Russian Customers at Trader Joe’s are the best!
After working the register a while, you end up noticing the same numbers popping up: 3.26, 6.51, 9.77, 13.02, 16.28, 19.53…
These numbers dance in my head to Apache’s “Jump on It.” These numbers don’t mean anything to me, they don’t mean anything to anybody, but last night, a customer gave it some meaning, and I wanna share it with you today.
People think I’m joking when I tell them that working a register at a wine store is heaven sent, that lives are touched. The job calls it a WOW Customer experience. But this recent experience left me feeling moved.
I hope that when I die it’ll be like a video game and I unlock all these achievements and I can use the achievement points for things like angel made ice cream and heaven brewed beer. And I’ll be able to look at all my stats, all the metrics, like a video game. I wanna know how many times I, for example, ate a Fudge Round. How many Fudge Rounds have I eaten in this lifetime? How many times did I laugh? How many times did I cry? How many hugs did I dish out? How many gallons of beer did I drink?
I want to know other random things, too. How many people smiled because of me? How many people laughed because of something I said?
At work…how many times did I tell people to have a nice night, have a nice day, how’s your day treating you, have a nice weekend, have a nice life, get some rest, ok?
I’m also pretty sure I’ve said 19.53 several times. I’m pretty sure I’ve said 3.26, too (price of a bottle of 3 buck Chuck with tax) and 9.77 (price of three bottles of 3 buck chuck).
13.02 is four of them.
16.28 is five bottles of Chuck.
19.53 is six of them, all the way up to 39.06 (a full case of Chuckles)
But yesterday, a cute little old lady rolled her cart over to my register with six bottles of Three Dollar Chaz. She asked me to wrap them up in individual sleeves. Before ringing them up I said “19.53.”
She closed her eyes and smiled. And she replied, “Oh, what a wonderful year.”
“Indeed,” I agreed. “I was negative 37 years old.” She chuckled at that.
She said, “You weren’t even a thought! 1953 was when I met my husband. Everybody warned me not to date him because he was a womanizer. We were married for fifty-three years. It would have been fifty four…”
We looked at each other, had a moment of silence together right there at my register. We had one of those moments where sometimes the customer has a difficult time leaving. And then she was gone. I shared her story with a few other strangers. I took her story on the train ride home. I immortalized it in my journal, and then I published it today.
19.53 will never be just a number anymore.
When I die. Correction. If I die, and my life flashes before my eyes, there’s going to be a long stream of people at the register telling me, “I have a door man.”
At our Union Square office, at the wine shop, we work with a third party company that handles our delivery transactions. We deliver wine to anybody living in Manhattan only. Manhattan loves this about us. Brooklyn? Not so much! The most love we get comes especially from that Zone 3 Fraternitrocity.
Manhattan Island is split up into four zones:
Zone 1 is Battery Park to Canal Street (the rich folks living in the financial district);
Zone 2 is above Canal to 34th (rich people living in Gramercy);
Zone 3 is 35th to 84th (Highest concentration of rich people with door men);
Zone 4 is above. Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Morningside Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood, and Corresponding hoods.(Rich-ish people and their kids moving into places with newly designated names given by realtors, kids living their post-college years who still need familial support, moving into new buildings that look like Lego-Castle Greyskull from He-man, but we also get poor well-meaning people throwing parties with their income tax return checks or a rare child support boost from that bitch ass dad who decided to come through once every fortnight. Zone 4 is everybody. But it’s also the most expensive zone to deliver your wine.
So you can imagine the kind of people we get from Zone 3. Rich people with door men. It almost always happens. We spot a shopping cart full of wine. We mentally brace ourselves…
“Would you like this delivered?” Johnny Cashier asks. “Or should I wheel this out to your Rolls Royce?”
“Yes, ah-erm.” clears throat for no reason than to alert cashier that customer is of another economic class and lives in Zone 3. So there’s no need to tell Zone 3 customer that we have three window times to deliver the wine because customer zone 3 “has a door man.”
I hear it two or three times day, and maybe three or four times a night in my dreams. “Ms. what zone do you live in and what window would you like your wine delivered?”
I have a door man?
I have a door man.
I have a door man, so…
I have a door man, send it anytime.
