Two College Degrees Later, I Was Still Picking Kale For Rich People

While buying groceries for rich people, I realized upward mobility in America is largely a myth.

by Niela Orr

Mark Nerys for BuzzFeed News

The customer laughing at me over the phone had a voice that sounded green. Green like overpriced avocado toast, bottled chlorophyll, spirulina, eco-friendly laundry detergent, and other “clean” affectations that seem to sum up a lifestyle that’s so natural, organic, and pristine only wealthy women with cold, tony laughs can afford to live it.

I was working for an on-demand grocery shopping and delivery service called Instacart, often referred to as “Uber for groceries.” I was wooed by stories of Instacart’s flexibility, and because I was a freelance writer, I required that kind of freedom. I also liked the idea of working via an app, because in theory, I could do my job without much customer interaction, which is something I’d grown weary of after years in retail. For about 20 hours a week, I worked at Whole Foods Market in Philadelphia shopping for busy people and shut-ins, selecting all of their groceries with the kind of attention and care that hardly anyone uses when shopping for themselves. It was an incredibly intimate job that involved fondling produce to check for bruises and other irregularities, thinking extensively about customers’ meal plans, and intuiting responses for clients who did not want to be contacted about their shopping lists.

I’d first found myself standing in front of a massive, seasonal apple display in the produce section of Whole Foods Market a few weeks before. Graham, the young, officious orientation leader for Instacart, had impressed upon all of us the importance of finding flawless produce — in this case, perfect honeycrisp apples — for our customers. I dismissed several apples with cuts, and a few that were a bit too small for the size specifications preferred by the app. Instacart times their shoppers, and I was getting further and further away from the desired 1.8-minute picking time per item, which would result in lower stats and possibly a lower tip — metrics that factored into my pay and place in the app’s order dispatch algorithm. Occasionally, a customer’s hand would stray into my line of vision and I’d watch as an “OK” apple was plucked from the batch without much judgement. I would soon find out that my own judgment was far worse than I’d thought.

The woman who laughed at me was one of these customers with very discerning tastes currently causing me a lot of anxiety. I was looking over all of the items I’d carefully picked out for her when she gargled that curdling laugh, making fun of my flabbergasted response to her curt manner and rude replies to the questions I had asked about her order. For a second, I blamed myself for making the mistake of contacting her to ask a question. As I palmed an overripe Granny Smith, I thought about how similar my rude customer was to the laughing character in the pea-green dress from Toni Morrison’s Sula. (To pass the time, I often listed scenes from black women’s literature that featured grocery or market scenes.) Her laugh inspired another character, Eva Peace, to feel a “liquid trail of hate”; while I certainly didn’t hate the customer who ridiculed me, I could relate to Eva’s instantaneous recognition of her emotions and the quickness with which she adapted her outlook.

Still standing in the middle of the produce section with my phone against my face — the call over — I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. With “all my education,” as my family would say, two degrees and the student loans to show for it, I was nonetheless positioned only marginally better off than my grandparents, who ran errands and did other grunt work two generations removed from where I now stood. Activity continued around me, and this glaring manifestation of what it meant to only slightly improve over one’s predecessors was a quiet, personal revelation that somehow moored me and kept me from imploding. I recognized a shared struggle between myself and them, a sort of inheritance. And unlike my grandparents, who had grade school educations and did factory and domestic work, I had options. Or at least, I thought I did.

When I was a kid, I regularly parked myself in front of my great-grandmother’s wood-paneled swivel television that was slowly going bad. In between episodes of her “stories,” aka soap operas, she’d tell some of her own, about working for Jewish families in South Philly during the Depression. Little Mom — that’s what we called her — talked plainly about her revulsion at the dirty work she’d been given and how she’d strung together a number of these small jobs to support my great-aunt Betty and my grandfather, Charles.

