Kevin McKeever: Still part of the supermarket family
I honked my horn twice as I drove past.
The people - dressed in multiple layers on a windy spring afternoon, some holding signs, others sandwiched in between placards hanging around their neck - cheered in response. A few waved or offered a thumbs up as I disappeared into the blur of traffic on West Main Street in Stamford.
These were just a handful of the 31,000 striking union workers from Stop & Shop supermarkets across New England. They were protesting increases in their health care costs, cuts in pensions and the elimination of time-and-a-half Sunday and holiday pay for the part-timers who make up the vast majority of the chain’s employees are.
I didn’t know any of them, but they - like all grocery store workers - feel a bit like family to me. I was one of them once.
Sure, it was 30-something years ago. Yes, I was only a teenager at the time. And, yes - my stint there was short, only about nine months. But the hard-working people there left a lasting impression.
The Grand Central Market (now a Trader Joe’s) on High Ridge Road was my work home for most of my 16th year. For a dozen or two hours a week, I’d slip into a dirty green jacket, thin enough to read baseball box scores through, and get to the grunt work. Bagging groceries. Sorting and stacking sticky piles of returned bottles and cans. Scouring the entire shopping center for abandoned carts. Broken jar of pickles in aisle 6? Yep, I was on it, too.
Even though I was a teen and apart-timer, I had to join the union. At the time, all I knew was that being a member guaranteed me 30 minutes for lunch, a break every few hours of my shift, and less gas money for the mammoth Oldsmobile I had inherited from my dad. The “regulars” who worked there, many of whom I had seen there week after week on grocery trips with my mom, never mentioned the union to a kid they knew was just passing through. But for many of them, the union protected what was part - if not all - of their livelihood.
Many of these regulars would work extra shifts at other markets in the chain to pick up extra cash. Others would pick up weekend hours in mom-and-pop stores. Red, one of the many deli workers who would take extra care to feed me and my fellow high schoolers, also worked as a typewriter repairman. From time to time, I’d see him at my high school fixing the beat-up Royals and IBM Selectrics there.
Stocking shelves and slapping new price stickers on tomato paste cans isn’t rocket science, for sure, but it was honest work few wanted. These were good people, starting with the bevy of older Italian ladies who worked the registers and made small talk while checking if the coupons you presented really matched the items you purchased.
Back in the deli, we also had Mark, who was also a church organist in Greenwich, and Mike the Greek, who flirted with even the crankiest of female customers. The dairy/freezer was run by The Colonel, whose nickname was always a mystery to me but not so much his love of Frank Zappa. Working the aisles were Quiet Jimmy and my favorite, Charlie - an angular long hair with tattoos on each arm and a surgeon’s precision with a box cutter. Charlie taught me how to set up “end cap” displays and to be extra careful if they involved 2-liter plastic bottles of soda. Why? Because lifting and stacking them was a literal pain and the likelihood your cutter would accidently slice open a couple of RC Colas was high. Clean up in aisle 2! Yep, I’m on it. In it, in fact.
I haven’t seen any of those people in 10 or 15 years, but I think of them and those times whenever I’m shopping for food for my own family. You should, too.
Stamford native and resident Kevin McKeever, whose nationally award-winning column appears here every other Friday, is a freelance writer for hire. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.