For several months my shifts at Trader Joe’s would begin at five in the morning and end at 12:30 in the afternoon. Five is really early. Getting to work at five means you have to get up at 4:45 AM or earlier. It means being exhausted all day and ending any night life that you may have. On the bright side, going to work at that hour gives you a wonderful feeling of self-righteousness. “I am up and going to work,” you think, driving past houses full of happy sleeping people, “and these lazy slobs are still in bed. I am so much better than them.” You feel as if the world is against you. Furthermore, in the early hours, the solidarity between you and your coworkers becomes very strong. You are all working hard for each other, and against your very nature, which cries to go back to bed.
Very frequently on my five AM shifts, I would be given the task of the stocking the juice and soymilk aisle. I suppose that it is just as bad a place to stock as any other. On the general grocery aisle, the different shaped boxes can be a nightmare to fit, and the glass jars always seem to be tempting the fates. I, personally, have broken a jar of roasted bell peppers, a jar of pineapple salsa, and a bottle of olive oil during different periods stocking the grocery aisle. When I do the snack aisle, I am always wracked with guilt because I know I am crushing all of the chips. I hate it when I buy a bag of chips and there is only dust in the bottom of the bag. On the other hand, bags of chips frequently open “by accident,” providing you with an excellent snack. Juice and soy is special in its own ways. By its very nature, the boxes are all very heavy and unwieldy. It is also a long aisle, and takes quite a bit of time, usually at least three and a half hours. We are asked to have all of our stocking finished by eight AM. I have never finished by the designated time, nor have I witnessed accomplish this feat. Usually, we are pushing nine (opening time) when we finish.
One morning, I was doing pretty well. I was in the last section of the soy milk, about fifteen minutes from being finished. As I put the boxes of Soyum chocolate soymilk on the shelf, Jerry rounded the corner looking rushed. Jerry was one of the managers (“full timers” in Trader Joe’s lingo). He was always really nice. Sometimes he would talk at me about football in the break room. Apparently, when he was younger he was a competing body builder. Looking at his middle-aged and cuddly form and asking him what happened, he said “I got married and had kids.” He was a good talker and one of the more relaxed full timers. It was always surprising to see Jerry looking flustered like he did this morning. It was obvious that we were really behind.
“Look, Ben. I need you to stop what you are doing and help us finish clearing the floor. You can finish that later,” he said referring to the remaining unopened cases of soymilk.
Though it upsets the obsessive part of my personality not to complete my stocking, I was a little sick of it after doing it since five, and welcomed the change. I put the rest of the case that I had been working on up on the shelf, and began walking around the store looking for things to be cleared. “Clearing the floor” basically entails getting all of the milk crates, bread stacks, trash and flats (a table with wheels) off the store floor. Also, all the cardboard from the boxes must be taken to the backroom to be put into the baler. This is a machine that crushes the cardboard into a bale, a two and a half foot tall, four foot wide, and five foot long mass of compressed cardboard. The bale is tied together with strong metal wire, and weighs several hundred pounds. The size and weight of the bale make it impossible to move without the aid of a small manual forklift. “Big Joe” are the words emblazoned on the forklift that I have always used. It is a simple machine that helps to lift heavy objects, but does not help to move them. It has no motor apart from the person pulling it.
As I was clearing milk crates, I noticed that Todd was making a bale. I asked him if anyone had gone to get a forklift to take out the bale. He said no, and I took it upon myself to accomplish the task.
The design of Trader Joe’s Santa Barbara is not ideal. From the backroom, the bale must travel through the store, outside, and down the sidewalk to reach the back. There is no direct route from the back room to the back of the store. The dangers inherent in guiding a large, heavy, unwieldy bale through a grocery store with its tall stacks of salsas, precarious displays of wine and piles of berries are numerous. It is very important, then, that the path of the bale be cleared carefully before attempting the journey. The bale is always taken down the frozen food aisle, because it is the widest and doesn’t present the dangers that the wine and liquor aisle does.
