Richard, the drippy-nosed meatcutter
The year was 1986, and there was a new movie playing in theaters across the United States. It was called Blue Velvet, and starred, among others, the incomparably evil and psychotic actor Dennis Hopper, the well-known and more or less ultimate bad-guy, in perhaps his best ever scenery chewing motion-picture.
It was written and directed by David Lynch, the master of film noir. His abilities were never more manifest than in this unforgettable psychological horror story. And the film was never scarier than it was in the first three minutes of the opening credits.
Those old enough will probably remember it well.
Introduction was into the bucolic village of Lumberton, North Carolina—and what a sweet little place it was. Idealized would probably be the better word, and as is usually the case with idealized things, the town had a very dark underbelly. I’ll never forget the opening, with pop-singer Bobby Vinton performing his classic 1963 hit of the same name over the unfolding scene. We see white picket fences, fluffy white clouds, red roses, children playing in the street, a well monitored and guarded school crossing, friendly waving firemen, and a nice looking older gentleman out in the front yard, simply watering his lawn.
He’ll soon have a stroke and fall over dead—right before our eyes.
As the camera zooms in near to the body, and then to the lush green grass he was just watering, we see in close-up micro view what was hidden to our “macro” eyes only a few moments before. And that is the dark underside of our seemingly peaceful world, where, just out of sight, an eternal struggle goes on, a never-ending battle in a dog-eat-dog war of all that life really is. The truth, the reality, the unvarnished concreteness, and the in-your-faceness of it. There is a tumult in that grass, full of ants and grasshoppers and other little critters, as creatures battle, one grappling and fighting with the other, and ultimately, and finally—one eating the other. One would have never guessed all that was going on—from the outside, looking in.
And exactly so is it at the supermarket.
We employees of GSM used to joke about it all the time. How an unsuspecting visitor to our store, or practically any other store, would never begin to guess the death struggle going on just out of their view. After all, the business sports a lovely storefront. Well decorated. Friendly looking. Fresh flowers, almost always just inside the door. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafts out from the nearby bakery. Bacon samples cooking merrily over at the meat case. Nice looking, friendly employees. Peaceful looking. Clean. Organized.
You might even say . . . idealized.
But back there behind those black rubber swinging doors marked “employees only,” in the stockroom, the diary cooler, the meat preparation room, those innocent and peaceful looking full-service cases at the deli, bakery, nutrition center, and seafood department—a war is being waged.
There, a life and death struggle goes on daily—one to almost equal that of the ants and beetles in the wet and lush grass at the beginning of that classic film. And here’s the kicker. Nearly one-hundred percent of that angst and conflict is created, caused, and perpetuated by the store management itself. And I can’t even say that it’s bad management. It’s good management—at least from the point of view of the parent corporation, SGSM. It’s intentional, it’s by design, it’s done on purpose—and it’s potentially a killer.
And I’m going to explain to you exactly why it happens, and why it is extremely dangerous to your health and well-being.
First of all, and probably a surprise to no one—it’s all about money.
Time was, in the far distant mists of the past, it was an altogether different story. Back then, grocery stores prided themselves in getting, and retaining, good loyal employees. Sometimes these employees stayed around for a long time. Maybe years. Maybe even for a lifetime. Yup—way back then, it was actually possible to make a decent, full-time living from just working in a grocery store. Some folks worked in them until they retired. Raised children from those wages. Maybe even bought a house.
In short, there was a time in American, when a simple grocery store employee could actually live, to a large degree, the American Dream. Those old enough to remember the Beatles Invasion will certainly recall those halcyon days of yore.
So what happened?
To a certain extent—labor unions. And to a much, much greater one—government regulation.
In a simpler time, the supermarket hired who it wanted, and for whatever (usually low) wage they could get away with paying. If the worker turned out to be worth anything, there would be raises as they went along—based on merit.
The unions changed all that.