The stuff about work usually stayed hidden away, quite like the money she kept folded into a crease in her bosom. When she did tell these stories it seemed like she would almost black out in order to get the details right, listing the indignities she felt working these jobs with a laconic intensity and steady determination: washing the house’s windows inside and out, cleaning the mattresses and box springs, scrubbing the floors on her knees, a lunch of a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk offered by a client that was quickly rejected, getting paid $3 a day.

In retrospect, I wonder if she was trying to contain that aspect of her memory so that it would not trouble her every day. We do the work we have to do, but who wants to be the work we do? I now had my own litany of insipid information: How many bananas made up two pounds, the quickest way to check for cracks on all sides of an egg, how many produce bags one needs to properly contain pointy sweet potatoes without ripping them all felt beneath me. I was supposed to be The Writer, not a beat of generational repetition. If, in some future, a granddaughter of mine sat on the living room floor and stared up at me while I remembered my own work, what memory would I have to offer her?

As I bent down to pick up a can of non-GMO chunky tomato bisque soup for a customer, I contemplated what it meant to have a “job.” My family’s work history, like that of many black American families, is one of ingenuity. My grandfather Charlie served in the Korean War, and when he returned to the States he became a longshoreman. He met my grandmother Cissy sometime after that and started a family with her, his second. In the ’50s, when they met, my grandmother already had three children with an Italian-American barber who was not ready to commit to her because of the way interracial relationships were viewed at the time. My grandparents had four children together, and my mom is the youngest of that brood.

My grandmother Cissy worked at a storm door factory in Philadelphia for a time, supplementing her income by hosting parlor games like Pitty Pat and Tonk in her home each weekend, and charging each player $2 per hand. When she quit the storm door factory, the card games became her main source of income. Then she wrote numbers, or illegal lottery, for the local numbers man. Dream books, the thin, cheap consultation indexes that helped you pick a lottery number that corresponded with a subject from your dreams, were touchstones in all of the women’s kitchens in the neighborhood. My mom, grandmom, and great-grandmother all played their dreams to the numbers man, hoping to come up on a little more money they could use for a hairdo, or trips to Atlantic City, where they pulled levers until their elbows were sore, or for a more pressing issue like bail.

Cissy would hide money all around the house, because she couldn’t open a bank account due to the illegal nature of her work. My mom recalls her hiding money everywhere — in socks, holes in the walls, under mattresses; there were money stashes everywhere but the bank. My grandmother didn’t own that house, on Alder Street between Bainbridge and South, even though she was given the option to at one point from its owner. She rented and rented, and soon took the money, and her family to another home on Marvine Street. In the ’80s and ’90s, she lived in an apartment in the Martin Luther King housing projects with my mom.

Sometimes my mom expresses regret that my grandmother never purchased any of the homes she lived in, even though she had the money to do so. The owners of the Alder Street house offered to sell her the house for $500, but she declined. Because the job she created for herself was illegal, I think she felt she was unable to purchase the home, fearing inquisitions by tax auditors and police. Now, instead of commiserating with my mom about the lost opportunity, or talking to her about generational wealth disparities, I just listen, because there’s no real answer for that kind of disappointment.

Ever since I can remember, my mom has worked jobs she didn’t quite like. She had dropped out of high school in 11th grade and got her GED when my brother and I were little. At the end of elementary school, my mom worked as a telemarketer, then spent five years as a clerk at various state-owned liquor stores throughout Philadelphia. When I was in high school, she got a job as a front desk associate at a Marriott in downtown Philly. Lateness caused her to lose that job, and another at a Marriott property in Southwest Philly near the airport. After she was first fired, she decided to go back to school to become a diagnostic technician, and she enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia. I don’t know why she picked that field. She thought for sure that she was finally positioned to have a career and not just a job. Eventually she quit CCP because she couldn’t hold down a decent full-time job and go to school at the same time. Now, when my mom changes jobs, I like to frame these experiences as new adventures, and “fresh starts,” and in some ways they are. Yet, no one I know over 50 has ever started an adventurous job — or at least one that did them any good. My dad’s the perfect example of why that’s true.

