Saturday, February 5, 2011

Food for Thought

About ten years ago, I worked as a cashier at a grocery store for a couple of years. A week ago I was reminded of a few stories from my grocery store days. From there, I spent some time reflecting about that job, and an influx of memories poured into my thoughts.

You can find an unlimited variety of people in a supermarket because “everybody’s gotta eat.”  (Maybe that’s why people say that a grocery store is a great place to meet someone if you’re single.) When I was a cashier, I interacted with many types of people: people of various racial, cultural, social, financial, personal and psychological types and backgrounds. After a while, I was able to discern the type of person coming through my till and converse with them accordingly.

Many people I encountered at the grocery store left me with something to think about—some customers had such an impact on me that I still remember them quite easily. I thought I’d share some of my most memorable “grocery stories” with you, along with how I felt or what I learned from each one.

 I was kind of repulsed once when a woman with a toddler girl came through my line. The little girl was ravenously devouring a brown bag full of mushrooms. Yes, unwashed mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms grown in manure. The woman just looked at me sheepishly and said, “My little girl LOVES mushrooms,” and smiled, as though she was proud that her daughter was eating something so healthy. Seriously? This woman might as well have changed her daughter’s diaper and then let her play with the dirty diaper afterward. That might have been cleaner.

Death Scanner
All of the cashiers tried to avoid a certain lady who had a strange perception of the scanners. She was completely convinced that they emitted either some sort of dangerous radiation or a high-powered laser with mortal ramifications—I don’t quite remember. She would not let us scan any of her food. We had to enter each UPC code of each package manually and then hand each package back to her. She would cringe if we let the food come close to the scanner.  She would then hurry her groceries over to some boxes, where they would be safe at last. This process seemed to take forever. I wondered how difficult and/or complicated the rest of her life must be if she was this paranoid about grocery store scanners.

The Crowning Moment
One holiday season, I made the unfortunate decision to wear a crown of mistletoe during my last shift before Christmas. I was 18 years old—what do you expect? I must have thought it would be funny and perhaps a little flirty to wear mistletoe…I might have been a bit of an attention seeker back then…I don’t know! However, my plans backfired when a crotchety old Scrooge of a man came through my line and shouted, “Now all we have to do is nail you to a cross!” He then grunted and walked away. Apparently the mistletoe looked more like a crown of thorns. No, I did not save the crown for Easter. I threw it away.

Mackerel Man
One of the funniest moments I ever experienced, anywhere, was at the supermarket. A woman came through my line with a box full of canned mackerel. I am assuming it was on sale. She was really quiet, but the friendly gentleman who was in line after her walked past her to get a box for his food, started packing up his own groceries, looked over at her excessive amount of canned mackerel and exclaimed, “Holy Mackerel!” It was beautiful; it was hilarious; it was perfect—it made sense both literally and figuratively. I laughed so hard I had to collect my wits before I was able to give him his change.

As a sidenote, I wondered where the expression, “Holy Mackerel” came from, and this is the possible origin according to Wiktionary:
“Recorded from 1803 with uncertain origin, but possibly a euphemism for Holy Mary, with Mackerel being a nickname for Catholics because they ate the fish on Fridays. Another suggested explanation is the practice of selling mackerel on Sundays in the seventeenth century (because its quality deteriorates rapidly), so it was known as a holy fish.” (Source:

This next story had apparently impacted me so much I wrote it in my journal that day. It was March 2, 2000. A dark-haired woman came through my line, and she looked really happy. I was quietly scanning her groceries, and then out of the blue, she told me, “Life is a song. Just sing it. Then it makes all your worries go away.” What she said was inspirational, but what I admired more than what she said was the fact that she told it to a cashier at a supermarket. I like it when people say nice, inspirational things like that. She could have easily paid for her food in silence, but she chose not to.

The Less Fortunate
My heart broke a little every time a certain small, friendly man came through my line. He would always buy a small amount of produce: two pears, a small tangle of bean sprouts, a teeny acorn squash and a few potatoes. He would search around in his fanny pack for change to pay for his food, and sometimes he had to put something back because he didn’t have enough money.  I felt terrible that I took for granted the excessive amounts of food available to me while this nice man could barely afford a few vegetables. I wonder where he is today.

Trust or Desperation?
On a regular basis, a bus would come, full of refugees, so they could do their grocery shopping. The store would quickly become extremely busy and extremely noisy with the extra shoppers. They would spend about an hour in the store. Most of these people did not speak English, and most of these people bought unusual food—such as the vegetables we never remembered the 4-digit code for. These times were always challenging for the employees, but I didn’t appreciate how challenging this shopping experience was for the refugees until one certain day. A family came through my line, and their groceries cost over $100. When I told them the total, they looked blankly at me and blankly at the screen. The father reached into his pocket and brought out his wallet. He opened it, showed me the bills and pointed for me to take what he owed. There were a lot of bills in his wallet. I immediately felt very self-conscious: he wanted me to take his money? I felt…guilty. How did he know whether or not I was taking the right amount? Of course, I took the right amount, counted it slowly for him and then slowly counted his change back to him (more to make me and any onlookers feel better), but I still don’t think he knew what I was doing. So I wondered, was this an act of trust or of desperation?

It’s been about ten years since I was a cashier at a grocery store. My cashier job was one of my first jobs, but even so, I think I learned more about people there than I have working anywhere else. Seriously. 


  1. Haha, I love how your favourite story involves a pun. =D

  2. "Holy Mackeral!" - this is awesome.

    And I love this lighthearted post. I've been shopping at the same grocery store every week for probably 7 years, so it makes me wonder what the employees think when they see me. One nice man who works there has made conversation with me regularly ever since I was pregnant with Murielle. When he saw Elias a few months ago, he was like, "What? So how many kids is this now?...6?" hahaha

  3. Nice blog Christina!! I definitely remember some of my Food Basics days as well! And I definitely remember the paranoid of the scanner woman! I had her before, but thankfully on Cash #1 (1-8 items :P) I think I might also remember the man will few vegetables. If not, there was a man that I had all the time that would scrounge for money and smelled rather bad. I would breath through my mouth when I served him, but still loved serving him because he was such a sweetheart. Although I had some frustrating and tough times there, I think I definitely learned a lot and grew up there too :)

    - Erin