by Malaika Booker-Wright

My first job was an assistant after-school program director. I made seven dollars an hour. My second job was a habitation specialist. I made nine dollars an hour. My third job was a telemarketing supervisor. I made eleven dollars and seventy-five cents an hour. Therefore, to take a job as a cashier at Pathmark, earning five dollars an hour, was “slumming it.”
It was my first official day working on the register. I had always dressed to impress and felt that working at Pathmark would not change that. I wore off-white goucho pants and lace body suit, a beige and off-white vest, and some beige pumps. My hair was pulled up in a French Roll in the back with a few “Shirley Temple” curls hanging in the front. My fingernails were French manicured with beige stars at the tips. I looked good.

I walked through large glass double doors that opened automatically. I was pleasantly surprised by a most handsome security guard wearing a neatly pressed navy uniform. His tall, muscular body stood in the doorway of the security office. He flashed his straight, white teeth with an inviting smile: The fluorescent lights reflected off his milky chocolate skin. His husky, deep West Indian accented voice masked the normal buzz of the busy supermarket as he asked, “How are you today?” I smiled, shyly, and gave a toddler’s wave. I couldn’t believe he was so fine.

“I’m looking for Mr. Henson,” I said.

“Okay, take the frozen foods to the brown doors and up the steps. He’s the short, heavy man on your right.” I thought I was in Jamaica somewhere.

“Thanks!”

I Scream, You Scream…
Slowly, I walked down the frozen foods aisle. I pretended as though I was shopping.

I looked down into the ice cream freezer. There were a variety of flavors: Butter Pecan, Vanilla Fudge Swirl, Rocky Road, Macadamia Brittle, Pistachio, Cookies ‘N Cream, and many, many more. All the boxes were in perfect order. All the buckets were perfectly aligned.

I smiled to see my reflection in the glass doors of the frozen foods. There were no streaks in the glass. If I had not known better, I would have thought there was no glass in the doors. The floor was incredibly shiny. It was as if someone had just put down a coat of wax. I walked a quarter of the way down the aisle, passing various items like frozen T.V. Dinners and vegetables. I passed frozen waffles and French Fries.

Before I was halfway down the aisle, I heard a squeaky little voice say, “Excuse me. You work here. Can you tell me where I can find…?” That was all I heard her say. I turned around to see a middle-aged white woman with big teeth and bleached blond hair. How did she figure I worked here? I certainly wasn’t dressed for the part. However, I was a Black woman in her lily-white neighborhood. I couldn’t have possibly lived there and, therefore, been shopping.

I looked down at the little lady, rolled my eyes and walked away dismissing her question.

As I walked down the aisle, I noticed that there were no people of color shopping. I saw the cutest little family, complete with an eye-wandering husband, complaining wife, screaming daughter, and cussing son. I saw the most loving Gay couple who had no problem with public displays of affection. I saw a Cindy Crawford look-alike in a long sparkling red evening gown and nine inch heels. I saw two very intelligent teenage girls stuffing Italian ice pops into their jacket pockets. What was I doing here?

Behind the Brown Doors
I bolted down the rest of the aisle and through the extremely large and heavy brown double doors. I couldn’t believe my eyes! There were soiled newspapers all over the floor. There was blood splattered on the walls as though someone tried to create a work of art. There were dented cans all over. Some were stacked against the walls. Some had fallen over, never to be picked up. There were boxes and crates filled with old raw meat, sour milk products, and moldy breads. The floor had a blue gelatin-like substance caked up near the walls. There were puddles of florescent green liquid everywhere. There was an empty condom wrapper by my foot. There were half empty bottles and cans of soda and juice that had been knocked over. Some of these bottles and cans were stacked on shelves. There were big blue recycling bags filled with empty bottles and cans blocking the walking path. It smelled like a sewer with a thousand decaying bodies. With all the crap on the floor, there could have been one in there.

“I don’t believe this shit! How the hell do you have an office back here?” I thought I was talking to myself until a raspy male voice answered me.

“The office is up here. May I help you?”

“I’m looking for a Mr. Henson,” I said in disgust as I tried to pry my left foot from the floor. I finally looked up into the face of a meatball. He was short, fat, and extremely round. He had adult acne which colored his face bright red. He had one eyebrow that traveled from temple to temple. He had the nerve to have six strands of hair swept across his shiny balding head. His fingers looked like Vienna sausages. He had a mustache like Hitler and wore his overalls beneath his stomach.

