Like many college-bound high school students, I needed money. I wanted to study abroad. I wanted to pay for some of my college education. I wanted to be able to eat out with my friends and afford gifts for the people I love. So, over the summer, I got a job.
I began training to work at Raley’s, a grocery chain, in June. My trainer’s name was Mark Curtis. Oddly enough, I remembered meeting Mark even prior to training. I had been buying passport photos and whiteout, using the self-check out at the store in Fair Oaks, when head clerk Mark Curtis approached me. He was a tall, bald man in his thirties and staring intensely at my shirt, a Save Darfur shirt with tips to raise awareness on the back.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but do you think we should go to war?” he demanded.
“Uh…no, I do not, however, we should stop people from being murdered under our noses while we simultaneously ‘protect’ people who don’t even want our help,” I replied with my “leave me the hell alone” voice—and a smile.
Running into this clearly annoying Mark character was a depressing addition to my already glum day. Training for a job, I realized, was not fun. Mark trained a group of ten of us for 8 hours, a massive amount of time to teach something as simplistic as how to bag groceries. It was almost demeaning how in-depth he went into the process.
The first step was how to open the bag. I rolled my eyes at the simplicity of it all but complied with Mark’s instruction anyway.
“Bags tear easily,” he said. “A paper bag, for example, is perfectly durable and can hold up to 25 pounds of weight if you hold it the right way. But, if you grab it at an angle, the slightest touch will tear the handles off.”
“So, what school do you go to?” asked the girl sitting next to me. I didn’t blame her for losing focus, with such an exciting lesson at hand. I answered her, “Granite Bay,” and wondered what my parents and friends were doing. I think now about the things that I force myself to do—advanced classes, journalism, band, work. I rarely talk to my friends; I eat dinner with my parents approximately twice a week. I know if I do something wrong with any of them, it will be harder for them to forgive me considering how much time I spend with them. I look back at the “bag opening” lecture and wish I didn’t dismiss it.
Mark continued with packing regulations. Put the durable items on the bottom of the bag: boxes, cans, plastic bottles and work up to the easily crushable “toppers.” Each bag needs to be square in order to fit into a customer’s car and not fall down. Boxes secure the sides while cans are lined up in rows to secure the bottom. Raw meat and cleaning supplies need to be separate from other groceries. Glass goods are individually wrapped in paper. Frozen goods are to be kept together, as are hot goods, cold goods, and produce. Each bag is a puzzle, putting just the right groceries in to pack the bag as full and square as possible.
Most importantly, all of this needs to be done fast. Efficiency is key—but as Mark later explained, customer service is essential.
“We need to pack their groceries quickly,” he said, “but we are a store based on the customer; you need to ask them how they are. You can never lose sight of the personal aspect of the job. Walk the customer out to their car, get to know them, learn their names.”
When I started working, I didn’t just lose sight of the customer, I was completely blind. I asked a customer how they were, if they wanted help out to their car, what kind of bags they wanted, but I didn’t know them. They were just blurred faces, passing me by. I didn’t care about them, I cared about when my shift ended. I was simply going through the motions.
One day, a woman came in and asked me about something that we had apparently discussed during her last visit. I smiled and nodded like a good employee but I didn’t remember this woman. All customers looked the same to me. My stomach tightened with guilt and embarrassment. I took my break and checked my cell phone for messages. There was one voicemail.
“We never talk anymore…” the voicemail began. It was my best friend Denise who had just moved away for college. She was right; we didn’t. I didn’t talk much to anyone. My parents complained incessantly about my absences at dinner while my friends didn’t complain, they just never called me. They knew I was busy; I didn’t have time for them. I had too much to do and I had to do it well. My schedule was a grocery bag—a puzzle of random activities that needed to fit as squarely as possible into my life.
Some days, I find myself disconnected again, but I try to catch myself. I scan the customer’s face and observe their character. “How are you today?” I ask. I do not want the personal relationships around me to rip like a paper bag.