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The Supermarket of Struggling Artists


The tasting features friends who understand and free grub. And sex. The crew can seem like an ongoing soap opera of sleeping around. Much of the sex is born out of the job: Crew members are constantly mobile, able to strategically station themselves alongside whomever they’d like. Once the store empties at night, I watched flirting extend to groping. After work, they frequent Beauty Bar down the street and sometimes go home together. It’s the only activity they can afford.

The tasting buzzes with last night’s gossip, something about a crew member sleeping with his girlfriend’s roommate. He’s a “Trader Joe Ho,” a term mainly reserved for guys, who see far more action than you’d expect for impoverished grocery workers. “My theory on it,” says Melody, who’s 22, “is that the only people the girls see are the guys at work. It’s slim pickings, so they pick the best of the bunch.” Melody’s rundown of recent staff activities is a bewildering chronicle of secret assignations and multiple partners, complete with character analysis (“She’s very clingy and has mothering issues”). Everybody seems to know everybody else’s business and is getting busy with them, too.

With little money and rotating schedules, relationships die quickly. On a crew of hundreds, one of the few long-term couples I saw was Konny Lopez and Josh LaFaze—and they came prepackaged. “My boyfriend’s from SoCal and he told me what a great company it was,” says Konny, 21, a senior studying filmmaking at the New School. So she and Josh, 24, filled out applications together. She knew they were unusual. “Long-term relationships are definitely not the norm. It’s just a stressful work environment and turnover’s high, and so the turnover for relationships is, too.”

Ahmed Alabaca and Clyff join us. Clyff, who went to art school, with black eyes and spiky black hair, would like to get in on the after-hours action. “Just walk up to her while she’s stocking,” says Ahmed. “Say, ‘I think we should get to know each other, baby.’” Clyff considers this, tapping his fork against his chin. He tries it. “Hey, ba-by.” I suggest that he try complimenting her outfit (the part that’s not a regulation T-shirt), then asking her out for a drink. He practices on me, with just enough nervousness that I want to say yes.

Today’s crew includes a filmmaker, an actor, two fashion students, and two painters, here to make it big. Until then, they make hummus.

He wanders off, leaving me with Ahmed, 23, a composer fifteen minutes into his three-movement masterpiece, which he pecks at daily from 1 to 7 a.m. He plays with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra and is nursing a rejection by the Manhattan School of Music. I frequently see him jotting down rhythms on receipt paper, singing in the frozen-food aisle, and drumming carts. Once he gets into, say, stocking tofu, he can compose in his head. He is perhaps the least-disgruntled staffer, because his previous jobs were worse. He worked at Jamba Juice for $8.25 an hour, for a boss he describes as “very sexist and grabbing on people.” Benefits were ostensibly available, yet he didn’t have the hours to access them. Then he worked at New York Sports Club for $7 an hour.

To him, Trader Joe’s, and its nautical lingo, doesn’t seem bad at all. “It’s like a crew on a boat. You’re on an ocean for years and years. And this becomes your family.” He shares a railroad bedroom in Bushwick and pays $325 a month. “In layman terms, it’s ghetto, but it’s nice actually.” His pay has gone up from $10.75 to $11.20 an hour, and he’s helped out financially by his roommate, who works at John Varvatos. “The pay is decent for what my bills are,” he says. “But most people here move to non-affordable places like Williamsburg or Astoria.”

I kept seeing Melody hanging around. A pretty 2006 New School grad with high cheekbones and thick lips, she never thought she’d get dragooned into Trader Navy. We met at a burrito joint in South Williamsburg, where she pays $867 a month. “I made sure that I was the best college intern at MTV for two semesters, in the best internship that led to the best job. My thesis was done early, my apartment was ready to go, I had my job in the bag.” Then MTV downsized her division. Melody flailed in freelance production-assistant work, panicked, and was enticed by the steady paycheck, health insurance, and flexible hours.

The trouble is, “flexible” hours can be a wash cycle of preassigned rotating shifts spanning 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. The break room’s message board was peppered with crew members’ begging to swap shifts to attend auditions and shows. Actors and musicians realize that they’re already working a lot—most work 36 hours a week—so they might as well go full time and bank the extra money and 15 percent retirement fund. (Unlike a lot of big supermarket chains, Trader Joe’s isn’t unionized.)

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