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The Supermarket of Struggling Artists

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It’s not easy to enlist with Trader Joe’s. I dropped off an application that represented me as well qualified (college grad, extensive retail experience). Silence ensued. I called six times. On the seventh, a manager sighed and scheduled an interview so that I would stop calling. My interview took place in a citrus-smelling stockroom corner. “You’re lucky you got an interview,” said Gregory, a distractingly handsome manager, pointing to the weekly stack of 200 applications. “If you don’t hear from us in a week, well … that’s the breaks.” I didn’t hear in a week. So I called some more.

An important part of the Trader Joe’s experience is the mandatory three-hour “Captain’s Talk.” Captain Lance’s job is to keep the crew shipshape. Trader Joe’s is one of those companies where the culture pretends that the work is fun. Lance is a jovial, chubby, goateed guy, a dedicated and relentlessly wholesome company devotee. About a quarter of the staff fits this description. Lance lives 90 minutes away, in New Jersey, and has worked in other Trader Joe’s across the country. He is a spouter of state-of-the-art corporatespeak, like “kaizen.” Kaizen is supposedly Japanese for “one percent improvement each day.” Staffers seem to think it means helping others, or they deploy it sarcastically (“Let’s kaizen, guys!”).

Lance has a lot of hokeyness to catch the new hires up on. In the store’s nautical parlance, there are captains, first mates, second mates, merchants, novitiates, and crew members (better known to gay customers as “hot sailors”). Lance gabbed for a while about the “wow customer experience” and pointed at us. “Everyone is coming in because of you. They want to see you and you and you!”

The high point came when we each had to read aloud from a gooey company pamphlet called “Customer Experience: A Trader Joe’s Love Story.” Another new hire, a Pete Doherty look-alike in a black Johnny Thunders Born to Cry T-shirt, a black fedora, and black jeans, spoke in a flat monotone: “Without [customers], we’d be lonely, bored, and lovesick. Yes, we can build a beautifully elaborate cruise ship out of cases of pineapple, but if no one comes to buy any … we’re sunk.”

As a new employee, I am assigned to a warm, mid-twenties clerk who is also directing a Restoration comedy, dramaturging a friend’s show, and performing in a comedy troupe. But she has a lot of student-loan debt, so in addition to Trader Joe’s, she’s a waitress. Today, she also has a cold. “We get eight colds a year from the people coming through,” she says. We stalk Rachel Dratch through the store and laugh hysterically while watching a safety video called “More Wow, Less Ow.”

And then the fun is over. She hands me a back brace and work gloves. I’m supposed to stock produce “with energy” and “with both hands.” Five thousand daily customers means that 50,000 items need to be restocked (1,500 by me). It’s entertaining in short spurts. You dance to the music and break all your nails instantly. The orange-brown floors and walls are pleasant. Concrete tasks are strangely fulfilling. “Arianne, stock the tomatoes.” I can do that.

For a few hours, anyway. Nonstop manual work is unforgiving and makes cubicle hell alluring. You’re prostrate to a punch-in clock, in nine-hour spurts that quickly spiral into a miserable flume of muscle pain and ennui.

Merchant Vinny is the oldest-looking 22-year-old kid you’ve ever seen, which might be related to his commute from Danbury, Connecticut. He leaves the store at 1 a.m., hops on Metro-North, and arrives home at 3 a.m. This struck me as strange until Gregory, the guy who hired me, mentioned that he used to commute 90 minutes from Brooklyn to their store in Westchester “to get in with the company.”

Vinny tells me to come at midnight for a tasting party. “You’re held to a higher standard here. Unlike at Shop Rite, you need to tell customers about their food.”

I arrive to find 45 employees gathered around fold-up tables along the meat wall. Ten crew members from the morning shift are here, along with dozens of artists of indeterminate art—only the fashion graduates are discernible, in buttoned cardigans and tank tops created from Trader Joe’s T-shirts. It’s a cliquey crowd, not unlike high school, but devoid of Queen Bee girls and King Jock guys. It seems odd to me that such a smart, creative group would come back at midnight by choice. Melody Louisdhon, a bubbly girl I’ve seen many times, stands giggling in the corner, despite the fact that she no longer works here. She came because, for these kids, the city can be a hostile place. It’s a cabless lifestyle of fearing the mailbox, and college friends who have moved on to jobs in their fields and who don’t understand.


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