I went to the front of the store to get the forklift and brought it to the back where Todd was finishing with the bale. As I had gone through the store I had cleared my path: pushing boxes to the side here, moving a flat of cherries out of the way there. I pushed a cart filled with cardboard boxes down an aisle so that it would not be in my way when I rounded a corner. I did all that you are meant to do so that you and your bale will have a nice smooth trip through Trader Joe’s.
I thought that I was doing so well. I thought that I was being so helpful. I had only been working at Trader Joe’s about three months and was just beginning to feel more confident with my job and my coworkers. I was in an awkward period. I was not exactly new, but I did not quite feel like I was part of the team.
Leaving the backroom with the bale sitting comfortably on the “Big Joe,” I felt confident. If there was one thing I could do it was take out a bale. I had done it my very first real day on the job. The first right turn out of the backroom went beautifully. Trader Joe’s had never seen such a lovely right turn. My left onto the frozen food aisle was also well-received. As I progressed down the aisle everything seemed to be going smoothly. I did not know that soon I would set into motion events that would demonstrate the validity of chaos theory and the glory of a set of well-placed dominos.
My first problem was a cardboard box that would turn out to be my equivalent of the pebble that, when kicked, starts an avalanche or the butterfly who causes a hurricane by the fluttering of its wings. The box lay on the floor three quarters of the way down the aisle. When the bale knocked into the box, I did not think much of it. It was a small box and I was pulling a huge bale. Surely the bale would just plow over it. Even if I had wanted to avoid the box, it would have been difficult. Its weight gives the bale a great deal of inertia. It is hard to get it moving and once it has some momentum it is even more difficult to stop. I did not, therefore, avoid the box, but knocked it with the bale.
The sequence of events that followed was slow enough for me to perceive every step, but quick enough to make it impossible for me to stop it. It was a bit like watching a car accident or your mother get run over by a train: you would really like to stop it, but realizing you cannot, you try to take in every horrible second before the terrible finish. After being hit by the bale, the box was pulled along with it. Soon it came into contact with a flat whose top was covered in a pile of boxes of cherries. The flat moved much more quickly and freely than either the bale or the box. At this moment, my main concern was that I might knock some of the cherries off the flat. The flat, after being set in motion, hit a shopping cart. The force of the impact caused several boxes of cherries to hit the floor, but by the time they did I had much bigger things to worry about. The cart took the momentum of the flat and rolled down the aisle for about a foot until it hit another cardboard box.
My eyes traveled up from the recently hit box, which was pressing into a tower of boxes.
I looked in front of me to see Roxanne with her arms outstretched. Something fell from above her head through her arms.
Roxanne danced backward as more of the same things fell from on high.
Smash! Smash! Smash! Smash! Smash! Smash! Smash! Smash! Smash! Smash!
For ten seconds the sound of breaking glass filled my ears. I watched as one side of the wine display, which was at the end of the frozen food aisle, disintegrated before my eyes. I felt small pieces of glass fly toward me and a lake of Chardonnay dotted with glass and cherries formed at my feet.
When it was all over, I looked back to see Jerry coming towards me.
“Ben?!?!” he said.
“I’ll get a broom,” I replied. Jerry bent over and began to laugh.
As I ran to the back, I realized that I had just destroyed several hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise. I wondered in what seemed to me an objective way if they would fire me. I envisioned the preceding moments of chaos as the beginning of a movie. As the opening credits rolled, there I would be stocking, then pulling the bale, then smashing a tower of wine. When the credits end and the movie really started, I would be sitting on the sidewalk looking longingly at my name badge. In the following scenes, you would see my girlfriend breaking up with me after hearing that I had lost my job. Perhaps then I would be carjacked at gun point. All of my records would be scratched by my bitter cat who missed my former girlfriend. Eventually, my cat, records, instruments, and all of my worldly possessions would be destroyed in an apartment fire that I had started by causing a pot of cooking oil to overflow onto the burner. I would see my girlfriend arm in arm with a tall handsome man. Her beaming face would show a joy that I could never give her. Perhaps I would then start to bald or maybe some fingers or toes would fall off. The end of the movie would see my continued decline into oblivion. There would be no happy ending or justice. Just the ruin of one small life. Me, pathetic.
