Growing up in a supermarket is strange. Many rites of passage are faced within the brick walls and dimly-lit interior – love, death, a sweet sixteen, rejection, abuse, somehow finding yourself in the mix of all that. You are there, at fifteen years old, to earn your $11 an hour and gain some experience. Each time your parents pick you up after a shift your mum asks if you made any friends, and you tell her no. You can’t remember how long it takes for you to start answering yes, you just realise that at some point people seem genuinely happy to see you. You stop hiding in the women’s change rooms for your fifteen minute breaks.
Seven years later, you are grown – are still growing – and you realise that the people around you are less colleagues and more an extended family, in some cases closer than your blood relatives. They are what get you through each mindless shift, and you can only hope that you do the same for them.
It’s mid-November and the Christmas carols start playing. The decorations are up, the seasonal promotional items are on display, the mince pies are stocked. It’s ironic listening to a woman singing it’s the most wonderful time of the year when everyone around you is stressed, frustrated, and wishing they were anywhere else. You wish you were anywhere else. You feel like you can’t complain because you don’t work nearly as many hours as some of the others do, and you try to keep your spirits up throughout the day but it is difficult, so difficult, when the customers have no patience and your supervisor keeps giving you tedious jobs to do and there is certainly not enough staff and you are drowning, drowning, your chest tightening and your headache progressively getting worse.
You stock the shelves on Christmas Eve. The top of the shelves are covered in thick layers of dust and you hope you don’t sneeze and fall backwards.
Let It Snow plays. It feels cinematic, like if you looked down at that very moment you’d catch the eye of an attractive customer and fall in love instantly. It’d be like Carol, except Cate Blanchett would never step foot in this old suburban supermarket.
Laura walks past and asks, “having fun?” Sometimes you will give her a big grin and say, “so much!” to make her laugh. Other times you can’t even bring yourself to be sarcastic, sometimes she looks so miserable that you can’t help feeling miserable too.
“Knock me out,” you say.
She doesn’t though. You still have four hours to go.
You sit in your car before work starts and finish listening to the song on the radio. It’s We Are the Champions by Queen, and you can’t help but relate it to the people you’ll spend the next eight hours with. You wish you could save them all, somehow, set them up financially so that they never have to walk into a Woolworths again.
The place is cursed, the work seems to be killing some of your family – you can see it in their eyes, you can tell from the amount of physio appointments they make. Back pain neck pain falls in the deli cut thumbs in fruit and veg chest pain stress leave this was a bad time to quit smoking. If you pull them aside and speak to anyone that’s been there for at least a year, they will have many things to say to you, many complaints that you can relate with. All of them. Some blame the change in management – either on a store level or higher up, the big boys who sit in their houses in the sky and laugh at you as they make their millions.
You think there must be more to it, but you can’t quite grasp what it is.
Maybe someday you’ll reach a level of success to liberate them. J.K Rowling went from billionaire to millionaire because she donated so much to charity. You would go from billionaire to millionaire to comfortable middle class because you would give so much to the people who – indirectly, and quite unintentionally – raised you.
The song ends and you get out of your car, go to work.
Sometimes you wonder if you’re wasting your youth, waking up at 5am every Saturday morning, declining invites to parties because you’ve got to be in bed by at least ten o’clock. But then, would you have accepted anyway if you had the weekend free?
On the night of your sixteenth birthday you work a small three hour shift, and don’t tell a soul that it’s your birthday. They have no way of knowing, either, because you’ve only worked there eight months and no one has you on Facebook. Except your dad knows Cheryl, works with her mum actually, and he tells her.
Their response time is admirable. Somehow a birthday card is bought and passed around without your knowing, and a few small gifts are assembled. They’re nothing extravagant – typical last-minute grocery store presents – but it’s the thought that means the most to you anyway. It’s the way Cheryl called your name before you snuck out at the end of your shift, and presented the card and gifts to you.
You still have the birthday card. Everyone who signed it have since resigned.
Nicole is the first person you come out to. Before she quit and before you cut off all your hair people would sometimes mistake you for her, or think you were sisters. The duty manager called you Nicole for months because you were too shy to correct her. It doesn’t bother you; if you’re going to be mistaken for anyone, it might as well be Nicole, who you consider a sister anyway.
