Chapter 9

Don’t mix your smellies

1993

I never smiled, and if I forgot the four-digit fruit or vegetable weigh code number I charged the item as tomatoes: 3226. When an item wouldn’t scan and the customer made the same infuriating joke, “It must be free,” I paused, groaned inside, glared at them and groaned externally, punishing the customer by scanning whatever was in my hand twice. I did not make a lot of eye contact. I didn’t understand why people wanted to talk to me; I was there to scan their groceries, not to feign interest in their irrelevant and boring lives. “How has your day been?” I didn’t care, so I didn’t ask.

Picture a skinny sixteen-year-old girl with poor posture, head hung low, and long straight brown hair hanging forward and parted to one side. Add impatience, resentment towards everything and uncontrollable lip sneers then put this girl on a checkout and you have me when I was a checkout operator.

In my post-checkout-operator years, I’ve met many churlish teenage checkout operators, and part of me wants to reassure them that it gets better, but I’m afraid for some it doesn’t. Some become checkout operator managers and wear cheap perfume called Tabu and exert their checkout operator manager power over sixteen-year-old hateful checkout operators.

One made me collect trolleys in the carpark.

Because I hadn’t undertaken trolley-collection training, the end trolley flew off my barely connected trolley snake and hit the back-left panel of a red station wagon, denting it. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed and they hadn’t so I acted casual, and continued collecting trolleys, vowing never to park near the front of a supermarket or next to a supermarket trolley bay Our uniform was a long blue fitted pencil skirt which we couldn’t stride or walk at pace in, and the narrowing design, tight around our shins, made it impossible to hide under the counter from customers to cry. It no doubt gained approval because the only requirement was we rotate at the waist and move our arms. The skirt made fat women look obese and thin women look anorexic, and was matched – and I use the word loosely – with a plaid red-and-white shirt favoured by country and western singers. The shirt’s stiff cotton fabric was both durable and exfoliated the skin.

As a high school part-time job, I worked three shifts per week, two weekday evenings from 4.30 to 9pm and one 9am to 5pm Saturday.

I dreaded work with such intensity that I wanted the time between finishing school and starting work to feel like forever.

By this time, the family had shifted to town, and I would run home from school and get ready as fast as possible then sit in my cowboy-and-western supermarket uniform and stare at the clock; by watching the clock’s second hand tick, I found I could experience every moment of every second and seemingly slow down time.

When the dreaded time arrived, Dad would roll a cigarette then we would drive in silence or listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera because Dad wasn’t a talker and by this time my lip sneers had started. I timed the journey to arrive at the supermarket fifteen minutes early. Because I have this other thing: I can’t be late.

When I was a kid, we three girls carpooled with our two neighbours whose kids went to the same school.

It was convenience-based because Mum didn’t like the woman who she called “Kauri Stumps,” named for her thick thighs like the thick trunks of a native New Zealand kauri tree.

“Kauri Stumps thinks she’s a bit special.”

Mr Kauri Stumps had a successful business but, the way Mum saw it, “Kauri Stumps doesn’t do any of the work. He makes the big money. She’s just the wife.”

The husband was likeable, friendly and down to earth, a successful man in his own right and now a very wealthy man. I don’t remember Kauri Stumps talking to us three girls, even though some days she dropped us off at school.

Mum called Kauri Stumps a “socialite” for she was the social opposite to Mum. Kauri Stumps held parties and invited Mum and Dad, but they never went. What Mum never considered was Kauri Stumps was probably the kind of woman found behind a lot of successful men or partners; they host parties and make the business connections happen – which is business itself.

Their house was the first on our road with a tar-sealed driveway.

When I was a kid, our road was gravel with no houses along one side, then the road was sealed and, not long after, the Kauri Stumps family arrived and built a beautiful home with a tar-sealed driveway that twisted up their vast landscaped frontage.

I would bike down the quiet country road and stare up the Kauri Stumps family’s tar-sealed driveway before biking up the driveway a few metres, feeling the smooth surface and reduced resistance under my bike wheels. It felt daring to trespass on someone else’s property.

For our carpool, Kauri Stumps collected my sisters and me from the end of our sand driveway at the letterbox. In the car with her two kids, who eventually went to a private school, we drove ten minutes to school with four kids cramped into the back where there should only be three.

