Friday, October 21, 2011

More Tales from the Grocery Store: The Produce Department

Who wouldn't want to work in this space?

I've always had my eye on working in the produce department. So when the produce manager went on vacation and the store manager asked if I'd help out while he was gone, I was more than eager to oblige.

Many employees loathe produce. They find it particualry boring with a captial B. Not me.

As an avid gardener, I felt right at home instantly. Everyday was a harvest without any work of tilling, weeding or fertilizing. Truckloads of boxes from all over the world. What could be more exciting? I even had a hose with a nozzle for watering down the plants to keep them fresh, green and crisp.

As an artist, produce creates the best palette. It's all about color and shape and design. When I was a teacher, I often had students bring in a fruit or vegetable and we spent the entire period studying that single object. Just as no person has a "single personality," no fruit or vegetable has a single color. An apple is not merely red or green. It is composed of different shades and hues, especially when sliced in two. Even in a display of dozens, each is a unique face.

And, of course, from a mere Freudian point of view, produce is just sexy. Everything in the department can be reduced to the shape of a penis or a breast. Really. It is the only department where the merchandise is "fondled." Now you know why. Most fruits are breasts. Most vegetables a penis. But there are always exceptions, such as the banana.

The banana is the single most purchased item in any grocery store. The banana cart is filled several times a day. And I did get the obligatory comment about finding large poisonous spiders in the boxes. But I was ready with a response: "Nope. No spiders. But sometimes we find alien midgets trying to smuggle their way illegally into the country."

Banana boxes are the most sought-after boxes in a grocery store. We are forever saving them for customers. They are great for moving because they have a slide-on top, side 
handles and are sturdy. Apple boxes are also great, but most people don't know about them.

The produce department is pretty much the Zen Center of a grocery store. It appeals to the contemplative nature of a person's personality. There'a reason most entrances to a grocery store begin with produce. People have to slow down. One can't just zip through the produce aisles grabbing items from shelves to throw into a cart. One has to pause and observe. Check things out. Compare. It's quiet shopping. Almost like being in your own backyard. Items are slipped into their own bags and lovingly placed into a safe part of the cart to avoid the violence of canned-good grenades and crushing bruises from 50-lb. bags of animal feed. In produce, all items are revered and pampered. Like babies. In many ways, the produce department resembles a hospital nursery, all the newborns tucked away in cribs.

Customers in the produce department are usually subdued and hushed. Low-key. Even when they talk, their tone is usually softer. It's sacred territory, like a church. A spiritual space. Each display is an altar and it even has flowers! It's not uncommon to hear people hum or whistle amongst bins of grapes and peaches as they find their inner OM and re-center their unbalanced lives after a hectic day. They leave happy and blessed.

Whatever you buy in the produce department will make you healthy. It's great for one's ego. And body. What's not to like? You enter it feeling good about yourself and you leave feeling even better. That won't happen in the frozen food aisles of ice cream and frozen pizza. There is no cholesterol in the produce dept.

Our produce department isn't the largest. But everything is wonderfully organized, clean and fresh. Our department outsells all the others in our district. All of our leafy vegetables are pre-washed and picked over. The celery is washed, scrubbed and trimmed. All are baptized. And in the case of onions, circumcised. I hate loose onion skins, so I remove all the papery outer shells before displaying any of them. 

What customers never see is the back-room cooler. When you open its heavy, insulated steel store, you're immediately welcomed by a rush of spring air that is at once cool and green and alive. A modern-day root cellar, for sure. The temperature is automatically controlled so that it is never summer or winter. It is always inviting. Produce is safely packaged and washed and sometimes encased in ice to keep it fresh as possible for as long as possible. All that's missing is a rainbow.

I was fortunate and didn't have to work the morning shifts. As I've said before, there is no easy job in a grocery store. Produce involves a lot of lifting and stacking, most of which occurs early in the day when trucks arrive with their deliveries. A box of apples isn't light fare, nor a box of bananas.

After two days, I was on my own and had the entire department to myself. I felt like a monk in a cloistered garden. A holy space.

On Monday, I was awarded "Associate of the Quarter." I was thrilled all my hard work was recognized and I love the people I work with. My brief stint in the produce department was mentioned. I hope they ask me back.

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