You tell her over brunch. She takes it in as easily as she listens to all your other news, and then asks if you have a crush on anyone at the moment. Delighted, you tell her about a girl at university who cut your bangs. Nicole smiles.
Some people know, others might presume, the rest probably don’t care either way. You don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed but how do these things come up in conversation at work anyway? Should you paint your skin purple, pink and blue and tape a sign to your forehead so that everyone will know? It’s not necessarily something that needs to be common knowledge, but sometimes you feel like you’re keeping a secret. Sometimes you wish you were visible.
Reminder: your work can be your safe space too. There are people there who do love you.
Beth stayed with you when your car wouldn’t start up, 11:30 at night in the empty parking lot. It was a shit of a thing in those days, stalling and immobilising and refusing to start no matter how many times you turned the key. Luckily it behaved itself that night and came to life within five minutes, but you know it could have taken longer and didn’t want to restrain Beth. She would have stayed there for hours, though, if it meant you weren’t alone.
Her personality is louder than yours, and intimidated you when you first met her, but one night you clicked – you in the smokes booth, she in self-serve, Blame It On the Boogie playing overhead on the speakers and the two of you catching each other’s eye and beginning to dance. By the end of the song you’d come up with your own choreography.
People like this and moments like this are what build your self-confidence. You know that your teenage self wouldn’t recognise the woman you’ve grown into.
Sylvia Plath has a line in Lady Lazarus that you like to intentionally misquote.
She wrote, Dying is an art, I do it exceptionally well.
You prefer, Crying is an art, I do it exceptionally well.
At work you have cried multiple times, usually in the women’s locker room or the office, once at the registers when you thought you were having a panic attack. You had to close off your register and walk over to Jess, who asked what was up, and you knew that if you said anything you would burst into tears right there and then so you just leaned your head on her shoulder. It doesn’t work. You burst into tears anyway and she has to take you upstairs.
You distinctly remember, above all else, crying in the office at the news of Karyn’s heart attack. The woman who taught you how to process invoices, change orders, and pick-ups. Who you would sit and eat toast with on your breaks at 9 in the morning, and who gave you money when you had none to buy dinner and refused to be paid back. Five days later she dies. It’s a Sunday morning – you’re alone in the office when you get the call. It won’t be long until the rest of the store is informed by the manager, but for now it’s just you.
Her memory returns to you again and again, more often on Sunday mornings, when you walk the loop of the store and give each department their payroll folders back. You remember walking this same route with her, watching her smile and greet everyone. They always smiled warmly back at her.
Death has come to your store three times since you began working there. All three women died within eight months. Each time you felt more deeply the significance of each person you worked with, and the genuine love for the ones who have supported you for years. They have fed you, praised you, mentored you, celebrated your successes and offered kind words when you failed. They may not know the whole you but they have seen you in ways that no one else will. You are someone else in this space.
One morning while you are loading the self-serve registers with money, Laura walks past and Sharon jokes that the two of you have been gossiping about her in her absence. Laura is unfazed; she reckons she’s not interesting enough for people to gossip about. It’s only banter but the thought comes into your head immediately: doesn’t she know?? Doesn’t she know that you could write a list of all the things you find interesting about her, all the things that delight you about her, all the stories you come home to tell your parents when they ask how was your day and her name slips through your lips every weekend?
Of course she wouldn’t, of course none of them would.
When she leaves it is a significant blow and you feel like something fundamental is missing. The sadness weighs you down for days. You don’t think you can cope with any more loss from this place. You have to be the next to leave.
This part-time retail job has become something more than that over the years. It’s comfortable and it’s home but you know you need to get out soon, find a new job after graduation. The urge to hand in your two weeks’ notice strengthens on mornings when you just can’t be bothered, when you’re stressed out and moody before you even walk in the door. But it will feel strange, leaving and not seeing the faces you’ve grown accustomed to. You never expected these people to mean so much to you. Even now you don’t tell them enough how much they are appreciated and respected. How much they are loved, how grateful you are for everything they have given you.
Even now, you don’t know how to tell them.