The summer I was sacked
In the summer of 1985, at the supermarket where I worked as a shelf-stacker, there was a girl named Emily Bottle who never asked for a price check on anything. That’s why I got sacked. Well kind of. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On registers one and two and four through seven, the girls would ding the bells they had by their hands and shout for a price check, their appeals echoing up the aisles like a siren song. But on register three, Emily Bottle just went about her job, cool as the bubblegum bubbles she blew when she was bored.
This was in the days before self-service and barcode scanners, which existed beyond the horizon of the imaginable. Those on checkouts had to ring up everything on the cash registers manually. But first they had to find a sticky price label on every item — a label that may have become unstuck and restuck itself to practically anything in the universe. At the end of shifts I’d find price labels all over the heels of my shoes. I once found one behind my ear. Another time I noticed my cat was a red spot special at $2.99.
The division of labour at the supermarket was set — as set as the concrete outside the door that stretched with parked cars and shopping trolleys to a shimmery mirage: the girls did checkouts and the boys collected trolleys, stacked shelves and checked prices. It was a demarcation that gave the place the slightly charged feel of a year 8 disco, with girls on one side, talking and laughing among themselves, and boys on the other, staring and struck dumb in mystery and confusion.
It was in this atmosphere the price check became important, for it provided the only opportunity for interaction. “The big tin of John West salmon is $4.49,” we’d report back to one of the girls, hoping it might somehow spark a conversation. “Expensive huh … We’re living in a material world, I guess … So do you like Madonna?”
Emily Bottle had arrived in late November, put on for the Christmas rush. She had aqua eyes beneath a serious brow, strawberry-blonde hair she wore in a ponytail at the top of her head, and honey-brown arms that jangled with bangles in every colour of the ’80s. I adored her with the intensity of the Australian sun. An egg cracked on my intensity would have fried in seconds.
“The new girl on register three never asks for a price check ever,” I said to my mate Rocky one day, as we priced and stacked tinned tomatoes in aisle six. Rocky’s real name was Mario, but everyone called him Rocky because his arms and nose looked like Rocky Balboa’s and because he liked to punch meat in the deli. (Punch meat isn’t a euphemism, by the way; he really did like to punch meat.)
Rocky looked across to where Emily Bottle was bagging a jumbo pack of toilet rolls. A sunbeam caught one of her bangles and sent reflected light darting into our eyes and dancing up the walls and across the ceiling. Rocky looked back at me and smiled his big Italian smile — a smile that said my comment had given away too much, that my quiet teenage desperation was not quiet anymore, and in fact was so loud it was competing with the store’s stereo, which had just begun playing I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner. Rocky held his pricing gun to my head and pulled the trigger.
But as the summer wore on, and the sweat beneath our shirts became stickier, and the days more languid and sluggish, Emily Bottle’s silence began to bother Rocky as well. Was she, we wondered, just making the prices up? Or was it possible, improbable though it seemed, that she was yet to come across an item without a price on it?
It was while thinking on these questions that Rocky had an idea. He suggested that we not put a price on every fifth item we stack. That we increase the number of items in circulation without a price and thus make it more likely — inevitable surely — that Emily Bottle would have to request a price check. “Let’s smoke her out,” Rocky said finally, pleased with himself like he was a member of The A-Team.
Now I am not by nature an irresponsible person. In fact most people who know me would say I’m reliable, cautious and risk-averse to the point of being if not boring then at least among boring’s close circle of friends. But I can be tempted into stupidity in two ways: by a desire to please those I consider superior to me (Rocky’s arm muscles alone put him in this category), and by a borderline-pathetic wish to attract the notice of spunks. (Did I mention Emily Bottle’s strawberry-blonde hair? And how she wore it in a ponytail at the top of her head so her hair fell down evenly in all directions like a water fountain?)
All of which is by way of explaining why I not only agreed to Rocky’s plan, but a few days later, when there had been no change on register three, when Emily had shown no sign of ringing her bell for a price check, I suggested that rather than leave every fifth item without a price, we make it every fourth.
And so it was I learned that summer about slopes and how they tend toward the slippery. Every fourth item quickly became every third. Then the other shelf-stackers joined in. They did this less out of interest in the original motivation (i.e. Emily Bottle) than the allure of rebellion and a simple wish to be part of things. They liked the idea of trying to outdo each other in the arena of the stupid. By the last week of 1985, only about half the items that went on the shelves had a price on them. And things had officially got out of hand.
The breakdown of order at the supermarket happened like bankruptcy did for that character in Hemingway, which is to say gradually and then suddenly. First there were a few more bells ringing than usual. Then there was nothing but bells. They rang continuously. And me and Rocky knew, even without having read Hemingway, for whom these bells tolled.
We were soon so busy doing price checks, running back and forth to the girls on checkout, that we weren’t stocking shelves at all. Our pricing guns lay discarded, like rifles dropped by retreating French soldiers. There were more and more calls for price checks, which led to delays at the registers, which led to queues forming down the aisles. The chaos grew exponentially. (That was another thing I learned about that summer: chaos and its exponentiality.)
Shoppers complained to anyone who’d listen — usually me and Rocky as we raced past — and those who weren’t complaining had that sad resigned look like you see in ’80s news footage of what supermarkets were like behind the Iron Curtain.
All this I had created out of my longing and desperation for Emily Bottle.
But love is no defence, I found, or at least it isn’t according to spotty floor managers of suburban supermarkets. I was sacked. Someone had to pay for what had gone on, and it was me. I defended Rocky, and his job was spared. He took his anger out at my dismissal the only way he could — by punching meat in the deli.
I later got a job on a milk run, which I liked better anyway. And I like to think I left the supermarket a more a social place. I mean, who knows what young love budded or blossomed on those busy summer days when shelf-stacker boys and checkout girls intermingled intensely over the price of tinned tomatoes, toothpaste and toilet rolls?
You’re wondering, though, about Emily Bottle. Well, she continued on just as before. She never asked for a price check on anything, even when practically nothing in the store had a price.
But on the day I was sacked a funny thing happened. As I walked through the supermarket for the last time, I looked across to register three. I was some distance away, but I could see Emily blowing cherry-coloured bubbles. She raised her arm, as if she was about to wave me goodbye, and then her hand dropped suddenly. And right as it did so, a bell rang. Was it her bell? Or a bell on another register? I’ll never know. Could be she was just whacking a fly.
Originally published at theage.com.au