I’m twelve years old and I’m standing in a supermarket. I’ve been going to school at Bayview College in Portland. I’m in year seven.
I’ve been helping Mum with the shopping. We are at the check-out; I’m unpacking her trolley because she’s not well. That woman who owns the ice-cream store Zucker stands behind us in line. She is big and has a blond bob, wrinkled face, too wrinkled for her age.
She says things to me like: ‘I didn’t think Catholics were allowed to get divorced. I thought that they go to hell.’ No, they’re not. Dad left. Mum thinks we’re chatting so leaves me alone to get carrots. I put the Weet-Bix with the tea bags and bread so that the girl will put them in the same bag. ‘You know he’s dying?’ No, he’s not. ‘You know he has cancer and is going to die on the street?’ Juice with milk. No, he’s not. Beans with potatoes; brushed are cheaper.
There’s a woman standing in line. She’s with her mum and dad. They buy Coke six pack, Gillette razors eight pack, Coles Smart Buy unscented shaving foam, two Curly Wurlys, one Boost 80 gram bar. The woman is wearing a white beanie; it’s loosely knitted and I can see where her hair has begun to fall out. When it’s time to pay, the dad steps up to the EFTPOS machine even though the woman is handing me money; he wants to pay. They’re going to shave her head before she goes back to chemo. He wants to pay.
This one’s name is Colleen too, she tells me. Greaseproof paper, lollies, spaghetti, bocconcini, two other things. Colleen forgets the ‘avo’ and wants everything double-bagged; she’s walking. She doesn’t see her list when she lifts her wallet off the counter and leaves it behind. She’s forgotten to ‘fill Frid’ by the time the automatic doors slide back into place behind her.
Beetroot, diet yoghurt, Packham pears, bananas, sticky date $2.88 (marked down from $3.18), toothbrush, dishwashing liquid, Nature’s Way Brain & Memory capsules. He’s holding bread for her too, almost forgets to put it down. She listens with her eyes, watches my mouth for the price, holds her purse open ready to dig for little gold coins. FlyBuys? Nods.
‘What did she say?’ he asks the woman.
‘She said, “FlyBuys”, do I have any FlyBuys.’
‘Do you?’ he asks.
‘Yes, I do.’ She’s getting irritated.
He turns to me, ‘Don’t worry about them,’ waving his pale hand.
She pushes the half-exposed FlyBuys card back into her card holder and throws an angry look at the congesting line behind her as they begin to tsk her.
She must have come from lunch. She leaves her list in the basket with two green beans. The list is a neatly folded napkin, white, written in thick blue texta. She gets pure double cream instead of buttermilk and also buys a punnet of strawberries. It’s a nice day outside.
‘What time are you finishing? … Wow! That’s a long day. You must get terribly sore feet. I’ve just been over at the café having lunch with my sister. Her little girl, Chloe, used to work in a supermarket, too. Except now she works with the accountants. All those numbers, who could stand it?’ A wheezy laugh. FlyBuys, cash, no change. ‘Don’t work too hard.’ I won’t.
It’s late and very dark outside, though the lights never change inside. It feels like afternoon. There aren’t many customers either. A former employee chats with my supervisor over the conveyor belt as I serve him. I don’t have a chance to ask for FlyBuys, but he knows the drill. He swipes FlyBuys and an old discount card covered in clear contact, sandwiching a thin layer of dirt.
Next is a twenty-something girl and two men; one’s her partner and one is her brother. Onion, two one-litre bottles of Pura milk and Home Brand Weet-Bix, though she writes it as two separate words (‘weet Bix’) on the list. One big grey bag. Filthy-Discount-Card Guy is still talking when she whispers to me, ‘I am married woman, I am wife. I looking for something you get me. I have pregnancy coming. You see I am married woman,’ gesturing towards one of the men now waiting by the magazine rack. ‘I need tes, to know pregnancy.’ I tell my supervisor to take over the register for a minute. I walk her down to aisle three: shampoo, toilet paper, tissues, health products. I show her the pregnancy tests. The one-pack or the two-pack? The two-pack is on sale.
