Memories of a Checkstand Lifestyle

A strange thing happened on the way to my COVID-19 vaccine shot.  Well, not on the way, but at the location where I got it.  In the online concert-ticket rush to get a vaccine appointment the first appointment I was able to snag was at the Safeway on Shoreline Blvd. in Mountain View.

That happened to be the store I worked at in high school and college back in the 80s.

I had not been back to that store for ages.  Even in the 90s when I had an apartment just a couple miles down the road I made a point of shopping elsewhere.  When I went back into the store for the first time in at least 20 years, I was hit with a reverie of memories, good and bad.

And it isn’t even the same store.  At some point in the 90s they tore down the store I worked in, which was done in that somewhat iconic mid-century style with tall ceilings and large front windows that let in a lot of light.  I probably have a picture of the store somewhere, but I am too lazy to dig it out right now, so I grabbed an image from the web that gives the right sense of what I mean.

A typical 60s Safeway store design

That image is about the same template as the store I used to work in, right down to the rocky wall style outside the exit door.  The store there now is more in the squared off, few windows, design.  But every store has a similar feel and even that new style couldn’t repress the flood of images and emotions of being in that location.

Working in a grocery store is kind of a strange retail experience.  You end up seeing the same people over and over.  And this store, nestled in the middle of several large apartment complexes, was especially prone to the “same faces” phenomena.  Apartment dwellers, as I was told, tend to buy groceries more frequently, often stopping in on the way home from work to buy something for dinner.  So I often saw the same people every evening I was there.

And, living not too far away, the strangeness was compounded.  I would go to downtown Mountain View for lunch or to visit the used bookstore and would constantly see faces I recognized.  Some I would be able to place… this guy smokes Marlboro reds in the box, that woman is a pain in the ass about showing her ID when writing a check, and this other person isn’t allowed in the store because we busted them for shoplifting… but others were just annoyingly familiar but lacking the context of the store in which to place them.

It was a decent job at the time, though I worked through what was very much a transitional era for the grocery industry.  Or one of them anyway.  It was a union job.  I had to join the United Food and Commercial Workers, which was still a new-ish union at the time, being a consolidation of a couple unions.  I showed up just as the union was losing its leverage.  There had been a big strike a few months before and the union had to make quite a few concessions.

I started as a bag boy, or a courtesy clerk in the contract parlance, and spent my first year bagging groceries, putting things back on the shelves, cleaning up spills, and rounding up shopping carts in the parking lot.  At the time we had electro-mechanical cash registers that looked to be out of the 50s.  I remember once, early on, the power went out and the cashiers all had to fish around in the checkstands to find the cranks that attached to the side of the registers and allowed them to be operated manually.  There was a journal tape from each register than had to be pulled every night after the store closed and was used to reconcile the books for the day, something that often took hours.  Any mistakes made by cashiers had to have a note in the cash drawer to help with the balance.

Those were soon replaced by NCR electronic cash registers, which had a 10 key pad and could take code numbers for specific products to get prices.  Those were in place before the summer I went off to checkers school.  Learning to be a checker, being promoted to food clerk, meant spending a week up in Oakland at the Safeway training center taking a class that you could fail.

I had to learn to use the 10 key pad by touch, accurately key in prices, know the categories of items which meant knowing the arcane sales tax rules of the state (which meant knowing things like water not being taxable, unless in containers under a half gallon or in frozen form (ice) and prepared food not being taxable unless it was heated), and the dreaded fruit and vegetable identification test.  This involved a timed test where I had to identify the fruit or vegetable in question and supply the produce code for it.  There was a lookup sheet for the codes, but if you had to look them all up you during the test you might not make the time limit.  There were 50 items to identify and you were only allowed to miss five on the test.  There were people who did not make the cut.  I drove up to Oakland with another person taking the class and we would quiz each other in the car on the ride back and forth.  I had college classes that were less demanding.

But this was when the union was still pushing the image of professional food clerks.  And the pay, at the time, was decent.  As a freshly minted food clerk in 1985 I made $7.68 hour.  But, after every 500 hours on the job I got a raid, which capped out after 2,000 hours… basically a year of full time work… at $13.48 an hour.

