Q: So what would an average shift be like?
Rose Gowen: Well, there were two kinds of shifts: slow shifts and busy shifts. The slow shifts were really boring. There wasn’t much to do, but you’d try to look busy because otherwise the manager would make you face shelves — that’s when you make sure all the products are neat and pulled to the front of the shelves. So, if it was slow, you’d swab down your counters and the rubber belt with Windex, and make up bags.
Q: How do you make up bags?
Gowen: Oh, you just put paper bags inside plastic bags. We’d make stacks of paper bags inside plastic bags at the end of our counters, so we’d be all ready to go. Do you remember when you were little, they used to ask, “Paper or plastic?” Now it’s both. Or maybe it’s a city/suburbs thing — in the city everyone is walking and the paper/plastic combo is stronger and easier to carry, whereas in the suburbs you can pack your groceries in your car. The other thing — I don’t know if this is a city thing, or an east coast thing, or what — the customers bag their own groceries as a matter of course. Well, not all of them, but a lot of them. I was surprised about that, because I was always used to the store employees doing it; I always used to think that they were professionals, and they knew what they were doing, and for me, as a customer, to try to do it was just amateurish and annoying. But in Philly, most of the customers bagged their own groceries. I mean, I’d help them, but often they wanted it done in a certain way — like they wanted two bags of equal weight so they’d be easier to carry. And then there was the obsessive/compulsive guy.
Gowen: One night, at the end of my shift, this guy came into my line, and the first thing he asked me was for a paper towel to wipe off his umbrella with — it was raining. So I gave him a paper towel, and rang up his groceries. Most of which were, in fact, paper towels. He had six rolls. And the rest of his groceries, I don’t remember exactly what they were, but they were all clean, regular items: boxes and cans. No produce, nothing lumpy or irregularly shaped. And of each product, he bought multiples, in an even number. I started to help him put everything in bags, but he wanted it done in a very specific way, and he was trying to explain it to me, and he was getting upset, so I just let him do it. He divided his items in two, with the same number of each thing in each bag; he put them in two paper bags, and then he took two more paper bags and pulled them down over the top of the full bags. Then he asked for four plastic bags. He turned them inside-out because, he told me, he was afraid the ink on them would run in the rain. He put each paper-encased column of groceries in an inside-out plastic bag, and pulled another plastic bag over the top.
Q: I always thought the paper towel thing was a joke.
Gowen: I know, me too!
Q: Did you have any other memorable customers?
Gowen: There was the faker. The faker was this girl, I’d say she was between eighteen and twenty. She came into my line one day with a whole cartful of groceries. I thought there was something odd about her right from the start. She looked like she was acting. She was dressed in this elegant, rich lady way — sort of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — except the clothes were clearly second-hand. They looked like they were from a thrift store: worn, and they didn’t fit her quite right. So I rang up her groceries, and it was a lot. It came to about two hundred dollars, I think. Now, the store had recently started delivering. If the customer lived within a certain distance of the store, someone — a stocker, or one of the deli guys, or our security guard — would take the groceries in a cart to their home. So this girl, this faker, said she was living in a fancy hotel nearby, and she wanted a delivery later, when her husband returned, and he would pay upon receipt. Well, okay. But then, a little while later, she called up and said she didn’t want the groceries after all. And we had to put them away.
Q: How do you know she was a fake?
Gowen: Oh, I don’t for sure. I just didn’t believe she lived in the fancy hotel, and I didn’t believe she was married. The way she said, “My husband,” sounded like she was playing a game — she put too much emphasis on it. Everything about her seemed like she was trying to be a rich lady in an old movie, like Katherine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story” maybe.
Q: Maybe she was real.
Gowen: Yeah, maybe, but then why would she cancel the order? But you can never tell. I mean, there was one time when the old owner’s son accused the wrong person of shoplifting, and I would’ve made the same mistake.
Q: What happened?
Gowen: There was a fuss at the front of the store, by the door. This scruffy-looking middle-aged black guy was yelling. “I’m never coming in here again, and I’m going to tell everyone not to give you their business! Racist assholes! Fuck you!” he said, and stormed out. And then a few seconds later, the old owner’s son came to my line, and said to the guy I was ringing up, “Would you empty out your pockets, sir?” This guy was also middle-aged, but white, nicely coiffed, and wearing Brooks Brothers-style clothes. He smirked, and took a small Vidalia onion out of his pocket. I rang it up; I think it was thirty-nine cents. He gave no appearance of being ashamed or embarrassed. He really seemed amused by the whole thing. He paid for his groceries and left. Apparently, what happened was a woman had approached the old owner’s son and told him she saw a man put something in his pocket, and the man was at the registers now. So the old owner’s son went to the registers and saw a shabby black man, and a polished white man, and picked the wrong guy. I felt terrible about the incident, for the sake of the black guy, and I think the old owner’s son was really embarrassed, but also, it was just terrible for me to realize that given the information the old owner’s son had, I would’ve made the same mistake.
Q: That is pretty awful.
Gowen: I know. I’m so ashamed. Now I don’t even want to talk anymore.
Q: Can I ask you one more question?
Gowen: Okay, I guess.
Q: If you had the opportunity to work at a grocery store again, would you do it?
Gowen: No, I’ve done that.