[prompt: “Describe the taste of toothpaste”, 2007/06/25]
Minty. Fresh. The television ads blared out their trite summary of a sensory experience, adding a visual of the science behind their product as envisioned by the advertising staff. Alyson wondered what two words they’d use to sum up one of her daily routines. Shove through the crowd of waiting shoppers to get to the door, beat them back a little so she can lock it again and set up the shop? Rough. Daring. Of course, the little old Italian and Greek ladies, there at the crack of dawn to get the best deals, to find the perfect eggplant, the perfect tomato, the first chance at the last quart of their favorite olive oils.
How would they describe her one-handed key-entry all day long, able to bag groceries with just one hand most of the time, keeping up a steady rhythm on the keypad at the same time, stopping only to say “That’ll be forty five dollars and ten cents” or “Sign here please”. Steady? Practiced?
When she’d applied for the job, it had been a Sunday afternoon, lazy, and she’d been in the store to purchase a couple of the chocolate bars that they carried, imported from Italy or Switzerland or somewhere European. She liked them better than the chocolates she’d grown up eating and she let herself indulge once a week after an afternoon of job searching. She’d given up for the day, fretful that she’d not find a job, nobody hiring, when she asked the cashier on a whim if there were any jobs.
She’d said there were and to talk to the manager without breaking her rhythm, ringing up the next customer, leaving Alyson watching her hands fascinated at the steady rhythm.
She was hired on the spot, which felt like relief after a month of searching in the depressed city overrun by young people all looking for jobs. She’d come with the idea of being a library assistant or a coffeeshop girl in mind, but she soon discovered that those jobs were never open, always told “We’ll call you” and they never did. She wondered often what would happen if there was a fire in the shop, with the wall-to-wall bodies, the ladies with their tiny carts going up and down the narrow, packed aisles; the stock-boys restocking shelves the whole time behind them all from the stockroom in the back.
She looked other places, but it seemed like there was a crowd of under-employed young folks hanging out in every establishment, and she knew it was hopeless.
She soon found out why the seemingly lazy little grocery where she dropped in each Sunday needed help. Sunday was the only day a new produce shipment didn’t arrive first thing in the morning, and it was the only day that every first-generation European immigrant grandmother didn’t stop in to get her groceries for the day. It was the only day of the week where at six AM sharp, a line didn’t form out the door with people waiting to get into the shop that lasted until four. Exhausting. Exhilarating.
Alyson actually liked the job, now that she was finding a rhythm. The first month had been nearly impossible for her, trying to keep up the frenzied pace for hours. Her shoes hurt her feet after that many hours, her hands ached from keying and re-keying entries all day long. She was exhausted from the concentration of doing it all right and as fast as possible, because the line didn’t stop. She got two ten minute breaks during her shift. Merciful. Needed. When she did, the manager would trade her places smoothly at the end of a transaction and key madly until she returned, never breaking rhythm.
There was no pause in this place, three thousand square feet of insanity. A deli counter stretched across one wall, and six clerks sliced, cut and wrapped, kilo by kilo, gram by gram, acting as a single well-oiled machine. Hundreds of meats and cheeses lay in the case, some replenished every few minutes from an adjoining cooler, some only every hour or so. People waited in lines all over the store. There was a single throng snaking back and forth through the aisles. One didn’t walk to the shelf where what you wanted was, usually. You just got in the train and followed it until it paused at your destination, and when you got to the cashier, she’d ring up your groceries, smile politely and have you out the door and be on to the next customer.
She wondered often what would happen if there was a fire in the shop, with the wall-to-wall bodies, the ladies with their tiny carts going up and down the narrow, packed aisles; the stock-boys restocking shelves the whole time behind them all from the stockroom in the back. She imagined it, sometimes, during one of the merciful breaks.
She found time to make a few friends, between fits of exhaustion. She worked full-time, and after a shift at work could barely move for a few hours. One afternoon, a coworker drove her home because she didn’t look like she was going to make it up the hill to her house, only a few blocks away.
She paid the rent on time, and after an afternoon nap, she’d groggily wake to make herself a meal — lentil soup in winter, or if she was too tired still, a piece of toast. She’d get out her old laptop computer and try to write or to stay in touch with friends, but the relentless pace of trying to make ends meet left her alone.