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The Supermarket of Struggling Artists

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It can take even more gumption to get out of Trader Joe’s than it does to get in. “After six months, I was like, ‘Okay, Melody. You do not want to be here.’” She began interviewing for jobs in TV. “I would be in an apron, making garlic-hummus samples. Then I’d go into the kitchen, frantically change into a suit and makeup, spray myself with massive amounts of perfume to cover the garlic, dive across town, rush back, sneak into the store, put the apron on, and say, ‘Want some garlic hummus?’ ”

Eventually, the Oxygen Network hired her as a programming assistant. She gave two weeks’ notice, but for one of those weeks she worked both jobs, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Oxygen Network and until 11 p.m. at Trader Joe’s. “I felt bad because I would’ve left them shorthanded, and you can’t screw over your friends,” she says.

Which all leads to the pressing question: Why is Melody still at Trader Joe’s daily? “Because my friends are at Trader Joe’s more than they’re at home.” And some can’t afford cell phones. “If I want to talk to them, I have to go to the store. Last night, I went in to ask what movie we were going to.”

It’s Friday night. Chaos in the chips aisle. The variety of products—twelve types of salsa!—makes me begin to understand the necessity of that tasting. The questions are relentless: What are the black marks on the flaxseed chips? (Flaxseeds.) Do you carry sweet-potato chips? (I’m sorry, ma’am. Here at Trader Joe’s, we rotate out a quarter of our 4,000 products so that we can introduce you to new exciting foods! Like the parsnip chips! Would you like to try?) I unload chunky salsa, peach salsa, corn salsa, salsa verde, chipotle salsa, salsa auténtica.

I decide that the glass jars are exceedingly well designed because they don’t break when I drop them. More shoppers surge in, and my shoulders ache from the surprisingly heavy salsa. Carpal-tunnel problems are common on the crew; I’m doped up on muscle relaxants to quell a lower-back problem. Finally, I drop a jar from the top shelf. It was inevitable. It shatters, splattering my sneakers in salsa. People cheer.

I am reassigned to stamping salmon expiration dates, this time with Daeha, a droll screenwriter and University of Washington grad who hasn’t cut his hair in two years. He somehow pulls off a leg-length ponytail with hipster glasses. Today is his 29th birthday.

At 1 a.m., Daeha and I spend an hour discussing dialogue writing. Daeha reads court transcripts to study speech cadences. He lives at the Chelsea Center hostel, where in exchange for a free room he cleans during the day, then works nights here. I gently point out that he’s essentially working sixteen-hour days to break even. But he’s hardly alone in that in New York these days.


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