I’ve role-played in various capacities over the years, from the “acting-out student” in a staff safety seminar, to the novice thief in a D&D game. But the other week I was asked to try out a far different rôle:
“If you were Melba Toast, where would you be hiding?”
Melba Toast … gee, were I a small box of cardboardy toast slivers, where would I be hiding? Hmn …
Such queries fill chunks of my life now, as I am working two and three jobs for 65-70 hours a week, which should explain the general lack of bloggery. It’s not a lack of interest, nor a lack of subjects worthy of blathering about. (The sad part is that I still have plants sitting around in pots that I bought back in June. That, and another goal is to finish my grandson’s quilt before winter sets in; he’s nearly three months old already!)
These oddball encounters always hit me out of the blue, when I’m otherwise preoccupied with squinting at the shelf tag UPCs to figure out which peg the -48699 fancy chandelier light bulbs should hang upon, or am trying to line up a stack of shiny toothpaste boxes without knocking over its companion rows. (Why do we have to stack all those wobbly boxes three tiers high? Because the boss like them that way, that’s why. But hell if I’m going to try stacking up some of those styles of maxipads, because even single packs don’t want to stand upright.)
Melba Toast … The problem of course, is that every store has a set of random products that are difficult for customers to find. So there we are, grocery stocker blinking and trying to remember to smile and make eye contact and parse the unexpected conversation from the background noise, and customer trying to find the right person for help.
“Do you work here?”
[No,] says the tired-and-cranky part of my brain, [I just like standing around the local market wearing a dress shirt with the corporate logo, knee pads, compression gloves for my arthritis & Raynaud’s, and a box knife holstered to my waistband. I sure as hell better work here, because I’m getting so nearly OCD about “facing” groceries that I’m starting to pull forward and straighten out merchandise even when I’m just shopping for my own groceries.] Working two shifts a day doesn’t make me as cranky as going two weeks at a stretch without a full day off. Damnit, I want a life.
Savvy customers ask me, “Do you work for the store?” because they’ve learned that the burly guy stocking cola works for the cola-distribution company, or the little old lady giving out food samples works for a food conglomerate or a temp agency, and neither of these people knows where our market stocks the sun-dried tomatoes, oat bran, or tiki-torch oil. Actually, we don’t stock tiki-torch oil, which is why that customer couldn’t find it. You’re shocked, I’m sure. Or maybe not; we get all kinds of crazy-ass seasonal shit to sell. Maybe we did have tiki-torch oil once-upon-a-time. By my 13th work-hour of the day, tiki-torch oil sounds perfectly reasonable, and I can just about hallucinate bottles of sunset-gold tiki-torch oil by the tins of cigarette-lighter butane or the blister packs of Tropical Paradise air freshener candles. Blarrrg.
Sometimes the senseless placements are simply accidents of history, like the display of snack cakes that migrated inward from and aisle “end cap” and are now juxtaposed to the tinned soups for no particular reason other than some space existed there once, and no one’s since bothered to move them over to the sweets aisle.
Sometimes the senseless placements are just that, like the forlorn bags of barley that are slumped against the soup powders, instead of with the rest of the dry grains and beans. (Well yeah, people put barley in soup, but people put damn near everything else in soups, too; so what?)
Customers are usually so apologetic when they can’t find something; they don’t want to “be a bother”.
“Oh, now I’m messing up your nice display,” frets the gentleman as he fumbles to remove two packs of liquorices.
“No, no, that’s okay! If you don’t buy it, then I can’t re-stock it, and what would I do for a job? You’re keeping the economy running!” Seriously.
They worry that I’m going to think less of them because they can’t find something that’s staring right back at both of us, which is also silly, because sometimes we’re both staring at the shelf, leaving me mumbling,
“I know I saw it right around here the other day, unless it got moved the day I was off …”
“Oh, here it is!” exclaims the customer, who actually has a “search image” for a product, unlike this store employee who neither stocks the item nor buys it.
“Ayup, I remembered seeing it around here … is there anything else for which you are looking?”
Of course, there’s the person stalking up and down an aisle because they too have that feeling of it’s-right-in-front-of-me, and they finally break down to ask me as I’m passing by with a trolley artfully crammed full of cartons of chocolate bars and thirteen flavors and sizes of toothpaste, or a handtruck heaped high with bags of charcoal. (Nothing says, “Working Hard” like having coal schmutz on your cheek.)
“Um, have you seen the — Oh! Here it is. Sorry,”
“No worries — we do that at home all the time: ‘Hey Mom, where’s-the-nevermind’.”
My canned joke, with its carefully-honed wee bit of wry camaraderie, usually prompts a reciprocating expression of familiarity. Small talk is hard for me, so after I’ve had the same type of experience a few times, I make myself up some scripts to add to my standard lists of “Grocery Stocker Small Talk” or “Grocery Cashier Small Talk”.
But of course, there’s the inevitable ad-libbing.
“Melba Toast … you know, I don’t think I’ve ever role-played bread before,” I replied. Fortunately, my off-beat attempt at levity worked, which bought me some time as I stood there, staring up into space to access my mental store map. “Well, let’s go check Aisle 5,”
We get there, cruising past the peanut butter and jelly selections, in our grocery manager’s dual homage to cheap sandwiches and suggestive product placement. “I already looked in the bread aisle,” volunteers the customer, but we’re both familiar with scenario of missing something right in front of us, so we give it a look-through just to be sure.
“Okay, another likely place would be in the cracker aisle,” I offer, as we pass the end-cap display for the other brand of snack cakes (located in another part of the store, naturally) and make a U-turn to cruise fruitlessly past the chips and crackers. Before my customer gets too dispirited (or embarrassed), I offer an explanation, “The problem is, there are some things for which there are several perfectly logical places to keep them … and every store has its quirks. Well, if it’s not down here, we’ll look in the Import Foods section by the Dutch rusks,”
“I already checked there,” says the unusually diligent shopper.
“Wow, most people usually miss — ah-HA! Here they are, next to cereal and the toaster pastries.” Hooray, this mystery is solved, and I can go back to fighting with the Halloween bags of Twizzlers candies, which are refusing to stack neatly and have taken to suddenly slumping off the shelf and slithering onto the floor as I get halfway down the aisle. It would take no less than five episodes of this before I finally got the heaps stabilised. Such repeated incidents of fruit-carting would be funny later, but there are only so many ways you can stack and re-stack and re-stack and re-stack and re-stack bags of individually-wrapped cherry-flavored twists before getting utterly twisted, too.