Supermarkets are hives of interesting people and homes to some of America’s best stories

I wrote this piece for an undergraduate editing class with Charles Anzalone a few years back. It was heavily influenced by Gay Talese's short story, "New York Is a City of Things Unnoticed." Anzalone turned me on to Talese, whose work became influential on my writing.

Supermarkets are hives of interesting people and homes to some of America’s best stories. They are given attention only when refrigerators and cupboards run empty, ensuring that many of their most interesting aspects go unnoticed. They are a place where counterfeiters hone their skills, major health violations go unnoticed, and strawberries and bananas end their thousand-mile trips, only to wind up in rusted shopping cards and plastic bags. Nobody notices that the fruits have come from far-off Caribbean shorelines or that they have been injected with stabilizing chemicals to keep them alive during their travels, just like nobody notices the teenagers that make love in the break rooms or the man who uses the same tired joke on every cashier.

“Did you find everything today, sir?” the cashier will ask.

“Oh yes, a little bit too much!” he says without fail.

In some ways, supermarkets are the great equalizer that public education has turned out not to be. People of every race, color, creed, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status walk through the same automatic sliding doors and leave with identical cartons of milk and eggs. Everybody must deal with disinterested teenage cashiers and everybody must present his savings card at the registers to get the daily “deals.” No one has ever denied a black person or a homosexual of his or her right to pluck a loaf of bread from the top of aisle 12, and nobody ever will. In a supermarket, the only people not treated as equals are the employees, who are encouraged to put the customer’s needs before their own.

The most interesting people in the world come to supermarkets to stock their cupboards. Most of them are not looking for acknowledgement, and most of them do not receive it. Their stories are overlooked and under-told, and it is a shame.

An elderly woman is standing at the lottery counter. She is grandmother-sized; short and wide. She wears thick glasses that take up a little bit too much of her face, and her hair is white and permed. She’s one of those women who sets up an appointment at the local Fantastic Sams or Supercuts every four weeks, more to gab with the other old ladies than to actually get her hair done. She is also a regular customer at this supermarket. The service desk clerk asks her how she’s been.

“Not good,” she says grimly. “I just don’t see how I’m going to get by without my husband. We were together for 40 years and now I’m all alone.” The clerk already knows this story. He heard it three days before when she came to refresh her lottery ticket stash, and he will hear it again two days later. But he legitimately feels sorry for the woman, so he nods politely and apologizes as she continues.

“And now my nephew just died of a stroke, too. He’s been coming to my house and helping me with yard work and shopping and the things my husband used to do,” she says. “I just don’t see how I can keep up without them.”

She looks like she is going to cry, but she manages to pull things together to buy $48 worth of lottery tickets, mostly Take Five and three and four-digit numbers. The clerk hands her the tickets.

“What’s my damage?” she asks, before interrupting herself with a sudden realization. “Oh darn. I forgot to buy tickets for my husband. I’m not going to stop just because he’s gone.”

She produces another set of Take Five numbers from the depths of her purse and the clerk prints her several new tickets. They cost $12 more. She feigns surprise when he tells her the total, but it’s clear that she has more than enough in her wallet. She pays and the clerk begins to thank her.

“Have a nice…” he manages to say before she interrupts him.

“Oh, I have these too,” she says, pulling a wad of scratch-off tickets from her purse. The clerk feels dumb for forgetting. It’s the same old routine, every time. There are several other customers impatiently tapping their feet to some inaudible beat behind her. She notices.

“Go ahead and take care of them. I’ll get situated,” she says as she sorts through her pile of lottery tickets. She spends another 15 minutes at the counter talking to the clerk about her back problems and her sick sister Martha who lives alone in a ranch in Delaware.

She is lonely and needs someone to talk to. He finished the rest of his work early and was bored. It is a match made in heaven, playing out on the overly waxed floors of a second-rate grocery store.

The walls of this supermarket are privy to things that are much less beautiful, though infinitely sadder. A little girl pushes a cart into the building. She can barely see over the handle, and she heaves her weight forward to get the thing to move. An old woman follows behind, scrambling to keep up with the girl’s quick pace. It is a Tuesday, formerly senior discount day at this supermarket. The program has been defunct for nearly two decades, but the seniors continue to arrive in droves in search of prune juice, medication and hard candy for their grandchildren.

At first, the duo looks like every other grandmother and granddaughter shopping in the store. The grandmother wears a pink and purple paisley blouse—typical grandmother garb. She seems simultaneously annoyed at the little girl for moving so quickly, and enchanted by her energy and determination. The girl continues her march toward some unknown goal. The light-up shoes she wears over her black tights blink like crazy and her tiny, checkered skirt and purple coat glide behind her as she moves.

As the little girl gets closer, the cute grandmother/granddaughter shopping moment dissolves into a sad and macabre story for anyone willing to take the time to notice. Not many do. The little girl’s face, hidden behind her oversized glasses, is not quite a little girl’s face. It has the typical features—a cute button nose, oversized eyes, long eyelashes—but there are wrinkles and marks that give away the girl’s real age. She is somewhere between 40 and 50 years old and the old woman is not two generations away, but one. The old woman is her mother. The younger woman likely suffers from something called hypopituitarism, a rare disease that seems to lock its sufferers into childhood. But she will continue to be just another little girl to most.

Most aspects of supermarkets are much more universal, but no less interesting, like the 40-something mom who is returning bottles and cans with her two young sons. They all have matching blonde hair, though hers has a gray streak on each side, giving her a wise, all-knowing appearance—that mother-knows-best look. They finish stuffing sticky Mountain Dew bottles and dented Diet Pepsi cans into the machines and walk with much fanfare to the service desk to redeem their vouchers for cash.