‘I think I say wrong way. I am married woman, I have tes. I know tes, I am pregnancy. I don’t look for tes, I look for tablet.’ Like multi-vitamins? ‘I look for tablets to make no more baby, make me no pregnancy. I need to no pregnancy.’
You have to go to a chemist. You can’t buy that here, you have to go to a chemist. I look at my watch: 11.35 p.m. No chemists will be open now, you will have to wait until the morning. Usually eight o’clock they open. She walks back to my register and leaves with a smile and her bag of shopping.
[SERVICE DESK, TELEPHONE CALL LINE ONE. SERVICE DESK, LINE ONE. THANK YOU.]
Hello? … Clean up? … Is it a food spill? … What? When? … Are you serious? Where? … Aisle two? Number ones or number twos? … You have got to be joking. Which lady? … In the pants? … How is that possible? I mean, she’s wearing pants! … I’m not doing it. No way! … I’ll get someone from grocery to clean it up … Okay … bye.
[TEAM MEMBER FROM GROCERY DEPARTMENT TO AISLE TWO FOR CLEAN UP. EQUIPMENT A, EQUIPMENT B. MEMBER FROM GROCERY TO AISLE TWO FOR CLEAN UP. THANK YOU.]
Man pushing a younger man in a wheelchair. They skid through the entrance gate. Red jumper, bald or short hair, I’m not sure which. Young. In the chair, he sings, ‘Oh baby, make it hurt so good.’ Soon afterwards they skid through to the express, ‘weeeeee …’ and the disabled boy throws his head back, looking at the lights, smiling—laughing, but no noise comes out. I am on register ten. Smith’s Chips double packs: chicken, salt and vinegar, barbecue. No bag; the man sits them on the boy’s lap. No FlyBuys.
Eight o’clock: tea-break time. I spill some of the bucket of soapy water with the pink dishwashing detergent on my shoes as I leave the cleaning room. From the service desk mirror I can see a forty- something guy waiting at the kiosk. Baseball cap, casual dress, grey shopping bag on counter. Cigarettes or refund?
Hey, how’s it going? (Rhetorical) How can I help you?
‘Uh, yeah, you didn’t put my tobacco in the bag? Champion Ruby, 30 gram.’ He points to a shelf behind me, as though I don’t know where they are.
‘Before, when you served me, I didn’t get my tobacco. You didn’t put it in.’
Excuse me but I didn’t serve you. I don’t know your face, I don’t remember it. I would have remembered the cap. I’ve been down the back. Perhaps it was one of the other girls.
‘Yes, you did. I want my smokes.’
Excuse me again, but I’ve been down the back, I haven’t served anyone for the last—I look at my watch—half-hour.
‘Yes, you did. You called me around the front here from that side.’ He points to express, register eight.
I’m sorry but I haven’t been up the front of the store for half an hour now. It must have been someone else. Do you have your receipt? It will say who served you.
‘No, I didn’t get one. You didn’t give it to me.’ Bullshit.
Just excuse me for a minute, thanks.
Service desk side: Lisa, did you serve this guy round the front? He’s saying he didn’t get his tobacco. We both look at the camera; Lisa, blond hair tied back, non-regulation pink ribbon, small black framed glasses, and I.
‘Uh, yeah. A few minutes ago I served him around the front. He had mince and stuff. I put it in the bag.’
He says you didn’t give him the tobacco or the receipt.
‘What? That’s crap! I gave him the receipt and he threw it in the bin. I put the tobacco in the bag.’ Her eyes are red; she’s been crying for her dead fish.
Kiosk side: Okay, so I spoke to Lisa. She says she served you and definitely put it in the bag.
‘Look, I paid for Champion Ruby 30 gram and I’m gonna get my smokes. This is fucked!’
I’m sorry, but anything left behind is put in the left-behind book and it hasn’t been put in there. She says she gave you the tobacco and you don’t have a receipt. There’s not really anything else I can do. If you’d like to—
‘Then I want a refund; refund the whole lot.’ He pushes the bag towards me, almost off the counter.
