Monday, July 1, 2013

Summer 2008, revisited

The summer of '08 was my summer of '64: my last "full" summer at home, nearly four months of time spent with friends and family, working a miserable summer job and enjoying the last vestiges of childhood while trying not to think about the uncertainty of the looming, post-college future.  I wrote extensively about that summer here.

Now, five years later, I look back.  There's a little nostalgia involved, to be sure, but the overwhelming feeling is that of the runner beyond the finish line, looking back at the course he's just run.  I know my race is still in progress, but I don't think I'd ever willingly return to the part of the course I was at in 2008.

I do, however, want to add another section to my epic Summer 2008 write-up.  With five years' distance, one aspect in particular has taken on a more significant meaning to me.  Here is my long-overdue chapter on working the night-shift at Haggen:


After being silence-treatment-ed out of my job at Youngstock's, I went back to the drawing board: asking for job applications from various work-places, filling out said applications, bringing them back to aforementioned work-places, and...

After about a week of keeping my cell-phone on my person at all times, the call came: Haggen was inviting me in for an interview.  Now, I want to make it clear up front that I love Haggen.  It is the nicest grocery store chain in the Pacific Northwest, and in my humble opinion, the entire U.S.  They are dedicated to their customers, dedicated to quality, and were kind enough to employ me for two summers while I was in college.  I am forever indebted to them, to that extent.

But the job I was interviewing for (by my own volition, mind you) was the night-shift.  The hours, 11 (or thereabouts) till 7.  The job, throwing, and blocking/facing shelves.

Now, for those of who have never had the privilege of working in a grocery store, a quick lesson on the jargon:

"Throwing shelves" is aisle-speak for taking the palettes full of boxes (of cereal, of spaghetti sauce, of toilet paper, you name it) that have been dropped off in the loading bay by the store's suppliers, carting the palettes into the aisles, opening the boxes and putting the contents onto the shelves in their proper spots.

"Blocking/Facing" refers to the process of making sure the products look good on the shelves.  There's a protocol to this--for the "Blocking" portion: All items, be they jars of baby-food, cans of tomato soup, boxes of kleenex, or what have you, must be stacked as high as they can be in the shelf-space provided, but they must also be stacked at least two deep (hence, "blocking").  This means, if a product is running low, to consolidate into fewer and perhaps shorter stacks, to keep them two-deep.  "Facing" gets its name from the process of adjusting cans and bottles so that the front of the label is facing out.  With pet food, I should note, it is possible to stack the cans with the front of the label facing out and still have done it the wrong way.  The trick with cans of pet food... you may want to get something to write with and write on, by the way, because this is GOLD... is to adjust the cans at precisely the right angle so that it looks like the cat or dog in the picture on the label is smiling at you as you approach the cans.  I am not sure why, but the angle matters and it WORKS!  Well, it makes the cat look like she's smiling, anyway... I'm not positive it actually moves more pet-food than if we'd stacked the cans backwards, but... you get the idea.

That's the end of the quick lesson on grocery store-specific terminology.  Now, back to my story: that was the job I was applying for.  I thought the night-shift sounded as though it could be fun--after all, in the mind of a college student, what could be more fun than staying up all night?

Well, I got the job, probably due to the following reasons: a) I was willingly and enthusiastically applying for it, and... no, that's it.  I'm sure.

At the beginning of June, I'd bought Viva La Vida Or Death and All His Friends, Coldplay's latest album.  It seemed to me to be the perfect soundtrack to my life at the time on both a large and small scale.  I listened to the album every night as I drove to work, and would nearly finish the album on the drive home in the morning.  There was something about climbing into my car in the dark of night, and turning out of the driveway onto an otherwise-empty country road while listening to the eerie "Cemeteries of London" that was perfect, in a moody and angst-y way.

Since the roads were always clear at this time of night, the only variables in getting to work were the 4 stoplights I would encounter along the way.  Because of this consistency, I would be singing along with the exact same song every night as I parked my car at the store.  That song was "Lovers in Japan".  The upbeat tempo and melody (not to mention, the call to "soldier on") helped to mentally prepare me for a night of throwing and facing shelves.  More than that, though, the song held a certain exotic appeal, calling out to a small part of me that was quietly longing for adventure.  My good friends, the Vander Haaks, lived in Tokyo and I loved listening to their stories about life in Japan.

"Tonight, maybe we're gonna run,
dreaming of the Osaka sun;
dreaming of when the morning comes."

At this point, I'd turn off the ignition and get out of my car... dreaming of the coming of the morning, for sure, but also dreaming of the allure of a faraway place, an adventure not-yet embarked upon... dreaming of the Osaka sun.

My co-workers were a colorful bunch.  I was the youngest among them by 10 years, easily, and was the only one for whom this would be a temporary summer-time gig.  I also found out that I had replaced another young guy named "Philip" (I've changed the names for the sake of privacy), who was, apparently, "a tool".  I heard many stories about Philip as the summer progressed, and each story was worse than the one before.  My personal belief is that Philip was probably not as bad as they said, but that the more they complained about Philip, the more everything he'd done bothered them in hindsight, and the more they exaggerated about him.

The leader of the pack was a man called "Spaniard".  It occurs to me now that I never learned his real name, so I couldn't spoil his privacy even if I wanted to.  He introduced himself as "Spaniard", The other guys all called him "Spaniard", so that's what I called him, too.  I do not think he was Spanish, so I can only assume that years before, there must have been some inside joke that lead to the nick-name, and that the passage of time, coupled with the warped reality of the night-shift, had made that nick-name into an un-ironic title.  By the time we met, it had, for all intents and purposes, become his name.

