Co-op Confessional

by

05/11/2004

782 Union St brooklyn NY 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

Wednesday 28 August, 7:30pm

I sit on a folding chair in a circle of would-be members, sneaking handfuls of free whole-wheat pretzels as I wait my turn to speak. The twenty-three other people at the orientation with me are fresh-faced and earnest, dressed in shades of Lands End and L.L. Bean. When asked their reasons for joining, they mention things like community involvement, raw food diets, and fighting against capitalist systems of consumption.

“I want to join the Park Slope Food Co-op,” I say, “because, well, I guess I just want to buy good food at low prices.” I glance around nervously—should I mention the Man?—but the orientation leader smiles.

I have my photograph taken for my membership card, without which I won’t be allowed to shop. This card is linked to a computerized record of my attendance for my mandatory, monthly two-hour workshifts. My ID card also shows my member number, which corresponds to a hand-written 4×6 index card holding a back-up record of my history as a Co-op member. I pay my fees, sign up for a work squad, and pick up my complimentary, reusable mesh grocery bag.

And now I am a member, eligible to buy unlimited organic produce at only 20% above cost

Saturday 6 September, 10:34am

It is my first visit to the Co-op. I swipe my identity card at the front desk, hand-select my silken tofu, and am ready to pay—a three-step process involving: a) waiting on the checkout line (where a worker rings up your groceries, but you can’t pay); b) waiting on the cashier line (no credit or debit cards, only cash or check); c) waiting on the exit line to have both receipts checked and stamped by a “door worker.”

Not knowing that there is only one checkout line and that it starts inconspicuously next to the toilet paper, I walk directly up to the next available counter and cut a line so long that it snakes through the frozen food aisle, around the corner, and into bulk spices. These Co-op members do not respond kindly to my mistake. “You just cut the entire line,” sneers a mother of twins in Dansko clogs as she maneuvers her cart in front of mine. “Next time, look behind you.”

Thursday 26 September, 8:37pm

It is my first workshift. I have signed up to work as a cashier, taking people’s money after the checkout workers have totaled their groceries. It is an elite position, I am told, since cashiers are the only Co-op workers who actually handle cash. Two and a half hours later, I am triple counting pennies in a windowless basement room. In Co-op terms, an “elite” job is one that no one else wants to do.

Thursday 31 October, 7:22pm

It is Halloween. This month I am working at the front door, swiping membership cards. Halfway through the shift, sick of announcing to people that they are on “work alert” for missed shifts, I switch roles with my co-worker, Elga. Now I am head trick-or-treat coordinator, responsible for giving rewards to a costumed parade of pesticide-free children. Other shops, aware of the age-old stigma stigma of unwrapped treats, are handing out tootsie rolls and mini-Snickers bars. We are handing out apples.

A small, androgynous fireman/bear walks up to me and extends its jack-o-lantern bucket.

“He’s adorable,” I say to the fireman bear’s mother, just as her child picks my apple out of the bucket and puts it back on the counter.

“I want chocolate,” it says.

“We’re not giving out chocolate.”

“I want chocolate,” s/he repeats.

“We only have apples.”

“Chocolate.”

“I don’t understand,” says the mother. “She’s been organic since birth.”

Thursday 31st October, 9:01 pm

I am still at the Co-op, three hours after my workshift began, in a meeting led by Roger, my squad leader. Roger ends his emails to our shift with the tagline, “Yours in cooperation” and loves holding post-work-squad chats in the childcare room, where he has just told us that we will have to reschedule our next two months’ work shifts since they fall on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He then invites us to his annual wassailing party. I suggest that we go to his party, skip our workslots, and get drunk on eggnog instead. Elga is the only one who laughs.

Friday 29 November, 3:59pm

This time I try working checkout, scanning shoppers’ purchases before they proceed to the cashier. I’m checking people out in both senses of the term, but unfortunately, it turns out that most Co-op members are either married, with child, or vegan.