My door man doth attendeth; therefore speaketh thus with mine door man, for verily I will be attending a friend at Tavern on the Green, si vous plait.
Sometimes I joke with Zone 3 customers. “Do you trust your door man?” They all scoff. Nobody has ever laughed at that. Rich people laugh at trust the same way poor people laugh at it. Because the joke is not funny. The joke is a sobering reality: door men and the people they serve worship the same god. They worship green paper that reads In God we Trust and that’s the ultimate joke; it’s really all the trust we need no matter how much we have, right? That’s funny, guys.
For verily door men are poor men who are temporarily inconvenienced millionaires. Millionaires pretend to be rich in spirit but are permanently displaced citizens of heaven.
Therefore, I will make my point in bold lettering, thus:
Door man X is a dude with big dreams holding the door for people who are living the nightmare Door man X yearns to have.
One time I asked this zone 3 lady: “What’s your door man’s name?”
One lady asked: “I’m looking for a gift for my door man. Any suggestions?”
I suggested a Grand Cru French Bordeaux. She had no idea it tasted like Merde, that it was a right bank Bordeaux that was dirty, that tasted like water after watering a fucking plant. I’m almost sure Door Man X wants a Moscato, something cheap and sweet like his side chick.
I glory in small victories.
None of us know your name. Nobody appreciates what you do because it’s the easiest thing on the planet to fucking do. And a union backs you up for it. But it’s better than opening the door in front of a McDonald’s and getting enough change to buy a couple of nips, or if you’re a pimp, get your ho to do it and make a guy like me feel bad and give you more money, oblivious of the short pimp watching you. Never mind that.
In Zone 3, you’re a better class of door man. You’re standing there for years watching kids grow up and grow down. They go from hugging you, to loving you, to confiding in you, to sharing their secrets with you, to visiting your church in Harlem, to ignoring you in their adulthood for the next twenty years, to handing you keys to a nice car without looking at you, then eventually walking past you asking if you got a delivery of wine from Trader Joe’s. And did you like that Grand Cru wine? No? You like Moscato? They sell that grape juice everywhere!
Being a cashier is a game of how do I make my time at the register meaningful by maximizing the number of beautiful women I get to flirt with? But sometimes Johnny times it wrong and he gets a rich person trying to get cases of cheap wine. The strategy, then, is to minimize the time you spend with them before they treat you like their nameless, faceless door man.
I greet them, I shake their hands, but really, if I do anything else, I’m just another door man. I’m the guy ringing up their wine, handing stickers to their kids, so they can all sit in a terrace with a view of Central Park and forget that they don’t live too far away from folks like me and folks like the guy who opened the door for him downstairs.
I feel sorry for them sometimes while I sit and drink the same wine they bought. I think about scripture:
What profit does a man have if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? Let him have his heaven now; I’d rather have it later. I have learned to be content regardless of what life throws at me.These guys? They throw themselves off the roof at the slightest inch of paradise lost.
While this world has been dominated by the rich and their whims, it was never made for the rich, and that is why we all suffer, but that is also my comfort, that the things they value are not the things I value, that a life motivated by greed is not a life worth living.
Instead, I tell them, “Have a nice day. Your wine will be delivered to your door man at your convenience.”
Frequently Asked Questions about applying to Trader Joe’s. From the archives…
1. How do I apply for a job at one of your stores?
Try showing up. It’s usually a good start. And, a word of advice, don’t act like an idiot when you pick up an application.
2. I heard that you’re opening a new store near me; can I apply before it opens?
Yes! When a new store is scheduled to open, applications are accepted in person for Crew positions about one to two months before the store opens. This is great because we can indoctrinate you, and get you hooked on the possibility of benefits and a raise, before you realize how much you hate Trader Joe’s and everyone who shops there.
3. I submitted my resume online, what happens next?
Disappointment. Maybe tears.
4. I applied in person at a store, what happens next?
5. Do I have to start as Crew to become a manager?
No, but you’ll probably be resented if you become a manager right away. Then again, you’ll probably be resented either way, once you put on that shirt.
6. Do you offer health benefits to non-management employees?
You bet! Crew are eligible for medical, dental, and vision coverage after meeting the eligibility requirements. It’s pretty much the only thing keeping anyone here.
