In 1986, when I was sixteen, my best friend Jon helped me get a job at the local Safeway in Oklahoma City bagging groceries. We thought we were cool because we could earn money to buy our own Polo cologne, fill up our tanks with gas for cruising on Friday nights, and buy our own cigarettes from cashiers who weren’t too stuffy to sell to minors. It was a good job for me. I liked the people I worked with. Rita the assistant manager had a great smile and was always positive, though somehow deeply sad. The manager, Larry, was as nice a guy as you’d ever want to meet, although he looked like a grouch on the outside.
I received training on how to sweep the aisles with wide push brooms, how to sack groceries efficiently without squashing the bread or breaking the eggs—cans and jars went on bottom, lighter stuff on top, and for heaven’s sake, don’t put soap in the same bag as meat. Who needs meat that tastes like Dove?—how to politely decline an offer of a tip (minimum wage ought to be good enough for a sixteen year old), how to do price checks (sometimes the old price tags would fall off, and we didn’t have scanners to read bar codes. Or, rarely, some customers would deliberately switch the price tags to something cheaper.) how to clean the toilets, break down boxes and run the baler, how to smile at the customers, change overflowing trash bags, and finally (my favorite) how to spot shoplifters.
Okay, I didn’t receive training on how to spot shoplifters. I learned that naturally on the job because of my curiosity and fondness of observing human behavior. I once watched a man walk into our store, grab a carton of cigarettes, walk down an aisle, turn the corner, and when he started walking back towards me down another aisle, the carton of cigarettes had magically disappeared! He had either stashed them in the meat counter or put them down his pants. Curious, I decided to check it out. The cigarettes were nowhere to be found. I told the manager. Larry’s face lost its expression as he asked, “Are you sure about this? We could get in big trouble if you’re wrong.” I was sure, but equivocated, sputtered, stuttered. Somehow, Larry decided he believed me so he approached the guy as soon as the suspect left the store. The shoplifter was shaken. Knowing that he’d been caught, he pulled the carton and other items out of his pants and made a run for it. I had saved the store fifteen or twenty bucks. (Back then cigarettes were more affordable, but people still stole them.)
One day not long after I first started, an elderly couple, the Hammers, came through the line and I helped them bag their groceries. This was about a year before I would have to ask the question, “Paper or plastic?” Plastic bags weren’t an option yet. Though we had only the stiff brown paper bags, the Hammers did have one request for me: double-bag everything and make sure that no bag was heavy. That meant no more than two or three items per bag. I wondered why they needed double bags for light groceries. But it wasn’t my job to question. They were too old to carry anything weighty, so I just bagged away. One six-pack of bottled coke, double-bag. Bread and vegetables, double-bag. Canned goods (no more than three) double-bag. The only thing that didn’t get double-bagged were the cigarettes for Mrs. Hammer. Those went straight to her purse.
A week’s worth of groceries took about twenty bags and cost around $35. I pushed the shopping cart with its load (45% bag, 55% groceries) to their car and hit up a conversation with them about the weather or whatever else was easy to talk about. I thanked them, and they were on their way. Next time they were in the store, they asked for me. Mr. Hammer had liked the job I did and had another request of me. This time, he asked that I keep an eye out for old Coke bottles that came through the store when people returned them for deposit. He wanted the kind that had the words Coca-Cola etched in the glass instead of the newer labels that were just painted on. He collected old bottles and would trade me one newer bottle for one more cherished, older bottle.
Economically, it didn’t make sense to me. Even at sixteen I knew a good deal when I saw it, and this one wasn’t one. But I wanted to help. I loved to help. It made me happy to know I had helped someone. And I understood the hobby of collecting. I was a collector from a very young age. In first grade, I collected soup can labels, certain candy bar wrappers, and discarded cigarette packages that I could trade in for points. The teacher had a box of stuff that we could redeem our points for, and in that box was an old, worn-out copper coin that I just had to have. I bought the thing and was hooked on coins from that day on; that is, until I discovered baseball cards and comic books, all of which I gathered greedily into my arms, not to read or learn from, but, like the dragon Smaug in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, just to have and to guard. So when Mr. Hammer told me he was a collector, I had to help.
He and Mrs. Hammer—I never learned their first names because they even called each other Mr. Hammer and Mrs. Hammer, if you can believe that—came in once a week, and I would exchange all the bottles I stored up for him for newer ones, double-bag their groceries, and walk with them to their car talking about my school, their life, their son (named Mike Hammer, not of TV show fame) or the weather.
Eventually, they asked me to help clean their upper cabinets, which neither could reach. So I went to their apartment one day to help with chores. They paid me a few dollars, but I never asked for pay. For the next year or so, I helped them with chores they couldn’t do, collected old bottles for Mr. Hammer, and listened to stories about their son who was a big-wig journalist somewhere on the West coast.
One day, Mrs. Hammer showed me a plant that they had received as a wedding gift. Huh? I thought. “But, you’ve been married fifty years!” I said with astonishment.
“I know,” she said. “This plant is over fifty years old. Do you want a clipping of it?”
Now that I think of it, hers was quite an offer. What a gift that would have been if I’d accepted and kept it alive through all of these years. But I knew nothing about plants, and I knew even less of patience. Though I didn’t know what I’d do with my life at that time, I knew that I’d be moving around a lot and would never keep up with a plant, no matter how old it was.
“Thanks.” I said. “But I’d probably just kill it.”
Our friendship continued for a couple of years as long as I worked at Safeway. But times were changing, as they always do. I graduated from high school, and since I had nothing better to do, I decided to go to college in Edmond, about 15 miles north of Oklahoma City. There was a Safeway in Edmond, so I transferred there and gradually lost contact with my friends, including the Hammers. I drove by there apartment sometimes on my way to my parents’ house, and I was always glad to see their car sitting in the parking lot. One day, there car was not there, and I stopped by to see if they were home. They were gone, and I didn’t know who to ask about where they had gone.
The other day, I was wishing I had a piece of that plant Mrs. Hammer offered me. But I realize now that all plants are ancient. In fact, all animals are ancient. We ourselves are “of old.” If you put your hand to your neck or your wrist and just feel the pulse of your heart, that is an ancient pulse. It has been going on uninterrupted since the very first heart began to beat. It’s true. Our heartbeat is like the Olympic torch being passed from runner to runner. From age to age, life is transferred to the young, and the beating never stops. Your mother was alive when she gave birth to you, and her mother was alive when she gave birth to her, and so on and so forth. So that heart beat has never stopped. It goes back all the way to the origin, whatever that was. Scientists seem to have it all figured out, but I don’t. There are still many matters open to debate in my mind. But the debate just wears me down. The only peace I have found tends to be above the debate: in finding collectible Coke bottles for an old man, in cleaning cabinets for an elderly couple who can no longer do it themselves, in short, in giving myself over to double bagging.