My first customer is middle-aged woman with short, spiked hair and a T-shirt with a crossed-out image of George W. Bush.

“I know I had a coupon for soy crisps,” she says, pulling her wallet out of her bag and rifling through it. “I know it’s in here. I brought it in here for the soy crisps.”

At first, I don’t respond; in my experience, co-op members frequently talk to themselves.

“Where is that coupon? I know I put it in here. It’s for soy crisps. Where is it?”

“Are you sure you brought it?” I ask, keying in 94011: organic bananas.

“Oh, I brought it all right. I must have dropped it.”

I look at the contents of the woman’s cart. There are no soy crisps. I point this out to her, but she isn’t dissuaded, still poking through her wallet as the seconds tick by.

“And you know what the worst part of this is?” She glances up at me, eyes gleaming. “I’m missing my yoga class right now. Disco yoga.”

“Disco yoga?”

“Oh, yes.” She leans closer in to me, conspiratorially. “But you wouldn’t understand. You’re not a disco duck.”

Friday 26 December, 2:38pm

“I’m sorry, honey, I’ve only got eighty dollars,” says the woman at my checkout station, pushing a shopping cart overflowing with Peace Cereal, Chicken-Free Nuggets, and Saw Palmetto Extract—”For a Healthy Prostate.” The checkout line, which feeds all eleven checkout desks, starts too far away for people to see what is happening at my station. But still. I have only gotten through her cart’s top basket and already she is at $65, with multi-vitamins and grass-fed meat still to be scanned.

Sure enough, five boxes of soymilk and one free-range chicken later, she is at eighty-two dollars. But instead of admitting defeat, she begins to re-evaluate her priorities.

“Do me a favor, honey, and unscan one of those soymilks.” I press “Item Void’ on my screen, scroll through the list of products I’ve already scanned, and deduct one box of “Vita-Soy” from her receipt.

“And take off the chicken. And the bee pollen.” Item Void, scroll, delete.

“No, wait, maybe I need the soymilk. Put that one back on. Take off the kale.” Done.

“Or, wait, maybe the daikon.”

“Give up!” I want to yell. “You have over $200 worth of groceries in this cart! You are only fooling yourself!” But that is not the Co-op’s way. Seventeen minutes pass as we scan and unscan soymilk, rearrange groceries, discuss her food priorities, talk about her recipe for protein shakes, and ignore the distant checkout line, which has again leaked past biodegradable household cleansers and into frozen foods.

Thursday 23 January, 6:22pm

To The Man Who Brought 47 Items To My “Express” Line And Then Went On Seven Separate Trips Back Into The Store For Items He “Forgot” While I Sat Passively At My Checkout Station, Killing Time By Reading The Ingredient Label On His Organic Omega-3 Mayonnaise With Flaxseed Oil: I hate you.

Thursday 20 February, 8:31pm

I have missed my work slot. As a penalty, I have to work two makeups by my next shift. If I don’t, I will have a ten-day grace period before being suspended from shopping. So will my housemate Max, who is also a Co-op member. Although we don’t share food, our address shows that we are part of the same household, and he will be found guilty by association.

Sunday 23 February, 3:37pm

I am late for my make-up shift and by the time I’ve signed the attendance log, all of the checkout workers have already been relieved. I am about to cross my name off the list and come back another time when an idea hits me: I have already signed in. The store is crowded. I could walk out without doing my work slot and no one would ever know.

I pat myself on the back for my brilliance and reward my ingenuity by shopping for my own groceries before slipping out the door. While on the line to pay, I overhear a man say that he is the squad leader, that they don’t need any more workers, and that he himself is so busy that he doesn’t know when he’ll take attendance. “Sweet,” I think to myself. An alibi.

Wednesday 26 February, 4:55pm

I am still congratulating myself on my cunning when I stop by the Co-op for bananas.

“You’re on work alert,” the front desk worker tells me.