“We can have some of the money since we helped, right?” the little one says to his mother, half-asking, half-telling.

“We’ll see,” she says, cementing her image.

She sets the vouchers on the countertop and the office clerk counts out the total on a calculator, opens the register with a ding and hands the woman a slew of $1 bills and change. The children gaze up at the mother expectedly.

“The whole thing came to $3.75,” she says. “So you can have… a quarter.”

She hands them each a coin as their little smiles slowly turn to frowns of disgust. A quarter used to mean something to little kids. A quarter used to mean excitement over a gumball, or a little sticky hand from the toy machine in front of the store, or at least a chance to try their luck at winning a stuffed Snoopy doll in the claw machine. These days, a quarter means next to nothing.

“Mooooooooooommmmmmm!” they both say simultaneously, moaning as the doors slide open and they run after her, tugging at her coat the whole time.

The rotten economy has evolved supermarket stories, bringing increased diversity and maturity to each clandestine tale. Older men and women have replaced many of the self-conscious adolescents who once stooped lazily over cash registers in hopes of earning enough cash to pay for gas and McDonalds.

A member of this new wave of old cashiers stands behind register four, her wrinkled hands slowly moving a carton of butter pecan-flavored Perry’s Ice Cream over the scanner. Her very clearly dyed blonde hair is cut short and spiky. The store’s uniform—a plain black polo—rests on her gaunt body like an opened parachute. The nametag clipped to the left side of her collar reveals that her name is Karen. She peers over her rectangular glasses as she finishes the order and tells the customer to have a nice day.

A pocket-sized girl with a tiny blonde bob scurries up behind the old woman and tugs on her shirttails, her chubby, baby-fat legs plodding against the ground as she moves. She looks identical to the little girl from the Welch’s Grape Juice commercial from the late ’90s, and she’s got a voice to match.

“Hi gwamma!” she says, almost squeaking.

“Oh, hi honey!” Karen says excitedly. Her face twists from the usual wry smile she wears at work into a sincere grin. She turns off the light above the register and scoops down and picks up the girl. “I’ve missed you so much,” she says.

The tiny girl squeals as her face lights up. It is another moment of beauty inside of a building meant only to distribute food. The two are locked in a bubble, a world away from the customers and employees noisily moving in the same mechanical motions around them. The flower dies as quickly as it bloomed.

“Grandma has to get back to work, but I’ll see you next weekend, OK honey?” she says, setting her down. The little girl nods her head in an exaggerated motion, which sends her bob flying up and down. She scurries back to her mom, who is standing at aisle two. The mom exchanges waves with Karen as she turns her light back on and calls a customer into her line.

Some of the other employees speculate about Karen’s decision to join the store’s staff at this point in her post-retirement life, and why older people apply for jobs there, in general.

“They’re lonely, bored, they need some money, their husbands are dead,” says Jesse, a 20-year-old stock clerk. “Who knows?”

A customer—middle-aged woman, dark hair, spotless white running shoes—meanders into an area near Jesse. He stops talking and helps the woman.

“Can I help you with anything?” he says.

“Is that real orange juice?” she says, pointing at the shelf at his heels. She takes a closer look. “Oh no, it’s pineapple.” She grabs a carton of low-pulp Tropicana and walks away.

Jesse shrugs and continues.

“The old people are a pain in the ass,” he says. “The managers want us to move fast and get customers through the lines, and they can’t even move fast enough. Granted, they’ll come in and work at any time and they don’t freak out when they have more than three people in their line. But they’re slow.”

A store manager with a “Kelly” nametag pushes an empty stock cart behind Jesse and stops. Kelly is one of the people that the younger employees refer to as “lifers.” It is a somewhat derogatory term meaning that she has been working there for some time, and she will probably be there for even longer. Kelly has been listening to the whole conversation.

“They’re usually very friendly with the customers and give good service and they’re available to work a lot of hours when the teenagers aren’t available,” she says, before walking away.

Karen walks by and pushes through the saloon-style doors on her way to the break room, which is tucked into the far back corner of the store. She retrieves a Tupperware container full of some sort of goulash mixture from her locker and sits down to eat. One of the younger employees sits down and asks her about her decision to work in a supermarket.

“I just wanted to do something part-time,” she says. “I wanted something not stressful. You don’t take this work home with you. It’s fun, I like the people I work with and the customers are pretty good.”

“Are you kidding?” the younger employee says, standing up. “I hate this place.”

“I did have one customer today ask me if the store was changing names,” Karen says. “I’ve been getting that a lot. Call the manager, I say. What do I know?”

Karen begins talking about her five grandchildren. Someone mentions the one that visited her earlier in the day. Karen smiles.

“One day, she came in and hid and squatted down so I couldn’t see her,” she says. “Then she jumped up and yelled ‘Hi, Grandma!’ ”

Her face lights up and the few people in the room suddenly become aware of the kind of magic that the store is capable of. Between those four corporate-financed brick walls, people come together and they bring their interesting lives with them. The employees in that room forget their paychecks and vacation hours and aches and pains, and come to some sort of understanding—that there is elegance in ugliness, enlightenment in suffering. Maybe life isn’t so bad after all. If we just stop to look and talk and interact with each other, maybe…

Suddenly, an announcement sounds over the store’s loudspeaker.

“Can we have all available associates up front please? All available associates up front? Thank you.”

With that, the moment is gone. It was as fleeting as it was beautiful.