That doesn’t sound like much in an era when we’re talking about a $15 an hour minimum wage, but that was decent money.  And there was overtime, holiday pay (double time), Sunday pay (time and two thirds when I started, time and a half after the next contract), and a 50 cent per hour premium for hours worked between 7pm and 7am.  And, if you wanted to run the show, be in charge when the boss was away, there was also head clerk pay, which I immediately signed up for, so ended up earning a lot more during my 2,000 hour run up to journeyman clerk than I might have otherwise.

I made more in 1987 than I did at my first three post-Safeway jobs in tech.  I think my total income in 1994 finally passed my Safeway peak.  Couples I knew who both worked for Safeway bought houses, raised kids, and sent them off to college on journeyman food clerk salaries.

My health insurance was basically no cost to me.  They handed me a Kaiser card and required no employee contribution.  Of course, that is also a reflection of how messed up the US health care system has become.  And if I worked the equivalent of ten years of full time I qualified for the first tier of the long since gone pension system.

It felt like a bit of a plateau in my life, that I had hit the first step where I had a real job, decent pay, and could be an adult if I so desired.  A lot of people I worked with dropped out of college and decided to stick with Safeway as a career.  You were getting a decent paycheck every week and the work wasn’t horrible.

Of course, there were a lot of downsides to the job, the general public being a key one.  But it was an uncertain life.  Only those employees designated as “full time” were guaranteed at least 32 hours a week.  Everybody else, myself included, only had to be given 16 hours a week.  If business was slow, staffing had to follow, and you could find yourself getting some thin paychecks.

And the work schedule… I blame my own current unwillingness to plan very far ahead on that.  The schedule for a given week was supposed to be posted in the store by 5pm on the Thursday of the preceding week, but good luck with that.  So, generally speaking, I didn’t know what I was up to until Friday of the week before, and how you got scheduled was the luck of the draw and how much the boss liked you.  They had to schedule to cover the store needs, so you might end up working all hours of the day or night.  I generally worked 3pm to midnight during the week, which covered the peak evening rush.  But I might work 6am to 3pm on Saturday to cover the frozen food or dairy guy’s day off or midnight to 9am if one of the night stocking crew was on vacation.  I had weeks where I just worked evenings for long stretches… the manager would get lazy once in a while and just re-used the previous week’s schedule if there were no vacations to cover… and I had weeks during the summer when people were out on vacation where I saw every hour of the day in the store.

Then there was vacation.  Even as the lowliest clerk on the list I was allowed two weeks of vacation.  But the sign up for vacation was a bit of a challenge.  A big chart would go up at the beginning of the year, with all employees listed out in seniority order.  Everybody picked their weeks in that order, but the store could only allow so many people to be out on a given week, and once that number was hit for a given week, that week was blocked out.  So not only did I have to know when exactly I wanted to go on vacation at some point in mid-January, I could only choose weeks that were still open to me when it was finally my turn to pick.

I think I got a week in April and a week in October that time around, which corresponded pretty much to the two ends of the allowed vacation season.  And the weekly work schedule was written from Sunday through Saturday, so your vacation weeks, which had to be taken in week long chunks, were also Sunday to Saturday.  If the boss liked you, you might get the Saturday before and Sunday after your vacation off.  But you wouldn’t know about the Sunday in advance, since the schedule wouldn’t be up until the Thursday before.

It was very much a lifestyle.  I was often working when most people were done with work and off in the middle of prime business hours.  I had a new car and an apartment in Mountain View that some Google employee is probably paying more than three grand a month to rent now.

Eventually though it became clear I could finish school or keep working at Safeway.  I got a lot of hours, so always had money, but never had time, which led to me taking fewer classes than I should.  I never skipped a semester, but there were some weak showing when it came to units.   Eventually we got a manager that told me he’d schedule me whenever he damn well pleased… previous ones had been good about at least giving me the first half of the day for classes… and I put in my notice as soon as the fall semester got close.