Because school started at 9am, the arranged pick up time was 8.30am.

I liked to be early, so Sam and I would walk to the letterbox at 8.15am, and my older sister, who never spoke to Sam and me unless she wanted something, followed later and stood ten metres away from us, near the gate.

Kauri Stumps never came at 8.30am.

Keeping an eye on my watch, 8.30, 8.35, 8.40am, I would grow increasingly anxious with the passing time and when it became unbearable, I would run the hundred and fifty metres back to the house.

With an increased heart rate from the anxiety-inducing predicament, I would tell Mum Kauri Stumps was late. The fretfulness further increased as I knew my returning to the house meant Kauri Stumps could arrive while I was at the house.

“Can you ring Kauri Stumps and see where she is?” I would ask, obsessing over my watch, because at this point I could see we were going to be late to school.

Mum would use her rarely used soft voice and tell me not to worry because Kauri Stumps would be there like she always was, and I should hurry back in case she turned up while I was at the house.

But she never did. I would return to the letterbox and we would wait, anxiety kicking into overdrive.

My older sister watched from the shelter belt shadows, quiet, listening to me expressing my worries to Sam, and said nothing. She was older by a year and a half. Mum thought having children in close succession would mean us playing together. But it didn’t work out that way. My younger sister and I, although separated by almost four years, grew up laughing and enjoying each other’s company. My older sister spent her life resenting me, then Sam, then herself forever. She didn’t see her role as comfort provider or reassurance giver. Instead, she stood expressionless in the shadows while I panicked about being late to school probably freaking out my younger sister. Mum’s plan for an older sister-friendship didn’t work out and neither did mine for reassurance from an elder. I guess we should be wary of our expectations.

Once full-height-panic-stricken mode was reached, Kauri Stumps’ silver car would appear down the road and finally pull into our driveway.

Once in the car, I willed us to school.

I remember the tan velvet seats and fake plastic-chrome silver door handles, and thinking how the old Mitsubishi Lancer was budget compared to their fancy house and driveway.

Driving to school staring out the car window counting down the landmarks and road bends, I would look at my watch as the minutes closed in on 9am, thinking: the bell was about to ring, the bell was ringing, the bell had rung and now I had to walk into class late, again.

Everyone would turn to see me arrive late. They didn’t know why. My head hung low, I would tell the teacher and even though it was the truth, it felt like a lie. I hated Kauri Stumps just like my mother did. Arriving late was out of my control. It was unnecessary.

Getting ready for an afterschool shift at the supermarket one day -already in a bad mood having spent the day dreading work – my work shirt, with other washing, was on the washing line and it had started to drizzle but I managed to get the washing in before more rain fell.

Lip sneering, I was in a bad mood. A damp shirt and the thought of scanning giant sacks of potatoes and waiting for old ladies to count every coin from their purse while the rest of the line tapped their feet impatiently only for the ninety-year-old to realise she was five cents short so instead hand me a twenty dollar note with that old-person arrogance I had come to recognise, was making me feel hostile.

I had used up five minutes of my staring-at-the-clock-and-slowing-down-time time getting in the washing, so grabbed my country and western shirt and rushed to my bedroom. I unravelled my shirt. It was one of Mum’s tablecloths, exactly the same pattern and texture.

If this had happened to anyone else I would have laughed, but instead I almost cried. It felt like the universe was sending me a message I couldn’t decipher. My shirt was in the hot-water cupboard where Mum had kindly put it knowing it might rain and I needed it for work. After putting it on, I sat in the lounge and stared at the clock, frustrated, slightly damp and trying to figure out what the tablecloth-shirt situation meant.

I worked with other afterschool teenage checkout girls and, on the Saturday shifts, a combination of teenage girls and permanent full-timers who made me swear to myself I would never work in a supermarket full-time.

Some full-timers didn’t speak to us teenagers, those who did were friendly but in that non-analytical overly optimistic heavily medicated on anti-depressants to-cover-up-my-problems kind of way. The angry full-timers – the future versions of myself if I stayed at the supermarket and didn’t get an education – seemed to be checkout supervisors who had proved themselves exceptional in the complex field of barcode scanning and progressed to roles where lowly checkout operators buzzed them over to provide change, approve a refund, check identification or check the price of an item. Mostly, the checkout supervisors, overweight in their pencil skirts looking like swollen varicose veins, stood on an elevated stage at a large desk overlooking the checkouts as if ready to begin a country and western karaoke song. I never wanted to excel in the job and get promoted to the stage.