7. I’m still attending college; can my hours be scheduled around my classes?
STORE NEEDS!!! OPEN AVAILABILITY! GIVE US YOUR SOUL! Ahem, excuse me. Our employment application allows you to list your availability. Your unique scheduling needs should be discussed at time of application. Then they will be ignored.
8. Do you offer summer internships?
Apparently. But seriously, you should probably do something better.
9. Why is everyone so happy and positive here? Do they put something in the water?
Hmmm…We get this one a lot. Chances are our employees are drunk, stoned, or trying to get in your pants. But it makes for a WOW customer experience, which is our goal here.
My Customer has a boyfriend, and he’s almost always the silent watchful guardian type. He doesn’t have his arms crossed but you can tell he wants to do that. He wants to look as imposing as he can. And for what? Really, dude, for what? I didn’t lure your girlfriend over to my register, and into my arms. I didn’t entice her to buy you a three dollar bottle of wine. I didn’t fire you from your job and give you a little pee pee. All you have left is your ability to stand straight and tall. I asked you how you’re doing and you just shrugged. Now Johnny has another dilemma on his hands.
Who am I supposed to look at?
When somebody has a funny eye doing its own thing rolling around like it’s following a gnat…which eye do you look at? You’re supposed to focus on the good eye, right? You’re supposed to zero in on the eye that’s focused and staring right at you, hoping you’re not looking at the disaster eye. It’s the same with couples. Which one do you look at? The babe or the dude? After a lot of trial and error, I’ve simplified it to whoever’s paying. And it’s almost always the babe.
I asked my co-workers about this, and they don’t seem to have the kind of issues I have. Natalie thinks I should just look at both of them. And everybody nodded their heads and agreed with her. Simple! Look at both of them. But the couple’s chemistry isn’t always right. They’re not always side by side. They’re not always standing there in total agreement. The way they position themselves is always a little off. I read an article by a reliable expert in Cosmopolitan about this. And I think it has to do with money. Who has the money and who’s paying. A dude in the wine store at the mercy of his gf’s purse is emasculating for him. What a corny problem to have. But he has another corny problem.
The cashier is going to steal his girlfriend.
Sometimes he hangs back, like way back, then walks slowly over to the register, looking grim and angry for no reason. Meanwhile, I’m having the best conversation ever with his girlfriend. I’m hitting buttons he’s never pressed. I understand her in ways her boyfriend never made an effort to do. We’re having this spirited chat while Boyfriend (let’s call him Derf) is standing there over her shoulder like a sentinel. Sorry, Derf, but you standing there mean mugging is not going to stop Johnny from having the greatest two minute conversation of his life. And since you’re not paying, you can at least walk over there and text your ex until the transaction is finished. Thanks!
Hilarity almost always ensues. Lady with big nails tries to stab at the ATM machine to select her transaction, hits EBT by accident. Or the old man is fumbling around to find the fugitive stylus. He stabs EBT repeatedly with his pen, like stabbing it is going to send a virus to every EBT card in the state.
And while he’s stabbing my ATM machine, he’s shouting, “I.Didn’t.Go.To.Three.WARS.So.These.Young.Whipper.Snappers.Can.Loaf.Around.And.Eat.For.Free!”
He snaps out of his Manchurian Candidate state and says, “Oh, I hit debit and I meant credit.”
Sadly, a lot of older folks have the worst time with ATM machines. It makes me wonder often what sort of technology is going to leave Johnny frazzled and puzzled in the future. Can you imagine? I think Holograms are really going to trip us up. Or maybe human teleportation.
“Sir, I hit Washington Heights for my destination, but the hologram keeps trying to teleport me to Sierra Madre. Again!”
“CITIZEN username: Johnny, based on your EBT use, we have decided unanimously to send you back to where your earliest ancestor, Geronimo, once fled the US army. Pay back, CITIZEN, is a long-awaited but immensely satisfying bitch.”
Anyway, back to the present age. Every 100th customer will inevitably ask: “Wait…you guys take EBT?”
And they’re looking at Johnny all incredulous, or they’re looking at Johnny like he’s an evil socialist.