Merit was out. Seniority was in. The unions brought in tiered wages. They worked like this: The employer (the grocery store) hires an employee for x number of dollars per hour. It’s set in stone—and all according to the contract. No wiggle-room for hiring the very young just out of school, the elderly, or the handicapped. In the eyes of the contract, they’re all just the same, and they all start at the same wage. And they all get the same annual wage increases—if they’re any good or not.
Very democratic—not very practical.
A new hire starts out at the lowest “tier.” He has to work so many hours (which equate to many months, or even years) to get to the next level (or tier). The employee may go through several tiers to get to the highest wage. And even if the employee isn’t worth a bucket of dog stuff, he (or she) is still going to get the increase.
Management has little or no control over the process. Except to ensure, by weaving it into managerial philosophy, the mind-set that says; “We need to get rid of the older (and better paid) employees, and constantly bring in new (and lower paid) employees.
The savings are significant.
It’s the “employee entrance as a revolving door” managerial style. Just keep hiring new cheap labor, and ensure, by a process of unrealistic work expectations and attrition, that the older, and more “fed-up” employees are constantly quitting and moving on.
And if you think that getting rid of older, well-seasoned and experienced employees in favor of young and inexperienced kids just off the street is going to do anything to help ensure food safety standards—then you just haven’t been listening.
And you have a lot more faith in human nature than is warranted.
In almost any large grocery store (and some are better than others) employees are given tasks, assignments, and expectations that simply cannot be met. At GSM where I worked, it was incredible. One employee sold product from both the full-service seafood case, and the meat case. Sometimes, customers would be standing four or five or more deep, waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for service. The standards call for said employee to stop, remove food service gloves, go to the wash basin, wash their hands for at least twenty seconds, rinse those hands for maybe ten seconds more, dry their hands with disposable paper towels, struggle into new gloves (which never want to slip over damp hands) and then resume serving customers.
This was supposed to occur each, and every single time the employee switched from selling raw product to cooked, chicken to beef, shellfish to other seafood, and so on. It would have amounted to hundreds of washings and glove changes per day, and would simply have been impossible for one person to accomplish—especially while a long line of customers waited. And I can utterly assure you, they would not be waiting patiently.
After five o’clock in the afternoon, and sometimes as early as two, there was not only just one employee at the meat and seafood counter, but in the entire meat and seafood department. That employee was expected to keep all products filled, at all times—both meat and seafood. Not just in the fresh full-service cases, but self-serve and freezers as well. Sometimes these self-serve freezers would be located half-way across the store. That one single employee had to wait on perhaps a hundred or more customers at the same time. This same employee would be expected to remove and put away all the product from the full-service cases by the end of the shift, take apart both cases, perform all the cleaning and sanitation procedures, completely deep clean the entire department, down to even polishing the glass, and keep up all the state mandated records.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. That employee also needed to mark down the near to expiring product (remember that shrink?) and do it to three different levels, three different times. To miss even one step in this entire process would be to risk being fired. Was it possible? No. What do you think was the first thing to be let go? If you think the answer to that question is anything other than food safety—you probably still believe in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.
Out with the old people—in with the new. In a never-ending procession. Food safety be damned—profits first.
Each. And. Every. Single. Time.
Modern government regulations have nearly the same effect as unions. Not all grocery stores are unionized by any means. But they all obey the same State and Federal regulations. And with largely the same effect as the unions. Federal minimum wage. Federal health and safety regulations. State worker’s compensation laws. Local city and county ordinances. The Department of Labor administers and enforces more than one hundred and eighty laws just by itself. It’s insane.
And that was even before Obamacare.
A lot of these regulations fall onto businesses that employ more than a handful of workers. That takes in nearly every large supermarket. But a surprising number only affect employees that are considered full-time (usually thirty or more hours per week). It’s therefore a simple dodge. Just hire a lot more part-time employees. When you do that you get a whole lot more very young and experienced workers; sadly, many of these folks couldn’t care less about food safety.