That was well over 30 years ago but, to this day, when I have anxiety dreams I don’t dream about showing up for a final exam and realizing I haven’t studied or getting to the end of a semester and finding out that I forgot to drop a class or any of the usual suspects.  I dream that I have gone for lunch on my shift back then and forgot to get back when my time was up or that I am there and ready for my shift but have forgotten my apron or name badge or some other part of the required uniform.  I sometimes dream that I still work there part time, that I never quit, or that I had to go back to help make ends meet.

Anyway, two visits to that store… I have both of my vaccine shots now… shook up a bunch of old memories.  If I can filter them down I might make a series about some aspects of the job.  There were some humorous bits as well as the usual disappointing human behavior and the reality of having to deal with people every day.

5 thoughts on “Memories of a Checkstand Lifestyle

  1. PCRedbeard

    I can appreciate this to no end.

    While I was never employed there, I hadn’t been back to my parents’ local Kroger since…. 1993? Yeah, around then. That was before my wife and I were married and she lived in an apartment a stone’s throw away from that Kroger. We’d get our staples there, and then when we married we moved into another apartment farther north. You probably have an inkling of how happy I was to get away from the store where I would potentially run into people I grew up with or their parents. And since my middle school and high school experience was hardly pleasant, I preferred to get the hell out of dodge as soon as I could. (In Cincinnati, particularly the West Side, odds are really good that the children will grow up and live within a couple of miles of their parents. The parochialism is more reminiscent of a small town than anything else.)

    But when my father died 4 years ago, I had to go visit that Kroger (and a nearby hardware store) a few times. It felt so awkward being inside, even though I’d been away for effectively a generation.

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  2. Wichita Genealogist

    I worked in a small co-op grocery store back in the early 1980s. I live in Wichita now and there’s an old Safeway that is now used by a local nonprofit, address is 1150 N Broadway, Wichita, KS. They haven’t done a recent Google Maps Street View update showing the new sign. It has the old Safeway look to it. I drive by it several times a week. I checked and it is a nonprofit that helps people with medical issues.

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  3. bhagpuss

    I love posts like this. If you have more, bring them on.

    Working in a large, high street bookstore, which I’ve done for almost twenty years now, is retail but not exactly traditional retail, if you know what I mean. It does have those same scheduling issues though and a lot of that sounded very familiar. We’ve had people leave over not ever knowing exactly when they’re going to be working. That (rather nice-looking) Safeway in the picture is extremely similar to my local Sainsburys, which was only built about ten years ago. I guess our design is lagging behind.

    As for going back to places you’ve worked, it’s very noticeable that almost no-one comes back to our store, even though they often say they will. Sometimes they do pop in a few times in the first year or so but after that you nevert see them again, even though it’s a small city and we’re by far the biggest bookshop in it. And, of course, everyone who works in a bookstore is a reading addict so you know they have to be going somewhere. I certainly plan on never setting foot in there again once I leave.

    On a barely-related note, Ii just started watching Superstore on Netflix. I’m about halfway through Season One. It’s like a not quite as smart version of Community but well worth watching. Some retail experience might add to the amusement.

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  4. Azuriel

    As a freshly minted food clerk in 1985 I made $7.68 hour. But, after every 500 hours on the job I got a raid, which capped out after 2,000 hours… basically a year of full time work… at $13.48 an hour. […] That doesn’t sound like much in an era when we’re talking about a $15 an hour minimum wage, but that was decent money.

    Way more than “decent.” Adjusted for inflation, your starting wage was $19.35/hour and capped at $33.18/hour after a year. Even if you only got 32 hours per week at that top-end and no overtime, that’s the equivalent of $55k per year. And free healthcare! All of that and somehow or another Safeway and its shareholders still managed to stick around over the decades.

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  5. SynCaine

    Worked at Home Depot during and a little after college. Similar experience, except instead of the regulars just being average people buying food, it was 75% contractors or people working for them. Learned a ton, and it was interesting sometimes, but most days it was the same old grind. A good life experience that I think everyone should have (as well as being forced to work in the service industry for at least a year), but can’t say I miss it compared to sitting in my home office doing IT management.

    Liked by 1 person

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