Checkout stations were spaced far enough apart that talking to other operators was difficult. We could only speak to customers and I didn’t want to. I chose to remain silent, spending my time judging people and getting annoyed at predictable behaviour.

“Just one more item” was never “just one more item.” Just one more item meant, “I will take at least five minutes to go and get the thing I forgot and grab a couple of other things and these people in the line can wait because I am inconsiderate. By the way, can you watch my children?”

I hated the parents of poorly behaved, screaming children.

If fat people came through the checkout, I examined their diets and determined it wasn’t a glandular problem. If you buy ten packets of chips, bottles of coke, pastry meat pies and lazy heat-up processed foods, the answer to your question is on the conveyor belt.

There were the social benefit and food cheque customers who tried to buy alcohol and cigarettes when the cheque was for food only.

“And pack of Marlboro 20s,” would come the request, as if their casual manner was the determining factor in fooling me and the system. From the cigarette carousel I would retrieve the cigarettes and place them on top of their box of beers before they presented the cheque I knew was coming.

Sometimes they would put the alcohol and cigarettes through first, thinking I might forget what I had scanned. My judgemental sixteen-year-old mind had learnt to see them coming and my suspicions were confirmed when the total bill came near one hundred and fifty dollars. The cheques were always for one hundred and fifty dollars The cheque would be produced, and I would say in a monotone, “Sorry, but you cannot purchase alcohol or cigarettes with one of those cheques.”

No one argued. They knew. But then I had to remove the beer and cigarette purchases which meant having the Tabu checkout manager come to my counter and her cheap perfume waft-cloud nearly suffocate me.

My favourite part of the job – besides home time – was packing groceries.

For a period in my life I was obsessed with the computer game Tetris.

The aim of Tetris is to rotate and place different shaped blocks falling from the top of the computer screen to lock perfectly together and form a solid line across the bottom of the computer screen. The line then disappears leaving space to form another line from the continuously falling shapes. If you don’t rotate and stack the objects correctly and leave a gap in the line, your line won’t disappear and your screen fills and gets blocked and you run out of room and lose the game.

Packing groceries was like Tetris. Rotate a box of tissues, stand on its side and place it in the supermarket bag; to the right of the tissues stack six tins; place a bag of oranges on top of the tins and rotate a bunch of bananas to curve around the bag of oranges and you’ve reached Supermarket Tetris Level 5. Problem was, I was too good at Supermarket Tetris, often filling the supermarket bags so efficiently they were too heavy to lift and I would have to remove items. In 1990s computer-gamer talk, I had “clocked the game.” The customers had no idea what was going on in my head; they did not hear the Tetris tune playing on a loop, or the success sparkle sound when a plastic bag is filled or a line at the bottom of the Tetris computer screen is formed and the line disappears or a plastic bag goes into a trolley.

One positive was the supermarket made me a better supermarket customer and all round citizen. I never joke with supermarket checkout workers, or rush off to get one more thing, and I categorise my trolley items on the conveyor belt for ease of packing in order of toiletries, heavy tins, meat, dairy, frozens, then fruit and vegetables. If the checkout operator asks me about my day, I say “Fine thank you,” then smile and break eye contact. I say nothing more because I know they don’t care. They are hungover or wanting to be with their friends or anywhere else but on a checkout. And I get that.

At 9pm Mum would pick me up and, on the way, home I would demolish a KFC burger and fries, which was interesting because fast food was a family once-a-week Friday night treat and usually fish and chips. Maybe Mum was appalled by the ghastly vision of me in the uniform. Or maybe she understood supermarket work was horrible; for years she worked part-time packing meat and never complained, modelling the right work attitude. I must be a very slow learner.

I was paid sixty-seven dollars per week and bought a CD for thirty-two dollars and spent the rest on going out with friends. Those were my priorities at sixteen years old.

Nearing the end of high school, I had to think seriously about what to do for a real job and life beyond high school.

I knew it wasn’t going to be supermarket work. But I didn’t know what.

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