Supermarket jobs have become “starter jobs,” stepping stones to bigger and better things. At Giant Stuff Mart, where I worked, it was an unfunny joke. We considered them to be one of the nation’s foremost teenage employment agencies.
Such tactics of cutting hours and seriously overworking a small number of employees certainly has its advantages for the corporation—namely, BIG money. For the worker, it spills over as resentment—BIG resentment. Sometimes that resentment is taken out in places where it shouldn’t be.
On the customer.
And on the food that is on your dinner table.
At GSM a few years back, we had a meat-cutter (a new name for the good old-fashioned butcher) named Richard. He was getting on a bit in years, and had been with the company for far too long. GSM wanted him to “move on” in the worst possible way, and they did everything in their power to make that happen. I can honestly state that I have never personally encountered a worse case of employee harassment.
Richard finally went his way all right, but only after he had almost completely severed the thumb of his right hand because of management harassment. They were all over him almost constantly to “speed up.” When Richard was cutting meat with a knife, maybe it wasn’t such a dangerous thing. When he was using the band-saw, it was a completely different matter.
He went out on a medical leave for about a month and a half while his thumb healed. Never did get a chance to come back though. He was fired while on leave. The company decided that Richard himself was to blame for the accident. In his rush to get his work done, they said, he simply hadn’t been careful enough. They of course had no idea of why he might have been in such a hurry.
It wasn’t true of course. It wasn’t his fault at all.
But in the end it didn’t matter.
Richard was only a little tiny ant in that lush wet grass. GSM was one honkin’ big grasshopper. Grasshopper meets ant. Grasshopper wins . . . every single time.
By the time he had his accident and was finally let go, Richard, as you might imagine, had built up quite a load of resentment toward GSM. Sadly, he chose to take it out on the customer.
He had a more or less chronic sinus condition. His poor old nose always dripped. Like a faucet. Like constantly. At first he tried to keep a wad of tissue in his pocket and wipe—like all the time.
Didn’t really work.
He tried those little face masks that slip on over the ears. They didn’t work all that well either.
Finally, he just let it drip. Right on to the meat that he was cutting. The meat that was about to go into the full-service case, and the pre-pack. And the ground beef. You get the idea. He just didn’t care anymore. He had given up. He was burned out. He was, at the end, just a little dead ant in the grass. He wasn’t alone.
There were mounds of dead ants in there with him.
I talked to him myself a couple of times. He simply told me (with very little rancor in his voice) that he didn’t really give a (fill in the blank) anymore.
The thing that really bothered me most, was that all the time that the management of GSM was back there with him in the meat-cutting room riding his butt, they never said a word about his nose.
Nope—not even once.
What can you do to protect yourself? Well, start out by trying to shop at the smaller local stores. The ones that aren’t owned by giant corporations. The ones that look like at least some of the employees have been around for a while. The places where you can walk by a worker and not smell fear—or anxiety. The places where the people look like they don’t mind being there. Where they look like they might actually be having a little fun. There are places like that, but among the mega-corporation owned grocery chains, they’re about as rare as honest politicians in D. C.
In other words, just about non-existent.
And watch out for people like Richard, the drippy-nosed meatcutter. Sometimes they’re not that easy to spot. In a lot of stores, the meat preparation room is not visible to the public. Let me be totally honest here. Anything can happen in there—and does.
I remember a nearly five hundred pound meat-wrapper employed by GSM some years back. Because of his rather unique build, and the resulting pressure on his bladder, he couldn’t always hold it for a long time, and when the nearby restroom was occupied—yup, you guessed it. He used the drains in the floor of the meat room.
At a lot of other stores, the meat-cutters and other employees work out in the open—visible to all.
Trust me completely on this one when I tell you . . .
Shop at those.
Thanks for reading. Back in a few days with a new chapter in DEATH AT THE SUPERMARKET: Chapter Five, The Homeless Sampler.
In the meantime, may you all have a wonderful end of October and Halloween . . .
Dumb Joke of the Day:
And a very special treat in keeping with the Celtic Feast of the Dead (Halloween)