With these happy thoughts dancing merrily through my head, I returned to “the spill” with a broom and a container of X-orb, a magic powder that soaks up any and all liquids allowing one to sweep up, rather than mop up, a spill. I was vaguely worried that I might have to clean the spill all by my lonesome, but as I rounded the corner heading down the frozen food aisle, I saw a small group of wonderful, industrious people already cleaning away. Most of them frantically poured bottle after bottle of X-orb onto the floor. Others picked up the larger pieces of broken glass and tried to salvage what they could.
In my adrenaline-filled daze, I cleaned in a state of extreme anxiety because of the anger that I had no doubt caused in my good co-workers. However, as the group cleaned, I came to realize that people were actually enjoying themselves. It was that weird sort of fun that you only experience in a group as you battle against a comical type of catastrophe like the one I had created. I remember the same feeling when I was working at a coffee shop and one of the coffee makers decided to overflow spilling gallons of very hot coffee everywhere. My co-worker and I had to stem the boiling black tide while politely making espresso drinks. Todd, for whom I had thought I was doing a favor by taking out the bale, had a huge grin plastered on his big face. It was his last day at work (he was moving to Colorado to start graduate school) and he seemed to be enjoying all of the chaos. I took solace in the fact that I had at least made his last day memorable. Our soundtrack to this disaster was Bob Marley intoning “Don’t worry, be happy.” Sean, who kept saying, “This is kind of fun” in a giddy sort of way, pointed his head upward in the direction of the nearest speaker and growled, “Shut up, Bob!”
My female co-workers reacted in a way distinct from the grins and the jokes of my male compadres. One of the full-timers, Amy, kept telling me that everything was okay and that no one was mad. I did not really need to hear this, though I am sure that my face said the opposite. As Melissa picked up shards of glass, she leaned toward me and asked who had created the massive spill.
“Me,” I said.
“Ohh… Ben…” she said. She said it in a way that reminded me of a girl that I had asked out in sixth grade. That girl had said no to my awkward request, but I remember her saying it in a very kind and sad way. Kindness is a quality that does not define many people, but Melissa is a very kind person. She is fun, too.
As we cleaned, the minutes ticked past opening time. At ten minutes past nine, we opened the doors to the hordes that had gathered on the other side. I am sure that one or two saw the creation of the spill and others were at least enjoying the scene of us cleaning. As customers are wont to do, most seemed annoyed that we dare keep the doors closed a minute past opening time whatever the reason. I swear that if a swarm of killer bees or an airborne flesh-eating bacteria were in the store and could not be removed until 9:05, people would be angry that the doors were closed until 9:06. We blocked off the vicinity of the spill and continued to clean as customers shopped around us. Some would ask us to hand them frozen items from within the area of the spill. “No, not that marinated Atlantic salmon the one two above it on the left.” The remaining cleaners looked at each other and wished for bad things to happen to our admirable customers.
Eventually, the cleaning was finished. I put away the last of the mops and buckets, and headed toward the front desk. I was trying to think of what to say to the full-timers. I thought of an essay by David Sedaris. He had been stripping paint off of a window frame with a heat gun when he blew a fuse. He left the apartment to fix the fuse. On the way back to the apartment he got distracted by a friend who was watching Oprah. He watched with her for several minutes until he heard a high-pitched screech coming from the apartment where he had been working. He found the area on which he had been working ablaze, the fire started by the heat gun that had been switched on when he fixed the fuse. He subdued the fire, and as he attempted to cover his tracks, he wondered what he might say to someone whose apartment he had burned down. “I’m really sorry. I mean it, and to prove it I won’t charge you for today’s work. It’s on me. My treat.” With this in mind, I went to the desk and looking at the full-timers said “I’m really sorry.”
They sent me on an hour-long lunch, which I was glad to have. When I got home still stinking of wine, I woke Eszter. “I just caused the biggest spill in the history of Trader Joe’s,” I said, not without a hint of pride.
I was later to discover that the sum total of my spill was over 120 bottles of wine at a value of over $400.00. At least it was cheap wine.