The Other America: Talking To The Grocery Store Clerk

I'm ashamed to admit I have tried to avoid her line. It takes a few minutes longer because she likes to talk. And I am eager to get my groceries bagged and depart. I'm already dreading how long it will take to bring everything into the house and put it away.

She recognizes me and waves, so I join her line. She is not young, her hair is a bit disheveled, and deep wrinkles cut across her overly made up face. Her cough and raspy voice are those of a heavy smoker. She often comments on what I am buying, asking if something is tasty or sharing that she bought the same product for herself and liked it.

Then she breaks my heart. Someone stole her bike, so she had to ride the L train to work at 5:00 a.m. or home late at night. She is afraid but she needs the job. She was originally told her shift would be eight hours long, but now she has to stay for ten hours. Her back is killing her, but there is no one bagging groceries for her line that day.

This last complaint really gets to me. As a fellow back pain sufferer, I can't imagine standing for ten hours, repetitively scanning thousands of items, and then lifting them into bags and putting the heavy bags into carts. I help her bag my groceries and ask why she can't sit on a stool to scan the groceries. Not allowed. Either do the job the same as everyone else or lose it. And clearly she needs the work.

She shares little glimpses of her life. Her significant other/husband/boyfriend is not very helpful. She's not sure why she stays with him. Her apartment is in a bad neighborhood and her bike is only one of many loses. She must keep this job but finds the long shifts and ever-changing hours hard at her age. I can't even guess her age. Maybe 45. Maybe 60. It's clear she has had and continues to have a tough life.

She actually thanks me for choosing her line. She admits she talks too much and that might make her a bit less productive than the other clerks. But she sees me every week and feels like we have a relationship. I guess we do.

I feel so guilty. I am buying too much. I have too much. I don't even know her name.

The last time I saw her two weeks ago, she told me she was late to work that day. She explained her phone alarm didn't go off - the phone is old and malfunctions - and I believed her. Instead of arriving at 5:00 a.m. that Saturday, she got there at 5:30. I doubt anyone was shopping at that hour, but it's another strike against her. I haven't seen her the last two times I shopped, but I was not on my usual Saturday morning schedule. Has she been fired for lateness or too much talking? I hope not.

I want to believe that we are all one country, but when I see her every week, I know this is not true. There are really two Americas, not divided by color or ethnicity but by class and opportunity. She is part of this other America, the very poor but hard working folks who can't seem to catch a break in life.

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