I can refund this stuff for you if you like, but I can’t put through a refund for stock you don’t have with you, especially without a receipt. I’m sorry, but it’s just policy. I can see the redish pink flesh of the mince pressing against the plastic bag.
‘Then I want to see your service supervisor. You’re just an idiot!’
I’m the service supervisor at the moment, and it’s control manager, you dickhead! I can call up the duty manager if you like? Gladly.
‘Yeah, you do that.’
[BRIAN TO THE SERVICE DESK, CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE. BRIAN TO THE SERVICE DESK. THANK YOU.]
This should be a laugh. Brian’s first shift as duty manager, only got the job because of his brother, my daytime supervisor. Brian’s a grocery boy. Tall, quiet.
There’s a customer around the front, thinks he didn’t get his tobacco. Lisa served him; she definitely gave it to him. He’s asked to see a manager, so that’s you.
‘What do I do?’
Are you kidding? It’s up to you. You can check the cameras, that’s what I would do.
Kiosk side: I start serving other customers around him to get the lines down. He swears at me and says things like ‘Hey, girly! Colleen, is that your name?’ Der! I’m wearing a name tag. ‘You give me my tobacco or I’m gonna make some shit for you later, just wait and see. What time you finishing? Huh? You won’t believe the shit I’m gonna cause you.’ Brian says nothing, but steps back against the cigarette stand, silently wishing his name were Peter Jackson or Peter Stuyvesant. Annie looks worried from register seven, overhearing his detailed threats. The customer starts leaning over the kiosk; I think he’s going to hit me. He thinks so, too.
Register eight, express, twelve items or less. This girl’s buying condoms, she seems too young. Puts a magazine on top. Would she like a bag? Would you like a bag? Just a nod; says that I can keep the receipt. Oh goody!
The next man turns his trolley around the drink stand, it is about half-full. Excuse me, this is twelve items or less. The people in the growing line behind him have stopped to smell the roses at the flower stand while they wait. You’ll have to use one of the other registers. Leena is on register seven, Antonia’s crying on register six, Josie is bored on register five and Benny is reading a magazine on register four.
‘Excuse me! I am not going to another register. You watch me waiting here, you wait until I come up here before you tell me to go to another checkout. And now you want me to go to the back of another line. That’s it, I have had enough. I want to see your manager. Where is your manager? I am not moving.’ He sits Savoys, Paradise Lites Triple Choc and an onion on the counter. A grin cuts its way into my face.
Not … a … problem. Lift phone, press third button, hold inner button.
[ARTY TO REGISTER EIGHT FOR CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE. ARTY TO REGISTER EIGHT FOR CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE. THANK YOU.]
I say it slowly; he looks like the kind of guy who would have time to spare. So (he crosses his arms tight across his green horizontally stripped shirt, it’s the arseholes who dress nice) how’s your day been so far? Big smile, he might be a mystery shopper. Kiss my arse.
‘Where is he? Come on.’
Won’t be a moment, I’ll just take him out of my pocket, shall I?
‘I will escalate this problem if I have to. I will escalate this problem.’
Must be your new word for the day, escalate.
Register nine. Priority one. Register ten’s operator and register eight’s operator are being ridiculously slow. Stopping to chat.
Ah, excuse me (definitely not my inside voice). Everyone, the express is no longer one queue. All of these registers are separate so please form three lines. They’re three lines so come right up to the registers, anyone, and form three lines, thank you. No-one moves. I’m bagging this customer’s stuff, nothing on the counter. Nobody moves.
Excuse me, these are three lines. You need to form three lines. (Maybe my verandah voice.) Excuse me, which line are you in? She’s forty something, one hand sits on her hip. Ugly white suit-pants, one leg out subconsciously to block the next customer. Looks right at me. You’ll Love Coles one kilogram self-raising flour. As if you cook.
Come right up to the register, thank you. You don’t have to wait. You know it’s busy when it gets this loud and there is always a baby crying somewhere out of sight, slowly getting closer. Excuse me, pants-lady, would you like to put that down? I hand the previous customer their receipt, a five-dollar note, $1.85 in silver. If you want to get served you have to come right up to the register.