“Oh, no, I’m not really,” I say. “I did my work slot Tuesday. They must just not have gotten into the system yet.”

The worker looks skeptical, but waves me by.

Friday 28 February, 7:25pm

I am still on work alert.

If this doesn’t get cleared up soon, I’m going to have to go to the office.

Monday 3 March, 7:02 pm

Shit.

The Food Co-op’s office is on the second floor of the building, up a stairway flanked by bulletin boards of advertisements (yoga and pilates, mostly, plus lots of apartment shares with “cat lovers”), past the childcare room and the handicapped accessible ramp. Lists of workslots cover the walls, and several full-time office workers sit behind iMacs at a long, outward facing table next to a cabinet holding members’ hand-written permanent files.

It doesn’t even occur to me to tell the truth.

Autumn listens to my story and pulls out the attendance log for my supposed makeup shift. Scanning down the names, I recognize my handwriting and point triumphantly to my name, only to notice on second glance that it has a line through it.

“That’s weird,” I say. “That’s my name, but it’s crossed out.”

“Are you sure you worked the whole shift?” asks Autumn, looking up at me. It is my last chance at honesty.

“Yup. I’m sure I did,” I say. “I worked checkout.”

“Huh, that’s funny.” Autumn is now looking at a hand-scribbled note below my name. “It says they tried to find you to take attendance, but couldn’t.”

My heart begins to beat faster.

“And then this says . . . this says, ‘Tried to page member on intercom but had no response. Can only assume that member did not work shift.’” She looks up at me again.

“That’s so funny,” I repeat, as if the whole concept of the Food Co-op were one big, hysterical joke. “I guess it’s just that when I’m working checkout, I, you know, totally space out!” I wave my hands in the air in front of my face to indicate “spaceiness.” But Autumn doesn’t see me, because she is looking back down at the note.

“It says here that they paged you six times,” she says. “You’re saying that you didn’t hear any of them?”

Six times? The intercom speakers are directly above the checkout area! Granted, most of the pages are from perky-voiced people looking for asagio cheese and/or trying to hitch rides to Cobble Hill, but still. I decide to call in my alibi. “I talked to the squad leader, though. He said it was a really crazy day!”

“Oh, you talked to the squad leader?” Autumn says, her face a ray of hope. “I can just give him a call and ask if he remembers you.”

I try to protest, but Autumn is already on the phone, leaving a message for a man I have never actually met. What’s more, she has called in Maureen, a permanent staff member who has been hardened by full-time work with evasive members. I have seen Maureen in action and have no doubt that she is personally responsible for the scathing front page article in the last week’s Co-op newsletter, The Linewaiters’ Gazette, about a member who got kicked out for lying to the administrative board. She terrifies me.

Autumn shows Maureen the handwritten note, tells her my story, and both look up at me with critical, quizzical expressions. I smile meekly.

“It can be hard to hear the speakers over the noise at checkout,” Maureen says in an unexpected act of kindness, her eyes piercing my guilty soul. “Just don’t let it happen again.”

Saturday 8 March, 11:11am

The Co-op is eight blocks from my home. Steve’s C-Town, on the other hand, is five, and sits directly across the street from my gym. Can I help it if sometimes I step inside?

What worries me is not the act itself, but how good it makes me feel. I walk slowly down the produce aisle, admiring the apples’ glossy, waxed skin shimmering in the store’s florescent lights, the same lights that shine upon Boar’s Head cold-cuts, Jell-O Pudding Snacks and junk food made with genetically modified corn. There aren’t any membership cards to swipe—Steve’s C-Town is no gated community—and my fellow shoppers’ carts burst with mini-donuts, rib-eye steaks, and sausage. When it is time to leave, I browse through sex tips in Cosmopolitan and impulse buy Dentyne Ice from a disaffected clerk while standing in a single line to both check out and pay. The air smells of raw chicken. Ambrosia.

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