The Supermarket of Struggling Artists

Current and former Trader Joe's staffers. Clockwise from top left, Ahmed Alabaca, Konny Lopez, Josh LaFaze, Karen Shueh. Photo: Michael Schmelling

Captain Lance is angry at crew member Karen.

Karen Shueh, a cherubic store clerk, has arrived with the words everything will be taken away written backward on her forehead in black ink. She’s participating in a public-art project. “The artist is Adrian Piper! She deals with the politics of viewing and the power of looking at people.”

Lance frowns and grunts out the closest thing to a Trader Joe’s reprimand: “I can’t have people with words on their forehead working here!” Karen scowls and trudges toward the bread aisle.

It’s early summer and I’m elbow-deep in the rye-bread drawer, midway through a 6 p.m.–to–2 a.m. shift on my new job, crew member at Trader Joe’s on 14th Street, the first city outpost of the West Coast foodie retailer, which has been gridlocked with shoppers since its opening in March 2006. It serves up Tofutti bars, pappadam chips, and reams of gluten-free, dairy-free, and sodium-free organic grub on the cheap. The 14th Street store grosses over $1 million weekly; it’s apparently one of the highest-grossing locations of the 285 nationwide. It is, in a sense, the poor man’s Union Square Whole Foods, one fifth the size and in the armpit of the square. A second city location opened in Forest Hills on October 26; next up, one on Court Street in Cobble Hill.

But those customers don’t come in for the hummus and low prices alone. Supermarket employees have never looked so appetizing, or so poignantly arty—remember Jake Gyllenhaal cast implausibly as a stock boy who thought he was Holden Caulfield in The Good Girl? That’s the sort of person Trader Joe’s seems to recruit. The store uses cute, clean-looking, multiethnic twentysomethings in the same way as other hip retailers (say, Urban Outfitters): It’s part of the shopping experience. To see what it’s like, I decided to work there. It turned out to be frustratingly difficult to get hired. The Joe’s employees are less-established versions of the typical Trader Joe’s shopper: Our customers “read The New Yorker, not People magazine,” explains an employee handout. So does the floor staff. (It’s not surprising that there are non-Gyllenhaalian workers unloading pallets after-hours.)

Today’s crew includes a filmmaker, an actor, two fashion students, two painters, a film-production intern, and a martial artist. They’re mostly college graduates—University of Washington, New York University, the University of Maine—here with dreams of making it in the city’s bourgeois bohemia, but currently stuck serving it hummus. Most are from comfortable backgrounds. The young workers are attracted to Trader Joe’s for its groovy, noncorporate aura and also because it, unlike most of the sorts of jobs arty kids do while waiting for their big break, offers health insurance.

Karen, a peppy Northwestern graduate, hurls expired breads at a cart while happily talking to me at full volume—her only volume—and pulling at her red Raggedy-Ann skirt. She falls silent only during our involuntary gagging at wet moldy bread. She wants to be a studio assistant or perhaps work at a public-art organization like Creative Time, and works at three galleries and sneaks into art lectures at Barnard. Trader Joe’s serves as her art supply: “I take unused receipts and dried onions and corn husks. The utility knife they give us has been very useful. And those huge Saran wraps that the grocery pallets come in—I love those! I take those home.” Some of her work has been shown at P.S. 122.

But for now, she’s mired in the bread aisle—“Breadway.” For her efforts, Karen, 23, makes $11.25 an hour, in the middle of the $9.50-to-$12.50 crew range, minus $92 per month for health insurance. She also spends hundreds on food at a 10 percent discount.

Shanice, a 21-year-old CUNY student carrying a clipboard, hollers over. “Hey, Karen, ain’t you supposed to be on register? They lookin’ for you.” Karen hates register. She whimpers to Shanice about how occupied she is in Breadway. Shanice raises her eyebrows.

I’m left alone, squatting to reach the bottom-shelf pitas near the doorway. Two black stiletto boots appear an inch from my nose. A woman in a bright-orange blouse asks me for a product that sounds like “oloveria juice.” I check the shelf and ask her to spell the name. She sneers: “You should know how to spell aloe.

Photo: Michael Edwards

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.

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.)

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.

The Supermarket of Struggling Artists