‘I think I’d prefer,’ for fuck sake, here we go, ‘to wait here and see which register finishes first.’
But I’m finished, I’m done. Just give me your shit and I’ll put it in a bag, no bag if you’re in that much of a hurry. Still, she waits until register eight is finished discussing a proverb, something about weeds growing. Next, thank you. Anyone?
Next. Man, tall, average-looking. ‘Well, hello dare. How’s tings?’ Irish! I smile.
How are you today?
‘Oh, noht too bad, I ’spose. I’ve been over at Brumby.’ Brumby’s. He has something brown in his hand. He puts a large bunch of bananas on the counter. I put them on the scales. 1.247 kilograms. He leans over the bag racks, ‘Would you like a truffle? You look like you could use a truffle working in a place like dis. Ah, go on, you will, so.’
Laughter. I’d love one but we can’t take stuff from customers and my hands are pretty full at the moment.
‘Can’t accept stuff … How about if I paid with truffles?’ Raises his eyebrows. ‘Youht not be getting a raw deal, they’re grand, truly. If you have just one, it won’t matter if you’ve got noht a bean. They’re as rich as … well … muney.’ No bag, no truffles, just puts the bananas under his arm. They curve around his ribs. ‘Next time then, a truffle t’will be for this lady. I be seein’ ya.’
Express. Register ten. The worst register. Four kids and mum. One boy, three girls. Primary school red jumpers. She’s in a hurry, getting her money already. Two red Powerades, two other drinks. Nothing for mum, not even the milk or bread. Hi, how are you going?
‘Good-thank-you-how-are-you?’ Not really a question.
How’s your day been so far? She drops three 20-cent pieces on the counter, they roll across the scanner.
‘Sorry, sorry. I don’t mean to be throwing them at you. Things just don’t go the way they’re supposed to sometimes.’ A five-cent piece rolls off the counter. I put my right black scuffed $17.50 (minus 10 per cent discount) K-Mart slip-on shoe on the coin and intend to retrieve it later, but forget to.
No bag, FlyBuys, no change, keep the receipt.
Hi, how are you? That’s good. You having a good day so far? Well, that’s right. No, we don’t get much sunlight in here. Bread, separate bag. Eleven o’clock tonight. Two o’clock. I just think of the money.
Sausages, separate bag. Post-it list stuck on the counter. Did you want this? (shopping list, should have said ‘You don’t want this, do you?’) Yeah, that’s fine. FlyBuys? Have a nice day. Don’t forget your receipt. Kiosk next.
How can I help you? Young. Pimples. Do you have some ID on you there? ID? It has to have a photo on it. Like the sign says, passport or driver’s licence. No, we can’t take student cards. No. It has to be a form of photo ID that has been issued by the Australian Government. Driver’s licence, key card or passport. I don’t care if someone else did. It’s not worth me getting a four thousand dollar fine. I’m sorry, no ID means no smokes. He shuffles off.
In ten minutes he’s back.
How can I help you? Do you have some ID on you? Groundhog day. He hands me a receipt from Kmart. ‘You were served by Sue on 30th September, 2008. Winfield Blue 25s PK: $10.90.’ Along the top of the receipt in blue biro ‘DOB: 12/04/89 … nineteen years old’.
What is this? Has this been issued by the government? I don’t care if you really are nineteen, I don’t care if you’re just a little bit nineteen; that’s not the point. Look, I have worked in customer service for five years now and in fifteen minutes I’ve been here for nine hours. Rules are rules. Give me a break. I’m sorry, but once I have asked for ID and it has not been produced in standard form I risk a four thousand dollar fine if I then sell you cigarettes.
Try next door.
Twinings Earl Grey 100-pack tea bags, two litres Home Brand milk lite, one peanut slab, hommus dip, white pita bread five-pack, 530-odd grams of field-grown tomatoes, eucalyptus tissues 300- pack. I hate shopping at Safeway. I’m twenty years old and I work in a supermarket.
Image credit: Amnesiac86