Grocer X: 16-year-old work ethic

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I started my retail grocery career at the ripe age of 16, fresh off a stint as a dishwasher at the Officer’s Club at the Air Force Academy — I was going places. At the time, the local food workers’ union was in the middle of heated contract negotiations with King Soopers and Safeway, the latter two hiring an army of just-in-case-workers in anticipation of a strike. I was a just-in-case hire, a “scab.” The union never followed through with a strike but the company kept me on staff; the start of long career.

Looking back, I can’t believe I made it 10 years. By that I mean I can’t believe they kept me around for the first 10 days — like any other 16 year-old in the workforce, I was pretty useless.

“Do you have any questions before we get started?” my new boss asked after reading the list of job duties to me on my first day.

“When’s my first break?” I asked, without even listening.

He went into the union rules and blah, blah blah — I still wasn’t listening. By then my attention had drifted towards my reflection in the break room mirror, a stocky kid with way too much hair wearing a brand new uniform with creases so noticeable a blind man could fold it. I already hated the job.

“Let’s start by getting some carts,” the man said as he led me towards the front door, smiling awkwardly and trying to seem more excited about it than he obviously was.

“Like, all of them?” I asked, nodding to a mangled pile of carts in the farthest corner of the parking lot.

“We’ll grab the ones in the corrals first,” he said.

I tried to make my distain as evident as possible as I jerked the carts backwards with limp arms, releasing my grip and letting them roll wherever they would before finally connecting them into a line. I nicked a taillight, but the man didn't see me.

After the corrals were emptied, I took my sweet-ass time dragging my feet to the mangled cart-pile at the other end of the lot. Once ALL the carts were brought in I was supposed to meet the boss at the front of the store. 45 minutes later he found me at the picnic table on the side of the building.

“It hasn’t been two hours yet!” he giggled, apparently giving me the benefit of the doubt as he ushered me back towards the door.

“Oh, I misunderstood you.” I lied.

He set me up with a checker at the front of the store and began going over the best practices of bagging groceries — like I cared. In hindsight, I feel kind of bad for not giving the guy the time of day, but like I said, I was 16. I was there to make friends with the Chinese food delivery guys across the parking lot, ditching work to make impromptu delivery runs and smoking the tips. I was there to flirt with girls at the nail salon and the bartenders at Good Company, and to throw glass bottles in the trash compactor behind the store. I wasn’t there to work.

I can see that not a lot has changed in the mind of a 16-year-old grocery store employee, even 11 years removed. With the absence of a social media addiction, I see their young, I-don’t-care-at-all faces and see myself. That was me scratching my first love’s name into the smokers’ table with my box cutter, forgetting to wear my uniform and bagging the eggs with the milk.

They’re not there to work — they’re 16.

The man behind the apron is Craig Lemley, digital content coordinator here at the Indy. The Colorado Springs native spent nearly a decade working in grocery stores across the Pikes Peak region before retiring his produce knife for a surprisingly less-stressful media career. Follow him on twitter (@_CraigLemley) or send questions/comments to clemley@csindy.com.

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