My dad wrote short stories and scripts, and moved to New York City to become an actor.

My dad was plucked off of the streets of South Philly by a neighborhood gang when he was young, grabbed by the scruff of his neck by the wrong big dogs. At 16, he was charged with murdering a man, and met his own father for the first time in prison. My paternal grandfather “Doc” had reportedly robbed a bank, truly earning his nickname, a reference to the legendary gunfighter Doc Holliday, and was spending a chunk of years in prison. When my dad got out, he wrote short stories and scripts, and moved to New York City to become an actor. The only fictional work I’ve found of his is a script called The Prince of Thieves, based on a radio play called The Yearning, which aired on college radio in the ’70s. It’s about two con men who hatch a plan to reform public housing. I only have four pages — one on typewriter paper and the other three handwritten on a yellow legal notepad. Because I’m missing the rest of the script, there are gaps in the story.

Likewise, much of his personal life is a mystery to me. I do know this: When he married my mom and had my younger brother and me, he cut his dreadlocks, his drug habit, and his dreams of a writing career to begin working for the pretzel chain Auntie Anne’s. After a short while, he was promoted to manager, and in 1994, he was selected to open a new franchise in Arlington, Texas. My family moved, and to supplement his income, my dad sold Amway products, or at least tried to — I don’t know if Amway has ever been a successful venture for anyone.

I grew up ashamed of the fact that my dad worked in food service. My mom, who worked the counter for Fashion Fair cosmetics, a beauty line made for women of color, at least had a glamorous association, and beautiful headshots that went with the job. (The beauty section at Dillard’s department store in Dallas was a magic emporium.) But my dad made pretzels for kids to eat in a mall. When I spoke of my dad’s job, I’d get tongue-tied and twisted up, like the elegant motion he used to contort pretzel dough. At the time, it was my observation that while you could dip a pretzel in cheese whiz and get the cinnamon-sugar stuck on your fingertips, you could not cherish or value a pretzel — it wasn’t “real” food. The process of making pretzels, which involved dipping one’s fingers in warm salt water and kneading out dough, was mesmerizing to watch, and fun to do (he let me practice a few times) but didn’t feel like a meaningful skill. I think my dad began to feel the same way at some point, though for a different reason. He was pushing 50, and like the teenaged employees he supervised constantly reminded him, both he and the job were getting old. Then, when we returned to Philly because my grandfather Doc got sick, my dad began to sell drugs.

Weeks before my dad’s murder, he woke up with a start in the middle of the night. He had predicted death in a dream. He also saw skulls in the depressions of two trash bags filled with laundry, which sat in lumps on the loveseat near the bed he shared with my mom. This was the ultimate omen, illuminated in the liminal space that is twilight time. On Christmas Eve 1997, my father’s work caught up with him. He was outside of our house changing a tire in advance of a trip to drop off gifts when my mom, brother, and I heard fireworks below. Afterward, we blamed the lifestyle — the fast money, the decision not to schlep like the average working man — for his downfall.

Perhaps for the women in my family, the existential light bulb that showed profound truths about their lives didn’t click on like the trunk light of an asbestos-dusty Corsica, revealing an interloper in the dark. Or when the blast from a gunman’s barrel flickered in the night, extinguishing my dad’s bright life. I imagine that their intellectual acceptance of the trajectory of their lives did not come from some outside, showy, mano-a-mano understanding of being utterly stuck. It came for them like it came for me, indoors, gradually, though when it finally arrived it did so with a suddenness that felt shocking.

My uncles made use of their options by engaging in street life and an endless cycle of recidivism.