Spaniard loved softball.  I'm not sure if the league was broader than local grocery stores, but it's more fun for me to remember it that way.  Anyway, Spaniard had recruited most of his co-workers onto the Haggen team, and they played several times each week.  Apparently, one time, he'd invited Philip, too.

"Philip said he had, like, an amazing arm, so I said yeah, man, definitely... come play sometime.  When he got onto the field, his arm was DECENT.  Decent, not amazing."

"Typical.  That little punk", snorted Doug, the oldest of my co-workers.  Doug was pushing 50, had an unkempt mustache and the state of his Haggen polo gave me the impression that he'd never learned to work a washing machine.  Doug had two conversational modes: Complaining (about his ex-wife, his second ex-wife, his current wife, and his current step-daughter), and talking about his favorite websites (none of which I would feel comfortable listing here, or anywhere).

Jason was the youngest of my co-workers.  He was in his early 30s.  He was often late to work, and so in the 10-20 minutes between the beginning of our shift and the time he'd clock in, his co-workers (who also seemed to be his pre-eminent social circle), would cram an entire night's worth of bad-mouthing and back-stabbing in.  It made me shudder to think what they said about me while I was not present.  Then again, I rarely spoke aside from asking questions about the job--mostly I nodded, smiled, listened, and kept a low profile, so I'm fairly sure I didn't provide them with much ammo.  I learned that Jason was in a perpetual state of drunkenness--not only from what my co-workers said, but also from the 3 or 4 times that Jason steered the palette cart into the wine display, knocking over a tower of reds and adding a half-hour of clean-up to our shift each time.

One night, 2 hours had passed and Jason had still not arrived.  His friends called his cell phone and called his house, but to no avail.  So, during our lunch break (which we could take at any point between 1 and 3 in the morning), Spaniard drove to Jason's house and found him passed out under a pile of cans.  At least, that's how Spaniard described it when he came back to the store with a very pale, staggering Jason.

Softball, drinking, work, sleep; softball, drinking, work, sleep; this was the life that I heard about each night.  It was the reality I had a window into as I listened to my co-workers talk about the previous evening's big game during our break-time.  It was not a summer job for these guys--it was their bread and butter; their way of making ends meet.

I still wonder about those guys sometimes.

However, more colorful than my colleagues were the shoppers who would come into the store in the wee hours of the morning.  Some cases were sad, like the parents who brought their adult downs-syndrome son to the store at midnight and were constantly snapping at him for getting excited about what he saw on the shelf.

Some cases were bizarre, like the young couple who were pushing a wide-awake toddler in a stroller through the baby food aisle at 2 am.

Then, of course, there were the countless shoppers who wore dark sweatshirts with their hoods up, as though by having that cover, they might miraculously become invisible to the world around them.  The eyes that would stare unseeing from under those hoods still give me chills as I remember them.

Most strange, perhaps was the time a couple who were about my age approached me at 4 in the morning, asking what aisle our shot glasses were on.

"Shot glasses are seasonal, only sold just before New Year's", I explained.

My reply was followed by several beats of uncomfortable silence as the couple looked at each other, at me, and at the shelf where we were standing.  Then their eyes locked onto the Dixie Cups.

"F*** it, we'll take these", the girl said, grabbing two 20-packs of our largest Dixie Cups.

However, the customers were few and far-between, and what I remember most about my job were the long hours of solitary blocking and facing.  Throwing the shelves was a team endeavor, and it would take maybe two hours.  The rest of the shift was spent organizing the products on the shelves alone.  Under the principle of divide-and-conquer, each of us had a part of the store we were responsible for blocking and facing.  For me, it was baby foods, pet foods, household cleaners, soaps and detergents.  As I worked my way from shelf to shelf, aisle to aisle, I tried desperately not to think about how quickly the fruit of my hours of tedious labor would be crushed by the onslaught of morning shoppers who simply grabbed stuff off the shelves and tossed it into their carts without noticing the impeccable blocking and facing.  I might as well have tried to stop the tide from coming in.

The solitude and tedium gave me ample opportunity to reflect on my life--where I'd come from and where I was going.

Where was I going?  Of course, I didn't know where I'd go after I finished my student teaching in December, and the not knowing terrified me.  I did know one thing: I did not want this to be my life.  I did not want to live in the cycle of working all night and sleeping all day, squinting up at the sun like a newborn foal every time I would make the trek from the entrance of the store to my car at the end of my shift.  I knew I wanted something more.

"Dreaming of the Osaka sun;
dreaming of when the morning comes."

Each morning, usually by 6:00 (our shifts were dependent on finishing our duties for the night and not actually staying for a rigid 8 hours), I would walk across the parking lot to my car.  The sky was often pink with the dawn by this time, and the air carried that unmistakeable feeling of dew and dampness that a summer morning brings.  I'd turn on my car, and re-start the track I'd been listening to before.  As I'd drive away from Haggen, I'd sing "Lovers in Japan" from the start one more time.  I knew I'd pull into my own driveway just as the song "Viva La Vida" ended.  I knew I'd sleep till 3 in the afternoon.  I knew I'd repeat the process again the next night.  I knew it wouldn't last forever.  I didn't know what would come next, and I couldn't have imagined that I was on the brink of my greatest adventure yet.  I couldn't have dreamed that in half a year, I'd be nearer the Osaka sun than ever before.

All of this came to me in full force tonight, listening to Viva La Vida for the first time in a long time, as I walked along the river in Higashi Kurume, Tokyo.