“Let me guess. Ma…”

“Ma-LAY-i-ka,” I said as though he were Hooked on Phonics. If he had mispronounced my name that day, I would have cursed him out.

“Yes, well, come on up!”

This was terrific! Not only did I have to find my way through this mess, but I had to climb a thousand steps too! I peeled some sticky newspaper from my expensive shoes and started my journey through hell.

Kicking cans, jumping over puddles, slipping in gelatin, tripping over bags, and squeezing through boxes, I finally made it to the steps. Holding my nose closed, I started up the steps. When I got to the top, I looked around the office. This man had said, “The office is up here,” like it looked much better than the room below. It was just as bad. I rolled my eyes and stood in the doorway, determined not to get anything else on my shoes.

He stood at his desk with a clipboard, flipping back and forth through the pages on it. He went to a tall metal locker located on the far side of the room. Out of the locker, he pulled a blue blazer with “Pathmark” stitched on the breast pocket and a name tag pinned under “Pathmark.” He removed the name tag, then handed the blazer to me. I raised my eyebrows in disbelief. The blazer was dirty and smelled of smoke.

“What would you like me to do with this?”

“We’ll get you a new one tomorrow,” he said with a smirk on his face.

“With all due respect, I am NOT wearing this jacket!”

“Then you will NOT be working here!”

With that, I turned to leave.

“Miss Wright! I will allow you to work without a jacket today and only today,” he said with an attitude. He handed a full cashier’s till, enclosed in plastic, to me. He gave me a blank name tag and told me to write my name on it. He returned to flipping pages back and forth on his clipboard. Then he told me which lane I would be working in and asked if I had any questions. I simply said “no” and started my journey back through hell.

Once on the other side of the brown doors, I sighed with relief. I walked down the frozen foods aisle to the front of the store where I would “clock in” on the computer. I ignored everyone and everything in that aisle. I wanted this day to be over.

I got to the computer and began to punch the keys to “clock in.” I had to repeat it several times and the beeping of the buttons started getting on my nerves. I finally “clocked in” and turned to find my lane.

The four lines for checkout were longer than the midnight train to Georgia. They snaked up some of the aisles. The customers were loud. I couldn’t hear anyone’s conversation because they were all complaining about how long the lines were. I couldn’t hear what song was playing over the loud speaker because all four cashiers kept calling for a manager. Children were screaming and crying because they were frustrated and restless.

All Eyes
As I walked to my assigned lane, a sea of eyes followed. I placed my till in the cashier’s drawer. At least fifteen people asked if I were about to open my lane. They sounded like villagers chanting to burn a witch at the stake. Without saying a word, I flicked on my light marked “open.” Customers raced from every lane; bumping into each other and knocking groceries over. Bottles broke. Arguments started.

I ignored everyone and everything and began ringing up my first customer. I didn’t see what the customer looked like. All I saw were the four oranges, Bounty paper towels, twenty-five small cans of Friskies cat food, two boxes of Captain Crunch cereal, a gallon of whole milk, and twenty two liter bottles of Cherry Coke the customer had on the conveyer belt. I rang up, totaled, and bagged everything. Then the customer said, “Wait, I went over my budget.” I felt my face turn red as a beet.

“How much did you want to spend?”

“Oh, about ten dollars.”

I looked up at the register’s screen to see a total of over thirty dollars. I closed my eyes and blew out a long breath. I began picking up items and taking them off the customer’s bill. I picked up the register’s telephone and called for a manager. Five minutes later, Mr. Henson came to my register.

“What’s the problem Miss Wright?”

“I need to delete twenty dollars off this bill.”

He gave me a strange look as if I had put thirty dollars of groceries on the belt, and only intended on spending ten dollars. He pressed some keys on the register’s keypad and told me to continue. I finished with my first customer and started with my next. He was a tall, muscular White man with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. He wore some very tight faded blue jeans and a spandex tank top. He must have just come from working out at a gym because he smelled musty.

“Before I begin, do you have a budget?” I asked.

“No, but let me just ring this up and…”

He threw a large slab of poorly wrapped meat, with a quart of blood around it, onto the scanner. The blood splattered all over my vest and dripped down my pants to my shoes.

Gasping sounds filled the store.

Conclusion
Without another thought or word, I bent down and picked up my bag. I walked out of the store through the large glass double doors that opened automatically. I never returned.

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