[Read “One Hundred Thirty-Two Electrodes,” Rose Gowen’s earlier interview with herself.]
Q: I notice you have an obsession with grocery stores.
Rose Gowen: Mmm, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
Q: But you’re interested in them. That’s fair to say, right?
Gowen: Yes, I would say I have a strong aesthetic interest in grocery stores.
Q: And why is that?
Gowen: Well, I like food, for one thing. And all sorts of people go there — I mean, pretty much everybody goes to the grocery store. Maybe some really rich and famous people have staff to do their food shopping for them, but otherwise you see all kinds of people there. And you can sort of get an idea about what people’s lives are like by looking at what they buy — maybe false ideas, but that doesn’t bother me too much.
Q: Now, you worked at a grocery store once; did you work there because of your interest, or did your interest develop out of that experience?
Gowen: I think my aesthetic interest in grocery stores is a result of having worked at one, but I always had a practical interest — you know, I’ve always enjoyed a well-stocked grocery store.
Q: Why don’t you talk a little bit about working at the grocery store.
Gowen: Okay. It was in Philly, during the summer between my first and second years of grad school. My boyfriend and I had just moved in together, and we needed jobs. This little grocery store two blocks from our apartment was hiring; so I got a job there as a checkout girl, and a couple of weeks after I started, my boyfriend got a job working in the deli. He didn’t work there as long as I did, though; I think he worked there maybe a month, and then he found a better-paying job in a more upscale deli one block away from our apartment. For some reason, everyone thought we had met at the store, so when he gave notice, they said, “Does Rose know?” They thought I was going to be really upset.
Q: So you got along pretty well with the people there, then? They liked you?
Gowen: Yeah, they thought I was weird, but I think they liked me.
Q: Why did they think you were weird?
Gowen: Well, I was an art student. I was going to grad school for studio art, and they thought that was so impractical it was almost insane. I remember having a conversation with one of the owners one night when I was counting out my drawer; he asked me if art school was expensive, and I said, yes, it was expensive, but I had student loans, and he said, “You have to pay those back, you know.” And the thing is, I come from a liberal middle-class background that values art, and values education for its own sake, and when I applied for art school no one I knew had suggested it was foolish or a waste of money. So it was startling for me to find myself among people whose ideas about what is important, and how to do things, were different from mine. One day I came in wearing mismatched socks, and one of the day managers noticed and pointed it out to me. “Yeah, I know,” I said. He was shocked that I would not only wear mismatched socks, but that I would do so knowingly; for the rest of the summer he would check to see if my socks matched. Another one of the day managers was a girl about my age who was actually saving her pennies to buy a car. Pennies! Not all her change, but literally her pennies! If anyone had any extra pennies lying around their register she would ask for them for her collection.
Q: Do you think she’ll ever get enough pennies to buy a car?
Gowen: You know, it’s so Ben Franklin, but I think it’s entirely possible that she has bought, or will buy, a car with pennies.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about the people you were working with.
Gowen: Well, the store was kind of in transition when I worked there. It had recently been bought by a couple of yuppie entrepreneur guys. I had been to the store once, I think, before they bought it; at that time it was kind of depressing: dingy-looking, sad produce, and they seemed to stock mostly Manishevitz products. Not that there’s anything wrong with Manishevitz products — I think any reasonable grocery store should have maybe a quarter aisle’s worth — but how much matzo, gefilte fish, and borsht do we really need?
So, anyway, it wasn’t a very appealing store under the old owner, but when the new guys came in they put in new lighting, and started stocking, like, soy milk and organic mac and cheese, and they got an orange juicing machine for the produce section and started selling fresh juice every day.
So the store was getting more upscale. But the old owner still worked there. I’m not sure about how the hierarchy of managers worked, but the old owner was a sort of uber-manager, I think. He spent most of his time in an office in the back; I think he was in charge of purchasing and stuff like that; he was the one who hired me. The old owner’s son worked there too; he was a nice guy, but kind of a doofus. He did stuff like stocking and pricing. His dad was always yelling at him in the store for putting stuff in the wrong place, or dropping things, clumsy stuff like that. They lived in New Jersey. The other two managers came in from New Jersey also.
The girl who was saving her pennies for a car was the most junior of the managers, I think, and the guy who was shocked at my mismatched socks was above her; he was married to the penny-saver’s sister. One time he said to me, “You know what I do for fun on my days off? Go food shopping with my wife,” and he laughed an ain’t-that-pathetic laugh. He and the penny-saver had both worked at the store during the old regime.
The other two survivors from the old days were the meat counter guy and the produce guy. They were lovers. At least that’s what I heard. The butcher was the butch one of the two, and his name actually was Butch. I swear. They left for a different grocery store not long after I started.
Of the two new owners, one wasn’t around much, and when he was, he always looked like he was looking for someone to yell at; I don’t think he ever learned my, or any of the other checkers’, name. The other one put more time in, and worked as a night manager; he and I developed a kind of jokey interaction. He’s the one who told me I had to pay my loans back. I asked him one time what makes a guy buy a grocery store. He thought I was making fun of him, but I really wanted to know. “It’s a good investment,” he said.
Q: And what about the other checkers?
Gowen: The other checkers made less of an impression on me, because when the store is busy you don’t really interact much with the other checkers. Everyone’s dealing with their own customers, you know? But the manager is the person you get your drawer from at the beginning of your shift, and then you count it out with them at the end. And the manager goes from register to register, helping out. Like, if you need help bagging, or if you need a price check, the manager does that. If you need change, or if you have a pick-up, you call the manager over. But, anyhow, the checkers were mostly women — there was one man — and half of them were white, half black, and about evenly divided between young and middle-aged.
Q: What’s a pick-up?
Gowen: Two hundred dollars. You start with two hundred in your drawer, to make change with, and then whenever you get two hundred over that, the manager takes it and puts it in the safe.