i’ve gotten good at bagging groceries

I’ve gotten good at bagging groceries. It’s not the sort of thing I’d brag about publicly but since it’s just us here I’ll take the confession a step further by saying this:

I’ve gotten very good at bagging groceries.

I wait until everything’s been rung up and there’s a great chaotic pile of delicious on the counter. Then I get to work on it. A real craftsman. I’m awful with road directions and assembling furniture but I can navigate these boxes and bags like nobody’s business. The Tetris of it. My trick is to stand the bag upright and put a heavy anchoring thing in the center of its floor. Like a milkjug or a cantelope. Then build walls around it, of cracker boxes and bacon sleeves. Now the bag stands upright on its own.

You can take it from there. 

Customers compliment my bagging skills and I demur. Hide the pride. Try to seem flip and ‘90s about the whole thing. 

“Wow,” they say, “I could never bag groceries like that!”

They say “bag” as a verb the way bicyclists say “I ride bike.”

I bag groce. Bagged groce. Bag a mean groce.

They tell me how fantastic I am and I shrug, smile, give em the line: “Can you believe they told me not to get that English degree?”

The customer always laughs. 

And as a hip ironic grocery-bagger I set their purchases in their cart and validate their parking and wish them a good night and turn to the next customer, on whom the spectacle of my talent will be ladled without mercy. And then, when they compliment my genius (as they can scarecely refrain from doing), I will tell my little joke.

“And they told me not to get that English degree.”

It occurred to me toward the end of my shift yesterday that I might be putting the customer in an uncomfortable position when I say that thing about the English degree. That it sounds like self-pity.

That it is self-pity.

But it’s a complicated self-pity because I’m proud of my newfound bagging chops. What a natural I seemm to be when it comes to navigating the shapes of things in a bag. The rub is this: I’m also kind of embarrassed to be in this situation where I’m navigating shapes in a bag. Sixteen bucks an hour. Less after taxes.

But what’s the poor customer supposed to do when the grocery-bagger, someone in a subservient position to them, suddenly draws a kind of high-minded attention to the disparity of power?

I, an educated person, was trained for loftier things than bagging groce; but here I am, bagging YOUR groce, and I want you to recognize the role YOU play in my embarrassment.” Or whatever the emotion is. Not shame, exactly. Maybe regret.

It’s kind of pathetic and mean.

Fact is: I wish I wasn’t working at a grocery store. In the abstract. But, weirdly, that’s not the same as saying I don’t like working there; indeed the whole thing gets more complicated when I admit that this job of which I’m somewhat ashamed is also definitely the best job I’ve ever had.

So yes: I’ve gotten good at bagging groceries and people are pointing out that I’m doing a good job at bagging their groceries, on which they’ve spent as much money as I will earn in my 32-hour workweek, and yes there’s some dicey emotional terrain there, if you want to kick rocks over the clay and appreciate the hills, but another way of looking at it is like this:

Strangers are watching you perform a task and telling you that you’re doing a good job of it. What’s the issue?

And I ask myself: How often does that happen? How often do strangers observe you, and then say a nice thing?

Not often. For anyone.

So tell them thanks. Take the compliment, Alex.

Clear some space in your bag, make it fit.

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