.

I work with a half-dozen or so fellow center store associates: all of whom have been privy to me failing miserably at what I do. It took a few months for my co-workers to warm up to me (the freezer aisle is a mean place) but when they did, they had plenty to share. The maintenance man reminded me, daily, of how similar my hair was to Johnny Bravo’s. As I was stocking marshmallows one day, a middle-aged coworker openly began to sniff the bags, declaring that she wanted to fill her pillow cases with them (“Just for the SMELL!”). And a new employee, shadowing me during his first day, gave it to me straight: “I sweat a lot. Don’t worry about it.” They kept me sane. Or, at least, made me look sane in comparison.

As far as chores go, grocery shopping is somewhere below toilet-plunging on the totem pole of pleasure. I realize that people don’t punch the time-clock with the immediate desire to hunt and gather their way through their local supermarket but, based on the sour dispositions of the vast majority of customers, you would think they were lining up to for flagellation via fiddleheads (aisle three!). More often than not, as customers walked away from me shaking their heads and/or cursing my existence, I was left wondering if I had crushed their wildest dreams or just failed to remember where the batteries were.

One day, while I was attempting to Hooked-on-Phonics my way through the ingredients listed on a can of Cheez-Whiz (as opposed to stocking it on the shelf), a woman in a Xena the Warrior Princess wind-breaker (and let me tell you: the only wind this woman was breaking came out of her ass) approached me and demanded to speak with my manager—the Dijon mustard went up six cents and heads were about to roll. A syllable away from mastering “sodium tripolyphosphate”, I begrudgingly got up and told Lucy Lawless to cool her jets (literally) and that I’d be back before she could roundhouse kick her way down aisle nine (bread and Tupperware!).

A few days later, a man came up to me in a state of distress similar to my reaction following Barbara Walter’s retirement announcement. Expecting a heart-to-heart discussion about BaBa WaWa’s rhotacism, I was sah-pwised when he instead—with much huff-and-puff—asked where the “fajita bread” was (aisle…wait, what?). I’ve been to Spain, I minor in Spanish and I’ve been fantasizing about Ricky Martin for nearly a decade now: none of which could have prepared me for decoding “fajita bread”.

“You mean tortillas?” I asked, as a piscina of vomit formed in the back of my throat.

“Whatever.”

English wasn’t his strong suit either.

In life, I try to adhere to Anne Frank’s mantra that, deep down, there is goodness in all people. But after dealing with Xena and Mr. Xenophobic, I’ve come to realize that such goodness all but disappears as soon as people enter an environment where a cash register is present. It’s as if there’s some sort of name-tag caste system: if you’ve got a plastic identification card pinned to your chest, brace yourself for customers who will eagerly and viciously project their frustrations, insecurities and bad breath out on you. Had Freud been around to ride the mid-century wave of industrialism that made supermarkets an American staple, I’m sure he would have been stationed at the deli counter theorizing penis envy as customers ordered pounds of bratwurst.

There’s something about the retail setting that manages to remind us all who among us are the lords, who are the serfs and who stocks the canned peas. Do we get off on putting down clerks because we lack the same power elsewhere in life? Do social strata become just a little more apparent—and acceptable—when uniforms and name-tags dictate who is beholden to whom? The answers are hard to figure out but, look hard enough, and you just might find them down aisle twelve.

Posted by on October 2, 2013. Filed under Around Campus. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to Over the Rainbow with Brian Burns: What Aisle is “Go to Hell” In?

  1. gwendolyn

    October 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    Bravo, Brian… yep, you have captured it exactly how some feel the need to mistreat people in the customer service arena…