My mom’s jobs contrast with what her mother had done at the same age. Instead of cleaning some white lady’s house, my grandmother Cissy decided to lord over her own. She made money cooking and selling platters to card players in her own house. This was a way for her to do something different than her own mother, who cooked for the rectory of a Catholic church. I see writing as a similarly risky endeavor. I realize that I am more sympathetic to the women in my family, who rebelled against the employment options given to them in ways that were easier to understand, because they didn’t cause other people pain. I’d recently been talking to my mom about one of her brothers who had just been released on parole. My uncles made use of their options by engaging in street life and an endless cycle of recidivism, and I never quite took seriously the idea that the choices they had were shaped by their parents’ jobs. Now the connection feels clearer: My grandmother was a card shark, my grandfather was largely unavailable when it mattered, and my uncles worked with what they were dealt.

While shopping at Whole Foods one day, maybe for sliced cheese that a customer requested be cut a level of thickness described as “the size of five cards stacked together” as the note on the app read, I started drifting off, back to those fictional scenes in grocery stores. Grocery stores have functioned as sites of transformation in novels like Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and given my own experience, I understand why. The domestic association of the market makes it possible for turning points to occur, especially in female characters who are relegated there for various reasons. Shopping is such a personal, intimate experience that takes place in the public sphere. It’s an odd ritual for its mix of the private and social coexisting all at once. It is here that my actual foremothers and my literary ones converge. It occurs to me now that the reason I thought so often of fiction while working is not only because these books provided a convenient distraction from my circumstances and reminded me of my goals. It’s also because in these novels, black people who are employed as farmhands, models, and domestic workers are all conveyed with nuance and emotional depth.

Any misunderstandings I have toward my dad, brothers, certain uncles, and cousins are my own fault, and they’re due to the wariness I feel toward the external fighting they’ve done. I’m worried that, no matter how eloquently I describe the men in my family, or how much space I give them on the page, I’ll flatten my loved ones. I’m concerned that my family’s long-term generational mobility will be compromised, not only by bad choices and capitalism and the prison industrial complex but by my own ambitions, too. I’m scared the project of trying to illustrate how their choices have impacted my own will render them as unconvincingly as the characters in the bootleg films one of my uncles once sold. That, ironically, in showing our lineage of work I’ll have them do labor for me, narrative-wise, that they haven’t signed up for. In spite of my concerns, and with permission, I feel I must write it down. This is my story, too. Where do our stories and those of our predecessors diverge? Do they ever?

I stopped scheduling myself at Instacart after the incident with the laughing customer who mocked me, but I’m still a little afraid that I’ll need to return. Though, after doing this kind of soul-searching, I know I can’t go back to picking groceries for someone else. It’s difficult to pick up where the women in my family left off, to strike a balance between criticizing the actions of the men in my family and holding on to a deep belief that they truly are not what they do for a living, despite how it impacts the quality of our lives, and despite how the frequency of their jail trips builds a convincing argument that they have settled into the roles they try to convince us they’ve outgrown. I think I’m more understanding of their aliases and job-hopping and identity-shifting now. Our national history is rife withexamples of black Americans facing exclusion from labor movements, as well as general workforce discrimination. It’s not hard to see how the effects of these policies have trickled down. I see my family’s work history, rendered briefly here, as a particular kind of ingenuity necessary for black Americans.

Despite feeling like my female relatives’ strategies are more relatable, I’ve picked up my dad’s job of writing. When I first read his fragmented screenplay for The Prince of Thieves, I read it as veiled autobiography. Now I’m not so sure. I imagine that my dad writing about con men in his script was a referendum on the kind of job he’d left, and then returned to. Although he didn’t make money as a grifter, I think the fact that he was an actor, hustled illegally, and worked multiple regular jobs connects in ways I hadn’t put together before. Both the writing and acting were concerted efforts to recast himself outside of the roles he’d adopted or had handed to him. For a black man of his generation to embrace the circumstances of his criminality, which prompted him to escape in the first place, had to have been a complicated thing to do. Similarly, I see my writing as both a way into and out of familial traditions. It’s a way to look forward without turning my back. It’s the work I want to own. •