Grocery store chronicles: One worker’s experience on the front lines

May 12, 2020 by

An editorial director turned grocery store worker in the Midwest shares what it’s like right now to tend the produce aisle.

Jacob Turcotte

Why We Wrote This

Gratitude has abounded for those designated as essential workers, braving the front lines of the pandemic. Here’s the perspective from an editorial director turned grocery store produce clerk.

By Lee A. Dean Contributor

There’s nothing like a pandemic to upset the apple cart.

In October, my employer eliminated my position as an editorial director. I was declared superfluous. Extraneous. Expendable. A few short months later, as a grocery store produce clerk, I am now labeled “essential,” a soldier in the middle of the fight against a deadly virus.

My colleagues and I continue to adjust as the elements of what was once considered “normal” are peeled away like layers of an onion. Hours have been reduced. Sanitary wipes were removed from the entryways, in exchange for every cart being wiped down. Bottle returns were eliminated, followed by all returns. The mechanical horse that kids could ride for a penny was taken away to its stall.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

As essential workers, we were each handed a letter authorizing entry to the store and a paper placard to be shown to the authorities in case they pull us over. We’re sanitizing touch points every two hours. Masks became mandatory in late April, but many of us were already wearing them. We come into work every day thinking, “What’s next?”

So far, the most remarkable trend of customer behavior is how unremarkable it has been. This general sense of equanimity may be because our store is in the epicenter of Midwestern nice. The shoppers, too, are adjusting to the shifting reality. Some have even gone out of their way to thank us.

There are a few indications that this fabric of good feelings is beginning to fray. Our store has placed taped arrows on the floor to control foot traffic. I saw one man pushing his cart against the grain over the protests of his wife. “Don’t you see the arrows? You’re going against the arrows!” she pleaded. The man kept on pushing his contrarian cart, head tilted at a defiant angle.

Did you say kumquats or gumdrops?

The use of masks increases a sense of safety, but at the expense of clear communication. It can be hard to understand customers whose speech is muffled by a layer of fabric. Did that person ask for kumquats or gumdrops? Zucchini or rotini? Honeycrisp or Cosmic Crisp apples?

For shoppers, there are two particular areas of struggle. I feel sympathy for the conflicted souls, almost always men, armed with shopping lists. You can tell they’re attempting to navigate in uncharted waters.

One such gentleman, wearing his mask, brandished a bulbous vegetable, lavender in color with white stripes.

“What kind of squash is this?” he asked.

“That’s an eggplant,” I replied, with all the compassion I could muster. The portion of his face that I could see quickly turned crimson, which was a good color match with that eggplant.

Other customers in similar situations make use of technology to help them acquire the desired items. They use their smartphones to send photos of the bananas to those back home, conferring about the preferred coloration, whether deep green or yellow with black spots.

The other area of struggle: the thin plastic bags that customers can tear off from a roll and use for bulk items like potatoes. Under the circumstances, no one dares to use the tried-and-true method for opening them, which involves licking an index finger and thumb. Now they rub and rub the top of the bag until either it opens or they toss it aside in disgust. (Pro tip: The way around this problem is to head for the “wet rack” where the leafy greens are displayed, and wait for the mister to turn on. When it does, wet your fingers and then open the plastic bag.)

Anger over missing sanitary wipes

There have been a few tense moments. One Saturday, my job was to be one of the workers at a front entrance counting the number of shoppers entering the store to stay within the legal limit of customers. One man, on discovering we had removed the sanitary wipes, exploded into anger.

Thus far, we have not been asked to enforce social distancing. If two people are talking in the middle of our work area, we have the right to ask them to move. But I don’t have the heart to break up a conversation between two friends who haven’t seen each other in weeks. Those little pieces of social cohesion are more important than whether or not I finish filling the green bean display.

But some things about shopping never change. While walking back into the store from a break, I saw one man who had just left the store, stopped in his tracks. He said, quite loudly and to no one in particular, “I forgot where I parked my car!” I treasure that nugget of normalcy and hang onto it as a harbinger of better days.

This pandemic has been harrowing and aggravating. It has also given us unique opportunities to display the better angels of our nature – and we have done exactly that, judging by what we see in one Midwestern grocery store produce department.

“The vast majority of Americans are good; the mothers and fathers, the working people, the children, the vast overwhelming majority – millions and millions and millions,” wrote legendary basketball and life coach John Wooden. “A small, small percentage are otherwise. They get the attention. But we mustn’t forget the tremendous good we have within us as a people.”

That goodness, more than any other factor, is what will carry us through to the day when the masks are gone, the mechanical horse returns, and couples can fuss over something other than taped directional arrows on a grocery store floor.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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