They Smile Over There



Neighborhood: Union Square

My father has worked in grocery stores in California for what seems like my entire life. Albertsons, El Super, Northgate Market, Smart and Final, and then Northgate Market again. After graduating high school, he worked his way up from Receiver to Assistant Manager to Grocery Manager and Front End Manager. Sometimes when he started at a new store, he had to begin at the bottom again as a cashier. Most of these stores were Mexican markets, and whenever he would leave one of those, he would say he wanted to switch over to the American ones. The better ones. I remember him mentioning Whole Foods, and something about the benefits being good.

Raised with my father’s understanding that organic, natural, and expensive stores were good places to work, I had first applied to Whole Foods during my freshman year of college. I had just moved to the city and needed a job to help pay my bills. My family is lower middle-class. Or to put it another way, when I asked my mom about our socio-economic class to help a friend’s sociology project, she responded, “broke.” That first year in New York, my resume got lost somewhere deep in the Whole Foods archive alongside hundreds of others that must have looked the same or slightly better. Every year thereafter, I continued to apply whenever I got fed up with whatever shitty job I had at the time. 

It was not until the start of my junior year that I finally got an interview at Whole Foods. As soon as I got their call, I texted my father. He replied: “Wow Maddie. That’s so good for u make sure u get it!!! 

To prepare, I spent hours studying the About section on I read about the first store in 1980, learned about their commitment to community, environment, and high quality foods. I even memorized the guide to understanding their labels. The next day, I took the F train to Union Square. Before walking to the customer service desk, I reapplied my sheer lip-gloss and straightened out my maxi denim skirt. Upstairs I met the store manager who told me about a cashier position on the store support team. He asked, “Why Whole Foods?” without turning his head to face me. I recited my desire to help the community through encouraging healthy eating habits. His facial expression never changed as he passed me papers to sign. I’m convinced the job offer still would’ve came if I just said the truth, “I need a job and heard you guys pay above minimum wage.” The pay was actually only fifty cents more. And despite what my dad had thought, I receive no benefits. (Jeff Bezos killed the insurance plans for part-time workers after acquiring the business in 2017).

The first months I worked at Union Square’s Whole Foods quickly turned into a routine. Four days out of the week, I would hurry down the stairs of my apartment building. In my baggy jeans and last night’s eyeliner, I’d get on the M14 bus and sit in the back corner as it traveled north on Essex and then west on 14th. After arriving at work, I punched in 2221531, tied an apron around my waist, and speed-walked to the main floor, intentionally avoiding customers who might need help finding the vegan cheeses made from cashew nuts. When I saw my supervisor on duty, I’d let out a hiiiiiii whose actual meaning was: I do not want to be here at all, but Ill pretend to be happy if I can at least be on a register in the express lane. Usually, I closed out my register as the store closed and my day would end with a return to my empty apartment and crashing on my mattress. The next morning, I’d wake up to start the routine all over again. 

I can’t remember exactly when, but I do know it was during that first winter at Whole Foods that I was forced to work the register closest to the exit. I always hated being on the local side. The express registers were for fifteen items or less; the local side was for more. In other words, the local lanes meant bags and bags and bags –– or even worse setting up deliveries. On the local registers, the transactions were longer, the pressure to work faster heightened, the conversations filled with more awkward silences. And there I stood one day, behind register twelve.

As the door to the street continuously opened and closed, the wind shook my entire body as the December air rushed in. I switched between getting lost in my head and gazing off to the other cashiers gossiping and laughing together at the express lanes. The only thing I felt was a cloud of depression from the anxiety medications that I’d recently started. My conversations with coworkers always ended after a greeting, asking about shift times, and a mutual proclamation along the lines of “I hate it here.” I can’t blame them for keeping their distance from me. I was the moody, emo coworker with a resting bitch face, jet-black hair, and pale skin that hid my Mexican and Salvadoran roots. I kept to myself – partly because of loneliness, partly because of shyness. The other cashiers were Black and Brown girls with long acrylic nails, whimsical lashes, inches of shiny hair, and UGGs in every color.

The flashing light above me guided customers to my register, yet they struggled to find me. Someone near the front registers had to explain that they needed to walk further down, all the way past the white pillar, which hid me from the line. When an older white lady approached my register, I automatically repeated, Hi, how are you? Would you like a bag today? She threw her filled cart onto the counter and reached into her extra-long down coat for her reusable bags. After handing the bags over, she shoved her phone into my face so I could scan her Amazon Prime QR code. I checked out her items, she talked, and I nodded.

“So, how are you today?” she asked halfway into the transaction.

Without moving my focus, I mumbled, “Alright.”

I continued to weigh her mason jars full of bulk oats.

“You know, I think you will be happier working at Trader Joe’s.”

“Huh?” I stopped inserting the PLU codes to look up at her. 

“Yeah, the employees over there do a little of everything… they don’t just stand in one place all day. It might be better there, don’t ya think?” she moved her hands onto her hips while sharing her profound revelation.

Completely thrown off, but unsure how to get out of the conversation without receiving a complaint, I just said, “Oh! Um, yeah. I heard about that…”

She cut me off, “And the workers there, yeah, they are just soooo cheerful. Always a smile on their face.” Almost as if she had rehearsed proclaiming this epiphany in her mirror before coming into the store, a proud smile grew on her own face right as she finished the sentence.  

I rolled my eyes while a forced laugh made its way through my chapped lips, “Oh… um, your receipt is in the bag. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

“Thanks, you too! But really, just think about it, okay!” She pulled out her AMEX card from the machine and winked as she headed towards the exit.

Before the light flashed again signaling a new customer, I locked the register for a minute. What the fuck.

Throughout the rest of my day, her pseudo advice haunted me. Thoughts ran through my head while finishing the rest of my shift. Yeah, bye-bye Lexapro, all I need is a job at Trader Joe’s… wait… I mean they do get paid a bit more… was it $1 more or $2? Even with one new customer after another, I couldn’t shake her words of advice. I played with my fingers, doodled on left behind receipts, and forced myself to smile. God remember that one lady who got mad at me for not having a straw to go with her Kombucha… and what about the time someone yelled at me when I said they were complaining to the wrong person, like how am I supposed to change anything here? 

I was freaking out and took multiple bathroom breaks so I could both hide and spam my boyfriend with panic text messages. And this wasn’t even about the disturbed people from the park across the street that come in shouting and ranting for a good ten minutes before security realized they actually have a job to do… or when people from my class came into the store and pretended to be my friend. My face felt warm although the breeze was still coming though the open door. That white lady really thought she knew it all, huh.

I hadn’t told her that I had already applied to Trader Joe’s and never heard back from them. I also didn’t tell her that that she was pretty much telling me the same things my dad had told me about Whole Foods.


Madison Bulnes is a New York transplant from Los Angeles. She studied creative writing at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study (2021). Find her in real life on the streets of Bushwick or online at

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