Bagging Rogue: A Teenage Life

Excerpted from my upcoming book:

It was the Miami Norland carnival, May 1969. With the first light covering of summer humidity about to descend on Optimist Park, I breathed in the spring bouquet that combined everything suburban America with sunny splashes of South Florida. Cotton candy and foot-long hotdogs. Gefilte fish tacos and Cuban sausage. Salsa music, seashell etchings, grass-woven Seminole baskets, and devastating heat rashes grown under the tropical sun.

As I walked among the rides and exhibits, I felt a vibration on my hip and heard a low buzz. Since this was thirty years before invention of the cell phone, I knew I had bees in my pocket. As they began to sting me, I raced for home and the fateful news that would change my world forever.

My Uncle Jack, regional meat manager for the Grand Union chain of grocery stores, had arranged for me to get a summer job. What I thought was going to be my last summer of freedom before graduating from high school and heading off to college was instead going to be three months of bagging groceries at the market down the street. I had been perfectly satisfied in my role as spoiled son and seminal slacker, but now I was being asked to earn some money toward my education fund. A real “gotcha” moment.

I couldn’t refuse (my mom wouldn’t let me). My country beckoned. Well, maybe not my country; at least my community. Or at least the narrow segment of my community that shopped at Grand Union, a segment that — not coincidentally — dwindled to numbers so low within a year that the chain would pull out of Florida completely. My bagging skills were that bad.

When I showed up for my first day of work a few weeks later, I had the feeling almost immediately that this might not be a good fit. There seemed to be too many handlers, too many people with their own agenda, too many “professionals” telling me what to do and how to do it. I’d be spending most of time working behind the cashiers, collecting frozen dinners and canned goods as they rolled down the conveyor belt, and placing them in paper bags so they could be transported to the customer’s car. The rest of my time I’d be working at a variety of tasks back in the stock room.

There were so many rules that simply ran contrary to the good common sense I had accumulated in my sixteen years. The heavier items had to be placed in the bottom of the bag while the chips and baked goods and pretzels were placed on top. If a particular bag was going to be too heavy, I had to double-bag the merchandise. I should offer to wheel the shopping cart out to the parking lot and load the purchases into the trunk. I could accept a tip if it were offered, but I had to say “thank you.” During slow periods, I returned misplaced merchandise to the shelves and threw empty boxes into a compacter.

This was not at all what I was “wired” to do. What was so wrong about mashing everything together into one bag, using my feet if necessary to compress the softer items? If something was ruined in the process, they’d just have to buy more, which seemed to be a good thing for our capitalist system. Why couldn’t our elderly clientele carry their own damn six-packs of generic Bilt-Rite Cola to their vehicles? Why did the cardboard boxes that were no longer needed have to be compressed for orderly disposal? Just because the tree-huggers said we couldn’t throw them into the vacant field behind the store?

I tried hard to help our team of associates wage a successful campaign to keep the store in business that summer, but so often it seemed I was swimming upstream, like the salmon that cried out to be clubbed and gutted. I wanted to help our great nation address the pressing issues of the time, help America return to its position of international dominance, and all everybody else could talk about was putting product into sacks.

There were also the troubling incidents that have been so misrepresented by the press.

I came to work the first day wearing a perfectly respectable pair of jeans and a sweat-encrusted t-shirt. The boss told me I had to go home and change into khaki pants and a white dress shirt, and that I’d have to wear a tag that said “Hi, my name is DAVIS. Thank you for shopping with us.” It’s not my style, I wanted to say. I’m just a down-home regular average normal everyday ordinary Joe. But they would hear nothing of it.

One of the teenage cashiers got pregnant and a decision had to be made on what to do about her baby. My respect for life in all its forms (all its human forms, anyway) made me insist that the child be born, then brought to work with its mother and stuck in a corner with the bottle returns. The so-called “pro-choice” forces on the staff wanted her to quit immediately and go live in a home for wayward girls.

My boss was promoted to assistant manager during the middle of the summer, and had to pose for a portrait to appear on the “Our Management Team” board at the front of the store. He was a bit of an odd character, and was telling some of us that he wanted to do it nude. (We jokingly named him “Ricky Hollywood” because he lived in Hollywood, a Broward County municipality just north of Miami.) He was eventually convinced to wear his normal shirt and tie, and angled his shoulders slightly in the final pose, avoiding the full frontal shot that we had all feared.

When the end of the summer arrived and it was time to return to school, some of the teenage workforce would be offered weekend hours to continue into the fall, and some would be told their services were no longer needed. I still remember that fateful Decision Day, waiting anxiously for the results in a nearby hotel ballroom, or maybe it was my parents’ huge Impala. When it became clear that the judgment was not to be in my favor, I wanted to make a concession speech to the entire management group at Grand Union corporate headquarters, clearly laying out my concerns about the weeks that had just passed, and a little about my blueprint for the future (I was planning to ask Cindy Riley to go steady). But they would not hear of it, at least not until I published this book.

Now, I’m happy to say I’ve left that group of handlers and spinners in the past, and I’m prepared to move forward to the great tomorrow that represents America’s greatest challenge to its continued greatness. I’m my own agent at last, and I’ll do things as I see fit, and as my God-given conscience dictates. That’s why I’m now touring the country, traveling from grocery store to grocery store, offering my bagging services on a free-lance basis,  unconstrained by some focus-grouped, tradition-bound, green-grocer-as-usual business model. God is taking over my life, and I understand He prefers paper to plastic.

In closing, I quote the great French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, from his Pensées, for no other reason than to show I’m no one-trick-pony and that I’ve heard of French philosophy:

For after all what is Man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which Man is engulfed.


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6 Responses to “Bagging Rogue: A Teenage Life”

  1. sandra lynn Says:

    Congratulations – a blog on Kindle!
    I have had publishers buy a few short stories also poetry I have written but to have a book deal is my ultimate goal.
    I enjoyed reading the excerpt on your up-coming book.
    All the best to you!

  2. apocalypsecakes Says:

    I like the speaker’s voice. This line also stands out: “God is taking over my life, and I understand He prefers paper to plastic.” It means you take your thoughts seriously but still have a sense of humor.

  3. Rocky Humbert Says:

    Ok, so I didn’t make it past the first paragraph. But then, I never made it past “Call me Ishmael” either….

  4. SUMIT Says:


  5. planetross Says:

    hee hee!
    I got nothing, but I enjoyed it.
    No tip, but no complaints either about the service.

  6. Ambition falls into decline « DavisW's Blog Says:

    […] the grocery bagging industry in this excerpt from my book “Bagging Rogue”) When I graduated Miami Norland High in 1971, a teacher wrote in my yearbook that “the world […]

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