(Please note: this post has been edited from its original posting.)
For two years (summers and Christmas breaks) in college, I worked as a cashier for an independently-owned chain of grocery stores here in Cleveland. It was one of two jobs that I said I wanted to do before I died: grocery store cashier, and retail. Neither were the most glamorous job in the world, but I am grateful that I worked them; they taught me quite a bit about myself (and taught me to appreciate the job I have now).
This story is about the most important lesson I learned about myself while working at the grocery store.
The location that I worked at catered to the wealthiest of all of the stores’ clientele. The wealth of this particular neighborhood is not the wealth of Orange County, or even the Hills; but for a rust-belt city that has been known as one of the poorest cities in the nation, the $10 million net worth mark is considered extremely wealthy. In the two years I worked there, I had two American Express Black cards pulled to pay for groceries, local TV celebrities shopped at my store, and even a few Cavaliers and Browns players would come through on a Thursday night to avoid a crowd.
The biggest (and perhaps worst) impact that this time in my life had was that I began to see the not-so-subtle cues about being wealthy. I saw large and many diamonds in jewelry, designer handbags like Chanel, Coach, and most-prevalent, Louis Vuitton. I saw women who would have Chanel sunglasses with Tiffany diamonds while “popping in” to the grocery store in their (Bebe Sport) workout togs. I saw Lexus keys on key chains, BMWs parked in the lot, and Mercedes in line to wait for the packers to load their cars. I saw women well into their 50s looking as tan as Tahitian ladies in a Paul Gauguin painting, with $500 haircuts, wearing clothing that cost more than my entire wardrobe.
(As an aside: I remember the woman who really epitomized this whole look. She was absolutely stunning. She had to be about 45-50; had beautiful, tan, tight skin, and had the most gorgeous glossy-black long hair. She always wore 2-carat diamond earrings and Chanel sunglasses, drove an Accura, and usually dressed impeccably. I don’t think I ever talked to her directly, but apparently, she was pretty friendly with a lot of our bag boys and male managers (go figure). She would flit about the store, laughing and smiling the whole way through, a trail of men behind her – but she always seemed just a little cold.)
I was jealous of the money, jealous of the status, jealous that these women didn’t have to worry about wether they would be able to pay for gas and a night out with friends. I was jealous that these women’s most agonizing decision with their money was which boutique they shopped at made them more important than their other wealthy friends.
Several of these wealthy women used to take great delight in making us cashiers completely miserable. From the most complicated bagging orders, to tearing down a fellow cashier in front of you, to grabbing a manager and tearing you down to him while you were standing right there. These women were not happy people: and there was not a time in my life where I was made to feel more small.
Despite myself, I began to covet the objects that I perceived to be signs of wealth, which has followed me past my tenure at the grocery store and into my current life. My first purchase of the signs of opulence was a Louis Vuitton wallet. I’ve bought an authentic Coach bag as a sign that I had “made it” when I became employed where I am currently. My “upgrade” engagement ring took me from a 1/2 simple diamond on a plain band to a 1-carat diamond on a band with 20 pave-set diamonds. I did all of this to be seen as wealthy, to be a part of that exclusive club of women.
While I enjoy my nice accouterments, I’m equally repulsed that I hope that people who see them think I’m as wealthy as I want to project. I think that I will always be plagued with this ardent desire to look rich, while the more composed part of myself knows that things aren’t always as they appear.
To be fair, not all of these wealthy women were complete witches. I met a lot of very pleasant wealthy women as I rang them through my line: they are women that I have stopped and had a conversation with if I run into them now.
But I recognize now that most of the women who had all of these “nice” things that I came to covet, were the same women who loved to take two hours out of their week and make everyone they came in contact with miserable. Though I like having my nice things and hope that I get noticed for them, I am so grateful that I don’t have to drag people down and make them as miserable and empty as I am. Perhaps that is the saving grace of that period in my life: I know that I am quintessentially more than my stuff.