For those of you who live out of town, EBT is the method by which the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) delivers cash and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to New York State’s recipient population.
Cash and SNAP benefits are deposited into electronic benefit accounts which can be accessed using a Common Benefit Identification Card (CBIC – which almost never swipes so we have to sit there and punch in the long numbers that every cashier has memorized). The Card can be used at EBT participating ATM machines and Point of Sale (POS) terminals throughout the state.
The fact that the option is at an ATM machine in the wine store pisses people off, especially (for some reason that eludes Johnny) customers from the state of Florida.
I usually respond with a, “No, we don’t take EBT at the wine store. This is the standard machine we use in both stores.” and most people are satisfied with that answer and the conversation is over. But this is Union Square we’re talking about…
One dude leaned in real close to Johnny and reasoned, “Well, it is a grape, right? And grape is food, right?”
“Not when it’s fermented, sir.”
“Well, what if I have EBT Cash? Can I use that?”
“It’s not going to work, sir.” Johnny closes his eyes and shakes his head.
“Can you just try?” he insists. A quote from comedian Paul Mooney is going for a loop in my head: [What a waste of perfectly good white skin!]
“Sir, a message is going to pop up on my register saying we don’t accept EBT for alcohol.”
“Here, just punch in the numbers and give it a shot. We all have to take risks, don’t we?”
At the risk of losing his JOB, Johnny punches in the numbers. He’s patient and the guy is all right. The message pops up in CAPS, I swing the monitor around for him to look at it, and he goes: “Well, all right, we tried.”
He pulls out a wad of hunnid dollar bills and hands me one crisp, clean Benjamin to pay for his 2 buck Chuck. Ben Franklin’s smirking at me. He’s saying, “Say something, Johnny. I dare you! There’s a good, quiet lad. Now take me and break me into neat little iddy, biddy, presidents, please.”
The customer grins. “Now it’s off to the strip club. Enjoy your day, er…” he reads my name tag. “Johnny.” He gives me this look of pure disgust, like I’m the one who tried to buy a bottle of two buck Chuck with my EBT card. Interestingly enough, an article in the POST popped up the next day.
I saw these two men coming a mile away. I knew they were destined for me. They spotted me, pointed at me, then started bickering in a harsh, barbaric language. They didn’t carry any wine, which meant they were going to order a ton of cases. I closed my eyes and mentally braced myself. When I opened my eyes, they were upon me, staring down at me like I’m the one who stormed Normandy.
They were older men, well dressed, grim, and serious, the type of people normal Cashiers will try to avoid. There are several tactical ways to avoid a disagreeable customer. Some cashiers will suddenly step away from the register and collect baskets, or step out and ask to use the restroom. Some will suddenly engage in deep conversation with the customer they’re with to get the line of grim, sober customers moving.
We have al done it. We surreptitiously glance down the line and mentally size up the line of customers. We do it for different reasons, looking for different people. Some of the younger horn dogs are looking for beautiful women; some of the artsy kids are hoping to avoid the older, typically lonelier customers who want somebody to talk to.
If this were a movie, the entire line of customers are in black and white except for the customers you’re hoping to get. For eg. the young horn dog cashier spots the babe on her cell phone wearing a bright, form fitting yellow dress, holding a matching Forever 21 bag – everyone else in black and white. If you time everything right, you can work your entire shift talking to hours worth of beautiful women buying wine, orrrrrrr hours worth of faces that look lived in, folks who are self medicating, or folks on their cell phones who want nothing to do with you.
Johnny likes to mix it up. He finds beauty and meaning in all walks of life. These two men, however, were looking at him hard. They spoke like a pair of Arnold Schwarzeneggers. They didn’t say hi or ask me how I’m doing. They didn’t give a damn about my day or my weekend plans. One of them didn’t even talk to me – he just glared. There were probably snakes hiding in his big bushy eyebrows.
They wanted three cases of Schloss Biebrich and four cases of the white Cabernet Sauvignon. “We don’t have white Cabernet Sauvignon,” I said politely. Ach! Forget it. I knew what they meant. The way they looked at me, they expected me to make them some white Cabernet Sauvignon.
