"How did you find out?" Christine asked sympathetically, swinging her legs from a flat cart.
His name tag read "Shaun." He had exquisite piercings: a silver septum U-ring with two little balls on either end and two matching silver ball posts under his lower lip. They made a perfect triangle: very symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing.
He looked so forlorn. "We were laying in bed and I caught a peek at her text message to him. Something like last night was incredible," he said in a dumb voice. “And then I asked her about it and she started screaming crazy shit at me. So I kicked her out and called Jason and he told me everything. Oh, sorry dude! I never thought it would get this far!'"
Shaun stopped talking and, head down, started clicking the top of a black Sharpie on and off with his thumb and index finger. "She has the nerve to deny it all even after Jason admitted it to me. I can't fuckin believe it. We've been running Box together for six months and he lied to my face. He even offered relationship advice!"
I stood there awkwardly, unsure of what to do.
Shaun threw some boxes in the bailer and pulled down a grated door. He slammed a big red button. The bailer motor made a loud, high-pitched noise. The boxes crunched as Shaun leaned back and stared through the circular back door windows toward the office at Jason, nostrils flared, cheeks red, fuming. He walked away and through the heavy Box door, trying unsuccessfully to slam it shut.
Jason was on the phone and he looked panicked. "911? Yes, I have a girl here who’s passed out. We’re at the Coolidge Corner Trader Joe’s…Yeah come in through the parking lot entrance off of Longwood. Please hurry."
The Cheese girls led me across the store to the Cheese case and Madeline filled me in. Shaun, the milk boy, and Paige, the passed-out-girl, were a couple. They applied to the job together about a year prior, but they’d been dating even longer; they met working at Urban Outfitters or something. Paige had that whole Rosie the Riveter-goes-modern look going on, with red hair in pin curls and some type of sparrow tattoo on her forearm. All of the crew members behind the registers maintained their ringing/bagging pace as they covertly watched the scene.
Christine folded her arms and shook her head. She spoke in a soft, motherly tone beyond her years. "This is a very sexually charged environment. Just warning you.”
Madeline parked the two-wheeler between the Cheese case and the ramp leading to the crew bathroom and the Produce Room. “We haven't even filled you in on the missing till from last month. A few thousand dollars disappeared from a register and this Part Timer, Rob, got blamed for it."
“Carleigh over there is his girlfriend," Christine spoke in a low voice, pausing as a customer approached the case and a Full Timer walked by.
"We think it was this new Full Timer, Airlie," Madeline whispered.
Madeline showed me how they slipped the first empty, flattened boxes behind the handrail on the ramp up to the Produce room, until most of the full boxes were worked and the flat cart was free.
I scratched my hand on the corner of a sign as I stretched my arm into the back of the shelf to rotate a few tubs of Shredded Parmesan.
“Oh, yeah. That’s not the first time that’ll happen,” Christine said. She held out her hands, showing me tiny little pink skin breaks on her knuckles and near her wrists.
Lindy, the First Mate (who had flunked me on my interview the previous summer- yes, it took me six months to land a grocery store job) came over and pulled an overflow of broken-down boxes out from behind the handrail.
“Teaching Taylor bad habits? Please don’t make the ramp look cluttered, ladies.” She said it in a sweet tone, but without any smile.
Next, I was to work Spoils with Madeline in the back room in a cramped corner behind the bailer. This was my introduction to how good food gets dumped. The first item we picked up was a package of a dozen eggs with only one egg broken and oozing down the side.
“Couldn’t you technically save the other ones?” I asked Madeline.
“No,” she said, distracted.
She continued to scan random items and throw them in the trash. I checked the expiration dates and a lot of them were fine, but if they had broken packaging, they got tossed.
I wasn’t quite getting it. “Well, what if the other eggs don’t even have yolk on them from the broken one?”
Madeline sighed. “I think we just can’t sell them individually. It’s too complicated…I know what you’re thinking. Spoils aren’t fun. We all avoid it. That’s why there’s so much crap piled back here. Okay. Another confusing thing you need to learn: pull dates.”
“Don’t you just go by the expiration date on the label?”
“Well, yeah, but you have to pull at least two days before that. You can’t sell something that’s going to expire in so short of a time. It’s in the handbook.”
“So you’re going to throw out unexpired product." I needed Madeline to throw me some of shred of positivity. But this is Trader Joe's! I thought. This is like - the friendliest place on earth! It looks more like a farmer's market than a grocery store. They don't even have conveyor belts at the registers!
I wanted to believe. “So the cheese is going to get donated, right?”
“No, it’s usually bread and stuff that’s nonperishable and doesn’t need to be kept cold. Lance handles all of that. He tries really hard, but there's just no room or time to keep this stuff cold until closing for someone to come get it. And even then, we'd have so much, whoever takes it would need a truck.”
“Oh. But can we take it home?” I knew I was being really dense.
Madeline threw down the scanner and grabbed my arms. “NO! Do you want to get fired?! Don't even think about doing that! That's technically stealing.”
I frowned at her and cocked my head to the side.
“I know,” she said. “It's not just Trader Joe's. It's every grocery store. This is just how the industry works. Sorry to burst your bubble, dear. There are certain things you have to ignore if you want to work in a grocery store.”
I let out a big, fake exasperated sigh.
I had a general tick about waste: recyclables going in the trash, running faucets, fridge doors left open. I was going to have to form some kind of mental device to cope with the Spoils corner.
Madeline tied up the first trash bag. “Just don’t bother Captain Clark about that kind of thing. You’ll get on his bad side. Play dumb and you’ll be better off... The real world is a bitch, huh?”
I gave her two sarcastic thumbs up with egg snot running down my hand.