Look. Folks! If a customer is disagreeable, Johnny’s strategy is to try to get them out the door as quickly as possible. But when the disagreeable customer is buying X amount of cases, it gets tricky. I knew they were German. That’s all I had. So I tried some jokes to fix the look on their faces, and I had a secret weapon that made me grin.
“So, are you a lifelong New Yorker?” I asked.
“New York by way of Frankfurt,” he replied.
And then Boom! POW! My secret weapon. I started singing the Ode to Joy, Beethoven’s 9th. It’s what Trader Joe’s Cashiers do. We sing. It’s in the job description. Singing transports people to other places, to other moments in their lives. Singing lifts us up where we belong! Where the eagles fly! Singing is both healing and release. Singing is a universal language that smashes through walls of prejudice and misperception!
Before you know it, the three of us were singing in German right there in the store. Every other cashier and customer stopped and turned. And watched and listened. Three strangers singing in German. I stacked their cases and wheeled them outside. We were still singing. I loaded those cases into their car, singing. The man who didn’t speak was in tears. He had a nice smile on his face. He handed me five dollars.
“Do you know what Alle Menschen Werden Bruder means?” He asked me.
“No,” Johnny admitted.
“It means all men are brothers. All men will be brothers.”
My new brother gave me a hug.
It’s usually a fat guy. Usually. His shirt is sweaty wet, he’s pink in the face. Everywhere he’s got a pore there’s sweat pouring out. His body’s working overtime to keep him cool. Summer’s the worst time to be fat. Sweat’s just oozing out your boobs. Your whole body’s churning butter all the way down the street. You spend most of your time hopping from one air-conditioned store to another until you finally get to your destination.
You finally make it to Trader Joe’s. The air conditioner is down. Thankfully, nobody seems to notice you’re a fat, hot mess and the line is going super fast. You spot another fat guy working at the register. He seems to have his boob sweat under control, even though his Trader Joe’s shirt is young and tight. He’s cruising through one customer after another until he spots you and calls you over. For a moment, they’re both measuring one another’s boobs. You realize that his breasts are not wrapping all the way around his back as much as yours.
You glance at his name tag: “Hey, Johnny. How’s it going?”
And Johnny says: Oh, boy! It’s that time again!
And you say, “what do you mean?”
“You know what I’m talking about!” Johnny says. “Are you, uh, paying credit or debit?”
The two fat guys look at each other. Fat customer reaches into his pocket and struggles to pull his wallet out. It’s damp and sticky from his leg sweat. The wallet is stuck together, opens like it’s lined with Velcro when it’s not. He starts thumbing through the money he has. The bills are all stuck together, mixed with a wad of Taco Bell receipts.
Meanwhile Johnny is bracing himself.
“I’ve seen worse,” he offers, to make the fat customer feel better. “This lady came into the store last summer, super pretty, real easy on the eyes, very pleasant, real easy to talk to. She bought three or four bottles of Vinho Verde. She was going to meet up with some girlfriends to watch a concert in Central Park. I invited myself, she laughed, you know, blah, blah, blah.”
“Then she pulls the cash out of her bra, man. Her bra. Her cell phone’s in there, too, and a stick of lip gloss. The bills are all wet and nasty, I swear to God she has to fan them to dry them out. I thought she was going to twist them like a wet towel to get all the sweat out before handing the money over to me.”
” Yeap! ‘Tis the season. Here come the sweaty booby bucks!”
The man hands Johnny his card.
Hi, How are you? Doing well, thanks. What a lovely day today, huh. This weather is quite Disney-esque. Were there any birds or squirrels singing on your shoulder? After the winter we had, we certainly deserve a gorgeous day like this! How’s your day treating you? How was work? Did you kick butt and take names? Your mother died?
May I have a look at your ID, young lady? 1967. No way. Ah, where did you discover the fountain of youth? You wake up and choose happiness? I couldn’t agree more.
I must say, I am jealous of your selection today. This wine here is like liquid silk! And this one here – I mean for 2.99 it’s surprisingly…ok.
You have a boyfriend? Great! How’s he doing? Sober? Right. I wish him continued success with that endeavor.
Would you like a paper bag, or plastic? Plastic? Plastic? Absolutely not!
You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor! TAKE HER AWAY!